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Jessica “Culture Queen” Hebron is on a mission to make Kwanzaa fun, enticing, and effortless for families to celebrate. “We have several different black people holidays, but this is the big one,” she explains. “I think it’s really cool that black people have something just for them that lasts seven days, helps you to align yourself culturally, and gives you like a cultural sense of self.”

She believes that the keys to bolstering participation in the holiday she loves are to start slow and focus on the fundamentals. Kwanzaa’s Swahili language, formal table setting, and candle lighting ritual can intimidate newcomers, so she recommends that people of all ages learn about the holiday through picture books. The illustrations, examples, and simple wording make the holiday accessible and engaging. “Once you’re interested in it, then you’ll go and read all the heavy material,” she says.

Above all, the holiday affirms cultural pride and solidarity. “If you’re trying to find yourself and you’re trying to figure out what it means to be black and American or African American, these are very uplifting, positive, universal principles that you can try to follow and align your life with to give yourself self-empowerment,” she explains. “When I was a kid, I just liked anything that made me feel black and proud. And every year, the thing that keeps me celebrating Kwanzaa is to help to teach other people who might have misconceptions about it.”

Here are five picture books Culture Queen recommends. Each shows families living the seven principles of Kwanzaa: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith).

Together for Kwanzaa
By Juwanda G. Ford
Illustrated by Shelly Hehenberger

Amid the familiar hustle and bustle of the winter holidays, a little girl waits for her big brother to make his way home through a big snowstorm. “They’re excited about all of the traditions that they can celebrate together and it just won’t be Kwanzaa without big brother,” Culture Queen says. “It’s a nice story to suck you into a narrative about Kwanzaa that doesn’t necessarily immediately beat you over the head with teaching the principles.”

It’s Kwanzaa Time!: A Lift-The-Flap Story
By Synthia Saint James

Culture Queen appreciates the clear discussion of Kwanzaa principles and simple illustrations in this book, which was written and illustrated by the designer of the first Kwanzaa postage stamp. “I like [the author’s] style and I honestly think that the Kwanzaa books for the little kids work best for the adults as well,” she says. “[Keeping things simple] helps us to learn and remember.”

My First Kwanzaa
By Karen Katz

Karen Katz’s simple take on Kwanzaa materials and principles makes her book a great introductory text. “It breaks the principles down and it gives examples through the little girl [character] of how to practice the principle for her age group,” Culture Queen explains. “So, like for self-determination, it’ll say, I ask Mommy to braid my hair in an African way. It makes me feel proud. Now, that sounds very simple, but what she’s saying is that I’m expressing myself culturally by getting cornrows.”

Kevin’s Kwanzaa
By Lisa Bullard
Illustrated by Constanza Basaluzzo

Kevin’s Kwanzaa is a longer pick, but still short enough to hold attention in group settings. This Culture Queen favorite offers short encyclopedia-like info boxes throughout the text to offer context and explanation. “It’s rich, so you could probably read it a couple of times to the kids and each time focus on different parts,” she suggests.

My Family Celebrates Kwanzaa
By Lisa Bullard
Illustrated by Constanza Basaluzzo

Like Kevin’s Kwanzaa, this longer story creates opportunities to intersperse reading with audience activities, such as selecting items for the Kwanzaa table. She asks participants questions like, what fruit should we put on the corner of the table? Then prompts them to get up and take a look. “Movement and arts integration is how people learn,” she explains. “It’s about teaching in a way that people can understand.”

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