Exposing children to poetry is a fun and impactful way to help them develop into readers. It helps them grasp concepts such as rhyming, alliteration, word families, and more—building their awareness of the sounds that make up words. Poetry can help children develop a love for language, creativity, and self-expression, too.
When it comes to children’s poetry, parents and teachers often reach for classic standbys, from Mother Goose to Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky. These are fun, inventive, and high-quality, but they’re not particularly varied. Just as diversity matters when choosing fiction and nonfiction picture books, it’s also important to seek out diverse poetic voices for our children’s bookshelves.
Black authors have made significant and unique contributions to the world of children’s poetry. These contributions include works that celebrate the beauty of black culture, history, and identity. Children’s poems by black poets allow black children to see themselves centered, celebrated, and heard. And they can support other children to develop empathy, understanding, and appreciation for diversity.
Fall in love with these 10 fabulous children’s poems by black poets and watch your child fall in love, too.
Written by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
What do you get when you combine award-winning poet/author Kwame Alexander’s words with award-winning illustrator Kadir Nelson’s art? A gorgeous and poignant poem about the legacy of black Americans and the promise of hope, change, and greatness that won the Caldecott Medal, the Newbery Honor, and the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award. This poem will introduce your child to black authors, activists, artists, and athletes they may not know, as well as lift up and remind them of modern black world-changers they already know and love. It is a poem of pride and joy that speaks directly to black children, wrapping them in the love of their shared history.
Asana and the Animals: A Book of Pet Poems
Written by Grace Nichols, illustrated by Sarah Adams
Asana loves animals, from the smallest bee to the tallest giraffe. Guyanese poet Grace Nichols and illustrator Sarah Adams take readers on a poetic and visual journey to meet Asana’s favorite animals in this colorful collection of poems. There’s an entire menagerie in this book, from a noisy parrot and a slow, gentle cow to my personal favorite—a spider who visits Asana in an adaptation of “Little Miss Muffet” where the child enjoys the visit, rather than being frightened away.
Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem
Written by Amanda Gorman, illustrated by Loren Long
National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s children’s book, Change Sings, does just that: it sings. Gorman’s beautiful words describe someone who loves their country, as they tout the ideals of tolerance, building equality, and making a difference. Illustrator Loren Long has created a visual world to match—bright, optimistic, playful, and touching all at once. Change Sings is the This Land is Your Land for a new generation.
Lullaby (for a Black Mother)
Written by Langston Hughes, illustrated by Sean Qualls
Langston Huges was a star of the Harlem Renaissance and he left an indelible mark on American poetry. In this illustrated version of Hughes’ poem, Lullaby for a Black Mother, Qualls has created a bedtime book on par with Goodnight Moon or On the Night You Were Born. The short poem is filled with nighttime imagery that conveys a mother’s love for her baby. It deserves to become a bedtime staple.
Free at Last: A Juneteenth Poem
Written by Sojourner Kincaid Rolle, illustrated by Alex Bostic
On June 19, 1865, news of the Emancipation Proclamation finally reached Galveston, Texas, and the enslaved Africans there were free at long last. This was the origin of the now-national Juneteenth holiday, and massive celebrations are held in my home state of Texas each June. I cherish any book that does the day justice, and this poetic tribute to it might be my favorite of them all. Describing the jubilant celebrations of 1865 with vivid imagery and lyrical language, the poem captures the joy and hope that accompanied this historic moment in American history. Free at Last provides a terrific opportunity for parents to introduce their children to the history of Juneteenth and its significance to the country.
C is for City
Written by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Pat Cummings
C is for City is a poem that explores the alphabet and New York City. The first time I read this book, I realized my cheeks were sore from how much smiling I was doing. The illustrations are vibrant, fun, and incredibly detailed, a perfect reflection of the fun and unique ways Grimes uses the alphabet throughout her poem. What’s more, the end of the book invites readers to go back through the story and look for different alphabetical items hidden on the pages. There are a million alphabet picture books out there, all adapted for different uses and audiences. If you’re looking for one that’s a joyous romp for kids who already have foundational knowledge of the ABCs and are ready to delve deeper into sounds, spellings, and vocabulary, C is for City is the book for you. (For tips on choosing books for teaching letters to new alphabet learners, see Maya’s guide to ABC books for preschoolers.)
This Is the Rope: A Story from the Great Migration
Written by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by James Ransome
How could we possibly talk about children’s poems by black poets without including Jacqueline Woodson? Though she’s written many books for varied ages (I could write an entire book list that’s just a love letter to her children’s titles), This is the Rope is an especially good one to include on your bookshelf. It’s an adaptation of the nursery rhyme “The House That Jack Built,” but it does so much more than bring that classic into the modern era. Woodson’s poem pulls from her experiences growing up in South Carolina and New York City to craft a story about one family over three generations, through the lens of a rope that’s been there throughout.
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Boy
Written by Tony Medina
This much-lauded poetry collection celebrates the beauty and resilience of black boys. The book features thirteen poems, each with a different perspective on what it means to be a black boy in America (and each illustrated by a different artist). Written in a Japanese style of poetry called tanka, Medina’s works tackle big themes like identity, racism, and the impact of societal expectations on black boys in a mere 31 syllables each. (The format is similar to a longer version of the probably better-known haiku form.) This collection offers a unique poetic experience that’s well worth the read.
The Thing About Bees: A Love Letter
Written and illustrated by Shabazz Larkin
As humans, our relationship with bees is complicated. We may love everything they do for us and the world, but fear their sting. The Thing About Bees follows a young child learning about bees from their father, who explains bees’ vital role in pollination. The father shares how we can work to protect these important creatures and likens our love for them to the love of a parent for a child. They can be annoying or even hurt us, but the world is so much sweeter with them in it. This poem provides a valuable opportunity for parents to introduce their children to environmentalism and the interconnectedness of all living things.
Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut
Written by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James
Celebrate the experience of getting a fresh haircut at a barbershop in this phenomenal poetry picture book. It won a Newbery Medal, a Caldecott Honor, and TWO Coretta Scott King awards (one for writing and one for illustration), so you know it has to be good! A young black boy visits the barbershop and describes the feeling of empowerment and confidence he gains from his new ‘do. Through poetic language and vibrant illustrations, Crown captures the black boy joy and community that can be found in barbershops, while also highlighting the importance of self-expression and self-care. This book provides a valuable opportunity for parents to introduce their children to cultural traditions and promote self-love.
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