Growing up, I was always a bit of a book buff and I was especially drawn to books written by Black authors or those with a strong Black theme. From an early age, they were my safe space. A place where I could comfortably see reflections of myself without prejudice. I loved to read about protagonists with lived experiences I could really relate to.
When I started reading a book, I’d become fearless alongside its characters, and was always their biggest cheerleader when they triumphed over adversity. Books by Black authors or foregrounding Black characters made me feel secure and comfortable in my own skin. They shaped my childhood and were arguably my first love.
I’ve compiled a list of the books I’ve grown up with and still love today. Some I cherish for sentimental reasons and nostalgia, others I’ve introduced to the next generations of my family in the hope they will catch a passion for reading and fall in love with them as much as I did. Now, I share them with you.
Anansi The Spider by Gerald McDermott
This was the first book that was ever read to me. I remember as a young child sitting, excited, as my dad told me Anansi’s exhilarating story. It’s a traditional Ashanti tale about a spider who outwits his larger enemies. The story originates from Ghana, but has strong links to the Caribbean. My Jamaican dad told me he heard Anansi’s story when he was a young boy just as he was reading it to me.
Handa’s Surprise by Eileen Browne
I read this picture book many a night to my son when he was younger. Handa is a little girl who lives in a village in Kenya. She walks with a basket of seven fruits to visit her friend in a nearby village. On her journey she is met by several animals who proceed to steal the fruit. By the time she visits her friend there is only one left – a tangerine – much to the delight of her best friend Akeyo. Lushly and colourfully illustrated, it’s no wonder this is a favourite of so many.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
This book was a major turning point in my literary life. I picked up Maya Angelou’s autobiography and after finishing it, I said goodbye to any tween fiction I was reading at the time. Describing the early years of her life, the book is a coming-of-age story that illustrates how strength of character and a love of literature can help overcome racism and trauma. Her story was the Black history lesson I’d never been taught and I was soon desperate to know more.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Alice Walker’s Pulitzer prize-winning book tells the story of Celie, a Black teenager raised in rural Georgia and separated from her family at an early age. As she narrates her life through letters to her sister, we read on as she faces trauma, physical and emotional abuse. Powerful themes, then, but a classic that I can read again and again, like I’m picking it up for the very first time.
Riley Can Be Anything by Davina Hamilton
Riley Can Be Anything is an inspiring picture book that follows a little boy called Riley as he discovers all the wonderful things he is able to do when he grows up. This one is very special to me – it was the first book I ever read to my grandson and I hope it sparks a love of books, just as I had when I was a child.
Disappearing Acts by Terry Macmillan
This was my first introduction to Terry Macmillan and at an early age it gave me a very real sense of the nuances of Black on Black love. Disappearing Acts is an honest account of the realities of loving a Black man who is trying to make it in America, one day at a time. It’s a funny, no-holds-barred love story that gives you a true picture of what coupling and relationships are all about.
Upstate by Kalisha Buckhanon
Another love story, but this one has a twist. Beautifully written and very emotive, the book centres on a relationship between two teenage sweethearts, Antonio and Natasha, whose lives are turned upside down when Antonio lands in prison. Their relationship is seen through the lens of their letters. For more than a decade their paths take separate turns, leaving you wondering if they will ever find a way back together.
The Color Of Water by James McBride
This is an autobiographical novel in which a Black man pays touching tribute to his white mother. The Color of Water is such a favourite of mine – stupidly, I leant out my first copy and it never returned. So I headed straight down to the bookstore to order another. What makes this book so special is the author intersperses his own account of growing up poor with his mother’s unique life in rural Virginia. The love he has for her radiates from each page and you can’t help but feel as though you know James and his mother Ruth from the start.
Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison
A must-read in our multi-generational household, this picture book reminds my grandson that there have been many powerful and iconic Black women history makers. From the US’s first Black female pilot Bessie Coleman to Mary Seacole, the Jamaican nurse who was noted for saving many soldiers’ lives during the Crimean War, this book and its lively illustrations honour the achievements – and sacrifices – of more than 40 women of colour.
Small Island by Andrea Levy
I just love love LOVE this book, probably because it’s the unspoken account of my parents’ and grandparents’ journey and an homage to the Windrush generation. These people came to Britain with hope in their eyes and dreams for the future. Based around four main characters, Small Island looks at the experiences and naivety of these new arrivals from Jamaica to a very white, postwar Britain, who were forced to embrace a very changing country. Just a beautifully written account of the history of the Black British experience.