Five Cultural Picture Books for Children

Despite its misleading title, picture books’ sole objective is not to briefly distract kids in waiting rooms and during long car rides. Rather, they’re more like guiding lights: they can explain complicated experiences in easy terms, put relatable faces to history lessons, and remind us that it is the values and mutual respect that trump any perceived physical differences. It’s a challenge, but we’ve picked out five picture books with non-white protagonists that are as stirring for their art as they are for helping young children relate to the broader world.

The Sandwich Swap by Queen Rania AlAbdullah and Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by Tricia Tusa

Salma and Lilly, two best friends of different backgrounds, do everything together. But when a minor difference devolves into a school-wide divide, the two girls must find a way to overcome their pride and respect each other. While the Queen of Jordan pens the book with a delightfully light tone, she teaches her readers an important, allegorical value: how to understand and celebrate differences.

Martina the Beautiful Cockroach by Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrated by Michael Austin

Martina is the crowning beauty of her family, but “doesn’t know coffee beans about love and marriage”. That’s when her abuela offers her un consejo increíble that turns her perception of beauty on its head. As she shuffles through her suitors, each failing abuela’s “Coffee Test”, she’s left wondering what she can do to find a love that transcends objects and superficial beauty. Martina is a cute twist on a Cuban folktale that imparts a wise lesson on seeing people’s true colors.

The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi

Unhei, having just moved with her family from Korea, arrives at her new school and encounters a quandry: no one can pronounce or understand her name. Try as she does to adapt to her new home, she cannot pick an ‘American’ name. Eventually, she comes to realize the beauty of her own Korean name and its importance to her own identity. Yangsook Choi’s playful but personal tale reminds us that something as seemingly simple as pronouncing a name can be taken for granted.

Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold

A perennial favorite, Tar Beach tells the story of Cassie Louise Lightfoot growing up in Harlem in the 1930s. One night, she is spirited up from her roof and flies above the buildings of New York, seeing landmarks of both the Harlem Renaissance and the larger city. Ringgold’s storytelling is all her own, mixing autobiography with historical fiction complemented with her signature narrative-quilt art. However, her keen eye on the importance and artfulness in African-American culture can not be beat.

Mahavira: The Hero of Nonviolence by Manoj Jain, illustrated by Demi


Mahavira was an ancient Indian spiritual teacher and the founder of Jainism, a belief with more than five million adherents throughout the world that, for whatever reason, remains little-discussed in the Western world. Six centuries before the birth of Jesus, Mahavira was a regal prince who, in pursuit of a deeper connection with the living world, renounced his wealth to become a monk. Similar to Buddhism, Mahavira’s Jainism emphasizes the practice of nonviolence, compassion, and forgiveness for every human being. This book follows Mahavira’s path to enlightenment and is a high water mark in Demi’s wide-ranging and diverse bibliography.

Needless to say, this a tiny sampling from hundreds of other inspired children’s books that take the same altruistic aim and succeed with flying colors. Which ones left an impression on you when you were younger? Let us know below!

Featured image courtesy of ___.