Picture Books for Social Justice Issues

Every time I teach my English Teaching Methods and Materials (CI 161) course, I devote a class period to picture books with social justice themes. I like that picture books can introduce complex themes in ways that don’t feel threatening to teens. Picture books can be complex–and the illustrations add to both the experience of reading and the meaning of the book.

For the last two semesters, I’ve introduced picture books with a speed dating activity. Each student reads a picture book, summarizes it, and identifies a couple of pages that they want to share. And then, students line up in two rows, sharing their books in 3 minutes, then moving on to learn about a new book. It’s noisy and animated and students easily find other books they’re interested in exploring.

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Every time I do this activity, I tweet about it–and someone always asks for my booklist. Over the years, I’ve made sure to buy relevant picture books when I hear about them. Today, since my class is larger than last semester’s, I googled social justice picture books to find some new titles, looked them up in our university library, and then I spent about an hour reading them to decide which ones to use.

Here are the books I own:

Monica Brown, My Name Is/Me Llamo Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz. A non-fiction book about Celia Cruz

Yangsook Choi, The Name Jar. A recent Korean immigrant to the U.S. struggles to choose an “American” name

Doreen Cronin, Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type. A humorous book about the power of labor unions

Wendy Ewald, The Best Part of Me: Children Talk about their Bodies in Pictures and Words. Exactly what the title says, a beautiful way to help students celebrate their bodies

Xavier Garza, Juan and the Chupacabras. A contemporary version of a legend presented in both Spanish and English

Kevin Henkes, Chrysanthemum. A girl with an unusual name is bullied until her teacher intervenes

Patrice Ludwig, The Invisible Boy. A quiet, shy, overlooked boy makes a friend

Robert Munsch, The Paper Bag Princess. A princess story with a twist.

Lesléa Newman, Heather Has Two Mommies. One of the first picture books about a family with two mothers

Alexis O’Neill, The Recess Queen. A girl interacts with a class bully

Patricia Polacco, Thank You, Mr. Falker. A moving story about a student who doesn’t know how to read (and the teacher who helps her learn)

Doreen Rappaport, Martin’s Big Words. The life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, And Tango Makes Three. True story about two male penguins who parent an orphaned baby penguin

Luis J. Rodriguez, It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way: A Barrio Story. A boy resists joining a gang (told in both Spanish and English)

Shaun Tan, The Arrival. A graphic novel about immigration told without words.

Jane Yolen, Encounter. Story of Columbus coming to the “New World,” told from the perspective of a Taino Indian boy

And the new books I checked out of the library (which I now want to buy):

Dia Cha, Dia’s Story Cloth: The Hmong People’s Journey of Freedom. A picture book that combines a traditional Hmong storytelling genre–embroidered story cloths–with the picture book

Matt de la Peña, Last Stop on Market Street. A boy and his grandmother ride the bus in San Francisco and see the beauty of their community

Kathleen Krull, Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez. Gorgeous illustrated rendition of the story of the founder of the United Farm Workers union (though I want to find a picture book that also includes Dolores Huerta)

Michelle Markel, Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Maker’s Strike of 1909. A young girl who works in a factory inspires others to strike for better work conditions

Asma Mobin-Uddin, My Name Is Bilal. Two Muslim siblings move to a new school

Tim Tingle, Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship and Freedom. A beautifully illustrated book about a Choctaw girl and a boy who is a slave

Duncan Tonatiuh, Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation. Story of a Mexican American family who pushed for the desegregation of schools in Orange County, California

Jeanette Winter, Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan. Girls take risks to go to school

I also wanted to include a book, but it was only in a non-circulating part of the library:

Christine Baldacchino, Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress. Haven’t read it yet, but it’s about a boy who insists on wearing a dress in the school’s dress up center

So there you have it. If you have favorites not on this list, I’d love for you to include them with a brief blurb in a comment so I can expand my library.

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