If you have been a reader for long you may know that social justice is something I am passionate about. For those of you who need an exact definition of what that term means here you go: justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society. It’s a broad definition, but it all comes down to groups of people not being treated fairly. So much of the hurt and pain in this and other countries is because of a lack of social justice and I feel passionately that one way to combat this is to teach our children about equality, not just in rights, but also in access to opportunities and privileges. One way to do that with very young children is to read with them. Books are a wonderful launch pad to understanding, and this world needs more of that. Here are picture books about social justice for you to read with your kids and talk. Don’t forget to talk about it too!
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Malala Yousafzai: Warrior with Words
by Karen Leggett Abouraya tells the story of one of the great heroes of our time, Malala. Malala was a young girl in Pakistan when she stood up for education as the Taliban was stripping rights away from people in her Pakistani village. Malala stood up for every child’s right for education while the Taliban was banning education for girls. She inspired many and angered the Taliban who sent a gunman to kill her. She didn’t die, and the fear the Taliban hoped would silence her didn’t quiet her, it motivated her. That is what bravery is; facing danger without showing fear. She survived and speaks out still for the rights of all children to get an education. I can’t read this book without tears flowing, obviously very young children will not be ready for this book, I have read it with my son who is 8 but not yet with my daughter who just turned 5. There is no right or wrong time to share this book, read it and chose a time when you think your child will be able to understand and appreciate the importance of Malala’s message.
How Many Days to America?: A Thanksgiving Story by Eve Bunting made my heart beat fast and stomach tie in knots. I was so worried for the young family that was fleeing their homeland in a small fishing boat. The book doesn’t tell you exactly where the family is from although it seems like they are from somewhere in the Caribbean. What it does do is provide readers with a sense of the urgency, sadness, and the trials along the way when you are a refugee. With the news filled with stories just like this, some with much sadder ends this book is a great way to explain what is happening in Syria to curious kids.
The Story Of Ruby Bridges: Special Anniversary Edition
Robert Coles is a book all children need to read. Ruby Bridges may not have had a choice about her place in history, but she bore the burden with incredible bravery all at the age of six. This book does a wonderful job at telling the story of how Ruby Bridges was the first African-American child to enroll in a previously all-white elementary school. The hatred and threats she dealt with and the grace in which she did. Of all the biographies about the civil rights movement this is my favorite because children can relate to Ruby, they can relate to walking into school, and to the feelings of anxiety. They will never have to face what she did, but it’s easier to put themselves in her shoes than those of leaders and adult activist. This is a great book to introduce children to this part of American history.
My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by Christine King Farris. Teaching preschoolers about history is tricky, but you can do it, you just have to break it down and give them bits they can relate to. This book does a fantastic job, while reading it I always have to hold in tears, it is just such a unique look at the childhood of a man who’s dreams changed the world. What I love about this book is that the majority of it is about his childhood and children can relate so much more easily to him as a child growing up then simply as this great man on the podium. Kids always love learning that he played pranks on people just like they like to do. The author explains prejudice and segregation in a straightforward and simple way so that children can understand and reflect on how it feels to be treated like that. The book doesn’t ignore the great accomplishments and wonderful man the little boy became but does a wonderful job at making Dr. King into a hero your child can feel something in common with, and in return become more interested about.
Whoever You Are by Mem Fox. Every time I read this I get goosebumps. The book is simple and talks about the differences of little children all over the world, but focuses on what they all have in common. Children of various cultures are shown, smiling, laughing, crying and the reader can see that even if the clothes, or houses or food is different the insides are the same. I always choke up reading this book because it’s so beautiful and a great reminder for all of us that while we so often focus on what we see as different most of what we have is in common. This book is a wonderful foundation for children to learn of the inherent sameness of humans, before being introduced to society’s desire to ignore that.
Rosa by Nikki Giovanni is not so much a biography, but it is most definitely a historical account of one woman who changed a nation. We all know the story of Rosa Parks but no matter how well you know the facts, reading a children’s book about it makes me cry. The author has done a fantastic job setting the stage, explaining how Rosa Parks was not your typical heroine, she was just a seamstress, just like everyone else. This is imperative to the message that a single person can stand up for what is right and make big changes. I also appreciated that the author included so much about the women who spearheaded the bus boycott. I am 38 and I feel inspired reading this as a woman, to think of the power it can have over the younger generation excites me. This would be a wonderful introduction to learning about the civil rights movement for kids 5-10.
Red: A Crayon’s Story by Micheal Hall is my new favorite book. It made me cry the first two times I read it with my children because it’s so beautiful. All crayons come with a label but is that label always, right? Red came from the factory with a red outside but even when he tried, and trust me he tried, all he could do was color blue. It’s not until he is asked by purple to draw him a blue ocean that he finally finds a place where he belongs. You may be asking what do crayons have to do with social justice? We can’t teach our children to uphold the idea of equality and fairness f we don’t also teach them to treat everyone in a just way. Accepting people for who they are not who we think they are is a basic step to being fair.
The Red Piano Andre Leblanc made me sob. This biography is about Zhu Xiao-Mei a young pianist growing up during China’s Cultural Revolution. In a work camp during the day but at night she sneaks out to a local village and into a home where a piano is hidden. It’s more than just her love of music it’s her determination not to be broken by the authorities that shines through. When the piano is found in the village it’s chopped for firewood and she is punished further. When Chairman Mao dies the work camps start emptying but Zhu Xiao-Mei is the last to leave. The book isn’t clear about what happens next and if you aren’t familiar with Zhu Xiao-Mei’s career as an international concert pianist you may miss the greatest part of this story, not only did she get to leave the work camp, the authorities didn’t win, her passion was greater than their force. That made me sob. My son responded like most 8-year-olds would, “She must really like piano. She owned the bad guys in the end!” Yes, she did.
Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki is such an important book for children to read. This book is all about how baseball helped keep children and families busy at Minidoka the internment camp in Idaho during world War Two. A lot of adults don’t know much if anything about this part of American history and this book is a good place to start teaching your child about it. From a child’s perspective readers see the injustice and grief during and after confinement. Although my son knows a good bit about Japanese internment during WWII this book personalized it for him and baseball gave him something to connect him to the boys in the story. Many of the people imprisoned in these camps were American citizens, and they were stripped of their rights and privileges because of their heritage.
Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor by Emily Arnold McCully is a book that all little girls should read. I think I may buy 20 copies and give them to every girl that invites either one of my kids to their birthday parties. The reason I think this book is so wonderful isn’t that it’s about some woman that is on a coin ( no disrespect Susan) but because I had never heard of Mattie but I should have, we all should have. Many of her inventions are still in use today – like the paper bag that stays upright. She made history many of us just didn’t know it. Her story of invention, entrepreneurship and strength of character are stunning. She stands up for herself, learns from her mistakes, and follows her passion even though it’s not the easy or even the “only kinda hard” road. All the way she faces challenges and just keeps going. This is far more inspiring than any girl power book that I have read before, and it’s true.
Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson will take your breath away. The front cover portrait belongs in a museum, it captures the incredible dignity and strength of character of Nelson Mandela. The biography begins with a turning point, when Nelson is chosen to go to school and his name is changed from Rolihlahla to Nelson. The book’s text covers the main points of Nelson Mandela’s life from that moment until he is finally released from prison. The afterword covers his historic election and Presidency. Apartheid is explained through the text, but Kadir Nelson’s incredible illustrations are at times better at telling the story than text could possibly be. I can not stress enough how stunning the illustrations in this book are. When I read books for review I take notes and my only note for this book was “pictures will make you cry.” They will because they capture the injustice and triumph. Each page is a gift.
In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco is a lovely story of a family of two moms, three kids, and a big house in Berkley California that was witness to their years and years of love. Like many families that don’t fit the “normal” stereotype these two moms and their kids faced opposition. The illustrations in this book show so well the emotions any parent would experience when an angry adult was threatening their family with children present. This book is about love, it is a window into a family that might be similar to yours or very different, but one thing this family has in common with every family is the love that holds it together. Sometimes we see social justice as big protests and civil disobedience but it can also be a simple act of friendship, reaching out and saying ” You aren’t being treated fairly, I see that, and it’s NOT OK.” This book helps teach children that.
Welcome Comfort by Patricia Polacco is a touching book that I think every family should read when you think of bullying you might not think of social justice but when a child is picked on relentlessly they are being deprived of privilege, they are not in an equitable existence with others. I think bullying is a great example for kids to learn more about inequality and unfairness. The story is about a little boy Welcome Comfort who is picked on at school, has been in the foster system forever and has no family of his own. His school custodian becomes a refuge and helps him believe in Santa for the first time. Over the years, he and his wife become Welcome’s family and when the old custodian retires he reveals a wonderful secret to the now grown Welcome. I love this book because it really lets parents dive into the truth of how not all children wake up to a beautiful tree with way too many toys under it. Christmas isn’t everyone’s favorite time and this book lets children learn about that while still being about magic.
Let Them Play (True Story) by Margot Theis Raven and Chris Ellison is an amazing book, it tells the true story of the 1955 State Champion Little League team from South Carolina. The story is heartbreaking and heartwarming all at once as the authors tell the readers about the realities and injustice that this team of little boys faced. They were the first all black all-star team who were disqualified from playing in the little league world series because they hadn’t played a single game to become state champs because all the other teams forfeited. I dare you not to cry, I was a sobbing mess by the end. The book itself is too complex for really little guys, my son had no interest in the text, though he loved the pictures. All kids old enough though should take a look, and be prepared to answer some tough questions about why people were so mean. Wonderful wonderful, important book!
Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries who Shaped Our History . . . and Our Future! by Kate Schatz
The only thing that this book is missing is a 2nd, 3rd, and 4th volume. I love this book and not just because it has rad in the title. This book is a collection of true groundbreakers, women who were forced to be brave because they chose to follow their dreams in a world that wasn’t ready for them to, to stand up for others and to force change when it would have been easier to just go with the flow. There are 25 amazing American women featured and a shout out to the nameless women who make brave choices every single day. My son really liked this book because like me he loves biographies and history we read a handful of letters each night because the entries are long and it gave us time to talk. I read a few pages to my daughter but they entries were too long and detailed to hold her attention. I would read this to children 6 and up, I think tweens and teens would also really like this stylish and important book.
Susan B. Anthony: Fighter for Freedom and Equalilty (Biographies (Picture Window Books))by Suzanne Slade is a great introduction to Susan B. Anthony and why she is so much more than just a lady on coins. Although we often think of her as a suffragette she was also a champion of human rights and abolitionist. She fought for women’s right to vote with the knowledge that she herself would never get the right. This book explains all that in terms kids can understand and relate to.
Elizabeth Leads the Way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right to Vote by Tanya Lee Stone made me teary eyed. If you aren’t familiar with Elizabeth Cady Staton grab this book because not only will it catch you up on the life of this women’s rights activist, it will also let you feel her sense of justice and determination. I wrote down the quote “…wasn’t interested in easy.” which was in reference to her father saying she should have been born a boy so she would fit in better, but is a great quote for anything and anyone.
I’m crying just reading the summaries! What a wonderful list of books. I can’t wait to track them down and read them to my children. (P.S. thanks for the ‘international ones’ as it can often be it hard to find the US ones in our library/bookshops in Oz)
This is a fabulous list. Many of my favorites are here (most especially How Many Days to America?) but some of these I’ve never seen. I’m so excited to check them out. Thank you for this!
Great list. May I also suggest the book “People” by Peter Spier? The first page of facts and figures is now slightly out of date, but it has AMAZING illustrations that I would have spent hours looking at as a child (still love them), but does a great job of highlighting the sameness of people despite our differences. It also does a great job of describing complex issues like poverty, social strata, etc. in children’s language.
Ann Berlak says
Great list. Consider also the beautifully illustrated timely bi-lingual book for children: Joelitoâ€™s Big Decision/ La gran decisiÃ³n de Joelito about a boy, a burger, a friendship and the fight to raise the minimum wage. It sparks lively discussions about what’s a fair wage,why some people are rich–are they smarter, or do they just work harder? Or…? Great for bilingual, monolingual and ESL teachers.
Joelito was praised and featured by Teaching for Change and Rethinking schools.