12 best children’s books with empowering black characters

Stories shape how children view themselves and the people around them. Here are our favourites for championing black culture

Maxine Harrison
Thursday 25 February 2021 09:29
<p>We looked for bright and vibrant illustrations that would bring the story and characters to life</p>

We looked for bright and vibrant illustrations that would bring the story and characters to life

Although there have been programmes put in place to help tackle diversity in the publishing industry, it still remains, for the most part, predominantly white.

The norm we see in books influences the way we see the world and this is why it’s particularly important for children to see characters that represent themselves. Illustration books for early years are a key way of doing this.

Read more: 10 best kids’ motivational books that educate and inspire

Sadly, the harsh reality is that, according to a major survey of the UK’s publishing workforce, only 11 per cent of people working in the industry identify as ethnic minorities. On top of this, just 10 per cent of the children’s books published in the UK in the past four years feature characters of colour. There has only been a growth rate of three per cent in the number of authors and illustrators of colour published in the UK. These figures highlight the severe lack of diversity there is in the publishing industry and how much needs to be done to combat this issue.

This issue has led to many writers within the black community branching out to independently publish their own books, and even creating their own publishing houses. There are also traditional publishing houses who are taking steps to tackle this lack of diversity. Penguin collaborated with race equality organisation, The Runneymede Trust, to launch Lit In Colour which helps schools provide their students with a more diverse range of books and authors. But far more needs to be done to achieve equality in publishing.

A good place to start is to champion existing books which celebrate black characters. Here, we review twelve illustrated children’s books written by black authors, with black protagonists. These are stories of empowerment and will encourage young readers to think creatively and independently.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent. 

‘Mally & BoomBoom and The Shape-Shifting Pet' by Stacy Ramsey, published by Mallidy Publishing

Suitable for ages three to seven, Mally & BoomBoom and The Shape-shifting Pet is full of adventure. Written by Stacy Ramsey, it takes readers on a journey with brother and sister, Mally and BoomBoom, as they guess what pet their parents have gifted them.

“Don’t be silly!” is a humorous phrase chanted throughout the book as the siblings guess all sorts of animals, ranging from giraffes to dolphins, of what could possibly be inside their gift box. The bright, vibrant illustrations enhance the high-spirited mood of the story. It’s an exciting read for little ones.

‘There’s Rice At Home' by Mayowa Precious Agbabiaka, published by Aseda Press Ltd

Full of humour and featuring relatable West African cultural references, “there’s rice at home” is a phrase commonly used within Nigerian culture. This is the response that is given when Dámi and Ṣèyí ask their mum for food when they’re out.

Written by British-Nigerian Mayowa Precious Agbabiaka, There’s Rice At Home uses traditionally Nigerian names for the main characters to enhance cultural visibility. It is currently available in eight languages including Yoruba, Jamaican Patois, Swahili and more. The English translation is suitable for those up to nine-years-old, while the other language translations are for both children and adults to practice in their mother tongues.

As a heart-warming welcome to the book, Mayowa writes “I wrote this story for my future children, god-children and the kids who will not be related to me but will call me ‘aunty’ anyway. So that they can have books in their mother tongues that won‘t just be a translation of a story written by certain demographics, but one that they could genuinely relate to.”

‘Riley Can Be Anything' by Davina Hamilton, published by The Ella Riley Group

Davina Hamilton first published Riley Can Be Anything, back in 2018 and has since gone onto create a series of books stemming from this. The book delivers an empowering message for young readers that they can pursue any career they want to when they’re older.

Suitable for four to ten-year-olds, the story explores the different professions that the protagonist, Riley, could be when he’s older. This is all prompted by his older cousin, Joe, asking him “Can you tell me, when you grow up, what are you going to be?”.

'Mansa Musa Builds A School’ by Louisa and Oladele Olafuyi, published by Kunda Kids

Kunda Kids is a black-owned publishing company founded by authors of Mansa Musa Builds a School, Louisa and Oladele Olafuyi. The book focuses on the main character, Mansa Musa, the loved leader of the Mali Empire and tells a fictional story of him building a school in his community.

It teaches generosity and the importance of helping others, and engages readers through the rhythmic rhyming sequences throughout the story, as well as the beautiful illustrations of exotic and royal scenery. This book is suitable for ages three to eight.

'Lily and The Magic Comb’ by V V Brown, published by Woke Kidz Books

Written by V V Brown, Lily and The Magic Comb teaches the value of embracing your natural hair and the power there is in doing so. Lily, the main character, has “curly, brown hair” and is gifted a comb for her birthday that can teleport her to wherever she wants, by simply combing her locks.

As well as taking readers on an adventure, the book also possesses an encouraging message to children to embrace their natural tresses. Suitable for ages two to eight-years-old, the story has a particularly precious moment where Lily’s mother says “your curls are your crown for you to cherish and keep”.

‘Tiana Eat Up’ by Akitoye Sunday, self-published

Tiana Eat Up tells the tale of young Tiana who learns the importance of trying new things and not judging a book, or in this case, a dish, by the way it looks. Written by Akitoye Sunday, the story encourages little ones to be open to trying new things. Suitable for ages three to eight, it also touches on the bond between children and their grandparents as the tale centres around Tiana visiting her grandmother. “Tiana loved going to grandma’s house” is the first line in the story and is a lovely summary of their relationship.

‘Fat Daddy’s Soul Kitchen’ by Karl Gritton, self-published through Amazon KDP

Big Fat Daddy’s Soul Kitchen teaches children the history of Soul food in African American culture in the protagonist, Chef Big Fat Daddy’s kitchen. Written by Karl Gritton, this book offers fun, humour and rhymes, while simultaneously educating readers about soul food’s origins and the pioneering people who have contributed to it. Suitable for primary school age groups, from five to 11-year-olds, the book will have readers’ mouth-watering from the very first line: “The moment you enter, you’ll smell heaven on a plate; an array of amazing dishes, that will look AND taste great!”

'Lily Says No’ by Kelly Eastmond-Jeffrey, published by Conscious Dreams Publishing

Written by Kelly Eastmond-Jeffrey and illustrated by ten-year-old Sariyah, Lily Says No possess a more serious, but nonetheless, necessary message, than most illustrated children’s books. Suitable for children aged six and up, Lily Says No is designed to help parents/guardians open up a dialogue with their children about sexual abuse and understand that they have authority over their bodies. It is written in a simple way through the eyes of the protagonist, Lily, a seven-year-old girl, and holds a gentle approach to this sensitive topic.

‘Look Up!’ by Nathan Bryon, published by Penguin Random House Children’s UK

Written by actor Nathan Bryon, Look Up! follows the story of a young girl named Rocket, who aspires to become an astronaut. Aimed at ages between two and five-years-old, this book is a fascinating mix of interesting space facts and humour via the main character Rocket, and her relationship with her older brother, Jamal, who always seems to be on his phone. “Jamal says I’m called Rocket because I’ve got fiery breath” is a perfect line in the book that sums up their relationship. It’s an inspiring book for young girls aspiring to enter the STEM industry.

'Freedom We Sing’ by Amyra Leon, published by Flying Eye Books

Written by musician and playwright Amyra Leon, Freedom We Sing’s animations are brought to life by illustrations of the plethora of characters singing and dancing. Touching on topics like asylum seeking, the book explores what freedom really means and looks like.

The story carries a rhythmite pace and the warm colours from the illustrations bring a sense of homeliness. It’s targeted at three to seven-year-olds and the opening line of the book sets a beautiful tone that resonates throughout the book: “Families of stars surround me, every constellation humming a different melody”.

'Little Leaders: Bold Women In Black History’ by Vashti Harrison, published by Penguin Random House Children’s UK

Written and illustrated by Vashti Harrison and published under Penguin Random House, Little Leaders: Bold Women In Black History teaches the history of courageous pioneering women from the black community. Mary Seacole, Harriet Tubman and Josephine Baker are some of the many trailblazing women across varying industries mentioned in this book. Each female figure has a beautiful colourful illustration adjacent to an engaging bio of their story and the impact they had on the world.

Targeted at eight to 12-year-olds, this book educates young black girls about what other women from their community have done and consequently inspires them that they too can go on to do great things.

'The Young Black Prince’ by Melissa Mason, self-published through Amazon KDP

A celebration of empowerment, this light-hearted book is full of rhymes that has a simple, quick story with an empowering message. “This young black prince can” is the premise of the book and focuses on what the young protagonist gets up to in his day-to-day adventures. It encourages fun for other black boys out there too. Written by Melissa Mason, this book is suitable for newborns to four-year-olds.

The verdict: Children’s books with empowering Black characters

Whilst all these books are brilliant in their own way, we particularly loved the extravagant adventures of Mally & BoomBoom and The Shape-Shifting Pet. It’s particularly fun to read and encourages imagination for your young one and is also a great read for any child, from any background whilst still centering black protagonists and not as minor, or yet, invisible characters which is often the case in the publishing industry.

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