“Black boys need to physically see positive images of themselves reflected back at them in children’s books.”
Two years ago, I walked into a bookstore searching for a birthday gift for a young Black boy. When I approached a woman who worked at the store, I said, “Excuse me, can you direct me to the African-American children book section? She replied, “We keep all of our books together. We don’t have a section for African-American children.”
I followed up by asking if she could help me find books for African American boys. She agreed and searched the children section for the aforementioned books. After a few minutes, she gathered four books with Black boys or men as protagonist characters from a section that had thousands of books. I decided to purchase one of the books, but I was extremely frustrated with the lack of books with Black boys or men as main characters.
As a father of two African-American boys, I was deeply troubled at the lack of diverse books in the store. I thought to myself,
If Black boys don’t see themselves in books, then how will they develop the confidence and agency to create and build their dreams? If children of other ethnicities don’t see Black men and boys as the main characters in books, then how will they treat Black males in the present and future?
When I got home, I turned my frustration into action! I searched the web for the best books for Black boys. When I found them, I either checked them out or books out of the public library or purchased them. As the years progressed, I found myself having conversations or getting emails from parents and educators requesting recommendations for books that have Black boys as main characters. After replying to each request, I realized the need to create a thematic book list rooted in dreaming.
This article defines dreaming as a holistic process where children create and build a life that makes them happy and assists in the development of a better world. Reading can inform students on the school-to-activism pipeline. This list thematically identifies books that will have Black boys saying: I am Confident, I am loved, I am a Smart Student, I am an Innovator and Creator, and I am a Hero.
This book lists seeks to:
Inspire Black boys to be confident, smart, loving, creative, innovative, and heroic dreamers,
- Provide schools and non-profit educational institutions with books that inspire Black boys to discover or rediscover their ability to dream,
- Contribute to the cannon about culturally relevant materials for Black boys, and
- Expose families of different ethnic backgrounds to characters with Black boys and men exerting their human agency in various life contexts.
I am Confident
Hey Black Child by Useni Perkins is a fun and inspirational book. The author does a great job integrating affirmative words and fascinating pictures depicting Black kids striving towards excellence. Reading this book teaches Black children that there are dreams possible. This is a must read with an animated voice to kids.
Sundiata by David Wisniewski is a story about an Africana hero. This story begins by telling his struggles as a boy who couldn’t talk or walk. But through parental love and study, he became a military genius who would become king. Every Africana child should know the story of Sundiata because it presents an amazing message: No matter what your condition or situation is in life, you have the power to overcome it through hard work.
Preaching to the Chickens by Jabari Asim is a biography of the Africana Hero John Lewis. This book tells the amazing story of Lewis as a child who used play to practice his potential vocation. The amazing pictures reinforce an important message to parents and children: play serves as a tool to aid children in developing and advancing their future dreams. This is a must-read book about a Civil Rights Icon!
Riley Knows He Can by Davina Hamilton is a must read. The author tells the journey of a young boy who is nervous about acting in a school play. The main character is able to overcome this nervousness through familial encouragement. The powerful words and beautiful illustrations allow children to understand the book’s meaning. Parents will enjoy reading this book because it offers a nice motto to encourage kids in tough situations. I absolutely love reading it to my sons!
Riley Can Be Anything by Davina Hamilton is about dream exploration. In a playful dialogue with his cousin, Riley imagines himself in the various career paths through Black men in his life. The author’s skillful rhyming and joyful illustrations allow kids to follow each page with ease. This is a great book because it allows children to begin dreaming of who they want to become in the future.
Dad Who Will I Be by Todd Taylor is an inspirational book for Black boys. The book connects a boy’s dreams to Black heroes who dared to strive towards and achieve greatness. The book displays powerful images of an active father who uses affirmative words to guide his son in the great imagining possibilities for his life. This book is a reflective tool to aid Black boys in realizing that their dreams are possible.
I Am A Confident King by Jasmine Furr is a great book to promote positive self-identity in Black boys. The book tells the story of a Black boy whose parents have him say positive words of affirmation every morning. One day, the boy decides to bring those words to life. For parents, this book serves as a tool to teach children how to enact values in everyday life.
Crown by Derrick Barnes details the experience and excitement of a Black boy getting a haircut. The book’s words and illustrations walk the reader through the rich and powerful experience of the Black barbershop, while detailing the impact that the haircut has on a boy’s personhood. This is a beautiful book that shows Black males in a positive light.
Trombone Shorty by Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews is a story about developing the courage to dream. The richness of New Orleans’ musical and cultural heritage inspired the main character to dream of becoming a musician. With familial encouragement and personal drive, he’s able to take practical steps towards accomplishing his dream. The book’s message: It is never too early for #kids to create and enact their dreams.
I am Loved
Hewitt Anderson’s Great Big Life by Jerdine Nolen is an amazing book about giving children the space to discover their strengths. Hewitt was a small boy born into a family of giants. His worry filled parents wondered if he could survive in the world as a small person. This book takes the reader on a journey where Hewitt displays the ability to see barriers as opportunities to maximize his human potential. This is a great book that teaches parents that we have to love our children towards their personal greatness. The beautiful illustrations by Kadir Nelson offer a great opportunity for dialogue between parents and children.
I Love You Too by Ziggy Marley is a fun and entertaining read. This is a book about random moments in life. It is a reminder that parents should tell their children in detail what they love about their children. The book reads like a song because it is one. The beautiful illustrations shows the children what love looks like. The poetic words allow kids to understand what love sounds like. This is a great tool for parents when they want to reinforce their love for their children.
My Daddy Loves Me by Babba Sekou, Mamma Sekou, Sekou Afrika is a book that reminds fathers to love and be loving towards their children. The illustrations and storyline illuminates an important message- love should be the foundation of Fatherhood . The book seeks to frame the narrative of what fatherhood should look like in contemporary times. This is a great gift for men with sons.
Chisom the Champ by Dr. Irene Okoronkwo-Obika is a powerful story about self-love. This book tells the story of a boy of Nigerian-American descent, who is bullied because of his heritage, name, and clothes. Through parental encouragement, he develops the courage to stand up to the bully. The process of standing up to the bully enables Chisom to declare the importance of creating inclusive an educational environment where all people can be respected and appreciated for who they are. This book serves as a tool for parents to teach children how to approach someone who is bullying them or a friend. It also serves as a tool for parents to affirm their children and cultural identity.
I am a Smart Student
Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford is a story about an unsung intellectual hero. The pages of this book describe his journey to document the contributions of people of African descent throughout human history. Although this book is a biography, it does a great job at providing an overview of Africana history. Reading this book to your child will provide them with a basic understanding of Africana history from African to the Americas.
The Book Itch by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson is a story about an Africana Hero named Lewis Henri Michaux who owned the National Memorial African Bookstore. The book describes the Lewis’ entrepreneurial spirit, love of reading, and commitment to the intellectual advancement of Africana people. He saw READING as a pathway to liberating his people from racial oppression in America. This bookstore was an intellectual haven where great leaders, athletes, and community members of Africana descent gathered to learn and debate issues that affected the African World. This is an amazing story about role of bookstores and books in empowering people of Africana descent.
Superhero Like Me by Dr. Kimberly Brown is a great book for Black Boys. The author shows Black boys that they can aspire to be heroes like the great leaders of Black History. This book provides historical facts & positive images of Black men demonstrating excellence in all societal spaces. Reading this book allows Black boys to see themselves as having the ability to be super just like the heroes of the past.
The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton: Poet by Don Tate is a biography of an enslaved African. The book tells the story of a young enslaved boy who couldn’t read or write, but because of his profound love of words, he taught himself how to do both. Once he developed the ability to write, he wrote poems for paying customers and essays critiquing the oppressive system of American enslavement. Horton’s story teaches young people the importance of resilience in pursuing their dreams regardless of the societal barriers that stand in front of them.
Jerry Pinkney by Lisa Bolt Simons is a biography of the legendary author and illustrator. The book details the role of parental support in aiding him in realizing the possibility of accomplishing his dream. His story shows the importance of finding what you love and developing a life’s work out of it. This book is a great tool to use for children who might have academic struggles because it shows the possibility of accomplishing #dreamsregardless of one’s situation or condition.
I am a Creator and Innovator
Everywhere Wonder by Matthew Swanson is a great book about imagination. A little boy is reading a book and it takes him across the world. When the boy is done traveling the world by reading, he decides to explore the real world. This book is a visual depiction of the role that books play in inspiring children to dream.
Take a picture of me James Vanderzee by Andrea J. Loney is a triumphant portrayal of a world-class photographer. Reading this book illuminates the patience needed for creating and advancing a dream. It also shows how the main character was inspired to develop his dream by accident. Nonetheless, he was able to use his dream to reach Black people from all socioeconomic statuses. Reading this book will aid kids in imagining how they can transform their interests into a life long dream.
Olu’s Dream by Shane Evans is a great book to spark creative thinking in your young dreamer. When Olu wants to play pass his bedtime, his father encourages him to use his imagination in his sleep. Olu uses his imagination and opens a new world. This is a fun book to use to encourage children to use their imagination.
When the Beat was Born by Laban Carrick Hill is a biography of Jamaican born musical innovator and Hip-Hop legend Clive Campbell AKA Kool Herc. The author discusses the Herc’s early Jamaican musical inspirations and how he used them to aid in the development of Hip Hop. The beautiful pictures provide readers with positive and uplifting images of Black life in the early 80s. This book teaches children that they too can become innovators if they pursue something they love with excellence. It also teaches children the Pan-African influence in shaping Hip Hop.
Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton is a biography about STEM Entrepreneur Lonnie Johnson. The book details his humble beginnings as an entrepreneur who prototyped and piloted his ideas from childhood to adulthood. One of his most successful inventions was the Super Soaker. The book depicts the failures, rejections, risks, and successes of the entrepreneurial journey. For parents interested in exposing their children to entrepreneurship, this book shows a real-life exemplar who persevered to accomplish his entrepreneurial dream.
Little Man by the Dionne Warwick is a story of a boy who combines an entrepreneurial mindset with hard work. When the main character wants to purchase a bike and drumming lessons, he creates and executes a plan. Through the encouragement of his father and support of his community, he is able to use his talents to make his dream a reality. This is a great book that shows an African-American boy developing the ability to solve a problem using his talents.
Magic Trash: The Story of Tyree Guyton and His Art by J.H. Shapiro is a biography of an African American artist who transformed urban decay into beauty. The book begins by telling the story of a daydreamer who got poor grades and criticism from the adults in his life. One day Tyree’s grandfather introduced him to painting and his future dream. Although Tyree didn’t become an artist early on in his adult life, he would eventually go back to his dream. When he returned to his community and saw urban decay he decided to do something about it — create art. This is an amazing story about a man who used his dream to make a more beautiful world. This is a powerful tool to teach children about the importance of developing dreams that make the world a better place and them happy at the same time!
I am a Hero
Sit In: How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney tells the story of four brave college students who sought to disrupt the racist Jim Crow South. The book does a wonderful job of connecting these men’s story to the larger civil rights movement. In addition, the author artfully presents a simple food order as a revolutionary act showing the power of direct democratic participation in shaping America. The illustrations allow readers to imagine what it might felt like to be protesters in the Jim Crow South. In sum, I love this book because it shows how students were and still are the spark of the movements for demanding transformative change.
With Books and Bricks Suzanne Slade is a powerful biography about the entrepreneurial spirit of Booker T Washington. The book illustrates the evolution of his dream from wanting to read to building an educational institution to serve African-Americans. Reading this book will inspire your kids to see life barriers as opportunities to develop the resilience to live their dreams in the future.
These Hands by Margaret Mason is an amazing story a grandfather’s activism. The author does a wonderful job at telling a man’s life story by how he was allowed or not allowed to use his hands. The grandfather’s successful struggle creates the limitless possibilities for his grandson to be anything. This is a great tool to teach children about the underline issues of the Civil Rights Movement.
The Champ Tonya Bolden is a bio of former boxing champion Muhammad Ali. This book tells the story of a man, who rose to the top of his profession and sacrificed it to stand against injustice. The pictures and direct quotes from Ali allow the reader to take an amazing journey with one of the world’s greatest leaders. This is one of my favorites to read to my sons because his life presents a powerful message: one must stand up for what is right regardless of the consequences.
Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson is a story about the South African freedom fighter turn president. The book’s pictures and grand narrative serves as an important tool to teach kids about process & price of social justice work.
After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Griffin-EL worked as a youth leadership trainer for Pittsburgh Public Schools and lecturer at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business in Cape Town, South Africa.
Dr. Griffin-EL has traveled to 10 African countries where he has conducted research, taught classes, and led in learning journeys. He is the founder of The Young Dreamers’ Book Club, which organizes story time events, creates educational content, and supports parents, community organizations, and educational institutions in selecting books that meet children’s holistic needs.