Social justice, whether it be environmental, political, gender oriented, or economic is a crucial subject and we must discuss it with our children if we want them to grow up to be compassionate global citizens. Because stories help build empathy for others, books are a great way to start those conversations and teach kids to think critically about issues.
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We Are All Born Free: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Pictures by Amnesty International.
On December 10, 1948, the United Nations proclaimed The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A collaborative team of illustrators including John Burningham, Bob Graham and Peter Sís, Alan Lee, and many others created illustrations to accompany the text, which sets forth the articles in the declaration in simple, clear words that are meaningful for children.
Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 Jonah Winter, illustrated by Shane W. Evans. The elderly Lillian climbs a hill to vote for the first time. As she climbs she recalls the history of her family and African-Americans in her country and all it took to get to this point.
One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia by Miranda Paul, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon. This story is based on the true story of women and will help you discuss how environmental and social justice are intrinsically linked. When Isatou noticed that plastic bags do not degrade like traditional baskets when discarded, she came up with a plan to return beauty to her home and help the economic situation of her neighbors. Together, the women crocheted plastic strips into small purses to sell at the market. This book is a good lesson on how communities can take action on their own, as well as pursuing more widespread measures through legislation.
A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara. 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 a companion book which turns a simple counting book into an inspiring call to action.
Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story by Ken Mochizuki, illustrated by Dom Lee. This is an amazing, true story. The narrator is a boy whose father is the Japanese ambassador in Lithuania during World War II. One day, hundreds of Jewish refugees start showing up at the embassy asking for visas to Japan so they can escape the Nazis. They hope to get to Japan so they could move on to another country safely. Three times, the boy's father asks permission from Japan to issue the visas, and 3 times the answer is, "No." However, the father still decides to do the right thing. I particularly like how the boy's father includes him in the events, saying, "My father always took the time to explain everything to me." The afterword by the author, describing what happened in later years, is fascinating.
Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya by Donna Jo Napoli, illustrated by Kadir Nelson. Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, 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.
Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Bryan Collier. This is a good beginner's guide to MLK. It's informative but not overly long as some picture book biographies can be. It gives a solid introduction to MLK's life and work and is beautifully illustrated. This would be a great choice for a kindergarten or first grade classroom.
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. This is a valuable story of the history of women workers and the importance of fair labor practices, which still resonates today.
Let's Talk about Race by Julius Lester The title says it all. This book focuses on helping kids tell their own story and including their race as an integral, but only one part of their personal history. His narrative then asks kids to think about how people are the same, as well as how they are different. This is a great, and useful book for getting kids to talk directly about how being of a certain race influences their personal story.
Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family's Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh 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.
Ruby's Wish by Shirin Yim, illustrated by Sophie Blackall. In old China, Ruby lives with her enormous family. Boys are considered lucky and girls are expected to embroider and get married. Ruby is dissatisfied with her family's emphasis on traditional gender roles. Ruby doesn't want to get married, she wants to go to university like her brothers. Ruby tells her grandfather her wish, but doesn't expect things to change for her. Just before she thinks she will have to get married, however, she finds her wish has been granted. This is a good book to start a conversation, not only about how society's expectations for girls has changed (or not changed) over time, but also about the importance of speaking up for what you want.
MORE: Anti-Bias Picture Books
When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson by Pam Muñoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick. Like her jazz counterpart, Josephine Baker, contralto Marian Anderson found true acceptance first in Europe because Americans were unwilling to accept a black woman on the stage. When the DAR refused to allow her to perform at Constitution Hall, Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for her to sing at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. (Watch a video of that performance here.) Like all the other women on this list, Anderson had to overcome strong barriers to achieve her success. Ryan skillfully recounts Anderson's life as a singer and civil rights activist and captures the emotional ups and downs of Anderson's journey. Selznick's illustrations shine. An extensive author's note is included.
All the Way to the Top by Annette Bay Pimentel, illustrated by Nabi H. Ali. In this picture book biography, 8-year-old Jennifer Keelan, born with cerebral palsy, fights to secure passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act. All her life, Keelan has persevered to join in activities, even when others told her she couldn't do it. When politicians ignore Keelan and her fellow activists, she climbs the steps of the Capitol, even though it means crawling the entire way. Although the ADA is a big step forward for inclusion for people with disabilities, the text acknowledges that more work is needed.
My Name is Bilal by Asma Mobin-Uddin, illustrated by Barbara Kiwak. After someone pulls off his sister's headscarf, Bilal worries that maybe he should hide the fact that he his Muslim from his classmates. His compassionate teacher gives him a book about a brave Muslim named Bilal and Bilal decides to stand up for his sister, earning the respect of his peers.
Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson. Nelson is an amazing illustrator and he brings to life the journey of Mandela when, at the age of nine, his mother sent him off to school. After witnessing the struggles of poor Africans and the unjust and cruel apartheid system in South Africa, he dedicated his life to work towards ending apartheid. Nelson Mandela is one of the most important social justice leaders of the last 100 years and every child should be familiar with his work. This is a gorgeous book to start with.
The People Shall Continue by Simon J. Ortiz, illustrated by Sharol Graves. Beginning with Creation and following through to the usurpation of their lands, Ortiz has crafted a powerful and accessible history of Native Americans. It is also a story of survival and the importance of community. A must read for everyone.
Four Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams, illustrated by Khadra Mohammed. No discussion of global social justice would be complete without a discussion of refugees in crisis. Two girls in a Pakistan refugee camp each find one shoe. Lina and Feroza meet and decide to share the sandals. A friendship develops and they share details about why they have come to the camp. The text contains descriptions about life in the camp, such as waiting in long lines for water, washing clothes in the river and waiting at home while boys go to school. This is an important book that humanizes the experiences of children in refugee camps.
Emmanuel's Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah. Emmanuel was born in Ghana with only one leg. Most children with disabilities didn’t go to school, but Emanuel was determined and hopped two miles each way to attend school. After his mother died, he decided to honor her last words by proving “that being disabled does not mean being unable.” He completed the astounding feat of bicycling 400 miles in 10 days. An author’s note describes his continuing work and successes on behalf of disabled persons in Ghana.
Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Steven Salerno. This is an excellent picture book biography about Milk, an activist who wanted to make the world a more equal and welcoming place for all people. The narrative focuses on Milk's relentless dream and message of hope, as well as the story of the rainbow flag as an enduring symbol that love is love.
Nasreen's Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan by Jeanette Winter. This is a powerful story of how the Taliban forbid girls to go to school, yet Nasreen's grandmother took great risks to sent Nasreen to a secret school. It is narrated by the grandmother, which is an unusual choice by Winter, but an effective one in allowing kids to have a bit of distance from the emotional roller coaster of the story. There is violence, so preview the book to ensure it is appropriate for your child.