Black Joy is not … dismissing or creating an ‘alternate’ black narrative that ignores the realities of our collective pain; rather, it is about holding the pain and injustice…in tension with the joy we experience. It’s about using that joy as an entry into understanding the oppressive forces we navigate through as a means to imagine and create a world free of them.
Kleaver Cruz, Founder, The Black Joy Project
Black joy celebrates resistance and resilience. It’s about finding a place of healing and nourishment despite oppression and injustice. What does this mean in children’s books? I’ve gathered these picture books that celebrate Black joy even as they illuminate Black history.
How about you? What books would you add to this list? Thanks for your suggestions!
30 Black Joy Picture Books and Chapter Books
The Light She Feels Inside by Gwendolyn Wallace, illustrated by Olivia Duchess
What is the light that Maya feels inside? Sometimes it’s happy, especially when she’s with her family and interacts with her community. Sometimes, it’s a burning glow, especially when she experiences unkindness or witnesses injustice. When Maya confides her mixed feelings to her librarian, she learns about other female Black changemakers including Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Nina Simone, Gwendolyn Brooks, June Jordan, Marsha P. Johnson, and the Combahee River Collective. Her glow is her inner activist and she learns to let it out. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
Together We Swim by Valerie Bolling, illustrated by Kaylani Juanita
Celebrate mother-son love and the achievement of a childhood rite of passage. With a little courage and a guiding hand from his mom, one brave boy learns the freedom that comes from an afternoon spent swimming in a pool. [picture book, ages 3 and up]
Together We Ride by Valerie Bolling, illustrated by Kaylani Juanita
Celebrate father-daughter love and the achievement of a childhood rite of passage. With a little courage, a guiding hand from her dad, and an enthusiastic bark from her pup, one brave girl quickly learns the freedom that comes from an afternoon spent outside on a bike. [picture book, ages 3 and up]
Fire Chief Fran by Linda Ashman, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter
Books play an important role in showing children the world around them. While there are plenty of picture books about firefighters, this is the first one I’ve seen with a female, Black fire chief. Readers follow a day in the life of Fire Chief Fran as she deals with emergency calls for first aid, trapped animals, a downed tree, and two fires. The story and the backmatter provide a deeper understanding of what firefighters and fire chiefs do. I also appreciated the illustrations of an inclusive firefighter force that included several women. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Mama Mable’s All-Gal Big Band Jazz Extravaganza! by Annie Sieg
When the men went off to war during WWII, women took their place on the factory floors and also in the dance hall. All-female bands emerged during the 1040s, which also broke racial barriers. While Mama Mable is a fictional character, Black women including Billie Holliday, Nina Simone, and Ella Fitzgerald were professional, touring musicians. Jazz music is celebrated here as a force that creates community and a revolution in music history. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Bing, Bop, Bam: Time to Jam! by Valerie Bolling, illustrated by Sabrena Khadija
Do you love music? Do you enjoy a party? Do you like spending time with friends? If any or all of these are your jam, then BING, BOP, BAM is for you! This rhyming book celebrates a neighborhood’s musical block party that features an intergenerational community, instruments, food from around the world, and, of course, fun. [picture book, ages 3 and up]
I also have a book list of African American Female Musicians here.
A Walk in the Woods by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney and Brian Pinkney
A boy finds a map marked with an “X” that his late father left him. He follows the map to the woods, a special place he had enjoyed with his dad. The treasure trove is a box of drawings and poems his dad made when he was his age. The walk connected the boy to nature … and to his father. It’s poetic justice that this book was completed by Brian Pickney after his father, Jerry Pinkney, passed away. Their illustration collaboration was perhaps also a journey of healing and discovery. A Walk in the Woods celebrates the natural world, creativity, and healing despite grief and loss. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
This Train is Bound for Glory by Alice Faye Duncan, illustrated by Paul Kellam
Alice Faye Duncan takes the African spiritual, “This Train is Bound for Glory,” and reimagines it as an inclusive ride to the afterlife. While the spiritual has its origins in America’s history of enslavement, this song is also a testament to overcoming oppression, strength through community, and faith in a better life ahead. [picture book, ages 3 and up]
What Do Brothas Do All Day? by Ajuan Mance
Brothas are going about their lives doing everyday things in this book of Black joy. They take the subway and the bus and go to the barber shop and other places including outer space as astronauts. They have fun singing, dancing, and flying a kite. They play sports like basketball. They hang out. This is an important picture book to celebrate Black men and Black joy. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
Black is a Rainbow Color by Angela Joy, illustrated by Ekua Holmes
Black is a color of the rainbow and a way to celebrate Black culture, history, and community. This rhyming picture book is an ode to black joy as both a color and a symbol of resilience. Ekua Holmes’s gorgeous collage illustrations bring a stained glass aesthetic to this celebration of rainbow colors in which black is the star. [picture book, ages 3 and up]
Going Down Home With Daddy by Kelly Starling Lyons, illustrated by Daniel Minter
It’s always fun for Lil Alan to return to Daddy’s home and see all the relatives including grandparents, aunts, uncles, and lots of cousins. It’s here that he learns about his family history and how they came to farm this land that they own. Despite slavery and Jim Crow laws, his ancestors held on to their dreams and made them a reality. Now, surrounded by multi-generations of family, Lil Alan’s Granny heart is full. Nothing is more important than family. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Basketball Town by Scott Rothman, illustrated by Darnell Johnson
When Maxwell fell asleep one night, he woke up in Basketball Town, where everyone played hoop, all day and all night. Maxwell loves it! But when the Mayor of Basketball Town tells him that he will need to work on his game if he wants to play in the Championship, he feels discouraged. He picks himself up in Skillsville to work on his game. He keeps at it until the Mayor says that he’s ready. He finally makes it to the Championship and it all comes down to one free throw. Will Maxwell be able to deliver? Is this a dream or a nightmare? [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Keyana Loves Her Family by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley, illustrated by Charnelle Pinkney Barlow
Keyana has big ideas including hosting the perfect movie night for her family. When things go sideways, her family is there to help. It might not have been the movie night Keyana had in her mind, but this one turned out to be even better. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
A Story About Afiya by James Berry, illustrated by Anna Cunha
Afiya is a Swahili name but this story could be set anywhere. Afiya has a white dress that she washes each night to wear the next day which picks up a whimsical design based on what she finds in nature. One day the dress has sunflowers, another day butterflies. A celebration of magical realism, poetic language, and childhood joy abound in this tale about the joy and wonder of everyday life. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
Rainbow Stew by Catherine Falwell
Three grandkids who just happen to be African-American are coaxed by their grandfather to venture out into the rain to collect vegetables from his garden. They turn these into a delicious rainbow stew and the recipe is included in the back! [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Furquan’s First Flat Top by Robert Liu-Trujillo
Celebrate the love between father and son, reassurance, imagination, and of course a “flat-top” with this bilingual children’s book that gives kids a sense of cultural pride. Furqan Moreno wakes up and decides he’s ready for his first haircut; a flat top! But as the time grows closer to his actual haircut, he has misgivings. His dad reassures him all through the process and Furqan ends up with a cool haircut that he loves. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Happy With My Nappy by Gina Jarrell, illustrated by Lhaiza Morena
Natural hair is celebrated by a little girl who expounds on all the different ways she can style her hair to express herself. Her nappy curls are amazingly versatile and beautiful! [picture book, ages 5 and up]
More books celebrating natural hair are here.
More books celebrating Black achievement here.
Critter Club: Ellie and the Good Luck Pig by Callie Barkley, illustrated by Marsha Riti
This is an Early Chapter Book that is easy and about rescuing animals with a diverse cast! Ellie and her friends run an animal shelter in Ms. Sullivan’s barn and when a new pig arrives Ellie thinks it brings her extraordinary good luck so she’s panicked when the pig gets adopted. Will her luck disappear with Plum the pig? [early chapter book, ages 6 and up]
Ana & Andrew: Going to Ghana by Christine Platt, illustrated by Junissa Bianda
Ana & Andrew are going with their father to his conference in Accra, the capital of Ghana! When they arrive, Ana and Andrew are surprised that Accra is a city, not a rural village that they are used to seeing in picture books. They try jollof rice, fufu, and other Ghanaian dishes. Cape Coast, a nearby city, is their next stop. Here, they learn that it was used for slave trading. They pass through “The Door of No Return” where enslaved Africans once passed, never to return home again. Ana & Andrew, as descendants of enslaved Africans, honor their ancestors by passing through the door. This is an excellent early chapter book to learn about Ghana. [early reader, ages 5 and up]
Lulu and the Hamster in the Night by Hilary McKay
Interestingly, there were quite a few animal adoption-themed Early Chapter Books this year but this is exactly the kind of Easy Chapter book I wish there were more. Lulu and Mellie are girls of color but that’s not the point. Their adventure as rescue pet adopters is perfectly pitched. I’m impressed with this series — last year, another Lulu book made the shortlist.
The plot is a classic sitcom; the girls stay at their grandmother’s house with their rescue hamster but as she doesn’t allow furry animals, they have to hide the hamster during their weekend stay. The hamster, of course, gets out and has to be rescued. What makes this book sing is the pacing of this very sweet story that is wonderfully descriptive without ever dragging the plot down. I hope this one gets a win this year! [easy chapter book, ages 6 and up]
Rica Baptista: Llamas, Iguanas, and My Very Best Friend by Janet Costa Bates, illustrated by Gladys Jose
Cape Verde or Cabo Verde, officially the Republic of Cabo Verde, is an archipelago and island country in the central Atlantic Ocean, consisting of ten volcanic islands with a combined land area of about 4,033 square kilometers. from Wikipedia
Rica Baptista wants a pet, but not just any pet. She tends towards the exotic: baby pygmy goat, pot-bellied pig, wallaroo, or kinkajou. To convince her parents, she lays out a plan to show them that she’s responsible. Her best friend Laini is right by her side. Their first paid gig is as mother’s helper for Rica’s five-year-old cousins’ twin birthday party. Rica’s neighbor, her former first grade teacher, suggests the poetry competition at the local bookstore. Rica is reluctant to go down that path despite being a great writer. This is a pitch-perfect early chapter book. Fans of Clementine, Ivy & Bean, and Shelter Pet Squad will enjoy this series. Rica frets about her best friend moving away, Janet Costa Bates brings all the storylines full circle in a very satisfying way. [chapter book, ages 6 and up]
The Amazing Life of Azaleah Lane by Nikki Shannon Smith
What I love about this series is that Azaleah’s family is an upper-middle-class African-American family living in Washington D.C. Her mother owns a successful restaurant, and her father is an attorney. 8-year-old Azaleah, while also trying to complete an extra credit project for school, solves the mystery of her younger sister’s lost stuffed animal. Kids who like chapter book mysteries may clue into the culprit quickly as it’s an often-used plot. [chapter book, ages 6 and up]
Clubhouse Mysteries series by Sharon M. Draper
Sharon M. Draper writes a solid mystery with enough suspense and danger to hook readers. She does a brilliant job of bringing in issues like gentrification and development in inner cities and the backdoor politics that accompany it shown through the lens of four friends, all African American boys. They form a club to solve mysteries with the first one landing next door when they unearth a box of bones. The answer to what they are and why they are there illustrates the hidden avarice that affects and plagues their neighborhood. [early chapter book, ages 6 and up]
Jada Jones series by Kelly Starling Lyons, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
As a candidate for class representative, Jada is ready to give the campaign her all. But when rumors start to fly about her secret fear of public speaking, she isn’t sure who she can trust. And the pressure to make promises she can’t keep only adds to her growing list of problems. Is winning even worth it when friendships are on the line? [early chapter book series, ages 6 and up]
Izzy Barr, Running Star by Claudia Mills, illustrated by Rob Shepperson
Izzy happens to be African-American and this book, thankfully, doesn’t fall into easy stereotypes. Her issue will resonate with any kids who have a nuclear family. Izzy is frustrated sharing her father with her half-brother who only lives with them on weekends. It’s just that Izzy now has a sport she competes at too, but her father seems to make it to more of her brother’s games than her track meets. There’s also her running rival, Skipper Tipton, whose dad is the coach. With the big meet coming up, can Izzy resolve her issues with her father and beat Skipper? [early chapter book, ages 6 and up]
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Food for the Future: Sustainable Farms Around the World
- Junior Library Guild Gold selection
- Selected as one of 100 Outstanding Picture Books of 2023 by dPICTUS and featured at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair
- Starred review from School Library Journal
- Chicago Library’s Best of the Best
- Imagination Soup’s 35 Best Nonfiction Books of 2023 for Kids