I thought, this Independence Day, that I’d do something a little different: a booklist that celebrates some of the vast diversity that makes up this American tapestry. After all, if your plan is to celebrate like it’s 1776, and rise up against tyranny, and write a new declaration of antiracism and anti-fascism (because that really seems like the only thing that matters right now), then exploring a different side of Americana seems like relevant reading.
One thing I want to make quite clear, here: these picture books are a long shot from the only books of their ilk: they are a very small sampling. They aren’t typically patriotic, not in the least. But they’re definitely Americana.
Also, these might be picture books—but that totally doesn’t mean you, as an adult, can’t read and enjoy them! (Every picture book is a work of art, folks.)
The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander & Kadir Nelson celebrates Black American achievements throughout United States history. Poetry and visuals work together beautifully (you could read it for this upcoming Sealey Challenge!), and it won (deservedly) a passel of awards.
Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews and Bryan Collier is Andrews’ autobiographical story of a boy from New Orleans and his trombone!
Bowwow Powwow by Brenda J. Child & Jonathan Thunder & translated into the Ojibwe by Gordon Jourdain is a bilingual picture book (English-Ojibwe) that celebrates Ojibwe culture through the powwow Windy Girl attends with her uncle—and the powwow she imagines.
Overground Railroad by Lesa Cline-Ransome & James Ransome tells a story of the Great Migration through a child’s eyes, as Ruth Ellen and her family take the train to the North.
Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña & Christian Robinson: Neighborhoods forge the glue that, in many cases, binds us together, and de la Peña and Robinson celebrate everything that makes them up—including bus routes—in this beautiful, award-winning picture book.
Planting Stories (Sembrando Historias) by Anika Aldamuy Denise & Paola Escobar tells the story of pioneering Puerto Rican American librarian and storyteller Pura Belpré (check out the literary award named in her honor!). Belpré was the first Latinx librarian in New York City, and her work paved the way for activism and librarianship to come.
Islandborn (Lola en español) by Junot Díaz & Leo Espinosa follows Lola as she uses her friends, neighbors, and family to piece together an idea of the island on which she was born—but which she doesn’t remember. This story can be a wonderful starting point for discussing family stories, and it’s both fun and lovely—a great combination.
Follow the Moon Home by Philippe Cousteau, Deborah Hopkinson, & Meilo So follows a group of kids in South Carolina who band together to save the turtles—and make an environmental difference. Because making a difference is hella patriotic.
Drawn Together by Minh Lê & Dan Santat shows a grandfather and grandson, divided by native language, as they commute through art.
The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson & Vanessa Brantley-Newsome: The story of Audrey Hendricks, who was only nine years old when Alabama police arrested her for participating in a Civil Rights action.
We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom & Michaela Goade: Activism is considerably more American than apple pie, and in this picture book, a girl and her people take a stand against the black snake of oil threatening their water and their world.
Double Bass Blues by Andrea J. Loney & Rudy Gutierrez: Nic and his bass move between his suburban school and his city home, carrying music as they go.
Fry Bread by Kevin Noble Maillard & Juana Martínez-Neal explores the history and traditions of fry bread. It includes additional historical information and won several awards, including the Sibert Medal.
Our American Dream by Fiona McEntee & Srimalie Bassani is a story about immigration and the American Dream, written by an Irish immigrant who is now a Chicago-area immigration lawyer.
Mango, Abuela, and Me (Mango, Abuela, y Yo) by Meg Medina explores what happens when Grandma, who speaks Spanish, comes to live with Mia’s family. The book includes Spanglish and some Spanish words, and is a great exploration of how to help someone learn a new language in addition to being a cute picture book.
The Book Itch by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson & R. Gregory Christie—because books have been hella important for a long time. This picture book might have too many words for your littlests, but it’s a great story of the power of the written word, and of the National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem.
Thank You, Omu! by Oge Mora is the story of Omu’s delicious stew, all the people who partake of it—and all the people who come together to celebrate and eat with Omu later, when there is no more stew left.
A Different Pond by Bao Phi & Thi Bui reminisces about trips to fish in a pond in Minnesota—and also fishing in a different pond, back in Vietnam.
My Papi Has a Motorcycle (Mi papi tiene una moto) by Isabel Quintero & Zeke Peña takes readers on a beautiful tour of a neighborhood (mostly pre-gentrification) as Daisy and her papi take a spin on his motorcycle. The English text has some Spanglish; there’s also a Spanish edition.
The Bell Rang by James Ransome tells the story of what happened among those left behind after enslaved people took their lives and their freedom into their own hands. It won several awards, including a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Award.
Paper Kingdom by Helena Ku Rhee & Pascal Campion: When the babysitter can’t come, Daniel has to go with his parents to their jobs as night cleaners—but he discovers a whole new world while he’s there, a kingdom of paper just for him.
Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russel & Frank Morrison follows Melba Doretta Liston from her childhood—when she first fell in love with the shiny trombone—to her life and work as a musician, composer, and arranger, one of the greatest of her day.
She Was The First! by Katheryn Russel & Eric Velásquez is the story of groundbreaking politician and activist Shirley Chisholm.
We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorrel & Frané Lessac travels through a year of Cherokee celebrations.
Just Ask! by Sonia Sotomayor & Rafael López: Sotomayor and López team up to celebrate what makes us different—and also what makes us the same.
Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton by Don Tate: George Moses Horton was an enslaved man in South Carolina—and a brilliant poet. Read this picture book biography of the first Black poet to be published in the American South, who used his words to fight for freedom.
Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Méndez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh: Here, with glorious codex-inspired art, is the story of Sylvia and the Méndez family’s fight for school desegregation, one of the court cases that would pave the way for Brown v. Board of Education years later.
Soldier for Equality: José de la Luz Sáenz and the Great War by Duncan Tonatiuh: With art steeped in the Mexica codex tradition, Tonatiuh tells the story of Mexican American civil rights activist José de la Luz Sáenz.
Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford & Eric Velásquez: You may be familiar with the Schomburg Center at the New York Public Library—now, read about the life of Arturo Schomburg, the man whose book collecting and research went to build it.
Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer by Carole Boston Weatherford & Ekua Holmes tells the story of Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer through poetry and images.
The Day You Begin by Jaqueline Woodson & Rafael López explores connecting across differences.
Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang & Amy Chua—because food’s a big part of culture for a lot of us, isn’t it? (I know my Irish/Prussian family has a food thing.) With her grandmother’s help and her cat’s emotional support, Amy Wu, whose hands are too small to make a regular bao, learns how to make one that’s just perfect for her—and then shares it with her whole class!
Looking to acquire books right now? You have options. Your public library may or may not be open to foot traffic, but you still have opportunities to acquire books; many public libraries are, in fact, beginning curbside book pickup. Additionally, you may be able to access many of these books utilizing your public library’s online resources, including Media on Demand (or Overdrive), Hoopla, and possibly Kanopy. (If you aren’t sure what your local library is, consult this resource.)
If you’re looking to buy, may I suggest indiebound? (Or Bookshop!) Or, if you know it: seek out your local indie bookstore straight off. I have several, but I’m going to specifically shout out 57th Street Books, where I spent many happy childhood hours, and the Seminary Co-Op, where I spend many happy adult hours, both of which are true Hyde Park institutions and which offer an incredible selection of books of all types.