Putting Black Girls Front and Center: 5 YA Nonfiction Reads

A quick look at recently published nonfiction titles, aimed at older readers, that center Black girls.
Updated March 16, 10:10 a.m. ET: We revised the second paragraph as it originally stated "Dias, 13, has done more for finding and promoting works of children’s literature with Black girls as main characters than most people have in a lifetime." This was an unacceptable erasure of the work of Black women librarians, educators, authors, scholars, and activists, who have advocated for and championed Black authors and characters in kid lit for decades. We've also included some of the names of individuals who we failed to initially cite.
As a part of the #KidLitWomen conversation happening this month, Edith (Edi) Campbell has researched and examined how economically valued Black women authors are in kid lit in a two-part post (first, second) on her blog CrazyQuiltEdi. The numbers are appallingly low, but, as Campbell writes in the headline of the second post, "This Is What Marley Dias Was Talking About." Dias's #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign is a monumental effort, but not one that exists in a vacuum. There is a long and ongoing legacy of Black women scholars, librarians, authors, activists, educators, and more who have tirelessly worked to dismantle White supremacy in education, publishing, and librarianship, including but not limited to Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Augusta Baker, Rudine Sims Bishop, Justina Ireland, Detra Price-Dennis, Zetta Elliott, and so many others. Inspired by Campbell's recent posts and the work of Dias and her contemporaries and predecessors, this roundup is a quick look at recently published nonfiction titles, aimed at older readers, that center Black girls and women, and are perfect selections for Women's History Month. Jamia Wilson and Andrea Pippin's Young, Gifted and Black: Meet 52 Black Heroes from Past and Present doesn't cover women exclusively, but, as the starred review notes, this exuberant compendium is a fantastic launching point for further discovery, one that shows a cross-section of the African diaspora currently underrepresented in children's nonfiction. If there are any titles that we missed, please do not hesitate to leave comments below.

BILES, Simone with Michelle Burford. Courage To Soar: A Body in Motion, a Life in Balance. 256p. ebook available. Zondervan. Nov. 2016. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9780310759669.

Gr 7 Up–Nineteen-year-old Biles, Olympic gold medalist and the most decorated U.S. gymnast of all time, takes readers along her journey to the podium in this memoir. After spending her early childhood in and out of foster care, Biles was adopted by her biological grandparents. She began her gymnastics training at the age of six after a field trip to Bannon’s Gymnastix, where the coaches quickly discovered that she “had what it took to go all the way.” Biles describes not only her gymnastics training and career but also her personal life, including her grandmother’s death, the difficult decisions she made in order to balance school and gymnastics, her “bratty period” in her early teens, and her love for her car, with its zebra-print interior. In recent years, Biles has won three consecutive world championship titles followed by her team gold and individual wins at the 2016 Olympics. Biles’s narration is effervescent, showing her to be, as her brother says, “a goofy and down-to-earth kid.” The tone is conversational and includes casual phrases such as “if you can’t already tell” and “just kidding.” She expresses appreciation for her family, friends, teammates, and coaches and frequently credits God and her faith for her success. One slight caveat: readers without background knowledge about gymnastics may not find the terminology to be adequately explained. VERDICT Essential for libraries serving tween and teen gymnastics fans.–Magdalena Teske, Naperville Public Library, IL

This review was published in the School Library Journal March 2017 issue.

BROWNE, Mahogany L. Black Girl Magic: A Poem. illus. by Jess X. Snow. 40p. Roaring Brook. Jan. 2018. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781250173720.

Gr 6 Up–In this book-length poem, Browne, the cofounder of Brooklyn Slam, chronicles the many injustices, limitations, and stereotypes that Black girls face, leading up to a resounding celebration of Black girlhood and a rejection of all that is harmful. Browne’s verse radiates energy and urgency, achieved through patiently building up momentum and then cutting it with voltalike segments: “You ain’t ‘posed to dream at all/You ain’t ‘posed to do/Nothing but carry babies/And carry/Weaves/Felons/Families/Confusion/Silence./And carry a nation—/But never an opinion.” The rhythm and use of enjambment lends the work a spoken word–like cadence, making this an imminently readable poem. The ending chorus of “You Black girl shine!/You Black girl bloom!…” will stick with readers long after they have closed the book. Snow and Key’s striking illustrations keep to a limited color palette of white, black, red, and gold, a choice that is elegant and effective, conveying a raw honesty. Nearly every spread could be framed. While the picture book format may signal younger readers, its often intimate content is more appropriate for tweens and teens. VERDICT Browne celebrates a Black girlhood that is free, unforgettable, and luminous. Middle and high school poetry collections will want to consider.–Melissa Williams, Berwick Academy, ME

This review was published in the School Library Journal January 2018 issue.

redstarDIAS, Marley. Marley Dias Gets It Done: And So Can You. 208p. charts. further reading. photos. Scholastic. Jan. 2018. pap. $14.99. ISBN 9781338136890. POP

Gr 5 Up–Dias pens an eminently readable and nuanced personal narrative of her #1000BlackGirlsBooks campaign and her tips, tools, and strategies for effecting positive change in the representation of Black girls in children’s literature and beyond. The work opens with Dias’s poignant recollection of how Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming raised questions about why the award-winning title, and other selections by Black authors, weren’t a part of her school’s assigned reading. Dias’s effervescent personality and style shine as she discusses her family, love of sushi, trip to Ghana, relationship to social media, and more—never underestimating the audience (“For the record, just this once, let me say: Hard things come and go, but it seems like racism always stays. There, I said it. And I’m doing all I can to change it.”). The text encourages readers to find and pursue their interests, provides valuable advice on activism (including how charity and activism are not the same thing), and strongly recommends reading for knowledge and pleasure. Dias’s beloved list of 1,000 books is included at the end. The eye-catching photos, empowering pull quotes, and bright pastel page borders make for a thoughtful design and will have readers returning to the book again and again. VERDICT An invaluable selection for any public and school library collection.–Jess Gafkowitz, Brooklyn Public Library

This review was published in the School Library Journal February 2018 issue. PENN, Maya S. You Got This!: Unleash Your Awesomeness, Find Your Path, and Challenge Your World. 224p. S. & S./North Star Way. Apr. 2016. Tr $15.99. ISBN 9781501123719. Gr 4-9–Maya Penn is a 15-year-old entrepreneur, inspirational speaker, designer, and much more. Divided into three sections, this title shares her blueprint for success with an emphasis on self-esteem, ambition, and role models. The tone is fun and conversational as Penn identifies common modes of thinking (for example, the flip-flopper), with suggested activities for those feeling unfocused or overwhelmed (dream boards, idea books). The strength of this title is in the discussion of online safety and awareness of one’s digital footprint and in Penn’s interviews with other young go-getters at the end of the book. Each interview is prefaced with an introduction to the activist or entrepreneur, detailing relevant accomplishments. VERDICT A valuable title for young adults interested in examples of teen involvement in volunteer movements or looking for personal inspiration.–Cynde Suite, Bartow County Library System, Adairsville, GA This review was published in the School Library Journal April 2016 issue. redstarWILSON, Jamia. Young, Gifted and Black: Meet 52 Black Heroes from Past and Present. illus. by Andrea Pippins. 64p. glossary. photos. Wide Eyed Editions. Feb. 2018. Tr $22.99. ISBN 9781786031587. Gr 3 Up–With a title that references the late Lorraine Hansberry’s phrase “young, gifted and black,” this exuberant collected biography is one readers won’t want to miss. Students are invited to explore one and two-page vignettes of 52 compelling figures in black culture worldwide. Each profile recounts their beginnings and marvelous feats as scientists, writers, athletes, artists, or activists, both past and present. Exquisitely designed, each illustrated portrait is thickly outlined, colored digitally, and illuminated by irradiating forms that resemble papel picado. Each written entry follows a precise format: a clear definition of the person in a larger sans-serif font; the same but smaller font for the text; a bold handwriting font for a highlighted quote; and an outlined, all-caps font for the inventive titles given to each, such as “Conductor” for Harriet Tubman, “Soul-Singing Superstar” for Solange, and “Chess Grandmaster” for Maurice Ashley. There is not a chronology or categories. There is a back matter and a “Hall of Fame” photo album–like index of black-and-white headshots, each framed with a name banner and page number. In the preface, New York–based activist author Wilson and illustrator Pippins pinpoint the importance of telling stories of black success with the adage that “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”  VERDICT Share this book widely across generations as a launching point for more discoveries.–Sara Lissa Paulson, City-As-School High School, New York City This review was published in the School Library Journal March 2018 issue.
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Breanna J. McDaniel

Thank you for presenting this information and highlighting some of the work that has been done to build awareness around the lack of Black girl protagonists and authorship in children's literature! In addition to the books noted above there is a rich history and body of scholarship by academics, creators and librarians like Edi (a short list includes : Rudine Sims Bishop, Charlemae Rollins, Augusta Baker, Michelle H. Martin, Zetta Elliot, Karen Chandler, Andrea Davis Pinkney among many others this list is absolutely NOT exhaustive) who have given of themselves through mentorship, publications, presentations and other mediums to advocate for more inclusion of Black girls in children's literature.

Posted : Mar 16, 2018 06:10