10 Picture Books for Caribbean American Heritage Month and Beyond

Heritage celebrations are conversation starters. Use these appealing titles for young people to facilitate meaningful discussion about Caribbean histories, communities, interests, and experiences. 


Many of us invested in education and children’s literature have become familiar with heritage days, weeks, and months—periods of the year designated to commemorate, celebrate, and acknowledge marginalized groups. Professionals in the diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) field remind us that these national observances are necessary because not everyone has the type of upbringing or schooling that encourages them to develop interest in and empathy for the numerous heritage groups enriching our world.

When I tell someone that I am part Kalinago, I might receive a blank stare if they aren’t aware that many Caribbean people are descendants of the Kalinago tribes of indigenous people. I might be subject to this blank look even from another Caribbean person. But the consciousness-raising activities of International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples (August 9)—an annual custom plugged into year-round reclamation, revitalization, and education efforts of indigenous communities in the Caribbean—make it at least a little less likely that I will have to contend with the blank stare of a learned incuriousness.

Whenever we speak of heritage observances, the challenge is avoiding lazy communication. Heritage celebrations are conversation starters, and as such, they should do more than just create an atmosphere of goodwill toward the groups being celebrated. Social intercourse and conversational rituals that establish a mood of sociability between different ethnic and racial groups serve their purpose but will not break the cultural trance of indifference. Overreliance on such “small talk” can at best make Caribbean heritage a recherché topic and at worst engender or intensify unconscious biases against Caribbean people. “Deep talk,” on the other hand, catalyzes increased sharing of useful knowledge about Caribbean histories, communities, interests, and experiences.

I share the book list below not just to lubricate social connection between Caribbean communities and other groups, but in hopes that these titles will be used to facilitate the kind of encounters needed to emerge from incuriousness and co-create the common good.

My Mother Was a Nanny by Laura James. Groundwood. Sept 2023.

Afro-Antiguan American self-taught artist Laura James shares her childhood experience of growing up in Brooklyn with a mother who was a homemaker, domestic worker, and nanny. James’s first-person narrative debunks harmful stereotypes of Caribbean nannies as tough, lazy, or difficult. Although James’s mother often took a no-nonsense approach to parenting and was too time-strapped to spend as much time with her three daughters as she would have liked, James humanizes her as a woman of many talents, a reliable neighbor, caring friend, and devoted mummy who juggled a demanding set of priorities and gave everything she had for the sake of her children. Complete with warm acrylic illustrations in James’ signature style, this picture book is an unvarnished but compassionate tribute to the complexity of motherhood.


Good Night My Sweet Island by Petrea Seaman Honychurch, illus. by Susanne Heitz. Papillote Press. Nov 2023.

As the sun sets and the moon rises over Waitukubuli (the Kalinago name for the island of Dominica), a young girl’s father announces that it’s time for them to say good night “to all things we love // to all we all hold tight.” Thus begins a lyrical and gently joyful journey through the tropical landscape, culturescape, and foodscape of Dominica before the girl is tucked in by her mother and dozes off. With smoothly rhyming text and relaxing imagery, this comforting book is perfect for lulling children to sleep. Dominican Creole French words included in the text are defined in a closing glossary. Susanne Heitz’s scenic illustrations, created with acrylics, colored pencils, and crayons, become more whimsical as the girl drifts toward dreamland, and authentically capture the magical ambiance of the Caribbean.


La Noche Before Three Kings Day by Sheila Colón-Bagley, illus. by Alejandro Mesa. HarperCollins. Sept 2023.

Written in the style of the classic holiday poem “'Twas the Night Before Christmas,” this rhyming picture book depicts the magic and excitement of Three Kings Day, also known as Día de Los Tres Reyes Magos, a feast day which commemorates the Three Wise Men’s visit to Jesus after his birth. In keeping with Puerto Rican tradition (the appearance of the Flag of Puerto Rico in Alejandra Mesa’s cheerful digital illustrations cues the family as boricua), two unnamed sisters enjoy festive fun with their extended family. They place shoeboxes by the front door for the Three Wise Men who visit homes during the night of Three Kings Day Eve to leave gifts for well-behaved children. After the siblings are sent to bed, one has a delightful encounter when she catches the wise men sneaking into their home. The book is sprinkled with Spanish words whose meanings are easy for non-Spanish speakers to grasp in context and are defined in a glossary at the back.


Dreams of Green: A Three Kings’ Day Story by Mariel Jungkunz, illus. by Mónica Paola Rodriguez. Astra. Oct 2023.

When a young girl named Lucía moves from Puerto Rico to Ohio with her mom and dad, she feels lost without the familiar comforts of her island, like the friendly iguanas that laze around in the sun and her favorite Puerto Rican snacks. Worst of all, she cannot celebrate Three Kings Day, a major Puerto Rican holiday, exactly how she used to back home. Especially worrying is the lack of fresh grass which she needs to leave out for the camels that the Three Kings ride when they visit homes during the night to leave gifts for sleeping children. Determined to find grass in her snow-blanketed neighborhood, or at least something close to it, so that she can guide the camels to her new home, Lucía thinks outside of the box. Her parents also find creative ways to maintain their holiday traditions. Mónica Paola Rodriguez’s heartwarming digital illustrations portray both the wistfulness and coziness of a small family just beginning to adjust to life in a new place.


Abuela’s Wishing Tree/El árbol de los deseos de abuela by Mitzi Fernandez Spitzer, illus. by Julia Sarapata de Carvalho. Con Todo. May 2023.

The day before her and her twin sister’s quinceañera, an unnamed Cuban American girl listens to older family members speak about the various things they miss about life in Cuba. Abuela says that the tree in the garden, sprouted from a seed she brought with her from Cuba long ago, symbolizes her wish to put down new roots, and each family member shares what they would wish for if they had a wishing tree. On quinceañera day, as the family parties beneath Abuela’s tree, the girl comes to appreciate the seeds of sacrifice that gave birth to the life she now enjoys and the cultural roots that connect her to Cuba. The nostalgic bilingual text is accompanied by heartwarming digital illustrations that reflect different emotional shades of the Cuban immigrant experience.


The Sculptors of Light: Poems about Cuban Women Artists by Margarita Engle, illus. by Cecilia Puglesi. Reycraft Books. Oct 2023.

Former National Young People’s Poet Laureate Margarita Engle illuminates the lives and work of influential, pioneering Cuban women and girl artists in this poetic, inspiring collective biography. Eight poems (one poem per artist) focus on named biographical subjects who worked in various art forms, from still-life painting, sculpting, and pottery to printmaking, architecture, performance art, and more. Engle also pays tribute to anonymous indigenous ancestors who created handmade objects of beauty and power, the early women photographers of Cuba in general, and imprisoned dissident artists. Brief historical notes appear on each double-page spread, and Engle discloses the type of poetic form used to write each poem, making this a good picture book for teaching poetic technique. Written with an unmistakable feminist history lens, the text is enriched by Cecilia Puglesi's hand-drawn art which respectfully and faithfully reproduces some of the more famous works of the artists profiled.


Windrush by Colin Grant, illus. by Melleny Taylor. Ladybird. May 2023.

The timeless Ladybird Books, published out of England for over 100 years, have been a staple of Caribbean childhoods for generations. Now, a new Ladybird nonfiction title by noted Jamaican-British historian Colin Grant traces the history of Caribbean people in Britain. Each double-page spread is dedicated to a different pivotal event, starting with the advent of Caribbean slavery and imperialism in what was formerly the British Empire. The arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush ship bringing the first large group of Caribbean immigrants to England in 1948, the Caribbean-British connection during the First and Second World Wars, the founding of Notting Hill Carnival, and the Bristol Bus BoycottEngland's first Black-led campaign against racial discriminationare just some of the key historical developments recounted in the book. Melleny Taylor’s digitally created illustrations serve the text well and manage to echo the iconic feel of vintage Ladybird book illustrations.


Granny Came Here on the Empire Windrush by Patrice Lawrence, illus. by Camilla Sucre. Nosy Crow. May 2023.

Waterstones Children's Book Prize-winner Patrice Lawrence’s picture book unfolds as a heart-to-heart conversation between Ava, a young Trinidadian British girl, and her grandmother. Ava doesn't know which inspirational figure to dress up as for an upcoming school assembly, so Granny tells her stories about influential Black leaders from history and fishes old clothing items that Ava can use for costuming out of her special trunk. But other kids in Ava’s class are already dressing up as the pioneers Granny names. Then Ava discovers the suitcase that Granny brought from Trinidad when she immigrated to Britain on the HMT Empire Windrush ship many years ago and asks questions about the objects inside it. As she learns about Granny’s courageous and victorious life, she realizes that the inspirational figure she wants to portray is standing right in front of her. Inspired by the author’s family history, and buttressed by Camilla Sucre’s warm wax pastel illustrations, this touching intergenerational tale both educates and uplifts.


Plátanos Are Love by Alyssa Reynoso-Morris, illus. by Mariyah Rahman. Atheneum. Apr 2023.

In her picture book debut, Alyssa Reynoso-Morris serves up an eye-opening and mouth-watering ode to plantains, one of the unofficial emblems of Dominican culture. When a young girl named Esme helps her abuela select plátanos at the farmer’s market and cook them at home over the course of a week, Abuela shares what the tropical fruit represents to their extended family, including their ancestors. By the time the pair have finished preparing various iconic Dominican dishes, Esme has learned much about the roles patience, sharing, love, and tradition play not just in cooking, but also in keeping a family line going strong for generations. Mariyah Rahman’s homey digital illustrations do justice to Alyssa Reynoso-Morris’ deft, heartwarming narrative. Recipes and a glossary of Spanish words used in the text are appended at the end.


Malaika, Carnival Queen by Nadia L. Hohn, illus. by Irene Luxbacher. Groundwood. May 2023.

The Malaika series, starring the eponymous Caribbean immigrant girl (the island she hails from is left vague), gets a fourth installment, which continues the Carnival motif established in the previous books. This time, Malaika is on a quest to finally find out about her deceased father, whom her mother has been unable to speak about since he died during Malaika’s infancy. After her mother accepts that it is time for Malaika to learn about him, their blended, interracial, intergenerational family drives to the farm where he worked as a migrant laborer. When her father’s former co-workers share fond stories about him, Malaika is moved to realize his unfulfilled dream of celebrating Carnival on the farm. This picture book set in Canada delivers the multilayered, emotionally nuanced, Jamaican patois-grounded storytelling one has come to expect from Nadia L. Hohn. Illustrator Irene Luxbacher’s inimitable mixed-media collage style once again distinguishes the series.

Summer Edward is a Trinidadian American author, children’s book editor, educator, K-12 literacy specialist, Caribbean children’s and young adult book advocate, and commentator on books for young readers. She holds an M.S.Ed. degree in Reading, Writing, Literacy from the University of Pennsylvania and founded Anansesem, an online magazine that for 10 years covered Caribbean children’s and YA literature. Learn more about her work at www.summeredward.com.

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