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Black Boy Joy: 30 Picture Books Featuring Black Male Protagonists

by Charnaie Gordon

Background image credit: Katsumi Murouchi/Getty Images

When searching for books that serve as mirrors for my two children, I’m always mindful of exactly which books we choose to read. While we don’t discriminate when it comes to literature, I do make it a point to select books that reflect my children and our family. Why?  Because I know if I don’t expose my kids to these books, they might not see them otherwise.

Let’s face it, finding good, quality books featuring people of color is hard! It’s a lot easier today than it used to be years back, but the struggle is real. This is especially true when it comes to books that feature black boys as the main character.

As a parent, my goal is to present my children with a full spectrum of brown and black characters in a variety of books. I want their experiences of story and representations of the world to include people of color, people they can imagine being like — people like Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, Misty Copeland, Michelle Obama, and Michael Jordan — or fictional characters with whom they can identify.

Of course, I believe all children should be exposed to a wide range of people, experiences, and cultures. We still need greater diversity in children’s books to make this happen. But we also need people to buy and read the great books that are out there so publishers will continue to publish them.

Here are 30 picture books featuring black males as the main protagonist to enjoy with the little ones in your life.

RELATED: Black Girl Magic: 33 Picture Books Featuring Black Female Protagonists

  • Leo Can Swim

    by Anna McQuinn, illustrated by Ruth Hearson

    Join Leo, his daddy, and several other babies as they all go to swim class. Watch them as they get ready for the pool, sing songs, and kick and splash in the water. What I love most about this book is the fact that it’s Leo’s father who accompanies him to swim. You often hear of many black fathers being absent from their children’s lives, so it was refreshing to see Leo and his father bonding — so precious. I also love how well this book showcases diversity. There are babies and caregivers of all different skin tones and hair types/colors featured throughout. A great book for the littlest readers!
    (Ages 0 - 3)

  • Hey Baby!

    by Andrea Pippins

    I absolutely love the mix of doodles and photography in this board book, which follows an adorable baby boy throughout his day — from wake-up time to bedtime and all the fun in between. Look for Andrea Pippins' Who Will You Be? this spring — it's a sweet story of a mother imagining her child's bright future.
    (Ages 0 - 3)

  • Baby Loves Gravity!

    by Ruth Spiro, illustrated by Irene Chan

    The Baby Loves Science series is a welcome addition to the category of STEM books, and I especially love the diversity of the little protagonists. In Baby Loves Gravity, a baby learns precisely why food falls from his highchair to the ground.
    (Ages 0 - 3)

  • Full, Full, Full of Love

    by Trish Cooke, illustrated by Paul Howard

    This tender story will warm your heart. The unbreakable bond between little Jay Jay and his grandmother is so sweet and definitely full of love!
    (Ages 2 - 5)

  • Peekaboo Bedtime

    by Rachel Isadora

    In this story, a toddler boy plays peekaboo with everyone from his grandparents to his puppy, until it’s finally time to snuggle into bed with his blankie. When my kids were younger they loved having this book read to them over and over again.
    (Ages 2 - 5)

  • Last Stop on Market Street

    by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson

    I love the overall message of this wonderful book! Little CJ is so lucky to have a grandmother who teaches him to see things from a different perspective. If only all children could be so fortunate.
    (Ages 3 - 5)

  • The King of Kindergarten

    by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

    From the Newbery Honor-winning author of Crown comes a story about confidence. After his mother tells him he'll be the "King of Kindergarten," this little boy has all the enthusiasm he needs to seize the first day of school! The King of Kindergarten is sure to inspire other kids who are a little apprehensive about starting school, and remind them to be brave and kind those around them.
    (Ages 3-6)

  • Cool Cuts

    by Mechal Renee Roe

    Cool Cuts is a joyful celebration of natural hair in all its expressive possibilities. We see boys with twists and cornrows, afros and waves — each proudly declaring the book's repeated affirmation: "I am born to be awesome!" Isn't that the truth?
    (Ages 3 - 7)

  • The Ring Bearer

    by Floyd Cooper

    Told from the perspective of the ring bearer Jackson, this book shows little readers that getting married symbolizes the start of something new. It also shows children how families grow and change and teaches them about responsibility and commitment. I think it’s the perfect book to gift to a little ring bearer or flower girl for an upcoming wedding, as it may help them cope with feeling nervous about the wedding or adding new people to their family.
    (Ages 3 - 7)

  • Mr. Scruff

    by Simon James

    On its surface, Mr. Scruff is about a boy and a dog finding friendship and a sense of home from each other. But it's also a story about expanding our pool of possible friends - not everyone you befriend has to be just like you. In fact, our differences can make our relationships even richer.
    (Ages 3 - 7)

  • A Beach Tail

    by Karen Lynn Williams, illustrated by Floyd Cooper

    Gregory and his father are spending a day at the beach. Gregory manages to travel down the beach quite a long way, losing sight of his dad and the blue umbrella. On his journey back to find his dad he encounters a jellyfish, a sand castle, a ghost crab, and more. A great book to read during the beach days of summer.
    (Ages 3 - 7)

  • Max and the Tag-Along Moon

    by Floyd Cooper

    After a visit to his grandpa’s house, Max is told by his grandpa that the moon will follow him all the way home. On the car ride back home, Max watches the moon as it tags along. But what happens when the sky starts to get cloudy and Max can no longer see the moon? Was his grandpa telling him the truth? An adorable story that shows a beautiful bond between a boy and his grandpa.
    (Ages 3 - 7)

  • Jabari Jumps

    by Gaia Cornwall

    Little Jabari is definitely ready to jump off the diving board, at least he thinks he is. He passed his swim test and completed his swimming lessons. So jumping off the diving board should be easy, right? With a little encouragement and a pep talk from his dad, Jabari overcomes his fear and works up the courage to make a big splash. I love the fact that this book features a father with the kids instead of a mother. Perfect for the summer season or Father's Day!
    (Ages 4 - 8)

  • He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands

    by Kadir Nelson

    Nelson takes the old spiritual that has become one of America's best-known songs and turns it into a beautiful picture book following a boy and his family. The message of the song — rejoicing in the beauties of the natural world — is wonderfully interpreted throughout the book's pages.
    (Ages 4 - 8)

  • Double Bass Blues

    by Andrea J. Loney, illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez

    A young boy named Nic is devoted to his music, from his school days playing in the orchestra to his evenings performing at his granddaddy's jazz club. As Nick and his huge double bass are jostled by the busy crowd on his commute home, we watch him move between worlds, his talent for music the tie between them.
    (Ages 4 - 8)

  • More-igami

    by Dori Kleber, illustrated by G. Brian Karas

    Joey loves things that fold: maps, accordions ... he even sleeps in a foldaway bed. One day, his classmate Sarah Takimoto's mother comes to school and folds a plain piece of paper into a crane right before Joey's eyes. Joey is amazed! He decides he wants to become an origami master. Follow little Joey on his quest to master the art of folding paper (origami). At the back of the book you’ll find origami ladybug instructions. Great for kids who love creativity and of course, origami! Also ideal for teaching children about patience, hard work, and discipline.
    (Ages 4 - 8)

  • Young Pele

    by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome

    Pelé is widely considered one of the all-time greats in the soccer world, but how did he rise to the top? Award-winning author-illustrator team Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome bring Pelé's extraordinary story to life — from his childhood in Brazil to his time in the highest ranks of the sport.
    (Ages 4 - 8)

  • Dear Dragon

    by Josh Funk, illustrated by Rodolfo Montalvo

    I think this is a fun book about a boy and a dragon who are pen pals. It’s great for teaching children to look past physical differences and appreciate the person underneath.
    (Ages 4 - 8)

  • Octopus Stew

    by Eric Velasquez

    Pura Belpré Award and Coretta Scott King Award winner Eric Velasquez brings much-needed Black-Latinx representation to children's literature with his characters. In Octopus Stew, a young boy saves his grandmother from a giant octopus with wit and bravery. Meanwhile, the book celebrates the traditions of oral storytelling and tall tales swapped among family.
    (Ages 4 - 8)

  • Those Shoes

    by Maribeth Boelts, illustrated by Noah Z. Jones

    Jeremy just wants" those shoes." A pair of black high-tops with white stripes. The same pair that all his friends have. When Jeremy finally gets a pair of "those shoes" what he does with them is very touching. This book delivers powerful lessons on topics like being grateful, sharing, kindness, friendship, and generosity.
    (Ages 5 - 8)

  • Keats’s Neighborhood

    by Ezra Jack Keats

    Of course, you can't create a reading list of black boyhood without mentioning Peter from The Snowy Day - but Peter's adventures and Keats's stories extend so far beyond that blustery day. This collection of nine Keats stories will expand your reading world.
    (Ages 5 - 8)

  • Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis

    by Jabari Asim, illustrated by E.B. Lewis

    Read this amazing book to get a glimpse into the childhood of Civil Rights Leader John Lewis. John knows early on he wants to be a preacher. So when he’s put in charge of the family’s flock of chickens, he soon discovers they are the perfect audience to practice preaching to.
    (Ages 5 - 8)

  • Waiting for Pumpsie

    by Barry Wittenstein, illustrated by London Ladd

    Bernard loves his home team, the Boston Red Sox. But, they're the last team in Major League Baseball to integrate, so he's never seen anyone on the team who looks like him. Finally, in 1959, Elijah "Pumpsie" Green is called up from the minor leagues, and Bernard and his family excitedly head to Fenway Park for Pumpsie's first home game. A dual narrative of Pumpsie's baseball career and the importance of seeing ourselves represented in the world.
    (Ages 5 - 8)

  • Before There Was Mozart: The Story of Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George

    by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome

    Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George was born on Christmas Day in 1739 on the tiny island of Guadeloupe in the West Indies. He was the son of a white plantation owner and a black slave. Joseph went on to become a very talented violin player and musician in France. During one of his performances young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was in the audience. This was before Mozart was well-known. In the end, Joseph does indeed perform for the King and Queen of France and is invited back on several occasions. In 2001, a street, Rue du Chevalier de Saint-George, was named in his honor. An awesome historical nonfiction book for children and music lovers.
    (Ages 5 - 9)

  • Don't Throw It to Mo

    by David A. Adler, illustrated by Sam Ricks

    Mo Jackson has a lot of enthusiasm for sports, though not all the natural talent in the world. Still, he tries his best and figures out ways to use his small size to his advantage during football season - and on the baseball, basketball, and soccer teams, too!
    (Ages 6 - 7)

  • Ron’s Big Mission

    by Rose Blue and Corinne Naden, illustrated by Don Tate

    This is an inspirational true story about a young boy named Ron McNair and how he desegregated his library. In the 1950's in South Carolina it was forbidden for African Americans to have their own library card. Ron McNair didn't like that rule so he decided to do something about it. He loved going to the library to read books about airplanes and space, but he wanted to be able to read his books at home. Read this book to find out what Ron did in order to take a stand. Ron later went on to become an astronaut who unfortunately lost his life in the 1986 Challenger explosion. The library where Ron got his library card is dedicated to astronaut McNair.
    (Ages 6 - 8)

  • Follow Chester!

    by Gloria Respress-Churchwell, illustrated by Laura Freeman

    In the Jim Crow-era South, black football players from visiting teams were forced to sit on the sidelines. But during a 1947 game at the University of Virginia, Chester Pierce made history when his Harvard team devised an off-the-field play they called "Follow Chester!" Pierce led a remarkable life up to that moment, and this biography reveals it all.
    (Ages 6 - 9)

  • Jump!: From the Life of Michael Jordan

    by Floyd Cooper

    Did you know Michael Jordon wasn’t very good at playing basketball as a kid? In fact, everyone in his family thought Michael’s older brother Larry would turn out to be the professional athlete. Based on the true story of how Michael Jordan grew up as an ordinary boy in the heart of a North Carolina suburb, this book will leave little readers feeling empowered and inspired.
    (Ages 6 - 9)

  • Buzzing with Questions

    by Janice N. Harrington, illustrated by Theodore Taylor III

    Charles Henry Turner was the first African American entomologist, and in this fascinating picture book-biography, his work and legacy are rightfully moved to the spotlight. Ever since childhood, Turner's curiosity about insects and the natural world was unquenchable, and he sought out answers — even when racial prejudice threatened to stymie his progress. A must-read to fill in the gaps of our black history knowledge, both for children and adults.
    (Ages 7 - 10)

  • Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions

    by Chris Barton, illustrated by Don Tate

    I hate to admit that I had no clue who actually invented the Super Soaker until reading this book. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it was invented by a black man named Lonnie Johnson! Who knew? This book teaches kids about things like creativity, problem-solving, tenacity, grit, patience, rejection, and hard work. I’d highly recommend this book for kids who have a love for rockets, inventions, water guns, and a mind for creativity. Also great for studying black inventors. I think kids will enjoy learning about the many challenges Lonnie faced and how he solved his problems. A fun summertime read!
    (Ages 7 - 10)