This seems to be one of the most celebrated books of the early 21st century for speaking to children about color, race and having pride in one’s Black identity. When I asked people for help in the face of my daughter having trouble from other kids regarding the difference in my and her skin complexions, everywhere I asked, several people suggested this book. It is a photo essay, that on an elementary school level, displays and discusses, in lyrical, free verse poetry nearly the full range of phenotypes of African Diaspora children from white as Vanilla Ice Cream to Blue Midnight. Unlike the children we see on t.v. and featured on many Natural Hair, Black Beauty, and Mixed Heritage websites who are breathtakingly beautiful, the children in Shades of Black are average-looking kids with whom many kids can relate. Although it is not a story book, Shades of Black also stands out amongst children’s books featuring children of the African Diaspora because, unlike most story books that choose medium brown skinned characters as protagonists whether the family is monoracial or interracial, Shades of Black also gives attention to the lightest and darkest of the African Diaspora Spectrum of complexion. While many children of monoracial Black Heritage, Mixed Heritage black and white, or Mestizo Latino and black, will find someone in this book who reflects them or comes close to it, there is only one child who may represent those whose heritage is also South Asian, and none who look like they are also of East Asian Heritage. There are plenty of braided hair styles and one child with dreadlocks featured in this book but no girls wearing afros. What is not here sharpens the focus on what is present: this book is effectively dedicated specifically to the different colors of skin and eyes found amongst children of African Descent.
Because of that contradiction between skin colors of white, brown, gold, orange, etc. and their categorization as “Black,” which can seem illogical to the young child (like my own 3-year-old) who has learned their colors but doesn’t understand the intricacies and inconsistences of racial labels, this book is appropriate as is for the child who has already been introduced to the concept of “Black” as an ethnic/racial group or as a way to introduce your child to “Black” as an ethnic/racial group. For the pre-literate child who doesn’t understand “black” as a race/ethnicity, you can change the words to “I have African Ancestors” and still share the book with them.
I find it challenging that this book presents children who I suspect are either biracial or Multigenerational Mixed Kids as “black” without acknowledging their mixed heritage. Although I don’t agree with this choice from the editor it is an opportunity for parents to discuss with their child how being of African Descent gives one a place in the Black community even when of Mixed Heritage. On the two pages whose statements are “I am Black. I am Unique,” the author chose to feature,” light-skinned children with light eyes as if being black is only unique when “black” manifests in an obviously mixed phenotype. I feel that on one of these pages, a brown or dark-skinned child with brown eyes should have been featured. Pinkney (the author) also features children with hazel green eyes on two different pages, giving two different descriptions for the same color eyes. I cannot find any logical reason behind this choice because the two children featured are also nearly the same complexion; this focus on the same color eyes would have been more effective if the children were different complexions.
However, and whenever you read this book to your child, it is a valuable celebration of the full spectrum of skin colors and many physical traits found amongst children of African Descent.
Recommendation: Highly Recommended
Age Group: As is–after the child knows that “Black” is a racial category; If changing the words to “I have African Ancestors” –age 3+
Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda