I recently went shopping at a big-box store with my six-year-old son. He is a devout saver, and he was ready to spend some of his riches. Though I had my doubts, he was committed to spending a whopping $17.99 on a mechanical snake. He proudly carried it to check out, wallet in hand. His math skills — addition, skip-counting and subtraction — were on full display, as was my smile.
After showering him with compliments, the woman behind the counter asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up. The question, as it turns out, was rhetorical. She answered it as quickly as she asked it, having narrowed his future to two possibilities: “A basketball player or football player?”
I countered her suggestions with alternate careers one could suggest to a child who just demonstrated impressive math skills: Teacher? Architect? Engineer? I wish I could say I was surprised by her suggestions. It’s likely how she viewed success for him; the prevailing perspective by many in our society remains limited regarding the opportunities for success for Black people, especially Black men.
While it’s true my children play sports (ice hockey for my daughter and soccer and ice hockey for my son), my husband and I encourage them to do so because of the life lessons they will gain: showing up for others, working as a team, giving something your all, and picking yourself up after setbacks. They don’t play sports with any career aspirations — which is good because the chances of playing professional sports are similar to getting struck by lightning. In fact, while they both love sports, my daughter has her eyes set on being a food critic or chocolate taste tester; and, after getting behind the wheel on a trip to Legoland, my son plans to be a race car driver.
When my children were born, I was filled with excitement — but worry, as well. Like many Black parents, I walk a tightrope to make sure my children are aware of the world we live in, but not weighed down by it. I flashed forward to when my son would be old enough to take a solo trip to the store, and wondered if, in 15 years, that walk would be safe? I thought about when both kids would be old enough to drive and hoped that, by the time they turned 16, cars would fly, maybe making it safer than driving while Black. And, I hoped for them that they would be able to live their fullest lives and play active roles in their destinies.
Having children has made me more acutely aware of the dearth of representation families are still grappling with. Of the 3,190 books published in 2021 in the United States received by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), only 439 had significant representation of Black/African characters, subjects, or topics.* Most of those are focused on our history and culture. These books are incredibly important, and we have a lot of them in our home. However, it is also important for all our children to see people of color in books that mirror their own lives and imagination. Books that are not primarily about race or historical struggles but about wonder and joy.
I didn’t explicitly say anything to the woman at the check-out counter about her short-sightedness. I know she sees examples of Black excellence every day. I know that my son showed her what he’s already capable of at age six and offered a glimpse of what he will be able to do one day. My dream for my children is that they will find careers that make them happy and self-sufficient, and I hope the society they live in gives them the space and vision to figure that out.
Here are a few books I recommend…
Stella and the Mystery of the Missing Tooth
Written by Clothilde Ewing and illustrated by Lynn Gaines
It was with the hope that my children could be fully seen and celebrated that I became a picture book writer. Here, Stella and her friends Roger and Owen are excited to go see Sue the T-rex at the museum, but when Owen has to leave early because he lost a tooth, Stella becomes determined to find it for him.
Max and the Tag-Along Moon
Written and illustrated by Floyd Cooper
This touching tale of a grandfather and grandson reminds us that whenever you may be, the same moon says goodnight. We live a decent drive from my kids’ grandparents, and we love this book.
The Skin You Live In
Written by Michael Tyler and illustrated by David Lee Csicsko
This lyrical book is one of my go-tos for new babies. The vivid illustrations and poetry celebrates all our beautiful shades: “Whenever you look at your beautiful skin, from your wiggling toes to your giggling grin… Think how lucky you are that the skin you live in, so beautifully holds the ‘You’ who’s within.”
Written by Brittany J. Thurman and illustrated by Anna Cunha
In Fly, we find a lyrical story about Africa and her quest to become a champion in something she’s never tried before. The unknown can be intimidating, and though she wasn’t masterful her first try — or her second or third — she remains open to the journey.
Miles Lewis “Whiz Kid”
Written by Kelly Starling Lyons and illustrated by Wayne Spencer
My son is highly skeptical of “lesson” books, but this is a relatable series about a sensitive kid who wants to win his school’s science fair. He overcomes self-doubt and jealousy and learns lessons about friendship, teamwork and, of course, science.
Ways to Make Sunshine
Written by Renee Watson
Ryan has a sassy/sweet personality that keeps us laughing and learning. My kids also love Ramona Quimby, and we keep imagining what his teacher Mrs. Whaley would have done with both Ramona and Ryan in her class!
There are also great book subscription programs for children of all ages from bookstores like Atlanta’s Brave + Kind, which is committed to celebrating diversity in literature.
What books would you add to the list? What are the kids in your life reading these days?
Clothilde Ewing leads communications at The Chicago Community Trust, a community foundation committed to advancing economic equity. She is a former television producer for CBS News and The Oprah Winfrey Show. Her picture books are Stella Keeps the Sun Up and Stella and the Mystery of the Missing Tooth. She lives in Chicago with her husband and two children.
P.S. 15 children’s books by Black authors and what are your most beloved children’s books?
(Photo courtesy of Clothilde Ewing.)
*Data accessed on 04/05/2023 by Clothilde Ewing using the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison Diversity Statistics.