Like any other ‘top books’ list, this one is subjective. The titles are numbered, but not ranked and it’s worth noting that choosing between a large number of books was quite difficult, especially since three of the authors included have penned more than two other children’s books which my kids (and I) also love. The books that made it on the list are selected not only according to my own tastes, but also because of my children’s reactions to them; how often they want them read and the levels of engagement they lead to based on their content. For kids, reading content is not only about the text but also the illustrations, which play a huge part in my own children’s reading preferences.
1. ‘A is for Activist’ by Innosanto Nagaro
‘A is for Activist’ is an ABC book, using beautiful drawings, clever alliteration and rhymes to engage children. Because of the way it is written, even kids who can’t read are able to memorise and recite its contents. In my household, the book has opened up a way to introduce ‘big’ concepts like abolitionist, ally, feminism and many others to the kids. The discussions we have as they want to know what the words mean are valuable moments which have allowed the kids to grapple with the values I try to uphold in my household, as well as issues affecting our daily lives. As the kids grow older, it’s clear from their questions and observations, that it has helped them be more critical in their thinking and their understanding of their own roles in the world, mainly because it has given them the language to express these. I highly recommend this book which is a welcome alternative to mainstream children’s media which is predominantly stuck in outdated gender norms; a shortage of black voices and the exclusion of queer people.
“A is for activist.
Advocate. Abolitionist. Ally.
Actively Answering A call to Action.
Are you an Activist?”
2. ‘Peeny Butter Fudge’ by Toni Morrison and Slade Morrison
I am generally a huge fan of the children’s series of books written by this mother and son duo, but it is this collaboration that takes first place. While ‘Peeny Butter Fudge’ has no educational message, it is a winner in positive messaging that celebrates family and the special relationships children have with their grandparents. Leaving three children with Nana, along with a long list of instructions which includes a healthy lunch, Mother goes out for the day. Nana on the other hand ignores the list, plays pretend, reads them a story and plays with them in a way that turns an ordinary day into a special one- before making peeny butter fudge with them as she did with their mother once upon a time. Their adventures are shared in wonderful rhyming text, which my children just love. In many ways the book is a reflection of the relationship between my kids and I and them with their grandmother. I make rules, but when they go over for the holidays, she breaks them all and I find myself horrified when the kids return and excitedly tell me about doing things I never let them do. So for the kids, this book captures the fun they have when they are with their granny and for me, the scene in which Mother finds the kitchen in a state, but fortunately her horror is dispelled by memories of preparing peeny butter fudge with her mother is something I can relate with.
3.‘Refilwe’ by Zukiswa Wanner
The importance of fairy tales, which have been with us for a long time, is well documented. They help develop children’s imaginations; help them develop cultural literacy and are also just fun. For young minds the lessons these stories hold are very important, so too is the clear distinction between good and bad as children cannot fully grasp grey areas. But as a black parent, trying to foster a love of reading in my children, along with the many benefits of fairy tales, it is very important that my children are able to identify with characters and read about people who look like them. And this is exactly the kind of gap that ‘Refilwe’ fills by retelling the story of Rapunzel. Set in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, Refilwe is given away to a witch living next door, because of her biological mother’s craving for morogo from their neighbour’s garden. And instead of a tower, Refilwe is put in a cave on top of a mountain from which she throws down her long dreadlocks to let up her adoptive mother. Eventually Refilwe meets the prince of the kingdom, Tumi and they face heartache, but like all fairy tales there is a happily ever after. My kids love this book and when playing they can often be heard chanting, “Refilwe, Refilwe, let down your locks. So I can climb the scraggy rocks.” The book is also available in indigenous languages, which further makes it a winner in my eyes.
4. ‘Sit In: How four friends stood up by sitting down’ by Andrea Davis Pinkney
My kids and I really enjoy most of Andrea Davis Pinkney’s kids books but it is ‘The Sit In’, which coincidentally was our first Pinkney read, that would captivate our household. The book tells the story of the 1960 sit-in started by four young men, who courageously defied the whites’ only edict of the time by sitting down at the lunch counter of a Woolworth’s department store in America. It tells the story of civil disobedience that would become a defining moment against racial segregation in a poetic manner which the kids greatly enjoy. Raising black children in a racist world for me means exposing them to the realities of racism, which they will experience at some point or another, and ensuring that they know standing against it is part of a just fight. This book is an excellent entry-point to having that conversation.
5. ‘Full, Full, Full of Love’ by Trish Cooke
Like many of Cooke’s offerings we have greatly enjoyed, ‘Full, Full, Full of Love’ conveys very positive messaging about family ties and how they are treasured by children. Jay Jay who is the youngest member of a big family helps his granny prepare dinner, focusing on the bond between them and how he takes in so much at her place. He gets hungry before the food is ready and granny is forced to distract him as the cooking goes on. Eventually the family shows up and the food is ready with everyone being treated to a feast. But to my children what matters most is the sense that Jay Jay is very loved, something they compare with the love they feel from their own family, even though it’s not as big as the one in the book.
Although not on the list, I would definitely also recommend that parents keep an eye out for books by Niki Daly, which include titles such as ‘The Herd Boy’ and ‘Happy Birthday Jamela’. My kids have greatly enjoyed them and my son who is the younger one, particularly enjoys Daly’s ‘little hands books’ series.