What are the best picture books about racism and inequality? These are difficult subjects to talk about and find the right way to talk about. Leave it to picture books to have simple, kid-friendly ways to get the conversation started. This list of my favorite picture books to read about racism, inequality, and discrimination are perfect for elementary students. A good mix of both fiction and nonfiction books to engage your students in learning about the struggle to end inequality and promote acceptance.
Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford
Once upon a time, you were never taught about the greatest incidents of racial violence in U.S. history. The Tulsa Race Massacre was this event. Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood had a booming economy. Greenwood had many locally-owned businesses and maybe even better schools than the rest of Tulsa. Greenwood was the Black neighborhood in segregated Tulsa. Racial tensions were already a powder keg that it only took one spark to cause an explosion. Carole Boston Weatherford’s words convey passion and are also accessible for younger students. While Floyd Cooper’s illustrations are worthy of the Caldecott committee’s considerations. Back matter provides greater context and explanation of the events as well as the authors’ connections to the events.
Clover and Annie are girls living on separate sides of a segregated town. Despite this segregation, the girls form a frienship. Jacqueline Woodson’s use of the fence to show a literal divide is helpful for students to help them understand segregation and discrimination.
Easily my favorite Martin Luther King, Jr. story. A book about how simple words can still be moving and powerful. Bryan Collier’s illustrations earned it multiple illustrator awards including Caldecott and Coretta Scott King honors. An excellent biography introduction to the man who has inspired millions.
The story of one of the young girls to attend a desegregated school in Louisiana. This book was written by the psychologist who worked with her through this experience and provides a powerful window into the mind of this remarkable girl in the face of hate. It can open a conversation into how schools continue to be segregated through other factors. This book is also part of my list of the best books for Black History Month.
This book is geared more towards upper elementary grade students but the pictures can also be powerful to younger students who may have read The Story of Ruby Bridges. This primary source written by Ruby Bridges herself includes photographs and explanations to accompany her account of school desegregation.
An oldie but a goodie having sold millions of copies worldwide in many languages. Elmer is unlike all of the other elephants being a patchwork of colors and can make all of the other elephants laugh. He thinks that the elephants are laughing at him so he decides to paint himself. A powerful message for such a playful fiction story.
If you’ve read more than a few of my posts, you’d probably know how much I love Oliver Jeffers. This book is about the fictional Hueys who are all the same. One day, one of them decides to be different and knit himself a sweater. How do the Hueys react to this difference? A great lesson that is understated yet powerful as almost all of Jeffers’ books are.
This book and its follow-up Julian At the Wedding (October 6, 2020) chronicle a trans child named Julian who wants to be a mermaid. Julian is very interested in mermaids and dresses up like one. His abuela finds him having dressed like one of the mermaids and his initial embarrassment turns into joy as his abuela takes him to meet mermaids. A beautiful story about acceptance and being yourself. It is also available in Spanish as Sirenas.
Daddy There’s a Noise Outside by Kenneth Braswell
This is one of the best picture books about racism and protest on the list. It takes the subject that is often taught as history and shows it as a contemporary issue. It explains many forms of protest that occur around the world and throughout history. Set in the context of children in the city who are awoken one night when they hear noise outside their window.
This tells the author’s own immigrant story with her child as they walked across the border and found their way into this new culture. Morales tells the story through verse and her collage style include Mexican motifs and references to life in California shortly after arriving in San Francisco. A story about adapting to a new language, way of life and culture through books. This book is also part of my best books for Hispanic Heritage Month.
Winning the Caldecott Medal is just one of the reasons that this is one of the best picture books about racism. Through Kwame Alexander’s powerful verse, it tells the tale of the black experience in the United States throughout history. It triumphantly tells the tale of people who have been and continue to be disproportionately discriminated against yet are undefeated. A powerful book for upper elementary students.
A powerful story of an Ojibwe girl named Irene who is taken from her family to be taught at a residential school. Residential schools are the Canadian equivalent of the Indian Boarding Schools of the United States whose goal was to assimilate Native American/First Nations children into the colonizer culture. Rather than use her name, the nuns at the school insist that Irene refer to herself by a number. A powerful story about the traumatic experience of thousands of First Nations children as they attempted to retain their culture. Based on the experience of the co-author, making it a book from an authentic voice.
Tells the story of Cesar Chavez as he sought to improve the plight of farm workers in California. This is the story of his march to Sacramento to demand fair pay for their work. A great way to begin a discussion about the difficulties faced by migrant farmworkers. This is also part of my list of the best biography picture books for Hispanic Heritage Month.
If you ever see this book, all of the awards will almost cover the entire cover. You name an award it likely won it or was an honoree. Through verse, it tells about the transformative effect that a fresh haircut can have and the importance of a barbershop in communities for the self-esteem of boys. I could go on and on about the word choice in this book.
A story of Sylvia Mendez and her Latinx family’s fight to end segregation in California. This fight happened 10 years before Brown v. Board of Education, but it gets far less press despite the precedent it set. Duncan Tonatiuh’s illustrations are as unique and engaging as ever and provide an excellent backdrop to his story.
A story about two children and their families, one white and one black, as they discuss a police shooting of a black man. Child-friendly definitions of topics like racism and injustice are included and show. A powerful way to show children how they can begin to talk about complex events like those in the text.
What I love about this book is the subtle power it has. A story about a boy who has a mixture of excitement and fear about jumping off a diving board. That’s the main story. The power is in seeing an emotionally-responsive male role model of color. It’s a really heart-warming story.
Another moving story about a black girl and her father. A book about the relationship between a father and daughter and their love for their natural hair. Daddy gives his daughter a special hairdo and self-confidence all at once.
Another lyrical story about accepting who you are and showing kindness to all. Another diverse author delivering a beautiful message appropriate for all elementary.
A story about a lesser-known figure of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Georgia Gilmore and a devoted group of women used their skills at baking to help sustain the boycott by fundraising. A great way to show students how not all people who participate in and support a protest need to carry signs.
A story about a young Muslim girl and her proud, happy day wearing her mother’s khimar, head scarf. A story to help students start to talk about Muslim culture and the custom of wearing head scarves.
Faizah is excited for the first day of school and even more excited for her older sister Asiya’s first day of wearing hijab. Faizah is worried for her sister also especially when some boys make fun of her sister. Her sister ignores it and has a great day. Another great story about Muslim culture.
I love this story because it avoids the white hero narrative so often depicted in texts. This tells the true story of how Muslims of Paris helped protect Jews during the Holocaust. You will want to buy this book for your library.
This story told by Japanese author Ken Mochizuki tells the tale of the Japanese internment camps during WWII. A boy and his father build a baseball field in the middle of the desert in the camp giving them back some semblance of hope and dignity despite being surrounded by fences and guards.
Jeremy used to be the fastest boy in his class but all of the other boys now have shoes that Jeremy is sure makes them faster. He wants new shoes but his grandma can’t afford those shoes. They’re a want and they only have money for “need.” A story about wants vs. needs and the struggle of many families. This is also part of my list of the best character education books.
Kanzi and her family have just moved from their home in Cairo. Kanzi is embarrassed when the other kids make fun of her after her mother drops off her lunch. That night she wraps herself in her grandmother’s quilt that she gave her before they left Egypt. The quilt becomes something that helps Kanzi and her class form a connection. An authentic book complete with a glossary of Arabic words and alphabet!
Indigenous author Carole Lindstrom tells this tale about the Native Americans cry for environmental justice. A tribute to water and its importance to Indigenous Peoples. The words flow and undulate like the book’s topic itself.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the best picture books about racism and inequality. More and more amazing books written by BIPOC authors and allies are being written each year with ever-improving quality. If I’ve forgotten a great title, please enlighten me as I’m always wanting to add new books while still keeping the list short enough to be truly a well-curated list of the best books covering BIPOC folx and the issues that they face daily.