Activism and social justice have been in the news since the beginning of the 2016 presidential election. During the first few months of 2017, it has taken the form of marches, protests, and letters and phone calls to Congress. These events provide real-life models that teachers can use to talk about activism and social justice with young students who are very invested in what is fair and not fair. One way to facilitate this discussion is to link what is happening in the U.S. to characters in books who are activists.
In the list below, I have posted several links to books for young children on this topic. I start with four of my personal favorites and move to some lists that I like of books about social justice. I am looking forward to the books that might be written because of the activism that has taken place in 2016–2017.
- As Good As Anybody by R. Michaelson is about Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Joshua Heschel. At a time when the United States was plagued with civil unrest, King aimed to put a stop to it. Heschel grew up in a Europe that did not welcome Jews. This is the story of two idols who work for social justice and how they turned their personal experiences of discrimination into a message of equality for all. (Grades 2–5)
- Sweet Smell of Roses by Angela Johnson and Eric Velequez is a wonderful story of youth involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. The story focuses on two young girls who sneak out of their home to join a march for freedom with Dr. Martin Luther King. (Grades K–3)
- Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by L. Thompson. Born in Ghana, West Africa, with one deformed leg, Emmanuel was dismissed by most people—but not by his mother, who taught him to reach for his dreams. As a boy in 2001, Emmanuel bicycled 400 miles across Ghana, spreading his powerful message: disability is not inability. Today, Emmanuel continues to work on behalf of the disabled. (Grades K–3)
- Elizabeth Started All the Trouble by D. Rappaport. Elizabeth Cady Stanton called on women across the nation to stand together and demand to be treated as equal to men-and that included the right to vote.
Here are some lists for addition books for young activists and their social justice issues.
- Empowering Middle School Books for Kids: Barnes & Noble has published this list of books for middle school students about social and political activism. This list includes stories that take place in countries around the world. Although the reading level for these books may be too high for Grades 4–6, teachers could read them to their classes.
- Picture Books about Social Justice: Allison McDonald, who writes a blog called No Time for Flashcards, is passionate about social justice issues. According to McDonald, one way to teach young children about social justice is to read with them. Her list of picture books can be used with children in Grades Pre-K–3.
- Children’s Books for Women in Politics and Women Activists: This list is focused on picture books for young children. It includes biographies and books about women who have helped advance the rights of women.
- 35 Picture Books for Young Activists: This list was complied by Carter Higgins, a children’s librarian at an independent school in Los Angeles. This is a comprehensive list with books about civil rights activism. activism in Africa and the Middle East, and other places.
Editor’s Note: For teachers interested in addressing social justice issues in their classrooms, see Social Justice in English Language Teaching, published by TESOL Press. This book will help educators identify the needs of students and the areas of privilege represented in the ELT world, where more advocacy work is needed.