Dear Black Girls, by Black feminist educator Shanice Nicole and Black artist Kezna Dalz, grabs readers from the first page. Writing in the second person, a mode rarely used in picture books, Nicole addresses her audience directly: “Dear Black girls, / Yes, you, the ones who are starting something new / and wondering how you’ll do …” What follows is a powerful, honest affirmation of belonging that is striking in its poeticism. Nicole writes, “I love the way your Black skin / wraps itself around you, / as if it never wants to let go, / as if your colour is the richest thing / it has ever known.” Nicole’s text also recognizes the choices Black girls have in how they do their hair, the rights they have regarding body autonomy, and the challenges they will face in a society where racism, implicit bias, and misogyny actively work against them – all at a level that kids as young as preschool will understand.
Kezna Dalz’s illustrations show girls – some of whom wear a hijab, use an oxygen cannula, or use a wheelchair – playing sports, studying botany, and learning languages. The painted portraits are striking with bursts of rich opacity that highlight each girl’s eyes and the many tones of Black skin. The backgrounds are an unexpected candy pink, which could be meant as a signifier of femininity but conveys a pure, sweet, vivacious happiness.
As its title makes evident, Dear Black Girls first and foremost speaks directly to Black girls; beyond its core audience, this stunning book is a valuable read for young readers of every background.
In another innovative picture book move, Anishinaabe author Brittany Luby (Encounter) reframes the predictable structure of a seasonal concept book in the bilingual Mii maanda ezhi-gkendmaanh / This Is How I Know by using the first person. In the voice of a young Anishinaabe child, Luby introduces each season with a question, starting with “How do I know summer is here?” The child, accompanied by their grandmother, shares their observations and sensory perceptions of what is changing around their rural, forested home near the water. Luby subtly shows that asking how a child knows a season has changed (rather than simply listing all the things that have changed) creates a more personalized, meaningful learning experience and also invites the reader to ponder the same question in their own environment.
Ojibwe artist Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley further stokes the fires of curiosity with digital artwork that glows with warm, woody light and striking linework that shapes each character, animal, and plant. Far from making the spreads feel static, the deliberate lines practically beg for a little finger to trace the page and add gorgeous detail to a blue jay, Grandma’s white braid, and the child’s dog (who, spoiler alert, has puppies in the spring). The images bring to mind a wood carving, but one with splashes of cozy, bright colours in between each deliberate cut.
The text, in both Anishinaabemowin and English, is incorporated seamlessly into Pawis-Steckley’s spreads; every bilingual sentence pairing is placed on a different part of the page, making it easier for those with the most basic knowledge of both languages to follow along, word by word.
Dear Black Girls and Mii maanda ezhi-gkendmaanh / This Is How I Know show us that beyond honouring the diversity of young Canadian readers, how we address and include kids in the books we make for them matters. More than in passive, third-person narratives, these picture books invite, spark, affirm, and empower.