I truly believe books inspire kids. It's one of the many reasons I share children's book lists with my fellow parents right here every Monday. Today, I've gathered together a collection of picture books that parents can use as conversation starters with their kids about how both small and large actions can change the world, and inspire their own kids to make a difference, whether it's with one small act of kindness or by leading others in a grand movement.
These are all picture books, but I encourage you to read them with your older kids, who will get a lot out of them. Teach them that kids CAN change the world! Share these picture books with your family and discuss what actions you can take this year to create a positive change in the world you live in. (Note: covers and titles are affiliate links.)
MORE: See the index of all my book lists for kids. I have more than 100 of them (!), for all ages and interests.
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.
Malala, a Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal, a Brave Boy from Pakistan: Two Stories of Bravery is actually two books in one. Both extraordinary protagonists figure in the fight for the rights of children. Malala, who survived an assassination attempt, was the recipient of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize. Iqbal fought for child-labor rights in Pakistan but was tragically shot and killed at the age of 12. The stories are well written with simple, yet effective text (Winter has a number of good non-fiction biographies for children) but parents may decide the seriousness of the subject matter means this book is best for older kids.
Grandfather Gandhi is an absolutely gorgeous book! The story is narrated by then-12 year old Gandhi's grandson, Arun. Arun goes to live with his grandfather, which was considered a great honor. One day his grandfather gets angry, a surprise to Arun. Gandhi explains to his grandson that anger is a normal human emotion, that people must work to conquer and transform so that it can be used for a good purpose. This is a marvelous, must-read book that will encourage your kids to think about the role emotions play in the choices we make.
The Other Side. The more I read this book, the more I love it. A fence, both metaphorical and physical, defines the boundary between Annie’s white family and Clover’s African-American one. Clover’s mom has told her not to cross the fence because it is unsafe. Instead, Clover sits on the fence, watching the other girl play. Annie eventually approaches Clover and the two sides begin talking, a friendship is formed and the fence, finally crossed. There is no didacticism in Woodson’s writing as might make one cringe in a book like this. The final image of a line of girls sitting on the fence points to the possibilities of the future.
The Story Of Ruby Bridges. I really like this book because it’s the true story of a child told in a way that children of the same age can really understand. This book celebrates six year old Ruby, who in 1960, faced angry crowds and empty classrooms as she became the first child to attend an all-white school after a court-ordered desegregation in New Orleans. Author Coles does a great job of making an historical event personal and showing how a child can overcome a difficult situation.
Grace for President. When Grace finds out there has never been a female president, she is determined to change that. While the boy she is up against makes popular promises and counts electoral votes, Grace works hard and steadily to earn her votes and show with her actions that she’s the right girl for the job. The explanation of how electoral votes are cast is skillfully woven into the narrative, making this a great choice for discussions around election time.
Harlem's Little Blackbird is the story of singer Florence Mills, who used her fame to fight for civil rights in the 1920s. She was well-known for her compassion for the less-fortunate and for helping to advance the careers other African-American performers who faced profound racism. If you’re looking for a book with a good role-model, this is the one.
Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis. New girl, Maya, finds herself alone at school. Her obvious poverty sets her apart and the other children reject her overtures of friendship. Another girl, Chloe, narrates the action and the way the other children reject Maya, including her own admission, “She’s not my friend.” One day, their teacher drops a stone into a bowl of water to demonstrate how powerful the ripples from a single act of kindness can be. “Even small things count,” she says. Chloe decides that the next day she will be kind to Maya, but Maya never returns to school and Chloe doesn’t get her chance. This book could so easily sink into the depressing and didactic, but Woodson’s beautiful text elevates the story into a moving reminder to show kindness every chance we get.
Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet. 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’s books and illustrations just keep getting better and better and she tells a valuable story of the history of women workers and the importance of fair labor practices, which still resonates today.
The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq. When war threatens to destroy Alia’s precious library collection, which includes rare editions, she bravely works to move 30,000 volumes to safety. This is a powerful story about courage and determination.
Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya. Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. She was recognized for her work restoring trees to Kenya. The wonderful thing about Maathai’s story is that it involves the cooperation of an extended community of women and will make kids aware of the power of individuals to bring positive, long-lasting global change. As always, Kadir Nelson’s illustrations are stunning.
The Three Questions [Based on a story by Leo Tolstoy] by Jon J. Muth. I like to recommend this book as much as possible and it is a good stepping stone for a discussion with your kids about what constitutes inner happiness. They will ask, What is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do? and reflect on the importance of doing good deeds and paying attention to the immediate moment.
The Most Magnificent Thing may seem like an odd choice for this list, but as we know, science and technology changes the world and having a can-do attitude like the protagonist is a must for any person wanting to make an impact. With the help of her assistant dog, a “regular girl” decides she is going to invent a most MAGNIFICENT thing. She has a lot of false starts. Nothing seems to be turning out the way she wants and it’s so frustrating for her! However, she takes a walk, comes back and looks at her inventions afresh, and finally figures things out. I adore the “lesson” in the book, that success comes only after “failure” (something we learned recently in science camp). You know: trial and error. The book is not at all preachy and Spires’s illustrations are a delight.
Tomás and the Library Lady is based on the true story of Tomás Rivera, who went on to become the first minority chancellor at the University of California. As the son of migrant workers, Tomás listens every night to stories his grandmother tells him. Then one day, a librarian opens up a whole new world for him. This is an inspiring story of the power of education and reading which will ring true for all children, no matter what their backgrounds.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, one of my favorite science books. is an inspiring story of a how a William Kamkwamba, a 14 year old boy brought electricity to his village in Malawi. William had to drop out of school because he had no money for the fees, but a picture of a windmill on a book. It lit a spark in him and worked hard to research and build a windmill for his impoverished and drought-stricken village. A truly amazing story about the power of perseverance.
The Pink Refrigerator is also on my lists of books about trying new things. Sometimes just getting out is enough to make a big difference in one's life. The badger (? mole? – I’m not really sure what kind of creature he is!) finds a mysterious pink refrigerator in a junk yard. Each day the note on the fridge sports a new suggestion, like “read more”, “make pictures”, or “play music”. Inside the fridge he finds the materials he needs: books, art supplies, a trumpet, etc. The final note, “keep exploring” prompts Dodsworth to leave his own note, “Went to find an ocean.” This is a great story about the willingness to be open to trying new things.
Hug Machine is the wild card on this list but it was one of our favorite books of 2014. It's about a boy who simply can not stop hugging. Are we all agreed in the power of a hug to change the world? This book is sure to bring a smile to your face.
MORE LISTS TO INSPIRE:
- Biographies of Amazing African-American Women
- Civil Rights Picture Books
- Books About Peace to Inspire Children
- Books about Trying New Things
- Books for Little Inventors
- Books that Challenge Gender Stereotypes