Why I want to read books with protagonists of color to my White son

Suzanne Headshotby guest blogger Suzanne Feinspan

I loved reading as a kid. Weekly trips to the library and monthly ones to the bookstore were some of the highlights of my childhood.  I still have a strong sentimental attachment to many of those books – so much so that I saved many of them and am now reading them with my own two children.  However, when I look at those books from my childhood what I see looking back at me are faces that look like mine; they are filled with White protagonists.

While some progress has been made, unfortunately there are still far too few children’s books out there that showcase protagonists of color engaging in the same kinds of adventures, challenges and successes as White protagonists. When we do see these protagonists, they are often relegated, as Christopher Dean Myers points out, to “occasional historical books that concern themselves with the legacies of civil rights and slavery but are never given a pass card to traverse the lands of adventure, curiosity, imagination or personal growth.”

I recently mentioned to my six-year-old son that I was writing about children’s books and why it’s important for White children to read books with characters that are children of color.

“Why is that, mommy?” he asked.

“Well, there are several reasons that it’s important. First, the world is a big place and we live in and see only a small part of it. There are lots of people in the world whose lives and experiences are very different from ours and if we only read books about White characters, our understanding of the world leaves out a lot of what the world is like. For example, you know the book Rain Stomper that we just read? That little girl is Black and she lives in an apartment building—which is different than you who are White and live in a house, right?

“Another reason is that the history of our country has involved the leadership of people with lots of different colors of skin and if we only read history about people with White skin, we miss out on important parts of our history.”

“Like the Black soldiers in the Revolutionary War that we read about?” he asked.

“Exactly. And also, the more we read specific stories about people who look different than us, the more examples we have to help our brains not make guesses that aren’t right about people just because of what they look like.”

In language that he could understand, I was trying to explain to my son that the books we read are reinforce subtle ideas we have about the value of Whiteness and the experiences of White people and the lack of value of other cultures and communities and their realities. This combined with the pervasive silence in many of our White families around issues of race—out of understandable fear or anxiety or lack of certainty of how to begin—leads to the proliferation of these implicit, destructive racial understandings. It deprives our children from fully understanding the diversity and complexity of our world.

But all is not lost!  As I tried to explain simply to my son, research on addressing implicit biases has something to teach us about what the road forward is. Linda Tropp and Rachel Godsil suggest three strategies for counteracting implicit racial bias:

  • exposure to individuals who break the stereotypes we hold of a certain group
  • learning more about the individual experiences of members of the group, rather than seeing them as a monolithic block and
  • creating opportunities to put ourselves in the place of a members of another group to see things from their perspective.

Luckily, all three of these actions can be achieved through exposing ourselves and our children to books where the main characters are not White.

With the hectic nature of many of our lives though, it can feel daunting to try to identify and locate quality, age-appropriate books with protagonists of color and that hurdle can often be the thing that keeps us from doing it. In my search for an easily searchable resource highlighting books with protagonists of color for toddlers through teens, I ended up creating my own resource.

Here you’ll find a long (though not comprehensive) list of books with protagonists of color including an age range for each book as well as the themes covered in the book. They run the gamut from fairy tale graphic novels, to coming of age sagas, to bedtime board books—and also include a good number of biographies and kid-friendly historical perspectives. So, the next time you’re looking for a book about a new baby coming or an upcoming holiday or the challenges of moving to a new place, why not check out one of the books from this list? Also, please feel free to suggest titles to add to this list in the Comments section below.

As Sharon Astyk points out, “In learning that Black [or Asian or Latino, etc.] experience is as whole and real as their own, in developing empathy that crosses cultural and racial barriers, and in imagining themselves into Black lives, they are unlearning the implicit racism of their culture.”

Want to do more? In addition to adding some of these books to your family’s library, consider doing some research on the library at your child’s school or your local public library. How many of these books do they have?  Could you request a greater selection or donate a few to supplement their collection? Christopher Dean Myers suggests, based on his experiences in the literature world, that there are so few children’s books with protagonists of color because there isn’t a demand for them. We can be that demand.

There’s more to do to continue to break down the systems of racial prejudice around us, but this is a concrete step that all of us can take that has real, tangible impact.

How about a trip to the library?


Suzanne Feinspan is a freelance writer, educator, and consultant who loves to think, talk, teach and write about issues of race, equity, and social justice. Previously, she served as Deputy Director and Acting Executive Director at AVODAH, an organization which develops and engages a network of over 700 Jewish leaders fighting poverty and promoting social justice in the United States. Suzanne has had articles published by Kveller, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Zeek. She and her husband are parents to two hilarious and loving boys who seem to have an unlimited supply of energy. They live in Silver Spring, MD.

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