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Historical Depictions of Black Characters in Children’s Picture Books

Shreya Joshi (she/her) is a research assistant for the Diverse BookFinder. Originally from Pune, India, she recently completed her first year at Bates College in the United States. She intends to major in history and believes that without understanding the past, one cannot begin to contextualize present day complexities. She has greatly enjoyed her time working for the DBF and reading diverse children's books. 

I recently came across an article discussing the historical trends of children’s literature and argued that these trends could not be separated from America’s racial history.

The article highlighted the work of Amanda Gailey, which emphasizes that children’s literature provides valuable insights into understanding the dominant views held toward race in society. These views then shed light on the “racial imagination of adults,” and the ideas they wish to impart to their children.

Gailey’s research reminded me of the content I covered in my own coursework as a first-year student at Bates College. In particular, I recall listening to a lecture by Stuart Hall in a cultural anthropology course. Hall argued “communication is always linked with power,” and groups that wield power in society are able to influence what gets represented in the media. When I began working for the Diverse BookFinder, I saw parallels from much of what I had learned, and thought back to the lecture by Hall. I observed that the lack of representation of BIPOC characters in children’s books, especially Black characters, reflects deeper issues. Issues that are historically rooted within the American society.

I began to question: how have Black characters historically been represented in children’s books? 

More importantly, I wanted to know: how have the past few decades of increasing demands for racial justice been reflected in the representation of Black characters in children’s books?

Studies on the Representation of Black Characters

In 1965, educator Nancy Larrick published "The All-White World of Children’s Books," which discussed her research on the topic. Larrick singled out two significant trends in the depictions of Black characters in children’s books: the complete omission and thus erasure of Black representation, or the problematic stereotyping of Black representation.

Larrick’s article detailed a survey she undertook that collected both quantitative and qualitative data to explore the representation of Black characters. The survey compiled data from 63 publishers, with a total of 5,206 books from 1962-1964, and concluded:

  • 6.7% of the books surveyed included one or more Black characters represented in either text or illustrations.
  • Fewer than 1% of the books surveyed portrayed Black characters in a contemporary American setting.
  • 60% of the books surveyed with one or more Black characters were set outside the United States or before World War II. 
  • Most often books that depicted Black characters showed them as “a servant or slave, a sharecropper, a migrant worker, or a menial,” playing into harmful stereotypes. 
Image source: Facing History & Ourselves

Nearly a decade later in an article, titled “Blacks in the World of Children’s Literature,” Jeanne S. Chall et al. (1979) replicated Larrick’s study to determine whether advancements were made in the representation of Black characters in children’s books. They surveyed 4,775 books from fifty-one publishers between 1973 and 1975, and concluded:

  • 14.4% of the books surveyed included one or more Black characters in the text or illustration.
  • 70% of the books surveyed that included Black characters were set in the United States. 
  • Black characters played significant roles in the majority of books in which they appeared, with 75% in main roles and 16% in secondary roles. 

The decade between the two surveys reflected notable advancements made toward Black representation in children’s books. However, it remained evident that this progress, although encouraging, was not enough. 

In their hopes for the future, Chall et al. wrote, 

Perhaps the best way to improve the situation further is to encourage and recognize talented writers from various minority groups who will create the literature from their own experiences.”

Black Representation Into the 21st Century

The start of the 21st century witnessed increased advancements made in advocating for racial justice in the United States. Children’s books saw Black authors using literature to empower Black youth and illustrate the progress made by Black communities in their call for equality during different activist movements of the 20th and 21st centuries. 

Today, many books are highlighting the work of Black activists during the civil rights movement, and an increasing number of them have specifically focused on the involvement of Black children as proponents of social change. Recent books have also depicted contemporary social movements such as Black Lives Matter, and have placed Black children as central figures in the fight for justice. 

I have noticed examples of this in the Diverse BookFinder collection, such as these two books that capture the involvement of Black youth in social justice activism.

Illustrations by Eric Velasquez from A Sweet Smell of Roses by Angela Johnson

Johnson’s book follows the narrator and her sister’s involvement in the civil rights movement. While holding posters calling for change and marching alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Johnson depicts the two young girls as proponents of racial equality, equal to their adult counterparts. The illustrations present Black youth and adults together, marching for a single cause, and showcase children as equally important members of the civil rights movement. 

Breonna Marches Through Time


by Shatyia Givens, Geralyn Hooks, Daveena Kenny, Jocktavious Montford and Anthony White

"Breonna is an 8-year-old time traveler living in Southeast DC. As she watches 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, she sees her once-vibrant community wilt into sadness and anger. She is filled with questions about what is going on and why — and she’s determined to do something about it. Breonna travels back in time and then sees the future in order to learn about the power of speaking out. Can a visit with a youth activist from the past inspire her to bring change to the present day? The authors of this story are part of an innovative program run by Reach Incorporated. Reach develops grade-level readers and capable leaders by preparing teens to serve as tutors and role models for younger students, resulting in improved literacy outcomes for both. Learn more at Books were created in collaboration with Shout Mouse Press. Shout Mouse is a nonprofit writing and publishing house dedicated to amplifying underheard voices. Through writing workshops that lead to professional publication, Shout Mouse empowers writers from marginalized backgrounds to tell their own stories in their own voices and, as published authors, to act as agents of change. Learn more at" -- publisher

Oppression & Resilience Race/Culture Concepts

This book follows 8-year-old Breonna, a time traveler who finds herself in the midst the civil rights movement. During this journey, Marilyn Luper Hildreth (an 8-year-old who participated in a drug store sit-in in Oklahoma City, OK) inspired Breonna. The authors show Breonna realizing that like Marilyn, she is powerful and can call upon change within her community. The book ends in the present, with scenes from the Black Lives Matter movement and showing children and adults together calling for the end of racial injustices.

An analysis of the Diverse BookFinder’s data of more than 2,000 recently published picture books, found approximately 31% featured Black characters. The breakdown of this data provides valuable insights into the progression of how Black characters are represented in children’s books.


In my experience working with the Diverse BookFinder, I have come across many children’s books featuring Black and other BIPOC characters. Although they vary in themes, many of these books convey important messages and highlight different cultures in a meaningful way. I recognize the importance of seeing oneself represented in children’s literature. As a member of the BIPOC community myself, I wish that growing up I could have read more books that highlighted my culture and race. Reading these kinds of books now as an adult and as part of the DBF project, I hope all the children of today and the future can see themselves in books and know their cultures, stories, and identities matter.

In "Black stories matter: on the whiteness of children’s books," Andrea Adomako writes, "Children are not just the passive recipients of what they read. They should be seen as active subjects, creating and recreating themselves in relation to the representations that surround them." This is more and more evident as children’s literature is recognized as an important tool of education, and as authors rely on history and their own experiences to create narratives that include and empower youth from all racial backgrounds. 

We cannot deny the crucial role representation plays in children’s books and how important it is for young kids to see characters like themselves depicted in the books they read. We must also acknowledge that while much progress has been made, BIPOC characters are still  underrepresented in children’s picture books. There remains a long, but hopeful path ahead in the world of diverse children’s literature. 

For more great picture books that center black youth as social justice activists, check out the following titles:

Someday is now


by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Jade Johnson

Presents the life of Clara Luper, an African-American teacher and local civil rights leader who taught her students about equality and led them in lunch counter sit-in demonstrations in Oklahoma City in 1958.

Biography Cross Group Oppression & Resilience

Change Sings


by Amanda Gorman and Loren Long

"In this stirring, much-anticipated picture book by presidential inaugural poet and activist Amanda Gorman, anything is possible when our voices join together. As a young girl leads a cast of characters on a musical journey, they learn that they have the power to make changes—big or small—in the world, in their communities, and in most importantly, in themselves. With lyrical text and rhythmic illustrations that build to a dazzling crescendo by #1 New York Times bestselling illustrator Loren Long, Change Sings is a triumphant call to action for everyone to use their abilities to make a difference." -- publisher

Any Child Cross Group

Lubaya’s Quiet Roar


by Marilyn Nelson and Philemona Williamson

"In this stirring picture book about social justice activism and the power of introverts, a quiet girl’s artwork makes a big impression at a protest rally. Newbery Honor winner Marilyn Nelson and fine artist Philemona Williamson have come together to create this lyrical, impactful story of how every child, even the quietest, can make a difference in their community and world. Young Lubaya is happiest when she’s drawing, often behind the sofa while her family watches TV. There, she creates pictures on the backs of her parents’ old protest posters. But when upsetting news shouts into their living room, her parents need the posters again. The next day her family takes part in a march, and there, on one side of the posters being held high, are Lubaya’s drawings of kids holding hands and of the sun shining over the globe—rousing visual statements of how the world could be. " -- publisher

Any Child

Love Is Powerful


by Heather Dean Brewer and LeUyen Pham

"A little girl carries a big message—and finds it thrillingly amplified by the rallying crowd around her—in an empowering story for the youngest of activists. Mari raised her sign for everyone to see. Even though she was small and the crowd was very big, and she didn’t think anyone would hear, she yelled out. Mari is getting ready to make a sign with crayon as the streets below her fill up with people. “What are we making, Mama?” she asks. “A message for the world,” Mama says. “How will the whole world hear?” Mari wonders. “They’ll hear,” says Mama, “because love is powerful.” Inspired by a girl who participated in the January 2017 Women’s March in New York City, Heather Dean Brewer’s simple and uplifting story, delightfully illustrated by LeUyen Pham, is a reminder of what young people can do to promote change and equality at a time when our country is divided by politics, race, gender, and religion." -- publisher

Any Child

V Is for Voting


by Kate Farrell and Caitlin Kuhwald

"A vibrant, inspiring alphabet book that introduces the youngest of aspiring activists to the touchstones of civics. A is for active participation. B is for building a more equal nation. C is for citizens' rights and our duty... An engaging introduction to social justice and civil rights, V Is for Voting is the perfect gift for parents who want to start teaching their children the importance of voting and activism early. Perfect for fans of A Is for Activist and Woke Baby and just in time for primary season, V Is for Voting pairs Kate Farrell's playful rhyming text with Caitlin Kuhwald's bold art to make a gorgeous—and crucial—addition to every young reader's library." -- publisher" -- publisher


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