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42 Books Featuring Black Protagonists to Read Immediately


42 Books Featuring Black Protagonists to Read Immediately

On May 30, 2020, YA superstar author Nic Stone posted a plea on Instagram. In it, she talks about her experience as a black student and reader, writing that she rarely saw herself in the books she read. Accompanying her post is a stack of books, all featuring black characters and protagonists in YA literature.

The call for more books with Black protagonists

It’s a thought exercise we might all benefit from. Think back on the books you read in school, both the books you selected for yourself and the books your teachers selected for you. More than likely, those books featured white protagonists and – maybe occasionally – a token black character who is either a sidekick or killed off early in the narrative. Children’s literature is overwhelmingly white, which means there are very few chances for young readers to read stories of black wizards or superheroes or black leads in romantic comedies or black characters who go on road trips.

Literature should be both a window and mirror for the reader. A mirror in that we see ourselves reflected in the characters we read about, and a window so that we might walk in another person’s shoes for a short while.

“Just being human”

Following the police shooting of George Floyd last summer, readers have been educating themselves about antiracism. Sales of books on race have skyrocketed, which is absolutely a good thing.

But as Stone said in a follow-up article in Cosmopolitan, “…I can’t help but wonder how different the world would look if we’d all grown up seeing Black people do the stuff white people did in books. Going on adventures. Saving the day. Falling in love. Solving mysteries. Dealing with a broken heart. Getting caught up in a riveting love triangle. Taking down oppressive regimes. […] What if we’d seen Black people in books just being human? As we read all the race and racism books, we must also read books about Black people—especially Black children—just…living.”

Here, inspired by Stone, is a list of books for all ages, from picture books to middle grade to YA, all featuring books with Black protagonists just living.

Just so you know, we may get a small share of the sales made through affiliate links on this page.

Pictures Books

1. Flossie and the Fox

Written by Patricia McKissack and illustrated by Rachel Isadora

Flossie and the Fox - Black Protagonists in Books

Flossie is tasked with taking a basket of eggs to her neighbor Miz Viola, whose chickens are plagued by a fox and thus will not lay eggs. When she encounters the fox on the road, Flossie engages him in a clever battle of wits and ends up outfoxing the fox!

2. Mr. Scruff

By Simon James

Mr Scruff - Black Protagonists in Books

This heartwarming tale is about a boy named Jim and a shelter dog named Mr. Scruff. Jim, who is at the shelter searching for a dog, doesn’t think he and Mr. Scruff are the best fit, but of course, he’s proven wrong when Scruff becomes his new best friend.

3. A Beach Tail

By Karen Lynn Williams and illustrated by Floyd Cooper

A Beach Tail - Black Protagonists in Books

On a beach holiday with his dad, Gregory draws a lion in the sand and names him Sandy. Dad warns Greg to stay out of the water and with Sandy, but Greg prefers to wander. He skirts around the “don’t leave Sandy” rule by drawing an ever-longer tail as he parades down the beach. When he looks up, he’s lost his way, but luckily, Sandy’s tail is there to help him home. 

4. Just Us Women

Written by Jeannette Caines and illustrated by Pat Cummings

Just Us Women - Books with Black Protagonists

A young girl takes a road trip with her Aunt Martha in Martha’s brand new car. The road trip is, as Martha says, for “just us women,” and the mighty pair do as they please on their trip, eating whatever they want and buying souvenirs from garage sales. This book is an empowering look at the relationship between two strong women.

5. Ruby Finds a Worry

By Tom Percival

Ruby Finds a Worry

Protagonist Ruby is normally happy-go-lucky, until one day when she finds a Worry, an anthropomorphized yellow creature which grows bigger and bigger the more Ruby pays attention to it. She is afraid she’s stuck with her Worry forever, until she befriends a boy who has his own Worry to worry about. Together, they learn that there’s a simple way to banish their anxiety.

6. Jabari Jumps

By Gaia Cornwall 

Jabari Jumps

Jabari isn’t afraid to jump off the diving board; he just needs a minute to figure out what kind of jump to do. He then needs another minute to stretch, and maybe just another minute after that. This great picture book is about overcoming your fears, as Jabari’s father gently encourages him to take the leap.

7. What if?

Written by Samantha Berger and illustrated by Mike Curato 

What If...

This beautiful book is about a young girl who will create art no matter what. If her pencil was taken away, she would fold origami instead. And she imagines the disappearance of her art supplies and declares that, even if her supplies were all gone she could still create art with her body by dancing and her mind by imagining stories. It’s affirming and gorgeously illustrated.

8. Raising Dragons

Written by Jerdine Nolen and illustrated by Elise Primavera 

Raising Dragons

One day, a dragon egg shows up on the family farm. Ma and Pa don’t believe in magic, but their daughter does. She raises up the dragon named Hank and teaches him to do farm chores. The ending is bittersweet, as Hank must go be with other dragons at the end, but, not to worry, for the little girl is always welcome to come visit.

9. Dear Dragon: A Pen Pal Tale

Written by Josh Funk and illustrated by Rodolfo Montalvo 

Dear Dragon: A Pen Pal Tale

George wants to meet his pen pal Blaise, and Blaise wants to meet George in real life. After all, they tell each other everything in their letters. One problem, though – George is a human, and Blaise is a dragon, a rather big difference they don’t figure out until they meet face-to-face.

10. Share Some Kindness, Bring Some Light  

By Apryl Stott 

Share Some Kindness, Bring Some Light

The animals of the forest think Bear is mean, but he’s really quite sweet. He shares his sadness with Coco, his human friend. Coco remembers her grandmother’s advice: “When life gets dark as winter’s night, share some kindness, bring some light,” and together the unlikely pair set out to spread kindness throughout the forest.

11. Monster Trouble

Written by Lane Fredrickson and illustrated by Michael Robertson

Monster Trouble!

How can you not love a book where the main character is named Winifred Schnitzel? Well, in Monster Trouble, Winifred isn’t afraid of anything, even the monsters that live under her bed. The trouble is, they are causing a ruckus and she can’t sleep. Don’t worry, Winifred finds a way to get her monsters to quiet down. 

12. Kenya’s Art

Written by Linda Trice and illustrated by Hazel Mitchell  

Kenya's Art

Kenya is asked to write a report about what she did over spring break, but nothing notable happens until she visits a local museum. They have a recycling exhibit and Kenya is inspired! She races home to make art from old toys and other cast-offs she finds around the neighborhood.

13. More-igami

Written by Dori Kleber and illustrated by G. Brian Karas

More-igami - Books with Black Protagonists

In a delightful picture book that teaches children about the adage “practice makes perfect,” Joey is inspired to become an origami master after a school presentation. 

14. Come on Rain

Written by Karen Hesse and illustrated by Jon J Muth 

Come On, Rain!

Tess details the trials of a scorching summer day in the city – it’s so hot the cats are panting – when she sees a giant raincloud gathering on the horizon. When the rain finally falls, a neighborhood celebration is in order.

15. A Stone for Sascha

By Aaron Becker

A Stone for Sascha

This aching, poignant wordless picture book is a must-have for anyone who has ever suffered the loss of a beloved pet. For one young girl, this summer’s vacation isn’t the same without Sascha, the family dog who recently passed away. But as she is gathering stones along the beach, she begins to understand the interconnectedness of life and that love lasts forever.

Middle Grade

16. As Brave As You

By Jason Reynolds

As Brave As You - Books with Black Protagonists

Genie and his brother Ernie get to spend the summer with their grandparents who live in the country. It’s a summer of surprises for Genie, who learns that his grandfather is blind. It’s also a summer of growing up, as Genie must contemplate the meaning of bravery when two people he considered brave – his brother and his grandfather – act in ways that aren’t so fearless after all.

17. So Done

By Paula Chase

So Done - Books with Black Protagonists

Jamila Phillips and Tai Johnson were inseparable as children, but now that they’re in middle school, their friendship has gotten more complicated. They are keeping secrets from each other, and Mila is paying more attention to an upcoming dance competition than to Tai. They must learn to speak up for themselves and each other if they are to stay friends forever.

18. Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky

By Kwame Mbalia 

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky (Tristan Strong, 1)

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky is published by Rick Riordan’s imprint, which specializes in bringing world mythology into the realm of middle grade literature. This title features West African mythology and African American folk heroes. Seventh grader Tristan has already been battered by loss – he failed to safe his best friend Eddie from an accident. All he has left of Eddie is his notebook, so when a strange creature tries to steal it, Tristan fights back, following it into a realm of MidPass. Here, he teams up with John Henry and Brer Rabbit, among others.   

19. Take Back the Block

By Chrystal D. Giles 

Take Back the Block - Books with Black Protagonists

Wes Henderson doesn’t care too much about the protests his parents are always dragging him to. He’d rather hang out with his friends and play video games. That all changes when a real estate developer makes an offer to buy his neighborhood, threatening to change Wes’s life as he knows it.

20. Clayton Byrd Goes Underground

Written by Rita Williams-Garcia and illustrated by Frank Morrison

Clayton Byrd Goes Underground

Clayton can’t wait to grow up to be a Bluesman, just like his grandpa. But when Clayton’s grandfather dies suddenly, his mother forbids him from ever playing the blues again – ever. But when Clayton runs away, he learns some things that surprise him on his journey through New York City.

21. When Life Gives You Mangos

By Kareen Getten

When Life Gives You Mangos - Books with Black Protagonists

Clara, who is twelve and lives in Jamaica, knows that something important happened to her last summer, but her memories just aren’t there. This summer, she is determined to get her memories back and the journey to do so proves to be both adventurous and heartfelt. The delightful ending features supernatural elements that fit just right.

22. The Magic in Changing Your Stars

By Leah Henderson 

The Magic in Changing Your Stars

After Ailey Benjamin Lane lets a case of stage fright derail a dance audition, he tells his grandpa he wants to quit dancing. But Grandpa was a dancer in his youth, too, and shows Ailey a pair of tap shoes given to him by Bo Jangles himself. When Ailey tries on the shoes, they transport him through time to 1930s Harlem. He meets his grandfather as a young boy and learns to overcome his fear.

23. Meg, Beth, Jo, and Amy 

By Rey Terciero and Bre Indigo

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: A Modern Graphic Retelling of Little Women - Blended Family Represented!

This graphic novel retelling of Little Women imagines the four March sisters as part of a modern-day blended family. As young women in New York City, the girls still retain characteristics from the original story – Jo is still a writer and Beth still teaches her sisters to take nothing for granted. It’s charming and a great introduction to a classic novel.

24. Eighth Grade Superzero

By Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

Eighth-Grade Superzero

After a terrible first day of school, Reggie McKnight earns the nickname Pukey. He has a host of other problems, too. A crush on a girl he’s not sure how to handle and an ex-best friend who is now acting like a jerk. Reggie wants to run for class president but knows he’s not popular enough. That all changes when volunteering at a homeless shelter gives Reggie a new sense of self and of purpose, making him a perfect candidate for class president.

25. Tight

By Torrey Maldonado 

Tight - Books with Black Protagonists

Bryan likes comics books and a no-drama life that allows him to just go with the flow. Which is exactly what he does when his friend Mike encourages him to start breaking the rules. It’s little things at first, like hopping over subway stiles, but the rulebreaking escalates and Bryan starts realizing that the path of least resistance is going to get him into trouble.

26. Jayla Jumps In

By Joy Jones

Jayla Jumps In - Books with Black Protagonists

When Jayla learns that her mom used to be a Double Dutch champion, she starts a team at her own school. She hopes it inspires her mom, who doesn’t have much time for healthy eating or exercise, to get more active. The idea takes off, and soon Jayla has people of all ages jumping for joy. 

27. Something to Say

By Lisa Moore Ramée 

Something to Say

Jenae doesn’t have many friends, but she does have a big family, so it doesn’t really phase her. Then a new boy named Aubrey moves to town, and he seems determined to be her friend, whether she likes it or not. Soon, Jenae is challenged further when she and Aubrey are teamed up for a class debate. Jenae’s fear of public speaking takes over, which she knows threatens Aubrey’s coveted spot on the debate team.

28. Ways to Make Sunshine

By Renée Watson 

Ways to Make Sunshine (A Ryan Hart Story, 1)

The main character of this novel, Ryan Heart, has been called a new Ramona Quimby, and for good reason – she’s a pure delight. Ryan is a glass half full kind of person. She knows how to find the silver lining – or “make sunshine” – in any situation, including trials such as an infuriating older brother and a family struggling to make ends meet.

29. Serena Says

By Tanita S. Davis 

Serena Says

When JC dumps Serena for a new best friend, Serena struggles to fill the void in her life. She turns to vlogging and realizes that she’s a star in her own right.

30. My Life As an Ice Cream Sandwich

By Ibi Zoboi 

My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich - Books with Black Protagonists

Ebony-Grace Norfleet has lived with her grandfather, a NASA engineer, for most of her life when suddenly she finds herself spending a summer with her father in Harlem. Ebony-Grace knows she won’t like Harlem as much as Hunstville, Alabama, where she dreams of working for NASA, too, but as it turns out, Harlem helps her on her quest for the stars.

YA

31. Now That I’ve Found You

By Kristina Forest

Now That I've Found You - YA Books with Black Protagonists

Teenager Evie Jones is a Hollywood star until a friend’s betrayal gets her blacklisted. Evie concocts a plan to win back her fame, but, in order to do, so she has to coax her reclusive grandmother, a former Hollywood darling herself, out of retirement. All is going according to plan when her grandmother suddenly disappears. Desperate to find her grandmother, Evie teams up with a cute boy named Milo to search for her.

32. Happily Ever Afters

By Elise Bryant

Happily Ever Afters

In this romantic comedy, Tessa loves romance novels – and secretly writes her own steamy short stories. Tessa is soon accepted into a creative writing program, where she comes up with a bad case of writer’s block. Not to worry, though – Tessa’s best friend knows all she needs is a romance of her own for inspiration, so Tessa sets out to find her own Prince Charming.

33. I Wanna Be Where You Are

By Kristina Forest

I Wanna Be Where You Are

Chloe Pierce can’t wait to audition for the dance school of her dreams. The only problem is, her mom has forbidden it. So Chloe plans a secret road trip to the east coast. Her neighbor Eli insists on coming along – or else he will tell Chloe’s mom the plan and ruin the whole thing. Road trip hijinks and a little romance follow.

34. A Song Below Water

By Bethany C. Morrow

A Song Below Water - Books with Black Protagonists

In the fantasy world of this beautiful book, creatures like sirens and gargoyles live among ordinary humans. But while other magical abilities are revered, sirens are hunted – because siren abilities only occur in Black women. Tavia hides her siren abilities as a matter of survival until she no longer can. This book weaves fantasy with social justice issues to make this a page-turner.

35. The Stars and the Blackness Between Them

By Junauda Petrus 

The Stars and the Blackness Between Them

Audre is sent to live with her father in America after being caught with her girlfriend. American teenager Mabel befriends Audre immediately, helping ease the transition from Trinidad to Minneapolis. Their relationship deepens and they find themselves falling deeply in love. Tragedy strikes when Mabel is diagnosed with a terrible illness and both young women find themselves fighting for the best thing that ever happened to them.

36. The Boy in the Black Suit

By Jason Reynolds

The Boy in the Black Suit

Matt works in a funeral home after his mother passes away in order to help pay the bills. He feels like life keeps knocking him down. Then he meets Lovey, a bright, tough girl who has dealt with more in her life than Matt thought possible. Lovey helps Matt handle coming to terms with his own hardships, and the two find solace in each other.

37. The Voice in My Head

By Dana L. Davis

The Voice in My Head

When Indigo’s twin sister Violet turns to physician-assisted suicide for her terminal illness, Indigo’s grief feels desperate and inescapable. Then she hears a voice claiming to be God inside her head, and the voice tells her to take Violet to the Arizona desert to heal her. She convinces the whole family to go along for a the ride of a lifetime.

38. A Phoenix First Must Burn

By Patrice Caldwell

A Phoenix First Must Burn: Sixteen Stories of Black Girl Magic,  Resistance, and Hope

This is a collection of 16 short stories all featuring Black girl magic. There is something for everyone her, from folklore to futuristic sci-fi. All share in common, unforgettable female leads.

39. A Song of Wraiths and Ruin

By Roseanne A. Brown

A Song of Wraiths and Ruin - Fantasy Books with Black Protagonists

Featuring a stunner of a cover, A Song of Wraiths and Ruin is a fantasy inspired by West African folklore. Malik plans to use the Solstasia festival to escape to the city of Ziran, but he winds up striking a deal to save his sister Nadia’s life instead – he must kill Karina, the princess of Ziran. He enters the Solstasia contest, where Karina has deadly plans of her own, which include cutting out the heart of the contest winner to resurrect her dead mother. This is the first book in a duology.

40. The Sound of Stars

By Alechia Dow 

The Sound of Stars

An alien race called the Ilori invade earth and a severe miscommunication leads to a third of earth’s population being killed. The Ilori outlaw all forms of emotional expression, including art, music, and books, so 17-year-old Ellie keeps her library a secret. When an Ilori commander discovers her secret, he knows he should turn her in, but finds himself drawn to human music. Together, the two set off on a dangerous mission to reconcile the two species.

41. How to Be Remy Cameron

By Julian Winters

How to Be Remy Cameron

Remy is a super-likeable guy, but his friends and family would be surprised to discover that Remy doesn’t really know who he is or who he wants to be. A college admissions essay prompt inspires him to find out who he, Remy Cameron, really is.

42. The Belles

By Dhonielle Clayton  

The Belles (The Belles, 1)

In The Belles, set in a fantastical Orleans, everyone is born gray. Only with the help of a Belle can they become truly beautiful. Belle Camellia Beauregard desires to be selected as one of the most favored Belles where she will live in the royal palace. Once inside, however, she learns the dangerous secrets that have kept her powers suppressed. Soon, the queen asks Camellia to use her powers in a forbidden way to save the princess, and Camellia finds herself facing a deadly choice.

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AuthorAmy

Veteran Legend

I am an unrepentant lover of words - and lucky me, I spend all day, every day immersed in them. When I'm not teaching, I'm reading. Or writing. Or teaching eager (and sometimes not-so-eager) adolescents about the power of the written word. I live on the scenic Oregon Coast with my dog, two cats, and five-year-old son.

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