Updated: Apr 9, 2022
National Poetry Month is a time to celebrate the important role that poets play in the world, to show how poetic voices are speaking out, sharing stories, and inspiring readers. Often when people think of poetry, they think of vintage poems written a hundred years ago or more. My students are often afraid of reading poetry, for fear that they’ll need to decipher the poem’s meaning, or analyze every word. But poetry can be so much more than that. I like to think of poems like songs–most people have at least one song that really touches their emotions, and brings them joy. I hope there is a book on this list of amazing BIPOC poets that will do that for you! So here it is, our top choices: 20 books of poetry that can be enjoyed by all ages, from early elementary children to adults.
MAR Recommends: 20 Books of Poetry written by BIPOC authors
April is National Poetry month. To honour the importance place poetry and poets should have on your bookshelf, we have put together a list of 20 books of poetry written by BIPOC authors. In this list you will find powerful, notable poets like Amanda Gorman, who is on both our picture book list and our young adult list. Amanda Gorman wrote and performed the Presidential Inauguration poem in January of 2021 and inspired people around the world with her incredible poetic voice. Children will love her anthem Change Sings while older readers will appreciate her insights in Call us what we Carry.
For those who prefer their poems in stories, we have several novels written in verse, such as Ibi Zoboi’s acclaimed poetic novel Punching the Air, and Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X, both recommended for high school students.
There are so many remarkable poets we could have shared on our adult list this month, but we managed to narrow it down to our five favourites. Ocean Vuong, a Vietnamese poet who lived the early years of his life in a refugee camp, will blow you away with his poetry in Night Sky with Exit Wounds, which won the T.S. Eliot prize for poetry. For those who aren’t typically poetry readers, I recommend starting out with Danusha Lameris’ Bonfire Opera, a collection that has been described as down to earth and accessible, due to her narrative style, and the way in which she makes the ordinary and simple things beautiful. We hope you will take some time this month to sit and read a poem or two! Happy reading!
Picture Books / Early Elementary
Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship by Irene Latham and Charles Waters
“A fresh approach to exploring interracial communication. In an unusual, long-distance collaboration, poets Latham and Waters have crafted a collection of poems that explore the intersection between race and childhood friendships. Each poet reveals his or her individual perspective on shared experiences by imagining their childhood selves existing in the current day of complex racial realities. Their interactions, expressed through poetic verse, navigate the ambiguous and often challenging feelings that children encounter as they grapple with identity and race—a process forced on them when they are paired for a classroom poetry project. The story takes readers through school days, interludes with concerned parents, and polarizing peer interactions.” - Kirkus Reviews
Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem by Amanda Gorman
“Change Sings: A Children's Anthem will leave readers knowing that anything is possible when we join our voices together. The book's poetic text and rhythmic illustrations lead readers along the main character's inspiring journey -- a true call to action for the youngest members of our society. The book's diverse characters let readers see themselves in the book and know that extraordinary change comes from the small actions we take together, as simple as making friends with those who are different from us, picking up trash, and helping others in need.” - Common Sense Media
The Thing About Bees: A Love Letter by Shabazz Larkin
“In a holistic—and wholly original—treatment, Larkin spins a buoyant monologue to his (actual) young sons about why bees are to be valued and how they are analogous to rambunctious children; the narrative is threaded with unconditional love for both subjects. Smart AABB rhymes propel the narrative, while other lyrical structures offer pauses and maintain attention: ‘Sometimes bees can be a bit rude./They fly in your face and prance on your food…. /And worst of all, they do this thing/called sting./OUCH!’” - School Library Journal
Looking Like Me by Walter Dean Myers
“This always-inventive father and son team offers up an “I am jam,” celebrating how every individual is really a collection of identities. The rap-like verse is voiced by a young narrator named Jeremy, who notices that every person he encounters sees him in a different light: to his sister, he’s a little brother; to his teacher (whose real life counterparts may find inspiration in these pages for a memorable classroom activity), he’s a writer; to a cute passerby, he’s a dancer; to his mother, he’s a dreamer. Each new identity is hailed with an exuberant fist bump: ‘The mailman lifted his fist./ I gave it a bam!/ It is kind of amazing all the people I am.’” - Publishers Weekly
A Place Inside of Me: A Poem to Heal the Heart by Zetta Elliott
“In this powerfully lyrical poem, Elliott articulates what resides “deep down inside” of the African American, skateboard-loving, first-person protagonist: joy, sorrow, fear, anger, hunger, pride, peace, and more. While the protagonist speaks, Denmon’s illustrations, primarily in blue, pale yellow, and mauve, depict the tween boy doing skateboard tricks (showing the bottom of his board that’s covered in peace and justice stickers) and spending time with friends, while muted backgrounds depict life in his urban neighbourhood. This book delivers positivity, despite the inclusion of police brutality, a Black Lives Matter protest, and a vigil for the dead — all of which affirm the child’s realities.” - The Horn Book
For Every One by Jason Reynolds
“Award-winning writer Reynolds offers a letter in the form of a long poem that acknowledges and encourages young people’s dreams and aspirations. The poem uses the author’s own experiences to show common ground with his readers, making it clear that he is presenting himself as a fellow traveler on the journey: “This letter / is being written / from the inside. / From the front line / and the fault line. / From the uncertain thick of it all.” He shares observations of others and the ways in which they coped and speaks of the futility of finding answers in the usual places: “Though the struggle / is always made to / sound admirable / and poetic, / the thumping uncertainty / is still there.” This short piece is full of the elements that make Reynolds such a successful writer: honesty, rich imagery, great facility with language, and an irresistible cadence.” - Kirkus Reviews
Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga
“There are so many reasons to read this novel. It's a book about kindness, for one; it sings, for another, as any good verse novel should. Verse novels are coming into vogue, and Jude's voice is heightened by Warga's decision to write her story this way. It feels true. It feels like middle school and wanting things the way you do in middle school. It feels like being in the middle of so many things and not quite knowing how to navigate that uncertainty. But our protaganist is level-headed and charismatic, clear-eyed — and did I mention charismatic?” - NPR
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander (also available as graphic novel)
“This novel in verse is rich in character and relationships. Most interesting is the family dynamic that informs so much of the narrative, which always reveals, never tells. While Josh relates the story, readers get a full picture of major and minor players. The basketball action provides energy and rhythm for a moving story. Poet Alexander deftly reveals the power of the format to pack an emotional punch.” - Kirkus Reviews
Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice Mahogany L. Browne (picture book format)
“Browne’s introduction explains what it means to be woke—“aware of your surroundings”—and connects this awareness to historical movements for justice, stating, “this is where our freedom begins.” The poems are assigned subject headings located next to the page numbers, in nearly alphabetical order, for easy access when flipping through this slim volume for inspiration. Some poems cover quiet topics that nourish individuals and relationships, such as body positivity, forgiveness, individuality, and volunteerism. Other poems are louder, calling for lifted voices. [...] Identity issues are covered too, with poems on disability, gender, immigration, and intersectionality. Each of the 24 poems is an irresistible invitation to take up space in community and in society, and each is eminently recitable, taking its own place in the spoken-word tradition. - Kirkus Reviews
Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson
“This touching portrait of a family in crisis gives readers a model for fighting off despair. Author Jacqueline Woodson, whose Brown Girl Dreaming won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, the John Newbery Medal, and the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature, makes smart use of poetry and the first-person perspective in Before the Ever After to immerse the reader in the intensity of the character's emotional experience. The story is easy to follow and never confusing, yet it delivers the feeling of being confused by unexpected and unexplained life events. This book could be helpful to readers dealing with physical or mental illness of any kind in the family.” - Common Sense Media
Vinyl Moon by Mahogany L. Browne
“At her new high school, 11th grader Angel is assigned to a homeroom/advisory class entitled Her Excellence is Resilience & Honoring Everyone’s Roots. Guided by their teacher, Ms. G, H.E.R. advisees work through their feelings in an encouraging environment. They deal with betrayals, young motherhood, and other challenges, but no one here is tragic. All of the novel’s characters are refreshingly layered and endearing, even when they aren’t at their best. As the school year progresses, Angel sees her life reflected in books by writers including Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jason Reynolds. Angel’s poignant poems are interspersed among passages of compelling prose. Her community reflects a diverse array of Black cultures as well as sexual identities and personalities. A beautiful love letter to Brooklyn, Black authors, and the beats that create the soundtrack of a young life evolving.” - Kirkus Reviews
Call Us What We Carry by Amanda Gorman
“Whereas ‘The Hill We Climb’ was a celebration of what with effort is possible, Gorman’s newest work, the poetry collection “Call Us What We Carry,” redoubles back on what ails us in the first place. The objects of her gaze are America’s refusal to own and atone for its history, the ominous changes to our climate and the coronavirus pandemic and its politicization. Gorman’s words read like that of Lady Liberty in a pointed argument with white supremacy or of the ultimate public defender trying to release us from captivity: ‘There is no one way to count who & what counted most to us in that dark.’” - Washington Post
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
“Spoken-word artist Acevedo’s debut verse novel is an arresting portrait of a young poet coming into her own. In nearly every poem, there is at least one universal truth about adolescence, family, gender, race, religion, or sexuality that will have readers either nodding in grateful acknowledgment or blinking away tears. ‘It almost feels like / the more I bruise the page / the quicker something inside me heals.’” - The Horn Book
Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam
“Reviving a friendship that goes back almost 20 years, Zoboi writes with Exonerated Five member Salaam, exploring racial tensions, criminal injustice, and radical hope for a new day. [...] Zoboi offers readers her brilliance and precision within this novel in verse that centers on the fictional account of 16-year-old Amal Shahid. He’s an art student and poet whose life dramatically shifts after he is accused of assaulting a white boy one intense night, drawing out serious questions around the treatment of Black youth and the harsh limitations of America’s investment in punitive forms of justice. The writing allows many readers to see their internal voices affirmed as it uplifts street slang, Muslim faith, and hip-hop cadences, showcasing poetry’s power in language rarely seen in YA literature. The physical forms of the first-person poems add depth to the text, providing a necessary calling-in to issues central to the national discourse in reimagining our relationship to police and prisons. Readers will ask: Where do we go from here?
Awardworthy. Soul-stirring. A must-read.” (Verse novel. 12-18) -Kirkus Reviews
Fierce Fairytales by Nikita Gill (some appropriate for middle grades)
“Trust Nikita Gill to turn classic fairytales into verses, which are beautifully written and creatively expressed into words that you will get carried away with. She digs deeper into our everyday favourite fairytale character, both villains and heroes and presents us with a new side of theirs. She tells the world of how no damsel in distress ever needed a prince to save her and turns the helpless heroine into an empowered, free woman. The villains we all loved to hate are turned into a flawed human being who is simply misunderstood. The women in here are strong and unapologetic and they have wisdom to share and lessons to teach about identity, power, acceptance, and strength. The classic fairytales skilfully combined with the subjects of empowerment, love, feminism, abuse, and mental illness. It’s refreshing to read a new take on all the childhood stories we have been told. It is powerful, thoughtful yet so tender. The book is filled with magic, fire and truth, waiting to be told. The different angle she gave each tale is simply fascinating and worth a read.” -Sowmya Gopi, The Nerd Daily
Night Sky With Exit Wounds Ocean Vuong
“Ocean Vuong’s 2016 poetry collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, tells the story of the immigrant working in a nail salon in New York as she learns the English alphabet. It tells the story of South Vietnam when the U.S Armed Forces evacuated in April of 1975, as Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” crooned through the streets. It tells the story of the gay couple murdered in their home in Dallas in 2011. It tells his parent’s stories of the war in Vietnam, and his own stories of intimacy and immigration as a gay, Vietnamese immigrant, growing up in America. The lines, “There is so much that I want to tell you” and “There is so much that I need to tell you” repeat throughout the poems, calling the reading into Vuong’s world, echoing how sharing these stories is cathartic to Vuong.” –amlitmag.com
Bonfire Opera by Danusha Lameris
“Sometimes the most compelling landscapes are the ones where worlds collide: where a desert meets the sea, a civilization, no-man’s land. Here in Bonfire Opera, grief and Eros grapple in the same domain. A bullet-hole through the heart, a house full of ripe persimmons, a ghost in a garden. Coyotes cry out on the hill, and lovers find themselves kissing, “bee-stung, drunk” in the middle of the road. Here, the dust is holy, as is the dark, unknown. These are poems that praise the impossible, wild world, finding beauty in its wake.” –University of Pittsburgh Press
This Wound is a World by Billy-Ray Belcourt
“This Wound is a World, the first collection of poetry from Billy-Ray Belcourt, is an act of mourning. The text is pervaded by a sense of loss as the closing lines of the poem “Heartbreak is a White Kid” clearly show: “that our eyes stopped/ believing in what was in front of us/ was the closest we got to killing ourselves.” However, no loss is simple in Belcourt’s book; lost love or frustrated desire or even death are not self-contained but necessarily intersect with race, gender, sexuality, identity, and, ultimately, the body. The act of mourning in This Wound is a World is inherently and intensely political, this makes for uncomfortable reading at times. The poems, though, earn that discomfort through a combination of poetic craft—Belcourt writes lines and images that are clear, simple and evocative—and intimacy, the voice of the poems feels specific and real even when the body where they are located becomes unfixed and abstracted.”
Blue Marrow by Louise Bernice Halfe
“The voices of Blue Marrow sing out from the past and the present. They are the voices of the Grandmothers, both personal and legendary. They share their wisdom, their lives, their dreams. They proclaim the injustice of colonialism, the violence of proselytism, and the horrors of the residential school system with an honesty that cuts to the marrow. Speaking in both English and Cree, these are voices of hopefulness, strength, and survivance. Blue Marrow is a tribute to the indomitable power of Indigenous women of the past and of the present day.” -All Lit Up
The Carrying by Ada Limon
“The Carrying, as the title implies, explores the costs of the physical, emotional, psychological, cultural, and social burdens we carry. For Limón, this includes the inability to have a child, a “crooked spine,” disabling vertigo, and panic attacks. The collection also considers the gifts we receive, particularly from the natural world and from those we love. It also prods us to do our part to make a better world from the one we’re surviving in now.” –World Literature Today
A Note to the Adults:
It is recommended that parents read alongside their children in order to further discussions, particularly if these topics are new for your children. Additionally, the Middle Grades and Young Adult titles may contain more sensitive subject matter which may require further discussion with an adult. Older children and teens may be reluctant to read with a caregiver, but in this case adults can independently read the same title in order to be equipped to answer questions and spark discussions. Above all, let your child lead and guide the discussion, and listen attentively to their thoughts and ideas. Simply asking them questions such as “what do you think?”, “why do you think this happened?”, or “why do you think the character did this?” can be a good starting point.
Read any of these books with your kids? Send us their reviews and we will publish them on our Facebook page and Intsagram accounts. Show us your little Anti-Racist Readers!
If you have read a great book that you think should be on our next list, please email us at Info@MomsAgainstRacism.ca. We LOVE finding great new books!
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