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Celebrating the Black Diaspora in Children’s Books

Krista Aronson

Dr. Krista Aronson is a co-founder and the Director of the Diverse BookFinder.

She is a professor of psychology and Associate Dean of Faculty at Bates College in Maine.

I am a citizen of the African diaspora. My Black ancestors came to the United States involuntarily as enslaved people several generations ago. Their unrecorded history remains untold, their names are largely lost forever, but I know I come from people of great wisdom and strength. 

I learned this truth partially from books. But, not those I was exposed to as a child. I don’t want others to have to wait to learn that the past and present of African-descended peoples is rich, proud, and beautiful. Luckily, children no longer have to wait, because wonderful titles about the Black experience are abundant and available for us to put in the hands of young readers.

This is why the Diverse BookFinder is a co-sponsor of the Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival. Inspired by the late Ashley Bryan, the festival message is simple and rooted in his intentions to teach Black children about their legacy – where they came from and what they are made of. 

For four years, outstanding books and resources have been carefully selected and curated so that all children may find windows and mirrors into the diversity of the African experience in the United States. Though the physical distribution of books directly to children is a local effort here in Maine, the titles and enrichment activities are available to anyone, across the nation and around the world.

In the 21st century, children’s books portraying the experience of African descendants are increasing in number, scope, and quality, growing towards a hoped-for representation of the full range of human experience. In the seven years since the launch of the DBF website and database, we coded 5013 picture books published between 2002 and 2022. Using the data collected from these titles, we can see that overall, Black/African/African American characters are featured in 31% of the books in our collection, the highest representation of any BIPOC group. The 1532 titles with Black characters also show the widest range of representation in these categories:

The database also reveals real changes in how African/African American characters are portrayed. For instance, we see some significant shifts when comparing books with Black characters published ten years apart. Most striking is the sheer increase in numbers: 55 titles in 2010 more than tripled to 182 titles in 2020! With such growth in numbers, there are more titles in every category, but comparing a year’s titles as a whole, we can see shifts in types of depictions: 15% of books featuring Black characters published in 2010 are characterized as Any Child; that is, books that are not about race or culture. Ten years later, this category has increased to 41%. At the same time, the percentage of biographies did the opposite — 41% in 2010 to 23% in 2020, and the percentage of titles categorized as Oppression also decreased, from 27% in 2010 to 14% in 2020.

I live a life my African, enslaved ancestors could only dream of – I hold a PhD, am a tenured professor, and even serve as an administrator at my institution. I remain forever grateful to my father and the countless others who persevered against all odds to make these personal achievements possible. The Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival is a small part of how I give back. 

Here are the Festival titles being celebrated in 2023:


Cover of Ashley Bryan's "Freedom Over Me"

Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life

Written & Illustrated by Ashley Bryan

This gentle yet deeply powerful way goes to the heart of how a slave is given a monetary value by the slave owner, tempering this with the one thing that can’t be bought or sold: dreams. Inspired by the actual will of a plantation owner that lists the worth of each and every one of his “workers,” the author has created collages around that document, and others like it.

Through fierce paintings and expansive poetry, he imagines and interprets each person’s life on the plantation, as well as the life their owner knew nothing about—their dreams and pride in knowing that they were worth far more than an overseer or madam ever would guess. Visually epic, and never before done, this stunning picture book is unlike anything you’ve seen.


Cover of Terry Farish's "A Feast for Joseph"

A Feast for Joseph

by Terry Farish and OD Bonny; illustrated by Ken Daley

When Joseph and Mama lived in a refugee camp in East Africa, everyone cooked and ate together. And Joseph could always hear someone playing the awal. It’s much too quiet and lonely in his new home. Though Whoosh, the girl who lives upstairs, is friendly, Joseph misses having more people around, especially his grandmother, who still lives across the ocean. So he invites his relatives in the city to come for dinner, then he invites his teacher, then Whoosh and her mami — but everyone is too busy.

Ever hopeful, Joseph picks the last greens from the garden. At least he and Mama will be ready to cook if someone comes. The next night Whoosh and her mami appear at the door with a big cake, and Whoosh and Joseph cook up a feast.

A touching story about adjusting to a new home and the pleasure of cooking and sharing food with friends.

This and the companion book to Joseph’s Big Ride are set in Portland, Maine’s Kennedy Park where both authors have deep connections

Cover of Dinah Johnson's "Indigo Dreaming"

Indigo Dreaming

By Dinah Johnson; illustrated by Anna Cunha

A gorgeous, imagination-sparking introduction to the beauty and interconnectedness of the Black diaspora.

A young girl living on the coast of South Carolina dreams of her distant relatives on the shores of Africa and beyond. Indigo Dreaming is a poetic meditation between two young girls—on different sides of the sea—who wonder about how they are intricately linked by culture, even though they are separated by location. The girls’ reflections come together, creating an imaginative and illuminating vision of home, as well as a celebration of the Black diaspora.

This gorgeous lyrical tale engages the senses and evokes childlike curiosity and wonder.

Cover of Karen Callender's "Moonflower"


by Karen Callender; illustrated by Daniel Minter

Moon’s depression is overwhelming. Therapy doesn’t help, and Moon is afraid that their mom hates them because they’re sad. Moon’s only escape is traveling to the spirit realms every night, where they hope they’ll never return to the world of the living again.
The spirit realm is where they have their one and only friend, Wolf, and where they’re excited to experience an infinite number of adventures. But when the realm is threatened, it’s up to Moon to save the spirit world.

With the help of celestial beings and guard­ians, Moon battles monsters and shadows, and through their journey, they begin to learn that a magical adventure of love and acceptance awaits them in the world of the living, too.

This story of hope shows readers that our souls blossom when we realize that we are as worthy and powerful as the universe itself.

Cover of Jason Reynolds' "Stuntboy"

Stuntboy: In The Meantime

By Jason Reynolds; illustrated by Raúl the Third

Portico Reeves’s superpower is making sure all the other superheroes—like his parents and two best friends—stay super. And safe. Super safe. And he does this all in secret. No one in his civilian life knows he’s actually…Stuntboy!

But his regular Portico identity is pretty cool, too. He lives in the biggest house on the block, maybe in the whole city, which basically makes it a castle. His mom calls where they live an apartment building. But a building with fifty doors just in the hallways is definitely a castle. And behind those fifty doors live a bunch of different people who Stuntboy saves all the time. In fact, he’s the only reason the cat, New Name Every Day, has nine lives.

All this is swell except for Portico’s other secret, his not-so-super secret. His parents are fighting all the time. They’re trying to hide it by repeatedly telling Portico to go check on a neighbor “in the meantime.” But Portico knows “meantime” means his parents are heading into the Mean Time which means they’re about to get into it, and well, Portico’s superhero responsibility is to save them, too—as soon as he figures out how. Only, all these secrets give Portico the worry wiggles, the frets, which his mom calls anxiety. Plus, like all superheroes, Portico has an arch-nemesis who is determined to prove that there is nothing super about Portico at all.

Cover of K'NAAN's "When I Get Older"

When I Get Older: The Story behind “Wavin’ Flag”

By K’NAAN; illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez

In his first book for children, Somali-Canadian poet, rapper, singer, and songwriter K’NAAN tells his own story. Born in Somalia, he grew up in Mogadishu. His grandfather was a renowned poet who passed on his love of words to his grandson. When the Somali Civil War began in 1991, K’NAAN was just thirteen. His mother made the difficult decision to move her family so that they could grow up in safety. First in New York and then in Toronto, K’NAAN faced many challenges.

Like so many other immigrants, he had to make a place for himself in a world of alien customs, clothes, and language. His road was a hard one: he lost many friends to violence. But K’NAAN’s love of music, and his enormous talent, became a way for him to connect with his past, with his classmates, and eventually, to millions of people around the world. Not only does K’NAAN tell a story that will inspire and encourage young readers, but he provides a brief history of the Somalian conflict. The lyrics of “Wavin’ Flag” are also included.

Cover of Marie Arnold's "The Year I Flew Away"

The Year I Flew Away

By Marie Arnold

It’s 1985 and ten-year-old Gabrielle is excited to be moving from Haiti to America. Unfortunately, her parents won’t be able to join her yet and she’ll be living in a place called Brooklyn, New York, with relatives she has never met.

She promises her parents that she will behave, but life proves to be difficult in the United States, from learning the language to always feeling like she doesn’t fit in to being bullied. So when a witch offers her a chance to speak English perfectly and be “American,” she makes the deal.

But soon she realizes how much she has given up by trying to fit in and, along with her two new friends (one of them a talking rat), takes on the witch in an epic battle to try to reverse the spell. 

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