The best picture books that feature shy, confident, or sneaky children of color

The Books I Picked & Why

The Day You Begin

By Jacqueline Woodson, Rafael López

Book cover of The Day You Begin

Why this book?

I am a big fan of Jacqueline Woodson’s books—and this one is my favorite of her picture books. I love the way the language flows from page to page, the way the text moves from one scene to another, always reminding the reader of how classmates can feel left out or out of place in everyday settings, and ending with a reminder that everyone has similarities, but also differences. The art is perfect—bright, vivid colors with just the right expressions on the children’s faces.

I love how the “untraveled” child sees the positive in staying home caring for her sister rather than going to Paris, the beach, or so many other faraway destinations. This is one of those books we choose at bedtime when we need a quiet, familiar “lullaby” of a book to lull our child to sleep. (But honestly, it’s a great read no matter the time of day!)

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Your Name Is a Song

By Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, Luisa Uribe

Book cover of Your Name Is a Song

Why this book?

There are so many things I love about this book! I love the way the mom has a beautiful way to respond to the comments the girl’s classmates make. I love the way the child skips and hops and dances along with her mom. I love the clear, close relationship between mother and child. I love how the girl creates songs from all of her classmates’ names—even those with a single syllable like Bob. What a wonderful way to help people explore names they’re unfamiliar with. The list of names at the end is great, too. I can’t comment on the text without commenting on the art—the girl’s movements and emotions wouldn’t be the same without Luisa Uribe’s illustrations. And the best thing of all? Everyone in our house (parents & child) likes it!

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What Mary Jo Shared

By Janice May Udry, Eleanor Mill

Book cover of What Mary Jo Shared

Why this book?

I discovered a tattered book in my mom’s basement that had the sweetest illustrations—little did I know there were 3 books by the same author/illustrator pair. Since finding the book in the basement, I have found all three books: What Mary Jo Wanted is all about Mary Jo’s obsession with dogs and her campaign to convince her parents she should get a dog. The illustrations of this sweet child with the baby-doll dresses are wonderful; What Mary Jo Shared is about a girl determined to find just the right thing to show at show-and-tell. It was reprinted with new artwork some time ago, but we prefer the original. Mary Jo and her Grandmother has a different tone—about Mary Jo’s first overnight at her grandmother’s house and what happens when her grandmother falls and hurts her ankle.

Based on which one we read most often, it’s clear that What Mary Jo Shared is the family favorite.

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My Hair Is a Garden

By Cozbi A. Cabrera

Book cover of My Hair Is a Garden

Why this book?

Every child should grow up with a neighbor like Miss Tillie to run to for support. She’s just the right mix of confidante and responsible adult. Starting with the art on the endpapers—nine gorgeous children, each with a different hairstyle, alternating with images of different plants—and ending with vibrant colors in the garden when the little girl sees the beauty in both short and long hair, this book reminds us to take a look inside & be happy with what we’ve got—and to take care of it along the way.

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The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County

By Janice N. Harrington, Shelley Jackson

Book cover of The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County

Why this book?

I love the author’s use of language, “wash away the dreaming,” “as still as sunlight,” “plump as a Sunday purse,” and my favorite, “I stand so still even my shadow gets bored and starts to walk off.” And the bright artwork incorporating bits & pieces of textiles and buttons and a variety of papers is just the right background for a story about a girl determined to achieve her ultimate goal—catching the elusive Miss Hen. The facial expressions, both human and hen, are fabulous—especially Miss Hen’s sly look at the reader when she eludes her captor yet again. The way a self-declared chicken chaser’s attitude can change when faced with a brood of chicks is a sight to see!

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