These picture books highlight young people who have played essential roles in global struggles for human rights.
- Mathangi Subramanian, Toca Magazine Guest Writer
It’s a tough time to be a parent in America. Since 2015, the number of active hate groups in the United States increased after years of steady decline. Anti-Muslim hate groups alone have tripled, and both Islamophobic and anti-black crime rose for the first time in years. In New York City, the police department reports that in 2017, hate crimes have increased by 31 percent.
Although data scientists are quick to point out that these statistics cannot be linked to a singular cause, it is impossible to ignore the fact that these trends began around the time when the presidential election campaign began and our national rhetoric took a dangerous turn. The tacit approval of white supremacism engendered by some of the world’s most powerful leaders has enabled a climate of hate that has robbed many families of any semblance of emotional or physical safety.
Coping with the trauma of hate is exhausting; guiding a child through it is overwhelming. Each day I wonder how I am supposed to teach my adopted, immigrant, daughter of color to live in a country that seems bent on her erasure. How do I move beyond my own powerlessness and rage to help her realize her own capacity to fight the hate that threatens the very foundations of our democracy?
One strategy I use is to remind my daughter and myself that many of the most famous campaigns for social justice would have been impossible without the participation of children and families. Throughout history, young people have played essential roles in global struggles for human rights, leading battles to integrate schools, preserve communities and cultures, and protect all of our rights to be who we are. Although textbooks rarely include children’s contributions to civil rights struggles, these stories can be found in my daughter’s (and, increasingly, my own) favorite medium: picture books.
Books About Schools
Schools have long been ground zero for struggles for equality. Consequently, students often unwittingly find themselves at the front lines of contentious, public movements initiated by marginalized peoples. As the books in this section reveal, more often than not, children rise brilliantly to the task.
- The Story of Ruby Bridges,written by Robert Coles and illustrated by George Ford, narrates how at the age of 6, Bridges courageously integrated an all-white school in the South. A longtime favorite that has made its way onto syllabi and library shelves throughout the country.
- Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation, by Donald Tonatiuh, is the brilliantly illustrated and tenderly told story of Sylvia Mendez who, in third grade, became the first Latina to attend an all-white school in California.
- When We Were Alone by David Alexander Robertson, illustrated by Julie Flett, is a heartbreakingly honest description of how Native children forced to attend residential schools found subtle ways to cling to the language, culture and heritage the American government sought to erase. A masterfully child-centered treatment of one of the darkest chapters in American history.
- Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai and illustrated by Kerascoet is the autobiographical tale of Nobel Peace Prize winner Yousafzai’s fight for girls’ education in her native Pakistan. The book is available for pre-order and will be out this fall.
Books About Public Protest
Battles that include schools often spill into the streets. As the following books show, children and families have long been active participants in massive, nonviolent protests, generating numbers that force those in power to confront — and, in the best cases, change — oppressive policies.
- We March, by Shane W. Evans, uses spare, clean prose to paint a poignant picture of a family attending Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington.
- Daddy There’s a Noise Outside by Kenneth Braswell, is a comic-book style story of a family discussing the concept of civil disobedience with their children in the context of a Black Lives Matter protest. A terrific template for talking to your own kids about the power of protest.
- This Day in June, written by Gayle Pittman and illustrated by Kristyna Litten, is a rhyming guide to pride parades, and a must-read for children about their place in the struggle for queer and transgender rights.
- Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson, illustrated by Sean Qualls, is the true story of a boy from Ghana who was born without one leg and cycled across his country to raise awareness about disability rights. The story is a reminder that marching isn’t the only way to make your voice heard.
Books About Gender Identity
Not all protest is public. Sometimes, it is revolutionary to simply be yourself. The following books feature protagonists who battle social norms in the name of their own identities.
- I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas, is the autobiography of a transgender child who transitions from being a boy to a girl. A touching portrait of a family that works together to help their daughter be her best self.
- My Princess Boy, by Cheryl Kilodavis and illustrated by Suzanne DiSimone, and inspired by the author’s son, is a lively, affectionate portrait of a gender nonconforming child. Given the silence around queer and trans identities in communities of color, the book is particularly refreshing because its protagonist is a child of color.
- I’m a Girl by Yasmeen Ismail is a playfully illustrated tribute to the contradictions and nuances that make us who we are, no matter what our gender identity.
- Feminist Baby by Loryn Brantz is a lighthearted tribute to girls who resist traditional gender roles long before they learn to walk. A great choice for children with younger siblings or a fascination with babies.
The books on this list remind us of all that we must remember in the coming months: that we have inherited the legacy of ancestors who refused to be silenced, erased and destroyed. That we come from generations of people who were brave, resilient and powerful. That, young or old, none of us are victims. Rather, we are survivors — and, in the right circumstances, resisters.
Mathangi Subramanian is a writer and educator whose first novel, Dear Mrs. Naidu, won the 2016 South Asia Book Award. A former public school teacher, assistant vice president at Sesame Workshop, and senior policy analyst for the New York City Council, she holds a doctorate in education from Columbia University Teachers College.