As you know, I love sharing picture books with children. Reading aloud picture books to kids builds important literacy skills and develops a love and appreciation for stories. And those of you who are long-time Imagination Soup readers know that I deeply value diversity in the literature I share with children.
Recently, I’ve also come to understand the authenticity and value of diverse picture books written by #ownvoices. OwnVoices is the term that signifies authors from marginalized groups who are writing books about characters and topics from those same groups.
As I consider what books to review and share with you, let me share my thought process in how I do that…
When I review books, I initially focus on the quality of the story. Basically, is it any good? If it’s not a wonderful story that kids will enjoy, I don’t even tell you about it. Examples are books with too much text to picture ratio, books that switch verb tenses, or books whose rhyme scheme doesn’t work. No, no, and no.
After I find good books, I consider diversity. I actively look for stories that represent a wide variety of people and cultures. In other words, books that represent the way the world actually is.
Finally, another consideration is uniqueness. I’ve been familiar with children’s books ever since I was a child and checked out boxes of books at a time. (Bags wouldn’t hold all my books!) Then, I read even more as a teacher when I used picture books and chapter books on a daily basis in my own classroom and as a literacy trainer. Now, as a book reviewer, I generally read hundreds of books every year. Needless to say, I know the kidlit field and want to find books with something new and unique. Not the same old plots that have been overdone. For example, the old familiar plot of a child separated from his stuffed animal / mother / pet.
Now you know more of what goes into my book lists and selections. Further, I hope you will love these OwnVoices picture books that I’m sharing with you today. They’re my favorites.
45 Favorite Diverse #Ownvoices Picture Books
B is for Baby by Atinuke, illustrated by Angela Brooksbank
THE LETTER B, AFRICA
What a genius concept for a letter of the alphabet that represents the culture and people of West Africa, too. Baby is going to take a basket of bananas to baba’s bungalow. (See all those “b” words?!) Big Brother doesn’t notice that he has a little stowaway in the basket — but we do. Readers will delight at seeing Baby’s little face peeking out of the basket while Brother rides his bike, passing a baobab, baboon, bus, and other words that start with the letter b before arriving at Baba’s. When Baba looks in the basket, out pops Baby! Aren’t these illustrations amazing?
Black is a Rainbow Color by Angela Joy, illustrated by Ekua Holmes
A little girl sits sadly on her porch steps thinking about the colors of the rainbow and how black isn’t in the rainbow. Poignant, lyrical metaphors and luminous illustrations tell readers what black is in the girl’s world — a crayon, a feather, braids, rhythm, blues, trains, dreams, and so much more. “Black is the color of ink staining page. Black is the mask that shelters his rage. Black are the birds in cages that sing– Black is a color. Black is a culture.// …My color is Black.” Her narration wholeheartedly celebrates black culture, showing pride, context, and history. She ends with the statement that in her box of crayons, black is a rainbow, too. Every single part of this incredible book is meaningful, beautiful, and memorable.
The Paper Kingdom by Helena Ku Rhee, illustrated by Pascal Campion
LOVING FAMILY / NIGHT WORKERS
When the babysitter cancels, Daniel’s parents have to take him to their night janitor jobs even though he is about to go bed. At their jobs, these creative parents weave an imaginative story for their son about a Paper King and dragons. Their stories keep him entertained while they work, even though he’s sleepy. This story is about loving, amazing parents who work at night and do everything they can to show their son the magic in the world. I love it!
Sumo Joe by Mia Wenjen, illustrated by Nat Iwata
Introduce your kids to two Japanese traditional martial arts — sumo and aikido in this story about a brother who likes sumo and a sister who prefers aikido. While the rhyming text is minimal, it is also full of rich vocabulary (with a glossary in back). For example, “Hands on knees, leg raised low, practice shiko.” Sumo Joe and his friends playing sumo in the living room. Until Aikido Jo comes home. Then the siblings face-off and end with a pillow fight. It’s such a fun story that is sure to get your kids up out of their chairs to imitate the moves.
Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal
NATIVE AMERICAN PRIDE
Priya Dreams of Marigolds and Masala by Meenal Patel
The author/illustrator creates an irresistible sensory experience of India. When Priya helps her Babi Ba cook rotli, her Babi Ba shares her memories of India… the smell of roasted cumin and masala, the sound of motorbikes whizzing by, the taste of a steaming cup of cha, the feel of the hot sun on your face, views of arches and domes of the buildings, rainbow of saris, and brightly colored marigolds. Later, Priya makes her Babi Ba paper orange marigolds for their doorway in the U.S. to remind her. I adore the writing, the illustrations, and the story that celebrates India’s culture as well as a close grandparent-grandchild relationship.
Magnificent Homespun Brown: A Celebration by Samara Cole Doyon, illustrated by Kaylani Juanita
#OWNVOICES / POC CULTURE / FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE / DESCRIPTIVE WRITING
Lyrical, figurative language (filled with similes, personification, and vivid imagery) not only celebrates people of color living life fully but transports readers into scenes rich with sensory imagery. “Deep, secret brown. Like the subtly churning river currents playfully beckoning me through my grandmother’s kitchen window, winding steadily past banks of tall grass and wild rose buses.” Or “Feathery brown. Like the jagged shadows of hemlock branches thrown over me and Daddy on a gentle mountain hike.” A stunning, joyful tribute.
The Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom by Teresa Robeson, illustrated by Rebecca Huang
FEMALE SCIENTIST BIOGRAPHY
Gorgeous collage-style artwork helps the author share female scientist, Wu Chien Shiung’s, inspiring life with young readers. Even though girls weren’t typically educated in the early 1900s, Chien Shiung’s parents believed in education for girls, helping her by opening a school for girls. Chien loved learning, especially math and physics. Eventually, she moved to the United States where she made significant scientific breakthroughs — even though she never won the Nobel Prize when she should have. She fought against prejudice and for equal rights for women and Asians, as well as becoming such a renowned physicist that she was dubbed “The Queen of Physics.” I highly recommend this book. You’ll find much to discuss and research further.
Sing with Me, Canta Conmigo by Jose-Luis Orozco, illustrated by Sara Palacios
Read and sing along with your preschoolers to favorite familiar children’s songs from the United States in both English and Spanish. For example, “The Wheels on the Bus” in Spanish is “Las Ruedas Del Camión” and “Old McDonald” in Spanish is “Juancho Pancho”. Use these songs for older kids to when teaching them either English OR Spanish because music helps children learn all sorts of things, languages included. Exciting, cheerful illustrations from the talented Sara Palacios.
A Girl Like Me by Angela Johnson, illustrated by Nina Crews
Colorful photos of girls collaged with textures, shapes, and other photographs, make this a visual feast for the eyes. The text narrates the dreams of girls and the limitations that society tries to place on them. This book shows girls being bold and going after their dreams.
Bedtime for Sweet Creatures by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon
Parents, you’ll love this relatable story about the production of going to bed — for a little boy and all his cuddly plush sweet creatures. The tireless mother helps all the stuffed animals go to bed first, then the little boy. Lots of rich imagery plus brightly colored collage illustrations make this a wonderful choice to read to children at bedtime, rich with family, imagination, and love.
Saturday by Oge Mora
DAY IN THE LIFE
Everything on their special day goes wrong but the mom and child acknowledge it’s all okay still because they’re together. What an important message about spending time with someone you love. Also, the ART — I can’t get enough of Mora’s collage artwork, it’s vibrant and beautiful.
Under My Hijab by Hena Khan, illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel
A little girl shares her life with us starting with her grandma baking bread. We meet her mama working as a doctor and her auntie creating art in her studio. The significant women in this girl’s life wear hijabs and also, sometimes don’t. They inspire her with all that they do and who they are. It’s an important slice-of-life story featuring strong, inspiring Muslim women not to mention, an area of diversity that doesn’t have much representation in children’s literature. This is a strong choice to add to your bookshelves.
The Piñata That the Farm Maiden Hung by Samantha R. Vamos, illustrated by Sebastia Serra
LATIN AMERICAN CULTURE / CUMULATIVE STORY
You’ll have a blast reading this cheerful, lyrical bilingual story! The farm maiden hangs the piñata. Who is it for? How did it get to be ready? You will see in this clever cumulative tale how the farmer, his family, and the animals helped to prepare the piñata and the birthday party festivities. Spanish words are in bolded capital letters and supported with lively illustrations so readers can infer what each word means. The repetition will help reinforce each new word. You’ll learn the piñata song at the end of this story, too — in English and in Spanish and directions to make your own piñata. A glossary of Spanish words at the ending should also help for any clarification. I love this sparkling celebration of culture and family!
Drawn Together by Minh Lê, illustrated by Dan Santat
ART / CONNECTION
Oh, my goodness! With stunning artwork, this diverse #ownvoices picture book shows how art brings together two generations separated by language and age. Mostly wordless, this is almost a graphic novel with comic-style panels. A boy arrives at his grandfather’s house. He’s frustrated because his grandfather doesn’t speak English. The two eat in silence. Then the boy begins drawing himself as a caped-superhero. Excited, his grandfather draws himself as a superhero — one garbed in what may be a traditional Thai ceremonial dress. (I’m not totally sure.) Their connection continues through art — each with his own style. It’s beautiful of so many levels, metaphorically and literally.
Birdsong by Julie Flett
SEASONS OF LIFE
Cree words interspersed throughout and earthy-toned collage illustrations give this book so much richness. Readers will understand that just like the season of nature, our human lives have seasons, too. With her classic simplicity filled with meaning, Flett tells the story of a girl through the seasons of a year. Moving to a new home is hard but its made easier when the girl, Katherena, befriends her older neighbor, Agnes. They spend time together, becoming good friends. Throughout, Katherena notices the seasons, the moon and the geese, the birds and the snow. One day, it’s time to say good-bye to Agnus whose life is at its end. The girl’s heart is sad and full. Powerful.
Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets: A Muslim Book of Shapes by Hena Khan, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini
SHAPES / MUSLIM CULTURE
I can not get over how amazing the art is in this book. Lavish, richly colored illustrations immediately drew me into this beautiful book of shapes from a Muslim perspective. “Hexagon is a tile, / bold and bright, / painted with an ayah / I love to recite.” Learn about the geometric shapes like circles, squares, and octagons from the daily life and architecture of someone who is Muslim.
Someday is Now: Clara Luper and the 1958 Oklahoma City Sit-Ins by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, illustrated by Jade Johnson
I love the captivating folk-art style illustrations, the repetitive text of “separate and unequal” and “someday was now,” plus that it’s a true story. It’s about an amazing woman named Clara who advocated for justice and equality during a time when black people weren’t permitted the same rights as white people. As a teacher, she inspired her students to believe that change was possible. Read how Clara and her students went to the Katz drugstore and asked to be served — even though the store didn’t serve black people.
Dreamers by Yuyi Morales
The artwork in this Own Voices story is exquisite. The narration based on the author’s own experiences is reflected in the journey of a mom and child traveling to a new place to live. It shows their loving bond and how books helped them develop their voices in their new country.
Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry, illustrated by Vashti Harrison
Zuri’s daddy helps her see how her hair lets her be her unique self. Like when she wears her hair in braids with beads, she is a princess, or when she wears it in two puffs, she’s a superhero. One day, Zuri decides to do her hair herself. Daddy helps her learn. But it’s pretty tricky at first but then Daddy gives Zuri the perfect supergirl style. I LOVE so much about this book — the celebration of culture, the dad with long hair and a tattoo, and that a dad that does his daughter’s hair.
Honeysmoke A Story of Finding Your Color by Monique Fields, illustrated by Yesenia Moises
Simone wonders what color her skin is — is she black or white? Her musings on her multiracial heritage and identity as well as the need for a word that fits her perfectly feel authentic and relatable. “Simone wants a color, one that shows who she is on the inside and the outside.” She explores and observes. Mama’s skin reminds her of the beehive’s honey while her daddy’s skin looks like smoke from a train. Simone knows that her color is honeysmoke. Readers will find this a beautiful diverse story that encourages important personal reflections.
Where Are You From? by Yamile Saied Mendez, illustrated by Jaime Kim
When people ask the little girl where she’s from, she’s puzzled that her reply, “here” is not accepted. She asks Abuelo because he knows everything and “like me, he looks like he doesn’t belong.” Abuelo says she’s from brave, strong gauchos, high mountains, warm, blue oceans, dark storms, sunshine,…but if she wants a place, she is “from my love, the love of all those before us…you are from all of us.” It’s a beautiful celebration of identity that I also hope will inform children (and adults) to not ask this ridiculous question because it makes people feel unwelcome, different, and other. (Instead, invite someone to play.)
The King of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL
Don’t miss this delightful book of positive presuppositions about the first day of school because today you’re going to be the King of Kindergarten! Rich imagery filled with hyperbole and metaphor plus captivating illustrations creates a festive atmosphere filled with exuberance and bravery. I love how this story shows a sequential day filled with the many happy possibilities at school including storytime, recess, playing with new friends, and a kind teacher.
Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed, illustrated by Stasia Burrington
Beautifully illustrated and inspirationally written! Little Mae dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Her parents told her she could do it if she worked hard, taking Mae to the library to find information and encouraging her astronaut pretend play after dinner. Despite her teacher’s discouragement (“Nursing would be a good profession for someone like you,“) Mae listened to her mom while sticking to her dream. Mae kept dreaming, believing, and working hard. Finally, she became the first African American female astronaut in space.
Wild Berries by Julie Flett
Grandma and Clarence have a tradition of picking berries together. “Grandma likes sweet / blueberries / ininimina, / soft blueberries, juicy blueberries. Clarence likes big blueberries, sour blueberries, blueberries that go POP in his mouth.” In nature, the two notice many things — an ant that tickles up Clarence’s leg, a fox, a spider, and birds. Many Cree words, part of the Algonquian language family, are included throughout this sweet slice-of-life story about a grandma and boy. I love the simplicity of the text as well as the many sound words that give this book a sensory atmosphere.
Bilal Cooks Daal by Aisha Saeed, illustrated by Anoosha Syed
SOUTH ASIAN CULTURAL FOOD
Bilal tells his friends all about daal. Together, they carefully prepare the ingredients, then wait as the flavors mix together. While they’re waiting, they play outside. Finally, the daal is ready for more ingredients and the best part of all — eating! This story makes me want to eat daal, too — it’s a savory introduction to this lentil dish from South Asia as well as a warm-hearted example of sharing traditional foods with friends from other cultures.
The Proudest Blue A Story of Hijab and Family by Ibtihaj Muhammad with S.K. Ali, illustrated by Hatem Aly
The Field by Baptiste Paul, illustrated by Jacqueline Alcantara
SOCCER / CARIBBEAN CULTURE
This enchanting picture book shows the joy of kids playing soccer (futbol) — in a green field on a Caribbean island. They get set up and start to play but the rain comes pouring down. Will they play on? Of course, they will! At least until their mamas call them home at the end of the day. Multilingual text in English and Creole give this story a rich, unique flavor. Aren’t these illustrations vibrant?!
Princess Hair by Sharee Miller
You’ll enjoy this joyful celebration of the many styles, textures, and shapes of black hair! These princesses have dreadlocks, kinks, head wraps, curls, and bantu knots. “Princesses with AFROS do-si-do. // Princesses with BRAIDS throw parades.” All the princesses love their hair. We can see it in the exuberant illustrations of playful, happy little girls.
Early Sunday Morning by Denene Millner, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
DAY IN THE LIFE
It’s Sunday and Sarah and her family are going to church. But this day, Sarah is singing her first solo in the choir. As we watch she and her family prepare for services, she gets advice to help her nervousness, and a wonderful surprise when she does sing. This picture book is a beautiful portrayal of an African-American family and their church culture accompanied by outstanding illustrations.
Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal
Sleep Well Siba and Saba Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl and Sandra van Doorn
SISTERS / AFRICA
Crown An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James
Sitting on the barber’s chair, a young boy reflects on how, when he leaves, he’ll feel like royalty. Not to mention, people will take notice of his fresh cut — his teachers, his mom, and the girls in his class. Because he’ll be looking good. The author transports readers into this boy’s shoes as he celebrates his cool cut, the men around him on the chair, and the barber who cuts his hair. Rhythmic, vibrant words plus bold, oil painting illustrations give this barbershop experience a swagger of its own.
The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh by Supriya Kelkar, illustrated by Alea Marley
FEELINGS / SIKH RELIGION / MOVING HOMES
I love this relatable story about feelings, moving homes, and finding a friend plus it has much-needed Sikh representation. Harpreet loves colors and expresses his feelings with the colors of his patkas which are a kind of turban that he wears each day. When his family moves to a new home, he wears blue for feeling nervous, gray for feeling sad, and white for feeling shy. Harpreet picks white when he’s at his new school. Then one day, he finds a lost hat and when he returns it, he makes a new friend. A friend makes a big difference and Harpreet beings wearing colors again– red, pink, and yellow. In fact, now he wears different colors for different occasions, including white for hanging out with a new friend.
Festival of Colors by Kabir Sehgal and Surishtha Sehgal, illustrated by Vashti Harrison
COLORS / HINDU RELIGION
My Grandma and Me by Mina Javaherbin, illustrated by Lindsey Yankey
GRANDPARENT / IRAN
Mina writes a beautiful, atmospheric tribute to her grandma in this story of growing up in Iran buying bread, playing, and going to prayers but mostly spending loving time with her grandma. The illustrations with intricate patterns and muted colors set a warm, comforting tone.
Across the Bay by Carlos Aponte
FAMILY / PUERTO RICO
Based on the author/illustrator’s childhood, this is a tender story about little Carlitos who leaves his family’s home to travel across the bay to San Juan and search for his father. His experiences give readers the flavors of Puerto Rico with the old men playing dominoes, a parade with singing and guitars, and kite flying near the castle. Tired from his unproductive search, a park ranger reminds Carlitos that his father will be forever in his memory whether he’s found or not. And Carlitos goes back home to his mama, abuela, and cat. Whimsical, colorful illustrations create a festive yet gentle ambiance.
Goldy Luck and the Three Pandas by Natasha Yim, illustrated by Grace Zong
FAIRY TALE / CHINESE CINDERELLA
My daughter says this is SO MUCH better than the original Goldilocks and the Three Bears because in this story of a young Chinese girl named Goldy, Goldy returns to the scene of her crime to apologize and help fix things. This is a better ending, don’t you think?
We Are Grateful Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Frane Lessac
“Cherokee people say otsaliheliga to express gratitude,” begins this wonderful #ownvoices celebration of the seasons, traditions, and family. As the families spend time outdoors and indoors, you’ll notice how gratitude encompasses all aspects of life from enjoying a feast for the Cherokee New Year to elders sharing stories to kids making corn-husk dolls to even saying goodbye to soldiers serving our country. Each season is written in English and in Cherokee. The pictures are vibrant and colorful, honoring the Native American Cherokee culture.
The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
CELEBRATION OF BLACK AMERICANS
A moving, emotionally compelling lyrical poem celebrates the strong, unforgettable, hard-working black Americans who persevered through slavery, prejudice, war, civil rights, and who rise up, cool and unbending. It’s a reminder not to forget the past and to notice the amazing strength of a people who have endured and risen. The lush, realistic illustrations feel totally transcendent. Everything about this book is excellent and the 2020 Caldecott winner!
Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang, illustrated by Charlene Chua
ASIAN CULTURE / ACHIEVING GOALS
Amy can do a lot of things but she can’t make bao very well. Amy watches the dough rise, her dad rolls the dough while Amy’s dad makes the filling. Amy tries to make her own bao but she tries and tries and she just can’t. Then Amy has a great idea — to make Amy-sized pieces. Perfect! They get boiled and taste delicious. Want to make your own bao? There’s a family recipe in the back. A yummy introduction to Chinese dumplings and that with a little creative problem solving, you can achieve your goals.
This is the Day You Begin by Jaqueline Woodson, illustrations by Rafael López
BACK TO SCHOOL
The evocative, lyrical text with gorgeous, lush illustrations illuminate the awkwardness of a girl’s first days at school. She listens to other kids’ big stories of summer and feels like she doesn’t fit until…she finds out that maybe there she might have something in common with others after all.
IslandBorn by Junot Díaz, illustrated by Leo Espinosa
Díaz captures Lola’s heartfelt longing to remember the island of her birthplace for a school assignment. She left the island as a baby so she can’t remember. Lola interviews her family and friends, listening to their snap-shot, detailed stories of the island’s bats, music, agua de coco, heat, and the Devil Monster. Through their stories, she creates her own tapestry of her island that will always be in her heart and heritage. Stunning illustrations explode in colorful exuberance on every page.
Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson
DAY IN THE LIFE
CJ and his grandma ride the bus across town and CJ notices the many economic and cultural differences about the neighborhoods. A remarkable story and Caldecott winner!
Thunder Boy by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Yuyi Morales
Thunder Boy wants a name all his own, not just a little version of his dad. So he begins brainstorming the best name, all the while figuring out who he is. The #ownvoices picture book is humorous and playful while placing importance on knowing yourself.
Little Leaders Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison
Beautifully designed and illustrated, Little Ladies shares 40 one-page biographies of inspiring African-American women. I can’t believe how many new women I learned about from this book! Women like Marcelite Harris, Mamie Phipps Clark, and Phillis Wheatley. It’s a superb, inspiring must-read book.