Culturally Relevant Books For Your Child

by Elizabeth Montgomery

Currently, there are hundreds of books available for parents and other caregivers to read to young children. Good books provide opportunities for parents to help children develop reading and language skills, positive racial identities, and healthy self-esteem. In addition to perennial favorites like the Dr. Seuss books, the Curious George series by Margaret and H.A. Rey and Beatrix Potter’s Peter the Rabbit Books, parents of African-American children should seek books that are culturally relevant to their children.

As they work toward teaching their children the necessary skills for proper mental, social and intellectual development, parents of African-American children must also counter the negative racial messages that African-American children will sadly but inevitably receive at an early age. Indeed, often times the first time racism confronts children is in books. In books, “children see which people are given power and who is acting bravely wisely,” says Leslie R. Williams, professor of early childhood and multicultural education at Teacher’s College, Columbia University in New York City. In many children’s books, the African-American characters are not portrayed as brave or wise people. Thus, it is important for parents to read to children books in which African-American characters play positive roles. This is particularly crucial in the first few years of life. Parents of African-American children must play an active role in their children’s learning process. Because there is a dearth of positive images of African-Americans in popular culture, parents must incorporate an accurate portrayal of African-American experience in their children’s lives.

In the first 3 years, children spend a lot of energy exploring themselves and the world around them, including their racial identities. As children attempt to complete tasks independently, they need encouragement so that they will develop confidence and healthy self-esteems. During this period, the external condition of society will play a part in determining how a child’s self-image develops. For proper development, a child must feel acceptance by society. The appropriate books, along with generally good parenting, will promote proper development. The following books not only are culturally appropriate, but also are beautifully illustrated and have a strong entertainment and educational value. They are but a few notables of the hundreds of books available.

Cherish Me, by Joyce Carol Thomas and illustrated by Nneka Bennett (HarperCollins, $9.95) (ages 0-4) is a wonderful story of an African-American girl discovering how beautiful and special she is. Infants and toddlers will find the powerful rhythmic character of the writing and the bright, clear artwork engaging. The Snowy Day, by Jack Ezra Keats (Penguin Books, $5.99) (ages 3-8), is a long-time favorite, winner of the 1963 Caldecott Medal and a Reading Rainbow book. Through beautiful illustration and colorful words, Keats tells the tale of a young boy enjoying the first snowfall of the season with a day of adventures. Whistle for Willie, by Ezra Jack Keats, (Penguin Books, $5.99) (ages 4-8) is another example of a beautifully illustrated book by the Caldecott Medal winner. In this Keats story, Peter, while trying to learn to whistle, explores the people, places and events in his neighborhood. Both Keats books are now available in board book editions designed for the “very youngest readers.” Several other books by Keats, including Peter’s Chair(Penguin Books, $5.99) (ages 3-8), Pet Show (Simon & Schuster, $5.99) (ages 5-9), and Goggles (Penguin Books, $5.99) (ages 2-6) will also delight your child.

All Night, All Day- A Child’s First Book of African-American Spirituals, by Ashley Bryan (Atheneum, $16.00) (ages 4-8), is the 1992 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book. Bryan introduces children to traditional African-American spirituals in his collection of 20 favorites, including “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and “O When the Saints Go Marching In.” Each song comes with simple arrangements and beautiful illustrations.Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale, by John L. Steptoe (Lothrop, Lee & Shephard, $16.00) (ages 4-8), the 1988 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award book, a 1988 Caldecott Honor Book, and Reading Rainbow book is an African fable that portrays two sisters, one bad-tempered and selfish, the other sweet and considerate, and a king who is searching for a bride. Through this story, children learn lessons about sharing and kindness.

.Andrea and Brian Pinkney celebrate African-American family life in a pair of board books, Pretty Brown Face and I Smell Honey. In Pretty Brown Face (Harcourt Brace, $4.95) (ages 6 months-3), a baby boy, while spending time with his father, discovers the unique features that make his pretty brown face so special. A mylar mirror at the end of the book encourages babies to explore their own faces. I Smell Honey (Harcourt Brace, $4.95) (ages 6 months-3) will delight both children and adults as titillating descriptions of soul food, accompanied by vivid illustrations excite the senses.

You will find as you explore these and other books that reading to and with your child will be fun and educational for both of you, making the experience that much more special. Your child will experience the same excitement you experienced the first time someone read to you The Snowy Day.

Stacey Montgomery is a wife and mother of one year old Isaiah.  She also offers a wide variety of parenting information on her website: