7 Quick Takes: African-American Picture Books, Part 2

To those who’ve commented and emailed: I’m so sorry it’s taking me a long time to respond. We’ve had a very busy month and I’m quite behind on correspondence and writing. Your thoughts and comments are very much appreciated, though!

A few weeks back I reviewed a few picture books featuring black main characters. Thank you so much to the many people who commented on the last post with additional book suggestions! As I mentioned, it’s hard to find picture books featuring African-American or African protagonists at our local bookstore. The few books our store carries tend to focus on the Civil Rights era and racism; important topics, but surely not the only time we should see black kids as the main characters in picture books. Good books are out there, but it takes a little hunting. As with any genre, some of the books are “twaddle”, some have good stories but weak illustrations (or vice-versa), some do not share our values, and some are truly excellent. I plan to continue to review books as we try them from the library.

1) Please, Puppy, Please by Spike and Tonya Lee, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Carl and I both loved this funny, well-illustrated text, and the babies were captivated by the vivid illustrations. This sweet, simple story follows a day in the life of two children and their exuberant puppy. Appropriate for young children, though bigger kids might still enjoy the pictures and the humor while newly independent readers will enjoy the simple text they can read by themselves. 5 stars.

2) Where’s Jamela by Niki Daly

The Jamela books are a South African series. We’ve only tried Where’s Jamela so far, and I was very impressed. The illustrations are brilliant – full of life, action, and humor. The story is enjoyable, and the flavor of life in South Africa adds special fun to an already great story about spunky Jamela, her concerns about an upcoming move, her family and her warm and engaging neighborhood. We will definitely collect these books for our own shelves. 5 stars.

3) Whose Knees Are These? by Jabari Aseem

A simple board book, appropriate for babies and toddlers. A mother wonders aloud about the owner of these fine strong brown knees she sees dangling from trees, etc. They turn out to belong to her son. Sweet, but not particularly interesting to read as a parent, and kids will outgrow it quickly. We will get this one out of the library but don’t plan to buy it for ourselves. 3 stars.

4) Where Does the Trail Lead? by Burton Albert, illustrated by Brian Pinkney

A boy explores a coastal trail passing tide pools, sand dunes, and driftwood, eventually arriving at his family’s campsite. While inoffensive and perhaps a nice add-in for a unit study on coastal areas, this book doesn’t have much of a story to catch kids’ interest. Overall the pictures felt a bit gray and bland. There’s nothing especially wrong with this book but it wasn’t my cup of tea. 2 stars.

5) He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands by Kadir Nelson

Kadir Nelson’s warm and beautiful illustrations bring the classic American spiritual to life. There’s no “story”, per se, just the lyrics of the hymn with images of a family enjoying time together in the world God created and shepherds. One thing I hadn’t realized before reading this book is that hymns/songs in book form are fantastic for babies. The music really helps them engage with books and enjoy reading together when they’re too small to truly understand the stories. It’s tough to say if older kids would enjoy this book – I suppose it depends on the child.  5 stars.

6) Lola at the Library, Lola Reads to Leo, and Lola Loves Stories by Anna McQuinn, illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw

I have mixed feelings about these books. Lola is very cute, and the illustrations are bright and happy. However, the text reads more like an advertisement for the library or books than a story. For example, Lola goes to the library and describes everything she likes to do at the library. There isn’t really a plot. Also, while I know the illustrations are cartoonish and I’m sure it’s not intentional, the illustration of Lola’s Dad almost looks more “monkey-like” than human. It was a bit unsettling and an unpleasant stereotype. Overall, these might be good books to read once to explain how a library works to a small child (Lola at the Library ) or accompany the arrival of a new baby sibling (Lola Reads to Leo). 3 stars.

It’s rare to find a book that features transracial/mixed-race families like ours. This book has very nice illustrations. That said, I don’t think the text would appeal to most kids (or to the parents who have to read it out loud). The words are rather stream-of-consciousness, a free-association description of all the skin colors in the children’s family. I’ve read comments from others describing this book as very meaningful to them as they grew up in mixed-race families so we may revisit it when the kids are bigger. For now it remains a library book. 2 stars.

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3 thoughts on “7 Quick Takes: African-American Picture Books, Part 2

  1. We had a phase with those Lola books. I didn’t mind all the library promotion, but in the one with her mom they always stopped at the cafe. I didn’t want anyone thinking that was an option every time we go to the library!
    They’re not really stories or fine literature, but The Fred Rogers “First Experiences” books do a good job showing real kids of many different races without being preachy about it. I’m most familiar with the “Going to the Potty” book http://www.amazon.com/Going-Potty-First-Experiences-Rogers/dp/0698115759/ref=cm_cmu_pg_t They leave a lot of explanatory discretion up to parents but have been a useful staring point. (They have nothing to do with the TV show.)

  2. We like the story type books where some or all of the characters are black, but that isn’t the point of the story. But we also like some of the books that do more explaining about how people are different races. I tend to overexplain things, so books that really simplify these concepts help me keep things on a toddler level. We found that our son was noticing and commenting on skin color by the age of two, so I definitely think this awareness comes WAY before most people think it does.

    These are the more story-type books:
    Squeak Rumble Whomp Whomp Whomp by Wynton Marsalis (this is requires the reader to make lots of funny noises and is thus a huge hit with babies on up)
    Peekaboo Morning by Rachel Isadora
    Cordoroy by Don Freeman
    The Snowy Day and Whistle for Willy by Ezra Jack Keats
    The Lord’s Prayer by Tim Ladwig- all of his books are gorgeous
    Daddy Calls Me Man by Angela Johnson (my son LOVES this one)
    Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold

    These are the more explanation-centered books that we have found valuable so far:
    Shades of Black by Sanda Pinkney
    Shades of People by Shelley Rotner
    We’re Different We’re the Same- Sesame Street book

    • Thanks for all the great ideas! We’re familiar with some of these, but many of them are new to me. Off to add them to the library list!

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