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date: 05 December 2022

African American Children’s Literaturefree

African American Children’s Literaturefree

  • Brigitte FielderBrigitte FielderCollege of Letters and Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Summary

African American children’s literature includes a broad array of writing for Black children in the United States. The genre necessarily crosscuts the “children’s literature” and “African American literature” genres. Although Black children have always read literature not intended for them, and scholars have rightly addressed the negative effects of racist depictions on Black child readers, definitions of this genre have most often prioritized writing for children written by African American authors. African American children’s literature is a broad and rich field, with a history originating as early as the 18th century; it includes Black writing addressing children and literature of the present, engaging forms from oral and folkloric traditions to printed books and ranging across a variety of literary genres. Emerging alongside the dominant prioritization of white children and white authors in mainstream publishing, writers of literature for Black children have worked against structural difficulties that continue to leave African American depictions and authors underrepresented in proportion to the country’s Black population. African American children’s literature has also necessarily contended with the preponderance of anti-Black racism in US popular culture, including in white children’s literature. Thus, African American children’s literature has often addressed issues of racial representation and racism in addition to (and often intertwined with) the wide variety of other topics included in this œuvre.

Subjects

  • Children’s Literature
  • 19th Century (1800-1900)
  • 20th and 21st Century (1900-present)

African American parents, educators, and authors have long cared about, discussed, and written literature for African American children, despite various barriers to this genre of literary production.1 In her 1922 essay “Negro Literature for Negro Pupils,” author, editor, activist, and educator Alice Dunbar-Nelson discussed the importance of African American children’s literature. She writes that “for two generations we have given brown and black children a blonde ideal of beauty to worship, a milk-white literature to assimilate, and a pearly Paradise to anticipate, in which their dark faces would be hopelessly out of place.”2 As Shawn Anthony Christian has noted, by the time Dunbar-Nelson wrote this piece, “a range of works—from Phillis Wheatley’s poetry to Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery—were part of a literary tradition that African American teachers of primary and secondary school students could embrace as a curricular imperative.”3 This is to say that Dunbar-Nelson makes a curricular argument, rather than an argument about the dearth of Black literature available to give Black children. Dunbar-Nelson laments that “Negro literature is frequently mentioned in whispers as a dubious quantity,” and she argues that “We must begin everywhere to instill race pride into our pupils.”4 The solution, she says, is to “give the children the poems and stories and folk lore and songs of their own people. We do not teach literature; we are taught by literature.”5 Because African American children’s literature has been largely affected by structural barriers, understanding African American children’s literature as a genre necessitates understanding its historical relationship to African American literature more broadly. What Dunbar-Nelson’s discussion shows is that African American children’s literature is part of a long history of African American attention to and care for Black children.

Discussions of African American children and children’s literature have necessarily had to address the long and broad history of anti-Black racism in white children’s literature. This racism has extended beyond the overrepresentation or prioritization of white childhood in children’s literature; white children’s literature (particularly in the United States) has included a preponderance of derogatory representations of Black people, including of Black children. Such representations appear in overtly racist books such as Helen Bannerman’s The Story of Little Black Sambo (1899), and even in books that held some intentions to promote racial justice, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which nevertheless depict Black characters according to racist stereotypes.6 Scholars including Donnarae MacCann and Philip Nel have extensively discussed widespread anti-Black racism in children’s literature, indicating also that such racism extends to “classic” literary texts and prominent authors who have been and continue to be loved and cherished by many white readers.7 Whether it directly addresses the problem of racist children’s literature or not, African American children’s literature has worked to counter derogatory representations of Black people and to center Black perspectives.

African American children’s literature might best be defined as literature not simply depicting African American people but with connections to Black people in the world, either as creators or readers of that literature. One gains some insight into African American child readers by thinking how the category “African American children’s literature” is positioned alongside genres of literature that have received more scholarly attention: children’s literature, and African American literature. Reading the intersections of these genres—for example, in the space in which literature originally published in other children’s literary venues comes to be published in 19th-century African American periodicals—one can better understand the intersecting genre of African American children’s literature. Considering children’s literature as genre that has most often been defined by its audience, rather than its authors, the category African American children’s literature might therefore be taken as most inclusively encompassing texts that one has every reason to believe have been read by or to African American children. Scholars such as Violet J. Harris and Michelle Martin have taken a broad view of African American children’s literature by considering white authors who have contributed to positive depictions of Black children. For example, Harris reads Mary Wright Ovington’s Hazel (1913), about a girl from Boston visiting her grandmother in Alabama, and Zeke (1931), about an Alabama sharecropper’s son who eventually attends college, as books that, despite their shortcomings “attempted to provide African American children with truthful cultural images, entertain them, imbue them with racial pride, and inform them of the achievements of their race.”8 Martin takes a similar approach to Ezra Jack Keats’s 1962 picture book The Snowy Day (and others in this series about a boy named Peter) as books that positively portrayed a Black protagonist and thereby particularly appealed to African American child audiences when few prominent positive depictions of Black characters were available.9 While considering white-authored literature presented to African American children is essential for acknowledging Black readers of children’s literature more broadly, most definitions of the genre commonly called “African American children’s literature” prioritize children’s literature by African American authors. Collaborations involving African American illustrators and non-Black authors of children’s literature add another consideration to defining the genre. Expanding the scope to recognize the importance of Black illustrators adds to what we might call “African American children’s literature” books such as John Meredith Langstaff’s What a Morning! The Christmas Story in Black Spirituals (1988), illustrated by Ashley Bryan; Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman (1997), written by Alan Schroeder and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney; Let the Children March (2018), written by Monica Clark-Robinson and illustrated by Frank Morrison; and Kyle Lukoff’s When Aiden Became a Brother (2019), illustrated by Kaylani Juanita.

Scholars of children’s literary studies have long recognized the problem of defining children’s literature by its intended readers rather than its authors.10 When “children’s literature” meets “African American literature”—a literary genre more clearly defined by its authorship—the oddness of how children’s literary genres are defined becomes clearer.11 If African American children’s literature is understood to be literature consumed by African American children even when it is not created by them, questions of race and authorship lead to debates about whether to construe the genre broadly or narrowly. Literary scholars including Rudine Sims Bishop, Donnarae MacCann, Michelle Martin, Brigitte Fielder, Eric Gardner, Dianne Johnson, Jonda McNair, and Wanda Brooks have discussed the benefits and limitations of including literature not written by African American authors but read by African American children in the category “African American children’s literature.”

Although most conceptions of children’s literature have focused on children as readers rather than authors, writing by African American children is not absent from even early iterations of the genre. One of the most well-known early African American poets was Phillis Wheatley (Peters), whose Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was first published in London in 1773.12 Wheatley was an enslaved child poet who became famous while still in her teens. Students at the New York African Free School, an institution established by the New York Manumission Society in 1787 and absorbed into the New York City public school system in 1835, produced schoolwork that has been preserved by the New York Historical Society in the school’s archival collection.13 Ann Plato published her 1841 collection Essays: Including Biographies and Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose and Poetry at the age of sixteen. Twentieth-century collections of writing produced by African American children include June Jordan’s 1968 The Voice of the Children and Davida Adedjouma’s 1998 The Palm of My Heart: Poetry by African American Children.

Even if one construes African American children’s literature narrowly, defining the genre according to texts not only read by Black children but written by Black authors, the genre remains difficult to contain. Children’s literary scholars discuss “cross-writing” (literature written for both child and adult audiences), “cross-reading” (children or adults reading literature intended for the other audience), and “crossover” literature (literature that shifts from “adult” to “children’s” genres) as evidence of the fact that children’s literature has not always been a fixed category. These phenomena are neither 21st- or even 20th-century developments, nor are they unique to African American children’s literature. Early African American literature’s prominent themes of generational uplift have caused scholars including Courtney Weikle-Mills, Angela Sorby, and Karen Chandler to discuss how early writers like Jupiter Hammon, Ann Plato, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper directly addressed child readers in their poetry. Many prominent African American poets also wrote poems explicitly addressed to or intended for children, including Ann Plato, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, and Nikki Giovanni. African American writers known for writing for adults have also crossed into children’s literary genres, as with James Baldwin’s 1976 picture book, Little Man, Little Man (illustrated by Yoran Cazac). Toni Morrison cowrote several picture books for children with her son, Slade Morrison, including The Big Box (1999), The Book of Mean People (2002), and Please, Louise (2014). In her discussion of Harlem Renaissance children’s literature, for example, Katharine Capshaw describes this literature as having had a “complicated and multiply determined audience,” recognizing both understandings of these readers as capable and acknowledging the broad reach of these texts.14

The particular history in which African American people have been denied access to literacy education makes the question of intended readership particularly important. While the category “children’s literature” was crafted alongside strategies to market certain kinds of reading specifically to children, children have, historically, read things that were neither explicitly nor exclusively intended for them. In a landscape dominated by white print culture, African American people have also always read things that were not intended for them, either in lieu of or alongside those that were. African American child readers have therefore generally consumed both children’s literature intended for white children and writing intended for African American adults, a fact that defies racist dismissals of Black children’s capabilities. White supremacist assumptions about readership and barriers to Black literacy have both exacerbated the need for Black readers—including children—to read outside of genres meant for their specific consumption. This is evidenced in one of the most prominent early representations of Black childhood: Frederick Douglass’s 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Here Douglass recounts learning to read without his enslavers’ knowledge, in part by covertly studying copies of the Columbian Orator. African American children’s access to literature has historically worked and continues to work against forces such as structural barriers to literacy and other forms of formal education and disparate access to reading materials.

In a slightly different vein, African American children like Douglass have read what texts were available to them, even when these were not intended for Black children. In The Devil Finds Work, for example, James Baldwin recounts having read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin “over and over again” as a child and noting that the book had had “a tremendous impact” on him.15 Baldwin likely read the novel differently than Stowe’s mid-19th-century white northern audience did, and his childhood reading likely helped to frame his later critique of Stowe’s novel in Notes from a Native Son. Barbara Hochman discusses Black child readers of Stowe’s novel between the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson (upholding a “separate but equal” doctrine of racial segregation) and 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education (ruling that racially segregated public schools were unconstitutional) Supreme Court cases.16 As scholars including Karen Sánchez-Eppler, Anna Mae Duane, Robin Bernstein, and others have shown, the figure of the child has been widely constructed as white in discussions of US children’s literature. Recognizing Black readers even of texts not intended for them is one way of disrupting this white-dominant narrative. Literary critics, educators, and activists have also lamented the preponderance of derogatory depictions of Black people in US children’s literature, and the effects of such racist literature on Black children.17 This fact evidences the need for literature intended for Black children, and arguments like Dunbar-Nelson’s present African American writers as better able to provide racially informed depictions of Black people to this audience, in particular.

The inclusion of writing aimed at African American children in Black periodicals marketed primarily to adults further complicates any neat divisions between writing for children and adults, as children with access to such periodicals also had access to read sections not intended for children, and adults reading the paper undoubtedly read these children’s sections. Early African American studies scholars have long recognized the importance of periodical print culture to the history of African American literature more generally. This importance remains true for African American children’s literature, as well. The second known African American–run periodical, the Colored American, included a “Children’s Department” column as early as the 1840s.18 Similarly, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) produced an annual “Children’s Number” for their official periodical The Crisis between 1912 and 1934. African American children’s literature therefore appeared in African American periodicals long before the publication of the earliest extant periodical intended specifically for Black children, The Brownies’ Book, in the 1920s.

Scholars of African American children’s literature have often disregarded the earliest literature written for Black children, mischaracterizing the beginnings of this genre. In such mischaracterizations, Amelia E. Johnson’s 1890 novel Clarence and Corinne has often been described as the first piece of African American children’s literature. Violet Harris more carefully writes that Johnson’s novel is “usually is cited as the first work by an African American writing in this genre,” while also noting the shifting terrain of African American literary “firsts” with regard to recovery.19 Rather than a question merely of recovery, however, this also relates to inattention to Black readers and to print contexts beyond the form of the bound book. This mistake fails to take into account understandings of early African American literature, more generally, which have tended away from regarding the book as the only (or most important) valid literary format. Noting factors such as the importance of periodical print culture, literary forms such as the poem, and modes of address that directly include children as potential readers, scholars have extended understandings of the history of African American children’s literature back to the 18th century. Asking the question Who Writes for Black Children? in a collection of essays on this topic, scholars Katharine Capshaw and Anna Mae Duane work to “locate black child readers in an era in which they have largely been invisible to literary historians.”20 By attending to the experiences and practices of African American child readers and the various ways early African American writers and editors acknowledged their existence, one gains a broader understanding of this genre. Future scholars of African American children’s literature (and children’s literature more broadly) will likely extend framings of this genre even further. For example, looking beyond the various print-based formats most often associated with the literary (and which are, admittedly, prioritized in this article), one can attend to the increasing amount of children’s reading that takes place in digital realms.

African American Folklore

Because folklore was originally an oral genre, tracing the movement of stories across geographies and cultures is complex and difficult to do definitively. The kidnapping and enslavement of African people from various parts of the continent meant that African American folklore came to include stories originating from many places, which were told and retold in communities that included people from a variety of African cultures. Both Black and non-Black authors have written books recounting stories from African and African American folklore. Many early recorders of African folklore collected these stories for the benefit of American and European audiences, as with the 1828 collection Fables Sénégalaises Recueillies de l’Oulof translated by Jacques-François Roger, and Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories of the late 19th century. Many of such collections reflected the racism of their authors and intended readerships and did not necessarily take into account Black child readers. Folklore’s legacies have continued into the 20th and 21st century literature by Black authors such as Julius Lester, Patricia McKissack, Christopher Myers, and Roseanne A. Brown. White-authored children’s books of African American folktales have also been marketed to audiences that more deliberately include Black children, such as Gerald McDermott’s Anansi the Spider (1972), and Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears (1975), written by Verna Aardema and illustrated by Leo Dillon and Diane Dillon. Robert D. San Souci collaborated with Black illustrators in The Talking Eggs: A Folktale from the American South (1989), illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, and Sukey and the Mermaid (1996), illustrated by Brian Pinkney.

Folktales sometimes signal their histories of orality. Harris’s stories were told by an enslaved Black narrator, Uncle Remus, for the benefit of a white boy character, and centered around the trickster character Br’er (Brother) Rabbit. Harris published 185 Uncle Remus stories between 1879 and 1948, the inspiration for which he claimed was the stories he heard from formerly-enslaved Black people, Uncle George Terrell, Old Harbert, and Aunt Crissy.21 These stories’ history of revision also appears in their written iterations. While Harris is known for making the Br’er Rabbit stories famous among white readers, these stories have also been retold by African American writers. Examples include Julia Price Burrell’s Bre’er Rabbit stories published in the African American children’s periodical The Brownies’ Book in 1920 and Julius Lester’s 1987 picture book, The Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit. African American children’s literature here works to reclaim such stories from the more prominent places where they have been appropriated for white readers and to present them instead with Black children in mind.

Although African American folklore was not exclusively for children, its inclusion in African American children’s literature shows how writers have preserved, framed, and illustrated these stories for Black children, in particular. These stories reflect how such tales were told to children in African American families and communities as a means for preserving African heritage even as Black people endured the suppression of African culture, languages, and histories under enslavement and subsequent barriers to Black children’s cultural education. African American folklore includes genres familiar in other kinds of folklore, including trickster stories involving animals, stories with supernatural elements, and pourquoi (“why”) tales that explain various phenomena of the world. Some folktales mix elements from different traditions, such as John Steptoe’s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale (1987), based on a traditional tale from Zimbabwe that is also described as a retelling of Cinderella, and Jerdine Nolen’s Big Jabe (2000), illustrated by Kadir Nelson, which takes up African American stories of self-emancipation and retellings of the Moses story. As a body of oral tales and writing that combine African folklore from a variety of places and cultures, African American folklore has included retellings of distinctly African stories, such as Ashley Bryan’s Beautiful Blackbird (2003), based on a story from Zambia. Other African American folktales are distinctly American in origin, retold in such books as Julius Lester’s John Henry (1994), illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, based on the folk hero whose story has been told via various media, also including film and song.

Histories and experiences of slavery in North America and the Caribbean also helped to shape African American folklore. In an introduction to her 1985 collection of folktales, Virginia Hamilton writes that “Out of the contacts the plantation slaves made in their new world, combined with memories and habits from the old world of Africa, came a body of folk expression about the slaves and their experiences.”22 A prominent theme of African American folklore therefore is stories pertaining specifically to African American history. One example is the “flying African” tale, which has its roots in the 1803 escape (or possibly a mass suicide) of captive Igbo people in St. Simmons Island in Glenn County, Georgia. In the folk story, the enslaved people grew wings and escaped, flying back home to Africa. This story is recounted in 20th- and 21st-century children’s books such as Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly (1985), illustrated by Leo Dillon and Diane Dillon, and Alice McGill’s Way Up and Over Everything (2008), illustrated by Jude Daly. By including retellings of Black folk stories like these, African American children’s literature works to extend conceptualizations of both literature and history to overlap with oral traditions of storytelling.

Early Writing for African American Children

Discussions of African American children’s literature have often been tied to discussions of African American children’s literacy education. Even before the founding of the United States, Black people in the Americas expressed a desire for Black children’s literacy. For example, in a 1723 petition to the Bishop of London, a group of enslaved Black people in Virginia asked “that our childarn may be . . . putt to Scool and Larnd to Reed through the Bybell.”23 Denying Black people access to formal education—and literacy education in particular—was a common tool of oppression under slavery and shaped popular images of African American children’s relationship to literature. In his 1899 biography of Frederick Douglass, African American writer and activist Charles Chesnutt wrote that “Douglass had learned to read, partly from childish curiosity and the desire to be able to do what others around him did.”24 The iconic image of this young enslaved child teaching himself to read illustrates the existence of Black children as readers, even under conditions meant to bar their access to reading materials and even when they have only had access to read things not intended for them.

This consideration of Black children as readers has been rare in children’s literary studies, as notions of children and childhood have overwhelmingly been associated with whiteness. Moreover, such idealized notions of white childhood have assumed children’s “innocence” regarding topics about race and racism.25 However, the history of African American literature includes both the presence and acknowledgment of child readers and has often attended to matters of race and racism as topics. Like written African American literature more broadly, African American children’s literature has its roots in the 18th century, as African American authors at times directly addressed children in their intended audience. Courtney Weikle-Mills, for example, calls Jupiter Hammon’s 1778 “Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley” a “poem for children,” reading Hammon’s direct addresses to children as some of the earliest available African American children’s literature.26 In his 1785 personal narrative, John Marrant recounts the religious conversion of a seven-and-a-half-year-old girl, Mary Scott, to Christianity. Doing so, he writes that he includes this episode “in hopes the Lord may make it useful and profitable to my young readers.”27 Following these writers’ acknowledgment of children among the readers of their early African American texts, scholars might broaden understandings of what counts as children’s literature.

Children’s literature also appeared in early African American periodicals, as editors included sections explicitly devoted to child readers. As Nazera Sadiq Wright writes, the Colored American’s Children’s Department selections published between 1840 and 1841 “demonstrate early evidence of a devoted black child readership in the early black press.”28 The Christian Recorder, the official newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, likewise included sections for children beginning in 1854, subsequently called “Our Children,” “The Child’s Cabinet,” and “Child’s Portion.”29 These sections, like other sections of African American newspapers, often reprinted white-authored pieces and sometimes reprinted from or recommended their readers to white-edited children’s periodicals such as St. Nicholas’ Magazine and Our Young Folks. The broader context of African American newspapers influenced how children read them, however, as Black children also likely read (or had read aloud to them) other parts of the newspaper not explicitly intended for children. In 1887, Amelia Johnson founded The Joy, an eight-page monthly literary magazine marketed to Black girls and women, and another, The Ivy, in 1888, focusing on instructing children in African American history. Although mentions of these periodicals appear in the contemporary Black press, no extant copies of these children’s magazines have been found at the time of this article’s publication.

Relating early African American children’s literature to Black children took other approaches, as well. Some white-authored and edited children’s literature, for example, considered Black child readers. For example, in 1829, the white abolitionist Abigail Field Mott published an abridged, edited, and illustrated children’s edition of the 1789 slave narrative The Life and Adventures of Olaudah Equiano, intended for use by the Black children at the New York African Free School. Another white abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, published a collection in 1835, Juvenile Poems: For the Use of Free American Children, of Every Complexion, addressing this collection to a racially inclusive “rising generation” of young people.30 White-authored biographies of African American people such as Rebecca Warren Brown’s The Memoir of Mrs. Chloe Spear (1832) and Margaretta Matilda Odell’s Memoir of Phillis Wheatley (1834) might also be considered among those that may have drawn Black child readerships, although evidence of early African American children’s reading habits is scarce.

Literature about Black children may also be considered foundational among early African American children’s literature. Susan Paul’s 1835 Memoir of James Jackson was the first known African American–authored biography, recounting the life of an African American boy who died in childhood. Ann Plato’s 1841 Essays: Including Biographies and Miscellaneous, Pieces in Prose and Poetry (the first known book of essays published by an African American woman) included biographies of four young African American women and a poem titled “Advice to Young Ladies,” which encouraged girls to “try and get your learning young / And write it back to me.” Harriet Wilson’s 1859 Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black has been read as an autobiographical remembrance of the author’s childhood.31 Some African American children also collected their and others’ writing in scrapbooks. Amy Matilda Cassey, Martina Dickerson, and Mary Anne Dickerson’s mid-19th-century friendship albums include original and transcribed poems, prose, essays, and illustrations, containing contributions by the girls themselves and other members of their community.32 Early African American writers who depicted fictional children included activists for Black education, such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Alice Dunbar-Nelson, whose relationship to actual Black children may have informed their writing and intentions to include Black children in their audiences.33

The Rise of African American Children’s Literature

At the turn from the late 19th into the early 20th centuries, educators and other activists did not ignore but attended to Black children as a key site for promoting Black uplift. Nazera Sadiq Wright describes how African American authors and editors devoted significant attention to the figure of the Black girl, in particular, in their discussions of African American citizenship and racial progress.34 African American newspaper columns directed to children and parents were one site for addressing Black children. Another site was conduct manuals such as Robert Charles’s Don’t!! A Book for Girls (1891) and Silas X. Floyd’s Floyd’s Flowers: Or, Duty and Beauty for Colored Children (1905). Just as Alice Dunbar-Nelson saw African American literature as a tool for promoting self-esteem and race pride, others also worked to address Black children directly in their writing. Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1895 poetry collection Little Brown Baby directly addresses Black children in what Violet Harris calls his “homage to . . . African American folk culture and . . . subtle celebration of race pride.”35 Using a more overt medium for speaking directly to Black children, musician and activist Emma Azalia Hackley published a collection of talks given to Black boarding-school girls, The Colored Girl Beautiful, in 1916.

Extending early print culture traditions of including children’s literature in African American newspapers, Crisis editors W. E. B. DuBois, Augustus Granville, and Jesse Redmon Fauset published an annual “Children’s Number” of the paper from 1912 to 1934 and then The Brownies’ Book, a periodical entirely dedicated to an African American child readership, from 1920 to 1921.36 The Brownies’ Book included a variety of reading material, from folklore and poetry to biographical sketches of famous African American people. Moreover, the Brownies’ Book’s centering of Black child readers—through features including photograph spreads of Black children and profiles of “Little People of the Month”—attempted also to make these readers visible both to the larger public and to one another. Beyond the Brownies’ Book, some later editors of 20th-century African American periodicals continued to include children in their readerships. In addition to their annual Children’s Number, from 1925 to 1929 The Crisis published a monthly column called “The Little Page,” written by Effie Lee Newsome, who Katharine Capshaw calls “unquestionably the most prolific African American children’s writer of the 1920s,” from 1925 to 1930.37 Newsome, who had also worked as an elementary school teacher and librarian, published Gladiola Garden: Poems of Outdoors and Indoors for Second Grade Readers in 1940. While the Brownies’ Book was exceptional, Capshaw has shown its context among other Black children’s periodicals. Our Boys and Girls, a radical Black children’s magazine, was published in New York in 1919. The Chicago Defender began publishing a “Defender Junior” section in 1921, a development that led to the formation of the Bud Billiken Club, an organization supporting Black youth in Chicago.38 Similarly, Ebony Jr!, a children’s companion to Ebony magazine, was published between 1973 and 1985.39 As with the children’s sections of the Christian Recorder, Black religious groups also continued to consider child readers in their publications in the 20th century. For example, Sonia Sanchez edited a children’s column for the Nation of Islam’s newspaper Muhammad Speaks in the mid-1970s.40

The Harlem Renaissance saw a resurgence of literary production that made African American literature more prominent beyond the Black press. Like literature for adults, much of African American children’s literature of this period spoke to the tensions between African American community’s continued efforts toward educational achievement, social uplift, and political activism and worked against the continuing forms of racist violence and political and economic disenfranchisement directed at Black communities as an attempt to thwart their success. As Katharine Capshaw notes, in the early decades of the century, prominent Black activist ideologies “position[ed] the child as one who will project ideals of cultural progress into the future.”41 Unsurprisingly, educational books like Julia Henderson’s A Child’s Story of Dunbar (1913); Elizabeth Ross Haynes’s collection of biographies, Unsung Heroes (1921); and Carter G. Woodson’s African Myths, Together with Proverbs, A Supplementary Reader Composed of Folk Tales from Various Parts of Africa, Adapted to the Use of Children in the Public Schools, and Negro Makers of History (both from 1928) continued the task of providing African American children with Black history among their reading materials. Oral literary forms such as play performances and poetry recitations reinforced formalized education efforts while hearkening back to earlier oral forms of Black literature such as folklore. Dialect poetry by writers such as Paul Laurence Dunbar affirmed Black speech while reappropriating forms of representing nonstandard English from racist minstrel traditions. Educators’ use of pageants and history plays such as W. E. B. DuBois’s The Star of Ethiopia (1911), Dorothy Guinn’s Out of the Dark (1924), Mary Church Terrell’s “Historical Pageant-Play Based on the Life of Phyllis [sic] Wheatley” (1932), and those anthologized in Willis Richardson’s Plays and Pageants from the Life of the Negro (1930) and Richardson and May Miller’s Negro History in Thirteen Plays (1935) merged instruction in literacy, recitation, history, performance, and race pride. The latter two collections were published by The Associated Publishers, founded by Woodson in 1920, which produced many of his and other Black history texts over several decades. Woodson also founded the Negro History Bulletin in 1937, an educational newsletter for high school teachers, meant to facilitate and promote the teaching of Black history. Now called the Black History Bulletin, as of 2021 this resource was still published by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

Toward the close of the Harlem Renaissance and after, leaders in African American children’s literature included well-known authors of literature for adults who continued themes and genres familiar to African American literature more generally. Arna Bontemps’s anthology Golden Slippers (1941) included work by well-known poets such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and Claude McKay. Harlem Renaissance children’s books also included Hughes’s The Dream Keeper and Other Poems (1932); Bontemps’s You Can’t Pet a Possum (1934), illustrated by Ilse Bischoff; and Hughes and Bontemps’s novel collaboration, Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti (1932), illustrated by E. Simms Campbell. Bontemps (who Violet J. Harris has called the “father of African American children’s literature” due to his prolific production and popularity) continued to publish in a variety of genres, including fiction and history, into the midcentury, with texts that included The Story of George Washington Carver (1954), illustrated by E. Harper Johnson; Lonesome Boy (1955), illustrated by Feliks Topolski; and Frederick Douglass: Slave, Fighter, Freeman (1959).42 Hughes’s work continued into the midcentury, as well, with books such as The First Book of Rhythms (1954), illustrated by Robin King; Famous Negro Music Makers (1955); 18 Poems for Children (1958); and The First Book of Africa (1960). Hughes’s work for children included collaborations such as The Sweet Flypaper of Life, with Roy DeCarava (1955); A Pictorial History of the Negro in America (1956); and Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the Negro in American Entertainment, with Milton Meltzer (1967). Children’s literature continued to address racial inequality. Lorenz Graham’s Town Series (including South Town [1958], North Town [1965], Whose Town [1969], and Return to South Town [1976]) featured David, a Black boy growing up during the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-century, and dealt directly with the racism he and his family experience.

The acceleration of the mid-20th-century Civil Rights Movement was accompanied by renewed efforts to make monumental shifts in children’s literature. As African American writers continued to publish in educational genres such as biographies and historical texts, increased national attention to Black children’s education was facilitated by the 1954 US Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that relegating Black children to educational facilities separate from white children was inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional. This was not a simple fix for racism, however, and this fact was reflected in children’s literature both before and after the Brown decision. Jessie C. Jackson’s young adult novels—which included Call Me Charlie (1945) and its sequel Anchor Man (1947), illustrated by Doris Spiegel, and Tessie (1968), illustrated by Harold James—treated Black children’s experiences of racism in predominantly white schools. Decades later, Ruby Bridges, who as a six-year-old girl had integrated the historically white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1960 and through photographs and paintings of the event had become an icon of the era’s school desegregation movement, would reflect upon her childhood experience in Through My Eyes (1999). Toni Morrison would later reflect upon this era in Remember: The Journey to School Integration (2004). Rudine Sims Bishop locates a turning point for African American children’s literature in the mid-to-late 1960s, writing that Virginia Hamilton’s first book Zeely (1967) “marked the beginning of the modern era of African American children’s literature.”43 Sims Bishop cites John Steptoe’s Stevie (1969) as a “breakthrough” text, calling him “the first African American picture book author-artist to emerge in the field of contemporary African American children’s literature.”44 This era brought African American children’s literature into perhaps its most familiar state.

Black History and the Golden Age for African American Children’s Literature

Rudine Sims Bishop and others note the steep increase in African American children’s literature after 1965.45 One factor contributing to this increase was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, signed into law that year, which designated funding meant to provide equal educational opportunities for children, and which included federal grants for school library books and textbooks. Michelle Martin therefore marks the “Golden Age” of African American children’s literature as beginning in the late 20th century.46 This “Golden Age” emerged due to both the general increase in quantity of African American children’s literature and the mechanisms that made this literature readily available to a broader audience. This was not a simple and smooth shift, however, as Black authors continued to experience barriers not only to publication but also to recognition and distribution within a children’s literary field that remained predominantly white and which upheld and was upheld by white structures of power. Arna Bontemps’s picture book, The Story of the Negro (1948), illustrated by Raymond Lufkin, had been the first by an African American author to be acknowledged with a Newberry Honor. Not until more than twenty-five years later, however, would the first African American writer win the Newberry Award, with Virginia Hamilton’s M.C. Higgins, the Great (1975), a realist coming-of-age novel that dealt directly with tensions between family history and change. Prominent genres of this era continued and continue to include historical nonfiction and fiction and biographies of famous African American people. Biographies, for example, remain prominent, from books like Lillie Patterson’s Frederick Douglass: Freedom Fighter (1965), illustrated by Gray Morrow; Martin Luther King Jr.: Man of Peace (1969), illustrated by Victor Mays; Coretta Scott King (1977); and Benjamin Banneker: Genius of Early America (1978), illustrated by David Scott Brown, to author J. P. Miller and illustrator Markia Jenai’s 2020 Leaders Like Us series of people including Rebecca Crumpler, Major Taylor, Shirley Chisholm, and Bayard Rustin. But Black history appears in a variety of genres. Lucille Clifton, for example, wrote The Black BCs (1970), illustrated by Donald Miller, an abecedarium that takes up the familiar genre of teaching the alphabet according to a theme, teaching Black history alongside basic literacy. June Jordan’s Dry Victories (1972) also places Black history at the forefront, exploring the effects of Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. The prominence of historical themes makes children’s literature a clear and important site for instruction in Black history, particularly in the absence of sufficient treatment of this history in the vast majority of mainstream US schooling.

Books that discuss slavery have remained prominent in African American children’s nonfiction and historical fiction. Tom Feelings’s The Middle Passage: White Ships/Black Cargo (1995) and James Haskins and Kathleen Benson’s Bound for America: The Forced Migration of Africans to the New World (1999), with art by Floyd Cooper, vividly illustrate the transatlantic slave trade, and Shane Evans’s Underground (2011) is about Black people’s self-emancipation attempts. Books depicting the lives of enslaved people include Julius Lester’s To Be a Slave (1968), illustrated by Tom Feelings, and Carole Boston Weatherford’s Freedom in Congo Square (2016), illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, give accounts of formerly enslaved people. Books about slavery would also continue to overrepresent the most prominent figures. Frederick Douglass, for example, is the subject of a plethora of books, including books by Arna Bontemps, Lillie Patterson, Ossie Davis, Glenda Armand, William Miller, Lesa Cline-Ransome, Walter Dean Myers, and David F. Walker. Prominent enslaved Black women are featured in books like Jacquelyn McLendon’s Phillis Wheatley: A Revolutionary Poet (2003) and Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney’s Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp Stride (2009). Harriet Tubman is featured in books including Jacob Lawrence’s Harriet and the Promised Land (1968); Faith Ringgold’s Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky (1992); Carole Boston Weatherford’s Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (2006), illustrated by Kadir Nelson; Glennette Tilley Turner’s An Apple for Harriet Tubman (2006), illustrated by Susan Keeter; and Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman (2019). Less prominent figures and lesser-known histories of slavery appear in books such as Walter Dean Myers’s Toussaint L’Ouverture: The Fight for Haiti’s Freedom (1996), illustrated by Jacob Lawrence, and Amistad: A Long Road to Freedom (1997); Marilyn Nelson’s Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem (2004) and The Freedom Business: Including a Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa (2006); Don Tate’s Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton (2015) and William Still and His Freedom Stories: Father of the Underground Railroad (2020); and Erica Armstrong Dunbar and Kathleen Van Cleve’s young readers edition of Never Caught: The Story of Ona Judge (2019). Some books also depict fictional African American characters’ remembrances of slavery’s history, such as Carole Boston Weatherford’s Juneteenth Jamboree (1995), illustrated by Yvonne Buchanan and Floyd Cooper’s Juneteenth for Mazie (2015), on the popular Black holiday celebrating emancipation; and Kelly Starling Lyons’s Hope’s Gift, illustrated by Don Tate (2012). The 1619 Project, directed by Nikole Hannah-Jones, is an interactive media project that reexamines US legacies of slavery. Published by the New York Times Magazine in 2019 and predominantly featuring African American contributors, the project is intended for use in schools, suggesting that it ought to be considered among African American children’s historical literature. Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson’s The 1619 Project: Born in the Water (2021), illustrated by Nikkolas Smith, firmly situates the project among African American children’s picture books.

Books about the Civil Rights Movement are also prominent in nonfiction and historical fiction genres. Christine Platt’s “The Story Of” biography series for early readers, for example, includes books about Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. As with books about slavery, some figures remain prominent in books about the era. Lillie Patterson’s Martin Luther King Jr., Man of Peace (1970), illustrated by Victor Mays, was the first Coretta Scott King Book Award winner. Books about prominent figures include Eloise Greenfield’s Rosa Parks (1973), illustrated by Eric Marlow; Walter Dean Myers’s Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary (1993) and Young Martin’s Promise (1993), illustrated by Higgins Bond; Nikki Grimes’s Malcolm X: A Force for Change (1992); Jaqueline Woodson’s Martin Luther King, Jr. and His Birthday, illustrated by Floyd Cooper (1990); Faith Ringgold’s My Dream of Martin Luther King (1995); Nikki Giovanni’s Rosa (2005), illustrated by Bryan Collier; and Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney’s Martin Rising: Requiem for a King (2018). Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney’s Boycott Blues (2008) is about Rosa Parks and the 1955–1956 Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. Children’s tributes to their activist parents include Martin Luther King III’s My Daddy: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (2013) and Ilyasah Shabazz’s Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up to Become Malcolm X (2014), both illustrated by A. G. Ford. Marilyn Nelson’s picture book A Wreath for Emmett Till (2005), illustrated by Philippe Lardy, focused on one of the most iconic children of the era, Emmet Till, who was lynched by white supremacists in 1955. Some books depict less widely known but important figures. These include books such as James Haskins’s Bayard Rustin: Behind the Scenes of the Civil Rights Movement (1997) and Delivering Justice: W. W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights (2005), illustrated by Benny Andrews; Eloise Greenfield’s biographies Paul Robeson (1975), illustrated by George Ford, and Mary McLeod Bethune (1977), illustrated by Jerry Pinkney; June Jordan’s Fannie Lou Hamer (1972), illustrated by Albert Williams; and Carole Boston Weatherford’s Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, illustrated by Ekua Holmes (2015). Several of Weatherford’s books depict events from the Civil Rights Movement. These include Birmingham, 1963 (2007), which takes up the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church by the Ku Klux Klan on Sunday, September 15, 1963. Weatherford’s Freedom on the Menu (2005), illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue and Andrea Davis Pinkney, and Brian Pinkney’s Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down (2011) depict the 1960 Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina. Angela Johnson’s A Sweet Smell of Roses (2005), illustrated by Eric Velasquez, tells of sisters who sneak out of their house to go hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak. Jabari Asim’s Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis (2016), illustrated by E. B. Lewis, treats this leader’s childhood. Historical nonfiction also includes autobiography, as with books such as Eloise Greenfield’s Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir (1979), written with her mother, Leslie Jones Little, and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney; Ruby Bridges’s Through My Eyes; June Jordan’s 2000 memoir, Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood; and Ashley Bryan’s Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace (2019). In addition to her biography of her father, Sharon Robinson, the daughter of baseball star Jackie Robinson, also wrote about her own life during this era of civil rights activism in Child of the Dream (A Memoir of 1963) (2019). The March trilogy (2013, 2015, 2016) is an autobiographical graphic novel about the Civil Rights Movement, written by civil rights leader and US Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, and illustrated and lettered by Nate Powell.

Beyond slavery and the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century, other nonfiction books celebrate a wider variety of Black figures, with texts including Langston Hughes and Milton Meltzer’s A Pictorial History of the Negro in America (1956) and Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the Negro in American Entertainment (1967); Sharon Bell Mathis’s Ray Charles (1973), illustrated by George Ford; Alice Walker’s Langston Hughes: American Poet (1974), illustrated by Catherine Deeter; James Haskins’s The Story of Stevie Wonder (1975); Walter Dean Myers’s The Greatest: The Life of Muhammad Ali (2000), Muhammad Ali: The People’s Champion (2009), illustrated by Alix Delinois, and Ida B. Wells: Let the Truth Be Told (2008), illustrated by Bonnie Christensen; Marilyn Nelson’s Carver: A Life in Poems (2002); Nikki Grimes’s Talkin’ about Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman (2002), illustrated by E. B. Lewis; Sharon Robinson’s Promises to Keep: How Jackie Robinson Changed America (2004); Tony Medina’s I and I, Bob Marley (2009), illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson; Carole Boston Weatherford’s Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library (2017), illustrated by Eric Velasquez and You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen, illustrated by Jeffrey Boston Weatherford (2017); and Nikki Grimes’s Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope (2008), illustrated by Bryan Collier, and Kamala Harris: Rooted in Justice (2020), illustrated by Laura Freeman. Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney’s books, for example, tell of well-known Black figures, such as Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa (2002) and Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra, and lesser-known ones, such as Alvin Ailey (1993), Dear Benjamin Banneker (1995), and Bill Pickett, Rodeo Ridin’ Cowboy (1996). Similarly, Walter Dean Myers’s A Place Called Heartbreak: A Story of Vietnam (1993), illustrated by Frederick Porter, is about the life of Major Fred Vann Cherry, who spent seven-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war. Books like Eloise Greenfield’s The Great Migration: Journey to the North (2010), illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist, and The Women Who Caught the Babies: A Story of African American Midwives (2019), illustrated by Daniel Minter, and Carole Boston Weatherford and Floyd Cooper’s Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre (2021) continue to make lesser-known Black history available to young readers. These histories include more recent histories and even living figures, such as Tonya Leslie’s “The Story Of” biographies of John Lewis and Barack Obama.

Increased attention to lesser-known Black figures continues into the 21st century, including books such as Katheryn Russell-Brown’s Little Melba and Her Big Trombone (2014), illustrated by Frank Morrison, about jazz virtuoso Melba Doretta Liston; Javaka Steptoe’s Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (2016); Lesa Cline-Ransome’s The Power of Her Pen: The Story of Groundbreaking Journalist Ethel L. Payne (2020), illustrated by John Parra; and Rita Lorraine Hubbard’s The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read (2020), illustrated by Oge Mora. Books celebrating an array of famous African Americans include Joyce Viola Hansen’s Women of Hope: African Americans Who Made a Difference (1998); Andrea Davis Pinkney’s Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters, illustrated by Stephen Alcorn (2001), and her and Brian Pinkney’s Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America (2010); Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld’s What Color Is My World?: The Lost History of African-American Inventors (2012), illustrated by Ben Boos and A. G. Ford; Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race (2018), illustrated by Laura Freeman; Jamia Wilson’s Young, Gifted, and Black, illustrated by Andrea Wilson (2018); Vashti Harrison’s Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History (2019) and Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History (2019); and Kwame Alexander and Kadir Nelson’s The Undefeated (2019). Misty Copeland tells her own story in Firebird (2014), illustrated by Christopher Myers, as does Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews in Trombone Shorty (2015), illustrated by Bryan Collier. Other historical nonfiction treats different eras and moments of Black history, beyond purely biographical accounts. Examples include Joyce Viola Hansen and Gary McGowan’s Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York’s African Burial Ground (1998); James Haskins and Kathleen Benson’s Building a New Land: African Americans in Colonial America, illustrated by James Ransome (2001); Alexander Ramsey Calvin’s Ruth and the Green Book (2010) about the dangers and difficulties of Black travel in the mid-20th century; and Kelly Starling Lyons’s One Million Men and Me (2007), illustrated by Peter Ambush, on the 1995 Million Man March, and her Sing a Song: How Lift Every Voice Inspired Generations (2019), illustrated by Keith Mallett, on the history of the song often called the Black National Anthem.

Historical Fiction in the Golden Age

As with historical nonfiction genres, slavery and the Civil Rights Movement feature prominently in historical children’s fiction settings. Michelle Martin regards African American realist fiction as grounded in the belief that “children—even very young children—need to be exposed to the harsh realities of African-American history.”47 Histories of anti-Black racism and activist work against the institutions that support it have therefore remained prominent in Black children’s fiction. Sharon Draper’s Copper Sun (2006) depicts the kidnapping and enslavement of Black people in the 1700s. Enslaved characters work to escape in Deborah Hopkinson and James Ransome’s Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt (1993); and in Andrea Davis Pinkney’s Silent Thunder: A Civil War Story (1999) enslaved children discuss the possibility of their emancipation. Patricia McKissack’s A Friendship for Today (2007) is about a Black girl who integrates a historically white elementary school in 1954. In Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 (1985) a family moves from Michigan to Alabama and their experiences unfold alongside a backdrop of racist violence with which even children must contend. The late 1960s are the backdrop of Rita Williams-Garcia’s series, One Crazy Summer (2010), P.S. Be Eleven (2013), and Gone Crazy in Alabama (2015), about sisters visiting Oakland and being introduced to the Black Panthers, their return to their home in Brooklyn, and their visit to their grandmother in rural Alabama.

Realist fiction also includes books about free Black people before emancipation, as with Marilyn Nelson’s My Seneca Village (2015), about the 19th-century Manhattan neighborhood, founded by free African Americans (and that was demolished to build Central Park in 1857). Historical fiction books also reach beyond the antebellum and 20th-century civil rights eras. Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976), its sequel Let the Circle Be Unbroken (1981), and Christopher Paul Curtis’s Bud, Not Buddy (2000) treat Black families’ experiences during the Great Depression. Taylor’s novels include experiences of the Jim Crow South, and Curtis’s depicts the Sundown Towns of the Midwest. Sharon Draper’s Stella by Starlight (2015) deals with the threat of Jim Crow–era violence by the Ku Klux Klan. Andrea Davis Pinkney’s Bird in a Box (2011), illustrated by Sean Qualls, is set in a Depression-era orphanage, where children come together around their love for the boxer Joe Louis. Joyce Carol Thomas and illustrator Floyd Cooper’s collaboration I Have Heard of a Land (1995) treats African Americans’ migration to Oklahoma in the late 1880s and draws upon Thomas’s own family history; their In the Land of Milk and Honey (2012) is based on Thomas’s own childhood move from Oklahoma to California. Other texts treat relatively recent history, such as Jaqueline Woodson’s After Tupac and D Foster (2008), set in 1990s Queens, New York and Denise Lewis Patrick’s Finding Someplace (2015), which is set during the mid-2000s aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and depicts a family’s resulting displacement.

Prominent children’s historical fiction series of the 20th century also include books by Black authors. While slavery and the Civil Rights Movement are not exclusively represented, they remain overrepresented compared to other periods here as well, despite these series’ treatment of other eras. Angela Davis Pinkney’s Abraham Lincoln: Letters from a Slave Girl (2001) in the Dear Mr. President series depicts an enslaved child’s letters to the president who would eventually come to support emancipation, and her With the Might of Angels (2011) for the Dear America series depicts a twelve-year-old girl who is the only of her friends to transfer to desegregate a historically white school. Walter Dean Myers’s The Journal of Joshua Loper: A Black Cowboy, the Chisholm Trail, 1871 (1999); The Journal of Scott Pendleton Collins, a World War II Soldier, Normandy, France, 1944 (1999); and The Journal of Biddy Owens: The Negro Leagues, Birmingham, Alabama, 1948 (2001) appear in Scholastic’s My Name Is America series. Sharon Dennis Wyeth contributed the Corey Birdsong’s Underground Railroad Diaries (1857)—Freedom’s Wings (2001), Flying Free (2002), and Message in The Sky (2003)—to Scholastic’s My America series. Scholastic’s Dear America series includes Joyce Hansen’s I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl (1997); and Patricia McKissack’s A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl, Belmont Plantation, Virginia, 1859 (1997); Color Me Dark: The Diary of Nellie Lee Love, the Great Migration North, Chicago, Illinois, 1919 (2000); and Look to the Hills: The Diary of Lozette Moreau, a French Slave Girl, New York Colony, 1763 (2004). The American Girl Company’s line of historical fiction takes up slavery and emancipation and the Civil Rights Movement in three series about Black girls written by African American authors. These include their 1993 series about Addy Walker (a girl whose family emancipates themselves from slavery and moves to Philadelphia in 1864), which were written by Connie Porter, also known as the author of Imani All Mine (1999). In 2016 American Girl published a series about Melody Ellison (a girl connected to the music industry and civil rights activism in 1964 Detroit), authored by Denise Lewis Patrick, who also wrote the books from the perspective of Cécile Rey in the company’s Marie Grace and Cécile series (2012) and other children’s books that include Finding Someplace (2015).

Other Fiction in the Golden Age

Beyond historically oriented genres, fiction stories take up a number of topics in both picture books and novels for older children and young adult readers. A wide variety of scholars recognize the importance of realist genres for conveying authentic racialized experiences in the face of either the erasure or the degradation of Black people in the majority of white children’s literature. One important function of realist genres (particularly beyond the historical) is to allow Black readers to see themselves and familiar experiences in their books. As Dianne Johnson writes, “Our youth deserve the opportunity to experience a world of literature that embraces their own realities and visions.”48 It is no surprise therefore that some books perform this work by taking up everyday topics and experiences.

Alphabet books like Jean Carey Bond’s A is for Africa (1969) and Lucille Clifton’s The Black BCs (1970), illustrated by Donald Miller, present an early childhood literacy genre with an orientation specifically toward Black identity. Some books illustrated the everyday activities and experiences of young people, such as Lucille Clifton’s The Boy Who Didn’t Believe in Spring (1973), illustrated by Brinton Turkle, and Good, Says Jerome (1973), with illustrations by Stephanie Douglas; Nina Crews’s One Hot Summer Day (1995); and Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s Grandma’s Purse (2018). Walter Dean Myers (who became known especially for an impressive œuvre of books treating urban Black boyhood) weaves characters’ love of basketball into books including Hoops (1981), Game (2008), and All the Right Stuff (2012), as does Christopher Myers in H.O.R.S.E.: A Game of Basketball and Imagination (2012). Jason Reynolds’s Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks (2019) devotes ten stories to a variety of sixth-graders, all walking home from the same middle school. The poems of Nikki Grimes’s Meet Danitra Brown (1984) are voiced by a young girl celebrating and supporting her best friend. The stories in Sharon Flake’s Who Am I without Him? (2004) deal with the complexities of romantic relationships, and Ibi Zoboi’s Pride (2018) is a retelling of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel about family and romance, cast around an Afro-Latino family. Books about everyday topics also call readers to think differently about everyday encounters. The main character of Sharon Dennis Wyeth’s Something Beautiful (1998), illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet, learns to find beautiful things all around her in her neighborhood and community. Books such as Christopher Myers’s Black Cat (1999) and Fly! (2001) depict the beauty of familiar urban animals. Oge Mora’s Thank You, Omu! (2018) is about sharing food with neighbors, and Jazzy Miz Mozetta by Brenda C. Roberts (2004), illustrated by Frank Morrison, is a celebration of dance and multigenerational neighborhood interactions. Nikki Grimes’s Southwest Sunrise (2020), illustrated by Wendell Minor, is about a boy discovering the beauty of visiting a new place.

Bedtime stories are a predictably familiar genre for Black picture books. In Walter Dean Myers’s Where Does the Day Go? (1969), illustrated by Leo Carty, children imagine (as they do) what happens to the day when it becomes night. Shane Evans’s Olu’s Dream (2009) is about an imaginative child. Nighttime Symphony, written by musical artist and producer Timbaland, featuring Christopher Myers and illustrated by Myers and Kaa Illustration (2019), explores nighttime sounds. Books like Tell Me a Story, Mama (1989) by Angela Johnson and illustrated by David Soman, and Nikki Grimes’s Bedtime for Sweet Creatures (2020), illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon, similarly take up the everyday task of putting a small child to bed.

Diane Johnson describes the impetus and challenge of historical and realist African American fiction genres as attempting “to make sense of the myriad nuances and experience which constitute African American life.”49 Some authors draw directly on their own experiences in their fiction, as in Rosa Guy’s series The Friends (1973), Ruby (1976), and Edith Jackson (1978), based in part on her life growing up in New York City, and Donald Crews’s Bigmama’s (1991) based on his childhood visits to his grandparents’ home in Florida. Walter Dean Myers draws on his relationship to Harlem’s rich history and historically Black community in Harlem (1997), illustrated by Christopher Myers, and Tony Medina draws on his own life growing up in Harlem in DeShawn Days (2001). Books that focus on Black family and Black communities highlight African American people’s relationships with one another, rather than only with white people, as much of white literature depicting Black people has done. The centering of Black relationships runs through literature of this period. For example, a boy learns about his great-great aunt’s life in Sharon Bell Mathis’s The Hundred Penny Box (1975). Mildred Pitts Walter’s My Mama Needs Me (1983), illustrated by Pat Cummins, is about a little boy’s desire to be helpful to his mother and baby sister, and she takes up the topic of gendered domestic labor in Justin and the Best Biscuits in the World (1986). Angela Johnson’s When I Am Old with You (1990), illustrated by David Soman, approaches aging and intergenerational family relationships, and her Do Like Kyla (1990), illustrated by James Ransome, depicts relationships between sisters. In Eleanora Tate’s trilogy The Secret of Gumbo Grove (1987), Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.! (1990), and A Blessing in Disguise (1995), Black children learn about the complicated histories of their communities and families. Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything (2015) is about a daughter’s difficult relationship with an overprotective mother. Jason Reynolds’s As Brave as You (2017) explores multigenerational ideas about bravery and masculinity. Other books deal with difficulties such as death and difficult family relationships. Heaven (1998) by Angela Johnson is about a girl coming to terms with learning that she is adopted. Johnson’s Toning the Sweep (1993) deals with the illness and death of a grandmother, and in Jacqueline Woodson’s Miracle’s Boys (2000), three brothers grieve and learn to cope following the death of their mother. Nikki Grimes’s The Road to Paris (2006) is about a mixed-race Black girl living in foster care away from her brother, and in a predominantly white town. Brontez Purnell’s The Nightlife of Jacuzzi Gaskett (2019), illustrated by Elise R. Peterson, is about helping to care for a younger sibling in a single-parent home.

Making sense of Black experience also necessitates taking up experiences that some adults hesitate to share with children in their literature, even while some children encounter them in the world. African American children’s literature has treated difficult topics that have sometimes led to controversies among parents, educators, librarians, polititians, and others. Alice Childress’s A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich (1973) deals with heroin addiction and was the subject of a controversy over whether it should be removed from school libraries. It was one of several titles named in the 1982 Supreme Court case, Board of Education v. Pico, concerning school censorship and First Amendment rights. Despite criticism, children’s literature continues to engage difficult and uncomfortable topics, many of which are directly related to the socioeconomic inequalities that disproportionately affect Black communities and therefore become part of some children’s lives. Some books directly address poverty’s disparate effects on Black families and communities. In Sidewalk Story (1971) by Sharon Bell Mathis, a young girl recognizes the injustice of poverty when she witnesses her friend’s family being evicted from their home. Sharon Flake’s Money Hungry (2001) deals with childhood anxieties resulting from poverty. Other books address violence, such as Alice Childress’s Those Other People (1989), which treats topics that include incest and sexual assault, and Autobiography of My Dead Brother, written by Walter Dean Myers and illustrated by Christopher Myers (2006), which deals with the aftermath of a drive-by shooting that kills a teenager.

Law and criminal justice issues feature in books such as Kristin Hunter’s The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou (1968) in which music helps the protagonist navigate difficulties that include the over-policing of her community. Several of Walter Dean Myers’s books also deal with incarceration. The protagonist of Scorpions (1988) must respond to the pressures of gang membership following his brother’s incarceration for murder, and Monster (1999) depicts its sixteen-year-old protagonist’s murder trial and acquittal. Lockdown (2010) is a story of a fourteen-year-old who has spent almost two years in a children’s prison, euphemistically called a “progress center.” The protagonist of Angie Thomas’s On the Come Up (2019) is a teen rap artist whose family difficulties include gang violence and drug addiction. Books including Connie Porter’s Imani All Mine (1999), Angela Johnson’s The First Part Last (2003), and Brandy Colbert’s Finding Yvonne (2018) treat teen pregnancy. The novels in Sharon Draper’s Hazelwood High series, Tears of a Tiger (1994), Forged by Fire (1997), and Darkness before Dawn (2001), deal with events including the death of a teenager in a drunk driving accident, the death of a family member, and sexual assault. Draper’s The Battle of Jericho (2003) takes up issues of sexual harassment and hazing among teenagers. In Tiffany D. Jackson’s Monday’s Not Coming (2018), the protagonist copes with the disappearance of her best friend and the disturbing fact that nobody else seems to have noticed that a Black girl was missing. The Sun Is Also a Star (2018) by Nicola Yoon is a love story complicated by the fact that one protagonist’s family faces deportation to Jamaica. Punching the Air (2020), about the wrongful conviction of a sixteen-year-old Black boy, is a collaboration between young adult novelist Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam, an activist, writer, speaker, and member of the Exonerated Five, teenagers who were wrongfully convicted for the 1990 assault and rape of a white woman jogger in New York’s Central Park. (Salaam was fifteen years old at the time of his arrest and was incarcerated for almost seven years before being released on parole.)

Golden Age Poetry

Poetry books of the late 20th and early 21st centuries appear as picture books, books of narrative poetry for older readers, and poetry collections. As with earlier collections by writers such as Langston Hughes, golden age poetry includes texts by prominent Black authors, such as June Jordan’s first collection, Who Look at Me (1969). Poetry is a widely used form for children’s storytelling. Poetry also takes up many of the same themes present in prose books of the period, and it is therefore difficult to separate entirely from the various genres that use this form. Eloise Greenfield’s Honey I Love and Other Love Poems (1978), illustrated by Diane Dillon and Leo Dillon, is a celebration of much-loved everyday things, and her Nathaniel Talking (1978), illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist, is a collection written in the narrative voice of a nine-year-old boy as he makes sense of himself and the world around him. Carole Boston Weatherford’s Sidewalk Chalk: Poems of the City (2001), illustrated by Dimitria Tokunbo, is a collection of poems celebrating everyday people and places. Walter Dean Myers’s Here in Harlem: Poems in Many Voices (2004) features the various residents of a single neighborhood.

Family relationships center many poetry books for children. Joyce Carol Thomas and Floyd Cooper’s Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea (1993) and Gingerbread Days (1995) are celebrations of Black family. In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers (1997), illustrated by Javaka Steptoe (son of the acclaimed African American illustrator John Steptoe), is a poetry collection of Black fathers. Nikki Grimes’s Hopscotch Love: A Family Treasury of Love Poems (1999), illustrated by Melodye Benson Rosales, is a collection of poetry celebrating various aspects of African American family, and Grimes’s Poems in the Attic (2015) is about a girl who finds her mother’s poetry and writes her own. Lucille Clifton’s series of books about a young boy, beginning with Some of the Days of Everett Anderson (1970), illustrated by Evaline Ness, depict family relationships, friendship, seasonal changes, and the passage of time. The series also treats serious topics, as Everett deals with his father’s death in Everett Anderson’s Good-Bye (1983) and navigates what to do when he learns that a classmate is a victim of child abuse in One of the Problems of Everett Anderson (2001), both illustrated by Ann Grifalconi. Hope Anita Smith’s The Way a Door Closes (2003), illustrated by Shane W. Evans, and its sequel Keeping the Night Watch (2008), illustrated by E. B. Lewis, is about a boy’s difficult relationship with the father who had left his family. Tony Medina also takes up difficult topics in Follow-Up Letters to Santa from Kids Who Never Got a Response (2003), illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, about children whose problems are too big for the mythical gift-giver to address. Zetta Elliott’s Bird (2008), illustrated by Shadra Strickland, is a book written in free verse about a boy whose love of drawing, family, and community help him to cope with his brother’s drug addiction and death.

Historical books and books about pressing contemporary issues also include poetry. Many historical books take up iconic figures, such as Martin Rising: Requiem for a King (2018), written by Andrea Davis Pinkney and illustrated by Brian Pinkney, about the iconic activist’s life and assassination. Like other historical books, these take up understudied Black histories, as with Ashley Bryan’s Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life (2016), a book of poetry based on an 1828 appraisal of enslaved people, and Eloise Greenfield’s The Great Migration: Journey to the North (2011), illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist. Marilyn Nelson’s well-known poetry books often take up historical themes. These include her picture books A Wreath for Emmett Till (2005), illustrated by Philippe Lardy; Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World (2009), illustrated by Jerry Pinkney; and longer works of historically inspired narrative poetry such as Carver: A Life in Poems (2002), a poem-biography of George Washington Carver; Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem (2004) about the skeleton of an enslaved man, preserved by the doctor who had kept him captive and later bequeathed his body to the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Connecticut; The Freedom Business: Including a Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa (2006), based on Venture Smith’s narrative of kidnapping and enslavement; and My Seneca Village (2015), a historical fiction exploration of the historically Black 19th-century neighborhood. Broader collections treating African American history include Carole Boston Weatherford’s Remember the Bridge: Poems of a People (2002) and Rio Cortez’s The ABCs of Black History (2020), illustrated by Lauren Semmer. Contemporary topics of politics and activism are also addressed in poems, including books like Mahogany L. Browne, Elizabeth Acevedo, and Olivia Gatwood’s Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice (2020) and Amanda Gorman’s Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem (2021), illustrated by Loren Long.50

While late-20th-century children’s poets such as Lucille Clifton, Eloise Greenfield, Nikki Grimes, and Marilyn Nelson were particularly prolific, some poetry collections also make connections to earlier histories of African American poetry. Ashley Bryan’s ABC of African American Poetry (1998) collects excerpts of famous Black poets. Wade Hudson’s edited collection Pass It On: African American Poetry for Children (1993), with art by Floyd Cooper, features poems by African American poets from the Harlem Renaissance into the late 20th century, such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Eloise Greenfield, and Langston Hughes. Nikki Grimes’s collection One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance (2017) is an array of poetry inspired by various Harlem Renaissance poets and includes an introduction to the history of the period and brief biographies of the included poets. Grimes’s poems are interspersed with poetry by Gwendolyn Bennet, Countee Cullen, Waring Cuney, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Clara Ann Thompson, and Jean Toomer, bringing these to a 21st-century child audience. Like One Last Word, Grimes’s Legacy: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance (2021) uses the “golden shovel” poetic method, taking a line from an earlier poem to create a new poem. The latter collection features early 20th-century Black women writers, including Georgia Douglas Johnson, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Gwendolyn Bennett, Mae V. Cowdery, Angelina Weld Grimké, Anne Spencer, Effie Lee Newsome, Esther Popel, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Both of Grimes’s Harlem Renaissance collections feature a wide variety of African American illustrators. Zetta Elliott’s poetry collection Say Her Name (2020), illustrated by Loveis Wise, celebrates Black women and girls, memorializing victims of police violence and including tributes to Black women poets Phillis Wheatley, Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, and Nikki Giovanni. I, Too, Sing America: Three Centuries of African American Poetry (1998), illustrated by Stephen Alcorn, is a collection of Black poetry compiled by the white editor and scholar Catherine Clinton, with brief biographies and notes. The poetry in Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley, and Marjory Wentworth’s Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets (2017), illustrated by Ekua Holmes, is an homage to earlier Black poets. How to Read a Book written by Kwame Alexander (2020), illustrated by Melissa Sweet, explores the enjoyment of reading, more generally.

Much prominent poetry of this period extends beyond the picture book format. Jacqueline Woodson, who was named the Young People’s Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation in 2015, is known for verse novels as much as for her prose fiction. Woodson’s picture book The Other Side (2001), illustrated by E. B. Lewis, is about an interracial girlhood friendship, developed from opposite sides of the fence separating their family’s yards. Each Kindness (2012), also illustrated by Lewis, is a story about making new friends and learning to become better ones. Woodson’s and others’ poetry books are not confined only to picture books and books for younger readers but extend to middle-grade and young adult genres. The poems in Woodson’s Locomotion (2010) are the thoughts of a boy who has lost his parents in a fire and has been separated from his sister by the foster care system. Brown Girl Dreaming (2014) is a verse memoir of Woodson’s own childhood of growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, with reflections on family, gender, and race. Nikki Grimes’s Jazmin’s Notebook (1998) intersperses the first-person narrative of a fourteen-year-old girl growing up in 1960s Brooklyn with poetry; her Bronx Masquerade (2002) takes up the poetry slam, giving her characters’ poems alongside the story surrounding them; and her Words with Wings (2013) is a verse novel about a girl who uses writing as an escape. Grimes’s Planet Middle School (2011) and Garvey’s Choice (2016) are also poetic novels written entirely in short poems. This form of novels written entirely in verse also appears in books by other prominent writers, including Walter Dean Myers’s Street Love (2006); Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover (2015); Alexander Rand Hess and Mary Rand Hess’s Solo (2017) and Swing (2018); and Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X (2018) and Clap When You Land (2020).

Poetry books also connect directly to other Black art forms, particularly music. Jerry Pinkney’s God Bless the Child (2003) illustrates the lyrics and music of Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog Jr. Likewise, Blues Journey (2006) and Jazz (2006), both written by Walter Dean Myers and illustrated by Christopher Myers, explore the histories of distinctly African American musical genres. Jazz musician, composer, bandleader, and educator Wynton Marsalis’s Jazz A B Z: An A to Z Collection of Jazz Portraits (2005), illustrated by Paul Rogers—a book designed to resemble a 78 LP record sleeve—presents an array of jazz artists via a variety of fitting poetic forms. Poetry also mimics music in Marilyn Nelson’s Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World (2009), illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. Nikki Giovanni’s edited poetry collection Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat (2008) mixes poetry and song. The book is accompanied by a CD with recordings from familiar poets and musical artists such as Queen Latifa and A Tribe Called Quest, as well as a performance of excerpts from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Carole Boston Weatherford’s The Roots of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip-Hop (2019), illustrated by Frank Morrison, traces the cultural roots from folktales and spirituals to these contemporary music genres.

Other Genres and Forms in the Golden Age

Despite the prominence of historical and other realist fiction, nonrealist genres remain popular in African American children’s literature. As in early African American children’s literature, folktale and fairytale genres continued to be prominent into the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Departing from the everyday, books such as Daniel Bernstrom’s One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree (2016), illustrated by Brendan Wenzel, and Gator Gator Gator! (2018), illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon, are about exploration and adventure in unlikely encounters with dangerous animals. Books such as Jerry Pinkney’s The Lion and the Mouse (2009) and Toni Morrison and Slade Morrison’s The Tortoise or the Hare (2014), which retell classic Aesop’s fables, take up animal stories also prominent in white children’s literature. Nina Crews’s The Neighborhood Mother Goose (2004) and The Neighborhood Singalong (2011) are collections of familiar children’s stories and playground songs. Most books in this genre, however, focus on folk and fairy stories of the African America and the Black diaspora. Virginia Hamilton’s folklore collections, The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales (1993) and Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales (1995), illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, and When Birds Could Talk and Bats Could Sing (1996), illustrated by Barry Moser, are prominent in this genre. Folklore for children expresses familiar themes and forms. Patricia McKissack’s Flossie and the Fox (1986), illustrated by Rachel Isadora, and McKissack and Jerry Pinkney’s picture book Mirandy and Brother Wind (1997) revisit the trickster tale. Some tell distinctly American stories, like Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney’s John Henry (1994) and Ashley Bryan’s volumes on African American spirituals, I’m Going to Sing: Black American Spirituals (1982 and 2012); All Night, All Day: A Child’s First Book of African American Spirituals (1991); and Let It Shine: Three Favorite Spirituals (2007). Others, such as Ashley Brian’s Lion and the Ostrich Chicks and Other African Folk Tales (1986) and Eleanor Tate’s Retold African Myths (1993), seek to connect various African folklore traditions to the Black diaspora. Trinidad American author Rosa Guy’s fairytale love-story My Love, My Love: Or, the Peasant Girl (1985) was later adapted for the Broadway musical Once on This Island. Ibi Zoboi’s American Street (2017) is a magical realist story about a Haitian American immigrant family that intersperses vodou culture throughout. Stories about flight subtly evoke the flying African folktales recounted most famously by Virginia Hamilton. Books including Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach (1991) and Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky (1992); Brian Pinkney’s graphic novel The Adventures of Sparrowboy (1997); and Christopher Myers’s Wings (2000) revisit both the folk and the fantastical with their flying protagonists. Children’s books also indicate an awareness of connections not only to folklore itself but to the study of Black folklore. Julius Lester’s Our Folk Tales: High John the Conqueror and Other African American Tales (1967), illustrated by Tom Feelings, is dedicated to foundational Black folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston’s Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-Tales from the Gulf States (a posthumously published collection gathered from Hurston’s fieldwork in the 1920s) was adapted in Lies and Other Tall Tales, illustrated by Christopher Myers (2005), bringing her groundbreaking work in Black anthropology and folklore to a young, 21st-century audience.

Descriptions of folklore tales about tricksters, flying Africans, and superhuman figures like John Henry make it clear that nonrealist genres aren’t entirely separate from the folk tradition. Ghanaian American author Roseanne A. Brown’s A Song of Wraths and Ruin (2020) is a young adult fantasy novel inspired by West African folklore. Short story collections such as Patricia McKissack’s The Dark Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural (1992) and James Haskins’s Moaning Bones: African-American Ghost Stories (1998), illustrated by Felicia Marshall, show overlap between the ghost story and the Black folklore tradition. As Black children’s fantasy and science fiction has risen in popularity in the early 20th century, these too show influences from folk and fantasy. Tracey Baptiste’s The Jumbies series, including The Jumbies (2015), Rise of the Jumbies (2017), and The Jumbie God’s Revenge (2019), is a fantasy-adventure series influenced by Caribbean folk and fairytales. Julius Lester’s historical novel Time’s Memory blends realism and folk-driven fantasy in its treatment of the transatlantic slave trade. Daniel Bernstrom’s Big Papa and the Time Machine (2020), illustrated by Shane W. Evans, merges time travel and African American history. Children’s knowledge of magic is central to some fantasy texts. Zetta Elliott’s middle-grade novel Dragons in a Bag (2018) and its sequel The Dragon Thief (2019), illustrated by Geneva B., sets its magical creatures and their child caretakers in Brooklyn. In Pet by Akwaeke Emezi (2019), the child protagonists know that monsters (still) exist, but not everyone is willing to admit this fact. Nigerian American author Nnedi Okorafor is known for her young adult fantasy–science fiction. Her books include Zahrah the Windseeker (2005), The Shadow Speaker (2007), Akata Witch (2011), and Akata Warrior (2017) and are influenced by what she has termed “Africanfuturism,” which she differentiates from the more US-centric concept “Afrofuturism.”51 Some children’s fantasy literalizes the phrase “Black girl magic.” Rena Barron’s Kingdom of Souls (2019), the first of a young adult trilogy, and her middle-grade novel Maya and the Rising Dark (2020) center girl protagonists in their stories. Bethany Morrow’s A Song Below Water (2020) is about magical Black girl sirens. Despite the fantastical nature of this genre, some Black fantasy addresses themes present in realist fiction. Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone (2018) and its sequel Children of Virtue and Vengeance (2019) are part of a widely popular and much lauded epic series, still unfinished as of 2021. Adeyemi describes the series as “an allegory for the modern black experience,” explaining “Every conflict is the book is a conflict black people are fighting today, or have fought as recently as 30-50 years ago.”52

As the graphic novel form has become more widely accepted by parents, educators, and librarians, it becomes more readily available to children. African American authors and illustrators became increasingly visible among early 21st-century graphic novel authors and illustrators. Because comics translate into the graphic novel form, superhero stories are a prominent genre within graphic novels. Marvel Comics has featured prominent Black writers in its early 21st-century comics series, including writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay, and Yona Harvey writing for Black Panther, Nnedi Okorafor writing for Shuri, and Eve L. Ewing writing for Ironheart. Marvel’s introduction of Miles Morales as an Afro-Latinx Spider Man in 2011 has also led to the character’s representation in Jason Reynolds’s graphic novel Miles Morales: Spider Man (2017), illustrated by Kadir Nelson. David F. Walker has written for comics series such as Marvel’s The Avengers and DC Comics’s Cyborg and Super Justice Force (2013) in the Adventures of Darius Logan series. Writers also use the graphic novel form to tell realist stories, both historical and contemporary. Some graphic novels focus on historical themes, such as John Lewis and Andrew Aydin’s March trilogy, illustrated and lettered by Nate Powell; Kyle Baker’s illustrated Nat Turner (2006), based on Turner’s 1831 confessions before his execution for planning a slave insurrection; Joel Christian Gill’s Strange Fruit and Talented Tenth series, both of which focus on figures from early African American history, from Henry “Box” Brown to Bass Reeves; and David F. Walker and Marcus Kwame Anderson’s The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History (2021). Other realist graphic novels depict contemporary settings. Jerry Craft (who is also known for his syndicated comic strip Mama’s Boyz) is the author of The New Kid (2019), a novel about a boy learning to fit in at his predominantly white private school, while also maintaining friendships in his predominantly Black neighborhood. The New Kid was the first graphic novel to win the Newberry Award and was followed by a sequel, Class Act (2021). While not all graphic novels are necessarily intended for children, one might consider how graphic novel adaptations market texts to younger readers. For example, Janice Antczak reads Octavia Butler as a crossover young adult author.53 Graphic novel adaptations of Butler’s Kindred (2018) and Parable of the Sower (2020) might facilitate the availability of her work to younger readers.

Discussing Race and Racism

As Ebony Elizabeth Thomas writes, by reading children’s and young adult literature “children and teenagers first form critical consciousness around issues of race, racial difference, diversity, and equality.”54 African American children’s literature often positions itself with this fact in mind, working deliberately to form ideas of race, racism, and racial justice for its young readers. Children’s experiences of racism appear prominently in the array of uncomfortable subjects treated in African American children’s fiction. Some books deal with the difficulties presented to Black people who do not conform to African American cultural norms or stereotypes. Ibi Zoboi’s My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich (2019) is a middle-grade novel about a girl whose peers question her interest in science fiction genres as too “white.” Jewel Parker Rhodes’s Black Brother, Black Brother (2020) is about the different experiences of light-skinned and dark-skinned African American brothers. Black Enough: Stories of Being Young and Black in America (2019) is an anthology edited by Zoboi, with stories by a variety of authors treating the diversity of Black experience for young African Americans. Books set in contemporary settings often also deal directly with children’s relationships to histories of race and racism. In Floyd Cooper’s These Hands (2010), a boy learns about his grandfather’s life and experiences with structural racism. In Sharon Flake’s Unstoppable Octobia May (2014), a girl explores secrets about Black people “passing” for white in her 1950s community. The protagonist of Renée Watson’s Piecing Me Together (2017) comes to understand herself, in part, via an exploration of Black history. Varian Johnson’s The Parker Inheritance (2018) is a mystery story in which children uncover their town’s racist history. Many books depict children who must cope with structural and emotional problems of growing up amid the effects of structural racism on themselves and their communities. Importantly, books addressing anti-Black racism not only treat racism’s histories but address racism as a contemporary problem.

Just as many mid- to late-20th-century novels addressed problems of overpolicing and incarceration, several early-21st-century young adult books tackle these issues and continuing problems of police violence, and especially the murder of unarmed Black people by police. The protagonist of Tiffany D. Jackson’s Allegedly (2017) was convicted of killing a white baby when she was nine years old. In Nic Stone’s young adult novel Dear Martin (2017) a teenage boy copes with encounters with racist police and racist policing practices by writing a journal to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. While the main character of Kim Johnson’s This Is My America (2020) is trying to advocate to free her father, an innocent man who is on death row and set to be executed within the year, her brother is wrongly accused of killing a white girl. In Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s All American Boys (2015) a Black author and a white author voice alternating racial perspectives for two protagonists in the aftermath of an act of police brutality. Angie Thomas’s widely popular The Hate U Give (2017) follows its protagonist in the aftermath of witnessing the police shooting of an unarmed teenager. Marilyn Nelson’s Lubvaya’s Quiet Roar (2020), illustrated by Philemona Williamson, is about how an introverted child uses her artwork as a means for contemporary civil rights protest against police violence.

Children’s books also treat the nature of race itself, introducing young readers to constructions of racial difference and giving them tools to address and advocate against racism. Books that directly instruct children about race and racism take a variety of forms. Julius Lester’s Let’s Talk about Race (2005), illustrated by Karen Barbour, is an introduction to racial difference, describing race as just one part of a person’s “story.” Some books take up racial difference as a point of American multiculturalism. Implicitly arguing against the racist rhetoric that the United States ought to be a white-dominant nation, such books illustrate the contributions of Black and other nonwhite people to the nation. Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters (2010), a picture book written by then-President Barack Obama, with illustrations by Loren Long, is a tribute to thirteen American “heroes,” Black and non-Black. We Are America: A Tribute from the Heart (2015), written by Walter Dean Myers and illustrated by Christopher Myers, similarly celebrates a variety of American figures, Black and non-Black. Tony Medina’s The President Looks Like Me and Other Poems (2013) is a celebration of Obama-era US multiculturalism grounded in the historical significance of the first Black US president. Angela Joy’s Black Is a Rainbow Color (2020), illustrated by Ekua Holmes, celebrates Black beauty, history, and culture. Teaching children about race has also included teaching children about racism. In addition to representations of racism in history and fiction, instructional books about race have become increasingly popular in the early 21st century. As more parents, educators, and librarians become aware of the importance of instruction about race and racism even for young children, these books have also become more widely received among non-Black readers.

In the early 21st century, books about racism and antiracist activism are increasingly prominent within African American children’s literature. Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds’s Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You; A Remix of the National Book Award-Winning Stamped from the Beginning (2020) and Stamped (For Kids): Racism, Antiracism, and You (2021), adapted by Sonja Cherry-Paul and illustrated by Rachelle Baker, revise Kendi’s 2016 book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America for child audiences of different ages. Despite recounting racism’s histories, the book’s opening makes an emphatic statement that it is not simply about racism as a historical phenomenon but meant to help readers understand racism in the present. Kendi’s Antiracist Baby (2020), illustrated by Ashley Lukashevsky, is a board book meant to introduce antiracist strategies to very young children. Jelani Memory’s A Kid’s Book about Racism (2019) is an introduction to the concept of racism and its effects on older children. Tiffany Jewell’s This Book Is Anti-Racist: 20 Lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action, and Do the Work (2020), illustrated by Aurelia Durand, instead centers on the concept of antiracism and offers suggestions for antiracist self-reflection and action. Collaborations between African American children’s authors and non-Black authors have sought to bring different perspectives on antiracist topics. We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, edited by Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson (2018), a collection of short pieces by fifty Black and non-Black authors and illustrators, addresses young readers who must learn to respond to racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice. Intersection Allies: We Make Room for All (2019), by Chelsea Johnson, LaToya Council, and Carolyn Choi and illustrated by Ashley Seil Smith, explains Kimberlé Crenshaw’s Black feminist concept of intersectionality for young readers in picture book form. The book includes a foreword by Crenshaw and a letter to adults by gender and sexuality studies scholar Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro. Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice (2020) is a poetry collection by Mahogany L. Browne, Elizabeth Acevedo, and Olivia Gatwood, illustrated by Theodore Taylor III, and with a forward by Jason Reynolds, which presents social justice topics to a middle-grade audience.

Black Beauty, Black Pride, and Black Joy

Beyond discussions of racism and its effects on Black people, families, and communities, Black pride remains an important and prominent theme within African American children’s literature. Attention to the beauty of Black children, in particular, follows and expands upon the earlier work to present positive images of Black people to African American children. Walter Dean Myers’s Brown Angels: An Album of Pictures and Verse (1993) presents an array of photographs that echo the portraits of Black children featured in the Brownies’ Book in the 1920s. Books celebrating the variety of Black skin tones include Skin Again (2004) by bell hooks, illustrated by Chris Raschka; Joyce Carol Thomas’s poetry collection The Blacker the Berry (2008), illustrated by Floyd Cooper; Taye Diggs’s Chocolate Me! (2011) and Mixed Me! (2015), both illustrated by Shane E. Evens; and LaTashia M. Perry’s Skin Like Mine (2016), illustrated by Bea Jackson. Books celebrating Black skin tones—and especially dark skin—importantly counter problems not only of representing Blackness as ugly but of overrepresenting light-skinned Black people in US media. The protagonist of Sharon Flake’s The Skin I’m In (1998), for example, deals with issues of colorism and self-esteem. Lupita Nyong’o’s Sulwe (2019), illustrated by Vashti Harrison, is about a dark-skinned girl who first wishes for lighter skin but later comes to realize the beauty of her own dark Black skin. Ashley Franklin’s Not Quite Snow White (2020), illustrated by Ebony Glenn, is about a Black girl who auditions for the lead role in her school’s Snow White musical.

Books directly addressing the beauty of natural Black hairstyles is one subgenre running through the array of African American children’s books celebrating Black pride. John Shearer’s I Wish I Had an Afro (1970) addresses Black hair as politicized as well as beautiful. Other books celebrating specifically Black hairstyles include Camille Yarbrough’s Cornrows (1979), illustrated by Carole Byard, and Sylvianne Diouf’s Bintou’s Braids (2001), illustrated by Shane Evans. Barbara Barber’s Saturday at the New You (1994), illustrated by Anna Rich; Natasha Anastasia Tarpley’s Bippity Bop Barbershop (2002), illustrated by E. B. Lewis; Robert Liu-Trujillo’s Furqan’s First Flat Top (2016); and Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James’s Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut (2017) celebrate communal experiences at Black hairdressing establishments. Books including Carolivia Herron’s Nappy Hair (1997), illustrated by Joe Cepeda; Natasha Anastasia’s Tarpley’s I Love My Hair (1998), illustrated by E. B. Lewis; bell hooks’s Happy to Be Nappy (1999), with art by Chris Raschka; Joyce Carol Thomas’s Crowning Glory (2002), illustrated by Brenda Joysmith; Latashia M. Perry’s Hair Like Mine (2015), illustrated by Bea Jackson; and Sharee Miller’s Princess Hair (2014) and Don’t Touch My Hair (2018) present Black girls’ particular celebrations of their hair. Matthew A. Cherry’s Hair Love (2019), illustrated by Vashti Harrison and based on the animated short of the same name, tells the story of a Black father learning to style his daughter’s hair for the first time.55 Nancy Redd’s Bedtime Bonnet, illustrated by Nneka Myers (2020), celebrates Black hair care as part of bedtime routines. These books offer an important corrective to the long history of racist depictions of Black children (such as Topsy in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and other popular culture representations that have perpetuated notions of Black hair textures and hairstyles as ugly or unprofessional, showing instead the diversity and beauty of Black bodies.

Promoting pride in various aspects of Black identity, books that center Black families and communities normalize relationships to Black cultures and histories, directly contradicting racist depictions that present these as unimportant or shameful. For example, in Eloise Greenfield’s Africa Dream (1976), illustrated by Carole Byard, the speaker imagines and relates to the land of their ancestors. Patricia McKissack’s Goin’ Someplace Special (2008), illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, encourages Black pride in a community that must also navigate segregation. One way some children’s books center Black culture is through the use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or Black English. Just as earlier poets like Paul Laurence Dunbar used dialect representations of Black vernacular speech and later realist fiction represented AAVE as a legitimate way to represent Black language, African American children’s poetry would perhaps more easily resist the rigidity of normative English. AAVE appears in a variety of genres, including poetry books like Lucille Clifton’s All Us Come Cross the Water (1973), with illustrations by John Steptoe, and The Times They Used to Be (1974); and folk stories such as Julius Lester’s The Tales of Uncle Remus (1987), illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, and Patricia McKissack’s Flossie and the Fox (1986), illustrated by Rachel Isadora. Realist fiction also revels in AAVE: for instance, in books like Eloise Greenfield’s She Come Bringing Me That Little Baby Girl (1974), illustrated by John Steptoe, and Sharon Flake’s Begging for Change (2003) and Who Am I without Him (2004). Scholars have written about how such representations matter for child readers. Michelle Martin notes that the use of Black language and modes of discourse directly acknowledges Black child readers’ relationship to and knowledge about language. She writes, “One way that contemporary black children’s authors speak directly to their black readers—perhaps sometimes ‘over the heads of’ their white readers, and sometimes even over the heads of child readers—is through using black modes of discourse within children’s narratives.”56 June Jordan’s 1970 young adult novel, His Own Where, the first published novel written entirely in Black English, was lauded as one of the American Library Association’s Best Books and one of the New York Times’s Most Outstanding Books and was nominated for a National Book Award for Children’s Books. The use of nonstandard English in children’s literature has not been without controversy, however. Some educators have degraded Black English as improper and incorrect, rather than recognizing it as a valid language form, and have prioritized standardized forms of English that are also associated with (though not exclusive to) white speakers. This has affected whether, which, and how children’s literature using Black English is taught. In 1980, for example, the Yale New Haven Teachers’ Institute used Jordan’s novel as an example of how not to write.57 Despite this, many educators have acknowledged AAVE as valid and useful to child readers. Jennifer McCreight, for example, has discussed the importance of including nonstandard English among children’s books used in grade school classrooms.58 Vashalice Kaaba argues similarly about the importance of preserving the authenticity of Black language in audiobook recordings of children’s books that use AAVE.59

African American children’s literature also illustrates various other aspects of identity that intersect with race. Some books (like many of those celebrating Black hair) focus on positive images of Black girlhood. Others provide explicit celebrations of Black boyhood, such as bell hooks’s Be Boy Buzz (2001), illustrated by Chris Raschka, and Tony Medina’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Boy (2018), in which thirteen artists (Floyd Cooper, Cozbi A. Cabrera, Skip Hill, Tiffany McKnight, Robert Liu-Trujillo, Keith Mallet, Shawn K. Alexander, Kesha Bruce, Brianna McCarthy, R. Gregory Christie, Ekua Holmes, Javaka Steptoe, and Chandra Cox) illustrate the everyday lives of Black boys. Beyond gender, late-20th-century and early-21st-century books more prominently display a wider array of Black sexuality. In Jacqueline Woodson’s From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun (1995) a son learns to accept the fact that his mother is a lesbian. The main character of Brandy Colbert’s Little and Lion (2015) is Black, bisexual, and Jewish. George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto (2020) gives the perspective of growing up as a gay Black boy, directly addressing readers who might have similar experiences of not conforming to normative models of Black male sexuality. African American children’s authors also directly treat topics such as disability, as in Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind (2010), the protagonist of which has cerebral palsy and must navigate a school system in which students and teachers tend to underestimate her. Popular African American children’s literature also continues to display a wider diversity of the Black diaspora in its characters and experiences. Haitian American characters are at the center of Edwidge Danticat’s children’s literature, including picture books Eight Days: A Story of Haiti (2010), illustrated by Alix Delinois, and Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation (2015), illustrated by Leslie Staub; Danticat’s novel Untwine (2017); as well as Ibi Zoboi’s young adult novel American Street (2017). Dominican American families are the subject of Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X (2018), With the Fire on High (2019), and Clap When You Land (2020). Following earlier African American literary resonances for religion, Christian themes appear in books such as Charemae Hill Rollins’s Christmas Gif’, an Anthology of Christmas Poems, Songs and Stories Written by and about Negroes (1963, with a 1993 edition illustrated by Ashley Bryan); Julius Lester and Joe Cepeda’s What a Truly Cool World (1999); Della Reese’s God Inside of Me (1999), illustrated by Yvonne Buchanan; Deloris Jordan’s Baby Blessings: A Prayer for the Day You Are Born (2010), illustrated by James E. Ransome, and A Child’s Book of Prayers and Blessings (2017), illustrated by Shadra Strickland; and Nikki Grimes’s The Watcher (2017), inspired by Psalm 121. Christian themes are also evident in an array of realist fiction.60 Depictions of religion also extend beyond Black Christianity. While writing for Black Muslim children has existed in the United States since at least the mid-20th century, in the early 21st century, books featuring Muslim African American characters became more prominent. Ameenah Muhammad-Diggins’s Bashirah and the Amazing Bean Pie (2018) celebrates a Black Muslim culinary tradition. Books such as Ibtihaj Muhammad’s The Proudest Blue (2018), written with S. K. Ali and with art by Hatem Aly, Khadijah Abdul Haqq’s Nanni’s Hijab (2018), and Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow’s Mommy’s Khimar (2018), illustrated by Ebony Glenn, celebrate Muslim dress as a counter to the anti-Islamic bullying Muslim children often encounter in the United States. Thompkins-Bigelow’s Your Name Is a Song (2020), illustrated by Luisa Uribe, is about a child whose teacher has not learned to properly pronounce her name and whose mother urges her to advocate for herself. S. K. Ali and Alisha Saeed’s Once upon an Eid (2020) is a collection of short stories about Muslim holidays, which includes contributions from African American writers Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, Candice Montgomery, and Ashley Franklin.

Even though so much of African American children’s literature contends directly with the long history of anti-Black racism in the United States, Black self-esteem and achievement are centered in many books, such as Looking Like Me (2009), written by Walter Dean Myers and illustrated by Christopher Myers, and Jacqueline Woodson’s The Day You Begin (2018), illustrated by Rafael López. Actor Grace Byers’s I Am Enough (2018) and I Believe I Can (2020), both illustrated by Keturah A. Bobo, foreground affirming Black children. My Pen (2015), written and illustrated by Christopher Myers, is a celebration of artistic creativity in which this prolific artist and author encourages readers to create their own art. Tami Charles’s All Because You Matter (2020), illustrated by Bryan Collier, celebrates the inherent worth of Black and Brown children. Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James’s I Am Every Good Thing (2020) narrates a child’s affirmation of self-love. Some work directly treats the intersections of African American art and political consciousness. June Jordan’s Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood (2000) describes the author’s early childhood alongside the resonances of gender, race, and her parents’ status as West Indian immigrants to the United States. Marilyn Nelson’s memoir How I Discovered Poetry (2014) treats the author’s development of craft alongside her awareness of the world, including civil rights and feminist activism. Kimberly Drew’s This Is What I Know about Art, illustrated by Ashley Lukashevsky (2020), encourages self-expression through a personal story of exploration of art and protest. Breanna J. McDaniel’s Hands Up! (2019), illustrated by Shane Evans, foregrounds the many gestures of Black joy that resemble and run alongside a familiar gesture of antiracist protest.

Countering White Supremacist Structures

Within the historically and, in the early 21st century, still predominantly white fields of publishing, literary studies, education, and library studies, children’s literature has overwhelmingly been defined according to criteria that have prioritized white authors, white literary histories, and white children. Scholars’ and practitioners’ widespread devaluing of African American children’s literature in these areas has led to its erasure from many narratives of children’s literary history. Acknowledging children’s literature’s roots in folk and oral cultures is one way one might view a broader scope for the genre. Interrogating the neat division of texts for children and adults is a second way, as cross-writing, cross-reading, and crossover texts enrichen understandings of what Black children, historically, have read. Attending to African American literary contexts for locating children’s literature provides yet another corrective. Recognizing, for example, the fact that most early African American literature was published in material forms beyond the bound book—in a variety of print media that included a rich history of Black periodical culture—provides evidence of early Black children’s literature, beyond that which could be found solely within books. This point makes clear why the interdisciplinary study of children’s literature requires conversations with ethnic studies fields such as African American studies. Correcting for methodologies that conflate “children’s literature” with “children’s books,” one can better attend to African American children’s literature well before its “Golden Age” in the 20th century and broaden recognition of children’s literature in the 20th century and beyond.

Despite this broad history and array of African American children’s literature, the genre has also had to contend with various structural obstacles to its production and circulation. African American children’s literature is a product of not only authors and illustrators but also of the various infrastructures that produce, circulate, and promote such literature. While the publication of books by white publishers has at times facilitated the circulation of Black-authored and illustrated texts, African American children’s literary production has also been hindered by white infrastructural gatekeeping. This has prevented a trend of simply linear progress in the numbers of books published and has instead resulted in ebbs and flows in African American children’s literature since the mid-20th century. Racial disparities in access to capital and resources, along with dominant cultural associations between childhood and whiteness, have hindered African American children’s literary production and circulation. A thorough interrogation of the long history of Black self-publishing would surely expand understandings of African American children’s literature. (This history dates back to the 19th century and includes books that addressed children among their audience, such as Ann Plato’s 1841 Essays; Including Biographies and Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose and Poetry.) Books by Black authors continue to be underrepresented among children’s literature published in the United States. The Children’s Cooperative Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has kept annual data on race and representation in children’s literature since 1985. Their data disaggregate the number of texts in which Black characters appear from the number of texts published by Black authors. Historically, Black characters appear more often than authors, showing disparities in who has been allowed to create images of Black people for broad public consumption. In 2019, the CCBC shows that, out of 4,035 books received in 2019, for example, 471 (under 12 percent) were about Black characters and only 232 (under 6 percent) were written by Black authors.61 As children’s literature authors such as Jerry Pinckney and scholars such as Michelle Martin have noted, there has not been a simple and steady increase in books published by African American authors and illustrators from the 20th century into the 21st century. While new and exciting African American children’s literature continues to be published, this is not the result of inevitable progress among major publishers but the result of advocacy for such books from a variety of arenas, from publishers devoted to publishing books by and representing nonwhite people (such as Lee & Low Books), projects dedicated to promoting Black children’s literature and other children’s literature by nonwhite authors (such as the We Need Diverse Books campaign and the Brown Bookshelf), and the ongoing advocacy of authors and illustrators, parents, educators, librarians, and community members who read and share and promote African American children’s literature.

Moreover, the existence of African American children’s literature has not always meant that this literature has been recognized alongside white-authored children’s literature or made readily available to children. In 1965, the Council on Interracial Books for Children (CIBC) was established by educators with a mission to “encourage the writing, production, and effective distribution of books to fill the needs of non-white and urban poor children.”62 The following year, CIBC began publishing its quarterly Bulletin newsletter to address issues of representation in children’s literature. Promoters of Black children’s literature argued that African American children’s literature was being hindered not just because of disparate access to publishing opportunities but because of white organizations’ refusal to recognize Black children’s book authors and illustrators while promoting and supporting children’s literature that misrepresented and demeaned Black children. When the CIBC formed in 1965, there had been no Black Newberry award recipients since the award’s establishment in 1922. Meanwhile, literary awards (like the American Library Association’s Newberry Medal, awarded to the most “distinguished” piece of children’s literature published each year) had been awarded to children’s books that depicted racist caricatures of Black people and presented children with other anti-Black content (as well as racism against non-Black People of Color and Indigenous people). In 1969, the American Library Association established the Coretta Scott King Book Awards to honor African American authors and illustrators. These have since been expanded to include the John Steptoe Award for New Talent (starting in 1996) and (since 2010) the Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Despite these advances in recognition, parents, educators, activists, and scholars have decried the failure to incorporate African American children’s literature into the mainstream children’s literary canon. The early development, rise, and Golden Age of African American children’s literature did not emerge as a simple matter of course but was produced through various forms of literary activism among parents, educators, librarians, authors, and illustrators. Scholars of African American children’s literature have necessarily acknowledged these problems. In 1990, Violet Harris noted that “Few texts written by African Americans or other groups of color are designated classics, even though many exhibit extraordinary merit, expand or reinterpret literary forms, or provide a forum for voices silenced or ignored in mainstream literature.”63 The prioritization of white-authored children’s literature in education and library settings continues to skew perceptions even further by neglecting existing African American children’s literature. Children’s book authors and illustrators have made important contributions to this critique. For example, in 1986 Walter Dean Myers discussed the difficulties of African American children’s book authors in the late 20th century, as publication numbers had actually declined in the 1970s and early 1980s following the Civil Rights Era surge of the 1960s.64 Almost thirty years later, Myers would again revisit the lack of continuous progress in African American literary production, asking “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” in 2014.65 Librarians have long been among those advocating for African American children’s literature. For example, Augusta Baker, a public librarian in Harlem during the 1930s and 1940s, was a major campaigner to “raise the standards of books for African American youth, promise positive images of black people in texts, and increase the number of literary role models in a non-moralistic way.”66 Charlemae Hill Rollins, who worked over three decades from the 1930s to the 1960s as the first children’s librarian at the Chicago South Side’s George Cleveland Hall branch, strove to remove racist children’s literature from library shelves, promoted Black literature for children’s education, and was the first Black librarian to serve as president of the Children’s Services Division of the American Library Association. Barbara Rollock, a coordinator of Children’s Services at the New York Public Library who had served as president of the New York Black Librarians Caucus, published on Black children’s authors and illustrators and edited the New York Public Library’s bibliography on “The Black Experience in Children’s Literature” over the course of a career that spanned from the 1940s to the 1990s.

Like both African American literature and children’s literature more broadly, African American children’s literature is a diverse body of work. For example, Michelle Martin notes that “nearly every subgenre that one can find within mainstream picture books one can also find among African-American children’s picture books.”67 Despite this fact, some genres tend to be more prominent than others. The overrepresentation of historical fiction within African American children’s literature has skewed this body of literature toward particular kinds of representations of Black people. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the periods overrepresented in this subgenre include 19th-century slavery and emancipation and the 20th-century Civil Rights Movement, which are depicted noticeably more than other periods. This overrepresentation has included disproportionate focus on a relatively small number of prominent historical figures from these periods. (Books focusing on Frederick Douglass, for example, include Arna Bontemps’s Frederick Douglass: Slave, Fighter, Freeman [1959], illustrated by Harper Johnson; Frederick Douglass by Lillie Patterson [1965]; Escape to Freedom: A Play about Young Frederick Douglass [1976] by Ossie Davis; Escape from Slavery: The Boyhood of Frederick Douglass in His Own Words [1993], edited and illustrated by the white engraver Michael McCurdy and with a foreword by Coretta Scott King; Frederick Douglass: The Last Days of Slavery [2005], by William Miller and illustrated by Cedreic Lucas; Love Twelve Miles Long [2011], by Glenda Armand and illustrated by Colin Bootman; Words Set Me Free: Young Frederick Douglass; The Slave Who Learned to Read [2012], written by Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrated by James E. Ransome; Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History [2017], written by Walter Dean Myers and illustrated by Floyd Cooper; and The Life of Frederick Douglass: A Graphic Narrative of a Slave’s Journey from Bondage to Freedom [2019], written by David F. Walker and illustrated by Dawmon Smyth and Marissa Louise.) Historical fiction is a fraught genre for children’s literature dealing with racism, as racism’s overrepresentation in historical fiction risks relegating racism to the past while ignoring its connections to and continued resonance in the present. As Philip Nel has written, “Genre is the New Jim Crow,” with publishers attempting to segregate nonwhite characters and racial themes to particular literary forms while denying their appropriateness to others, despite the fact that authors of color write in a plethora of genres.68 Despite these problems, history books and historical fiction remain deeply important genres for children’s literature dealing with race in the United States, particularly given the misrepresentation and erasure of Black histories in mainstream education and popular culture. Historical genres therefore require particular attention from educators, scholars, librarians, publishers, and book reviewers. In recent years, increased attention has been given to other genres in African American children’s literature and to African American child readers. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas has shown the importance of race to children’s and young adult speculative fiction.69 The growing popularity of science fiction and fantasy writers such as Zetta Elliott, Akwaeke Emezi, Nnedi Okorafor, and Tomi Adeyemi, as well as the crossover appeal of Black science fiction writers past and present, from Octavia Butler to N. K. Jemisin, demand that one considers the growing body of writing read by Black children beyond realist genres.

Discussion of the Literature

While African American children’s literature has been given wider attention within the field of children’s literary studies in the early 21st century, critical discussions of African American children’s literature are far from new. A brief article in the December 1889 Christian Recorder called for the production of both “Afro-American” dolls and holiday books, predicting for the latter “the best types of wit and wisdom, faces and facts, entertaining into Afro-American life being spread upon thousands of pages of illuminated and highly decorated holiday books.”70 Essays by Alice Dunbar-Nelson (“Negro Literature for Negro Pupils”), Wilhelmina M. Crosson (“The Negro in Children’s Literature”), and Eva Evans (“The Negro in Children’s Fiction”) addressed Black children’s relationships to what they read and the need for accurate representations of African American people, written from Black perspectives and with Black children’s wellbeing in mind.71 A variety of scholars have since addressed not only the quantity but also the quality of African American children’s books. Rudine Sims Bishop—a foundational scholar of African American children’s literature—suggests different categorizations for understanding 20th-century African American children’s literature in her book Shadow and Substance: The Afro-American Experience in Contemporary Children’s Fiction. Bishop describes “melting pot” books as those that appealed broadly beyond Black readership because they featured Black characters but treated universalized experiences rather than explicitly addressing Black identity, “social conscience” books meant to humanize Black characters for a white audience, and “culturally conscious” literature that is directed more specifically at African American children.72 Because African American children’s literature has had to contend with the long history and prominence of anti-Black racism in mainstream white children’s literature (and elsewhere), these kinds of assessments have been important as adults consider the variety of messages Black literature might present to children.

The availability of African American children’s literature has not simply been a matter of its existence and quality but also a matter of larger structural problems of contending with the prevalent racism of white children’s literature and the infrastructures for Black children’s literature’s production and circulation. In her essay “The All-White World of Children’s Books,” former president of the International Reading Association Nancy Larrick addressed the continuing underrepresentation of nonwhite people in children’s literature.73 The problems that Larrick and the Council on Interracial Books for Children addressed in 1965 have persisted into the 21st century. The existence of African American children’s books also does not necessarily mean that they will be circulated widely to African American children or that they will be taught (or taught well) in schools. McNair’s essay “‘I Never Knew There Were so Many Books about Us’: Parents and Children Reading and Responding to African American Children’s Literature Together” describes a collaborative project to provide Black families with a wider variety of African American children’s books for shared reading.74 Nor does the presence of African American children’s literature necessarily counter the effects of other racist texts that are granted more attention. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s essay “African American Children’s Literature: Liminal Terrains and Strategies for Selfhood” discusses the importance of African American children’s literature for developing understandings of race and racism.75 Contributors to Donnarae MacCann and Gloria Woodard’s edited collection, The Black American in Books for Children: Readings in Racism, include scholars and children’s book authors such as Rudine Sims Bishop, Julius Lester, Eloise Greenfield, and Walter Dean Myers, who discuss criteria for evaluating racist and nonracist children’s books and address the racism of some books lauded as winners of the Newberry Prize and within children’s book publishing.76 Additionally, book reviews of African American children’s literature have not always been written with a competent understanding of that literature’s place within the larger context of African American literature or with sufficient knowledge of African American children’s lived experiences and readerly positions. The #OwnVoices hashtag has promoted alignment between the identities of characters depicted and the authors depicting them, so that this shared identification lends authenticity to these characters’ voices. A similar argument has been extended to discussions of book reviews via the #OwnVoicesReviews hashtag, as parents, educators, and scholars argue that the people whose identities match those of the characters being depicted in books are best suited to evaluate these representations.

Scholars have given much attention to tracing African American children’s literary history, and the terrain for doing so has shifted significantly. Many academic discussions of African American children’s literature in the 20th and early 21st century have either assumed that literature by African American writers written for or read by African American children did not exist before either Amelia Johnson’s fiction of the 1890s or the Brownies’ Book of the Harlem Renaissance era, or they have given little attention to early literature for Black children. Violet J. Harris’s essay, “African American Children’s Literature: The First One Hundred Years,” for example, begins its discussion with the late 19th century.77 Although most scholarship in African American children’s literature has prioritized late-20th-century (and, more recently, 21st-century) texts, several scholars have traced African American children’s literature to earlier time periods. Dianne Johnson’s Telling Tales: The Pedagogy and Promise of African American Literature for Youth treats African American children’s literature in light of the disproportionate attention given to white-authored depictions of Black people for children, showing the richness of this Black-authored genre from the Brownies’ Book forward to the late 20th century.78 Bishop discusses the “seeds” of African American children’s literature in antebellum oral culture in her book, Free within Ourselves: The Development of African American Children’s Literature.79 In her book Brown Gold: Milestones of African-American Children’s Picture Books, 1845–2002, Michelle Martin considers also the effects of racist depictions of Black people in 19th-century children’s books on Black children.80 Katherine Capshaw’s books on the Harlem Renaissance and Civil Rights Era children’s literature have also worked to orient scholars to different periodizations for understanding Black children’s literature within other African American literary and cultural movements. Continued attention to children’s literature in early African American literary studies has also worked to trace these connections, countering dismissals of early writing for African American children and examining the various ways Black writers addressed children alongside adults in their writing and directly addressed Black child audiences. As Capshaw and Anna Mae Duane write in the introduction to their edited collection, Who Writes for Black Children?: African American Children’s Literature before 1900, “evidence abounds that black child readers did exist, and often in unexpected places,” despite scholarly inattention to these readers.81

The late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen continually increasing attention to African American children’s literature among scholars in literary, education, and library studies fields. Overviews of African American children’s literature have been particularly important for making this body of work more visible among educators, librarians, and parents. Librarian’s projects such as Augusta Braxton Baker’s The Black Experience in Children’s Books; Barbara Rollock’s Black Authors and Illustrators of Children’s Books: A Biographical Dictionary; and education and literacy scholars Barbara Thrash Murphy and Deborah L. Murphy’s biographical dictionary Black Authors and Illustrators of Books for Children and Young Adults have provided important reference and research tools.82 Short essays by education and literary scholars such as Jonda C. McNair’s essay “Classic African American Children’s Literature” and Giselle Lisa Anatol’s essay, “Children’s and Young Adult Literature” in The Cambridge History of African American Literature situate the genre among the broader fields of children’s literature and African American literature.83 Several scholars have also worked to expand the scope for defining African American children’s literature. Some have included the representation of Black people by white authors in their discussions (as with Martin’s discussion of Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day) and read this literature too within the larger landscape of African American literature by attending to Black child readers rather than only Black authors. Acknowledging the existence of crossover texts read by African American adults and children alike broadens the scope for recognizing early texts that were likely read by or to African American children. Such places often take one beyond the print form of the bound book. Lynn Crockett and Janet R. Kleinberg’s essay “Periodical Literature for African American Young Adults: A Neglected Resource” (in Karen Smith’s edited collection African American Voices in Young Adult Literature) discusses late-20th-century magazines aimed at young Black readers.84 Work on specific periodicals by scholars including Chanta M. Haywood on the Christian Recorder, Laretta Henderson on Ebony Jr!, and Paige Gray on the Chicago Defender Junior has helped to expand the scope of where one looks when one looks for African American children’s literature. Recent work occasioned by the 100th anniversary of the Brownies’ Book’s publication has brought more attention to this still understudied venue for African American children’s literature.85

Beyond scholarship that has attended more specifically to African American children’s literary history and the boundaries of the genre, scholars have worked to improve African American children’s literature’s visibility in the predominantly white fields of children’s literary studies, education, and library studies. While an increasing number of scholars in these fields have published on Black literature for children, the development and growing visibility of this genre can be seen in the framing of some edited collections from the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Karen Patricia Smith’s collection African-American Voices in Young Adult Literature: Tradition, Transition, Transformation presented essays on a variety of texts, including those not necessarily written for but read by African American young adults, by authors such as Octavia Butler and Maya Angelou.86 Smith suggests the volume’s purpose as introductory, “to inform teachers, librarians, and other professionals working with young people about aspects of this area, and to stimulate some further thinking about a literature which has a great deal to communicate.”87 Jonda McNair and Wanda Brooks’s collection, Embracing, Evaluating and Examining African American Children’s and Young Adult Literature, though acknowledging the longstanding tradition of both this body of literature and its academic study, notes also that relatively few book-length projects have been dedicated to African American children’s literature to date.88 Scholars have also made important connections between African American children’s and adult literatures. In addition to Katharine Capshaw’s work on children’s literature of the Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts Movement, Nancy Tolson’s Black Children’s Literature Got de Blues: The Creativity of Black Writers and Illustrators takes up the blues aesthetic in literature for children, putting African American children’s literature into the context of this far-reaching, distinctly Black art form.89 More recent scholarship has pointed not only to African American literary history but with an eye toward the genre’s continuing expansion. In her discussion of popular metanarratives about African American people, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas argues that these have been perpetuated, in part, by English-language arts education, and she urges readers toward an expansion of these stories in the Obama era and beyond.90 Similarly, in a 2009 discussion of contemporary African American children’s literature, Rudine Sims Bishop writes that “it is clear that there are new African American stories to be told, full of new hope and new vision.”91 Karen Chandler also emphasizes the need for an even wider variety of Black stories; she writes that “I see a diverse, multigenerational group of black authors engaging with necessary questions about identity and social belonging, but worry that some of the most progressive and critical voices are being prematurely silenced.”92 Noting that many African American children’s books remain out of print or otherwise unavailable in public schools and libraries, Chandler writes with concern that “At the same time, black writers, even long established ones, have had trouble getting their work published.”93 While children’s book authors and scholars alike remain aware of these difficulties, the future of African American children’s literature will depend as much upon larger forces and structures that contribute to questions of which literary histories are highlighted, which trajectories are sustained, and which children are prioritized and served by writers, educators, scholars, and the broader literary public.

Further Reading

  • Anatol, Giselle Lisa. “Children’s and Young Adult Literature.” In The Cambridge History of African American Literature. Edited by Maryemma Graham, 611–654. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  • Baker, Augusta Braxton. The Black Experience in Children’s Books. New York: New York Public Library, 1971.
  • [Bishop], Rudine Sims. Shadow and Substance: The Afro-American Experience in Contemporary Children’s Fiction. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1982.
  • Bishop, Rudine Sims. “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom 6, no. 3 (Summer 1990).
  • Bishop, Rudine Sims. Free within Ourselves: The Development of African American Children’s Literature. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007.
  • Bishop, Rudine Sims. “Contemporary African American Children’s Literature: Continuity and Change.” Wasafiri 24, no. 4 (2009): 3–8.
  • Capshaw, Katharine. Civil Rights Childhood: Picturing Liberation in African American Photobooks. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.
  • Capshaw, Katharine, and Anna Mae Duane, eds. Who Writes for Black Children: African American Children’s Literature before 1900. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
  • Capshaw Smith, Katharine. Children’s Literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004.
  • Chandler, Karen. “Uncertain Directions in Black Children’s Literature.” The Lion and the Unicorn 43, no. 2 (April 2019): 172–181.
  • Harris, Violet J. “African American Children’s Literature: The First One Hundred Years.” The Journal of Negro Education 59, no. 4 (Autumn 1990): 540–555.
  • Johnson-Feelings, Dianne. Telling Tales: The Pedagogy and Promise of African American Literature for Youth. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.
  • MacCann, Donnarae, and Gloria Woodard. The Black American in Books for Children: Readings in Racism. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1972.
  • Martin, Michelle H. Brown Gold: Milestones of African-American Children’s Picture Books, 1845–2002. New York: Routledge, 2004.
  • McNair, Jonda C. “Classic African American Children’s Literature.” The Reading Teacher 64, no. 2 (2010): 96–105.
  • McNair, Jonda, and Wanda Brooks, eds. Embracing, Evaluating and Examining African American Children’s and Young Adult Literature. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2008.
  • Murphy, Barbara Thrash, and Deborah Murphy, eds. Black Authors and Illustrators of Books for Children and Young Adults. New York: Routledge, 2007.
  • Rollock, Barbara. Black Authors and Illustrators of Children’s Books: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Garland, 1988.
  • Smith, Karen Patricia, ed. African-American Voices in Young Adult Literature: Tradition, Transition, Transformation. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1994.
  • Thomas, Ebony Elizabeth. “African American Children’s Literature: Liminal Terrains and Strategies for Selfhood.” In Diversity in Youth Literature: Opening Doors through Reading. Edited by Jamie Campbell Naidoo and Sarah Park Dahlen, 33–43. Chicago, IL: American Library Association, 2013.
  • Tolson, Nancy. Black Children’s Literature Got de Blues: The Creativity of Black Writers and Illustrators. New York: Peter Lang, 2008.

Notes