Diversify Your Kids’ Media Intake With These Movies and Books That Celebrate and Center Black Characters and Creators

By Kate Bove
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Photo Courtesy: Matthew A. Cherry Entertainment/IMDb

In order to raise kids who are actively anti-racist, adults should practice examining their own biases and self-educating with anti-racist texts, and then bring these learnings to the children in their lives. Read kid-friendly anti-racist books together, like Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You; hold space for kids’ anger, confusion, sadness and questions; and don’t shy away or sugarcoat "difficult" topics. Be honest and open. While watching classic kids’ movies by white creators — everything from The Goonies to most of Disney’s animated films — be sure to point out and discuss racist stereotypes and attitudes. Being silent and just glazing over offensive elements found in children’s movies isn’t helpful: In the same way you’d call out another person’s racist actions, call out the films’ failings and have a meaningful discussion about them.

For parents of Black children, discussing racial identity and racism is a must — a matter of not only exploring identity and understanding a society that centers whiteness, but also one of safety. On the other hand, parents of white kids don’t feel the same pressure, opting instead for the "color-blind" or "we’re all people" rhetoric that contributes to systemic racism and prevailing racist attitudes in our country. "If you look at me and don’t see the color of my skin, you don’t see me at all," journalist Jeremy Helligar recently wrote in "When White People Say They ‘Don’t See Color,’" an article in Medium's Level imprint. "...To accept Black people is to respect the uniqueness of the Black experience — not to pretend race and racism are illusions, unworthy of being discussed or even acknowledged."

With this in mind, in addition to confronting racism and anti-racism outright, it’s also important to diversify kids’ media intake. That is, fill their bookshelves and Netflix streaming queues with works that don’t just center on Black pain, or works that are meant to teach white people, but fill their lives with works by Black creators that celebrate Blackness and explore Black experiences and lives — that express Black joy and love.

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Diversify Your Bookshelf

Within the last few weeks, anti-racist reading lists have flooded online publications and social media. There’s no doubt that self-education and reflection are essential when it comes to learning about racism and taking anti-racist actions. However, these lists that mean to do so much good are also eclipsing books by Black writers and illustrators that are not solely about race or racism. In addition to buying your kids Stamped and Angie Thomas’ bestselling YA novel The Hate U Give, try diversifying your kids’ shelves starting with these works by incredible Black artists and writers — and be sure to diversify the voices and points of view your children are seeing always, not just while the Black Lives Matter movement is in the news.

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Photo Courtesy: Goodreads

Picture Books:

Sulwe: Written by Academy Award-winner Lupita Nyong’o, this book tells the story of Sulwe, a girl whose skin is "the color of midnight" and who "just wants to be beautiful and bright, like her mother and sister." Beautifully illustrated by Vashti Harrison, this NAACP Image Award and Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Award recipient takes Sulwe on a magical, star-filled journey that changes her life — and is sure to change the lives of young readers, too.

Game Changers: The Story of Venus and Serena Williams: Writer Lesa Cline-Ransome and award-winning illustrator James E. Ransome join forces to tell the story of the Williams sisters — two of the greatest tennis players of all time. "This lovingly crafted picture book biography centers on the incredible bond between Venus and Serena Williams," writes a reviewer for School Library Journal. It’s "an important selection for biography and sports collections" and a great way to introduce your kids to real-life heroes.

The Stuff of Stars: In this 2019 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award-winning book, Newbery Honor winner Marion Dane Bauer and Caldecott Honor winner Ekua Holmes celebrate the birth of all children — since the very moment our universe unfurled. The book’s jacket copy perhaps puts it best, describing this poetic, hard-to-put-into-words work as "A seamless blend of science and art, this picture book reveals the composition of our world and beyond — and how we are all the stuff of stars."

Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat: This picture book biography of acclaimed artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is a work of art all its own. Winning both the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award and the Caldecott Medal, writer/illustrator Javaka Steptoe tells the story of Basquiat’s childhood and early career, mimicking the street artist’s definitive style. The American Library Association noted that the "collage style paintings with rich texture, bold colors and thick lines take readers on an emotional journey."

Last Stop on Market Street: Although this Newbery Medal-winner is authored by Latinx writer Matthew de la Peña, it’s illustrated by Black artist Christian Robinson, who won the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for his work on Last Stop on Market Street. In the book, a young Black boy named CJ accompanies his grandmother on a rainy trek and questions why they, unlike other folks in the city, have to take the bus. Writing for The New York Times Book Review, Linda Sue Park noted "the warmth of their intergenerational relationship that will make this book so satisfying, for both young readers and the adults sharing it with them."

Middle Grade Books:

Finding Langston: In her debut novel, Lesa Cline-Ransome tells the story of 11-year-old Langston, a Black boy growing up during the Great Migration. When Langston moves from his home in Alabama to Chicago, Illinois, he spends his time in the Chicago Public Library — which welcomes all — and discovers the work of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. Winner of both the Coretta Scott King Author Honor and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, Finding Langston is a captivating read about both cultural heritage and personal growth.

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky: Tristan Strong (Book 1): Best-selling Percy Jackson and the Olympians author Rick Riordan has used his platform to uplift others and, here, he passes the mic to Kwame Mbalia, who tells the story of Tristan Strong, a soon-to-be-hero who finds himself thrust into an epic populated by Black American folk heroes, such as John Henry and Brer Rabbit, as well as West African gods, like Anansi the Weaver. Looking for a middle grade American Gods? You’ve come to the right place.

The Crossover: On the basketball court, 12-year-old Josh Bell and his twin brother Jordan are incredible, but Josh has another skill too — a gift for language. Author Kwame Alexander tells Josh’s story as a novel in verse, one that’s thrumming with heart and energy and passion. This Newbery Medal and Coretta Scott King Honor winner was dubbed a "beautifully measured novel of life and line" by The New York Times Book Review. Needless to say, it’s a slam dunk.

Brown Girl Dreaming: Through a collection of vivid poems, Jacqueline Woodson recounts her childhood growing up as a Black girl in South Carolina and New York during the ‘60s and ‘70s — amid both the remnants of Jim Crow and the growing Civil Rights Movement. Both an exploration of growing up and a love letter to language and stories, Brown Girl Dreaming won both the Newbery Honor and the National Book Award.

Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks: Called "as innovative as it is emotionally arresting" by Entertainment Weekly, this Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book by Jason Reynolds tells a story in 10 blocks, just as the title promises, and shows all the different directions kids’ walks home can take. Needless to say, this "clever exploration of the secret trials and tribulations of middle schoolers" will have middle-grade readers both laughing at Reynolds’ humor and mulling over the piercing poignancy of the 10 tales.

Young Adult Books:

The Stars and the Blackness Between Them: Told in the voices of two 16-year-old Black girls — Audre, who is from Port of Spain, Trinidad, and Mabel, who is from Minneapolis, Minnesota — The Stars and the Blackness Between Them is a lyrical, captivating and queer story about finding love and happiness in a world that seems to want to keep those joys locked away. The Coretta Scott King Honor Book is author Junauda Petrus’ debut novel.

You Should See Me in a Crown: Debut author Leah Johnson has written an incredible first novel that the publisher describes as "a smart, hilarious, Black girl magic, own voices rom-com by a staggeringly talented new writer." In it, Liz Lighty, who has "always believed she’s too Black, too poor, too awkward to shine in her small, rich, prom-obsessed Midwestern town" dreams of getting away by way of an elite college with a world-famous orchestra — until her financial aid falls through. After realizing there’s a scholarship available for prom queen and king, Liz has to endure the catty competition — and alluring new girl Mack.

Children of Blood and Bone: "Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls. But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope." That setup alone is sure to get you hooked on Tomi Adeyemi’s acclaimed fantasy novel, which Entertainment Weekly has dubbed "a phenomenon."

Who Fears Death: Award-winning author Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death is set in post-apocalyptic Africa — in a region shaped by genocide between tribes. When a woman survives her village’s destruction to give birth to a child in the desert, the new mother is certain her daughter is special and names her Onyesonwu ("Who fears death?"). Onye grapples with the circumstances of her birth, with tradition and love and magical powers. Read it before its adaptation hits HBO — and, while you’re at it, pick up Okorafor’s Hugo and Nebula Award-winning Binti trilogy.

All Boys Aren’t Blue: Journalist and LGBTQIA+ activist George M. Johnson explores his childhood and college years in a series of personal essays that tackle topics like gender identity, toxic masculinity, Black joy and brotherhood. School Library Journal notes that the YA memoir’s "conversational tone will leave readers feeling like they are sitting with an insightful friend. ...Johnson anchors the text with encouragement and realistic guidance for queer Black youth."

Diversify What You’re Streaming: Feature-Length Movies

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse: Sure, we’ve seen quite a few Spider-Man origin stories on the silver screen, but "let’s do this just one more time." In this iteration, our hero is Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a Black Puerto Rican teen from Brooklyn who fears he’s not living up to his father’s high expectations. As Spidey fate would have it, Miles is bitten by a radioactive arachnid and must take up the Spidey mantle to save New York — and the multiverse. Hilarious, action-packed and full of heart, the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse proves anyone can wear the mask.

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Photo Courtesy: Sony Pictures Animation/IMDb

Cinderella (1997): Co-produced by Whitney Houston — who also appears on-screen as the Fairy Godmother — this ‘90s remake of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical stars singer Brandy in the titular role, making her the first Black woman to portray Cinderella — or any Disney princess, for that matter. At the time, Cinderella’s racially diverse cast was considered groundbreaking and, looking back, the tale seems to hold up. "Cinderella was effortlessly, even unintentionally, progressive," R. Eric Thomas wrote for Elle. "It conjured a world that was vibrant and modern and multicultural, and it filled that world with magic."

Queen of Katwe: Adapted from an ESPN magazine article and book by Tim Crothers, Queen of Katwe depicts the life of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a Black girl who lives in Kampala, a slum in Uganda’s capital, and who eventually becomes a Woman Candidate Master after winning at the World Chess Olympiads. Writing for Vox, Alissa Wilkinson notes that the Disney sports film is "the exact opposite of a white savior movie — but that’s not the only reason it’s great."

Space Jam: Co-starring Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny, the film showcases a fictionalized account (we hope) of what happened between Jordan’s initial NBA retirement in ‘93 and his legendary ‘95 comeback. According to Space Jam, he was drafted by the Looney Tunes characters to help them win their freedom from a ruthless amusement park owner, Mr. Swackhammer, by beating the magnate’s Monstars — a villainous group of toons who stole the talent of other real-life NBA players — in a basketball match.

The Princess and the Frog: While The Princess and the Frog certainly has some fair criticisms pointed at it — namely that the first animated Black Disney Princess spends most of the movie as an amphibian — there’s still a lot to love here. Namely, Tiana (Anika Noni Rose‎), the titular princess, dreams of one day opening her own restaurant in downtown New Orleans — only to find her plans delayed when she kisses a prince who’s been magically transformed into a frog. Hilarious, heartfelt and full of jazz-inspired hits, this film ranks among Disney’s best.

Diversify What You’re Streaming: Live-Action TV Shows

Reading Rainbow: This educational public TV series is a classic. Hosted by LeVar Burton, Reading Rainbow won over 200 broadcast awards, including a Peabody and a whopping 26 Emmy Awards. The concept? Get kids to read. And it worked. Reading Rainbow is PBS’ third-longest running children’s series, just after Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and, just like those shows, it’s essential childhood viewing.

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Photo Courtesy: ABC/IMDb

Gullah Gullah Island: Another throwback, Gullah Gullah Island originally aired from 1994 to 1998 on Nickelodeon’s Nick Jr. Starring Ron and Natalie Daise, who also served as cultural advisors, the show was inspired by the Gullah culture of Ron’s home — St. Helena Island, South Carolina, which is part of the Sea Islands. Full of catchy songs and hilarious humor, Gullah Gullah Island was groundbreaking, becoming the first preschool TV program to star a Black family.

Grown-ish: This comedy spin-off of ABC’s hit series Black-ish follows the Johnson family’s eldest daughter Zoey (Yara Shahidi) as she weathers her freshman year of college. Grown-ish follows familiar teen fare, but it does so with sharp, fresh humor — and a whole lot of charm. The ensemble cast is rounded out by R&B duo Chloe Bailey and Halle Bailey and Trevor Jackson.

Moesha: Starring R&B singer Brandy as Moesha Denise Mitchell, Moesha centered an upper-middle class, Black high schooler whose family lived in Los Angeles. The teen sitcom dealt with pregnancy, drug use, premarital sex, grief, race relations and typical high-school drama. With guest appearances from Usher, Octavia Spencer, Gabrielle Union, Billy Dee Williams and other acclaimed Black actors, Moesha ran for six seasons, giving new and returning viewers plenty to marathon.

Black Lightning: The CW’s Black Lightning portrays retired superhero Jefferson Pierce, the titular DC Comics hero, and his family. His eldest daughter, Anissa Pierce, begins to manifest her own powers of invulnerability and super strength, becoming the vigilante known as Thunder. Eventually, she joins her dad, fighting alongside Black Lightning’s team, and moonlights as her Robin Hood-esque persona Blackbird as well. Not many shows center on Black lesbian characters — let alone a queer Black character who’s invincible — and that makes Black Lightning (and Anissa Pierce) pretty darn awesome.

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Diversify What You’re Streaming: Animated Shows & Shorts

The Proud Family: Created by animator Bruce W. Smith — and produced by Jambalaya Studios — this animated sitcom ran on the Disney Channel from 2001 until 2005. The show’s main protagonist is 14-year-old Penny Proud (Kyla Pratt), who is constantly navigating her father Oscar’s (Tommy Davidson) overprotectiveness and embarrassing shenanigans. Nominated for several Annie and NAACP Image Awards, The Proud Family nabbed a BET Award for Outstanding Comedy Series — and, luckily for viewers, it’s available on Disney+.

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Photo Courtesy: Disney/IMDb; DC Comics/Warner Bros. Animation/IMDb

Static Shock: DC Comics’ Static Shock is iconic for many reasons — and the catchy theme song is definitely one of those reasons. Apart from that, the show is also iconic for being one of the few times a Black superhero was the titular character/star of their own series. For the uninitiated, Static Shock is about Virgil Hawkins, who, after being exposed to a mutagen gas, develops electromagnetic powers and the alter-ego "Static."

Hair Love: For those who aren’t familiar with Matthew A. Cherry’s Oscar-winning short film, Hair Love tells the story of Zuri, a young Black girl who is proud of her hair, which "kinks, coils, curls every which way." On a special day, she needs a special look and enlists her devoted father’s help. "I love that Hair Love [highlights] the relationship between a Black father and daughter," said Academy Award-winning filmmaker Jordan Peele. "Matthew leads the ranks of new creatives who are telling unique stories of the Black experience. We need this." To accompany his Oscar-winning short, Cherry released a picture book version with illustrations by the acclaimed Vashti Harrison.

Dear Basketball: Animated by legendary Disney animator Glen Keane, Dear Basketball was a passion project for the late Kobe Bryant. And that passion project led to an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. Narrated by Bryant, the film is based on a letter he wrote for The Players’ Tribune in November 2015 when he announced his retirement from the NBA.

Doc McStuffins: Although creator Chris Nee isn’t Black, she has been praised for Doc McStuffins’ portrayal of Black characters, including the titular character — a young girl capable of fixing toys with a little help from her pals. Dr. Myiesha Taylor, founding president of Artemis Medical Society and namesake of Dottie "Doc" McStuffins’ mother, said that "This program featuring a little African-American girl and her family is crucial to changing the future of this nation." Called "Cheers for kids" by Nee, Doc McStuffins also garnered praise for featuring an interracial lesbian couple.