Black books: Dr. Debbie Reese

This year, I’ve invited non Black people who are in someway connected to youth literature to share a list of 5-10 books written or illustrated by Blacks that will appeal to children. I asked for anything from board books and graphic novels to biographies and adult crossover. The authors or illustrators could be living or dead, U.S. residents or not. The recommendations are nothing short of superb.

Today’s recommendations are from Dr. Debbie Reese. Tribally enrolled at Nambé Pueblo, Debbie’s work on representations of Native peoples in children’s and young adult books is used by educators and within the publishing industry. Many regard her website, American Indians in Children’s Literature, as the go-to resource for analysis of books with Native content. Debbie is known for her expertise in Native American children’s literature but her training in education and librarianship builds a foundation in children’s literature in general. From that knowledge comes a very eclectic gathering of Black authored titles that will appeal to young readers.

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Here’s Dr. Reese’s list.

Benny Doesn’t Like to be Hugged by Zetta Elliott and Purple Wong. (CreateSpace, 2017) 
Screen Shot 2020-02-08 at 1.21.12 PMA little girl uses rhyming verse to describe the unique traits of her autistic friend. Benny likes trains and cupcakes without sprinkles, but he can also be fussy sometimes. The narrator doesn’t mind, however, because “true friends accept each other just the way they are.” A gentle story encouraging children to appreciate and accept our differences.
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Someday is Now: Clara Luper and the 1958 Oklahoma City Sit-ins by Olugbemisola Rhyday-Perkovich and Jade Johnson. (Seagrass Press, 2018)
As a child, Clara saw how segregation affected her life. Her journey famously led her to Oklahoma, where she and her students desegregated stores and restaurants that were closed to African-Americans. With courage and conviction, Clara Luper led young people to “do what had to be done.”

Screen Shot 2020-02-08 at 1.22.57 PMTea Cakes for Tosh by Kelly Starling Lyons and E. B. Lewis. (Putnam, 2012)
Tosh loves his grandma Honey and her delicious golden tea cakes. When she tells the story of how the cookies became part of their family, he feels like he’s flying back in time. But then one day, Honey starts forgetting things, even an ingredient for the tea cakes. Inspired by his love for his grandma and respect for his family’s heritage, Tosh finds a way to give Honey and himself a special gift that keeps the memory alive.

Screen Shot 2020-02-08 at 1.23.36 PMPoet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton by Don Tate. (Peachtree, 2015)
In the nineteenth century, North Carolina slave George Moses Horton taught himself to read and earned money to purchase his timethough not his freedom. Horton became the first African American to be published in the South, protesting slavery in the form of verse.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014)
Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each Screen Shot 2020-02-08 at 1.25.36 PMplace. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.

March 3 book series by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell. (Top Shelf Productions)
Before he became a respected Congressman, John Lewis was clubbed, gassed, arrested over 40 times, and nearly killed by angry mobs and state police, all while nonviolently protesting racial discrimination. He marched side-by-side with Martin Luther King as the youngest leader of the Civil Rights Movement that would change a nation forever. Now, experience John Lewis’ incredible story first-hand, brought to life in a stunning graphic novel trilogy.


Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza wrote the 2019 adaptation of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People (ReVisioning American History for Young People).

One thought on “Black books: Dr. Debbie Reese

  1. On Feb 13, 2020, Ashleigh (she’s 13) from OfGlades, wrote a series of tweets that said:

    “Ms. Debbie has taught us a lot & shared sensitive information, so I was very sad to see that she chose Benny Doesn’t Like to be Hugged by Zetta Elliott as one of her fav bks. My little sister Vi is autistic. It’s good Ms. Debbie writes ‘autistic’ instead of ‘child with autism,’ but that’s where the good stops. This bk is full of painful stereotypes. Vi likes hugs as much as me! I can be fussy too. Don’t understand what Ms. Debbie means by “unique traits.” Vi doesn’t exist to teach everyone to “accept our differences.” (This is more than 2 tweets, but I have a lot of feels). We all saw the numbers about disabled ppl in bks. This 1 doesn’t help, tho we love other books by Ms. Zetta. Follow @BeingKaylaSmith 2 learn more. TY.

    It is crucial that I listen to readers, especially when the reader is sharing personal experiences with a book. An #ActuallyAutistic person responded to OfGlades, saying that as a child, they hated being hugged, and found Benny Doesn’t Like to be Hugged affirming. OfGlades replied by sharing book covers for A Friend for Henry, and, I See Things Differently: A First Look at Autism. OfGlades also said “We’re glad it resonated with you. Unfortunately, stereotypical behavior is pretty much the only subject of picture bks about autistic kids. The one on the left is an award winner from this year—the other has almost the same exact cover image. Today’s kids want & deserve more.”

    Clearly, the OfGlades group is seeing a pattern in how children’s books are depicting autism and are asking for more. They’re right to ask. I’ve learned from them and am grateful to them for calling me out.


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