In the past week, in response to the white supremacists and their actions in Charlottesville, I’ve written about books to address contemporary racism and books about valuing all of us. As one who has spent the past decade working in early childhood education (mostly with 1st graders and kindergartners) I believe books are a wonderful way to help young children grapple with challenging and complex ideas.
I turned my tv on yesterday, prepared to go straight to Tivo in order to have some background noise as I cleaned and organized. Unfortunately, I turned it on in the midst of the president’s press conference and sat, jaw-dropped in horror. I was floored to hear the elected leader of our nation speak in a way that was so supportive and encouraging to white supremacists and so demeaning to the rest of us. I had planned to write about books one could use to help children see how change can be brought about, books about people who stood up for minorities of many sorts, women, the LGBTQ community, etc. Instead, in light of the president’s words yesterday I’m focusing on racial minorities. Hopefully I’ll get back to other books as well, as I think they matter greatly. But right now, the greatest threat in our nation seems to be to those with darker skin.
Choosing only a few books was quite a challenge. I’ve looked for ones that are truly appropriate for young children (leaving out many of my favorites). I have included fiction and nonfiction texts, although mainly focused on true stories of people who pushed for change. It was important to me to include books about women of color on this list as they are far too often ignored.
I’m starting with The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles and illustrated by George Ford because it is about a female and a young person. I want children to know that they have power and that’s easier to see when the book is about someone like them, rather than an adult. I also believe this book is especially apt right now as some of the images in it, of the white adults screaming at Ruby Bridges as she heads to school, look eerily similar to images we saw this weekend in Charlottesville. The looks on too many white faces haven’t changed too much in nearly 60 years.
Another young female who has stood up and spoken up is Malala Yousafzai. There are two good books for young children about her. One is Malala Yousafzai: Warrior with Words by Karen Leggett Abouraya and illustrated by L. C. Wheatley. The other book is Malala, a Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal a Brave Boy from Pakistan: Two Stories of Bravery by Jeanette Winter. Malala’s story is far more about gender than it is about race, but as she is a woman of color I am including her here (even though it may be a stretch).
This list would be incomplete without a book about Martin Luther King, Jr, and there are many wonderful ones from which to choose. I’ve opted for Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Doreen Rappaport and illustrated by Bryan Collier in part because of the phenomenal illustrations. It’s also unusual to have a person’s words included in this way in a book for young children. It’s powerful to share King’s words with them in addition to telling his story.
I also must include a book about Rosa Parks so here’s Rosa by Nikki Giovanni and illustrated by Bryan Collier. Again, Collier’s illustrations are one of the reasons I think this book is worth sharing. But I am also a huge fan of Giovanni’s and she does a wonderful job of telling Parks’s story in a way that is meaningful to young children.
When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson by Pam Munoz Ryan and illustrated by Brian Selznick is a bit more challenging than others on this list. Again, it has such amazing illustrations that I think it is a bit more accessible to young children than the text might suggest. The story follows Anderson’s life from her childhood on, which I like. Seeing people as children is helpful for children, I believe. The book also continues to show her success in Europe while she was held back by racism here.
At this moment I feel more strongly than ever about showing young children Barack Obama and the fact that a man of color was also president. Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope by Nikki Grimes and illustrated by Bryan Collier (I clearly have some favorite illustrators) is my favorite for young kids. It follows Obama’s life from childhood and gives children a chance to see themselves in our president.
Another book about children is Let Them Play by Margot Theis Raven and illustrated by Chris Ellison. This is a new one to me. It’s about an all-Black Little League team in South Carolina in 1955. They end up state champions by default because none of the other teams will play against them. Seeing segregation is such a personal way happening to children is something children can understand.
Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx by Jonah Winter and illustrated by Edel Rodriguez has a cover that could win me over. The story of Sotomayor’s childhood will feel familiar to many children of color and watching her strive and succeed, overcoming challenge after challenge is powerful.
Finally, for nonfiction books, Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh is a personal favorite. I love Tonatiuh’s work and I’m grateful for a book that highlights the segregation against Latinos in this country. Stories of school segregation always include children and are relevant to them.
The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by E. B. Lewis is a story of two young girls, one Black and one white, who have been told not to go past the fence. They sit together on the fence, not truly breaking the rule, but not remaining segregated either. Seeing two children overcome the biases of their community is beautiful.
Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by Jonah Winter and illustrated by Shane W. Evans is another that is new to me. An older, Black woman on her way to vote sees her families history as she goes, including the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment and herself marching from Selma to Montgomery. As it seems the Voting Rights Act is in serious danger right now, this book felt important to include.
Finally, Carole Boston Weatherford has written so many books I love, I’m glad to include Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins, illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue. The story is told from the perspective of an 8-year-old, which you probably know by now brings me joy. A child’s perspective is powerful. She is mostly an observer of the events in her area, but she does help make posters.
I believe children need to see that people before them have stood up, spoken up, and fought for a better world for themselves and others. I want children to see that in themselves as well.