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What should my learner be reading? Texts featuring the stories of black boys and black men.

Updated: Jun 29, 2022

Black Males as Main Characters Book List
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In 2004, when I was teaching in St. Louis (shout out to Maplewood-Richmond Heights Elementary), I began a book club for 4th-6th grade African-American boys. The boys were provided one book a month, which featured an African-American male protagonist. I met with the boys on a weekly basis to talk through whatever chunk of text I’d assigned them to read for the week. In our after school sessions the boys and I explored the texts from an academic lens- vocabulary, themes, the writers’ meanings, how the writers expressed their ideas, etc.

Once a month we met on a Saturday morning for a book club where we engaged in an open discussion about the whole book, considering the texts from a more personal lens. But I wasn’t the only teacher for the Saturday meetings. The boys’ fathers, caregivers, and mentors, facilitated the book club for their boys, with a little help from me.

The men had been provided the books at the beginning of each month and read the same books as the boys. In their homes, they had been discussing the books with their boys, enriching their at-home learning. And I shared with them some easy tips, tools, and teaching practices so they were equipped to not only have productive conversations about the texts at home,

but to also be ready to facilitate the monthly book clubs.

The boys who participated are grown now, about 24-25 years old, but when I close my eyes, I can see them excited about sitting in the grown-up rolly chairs, staggered around the elementary school’s conference table, eating doughnuts and bagels, drinking orange juice, and leafing through their marked up books as they responded to whatever prompt the group was discussing.

That book club, those Saturdays, are some of my most treasured memories. Our book club was a place of co-teaching. It was a space shaped and shared by those fathers, caregivers, community members and me. The men, with their unique perspectives, insights, and relationships with the boys, and me with my teaching expertise, insights, and relationships with the boys, were the perfect team. Together we attended to the needs of our magnificent learners and accomplished more together than we could have done alone!

So, when I got the question the other day- “What books would you recommend for me to read with/to my son?” I thought back to the books our book club read. All of the books on the list provided are featured because they have Black male protagonists. Or, in the event that it’s a book of poetry or a biography, the poet or person was African-American.

Does this mean that this list, this post, is only for black people? No! Not. at. all.

This list, this post, is for everyone who wants a co-teacher to help them be intentional about including stories of Black boys/men, in their home libraries and/or in their family/learner’s reading.

Two more things to be said about this list:

1. Representation matters AND it’s important that your child knows why you’re sharing with them or reading with/to them the books you choose. Parents and caregivers have a lot on our minds, so we don’t necessarily “expose the architecture” of the choices we make. In reading a book, it’s super important to share my academic “why.” I might say,

“Ooh, today we are going to be reading Bud, Not Buddy.

It takes place in the 1930’s. We are going to get to spend a lot

of time with a really interesting character and read some good writing. I love how Christopher Paul Curtis writes, and how he

not only tells a great story but helps us learn about important

times in US History.”

I’d also want to add,

“In addition to the good writing and the chance to learn

about history, I also chose this book because the main

character is a Black boy. I love the way this writer represents

Black boys. And I think it’s important that when you learn

about history, you think about events and time periods from

various perspectives. Lots of times in American History, the

voices of people of color aren’t always represented.”

2. While it’s important that a parent/caregiver expresses their heart and ideas by “exposing the architecture” or their thinking to their learner we also want our learners to put ideas together for themselves.

A simple and easy way to facilitate your learners putting ideas together for themselves is through the use of text sets. To create a text set, you gather texts that are focused on a specific topic. They may include varied genres (e.g., plays, historical fiction, short stories, nonfiction- including primary-source documents, poetry) and media (videos, pictures, art, songs, etc.,)

The purpose of a text set is for learners to explore a topic in a well-rounded way. For example, if I want my learners to think about the experiences of enslaved Africans, they can read the The Kidnapped Prince by Ann Cameron, Freedom over Me by Ashley Bryan, explore primary source documents and commentary from the 1619 Project and listen to Sweet, Honey in the Rock’s Motherless Chil’. As they experience the different texts in the set, I can ask the same questions to help my learners think about what they are learning and connect new understandings to previous learning experiences.

For example I may ask:

What do you notice is going on (in this text)?

What does the text (song, painting, etc.) make you think?

What connections are you seeing/making between this text and others you’ve read/experienced?

So there you are! I hope you enjoy the novels, non-fiction texts, and picture books we read in our book club. What other texts have you enjoyed featuring African-American boys and men? Let's keep adding to this list!

If you’d like help and guidance in exploring these or other texts with your learner or want to know how to enhance literacy learning at-home our co-teachers would love to help.

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