It isn’t always easy to explain world events to our children. Sometimes, books serve as a way to begin the conversation. Here is a list of books to help get you started. But, you know your child best. Some children prefer to read historical fiction while others want just the facts (a pure non-fiction book). Also, be sure to ask for references from your local children’s librarian, bookseller, and your child’s teacher.
Great Books about Social Justice – Perfect for Kids
Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh
While many have heard of the historic Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case, not everyone knows the story of Sylvia Mendez, an American citizen, and her family. She and her siblings were not allowed to attend their neighborhood school and instead attended a Mexican school. The Mendez Family helped bring an end to California’s segregated schooling in 1947, seven years before Brown v. Board of Education.
I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
She is known as the “girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban.” She’s a Noble Peace Prize Winner and an inspiration to all (regardless of our age). For kids, she’s a face to put with an idea — that everyone deserves the right to an education and yet not everyone receives one. (There’s also a “Young Readers Edition” available).
Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan
This relatively new book (published in September 2016) uses primary source documents including original slave auction and plantation estate documents. This moving book examines what it means to put a monetary value on a person, as slave owners did.
Related: An Open Letter to Our Community at a time of Reckoning
We Are All Born Free by Amnesty International
Amnesty International has put together a book that explains the fundamental ideas behind The Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was established in 1948. Each declaration has been illustrated by an internationally-renowned artist or illustrator. It is a way for children to see that the rights we are concerned about are rights that affect every human being on our planet.
March (Three Book Set) by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell
John Lewis, the famous Civil Rights icon and Congressman who just recently passed away, is one of the authors of this bestselling book set. This three book set, written as a graphic novel, tells the story of Mr. Lewis’s life and experiences in the Civil Rights Movement.
Uprooted — The Japanese American Experience During WW II by Albert Marrin
Uprooted is probably most appropriate for older children (middle school and above). It tells the story of a sad time in our country’s history, when American citizens of Japanese ancestry were rounded up and placed in internment camps. It takes a look at racism then and opens up the conversation about racism today.
Related: 15 Books About Los Angeles for Kids
Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney
This popular picture book tells the story of four college students who engaged in a peaceful protest, ordering at a Woolworth’s lunch counter. This peaceful protest was a crucial moment in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
This Land Is Our Land: A History of American Immigration by Linda Barrett Osborne
With all the talk about immigration in our news, this book reminds its readers that immigration isn’t new. In fact, our country exists because of immigration. This book specifically looks at immigration, in terms of our government’s policies and popular opinions, from 1800 to 1965. Most appropriate for older children (middle school and above).
Child of the Civil Rights Movement by Paula Young Shelton
Paula Young Shelton was a young girl during the Civil Rights Movement. Her family was actively involved and worked with “Uncle Martin,” known to others as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This picture book is a way to help younger children understand injustices, and it makes it personal. Young Paula puts a face to it — as when her family is refused service in a restaurant simply because of the color of their skin.
A Place at the Table: Struggles for Equality in America edited by Maria Fleming
This book is a collection of essays that brings to light the challenges and struggles that have faced many in our country. Many of the individuals profiled here are lesser-known, but their stories are just as important. The book is most appropriate for older children (middle school and older).
Let’s Talk About Race by Julius Lester
This book invites discussion, asking children questions as they read. The author makes connections to children about what we all have in common underneath our skin, which sometimes separates us.
Our Rights: How Kids Are Changing the World by Janet Wilson
This book allows readers to see how children are making positive changes all around the world. Profiles of children living in different countries (including the United States, India, Yemen, and more) are featured. It’s a powerful tale that shows us how each person truly can make a positive difference.
Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness by Anastasia Higginbotham
It’s not easy to start a conversation about racism and white privilege. This book serves as the conversation-starter for these much-needed, honest talks with our kids. It helps make a difficult topic accessible – for parents and children.
A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara
This board book is one way to make the ideas of social justice an every-day part of life. The rhyming book includes bold illustrations and alliteration, with each letter of the alphabet helping to explain the ideas behind a fair and just world.
I Have the Right to Be a Child by Alain Serres
The book’s text is based on the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1989. All children, regardless of race, religion, and home country are entitled to basic rights — the right to food, clean water, shelter, and education. And it’s a way to begin the conversation about the sad fact that many children today are not having their rights and needs met.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
It may have been a while since you’ve read this timeless classic, but now may be a good time to re-read it with your older children. Although set in a small town in Alabama during the Depression, the ideas of fairness, accusations, race, class, and justice are all just as relevant today.
The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander
The Undefeated has received many honors including the 2020 Caldecott Medal, the 2020 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, and is a 2020 Newbery Honor Book. This poem serves as a “love letter to Black life in the United States.”
This is the Dream by Diane Z. Shore and Jessica Alexander
This rhyming book does a good job of explaining to children the injustices that African-Americans experienced (and in many cases, still experience). For example, the school room for African-American children is contrasted with that of white children. Illustrations include paintings as well as collages featuring historical photos. The rhyming text is effective in explaining the laws that governed our country then and how they compare with today’s laws.
We Came to America by Faith Ringgold
This children’s book is a powerful reminder that, unless we are Native Americans, we all are immigrants. Our families have come to this country for many reasons — some looking for a better life, some brought here hundreds of years ago against their will. But, all of us contribute to our country and make it what it is today.
Sylvia and Aki by Winifred Conkling
This novel is the story of two young girls in California during World War II. It is based on historical facts including Japanese internment as well as segregation in schools. Ultimately it leads to the desegregation case Mendez v. Westminster School District. The book alternates between telling Aki’s story and Sylvia’s story and their families (one Japanese-American and one Mexican-American).
This Is Me: A Story of Who We Are and Where We Came From by Jamie Lee Curtis
Author Jamie Lee Curtis and illustrator Laura Cornell teamed up again with a picture book that looks at immigration. What would you take if you had to leave your home and only had one suitcase to pack? What things make you you? It’s an interesting question that opens up conversation and dialogue with our children about the immigrant experience.
Four Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams
Karen Lynn Williams brings her readers to a refugee camp in Pakistan – two young girls, each only wearing one sandal because that’s all that’s available. Through the story of these two young girls, the book allows readers to learn about sacrifice, uncertainty, and life in a refugee camp through the friendship of these two girls.
The Journey by Francesca Sanna
This picture book is based on conversations and interviews with those that have had to flee their homes. Here, the idea of “refugees” becomes real and much more personal — a family who has had to leave behind everything and travels by car, boat, and foot. The narrator states, “the farther we go … the more we leave behind.”
Outcasts United: The Story of a Refugee Soccer Team That Saved a Town by Warren St. John
This is the true story of a soccer team in a small town in Georgia. Their coach is a Jordanian woman. Their team is comprised of refugees from Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. They have left behind their homes, are trying to navigate life in a new country with new customs, and it is this soccer team that will bridge the divide. The book looks at the ideas of cultural differences, the need to get involved, building a global community, and the power of hope and determination.
Something Happened In Our Town by Marianne Celano PhD, Marietta Collins PhD, and Ann Hazzard PhD
This New York Times Best-Seller may be the book your family needs to help you start having difficult, but necessary, conversations. The book follows two families – one White and one Black – as they discuss a police shooting of a Black man. A note to parents is also included providing guidelines for discussing race with children as well as child-friendly definitions.
Wendy Kennar is a mother, writer, and former teacher who has lived her entire life in the same Los Angeles zip code. You can read more from Wendy at her website WendyKennar.com where she writes about books, boys, and bodies (living with an invisible disability).