Recommended books for People and Children of Color, White Allies, and Progressive Families

I have a short list of 26 children’s books that I love, and love to gift without hesitation. I wanted to share them with you as a tool for your gift giving endeavors. These books are part of the collection I started in college, children’s books for myself  because they embody the books I wish I had access to as a child; books that depict beautiful brown children of varying shades and heritage, their families, and their experiences in ways that lift them up and expand their sense of possibility.

May these books inspire and build confidence and connection within all of the children in our increasingly diverse communities.

{ Quick Notes: (1) I also love to gift these books to adults. They are powerful in all phases of life. (2) Many of these books would fit in multiple categories, but I’ve listed them according to what I see as their boldest strength. Do explore the whole list when looking for ideas.

I’ve chunked the books into the following categories:

Heirloom Books
Timeless books of exceptional art/production quality whose themes are either historic in nature, or are folk or fairy tale-esque. Each of these has something at the core that for me feels ancestral and uniquely rooted, providing deep seeds for empowerment. These are books to treasure and pass on to our children’s grandchildren and great-grands.

Movement Books
Books that portray moments in history, characters, and social/racial justice consciousness in ways that are age appropriate and serve to connect rather than divide.

Books Sorted by Racial Community
For better or worse, the majority of books depicting children and people of color still portray worlds of relatively monoracial communities – communities that don’t necessarily reflect the diversity of the neighborhoods, regions, or identities we live in. On a separate note, my intention for this post is to help you buy books that reflect the heritage of whomever you may be gifting to. For these reasons combined (eg. the nature of the books that are out there, and to make the list easy for you to use), I’ve separated a number of my recommendations by race.

Children’s Books for Teens & Adults
There are many beautiful children’s books out there that have more adult themes or delivery, books that I wouldn’t personally rush to give to a young child, but that I wouldn’t hesitate to give to the right adult or teen. These books are power-affirming, and sing with a love of literature. { Note: every book in the list could be a great fit for the right adult, especially one who didn’t grow up with books like these, which is basically all of us.  🙂

As you go through this list, you will find that it is incomplete, and there are many holes (some more gaping or alarming than others). I’m always looking to fill these holes with books that: portray multiracial characters with insight and understanding; portray Native American / American Indian characters without oversimplifying or relying on stereotypes; depict other underrepresented groups, including Middle Eastern, South Asian, and LGBTQ communities; reflect the diversity of our nation and world; and highlight the interconnectedness of our lives.

I invite you to share your favorite book for a child of color below. Let’s grow a rich list that has as few holes as possible! – And selfishly, I’m always looking for great books to grow my own collection….  😉

On that note, here we go!


Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions
Margaret Musgrove  |  illus by Leo & Diane Dillon
(Dial Books for Young Readers, 1976)
Beautiful and detailed illustrations emphasize the book’s effort to enrich readers’ awareness of African diversity.

Earth Mother
Ellen Jackson  |  illus by Leo & Diane Dillon
(Walker & Company, 2005)
An original folktale about perspective and interconnectedness that follows Earth Mother as she listens to the requests of Mosquito, Frog, and Man.

Ellington Was Not a Street
Ntozake Shange  |  illus by Kadir Nelson
(Simon & Schuster, 2004)
Shange’s 1983 poem “Mood Indigo” illustrated for children weaves civil rights leaders into a telling of a collective family history. { This is also a great Movement Book choice.

The Emporer and the Kite
Jane Yolen  |  illus by Ed Young
(Philomel, 1988)
A young girl saves her father (who happens to be the emperor) with her smarts and kite-making prowess. Gorgeous cut paper illustrations.

Family Pictures / Cuadros de Familia
Carmen Lomas Garza  |  intro by Sandra Cisneros
Bilingual in English and Spanish
(Children’s Book Press, 1990, 2005)
Carmen Lomas Garza tells stories from her childhood in a small Texas border town.  Scenes reference her Mexican American heritage and family traditions.

Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales
Virginia Hamilton  |  illus by Leo & Diane Dillon
(The Blue Sky Press, 1995)
What I wish I had as a girl, to offset the Cinderella, Goldilocks, Rapunzel, and Sleeping Beauty clique.

In Search of the Thunder Dragon
Sophie & Romio Shrestha
(Mandala Publishing, 2007)
A Bhutanese legend, but created in this day and age. The art is striking, classic, and timeless; traditional with a modern voice.

John Henry
Julius Lester  |  illus by Jerry Pinkney
(Dial Books, 1994)
Quite simply a beautiful telling of a legendary hero. { My boys love this book because of the trains, and the song he sings.

The Secret River
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings  |  illus by Leo & Diane Dillon
(Atheneum Books, 2011)
This story was first published in 1955 after the author passed away, and re-released with new illustrations. It’s a story with the magic of a fairytale.

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball
Kadir Nelson
(Jump at the Sun / Hyperion, 2008)
Just stunning. The artwork, research, and tellings are … together, they’re over the top.


A Sweet Smell of Roses
Angela Johnson  |  illus by Eric Velasquez
(Simon & Schuster, 2005)
Beautiful graphite drawings follow two sisters as they sneak out of the house to march with Dr. King.

Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel
Anthony D. Robles  |  illus by Carl Angel  |  translation by Eloisa D. de Jesus
Bilingual in English and Tagalog
(Children’s Book Press, 2006)
A community rallies together to protest their landlord’s effort to evict them so he can sell their building.

Martin’s Big Words
Doreen Rappaport  |  illus by Bryan Collier
(Jump at the Sun / Hyperion, 2001)
This book combines tellings of Dr. King’s experiences with excerpts from his writings and speeches. Collier’s art is a treasure.


African American

Happy to Be Nappy
Bell Hooks  |  illus by Chris Raschka
(Jump at the Sun / Hyperion, 1999)
A celebration of African American hair.

In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers
illus by Javaka Steptoe
(Lee & Low Books, 1997)
A collection of poetry and mixed media art.

Skin Again
Bell Hooks  |  illus by Chris Raschka
(Jump at the Sun / Hyperion, 2004)
Celebrating individuality and personality, this book reminds kids that appearance and skin tone are just a covering for the spirit inside.

Asian Pacific American

Lakas and the Manilatown Fish
Anthony D. Robles  |  illus by Carl Angel  |  translation by Eloisa D. de Jesus and Magdalena de Guzman
Bilingual in English and Tagalog
(Children’s Book Press, 2006)
A fun and playful story about a boy and his father as they follow a talking fish around Manilatown.

Sora and the Cloud
Felicia Hoshino  |  translation by Akiko Hisa
Bilingual in English and Japanese
An adventurous young boy befriends a cloud, and they travel all across town together. Wonderful cultural references woven throughout.

Latin@ American

Doña Flor: A Tall Tale About a Giant Woman with a Great Big Heart
Pat Mora  |  illus by Raul Colón
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2005)
Everything about this book is big and beautiful.

I Know the River Loves Me
Maya Christina Gonzalez
Bilingual in English and Spanish
(Children’s Book Press, 2009)
The fresh and unique illustrations in this book vibrate with a magical connection to nature.

Little Night
Yuyi Morales
Also available in a Spanish version
(Roaring Brook Press, 2007)
Little Night gets up at sunset to start her day; does the sweet and mischievous things little ones do. I especially appreciate this book because Little Night is depicted dark as night, which presents it as a crossover book, and can allude to the third root, and / or multiracial heritage. This book is comfort on paper.

Quinito’s Neighborhood
Ina Cumpiano  |  illus by José Ramírez
Bilingual in English and Spanish
(Children’s Book Press, 2005)
Quinito introduces readers to the folks in his neighborhood, and their professions. A fun caveat is that community members’ careers counteract traditional gender norms.


i live in music
Ntozake Shange  |  paintings by Romare Bearden
(Welcome Books, 1994)
Ntozake Shange + Romare Bearden = a lovely ode to music.

Honoring Our Ancestors: Stories and Pictures by Fourteen Artists
Edited by Harriet Rohmer
(Children’s Book Press, 1999)
A multi-racial, multi-ethnic collection of stories about ancestors that have impacted its artist storytellers.

Poetry for Young People
Langston Hughes  |  illus by Benny Andrews
(Sterling, 2006)
Perfect for a teen writer / poet, or Langston Hughes lover.

Malcolm X: A Fire Burning Brightly
Walter Dean Myers  |  illus by Leonard Jenkins
(Amistad / HarperCollins, 2000)
I am surprised whenever Malcolm X is omitted from civil rights resources, and all the more appreciate this illustrated book for young people on the controversial leader and legend.

What holes do you see? What books do you know that would fill them? Please share your recommendations in the comments section below!

Janine Macbeth is an artist, illustrator, nonprofit social justice worker, and founder of Blood Orange Press, a literary home for diverse readers.