Reading Roundup: 10 Afro-Caribbean Children’s and Young Adult Books

Feb 2016 Afro-Caribbean Narrative

¡Buenos días!

I hope everyone is having a great week! I’m glad to be back with our Reading Roundup. This month’s list goes with our theme of Afro-Caribbean narratives. In the spirit of Black History Month, we are highlighting the importance of inclusive conversations in the classroom focused on race and diverse narratives, with a focus on civil rights. As Keira emphasized in her Sobre Febrero post, it’s important for these conversations to continue beyond the “heritage month” period, and so I hope that you’ll use this Reading Roundup list as year-round inspiration in your classroom.

While compiling these titles, I took extra care to include books that simultaneously celebrate the cultural diversity and richness of Afro-Caribbean peoples and acknowledge their difficult histories, including narratives related to slavery, repression, and what it means to be a part of a diaspora community in exile.  Together or individually, I’m hopeful that these titles will prompt meaningful conversations with and among your students.  Below are a few resources that may be helpful as you undertake that effort (thanks to Charla for her earlier posts highlighting some of these materials!)

The Museum of African Diaspora in San Francisco had an exhibition by photojournalist Bryan Wiley and another concerning Cuba’s Grupo Antillano. Both relate to African diaspora in the Caribbean and are worth taking a peek at.

Each month, my list only highlights a few of the exemplary books that exist. I always end up being unable to include all of the titles I’d like, and some of the Haitian Haitian books that Alice reviewed this month are perfect examples of those I would have included had space allowed. Here are quick links for reference, in case you missed her posts:

As I mentioned, this list by no means includes all of the deserving books out there involving Afro-Caribbean narratives. The Caribbean encompasses a number of countries, and it was difficult to create a list representing all of them!  In fact, we focused heavily on Haiti as a result of our larger themes for this month. If you’re interested in learning about some of the other authors and titles out there, here are a few sites I recommend for your search:

In putting together the list for this month, I found a passage in one of the books, Shadowshaper, that aptly captured the complexities of what we say when we discuss Afro-Caribbean peoples. In short, it’s complicated. Daniel José Older, depicting a conversation among several teens who identify with Afro-Caribbean cultures, does a nice job referencing what that looks like for someone in real life.  I’ve scanned the page to share it with you.

Shadowshaper page

With that in mind, I leave you to the list and hope that you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed putting it together! As always, drop us a note if you know of any titles we missed.



Haiti: My Country: Poems by Haitian Schoolchildren
Illustrations by Rogé
Translations by Solange Messier
Published by Fifth House
ISBN: 9781927083239
Age Level: 5-8

Pretty flowers in my country are for me
Like pink butterflies
That smile at the sun”

— Judes-Roldes

For several months, Québec illustrator Roge prepared a series of portraits of Haitian children. Students of Camp Perrin wrote the accompanying poems, which create, with flowing consistency, Haiti: My Country.

These teenage poets use the Haitian landscape as their easel. The nature that envelops them is quite clearly their main subject.

While misery often storms through Haiti in the form of earthquakes, cyclones, or floods, these young men and women see their surrounding nature as assurance for a joyful, confident future.

My thoughts:
There are so many things I love about this book. My favorite part is the complexities that it encompasses: the students portray their home with emotions that one could not explain as simply happy or sad. The subjects of the poems are simultaneously quotidian and thoughtful, portraying Haiti’s natural landscape, things that make the kids smile, the hardships they live, and life’s beauty through their eyes. The poems are real and captivating, and Rogé’s illustrations give them another layer of depth. I was so captivated by the illustrations that it was hard for me to turn each page. This is a book to read again and again, and its multiple narratives give a more complex view of the world through children’s truthful eyes.

Eight Days: A Story of Haiti
Written by Edwidge Danticat
Illustrations by Alix Delinois
Published by Orchard Books
ISBN: 9780545278492
Age Level: 4-9

Hope comes alive in this heartfelt and deeply resonating story.

While Junior is trapped for 8 days beneath his collapsed house after an earthquake, he uses his imagination for comfort. Drawing on beautiful, everyday-life memories, Junior paints a sparkling picture of Haiti for each of those days–flying kites with his best friend or racing his sister around St. Marc’s Square–helping him through the tragedy until he is finally rescued.

Love and hope dance across each page–granting us a way to talk about resilience as a family, a classroom, or a friend.

Our thoughts:
I liked this book because of Danticat’s positive demeanor and look towards hope in the future. I see this book as a good way for teaching kids about the devastating earthquake in Haiti, because the main character, Junior, talks about fun activities that all children can relate to, yet he does not ignore the tragedies he has endured in his life, such as losing his friend, Oscar. Rather than focusing on the devastation from the earthquake, Danticat’s words and Delinois’s illustrations focus more on the beauty of Haiti and life before the earthquake. However, Danticat does write a note at the end of the book, where she describes her personal experiences during the earthquake, as well as the stark difference of Haiti before and after this natural disaster. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti is something that children should know about, because its devastation still affects Haitian people today. Furthermore, the ongoing tone of youthful optimism in this book makes it healing and hopeful, which is necessary in the face of disasters such as this. Alice wrote a detailed post about this book that I suggest you check out.

Dalia’s Wondrous Hair/El cabello maravilloso de Dalia
Written and Illustrated by Laura Lacámara
Spanish translation by Gabriela Baeza Ventura
Published by: Piñata Books
ISBN: 9781558857896
Age Level: 4-9

One night, while Dalia slept safely wrapped in her mother’s cool silken sheets, her hair grew and grew. By the time the rooster crowed, her hair had “grown straight up to the sky, tall and thick as a Cuban royal palm tree.” Her mother was amazed, and wondered what her daughter would do with her wondrous hair.

As Dalia looked at the flowers blooming in the garden, an idea sprouted inside her. She decorated her hair with leaves from the forest and mud from the marsh. Her mother was puzzled and could not imagine what she was. “Are you a leaf-crusted mud-tree?” she guessed incorrectly. That night, while Dalia slept safely cocooned in her mama’s sheets, something stirred and unfolded. When the rooster crowed, the girl ran outside and everyone watched in awe as she carefully unwrapped her towering hair. Could it be? Is Dalia a . . . blossoming butterfly tree?!?

In this whimsical bilingual picture book, Dalia’s hair becomes a magical force of nature, a life-giving cocoon. Author and illustrator Laura Lacámara once again delights children ages 4 to 9 with her vibrant illustrations and an imaginative story about a girl’s fanciful encounters with nature.

Bonus features include a guide for how to create your own butterfly garden at home, as well as a bilingual glossary of select plant and animal species native to the island of Cuba.

Our Thoughts:
I found this book particularly empowering because of the support Dalia’s mother gives her. Rather than scolding Dalia for acting a little mischievous, she encourages her and neither allows the neighbor to cut off her beautiful hair nor forces Dalia to wash it. This book is a celebration of Dalia for who she is, inside and out. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of the beautiful descriptions of the Cuban landscape and Dalia’s “wondrous” hair draw attention to the natural beauty of Cuba’s landscapes and people, which Lacámara celebrates in her book. Lorraine wrote a detailed post about this book, and I highly recommend checking it out.

A Season for Mangoes
Written by Regina Hanson
Illustrations by Eric Velasquez
Published by Clarion Books
ISBN: 9780618159727
Age Level: 4-7

Sareen is attending her first sit-up, a Jamaican tradition that celebrates the life of a loved one who has died. The whole village has come to share memories of Sareen’s Nana. Sareen wants to tell her stories of Nana’s last mango season and their search for the perfect mango, but she’s afraid the words won’t come or that she’ll begin to cry. It’s only when Sareen faces her fear that she realizes it’s not the sadness of Nana’s death that she’ll remember best but the joy of Nana’s life.

My thoughts:
I liked this story because of the encouraging way that Hanson approaches the subject of death. Furthermore, it shows the Jamaican tradition of sit-ups, which are held to honor and remember recently deceased loved ones. Hanson sprinkles in stories and experiences of her own life growing up in Jamaica, giving the book more personal depth. Velasquez’s depictions of the family and friends at the sit-up are undramatized and beautifully depict a modern-day sit-up, which Hanson notes are less common today. Hanson also touches on the subject of slavery through the main characters’ ancestors, which she explains more thoroughly in the Author’s Note. In this case, Hanson highlights the importance of tradition and unity, which held the main character’s ancestors together during difficult times. In addition, Hanson accentuates the multicultural aspect of Jamaican society through the different foods eaten in the stories, which originate from all over the world. I highly recommend this book, and I think that children will relate well to the main character. Hanson approaches the difficult subjects of pain and death in a healing way that children will hopefully find comforting.

Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music
Written by Margarita Engle
Illustrations by Rafael López
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 9780544102293
Age Level: 4-7

Girls cannot be drummers. Long ago on an island filled with music, no one questioned that rule—until the drum dream girl. In her city of drumbeats, she dreamed of pounding tall congas and tapping small bongós. She had to keep quiet. She had to practice in secret. But when at last her dream-bright music was heard, everyone sang and danced and decided that both girls and boys should be free to drum and dream.

Inspired by the childhood of Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a Chinese-African-Cuban girl who broke Cuba’s traditional taboo against female drummers, Drum Dream Girl tells an inspiring true story for dreamers everywhere.

My thoughts:

From Engle’s poetry to López’s illustrations, this book is beautiful. The poem’s beat, the story’s context, and the illustration style all harmonize perfectly with our celebration this month of Afro-Caribbean narratives. This book reveals the importance of drums and music in Cuba, whose origins come from Afro-Caribbean populations. In addition, the bright colors and depictions of nature capture Cuba’s natural beauty well. Finally, Engle’s decision to write about Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, the first girl to break Cuba’s taboo against female drummers, gives readers insight to an important, yet overlooked historical occurrence. Apart from being a celebration of Cuban musical tradition, Drum Dream Girl is the empowering story of a strong young girl who never gave up, which I think will inspire young female readers. The illustrator, Rafael Lopez’s, shares illustrations from the book on his website. In addition, Margarita Engle made a discussion guide for using Drum Dream Girl in class. The Poet Slave of Cuba is another book by Engle which we highly recommend. Though for older audiences (ages 12-18), it’s yet another beautiful and meaningful depiction of Afro-Cuban history. Those interested in the topic might also appreciate Jake’s post from last year on “BBC’s Afrocubism and Music of the African Diaspora in Cuba.” Also, check out Alice’s Drum Dream Girl book review, which highlights “women’s rights and experiences in children’s literature.”Alice  wrote an Author’s Corner post about Margarita Engle as well, in case you’d like to learn more about the author.

Coconut Kind of Day
Written by Lynn Joseph
Illustrations by Sandra Speidel
Published by Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books
ISBN: 9780140545272
Age Level: 7 and up

In language that rings with Caribbean rhythm, Lynn Joseph follows a young girl in Trinidad through her day. Caribbean sights, sounds, and people come gloriously alive in this taste of Trinidad. “A colorful glimpse of a captivating world.”–Kirkus Reviews.

My thoughts:
Lynn Joseph’s poetry and Sandra Speidel’s illustrations take us around Trinidad to everyday happenings of a young girl’s days. Speidel’s impressionist pastel illustrations are stunning representations of Trinidad’s land, sky and seascape. This book is a welcoming glance into the everyday life of a child in Trinidad, which would be great for other children to see and relate to. At the end of the book, Joseph writes about how many of the scenes described through the poetry are derived from actual memories from her childhood in Trinidad. She also gives a glossary of Trinidadian words used throughout the book. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did! If you’re looking for books about Trinidad for an older audience, Lynn Joseph also wrote the beautiful book The Color of My Words, which Katrina reviewed in depth and for which we produced an educator’s guide.

Written by Willie Perdomo
Illustrations by Bryan Collier
Published by Henry Holt and Company
ISBN: 9780805082241
Age Level: 6-10
Puerto Rico

A little boy named Clemente learns about his namesake, the great baseball player Roberto Clemente, in this joyful picture book biography.

Born in Puerto Rico, Roberto Clemente was the first Latin American player to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the only player for whom the five-year initiation period was waived. Known not only for his exceptional baseball skills but also for his extensive charity work in Latin America, Clemente was well-loved during his 18 years playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He died in a plane crash while bringing aid supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Willie Perdomo’s rhythmic text and Bryan Collier’s energetic art combine to tell the story of one of baseball’s greats.

My thoughts:
This book tells the story of how the Baseball Hall of Famer, Clemente, went from playing baseball in his Puerto Rican neighborhood to playing in the Major Leagues. The story is told from a young child’s point of view, which I think will be great for kids to relate to. One important aspect of the book is the kind and thoughtful nature of Clemente that Pedromo portrays; Clemente never forgets about those back home in Puerto Rico, and he goes out of his way to help others. Perdomo flawlessly mixes the Spanish language into his narrative, reflecting an important aspect of Clemente’s character. My personal favorite part of the book is Collier’s painted collage illustrations. They really set it apart. I only wish the book were longer – it left me wanting to learn more about Clemente! Nevertheless, this book would be great for children, especially because of Perdomo’s presentation of Clemente as a wonderful role model with a great sense of character.

Drummer Boy of John John
Written by Mark Greenwood
Illustrations by Frané Lessac
Published by Lee & Low Books
ISBN: 9781600606526
Age Level: 5-9

Carnival is coming, and the villagers of John John, Trinidad, are getting ready to jump up and celebrate with music, dancing, and a parade. Best of all, the Roti King has promised free rotis—tasty fried pancakes filled with chicken, herbs, and spices—for the best band in the parade.

Young Winston dreams of feasting on those delicious rotis. But there’s a problem: he’s not in a band! Pondering his predicament as he wanders through the village junkyard, Winston makes a curious musical discovery that may be just the ticket to realizing his dream. With ingenuity and the help of his friends, Winston takes on the Carnival bands, drumming his way to victory—and to the Roti King’s prized treat.

Musical text and sun-drenched paintings joyously transport readers to the Caribbean, and to this exuberant story inspired by the early life of Winston “Spree” Simon, a pioneer in the development of the steel drum.

My thoughts:
I liked this book because of the engaging way it pays tribute to Winston “Spree” Simon, who is given credit for the creation of the steel drum in Trinidad. In the Author’s Note, Greenwood tells a bit about the history of Winston’s life and connection to music, carnival, and the steel drum, which really puts the story into context. Furthermore, this book is a good way to show the important carnival celebration in Trinidad, which will be fascinating for kids to learn about. Lessac’s illustrations are bright and colorful, and the story is inspiring. Drummer Boy of John John also has a Facebook page with photos of students reading the book and a trailer for the book. To help visualize the setting, students might also appreciate seeing some examples of the costumes that kids wear in the parades in Trinidad.


Written by Daniel José Older
Published by Arthur A. Levine Books, 2015
ISBN: 0545591619
Age Level: 12 and up
Puerto Rico, Haiti, Martinique

Sierra Santiago planned an easy summer of making art and hanging out with her friends. But then a corpse crashes the first party of the season. Her stroke-ridden grandfather starts apologizing over and over. And when the murals in her neighborhood begin to weep real tears… Well, something more sinister than the usual Brooklyn ruckus is going on.

With the help of a fellow artist named Robbie, Sierra discovers shadowshaping, a thrilling magic that infuses ancestral spirits into paintings, music, and stories. But someone is killing the shadowshapers one by one — and the killer believes Sierra is hiding their greatest secret. Now she must unravel her family’s past, take down the killer in the present, and save the future of shadowshaping for generations to come.

Full of a joyful, defiant spirit and writing as luscious as a Brooklyn summer night, Shadowshaper introduces a heroine and magic unlike anything else in fantasy fiction, and marks the YA debut of a bold new voice.

Our thoughts:
After having suggested so many children’s books, I decided I had to add a couple of deserving young adult books to the list. Shadowshaper was without a doubt a great contender. First of all, it shows the strong presence of Afro-Caribbean culture in the United States. Throughout the development of the characters, setting, and backstory, Older shows Brooklyn’s Caribbean attributes. Furthermore, the characters themselves are from different places in the Caribbean – which alludes to the complexity of the Caribbean diaspora community living in New York City. We hear from characters who identity with cultures of Puerto Rico, Haiti, Taíno, Martinique, France, and Nigeria. And I’m sure there are others I missed. Katrina reviewed this book in detail and produced an Educator’s Guide to go with it.

Krik? Krak!
Written by Edwidge Danticat
Published by Soho Press
Age Level: 14 and up

When Haitians tell a story, they say “Krik?” and the eager listeners answer “Krak!” In Krik? Krak!, novelist Edwidge Danticat establishes herself as the latest heir to that narrative tradition with nine stories that encompass both the cruelties and the high ideals of Haitian life. They tell of women who continue loving behind prison walls and in the face of unfathomable loss; of a people who resist the brutality of their rulers through the powers of imagination. The result is a collection that outrages, saddens, and transports the reader with its sheer beauty.

Our thoughts:
This book is wonderful not only because of the struggles and hope that its stories convey, but also because it is about ordinary Haitian women. In her review of Krik? Krak!, Katrina explains that “Danticat doesn’t hold back any punches as she gives us a glimpse into the reality of Haitian life through the nine short stories included here.” The book focuses particularly on women during both of the Duvalier regimes, which is an important history for high school students to learn. Furthermore, this book would be great for the classroom because, while the stories are connected, they also stand alone. Katrina points out that this makes “it easy for a teacher to pick and choose which stories would be most appropriate for his or her class.” Furthermore, we have produced an Educator’s Guide that will facilitate using this book in the classroom. This is a book that everyone at Vamos a Leer agrees is more than deserving of being on a top ten booklist. I hope you enjoy reading it!


10 thoughts on “Reading Roundup: 10 Afro-Caribbean Children’s and Young Adult Books

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