Favorite Books Featuring African-American Characters

Many of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day book displays feature books which deal primarily with the Civil Rights movement or African-American historical figures. Recently I had a parent ask for children’s books which are not issue-based (historical fiction) but which just feature contemporary African-American children (fiction) and are fun to read. It’s a good question.

 For the preschool/kindergarten-aged picture books, my favorite character is Lola from Anna McQuinn and Rosalind Bearshaw’s two books: Lola at the Library and Lola Loves Stories. I wish there more of these. They’re simple, imaginative, and they work well for storytime. Lola is a preschool-aged black girl who loves books, reading, her parents, the library, and using her imagination. One night Lola’s dad makes up a story about magic shoes, and the next day she imagines that her shoes are magical and amazing (and sparkling). The Lola stories have the perfect amount of text and the right text/illustration balance, as well.

For the elementary and intermediate grade set, the EllRay Jakes by Sally Warner are wonderful: funny, insightful, and well-plotted. EllRay is a brainy and small African-American third-grade boy. His school is predominantly white, and while that’s not a big issue, I do think it’s normal that he’s noticed it. His dad is a geologist and his mom is an aspiring writer. My favorite EllRay book is EllRay Jakes Is Not a Chicken! EllRay is picked on and harassed by two boys in his class, Jared and Stanley. Like a lot of kids, EllRay is hesitant to tell anyone about this, because then it will become a big deal and he’s pretty sure he can fight them on their own terms. When EllRay is lying to his dad about what happened one day at school, he has a sudden insight into his dad: “’Thanks, Dad,’ I say, because all of a sudden, for the very first time, it occurs to me that it is probably hard for him to be him, just the way it’s hard for me to be me. He’s so prickly and proud, and then he’s got all those rocks to lug around.” Sometimes when I read good intermediate grade fiction I’m reminded how much children do get their parents and other adults, even though we don’t give them proper credit for it.

Walter Dean Myers is a major figure in YA fiction, and his novels feature African-American teens. His new series, The Cruisers, is for the younger set: upper intermediate grades and middle school, but it would work for some high school readers, too. It’s about four African-American middle school students who have an alternate newspaper at their DaVinci Academy (for the gifted) in Harlem. Zander (good at English), Kambui (Zander’s best friend, really into photography), LaShonda (loves fashion), and Bobbi (Barbara, good with numbers and chess) were encouraged to do this newspaper for under-participating in school activities. They’re semi-slackers, but they’re pretty astute. In the first Cruisers book, the four kids witness what happens at DaVinci when students take sides (Union or Confederate) in a Civil War intellectual exercise. The four students go about their everyday lives experiencing a fair amount of mindset dating to the bad old days. It’s interesting to see how quickly they get the problems of free speech, too. The second book, Checkmate, involves the top chess player, Sidney, who has been loyal to Zander in the past but now has a drug problem, due in large part to the constant pressure he’s under. Sidney is Zander’s friend and Zander and the other cruisers try to help Sidney, while thinking about and discussing the problems (and advantages) of living in high-pressure school (and culture). I hope Walter Dean Myers keeps going with this series.



About Carey Hagan

I'm a reference librarian in Virginia and I do children's and YA [young adult] reader's advisory.
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