I’ve always strived to make my book lists useful for parents, especially when they want to talk to their kids about important topics. 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.
I’ve gathered a list of social justice books for kids that address a variety of global issues, but of course the troubles around the world are endless. At the bottom of the post are links to more picture book lists that will help you in your endeavor to talk to your kids about important problems facing the world. (Note: covers and titles are affiliate links.)
We Are All Born Free: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Pictures. On December 10, 1948, the United Nations proclaimed The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A collaborative team of illustrators like 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.
Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan. Many Western children take school for granted, and often (like mine) complain about having to go every day, their homework and sigh about how they would rather play all day. Instead of lecturing them about the importance of education, I prefer to read them books that encourage them to understand what a privilege school is and how we should fight for everyone’s right to safely go to school. 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.
Granddaddy’s Turn. As our country is turning back the clock on voter’s rights, it is more crucial than ever that we encourage our children to remember how those rights were hard won. I really enjoyed the recent book, Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and this one is another to add to your reading list. Michael’s granddaddy heads out to vote for the first time, but when he gets to the polls and he admits he can’t read, he does not get to vote after all. Years later, when Michael goes to vote, he brings along his granddaddy’s photo. I like the way the book emphasized the generational progress, which is a great hook for talking about this subject with your kids.
One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia is based on the true story of women who 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 comes up with a plan to return beauty to her home and help the economic situation of her neighbors. Together, the women crochet 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. 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. 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 decides to do the right thing. This book is so different from many on the list because it is told from the perspective of those who were faced with a choice to help the refugees. I particularly like how the boy’s father includes him in the events, at one point saying, “My father always took the time to explain everything to me.” The afterward by the author, describing what happened in later years, is just as fascinating as the story.
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. In addition, I enjoyed Jeannette Winter’s version of Wangari’s story in the picture book, Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa. You can find several other books about Wangari at your library, too.
Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 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. I’m not a teacher, but I imagine 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. 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.
Let’s Talk About Race. 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. Lester begins by describing his own story and including, “Oh, and … I’m black.” 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 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.
Ruby’s Wish. 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 great 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.
When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson is written and illustrated by a stellar team: Pam Muñoz Ryan and 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.
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.
My Name Is Bilal. The current political climate demonstrates that children who are different from the mainstream have every reason to worry about being bullied for being Muslim. We must teach our kids that it is not okay to single out a specific ethnic or religious minority for ridicule! 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. Kadir 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.
Four Feet, Two Sandals. 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.
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.
UPDATE: I received a comment below asking for books about justice for people with disabilities. This is a great theme. I am adding Emmanuel’s Dream; if you know of any good picture books, please let me know.
Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah. I read this book a few nights ago to my son and it is the book that inspired me to make this list. 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. To say the least, Emmanuel’s is an inspiring story, and Thompson and Qualls do great justice to his accomplishments. An author’s note describes his continuing work and successes on behalf of disabled persons in Ghana.
This social justice book list is by no means complete! Add your favorite titles to the comments below, but also check out the following lists which include many books about global social justice that I could easily have added here:
- Picture books about civil rights
- Picture books to inspired kids to change the world
- Picture books about amazing African American Women
- Picture books about women in history
- Picture books to help you talk to your kids about racism
- Picture books about refugees
- Picture books that nurture empathy
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