Children’s literature brings me joy. When I pick up a stack of picture books from my local library, I plan an afternoon around it. My essentials are a good cup of coffee in hand, my stack of books, and a yellow pad to collect my random notes. For me, it’s ceremonial. Picture books can represent so many possibilities, can be so many things, and can bring all sorts of emotions to the surface.
This is why I make it a point to read books slowly. Read them once. Read them twice. Let my mind notice what it’s going to notice. Keeping my yellow pad close by allows me to make quick notes.
As a multilingual reader, I notice words and language. I also notice if there are interesting words or familiar vocabulary used in new ways. As an art lover, I take notice of the illustrations, the colors being used to represent different emotions. I observe carefully how characters are portrayed or captured by the artist. As an immigrant and as Latina, I observe how the stories of my people and my experience are conveyed. Who is telling these stories? I make notes on my yellow pad if I need to do further research.
As an educator, I’m thinking of my community of learners, not only in my classroom but in my school and in my district. I bring all parts of my identity when I read. I let them guide me and also hold space for questions, possibilities, and concerns.
When I read, I’m standing on the shoulders of brilliant scholars who are teaching me to interact with texts in a different way than I would have 12 years ago. Dr. Rudine Bishop reminds us that books should reflect the world and our experiences. Dr. Gholdy Muhammad says that we must start our students’ stories and identities with their excellence.
Earlier in my career, I didn’t think through the lenses of who is telling the story. Now I do. I ask myself,
- Is this an own-voice story?
- Who is the author, and what is their experience with this particular story?
I also think about one of Dr. Muhammad’s learning pursuits: joy. I ask myself,
- How is the community whose story I am sharing portrayed in the book?
- Are parts of their stories, identities, or narratives being celebrated and lifted?
- Or is this community being represented only through struggles, fears, and deficits?
The stories we bring to the classroom matter. Bringing our criticality and our humanity to the stories we share with our community matters. Tiffany Jewell writes in her book This Book Is Antiracist that the world will try to tell our students who they are, which is why she says our children should be the people who get to decide who they are.
Here are some amazing picture books that will help guide our community of learners by intentionally affirming and honoring their multiple identities, stories, and histories. Click here to download a PDF of the Picture Books that Affirm & Celebrate Students’ Identities booklist.
All Because You Matter by Tami Charles, illustrated by Bryan Collier (2020)
This book is rooted in love, joy, and dreams. Tami Charles wrote this poem for her son and for every Black and Brown child to remind them that they are important and that their humanity matters. Bryan Collier honors this beautiful text with illustrations that give instant joy, reassurance, and comfort.
I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott, illustrated by Sydney Smith (2020)
Based on the author’s own experience with stuttering, this book walks us through the thoughts, feelings, and processes of a boy as he tries to figure out how to handle the frustration of “speech day.” Under the gentle nudge of his dad, the child learns how to find rhythm in the crevices of silence as he observes the nature around him. It’s a powerful story because the boy feels empowered at the end of the book, as this is part of the journey he is on. The gentle illustrations by Sydney Smith also capture the feelings and nature in a harmonious way.
I Will Dance by Nancy Bo Flood, illustrated by Julianna Swaney (2020)
This book is based on and inspired by the life of a little girl who was born with cerebral palsy. In the story, Eva has only one wish for her birthday: to be able to dance. It is hard for her to imagine what that looks like for a girl in a wheelchair, but an all-inclusive dance academy is the perfect place for her to realize that dreams are possible. Representation matters, and it also goes beyond race and ethnicity.
I Am Perfectly Designed by Karamo Brown (2019)
Another beautiful celebration of full humanity is this darling story about Karamo and his son taking a walk around the city as he affirms how perfectly designed his son is in every way. It’s a wonderful, loving father-son relationship portrayed through everyday life.
A Gift for Amma: Market Day in India by Meera Sriram (2020)
Such a vibrant and joyful book inspired by the author’s hometown of Chennai, India. The little girl in the story looks for the perfect gift for her mother at a busy outdoor market. Since this is an own-voices book, the author gives us more than a story. She takes us to the different items found in an Indian market, and offers a glossary of terms and a tour of different street markets around the world!
Digging for Words: Jose Alberto Gutierrez and the Library He Built by Angela Burke Kunkel, illustrated by Paola Escobar (2020)
This is the true story of Jose Alberto Gutierrez, who worked as a trash collector at night in a town in Colombia. During his night trips around the neighborhood, he would find treasures in the shape of books hidden among the trash. Jose collected every book he found and saved it. When he had enough books to share with others, he opened his house every Saturday so children from the neighborhood could check out books from his collection. Jose brought book joy and literacy to many children in Colombia. An inspiring story complemented with gorgeous illustrations by the talented Paola Escobar.
A Morning with Grandpa by Sylvia Liu, illustrated by Christina Forshay (2020)
In this book, we get to follow Grandpa (Gong Gong) as he teaches Mei Mei how to do tai chi, a form of Chinese martial arts and exercise. Mei Mei follows Grandpa everywhere and tries her best to follow. She makes mistakes, but under the loving guidance of her grandpa, she learns and appreciates an important part of her culture. There is a beautiful summary of yoga for readers to start practicing as well.
Nana Akua Goes to School by Tricia Elam Walker, illustrated by April Harrison (2020)
In this amazing story, we get to meet Nana Akua, who is Zura’s “favorite person in the whole universe.” But when Zura’s teacher invites all grandparents to come to the classroom to share stories, Zura doesn’t feel so excited about this visit because of the marks on Nana Akua’s face. Nana Akua is excited to visit Zura’s school and realizes that Zura is worried. But Nana has a fantastic idea of a special way to tell the stories about those marks, which are part of her Ashanti traditions. This book pays homage to Ghana and the Adinkra symbols and their meanings. It’s a wonderful story about respect, traditions, and honor.
Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela! by Alexandra Alessandri, illustrated by Addy Rivera Sonda (2020)
This is a great story that provides readers mirrors and windows on how other parts of the world welcome the new year. In this story we meet Ava Gabriela and family, who are visiting relatives in Colombia for the holidays. The author does a great job of introducing us to pieces and parts of a wonderful celebration as the family carries on traditions to celebrate the new year. This is an own-voices story as the author recounts her memories of celebrating the new year in her home country of Colombia.