Picture books are a great way to start conversations about how citizens can take action to make social changes. This list of picture books about protest will be timely no matter when you read them. Many of these books put protests and civil disobedience in historical context and are a great reminder of the way defiant actions have shaped who we are today.
It is my hope that these children’s books about protest will help you talk to your kids about current events, and draw parallels between the present and the past. Teaching your kids to look at all sides of an issue will help them learn compassion for others. They will understand that being a responsible citizen may sometimes require them to protest injustice. As always, I’d love to hear your own recommendations. (Note: covers and titles are affiliate links.)
The Boston Tea Party by Russell Freedman. Let’s not forget that the United States was founded in the spirit of protests and civil disobedience. Freedman’s text and Malone’s illustrations will teach kids about this important historical moment. I like how Freedman’s choice of words and his attention to detail give an urgency to the events and the reader is reminded again and again that the Boston Tea Party was a result of anger over a perceived injustice. I have never been particularly interested in early American History I’m afraid, except when I read books like this!
Swimmy by Leo Leonni is a classic picture book you have probably read already. (If not, you need to get on that.) You might not expect to see it on a list of books about protest but it fits right in. The tale is about how little fish join forces to fight off the big bully fish. However, story also demonstrates that one can still be an individual, even while banding together with others in pursuit of a common goal.
We March is one of my favorite books about protest. The spare text and brilliant illustrations make this a wonderful book for children as young as 3 years old. The light, first person narrative tells the story of a family getting ready to march in the historic event. Illustrations depict crowds of people from all walks of life and celebrate the excitement the event generated and the power of peaceful protest.
Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909. Clara comes to NYC dirt poor but full of grit. She works a miserable, backbreaking job at a garment factory. An extraordinary individual, she taught herself to read and led the largest walkout of women workers in U.S. History, despite being beaten and jailed for participating in labor strikes. Melissa Sweet tells a valuable story of the history of women workers and the importance of fair labor practices. It is a story which still resonates today.
A is for Activist. A board book that’s not just for babies! With a fun sense of humor, this alphabet book introduces kids to the idea that life may not be all about acquiring the latest Thomas Train. I was worried this book would be annoyingly didactic, but the rhymes and wit make this introduction to social justice a worthwhile read. The book teaches generosity, compassion, consideration for others. Use the book as a starting point for further discussions about the topics. Counting on Community is the companion book which turns a simple counting book into an inspiring call to action.
Harvesting Hope: The Story of César Chávez by Kathleel Krull. I’m quite a fan of illustrator Yuyi Morales, which is why I chose this particular picture book about civil rights leader Chávez. The biography begins with Chávez as a young boy, who was “not a fighter,” and follows him as his family leaves Mexico during the drought. When they arrive in California the family experiences the hardship, racism and brutal treatment rained down on migrant workers. Chávez was roused to take action and organized a 340 mile peaceful protest march on behalf of farmworkers.
Smoky Night by Eve Bunting was inspired by the Los Angeles protests and riots in the wake of the Rodney King trials. It is a sensitive story about the effects of urban violence, but the real emphasis in on the importance of looking past race and seeing the value of one’s neighbors as individuals. Diaz’s illustrations are gorgeous and evocative.
Dolores Huerta: A Hero to Migrant Workers by Sarah Warren. While many are familiar with Chávez, Huerta is another civil rights leaders who will inspire kids. Warren portrays Huerta in her many roles from a teacher to parent to protester and more. Her strength and determination to help the farmworkers led her to help organize a strike so they could achieve better working conditions and fair treatment under the law. The book includes great supplemental information in the afterward.
Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type. If you want to raise kids who won’t let their future employers walk all over them, read them this modern classic about a group of determined barnyard animals who persevere to get what they want, despite a grumpy farmer.
¡Sí, Se Puede! / Yes, We Can! by Diana Cohn is inspired by a real life janitor strike in 2000. The story centers on Carlitos, whose mother is a night janitor who cleans a skyscraper in Los Angeles. I like the family touches, like when mama tucks Carlitos into bed every night before she goes to work. It personalizes the story so kids will be able to relate to the characters, even if they may never find themselves in a similar economic situation. Mama helps to organize the janitor strike, and a passionate Carlitos who “loves his mama” gets involved. A bilingual book.
Elizabeth Started All the Trouble by Doreen Rappaport. There were several new picture books about suffragettes this year. I chose this one because it gives a lot of historical context. The book starts with a sort of prologue starring Abigail Adams who issues a warning to her husband that if women were not included in the new laws for the United States they would start their own revolution. The story then skips ahead to 1840 when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott start that very revolution. I appreciated that the author included the voice of Sojourner Truth in the middle of the book because it is important to remember that Cady Stanton and the other suffragettes were fighting for the white woman’s right to vote. This book, though, is not just about the fight for voting rights, it covers many milestones in the women’s fight for equal treatment. The book ends with the protest marches and sometimes vicious treatment of the suffragists, and finally culminates in the Nineteenth Amendment.
Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Familys Fight for Desegregation tells the story of school desegregation 10 years before Brown v. the Board of Education. In 1944, Sylvia’s family moved to a new community. When she tried to attend school, she was told that she would have to go to “the Mexican school”. Sylvia and her family fight back and eventually win a very important court battle, setting the stage for future desegregation cases. This is a great book to teach our kids that segregation extended beyond the Jim Crow laws of the South.
A Sweet Smell of Roses. A young girl, with her red-ribboned teddy bear describes her experience as she and her sister slip out of their house to join a freedom march. The focus is very much on the sensory experience. They stand, “waist high” in the “bright light”, “clapping in time with [their] feet.” There’s no mention about which march it is, just one of the many freedom marches that took place under Dr. King’s leadership. This is another lovely book that emphases how children were an integral part in the fight for freedom and readers can pick out the plucky protagonist in the illustrations by her bear’s ribbon, which matches the stripes in the flag.
Aani and the Tree Huggers by Jeannine Atkins was inspired to write this book by events that took place in 1970, in India. Villagers protested the cutting down of their venerated trees by holding on to them. In this story, Aani, a young girl, leads the fight to protect the trees from tree-cutters who have official orders to cut them down. The trees are a source of food, shelter and comfort for the villagers. This is an interesting book to talk to kids about the many forms of protest. It’s not always a march or a strike. It could be—literally—tree-hugging.
Which Side are You On? The Story of a Song. Well, I’m embarrassed to say I’d never heard of this book’s titular song. Florence Reese wrote the 1931 song and it has become a ballad sung worldwide in support of workers’ rights. Florence’s husband was a coal miner and the story of the coal miners’ strike is told through the eyes of Florence’s daughter. I recommend this book for ages 8 and up because of the depiction of the gun fire that was rained down on the miners. Nevertheless, it is an important story that deserves to be remembered.
Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins. In 1960 four black college students sat down at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, labelled “WHITES ONLY.” The story is told from young Connie’s perspective. She sips her soda while standing but her siblings become active in the lunch counter boycott and she helps them make signs. I like that the author still included Connie’s youthful desire to just have a banana split, which she finally gets to do—while sitting.
Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down. Here’s another story about the 1960 Greensboro lunch counter sit in. I liked this one because of the food metaphors. “At first they were treated like the hole in the doughnut—invisible.” “The kids had a recipe, too. A new brew called integration.” I love Pinkney’s splendidly expressive illustrations, with their swirly lines and colors.
Boycott Blues: How Rosa Parks Inspired a Nation. When reading these books I was amazed at how much I had forgotten since high school civics class. I am quite embarrassed for myself. Pinkney’s book tells the story of how the African-American community walked for 382 days rather than ride the segregated busses in Montgomery, Alabama. The rhythmic text and vibrant illustrations, which themselves appear to move beautifully capture the spirit of the amazing individuals who brought change to their community and the nation.
More book lists you will enjoy:
- Social justice picture books
- Picture books about peace
- Civil rights picture books
- Books to help kids talk about racism
- Books to inspire kids to change the world
- Books about children with special needs