Reshaping the African American Narrative, from Picture Books to YA | Great Books

These recent titles, including picture books, middle grade, and young adult, showcase the complex beauty inherent in being black in America.

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Throughout the history of America, black people have had their bodies, culture, and ideas appropriated by people outside of their community. Over time, the African American narrative has been repackaged into something that is often closer to a caricature than a familiar and truthful reality. Black authors understand the power of storytelling and are creatively harnessing their own voices to reclaim their autonomy. By providing a wide-ranging collection of books written by African American and African authors, librarians can help readers understand that the black experience is a multilayered composite and not a monolithic construct. Library collections that reflect this complexity help decrease racial bias and build a world in which all children can fully see themselves. The following titles showcase the complex beauty inherent in being black in America.


Picture Books

ALEXANDER, Kwame. The Undefeated. illus. by Kadir Nelson. HMH/Versify. Apr. 2019. ISBN 9781328780966.
Gr 3 Up –In a visual chronicle of the long and harrowing journey to personhood for African Americans, thought-provoking prose is brilliantly paired with illustrations that use white space in attention-grabbing, impactful, and resonant ways. The result is a love story to and for courageous black people who struggled to hold a seat at the table for future generations.

BARNES, Derrick. Crown: Ode to a Fresh Cut. illus. by Gordon C. James. Agate/Bolden. Oct. 2017. ISBN 9781572842243.
PreS-2 –Barnes and James showcase the barbershop as a safe haven and antidote to negative portrayals of black men and boys. A fresh cut or salon appointment can make a person’s outsides match their vibrant inner self, in this wonderful book about self-care for young African American boys.

CHERRY, Matthew A. Hair Love. illus. by Vashti Harrison. Penguin/Kokila. May 2019. ISBN 9780525553366.
PreS-Gr 3 –In this touching and humorous story of a father learning to fix his daughter’s hair, written by former NFL wide receiver Cherry, emerges a unique tribute to the glory of black hair and a rejection of the racist stereotype of the black family as perpetually broken. By presenting an intact, progressive African American family unit, Cherry makes clear that this narrative is not beholden to the white gaze.


Middle Grade

CRAFT, Jerry. New Kid. illus. by author. HarperCollins/Harper. Feb. 2019. ISBN 9780062691200.
Gr 4-7 –Jordan Banks is an African American middle school student attending a predominantly white private school. While his new school has tons of exciting academic opportunities, he remains socially isolated. Craft skillfully uses humor and fun, color-saturated illustrations to unpack the difficulties that arise from being partially accepted by a dominant community.

RAMÉE, Lisa Moore. A Good Kind of Trouble. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. Mar. 2019. ISBN 9780062836687.
Gr 4-8 –Shayla is a self-confessed “goodie-two-shoes” trying to exist in a world that increasingly shows her the many ways it doesn’t value black people. Torn between her wish to be seen as a “good girl” and her desire to fight the injustices she witnesses and experiences, Shayla embodies the work of building up the courage to find and use your voice.

RHODES, Jewell Parker. Ghost Boys. Little, Brown. Apr. 2018. ISBN 9780316262286.
Gr 4-6 –Chicago seventh grader Jerome is shot and killed by a white police officer who mistakes Jerome’s toy gun for a real one. As a ghost, Jerome witnesses the painful aftermath of his tragic death and meets Emmett Till, murdered in 1955 in Mississippi. The deftly woven novel tells the stories of boys who didn’t get to fulfill their dreams. Readers will easily connect with Jerome and his desire to heal his family. Also suggest Tony Medina’s and Stacey Robinson’s graphic novel I Am Alfonso Jones.

WILLIAMS, Alicia D. Genesis Begins Again. Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Bks. Jan. 2019. ISBN 9781481465809.
Gr 5-8 –Genesis, a young African American girl, attributes the harsh treatment of her friends and family to the color of her skin. One girl she tries to befriend starts a list of reasons why they don’t like her. Genesis internalizes the list and adds her own grievances—her family’s instability and her father’s alcoholism—in this smart exploration of the toxic effects of ostracism on mental health.


Young Adult

ACEVEDO, Elizabeth. With the Fire on High. HarperCollins/Harper Teen. May 2019. ISBN 9780062662835.
Gr 9 Up –Emoni Santiago, an Afro-Latinx teenager, has a lot on her plate. She’s a young mother juggling high school, co-parenting with her ex, and working a fast food job. A cooking internship helps Emoni envision different possibilities for her future. This nuanced novel explores how the many facets of personal identity shape the narratives we craft about ourselves and our place in the world.

GIBNEY, Shannon. Dream Country. Dutton. Sept. 2018. ISBN 9780735231672.
Gr 9 Up –Gibney weaves a story that highlights the inconsistencies between the beliefs that a country projects to the world and the realities experienced by immigrants. The disconnect between a dream fulfilled and a dream diminished negatively impacts each character’s view of themselves and their place within their chosen countries.

ZOBOI, Ibi, ed. Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. Jan. 2019. ISBN 9780062698728.
Gr 9 Up –This short story collection edited by National Book Award finalist Zoboi offers unique perspectives on what it means to be young and black in America today. Contributors include Jay Coles, Justina Ireland, Tochi Onyebuchi, ­Jason Reynolds, Nic Stone, Renée Watson, and Rita Williams-Garcia. Teens of all races will identify with the characters in these well-crafted stories.



MCKESSON, DeRay. On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope. Viking. Sept. 2018. ISBN 9780525560326.
Gr 9 Up –The former public school administrator and activist challenges all Americans to reaffirm their commitment to fighting against systemic racism and recognizing the ways it impacts society. Read-alike titles include Jennifer E. Cobbina’s Hands Up, Don’t Shoot: Why the Protests in Ferguson and Baltimore Matter, and How They Changed America, and Patrisse Khan-­Cullors’ and asha bandele’s When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives ­Matter Memoir.

WELTEROTH, Elaine. More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say). Viking. Jun. 2019. ISBN 9780525561583.
Gr 9 Up –In her snapshot of life as a black woman in the magazine industry, the former editor in chief of Teen Vogue shares her triumphs and downfalls with refreshing honesty; she gave black women a platform to speak and a way to be seen. Also suggest Tanisha Ford’s Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion.

Desiree Thomas is the teen librarian at Worthington Library, OH.


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