Rabbi Tziona Szajman reads with her daughter. (Courtesy of the Szajman family)

A Multicultural Children’s Book List for Modern Families

A mom's list of children's books that are favorites in her multicultural Jewish family

My daughter and I love reading books together. We are a Jewish multiracial family, lucky to have a wonderful library nearby that nourishes our souls. Our daughter is five and fabulous. In addition to enrolling her in community black pride programs, we support her growing identity with books that offer her positive role models. She is quick to point out when a character is “brown like me.” It is important to her to see herself reflected in the stories we share. I’ve gathered some of the favorites that help in specifically developing her black pride and identity. I wish I could write you a list of dozens of Jewish books that satisfy this need. There are some, but not yet dozens. I rely heavily on Jewish books with animal characters and my own skill for re-coloring illustrations to “diversify” the characters. The books I list here are especially meaningful to our family. I would love for folks to share their personal favorites in the comments.

Hank’s Big Day: The Story of a Bug by Evan Kuhlman is a current favorite. My husband and I love it because it teaches our kid to “befriend” bugs. It’s not complicated. Hank climbs up a stick. Hank climbs down a stick. Hank climbs up onto Amelia’s hat. Our daughter loves it.

Emma and Julia Love Ballet by Barbara McClintock is charming. This is one I keep borrowing and offering to read. I grew up watching ballet with my mother and grandmother. This offers my daughter an insight into that world with a prima ballerina who looks like her. It provokes many questions from her about different kinds of dance, costumes, and growing from child to adult.

Pretty Little Black Girl by Betty K. Bynum makes my daughter smile. The book deals with different skin tones and supportive friendship. It invokes for us conversations about “black” as an identity and “brown” as a skin color. Even under our protective watch, my daughter is barraged with media images of “white” beauty. We were astounded at how young she and her nursery school classmates absorbed these micro-aggressions and repeated them. This book answers an important need for beautiful little black girls to see and hear those words.

I Love My Hair  by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley came to us at the perfect time. My daughter is tender headed. For the first four years of her life, I cut her hair in the middle of the night with a flashlight. She is gorgeous and looked great with her short afro. Then a classmate told her she “looked like a boy.” We read this book as prep to having her hair professionally braided. It celebrates natural black hair while acknowledging that detangling and combing can hurt.

The Chicken Chasing Queen of Lamar County  by Janice N. Harrington makes us laugh every time. This is a fun book. The pictures are fantastic, full of joy and humor. Our favorite is the one where the chicken and the chaser have a stare down mid-book. Picture sideways glances and chicken suspicion. Having six chickens ourselves, we know they can be pretty smart and determined about avoiding being caught.

Imani’s Moon by Janay Brown-Wood and All the Colors of the Earth by Shelia Hamanakaare are very spiritual books that lead beautifully into our bedtime Shema prayer. Imani decides she will touch the moon. Carried by her mother’s stories and her indomitable spirit she succeeds. All the Colors of the Earth carries each of us through sand, sea, and sky to find ourselves reflected in creation.

Ada Twist Scientist by Andrea Beaty and Violet’s Music by Angela Johnson have been unwavering favorites in our home. Violet reminds us of the beauty inside that reaches out to connect with others. Ada is a true scientist, exploring, theorizing, and experimenting. Reading is rejoicing in the “why”; that is soooo age five.

Chavela and the Magic Bubble by Monica Brown speaks to my daughter’s love of bubble gum. I accidentally pronounced the name as though it were Hebrew, like Chanukah, before finding my Spanish stride. Magic bubble gum takes a little girl to meet her abuelita as a child at a magic gumtree. It is very charming, a beautiful adventure of fantasy and family. Chavela is a great heroic role model.

Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love came into our home to help explore the fluidity of gender. A little boy pulls curtains off the window to dress up as a mermaid while his grandmother is in the bath. Her silent response of handing him her pearls to complete the ensemble warms the heart. In a world where we are marketed “pink” and “blue” realities, this book helps us pull down some walls.

Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe and Princess Grace by Mary Hoffman are our “Disney princess antidotes.” They present global images of princesses, real and folkloric, who talk to snakes, act with bravery and kindness, and have never heard of a pink taffeta dress. Reading Rainbow does a fantastic job of reading Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.

Hello Goodbye Dog by Maria Gianferrari appealed to me because the main character is both a child of color and uses a wheelchair. The chair is never referred to in the storyline, which focuses on the dog who wants to go to school with the child and loves books. We read it to a lovely puppy dog at our local library as part of one of their fabulous literacy programs.

The Word Collector by Peter Reynolds is another great literacy-focused book. A little boy writes down words he loves, filling boxes full of them, until they explode into the air. They collect in interesting ways, and soon he is stringing them together to make verses, poems, songs, and stories. He sees their powerful effect on those who listen to him.

My husband, the non-fiction reader in the family, favors The Doctor with an Eye for Eyes: The Story of Dr. Patricia Bath by Julia Finley Mosca It’s a biography told in rhyme with explanations about the science and biology that appeal to my five year old. We look forward to the next book in the series: The Girl with a Mind for Math: The Story of Raye Montague.

Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas by Pamela Ehrenberg is what our interracial Jewish family has been waiting for. Our daughter took to it immediately. The images of this Jewish family of different skin tones gives her a sense of peace, calm, and balance. She loves singing along with the “little dreidel/dosa” song and loves that the little boy is the hero who saves Hanukkah for his family. We love that there is no fumbling over why this family is a blend of heritages, they just beautifully are.

It’s a… It’s a… It’s a MITZVAH by Liz Suneby and Diane Heiman does a great job of explaining mitzvot. It’s hard for our family to find Jewish children’s books with speaking characters of color. Sometimes I color in pictures. Sometimes I choose books that use animals. This one is an example of the latter. It has been very helpful in encouraging our daughter to join us in performing mitzvot. When we attended a political rally recently, the explanation she grasped was, “It’s a mitzvah action.” She felt so proud.

King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba by Blu Greenberg and Linda Tarry is beautifully told and illustrated. I love the authors’ backstory of interfaith collaboration. My daughter is Ethiopian American and especially loves the vignette of the queen as a young princess. She is wise, kind, and brave, everything a parent could want in a Black Jewish woman role model.

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