When it comes to youth and children’s books, no one is better equipped to make a recommendation than kids themselves.
TODAY’s favorite book lover, Jenna Bush Hager, asked three kids who’ve already made a name for themselves in the literary world to help her pick books for a special summer kids’ edition of Read With Jenna.
These bright young minds discuss the importance of representation in literature and share books that reflect different skin colors, cultures and beliefs.
Rylei Brissett recommends “I Believe I Can” by Grace Byers
Nine-year-old Rylei is the founder and CEO of The Brown Bookcase. She created the independent online bookstore after she found herself struggling to find diverse children’s books on the shelves of her local stores.
The young CEO recommends “I Believe I Can” by Grace Byers.
“I picked this book because it encourages kids to believe in themselves and follow their dreams,” said Rylei.
The book is written as an affirmation for both boys and girls. It celebrates every individual’s ability to reach their goals and calls on kids to love themselves the way they are.
“No dream is too big to accomplish,” shared the 9-year-old.
More of Rylei’s favorites books
By the same author and illustrator as “I Believe I Can,” “I Am Enough” is also an ode to self-love. It similarly depicts young girls of diverse shapes and skin tones, showing that everyone deserves kindness and should feel confident in their own skin.
This book is a celebration of natural Black hair with the repeating chorus, “I love being me.”
The colorful illustrations combine with positive affirmations to give young girls confidence and promote self-esteem by putting the versatility of Black hair front and center in the story.
By the same author, “Cool Cuts” was written to celebrate Black boy’s hair. Through vibrant illustrations, Black boys can see positive reflections of themselves on every page.
Reynolds’ book, illustrated by Chris Turner, takes kids on a journey with some of the most notable Black men in history through the joyful and curious eyes of a Black boy named Roy.
Sidney Keys III loves to read “Ghost Boys” by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Sidney, 14, is the founder and CEO of Books N’ Bros in St. Louis, Missouri. He started his direct-to-consumer subscription business to promote Black literacy and empower boys like himself.
“Representation for me is very important because if you don’t see yourself represented, how are you going to see yourself as a positive figure growing up?” said Sidney. “When you see somebody that looks like you as the main character and the main hero, you kind of feel empowered like I can be a superhero too and that’s something that every kid should be able to feel.”
His book recommendation is “Ghost Boys” by Jewell Parker Rhodes.
Rhodes’ young adult novel is about a 12-year-old boy named Jerome, who is shot and killed by a police officer after his toy gun is mistaken for a real one.
As a ghost, Jerome witnesses the suffering of his family following his death. He also comes into contact with another ghost, Emmett Till, who helps him understand the historical and sociopolitical layers of racism in America.
“Essentially, a ghost revisits the situation to make sense of why the senseless killing happened,” said Sidney.
The book is a heartbreaking yet powerful exploration of Blackness that is all too real for young Black boys.
Sidney said, “It’s a way of understanding everything in society that’s going on right now, in a way that’s not too harsh on like young readers.”
More of Sidney’s favorite selections
“Scraps of Time” by Patricia McKissack is a historical chapter book series for kids. “The Home-Run King” is about two brothers, Tank and Jimbo Turner, who love to sneak into the Negro League baseball games to see superstar players such as Josh Gibson. When Gibson ends up bunking at their home, they can hardly believe their luck.
The book brings to light the history of the Negro League in spectacular color.
Another chapter book series, “March Book 1,” “March Book 2” and “March Book 3” were all written by the late civil rights icon John Lewis. The award-winning books tell lessons from history and Lewis’ life as a key leader in the civil rights movement to the next generation.
This book tells the heartwarming story of an 11-year-old boy and his “g’ma” as they take a trip around America, both past and present, to learn about race relations and the ugly truth of segregation in the South.
Written by the host of “The Daily Show,” this book tells Trevor Noah’s story of growing up in South Africa with a Black mother and white father while it was against the law for mixed-race children to exist.
His remarkable story of perseverance against incredible obstacles will inspire readers while also teaching about the racial history of South Africa.
Teen book blogger Caitlin Althea recommends “Love from A to Z” by S.K. Ali
Caitlin, 15, runs an award-winning literary blog where she discusses young adult novels from her home in the Philippines. She frequently champions diverse voices online.
“When I was younger I used to think that because I wasn’t white, I was different,” said Caitlin, “When you read from a perspective that isn’t really yours, you realize that you can still relate to someone who is different to you.”
For her Read With Jenna recommendation, she chose “Love from A to Z” by S.K. Ali.
This book is the young love story of a Muslim girl names Zayneb and Adam, a boy recently and secretly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
“I love so many things about this book,” said Caitlin. “It takes place in Qatar, a setting we don’t see very often, and its portrayal of the South Asian Muslim experiences is so interesting. The main character, Zayneb, experiences Islamophobia at a place she thought was safe: school. She’s an activist. She’s not afraid to fight for what’s right. But the fallout from a specific incident has her questioning what it means to be ‘good’ — in public and to her family and herself. I think it’s timely, and it’ll be a little eye-opening for nonwhite teens, reading how some (people of color) struggle with identity. It’s not all heavy, though, because there’s a great love story at the heart of this, too.”
The book is a deep look at how love prevails despite obstacles presented by a multicultural and, at times, divided world.
More of Caitlin’s favorite books
In Campbell, Indiana, Liz Lightly has big plans for her future that include attending the elite Pennington College after high school. However, when financial aid falls through unexpectedly, she needs to find another way to afford her dream school. When Liz realizes the prom king and queen receive scholarships for winning, she goes against everything she believes in to participate in the catty competition and humiliating public events to get her ultimate prize.
The only thing that might stand in Liz’s way is falling for the competition.
For her whole life, Skye Shin has been told what fat girls can’t and shouldn’t do. But she has a dream of becoming the world’s first plus-size K-pop star who goes against every stereotype and rule she’s been made to believe.
After she lands a spot on an internationally televised competition to find the next K-pop star, she has to find her ways to the top without forgetting what it is that makes her special.
A National Book Award finalist, “Patron Saints of Nothing” by Randy Ribay, tells the coming-of-age story of a Filipino American teenager named Jay Reguero when he sets out to uncover the truth about his cousin’s murder in the Philippines.
The compulsively readable book covers themes of grief and guilt as Jay faces who his cousin really was and the role he played in it.
Bowman’s novel follows mixed-race teen Rumi Seto after her sister is unexpectedly killed in a car accident and she is sent to live with her aunt in Hawaii. With the help of unlikely friendships, Seto navigates her grief and attempts to find her way back to her ultimate passion, music.
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