My Top 25 Antiracist Picture Books

I read a great article this summer titled “Weeding Out Racism’s Invisible Roots: Rethinking Children’s Classics.” Written by Padma Venkatraman, the article made me stop and think about why I return to certain books every year I teach. It also made me realize I need to stop and critically assess how inclusive they are. As an international teacher, I’m lucky to have been introduced to literature from around the world, but I still want to be thoughtful about continuously making sure that no one feels left out by my choice in classroom literature.

My favorite quote from the article came at the end: “Challenging old classics is the literary equivalent of replacing statues of racist figures.”

So, one of the things I spent my time on this summer was pouring through lists of antiracist children’s books. I focused on picture books, but in the future, I’d like to branch out to early- and middle-grade chapter books for my students as well. I quickly exhausted the collection at my school’s library and then, thank God for YouTube. While I couldn’t find a digital read aloud for every book I looked up, I was able to find most. One of the best YouTube resources for antiracist picture books is Sankofa Read Aloud. And for teachers out there, I was surprised how many of these books were on our school’s digital library of choice, Epic.

I understand that not everyone (teachers, parents, etc.) can spend their summers reading through hundreds of books like I can, so I thought I’d make a list of my top 25. Now, this list is not exhaustive. It only includes my favorite antiracist books from this summer. A full list of my favorite picture books can be found here, on my Goodreads account.

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A Map Into the World by Kao Kalia Yang

Such a sweet story about birth and death and everything in between. Illustrator Seo Kim really brings the details to life. My heart broke (in a good way) when this young Hmong girl uses her chalk to remind her elderly neighbor that he’s not alone. *And as a side note, Kao Kalia Yang’s writings for adults are also spectacular!

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Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal

A wonderful story about the power of names and the importance of learning about family history. This story made me wish I had more than one middle name! Any child with a long or unique name will love the story of Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela.

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Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller

Kids can definitely relate to the acts of kindness in this book. The impetus of the story is Tanisha spilling grape juice on herself at lunch and it causes the main character to reflect on the true meaning(s) of kindness. Great read for the first week of school!

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Chocolate Milk, Por Favor by Maria Dismondy

This book highlights the ways that kids are intentionally and unintentionally cruel to each other. But it also shows how easy it can be to include others, even if they have cultural or language differences. Johnny grows a lot throughout the course of this story and it shows kids how they can too. Plus, what child doesn’t love soccer and chocolate milk?

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Dear Abuelo by Grecia Huesca Dominguez

This story starts with the heartbreak of a child moving away from home. In the United States, it might be a new city or state, but for my international students, it’s often a new country. Dear Abuelo is told through the letters Juana sends to her grandfather from New York to Mexico. In them, she tells him about her flight, their new apartment, and her first days at school. Along the way, Juana learns what it’s like to make new friends and to stick up for herself.

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Drawn Together by Minh Lé

In a story about bonding without language, it’s no wonder that this book relies heavily on its illustrations. Dan Santat does a beautiful job of pulling the reader in with his exquisite drawings. You can feel the frustration dripping off the grandson, mingled with the timidity of the grandfather – until he finally discovers something that can bring them together. Even though Minh Lé’s words are sparse, they move the story along beautifully.

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Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah
by Laurie Ann Thompson

I wish I had discovered this story while I was living in Ghana. It’s such an inspirational biography – of a boy who was supposed to stay hidden due to his disability and instead highlighted his differences by biking nearly 400 miles through the country. That journey allowed him to share his incredible story with everyone along the way and help change minds and hearts when it comes to our assumptions of those born with disabilities.

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Hair Love by Mathew A. Cherry

I can’t tell you what I love more: This book or the Oscar-winning short film it was based on. While the girl’s mother is away, there is no one to do her hair. So, she sets out to do it herself, the same way we all do everything these days – with the help of the internet. When her dad steps in, hilarious high jinks ensue, until finally, he’s able to save the day. One-hundred-percent heartwarming.

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Ho’onani: Hula Warrior by Heather Gale

I didn’t know this book was based on a true story until I looked it up again for this review – and now I love it even more. Meet Ho’onani: She doesn’t see herself as a wahine (girl) or kane (boy). She’s happy to be in the middle. But not everyone else sees it that way. A touching story about a girl who can do things as well as the boys can, while finding deeper ways to connect to her culture.

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Honeysmoke: A Story of Finding Your Color by Monique Fields

I didn’t expect to like Honeysmoke as much as I did – but I ended up finding the main character irresistible. A young, biracial girl searches the world around her to find the perfect name for her skin color. Reminding all of us of the beauty in our differences.

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I Am Not a Number by Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer

While this story is written about the Indigenous experience in Canada, many of the practices were used in the United States as well: Native children taken from their families, stripped of their names/languages/identities, and forced to regurgitate propaganda from those in power. This may not sound like a book for kids, but it is such an important truth to be told and the authors do an incredible job of breaking it down to make it manageable for even young children.

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Islandborn by Junot Díaz

Islandborn reminds me of so many of my students – kids who were born somewhere but travel so often, they don’t remember their home country. Lola, along with every student in her class, is asked to draw a picture of where her family emigrated from. Her classmates are abuzz with ideas, but Lola can’t remember anything. So, she goes on a search – interviewing family and community members – and ends up with valuable insight about her culture.

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Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea by Meena Harris

This book has all the feels – two sisters who want to turn the dump outside their apartment building into a playground. The landlord concedes – as long as it doesn’t cost him anything and the girls do all the work. This is a story about perseverance and a community coming together in transformational ways.

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La Frontera: My Journey with Papa by Deborah Mills and Alfredo Alva

A necessary read in a world filled with so much hostility toward immigrants. When a family can no longer support themselves in Mexico, the father and son make the difficult journey to Texas. Told with love, this book humanizes those who seek a better life for themselves and their families. Written in both Spanish in English, this is one of my favorite bilingual books!

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Maddi’s Fridge by Lois Brandt

A book about two best friends, this story addresses issues of poverty with honesty and sensitivity while instilling important lessons in friendship, empathy, trust, and helping others. When Sofia finds out Maddi’s family doesn’t have enough money to fill their fridge, she has to choose between keeping her friend’s secret and telling someone who can help.

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Nana Akua Goes to School by Tricia Elam Walker

This is possibly the newest book on the list – released June 16, 2020 and I wish it had been around while I was living in Ghana. This is the sweetest story of a young girl, Zura, who loves her grandma so much that she is afraid to bring her to Grandparent’s Day because she is afraid her classmates will make fun of Nana Akua. Nana Akua was born in Ghana and her family followed an old West African traditional and gave her tribal markings on her face. Instead of feeling embarrassed, Nana Akua uses the beauty of adinkra symbols to explain her heritage to the class.

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Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey

Ramsey manages to tell an uplifting story about a heartbreaking time in United States history. African Americans weren’t allowed to stay in many hotels, eat in many restaurants, or even purchase gas in many stations. During a road trip in the 1940s, Ruth’s family is introduced to the Green Book and the kindness of strangers improves the journey they are on. An easy book for children to digest and one that can be used to draw parallels to prejudice that still exists for people of color today.

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Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for
Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh

A standing ovation for this beautiful retelling of the fight for desegregated schools in California. Sylvia Mendez was denied the right to attend the better resourced, “Whites only” school despite her intelligence and perfect English. As her family reached out to others in their community and the surrounding ones, they found other families with similar stories, including families of World War II veterans. After multiple court cases, in 1947, Governor Earl Warren signed the law that said that all children in California were allowed to go to school together, regardless of race, ethnicity, or language.

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Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o

Described as whimsical and heartwarming, I couldn’t agree more! A story about colorism, Sulwe is a young girl whose skin is darker than everyone in her family and anyone in her school. She goes on a magical journey, beautifully illustrated by Vashti Harrison, that teaches her about self-love and self-esteem.

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The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story by Aya Khalil

After reading this book, I want to make an Arabic “quilt” with my students every year. At an international school (and every school!), it is so important to celebrate the diversity of students we have and to acknowledge the languages we use and the cultures we come from. This is a beautiful story about being proud of your heritage and sharing it with others.

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The Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin
by Julia Finley Mosca

Students with learning differences are rarely highlighted in literature and so this true story about Dr. Temple Grandin is a gem. Nobody had any positive expectations for her when she was diagnosed with autism, but her parents supported her and she went on to do amazing things. This is a great story for everyone, but especially for students who learn differently and may feel discouraged.

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The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig

A story that any child who has ever felt invisible can relate to. Everyone ignores Brian until he reaches out to the new kid, Justin. Slowly, Justin helps everyone realize just how awesome Brian always was. I love the illustrations and how Patrice Barton transitions from drawing Brian in black and white to drawing him in full color.

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We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom

I have never met an age group more passionate about the environment than elementary-aged students. We Are Water Protectors is a story about a young Indigenous girl who learns that even she can do her part to help protect the Earth. It is sure to inspire other students to get involved and this book also has some of the most beautiful illustrations from the whole list.

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When Aidan Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff

One of the most underdeveloped genres in kid lit is books about transgender and gender non-conforming children. When Aidan was born, everyone thought he was a girl. He struggled to tell his family and friends about his true feelings regarding his gender. Luckily for Aidan, his family was supportive of his transition. Now, Aidan is about to become a big brother and he’s uncomfortable with people making assumptions about the gender of the baby on the way. Beautifully told, this story reminds us not to make assumptions about others and to let them tell their own stories.

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Where Are You From? by Yamile Saied Méndez

My favorite line in this book is “No, where are you really from?” And since this American child doesn’t know how to answer, she turns to her abuelo because he always knows the answers. And his answer is so beautiful. But she presses him, asks for a place, and he points to his heart. Tells her of his love and the love of those that came before him. This book is a beautiful reminder that it’s not always where you’re from, but what you’re from: Love.

Please feel free to add any of your favorite antiracist picture books below! This list only contains books that were new to me this summer, which is why some of previous favorites didn’t make the cut:

-Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman
-Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine
-Child of the Civil Rights Movement by Paula Young Shelton
-Malala: A Brave Girl from Pakistan & Iqbal: A Brave Boy from Pakistan by Jeanette Winters
-Suki’s Kimono by Chieri Uegaki
-Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson
-The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson

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