Children as young as three are capable of applying stereotypes and biases; preschoolers can gender-classify activities, as well as use racist language intentionally. These and other examples of how early children internalize outside messaging highlight the importance of discussing prejudice, bias, and race with children starting at a young age.
Social justice children’s books can play a vital role in opening up critical discussions about bias and discrimination. American University’s Master of Arts in Teaching prepares educators to create culturally responsive pedagogy that incorporates carefully selected children’s books, nurtures students’ sense of fairness, and combats racism.
The Value of Social Justice Children’s Books
Books people read as children can have tremendous sticking power. Their lessons about persistence, kindness, resilience, and compassion often resonate for a lifetime. For example, some people might remember how The Little Engine That Could cemented their earliest ideas about not giving up. Others might recollect how Where the Wild Things Are unleashed their imaginations.
Children’s books also serve as invaluable tools for educators seeking to cultivate awareness and stimulate critical thinking. Whether communicating attitudes about gender, race, disability, or religious identities or expressing ideas about diversity, children’s books have the power to shape mindsets. They can both influence how children understand power relationships between different groups of people and make lasting impressions about who deserves a voice.
The images and text in children’s books affect how children perceive themselves and others, teaching them who and what matters. Additionally, books can reinforce positive self-concepts and present messages that affirm values of equality while disrupting narratives that encourage bias and discrimination. They can also expand children’s understanding of and appreciation for others and the world around them.
How to Choose Books With Social Justice Themes
Educators who want to tap into the power of social justice children’s books should keep a few things in mind. First, teachers should consider a range of books that reflect many cultures and consider the histories of people across the US, especially those books written by people of color. Educators should also seek out literature that explores the distinctive traditions and varied experiences of diverse people from the past and present, as well as mindfully choose books with characters that look like their students and the people in their communities.
Seek Out Expertise
Reviews written by experts on the social justice issues a book addresses can lead teachers in the right direction during the selection process. By consulting reviews, teachers can gain useful information about topics such as:
- Whether it uses examples of ordinary people challenging injustice
- If it deals with contemporary issues
- Whether it focuses only on the symptoms of a problem or also considers root causes
Organizations such as See What We See offer critical reviews of children’s books that make recommendations based on these considerations. Getting the perspective of other educators, librarians, scholars, and writers provides valuable insights about important potential omissions, misrepresentations, or myths in children’s books.
Social Justice Themes to Explore
Social justice encompasses many topics. Consider the following categories of social justice children’s books and popular titles in each that are worth checking out.
Equity and Discrimination Issues Related to Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation
Educators can use books addressing equity and discrimination as they relate to race, gender, and sexual orientation to teach social studies, human rights, and civil rights. They can also use these books to address bullying and help cultivate more inclusive environments that embrace diversity.
Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, is a “remix” of Kendi’s National Book Award–winning Stamped From the Beginning, meant for adolescents. This guide to anti-racism helps young readers understand the role of race in the past and present. It offers ideas about how to confront racist policies and ways teenagers can work against racism in their daily lives and within themselves.
One of a Kind, Like Me/Unico Como Yo, written by Laurin Mayeno and illustrated by Robert Liu-Trujillo, teaches children about gender expression. The bilingual picture book, appropriate for kindergarten through the second grade, tells the story of Danny, a little boy who wants to dress up as a princess for his school’s parade. With support from his mother, Danny searches for his costume. The book gives students a chance to learn about accepting unique ways others express themselves and unconditional love. It also challenges traditional ideas of gender roles and shows the importance of a supportive community that values everyone’s individuality.
Books about climate justice offer teachers great opportunities to teach students about environmental science, the natural world, and biology. As students learn about the interconnectedness between living things and the environment, they can also develop a sense of stewardship of the planet.
We Are Water Protectors, written by Carole Lindstrom and illustrated by Michaela Goade, celebrates indigenous-led activism and inspires children to protect the earth’s water. The picture book, meant for preschool through first grade students, encourages them to stand up for climate justice. Based on an Ojibwa prophecy, the book tells the story of a young water protector defending earth against a black snake threatening to poison the water. The author includes a pledge to protect the earth for students to sign.
Books about economic justice serve as an important entry point for educators to teach students about poverty, power relationships in society, and the history of marginalized communities. Learning about economic justice also allows teachers to explore labor movements and collective bargaining.
Joelito’s Big Decision/La Gran Decisión de Joelito, written by Ann Berlak and illustrated by Daniel Camacho, is a bilingual book meant for grades one through five. The story gives teachers the chance to introduce ideas about activism and everyone’s role in working toward economic justice. Joselito finds his friend protesting with his parents for higher wages outside the burger shop where Joselito wants to buy a juicy burger. Joselito has to decide if he’ll support a meaningful cause or satisfy his craving.
Books about voting rights can help teachers explore the role voting has played and continues to play in American democracy. These books can help teachers shed a light on how different groups of people have been kept out of power, exploring their struggles and triumphs. They can also provide an important civics lesson about citizens’ roles in shaping democracy.
The Voting Booth, written by Brandy Colbert, helps teachers explore everyone’s role in changing the world and the importance of voting in a democracy. Meant for grades seven and up, the story follows Duke and Marva as they confront a series of barriers to voting. The two determined first-time voters track across a city, determined to overcome all the obstacles to having their votes counted.
Develop Curricula That Champion Social Justice
Developing curricula that educate students about key social justice topics not only helps cultivate a more equitable world, it also helps develop more thoughtful and critical minds. Social justice children’s books serve as an excellent tool to educators hoping to engage their students in meaningful conversations about the world they live in.
Explore how American University’s Master of Arts in Teaching equips educators with the skills they need to fight for social justice across the curriculum.
Edutopia, “Teaching Young Children About Bias, Diversity, and Social Justice”
HealthyChildren.org, “Talking to Children About Racial Bias”
Latinxs in Kid Lit, “Book Review: One of a Kind Like Me/Único Como Yo Written by Laurin Mayeno, Illustrated by Robert Liu-Trujillo”
Powell’s Books, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You: A Remix of the National Book Award–Winning Stamped From the Beginning
Powell’s Books, We Are Water Protectors
Social Justice Books, Booklists
Social Justice Books, See What We See
Social Justice Books, Selecting and Rating Titles for Social Justice Books
Teach Thought, “25 Social Justice Books to Encourage Students to Change the World”