In December of 2015, I wrote this post about the lack of diversity in children’s books. In it, I shared my goal of becoming a children’s book author. I wanted to give voice to stories untold. I also made some foolish declaration about self-publishing if I couldn’t find a publisher in six months.
Two years ago, when Carter was just four months old, I started collecting Christmas books to create a picture book advent calendar. It was this search for Christmas books that inspired my journey into writing – at the time, I couldn’t find any Christmas books featuring children of color. This led to a strong impression to write books of my own. I have embraced the journey so far!
Our collection has grown and changed over the past two years as I add new books and put some on hold for later years. I’ve made an effort to include books with children of color, classics, religious themes, and humor. Each year, I wrap and number the books and put them under our tree.
Please forgive the Amazon links and if possible, support your local bookstore! This year’s collection includes:
An Angel Just like Me written by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Ying-Hwa Hu: A young African-American boy needs to find an angel for the family Christmas tree but can only find angels with blond hair. He goes on a mission to find an angel that looks like him and discovers that angels, like his friends, can come in many colors.
The Birds of Bethlehem written and illustrated by Tommie dePaola: The nativity story told from the perspective of the birds who witnessed it.
Carol of the Brown King: Nativity Poems written by Langston Hughes, illustrated by Ashley Bryan: Beautiful nativity poetry with stunning illustrations that portray people in all colors.
The Christmas Cookie Sprinkle Snitcher written by Robert Kraus, illustrated by Vip: On Christmas Eve, the Christmas Cookie Sprinkle Snitcher steals all the sprinkles for Christmas sugar cookies! A story told in funny rhymes.
The Christmas Star written by Paloma Wensell, illustrated by Ulises Wensell: Two young children follow the brightest star and bring their favorite toys to baby Jesus. They receive the most beautiful gift in return.
Dream Snow written and illustrated by Eric Carle: A lift-the-flap book in which snowstorm covers an old farmer and his animals. When the farmer awakes, he remembers he has a Christmas surprise for everyone!
The First Christmas by Jan Pienkowski: Beautiful artwork with verses from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew.
Funny Faces Santa Claus by Roger Priddy: Christmas characters, rhymes and big moving googly eyes!
The Giver of Holy Gifts written by Krisanne Hastings Knudsen: A board book describing the gifts Christ gives us. What gift can we give the Savior in return?
How the Grinch Stole Christmas written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss: The Grinch is determined to ruin Christmas from the Whos down in Who-ville.
Jingle Jingle Little Reindeer: A small finger puppet book. Wiggle your finger to help the reindeer get to Santa’s sleigh on time!
Joy to the World written and illustrated by Tommie dePaola: Three beloved Christmas stories in one! This collection includes The Night of Las Posadas, The Story of the Three Wise Kings, and The Legend of the Poinsettia.
King Island Christmas written by Jean Rogers, illustrated by Rie Munoz: Eskimos help a stranded priest reach their village in time to celebrate Christmas.
Nativity Flap Book by Usborne: A lift-the-flap book with the nativity story.
The Night Before Christmas written by Clement C. Moore, illustrated by Mary Engelbreit: Classic Christmas poem illustrated as only Mary Engelbreit can do it!
One Special Night: The Christmas Story Pop-Up Book written by Lori C. Froeb, illustrated by Claudine Gevry: The nativity story told in colorful, moving pop-ups.
The Polar Express written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg: A young boy takes a magical trip on a midnight train to the North Pole.
Room for a Little One written by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Jason Cockcroft: Animals welcome each other one by one into a warm stable. A donkey carrying a pregnant woman is welcomed in. That night, a little one is born.
Samurai Santa: A Very Ninja Christmas written and illustrated by Robin Pingk: A young ninja wants to have an epic snowball fight on Christmas but none of the good little ninjas will join him for fear of ending up on Santa’s naughty list. He concocts a plan to get rid of Santa, but will Samurai Santa get in the way?
The Snowman written and illustrated by Raymond Briggs: A snowman comes to life and shares an adventure with a young boy. A story told entirely in pictures.
Snowmen at Christmas written by Caralyn Buehner, illustrated by Mark Buehner: On Christmas Eve, the snowmen come to life and have festivities of their own!
Too Many Tamales written by Gary Soto, illustrated by Ed Martinez: Christmas Eve is going perfectly for Maria until she loses her mother’s diamond ring in the tamale mix. She and her cousins will have to eat all the tamales to find the ring or Christmas will be ruined!
Tree of Cranes written and illustrated by Alan Say: As a Japanese young boy recovers from a cold, his mother folds paper cranes to decorate a tree. She reminisces about her Christmases in California and introduces him to his first Christmas tree.
When Christmas Feels like Home written by Gretchen Griffith, illustrated by Carolina Farias: Eduardo is homesick after moving to the Unites States from Mexico. His family promises him that he will feel at home by Christmas.
Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez
Written by Kathleen Krull • Illustrated by Yuyi Morales
Cesar Chavez grew up on his family’s ranch in Arizona. He was shy and often teased at school. When he was ten, a terrible drought choked the life out of Arizona’s crops and his family was forced give up their home and move to California as migrant farm workers. This is the remarkable story of Cesar Chavez’s fight for the rights and lives of migrant farm workers. It is the story of one of the great civil rights leaders of our nation.
Reasons I love it:
- Incredible historical details are packed into a story told in beautiful, lyrical writing. The story is told in an engaging and moving way that invites readers into the heartfelt emotions and strength of the farm workers’ struggle.
- It depicts both the influence of one man with a voice and the power harnessed in a community united in action. It illustrates the power of non-violent protest and the ability people have to fight against those perpetuating injustice.
- This story depicts the challenges faced along the movement’s way; it doesn’t paint an overly simplified, rosy illustration of protest. From early doubts to farm company violence, police barricades, blistered feet and unsheltered nights, it shows the struggle – and the courage – that defined the movement.
- Yuyi Morales’ illustrations are beautiful (can you tell I’m a huge fan?). She traveled the route of his 1965 march and visited fields where he lived and worked as research for this book. The bold and vivid imagery convey the beauty, sacrifice and strength of Chavez’ life.
One Wish: Though a biography of Cesar Chavez, it would have been powerful to include, even briefly, mention of Dolores Huerta (see below) and Larry Itliong, the leader of Filipino farmworkers who were the first to walk out of the vineyards and who eventually joined forces with Chavez to form the United Farmworkers. They are lesser known – and even forgotten forces behind the farmworkers’ struggle.
Side By Side/ Lado a Lado: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez/ La Historia de Dolores Huerta y César Chávez
Written by Monica Brown • Illustrated by Jose Cepeda
Thousands of farmworkers slaved each day to harvest the food that would feed people all over the country. But, when they returned home at night, they could barely feed their own families. When Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez met and joined forces, they motivated workers to unite and fight for their rights. Together, they changed history and inspired millions.
Reasons I love it:
- This book is bilingual! The entire story is written in both Spanish and English. It is an empowering way for young people to read their own stories, or to learn the stories and language of others.
- It depicts the lives of Dolores and Cesar in parallel on separate pages, until they meet and their stories unite. By putting Dolores’ story on the left-hand pages, and by including her name first in the title, the author makes it clear that Dolores Huerta was an integral figure in this civil rights movement. This addresses the imbalance with which she is portrayed (or not!) in our history lessons.
- It shows the power of a united partnership and a non-violent protest for human rights. It is an reminder of our ability to fight for change.
- The artwork is bold and colorful. It has a slight cartoon-ish flavor blended with deep soulfulness. It contrasts Huerta and Chavez’ personalities well.
- The afterword – in both languages – provides more detailed information about the farm workers’ movement and the lives of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez.
One Wish: This book feels like it oversimplifies the struggle by focusing predominantly on the victories. I don’t think we need to sugarcoat history for children; they can learn from the struggles of the past. Especially if they will grow up fighting the battles of their time.
Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation
Written by illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh
Ten years before Brown vs. Board of Education, Sylvia Mendez and her parents fought to end school segregation in California. An educated American-citizen, Mendez and her siblings were denied enrollment in a “Whites only” school, while her paler-skinned cousins were allowed to attend. Her family’s court battles for their educational rights paved the way to end school segregation nationwide.
Reasons I love it:
- It brings the little known story of the Mendez family to light in a powerful narrated and illustrated format. It broadens the narrative beyond Black-White segregation; Native peoples, Asian-Americans, Latinxs and more were also subject to dehumanizing segregation in our nation’s history. Their battles paved the way for the ones we’ve heard of (though, we don’t learn enough about any of them!).
- It demonstrates the our ability to fight for rights through the court system. Though this process of change is slow, it represents a shift in public opinion. It also underscores the importance of equity-minded justices at all levels of the judicial system.
- Tonatiuh includes many details from his extensive research throughout the story; his research is detailed in the back.
- The author’s note at the back details not only the Mendez family’s impact on history, but also the relevance of this story today when our schools remain inexcusably segregated an unequal. How much have we really succeeded in desegregating schools and providing an equal education for all? We have more work to do.
- Tonatiuh’s illustrations are heavily influenced by Mexican styles. His art is an attempt to keep ancient art alive. This signature style blended with modern digital techniques add a timeless quality to the story (see point 4!)
One Wish: The story includes a list of organizations like United Latin American Citizens, the NAACP, the Japanese American Citizens League and the American Jewish Congress that eventually supported the Mendez family’s battle. It would have been nice to gain a better historical understanding of the reasons these groups supported the cause. Even a simple nod to the fact that they were all fighting similar battles of their own would have helped expand our understanding more.
Written by illustrated by Shane W. Evans
On August 28, 1963 over 250,000 people gathered in the nation’s capital to join the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It began at the Washington Monument and ended at the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his historic, “I Have a Dream” speech. Told in strikingly simple yet powerful language, this book conveys the experience of that day in words even the youngest children will understand.
Reasons I love it:
- In just 61 words, this expressive book conveys deep emotions and a growing a sense of strength, unity and hope. It reads like poetry. It is a simple, yet powerful introduction to this historic event.
- Without explicitly talking about protest, this book demonstrates the power of standing up together against injustice and for freedom. It is a perfect way to teach this concept to young kids.
- The images speak as much or more than the poetic words of this book. They show emotion, values and history on every page.
- I love that this book is about a family marching together. It shows the power of parental influence in raising conscious kids. It shows the power of unity in a family. And, as more and more people gather, the familial feeling of love and unity seem only to expand with the group.
- Loved Shane Evans’ notes at the end describing the power of organized movements. His words feel particularly relevant today, “It takes people of all ages and cultural backgrounds to move a nation into a new era of freedom. In a sense, these marches pushed old ideas out of the way and moved new ideas forward. History shows that where there is change, there will often be resistance to change. However, these events demonstrate that through action and determination people have the power to overcome that resistance.”
One Wish: None. I’m going out to purchase this book for our home library as soon as I can!
¡Si, Se Puede! Yes, We Can!: Janitor Strike in L.A.
Written by Diana Cohn • Illustrated by Francisco Delgado
A bilingual historical fiction about the successful janitor’s strike in Los Angeles in 2000. Every night, Carlitos’ mom cleans skyscrapers in LA. She comes home to wave him off to school each morning before climbing into bed. One night, she tells Carlitos that her income isn’t enough to support their family so she is going on strike with the other janitors. How can Carlos support his mother as she fights for their rights?
Reasons I love it:
- Carlitos’ mama includes him in critical conversations that teach him about her struggles and injustice. She explains to him her low salary means she can’t spend as much time with him or cover medical costs for his abuelita. She explains that she is not paid enough for the work she does. She asks for his support and includes him in the struggle. She teaches him to act against injustice through her own life and actions.
- The story is as much about Carlitos’ organizing power and solidarity as it is about his mother’s. It is about the teacher who supports Carlitos’ ideas and encourages other students to join. It shows that injustice has ripple effects through a community and it shows that a community united in solidarity can win battles against oppression.
- The story is about a modern-day struggle against inequity and oppression. Children need to know that oppression and injustice did not end with the civil rights movement. Too many stories and history books tend to teach history this way. The struggle continues and we each have a part to play. This point is further emphasized at the end as Carlitos’ mama continues to show solidarity with workers in other industries fighting for better working conditions.
- This story is features Latinx characters in a diverse manner. Instead of portraying all Latinx people in the same way, it makes an effort to show the diversity within Latin-American cultures too.
- It’s bilingual! Written in Spanish and English, this book can reach and teach so many!
- The notes at the end of the story tell the story of Dolores Sánchez, one of the janitor strike organizers. It is inspiring!
One Wish: The text is a little long for my toddler. I wish I could read this book to him now! I’d recommend this for slightly older children (preschool+) because of the length.
Thunder Boy Smith Jr, named after his father, Thunder Boy Smith Sr., loves his father dearly. People call his father Big Thunder, which “is a storm filling up the sky,” while he is called Little Thunder, which he believes sounds “like a burp or a fart.” Thunder Boy Jr loves his dad, but he has a secret. He hates his name! He wants his own name. He wants to be himself.
Reasons I love it:
- Little Thunder tries to solve his problem by brainstorming new names that reflect his personality and accomplishments. He has once touched a wild orca and wonders if “Not Afraid of Ten Thousand Teeth” might be a better name. He loves going to garage sales with his mom, so possibly, “Old Toys Are Awesome” would work. The dog likes to chase Thunder Boy Jr.’s tail, so perhaps, “Can’t Run Fast While Laughing” is the way to go. His brainstorm is sweet and funny.
- It shows a modern-day Native American family, not the romanticized or caricatured historical version that gives children the idea that Native peoples exist only in ancient history.
- It illustrates the importance of remembering one’s heritage while also embracing one’s unique identity. It is an empowering tale that honors tradition while celebrating individuality. Alexie does this in in prose that is simultaneously thoughtful and hilariously funny.
- It is fundamentally about the powerful and loving relationship between a father and son. My husband complains that there aren’t enough books about fathers’ relationships with their kids. He loves this book.
- I am in love with Yuyi Morales’ illustrations! Not only are they a perfect fit for the story, but they also weave in an additional story layer that I didn’t notice until my fourth read through. Morales created the illustrations from the remains of the antique house in Mexico where she worked on the book. She selected old wood and clay bricks, scanned and used their colors and textures to digitally paint the illustrations. So cool! The bold colors add glowing energy to each page, while the grey-toned backgrounds give the tale depth and weight. Each illustration is filled with incredible detail while managing to look deceptively simple. Much like the story itself.
One Wish: No wishes for this one. I can’t imagine a more powerhouse team! I love this book!
The tender story of a young Inuit girl testing her limits, even as her mother reassures her over and over again that a parent’s love is unconditional.
Reasons I love it:
- This story of unconditional parental love is set in Northern Alaska amongst the traditions, culture and lifestyle of an Inuit family. The combination of this universal theme and an underrepresented people enable readers to feel an immediate connection as they learn about (what is likely) a different culture.
- The lyrical writing is beautiful to read and easy for young children to follow.
- The story introduces readers to new animals and vocabulary words. Carter calls this the “mukluk book” or the “umiak book.” The hardcover edition includes an illustrated glossary of terms, traditions and symbolic meanings.
- The vibrant watercolor illustrations are stunning. They are well-researched and filled with deep symbolic meaning. They also depict elements of Inuit life not included in the text.
One Wish: The text and illustrations are beautiful. However, this book does cause me to question who has the right to tell a story? How would the story and illustrations be different if they had been created by Inuit artists?
John, a young Navajo boy who is about to leave the reservation, finds comfort as his grandfather tells him the story of Navajo code talkers during World War II. His grandfather’s story begins as Navajo children were forced into government boarding schools and punished for speaking the Navajo language. However, the Navajo language becomes the unbreakable code that saves our nation during World War II.
Reasons I love it:
- It tells the story of a little-known piece of U.S. history in simple, yet captivating language. Though it is wordier than a typical picture book, and may be suited to slightly older children, the grandfather’s shares a story that every child should grow up learning.
- In child-friendly terms, the story reveals the historical legacy of hypocrisy and injustice toward Native peoples in the United States. As an introductory detail, forced boarding schools may be lost in the excitement of the heroic story, but is nevertheless a dark chapter in history with generational consequences. Punishment for speaking one’s native language is another detail that illustrates the dehumanizing treatment Native peoples endured. Even the example of the American soldier who heard the grandfather code talking and mistook him for a Japanese spy shows the perspective of Native peoples as foreigners in their own land. The government was happy to use them when the Japanese couldn’t break their language code, but as we can see today at Standing Rock, injustice continues.
- The story is filled with pride at the pivotal role Navajo code talkers played on the world stage.
- The painted illustrations are soft, subtle and gentle. They lend an air of humility and natural strength to the story.
- A glossary of original code and code highlights is included in the back.
Two Wishes: John’s introductory storyline doesn’t flow well with the rest of the story. The grandfather’s beautiful story is sandwiched between two slightly awkward and forced ends. Additionally, neither the author nor illustrator is Native; I wonder how many details and nuances are missed as a result, despite their copious research efforts.
An inspiring portrait of Hillary Rodham Clinton from her childhood through her tenure as the United States Secretary of State. This biography showcases the Democratic Presidential Nominee’s barrier-breaking accomplishments and touches on many challenges she faced along the way.
Reasons I love it:
- It is boldly in favor of Hillary Clinton as a person, a woman, a politician and an advocate for change. It outlines her life through the lens of a woman challenging assumptions and pushing down barriers; she has always been a strong, passionate leader working to make a difference. In this regard, I find it to be incredibly inspiring.
- Gender is an ever-present theme throughout the book. Sentences like, “But she couldn’t believe how people criticized her – in ways they’d never criticize a man. They said her headbands were too casual and her attitude was too feisty. An ex-president said a First Lady shouldn’t be too strong or too smart. Others called her “the Hillary problem” – and a lot worse things than that” introduce ideas of gender bias in child-friendly language. Though the story does not dive beyond these general descriptions, it creates a platform for deeper discussion with young readers. If nothing else, this is definitely a book for mighty girls – and for boys who support mighty girls.
- I had the privilege of meeting the illustrator, LeUyen Pham, earlier this year at a writer’s conference. She is an amazing woman whose life and words have inspired me on my writing path. She embodies many of the themes of female empowerment and breaking barriers shared in this book. The illustrations in this book are simply amazing. Pham’s research shows in her artwork inclusion of significant people, memories and details throughout Clinton’s life. A four-page artist’s note is included with explanations of the symbolism, significance and history in each illustration. In addition depth and detail, the artwork is bright, cute and engaging.
One Wish: The first spread begins with, “In the 1950’s, it was a man’s world. Only boys could grow up to have powerful jobs. Only boys had no ceilings on their dreams.” The illustrations on these pages include two Black men. It is factually incorrect to imply that only women faced discrimination at a time Black men and women were in the midst of Jim Crow laws. I also didn’t love the line, “Her youth group met with poor black and Latino teenagers in the inner city.” As a book about gender, this book works to inspire young readers; however, its short inclusions of race are problematic.