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African-American Children’s Books and the Journey of Valerie Bolling

Valerie Bollings' Picture Books

African-American Children’s Books and the Journey of Valerie Bolling

When I was a child, I read voraciously. I picked out the word “the” from my older sister’s picture books and was off and running by age 3. My mother fed my hunger for books with trips to the library and later, Scholastic Book subscriptions. The book The Snowy Day was in my repertoire, and I loved it, not realizing that it was the only book with a black character to have won a Caldecott Award in 1962 for best illustrations. Nor did I know that the author, Jack Ezra Keats was a Polish-Jewish New Yorker who was noted for multicultural characters. I just liked the book. It wasn’t until 1976 that another interracial couple, Leo and Diane Dillon, illustrated a Caldecott Award winning book. Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears was actually written by a Dutch American woman, Verna Aardema, who was determined to bring positive African stories to America.

Our need and hunger for children’s books was not unrecognized over the years. In the 1880’s in Boston, MA, Amelia E. Johnson not only wrote children’s books, but also published two magazines for children: The Joy and The Ivy with poems, short stories and articles about black history and culture. In the 1920’s, W.E.B. du Bois published a similar magazine, The Brownie’s Books, with fiction, poetry and world events. In the 1930’s, Harlem Renaissance poet Arna Bontemps wrote several children’s books including You Can’t Pet a Possum. But in 1965, Nancy Larrick, a member of the International Reading Association, analyzed more than 5000 children’s books published in the 1960’s and found only 40 with illustrations or texts related to African-Americans.

As it became clear that we were not getting true visibility among children’s books, in 1970, two black librarians, Glyndon Flynt Greer and Mable McKissick, convinced the American Library Association to sponsor the Coretta Scott King Book Awards for the best children’s books written and illustrated by African-Americans, featuring African-Americans. One for a writer, and later, one for an illustrator. Nearly 100 writers and illustrators have won Coretta Scott King Book Awards over the years, and the gallery of writers and illustrators expanded a bit. Many of the books are non-fiction – about famous people or things that have happened, as well as books about self-esteem. By 2022, 12% of all children’s books had black characters and 8% are by black authors, including books by such stars as Gabrielle Union and Misty Copeland.

Because of the importance of representation in children’s picture books, the first books children see,  I wanted to share the story of Valerie Bolling, who is writing fictional and fun picture books for children 2-6. Valerie and I knew each other in Boston 35 years ago, as a few of the African-American college grads who were staying in the area to work; we reconnected on Facebook many years later. When I saw that she was having success as a children’s author, I was absolutely in awe. Every so often, I would see a post about Valerie, reading at a library or a bookstore, publishing a new book, speaking at a conference. To me, Valerie was prolific, Valerie was winning accolades with her books, Valerie was getting the opportunity to read her books to children.  She was creating something from within herself and sharing it with children across the country. That’s what authors do.

Valerie started writing children’s picture books when she had been reading books to her pre-school nieces. She was no stranger to children’s books – she had been an elementary school teacher for 12 years. She was also no stranger to writing, having won contests for her writing – stories, poems, articles, over the years. In 2017, she turned her passion toward children’s books. Instead of self-publishing, she sought out a publisher –  Boyds Mills & Kane (now Astra Publishing), who published her first book, Let’s Dance! about dances around the world, in 2020, three years after she wrote it. Since 2017, she has written many other books, eight more of which will be published by 2024. In 2023, Valerie’s early reader series, Rainbow Days, was released by Scholastic Inc., the largest publisher and distributor of children’s books in the world. Her book Together We Swim was a Kirkus Prize Finalist.

One of the reasons why Valerie wins awards for her writing is probably her passion for – surprise – revising and perfecting her work. The story idea and first draft are just the beginning of the process for her; she is determined to create a gem, so she polishes her writing before the world sees it.  To the writing process, she brings her wealth of experience as an educator, which gives her insight into the elements of a children’s book that will bring both enjoyment and growth.

As a recognized author of children’s picture books, Valerie is now able to be a mentor to others. She visits schools, libraries and bookstores, she also attends festivals, and speaks at conferences; she even teaches classes on children’s picture book writing. Valerie is sharing both the work she creates and the skills to create it.  Valerie has earned her success, step-by-step, with sheer effort, determination, and perseverance, doing authorship “the hard way”.  The more Valeries we have, the more our children will see themselves when they read.


For a good list of non-fiction picture books, Arapahoe Libraries has a wonderful list, here. For an even longer list of  both fiction and non-fiction children’s picture books, Afoma Umesi of has put together a list, here.

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