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Book Nook | Diversity in Children’s Books From Zetta Elliott

If you’re in the market for some magical books that feature children of color, consider the collection of children’s and young adult books from Zetta Elliott.

A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to My American Meltingpot, one of my very favorite podcasts. Lori Tharps, the host (and owner of this incredibly easy to manage compost pile), covers myriad topics around diversity in parenting and pop culture. This particular episode featured author Zetta Elliott, who currently lives in Philadelphia.

Elliott has written many children’s books and, as she notes, writes the books she wishes she had as a child. She writes books featuring Black and Brown children in everyday life as well as more magical settings like adventures in time travel. 

Historically, children of color have had few options to read books with main characters that look like them. Consequently, it is harder for them to see themselves in the story and imagine being the child solving the mystery or traveling though time. Elliott set out to change that and has created many books, including two that have magical experiences, centering children of color. 

Several of her books weave difficult topics like poverty, racism and inequality throughout the story. As a white mother living in a middle to upper middle class community, I have the privilege of choosing not to talk to my young children and these topics. They feel hard to discuss. Are my kids ready for such heavy concepts? For clarity, I’m not saying I don’t have conversations about race and racism with my children, only that I (and most white parents) have a choice to ignore them if I so desire. 

Written especially for children of color, Elliott’s books remind the rest of us that non-white families don’t have a choice about introducing such realities to their children. I can “opt out” of race discussions until my children are “ready”; Black and Brown parents begin teaching their children about racism and inequality at a very young age, out of necessity. 

I encourage you to pick up a few of Elliott’s books from the library or your local book store. I’ve listed several of them below and provided short reviews for two of the chapter books I particularly enjoyed. You can also check her website to purchase any of her self-published books that might not be available at your library or local bookshop. 

You might feel a bit uncomfortable reading certain parts of her books to your children, but that’s kind of the point (for white and privileged parents). Elliott’s books offer a rare picture of Black children as magical protagonists. Additionally, they tackle snippets of our world rife with racism that white families have the privilege to ignore but moral responsibility to understand. 

Chapter Books by Zetta Elliott

Dragons in a Bag

This is a fun and magical story about a Black boy living in Brooklyn, New York, who discovers a world of magic and wonder just outside his front door. While most of the book focuses on the fantastical story, Elliott includes some more realistic cultural references and commentary, like the young boy and his single mother working through eviction as people of color are being priced out of their neighborhoods in Brooklyn.

She ties together fantasy and racial injustice by analogizing the presence of magic in an every day world to racial injustices in real life. The main character in the book end up with a bag of magical dragons. At one point in the story, he asks another Black magical character why the magical dragons need to go home to their magical world; why can’t they stay in New York? 

His Black friend responds that “People fear what they don’t know, and when you’re separated from folks just ’cause you’re different… well, our people know what that feels like.” 

The boy reflects on this comment and thinks to himself “[those] words feel like another riddle. I think maybe he’s talking about segregation, when Black people were kept separate from Whites. It’s not legal anymore, but…” and he continues to describe how segregation still exists is some ways today in his life in Brooklyn.

This is a great read for middle elementary aged kids that’s fun and informative. We can also appreciate exposing our children to a Black boy as the central character in a magical story, something not frequently found in many books. The cultural notes are poignant enough to be meaningful and offer opportunity for conversation but don’t overwhelm the fantastical feeling of the story.

As I read this book, I thought it would be a great book to turn into a series. The main character could take many adventures traveling through time with the people he met in this first book. Low and behold, Elliott already has a sequel in progress, The Dragon Thief, and it will be released soon. I will definitely be scooping it up from the library for my older son to read when it comes out.

A Wish After Midnight

This story follows a Black girl who lives in modern day Brooklyn back through time to a life as a free Black girl in the North before the end of slavery. The book took me a few chapters to get into it, but then I was hooked. I particularly loved the historical section of the story, despite it being emotionally difficult to read at times. 

Like most of her books, Elliott does not beat around the bush about many of the realities of being Black in the United States. The main character discusses some of the racial prejudice she faced centuries ago as well as that which still lingers today. 

This is a YA book that is definitely a bit too mature for my young boys but something middle and especially high school students will enjoy. 

She has a collection of other books she has published as well, all of which you can find on her website.

Go check out a few of them and let me know what you think. And also don’t forget to take a listen to the My American Meltingpot podcast. It’s one of my favorites and has so much to offer any family diving into discussions and reflections on race and diversity in parenting and pop culture.

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