It’s never too late — or too early — to diversify your child’s bookshelf. Just start with any one of these beloved 14 BIPOC authors.
Derrick Barnes’s first picture book earned countless honors, including the 2018 Kirkus Prize for Young Readers, and struck a chord with reviewers. Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut is the story of a young Black boy and the transformative magic that happens in a barbershop chair. Writes Kirkus, “This book oozes with black cool and timely, much-needed black joy, using the unique and expansive experience of the barbershop to remind young boys that their inner lives have always mattered there.”
But what’s more interesting is the book’s inspiration. After a period where Barnes had not published anything for several years, one of his four sons said to him, “‘You should write the Blackest book ever, like the Blackest children’s book you can write. With du-rags and picks,’” Barnes told My Modern Met.
His son was right.
Barnes has a knack for writing stories about something universal — getting a new haircut or starting kindergarten — with characters who are beautiful Black boys.
According to illustrator and longtime friend of the author, Gordan C. James, many of those boys are based on real people and are also at the heart of Barnes’s recent New York Times bestselling book I Am Every Good Thing.
As Barnes tells NPR, “I compare our sons to things that are universally good … to show America that our boys have just as much value as your sons.”
In some ways, it all began with her memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, for which Jacqueline Woodson won the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Shortly after, she became the Young People’s Poet Laureate. The poems captured Woodson’s rich American experience, growing up Black in the Civil Rights era, one foot in the segregated South and another in New York City.
Brown Girl Dreaming was not Woodson’s first title — the prolific author has penned dozens of books — but it was the one that helped usher in a sea of change in publishing. “When she first began publishing books, the industry was considerably whiter, from the people who made the books to the characters inside them,” wrote Kat Chow, founding member of the podcast Code Switch, in the New York Times. “Many credit Woodson herself with helping to change that, at least incrementally.”
Woodson’s influence goes beyond the world of publishing as well. In 2018, Woodson won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, a half-million-dollar prize for children’s literature, and used the money to start Baldwin for the Arts, a space in upstate New York for BIPOC artists.
For Pablo Cartaya, a second-generation Cuban American who grew up in New York City, identity is at the heart of his books. And it’s no accident. Cartaya himself came to terms with his own identity when, as an aspiring actor in his 20s, he proudly showed his father — a dissident who had been jailed and tortured in Cuba — a headshot with an Americanized name on it. His father was crushed — Pablo was named after a beloved grandfather that his father had to leave behind when he fled Cuba.
Through his books, Cartaya tells the stories he didn’t get to read growing up — stories featuring Cuban and Puerto Rican kids navigating their complicated American identities. His titles include the award-winning book The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora, Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish, and his most recent title, Each Tiny Spark — the first middle grade hardcover book published by the new Kokila imprint from Penguin Random House.
Mechal Renee Roe
It’s not every day that an illustrator has the opportunity to work with someone who would go on to become the first female, first Black, and first Asian vice president in American history, but that’s what happened to Mechal Renee Roe. She and then-Senator Kamala Harris collaborated on the 2019 book Superheroes Are Everywhere, a story inspired by Harris’s life. It became a New York Times bestseller.
Before that, Roe’s claim to fame was children’s books that celebrated Black hair in all its diversity. As she told Art News, “Happy Hair and Cool Cuts are inspired by my personal experiences growing up in the middle of three girls with different skin tones and hair types.”
Happy Hair is now a series — an unexpected triumph for a book that Roe originally self-published. “When I decided to self-publish, only three percent of children’s books created by traditional publishing houses featured Black and brown children,” Roe told Art News. “I wanted to change that.”
Ibram X. Kendi, the acclaimed author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, was asked to recommend books about race for young people. He chose two by Nic Stone — Dear Martin, her 2017 debut novel about a Black honors student named Justyce who gets falsely accused of a crime, and the 2020 sequel Dear Justyce, about an incarcerated teen named Quan who writes letters to Justyce. Both are nuanced critiques of racial profiling, the flawed criminal justice system in the US, and the experience of Black boys in America.
“I think teens everywhere — but especially black teens — are constantly trying to understand who they are,” Kendi told NPR. “I love when books encourage young people to write and to express themselves, and certainly these two books do.”
“Black Girls Need Their Happily-Ever-Afters Too” is an apt title for an essay by Nicola Yoon. In the piece, published in Cosmopolitan, Yoon makes a distinction between issue books, which tackle race, slavery, bigotry, police brutality, and the like head-on, and non-issue books, where the main character of a story is Black or queer, but the point of the story is love, adventure, or a mystery. “These books say to that young Black girl or gay boy, you can be the hero. You can be the one the world has been waiting for. You possess just as much magic as anyone else. You—yes, you—can save the world,” she writes.
“Is there ever a wrong time for the truth?” Brenda Woods wrote on Brightly. At the time, she explained the rationale behind her most recent novel, The Unsung Hero of Birdsong, USA, about a Black soldier from World War II and the racial terrain of South Carolina in 1946.
Several of Woods’s other middle grade books capture the Black experience in different moments in time. Her 2003 debut, The Red Rose Box, which earned her a Coretta Scott King Honor, is set in 1958 Louisiana, where Jim Crow reigns. The 2012 Saint Louis Armstrong Beach takes place in New Orleans circa Hurricane Katrina, and the forthcoming book, When Winter Robeson Came, brings us to Los Angeles in 1965 during the Watts Riots. Each title gives the reader both historical context and a story that embodies it.
James Yang, a Korean American illustrator living in Brooklyn, New York, remembers a time, some 30 years ago, when he was one of maybe two Korean illustrators working in the United States. “Now you can’t turn around without seeing a young Korean illustrator who is killing it,” he joked in a 2017 profile for AI-AP (American Illustration and American Photography).
Since then, Yang has turned his craft and love of design to children’s books with his 2018 debut, Bus! Stop!, and then Stop! Bot!, which earned him the coveted Theodor Seuss Geisel Award in 2020. Yang’s most recent book, A Boy Named Isamu, is a day in the life of young Isamu Noguchi, the famed Japanese American designer.
“It wasn’t easy being a Black, Latino, bookish boy in one of the toughest housing projects in the nation,” author and educator Torrey Maldonado told Publisher’s Weekly. But that experience made Maldonado the writer he is today. His acclaimed middle grade books Secret Saturdays, Tight, and What Lane? resonate with young readers. They capture what it’s like to live in the inner city, to transition from boy to man, and to be bi-racial, respectively.
“Kids will love the books if the books love them,” Maldonado wrote on Brightly. “I have taught middle school for nearly 20 years and I feel that is true. My dream as a teacher is my dream as an author: to provide books for kids to love, books that will love kids back, and to share stories that help them see things as more complex.”
Celia C. Pérez
We are never just one thing. Twelve-year-old Malú, the heroine of Cuban American writer Celia Pérez’s The First Rule of Punk, is half-Mexican, half-white, and all punk-rock skateboarder. The book earned Pérez a 2018 Pura Belpré Author Honor.
Pérez’s follow-up — Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers — is about a diverse group of four young activists, including a budding Cuban American ornithologist.
“While we may fall under this umbrella term of Latinos, we have so many unique stories to tell. There is room for all of them, and children, Latino or not, need to see these varied representations,” Pérez told the American Booksellers Association.
If Joseph Bruchac is anything, it’s prolific. The Nulhegan Abenaki elder, widely considered the country’s foremost indigenous children’s author, has published more than 120 books for young people. That list includes Code Talkers, which centers on the forgotten story of the Navajos who worked with the Marines during World War II to create an unbreakable communication code, which helped win the war. Two Roads, which takes place in the 1930s, is about a boy and his father, a World War I veteran, who kept their Creek heritage a secret. And his most recent book, Rez Dogs, is about a Wabanaki girl quarantining with her grandparents during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“No ‘ethnic group’ has been more stereotyped, misrepresented, and, quite frankly, used than Native Americans,” he told BookRiot. Bruchac’s many books strive to counter just that.
Camryn Garrett exploded onto the scene with her first book, Full Disclosure, which she wrote at age 16. That story, about a girl born HIV+, features a refreshingly diverse cast of characters.
“A lot of the [YA] books I read didn’t even have Black characters, and I didn’t expect them to,” Garrett told Bustle. “I didn’t really expect to see characters like me until I got a little older, so I decided to write books about my experiences so that teenagers like me could see them.”
With Off the Record, her second novel, that experience goes beyond being Black or female.
“When I wrote the first draft of my book Off the Record, I allowed myself to be as self-indulgent as possible,” she wrote in an essay for Shondaland. “I wrote about a fat, anxious Black girl who gets to go on an adventure. It’s a difficult journey… but she gets to be the hero. She gets to have a romance. And, importantly, she doesn’t hate herself.”
For YA author Elizabeth Lim, the genre may be fantasy, but many of the nuances and details are from real life. “I’ve been passionate about bringing awareness of East Asian folklore, culture, and food to Western audiences,” she told Tor. Indeed, Lim’s most recent book, Six Crimson Cranes, is the re-imagining of a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, The Wild Swans, with Chinese and Japanese folklore elements.
Author and illustrator Andrea Pippins is all about nurturing identity and joy through creativity. The inveterate doodler published I Love My Hair: A Coloring Book of Braids, Coils, and Doodle Dos in 2015, followed by the interactive journal Becoming Me: A Work in Progress: Color, Journal & Brainstorm Your Way to a Creative Life the following year. Hey, Baby! A Baby’s Day in Doodles, published in 2020, includes a small detail with a significant impact — no gendered pronouns. As Olivia Hinebaugh writes in Romper, “Celebrate the excitement of every day with a sweet baby whose gender is unimportant.” And her most recent book, Who Will You Be?, a board book for babies, illustrates a rich, diverse family history to help answer the question that’s on the mind of every parent of a young child.