May 27, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Social Justice: Teachable Movements | Focus On


Take any major headline from the news this year and issues of social justice abound. Racial violence, immigrant discrimination, and marriage law disputes tread heavily on foundations of equality, access, and rights. These issues are seemingly of the moment, but today’s troubles parallel the past. Conflicts such as who can marry whom, who can enter what country and why, and how one is treated based on skin color are achingly familiar, whether the year is 1905, 1965, or 2015. Lessons in fairness and how to treat others are tangible aspects of the PreK-12 experience. Yet, how do we educate on equality and equity? As future global community members, students need to have awareness, empathy, and critical thinking skills to examine and act on social justice issues, whether on the street, in the workplace, or at the ballot box. Integrating social justice into the curriculum prepares students to be citizens of the real world. The titles here encourage reflection and the exchange of ideas, and can be used to teach across all four areas of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts—reading, speaking, listening, and writing. Most importantly, these titles support critical thinking, a bedrock element of CCSS, when used to foster dialogue, form opinions, and show understanding. Arranged by grade levels, this book list includes titles that explore social justice issues and leaders, both now and in the past. Topics such as environmental justice, economic class, labor rights, gender identity, race, human rights, and perception of ability/disability often, and intentionally, overlap in the selected titles.

1512-FO_CVStrip1Elementary/Middle Grade

BELL, Cece. El Deafo. illus. by Cece Bell. Abrams/Amulet. 2014. Tr $21.95. ISBN 9781419710209; pap. $10.95 ISBN 9781419712173. LC 2011032895.
Gr 2-6– Bell recounts her 1970s childhood and illness-related hearing loss at age four in this warmly illustrated graphic novel memoir populated with bunnies. The Phonic Ear, a clunky but powerful hearing device, both helps and hinders her social world. Her fantasies of superpowers as “El Deafo: Listener for All” eventually collide with finding a true friend.

CONKLING, Winifred. Sylvia & Aki . Tricycle Pr. 2011. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781582463377; pap. $6.99. ISBN 9781582463452.
Gr 4-6 –Sylvia and Aki are unlikely friends brought together by actual historic events. Aki’s family was forced from their farm and sent to Japanese internment camps in 1941. Sylvia’s family rented their farm but was denied access to public schools because they were Mexican. Told in alternating chapters, the girls’ stories recount justices won and lost.

ELLIS, Deborah. No Ordinary Day . Groundwood. 2011. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781554981342; pap. $9.95. ISBN 9781554981083.
Gr 4-8 –Set in contemporary India, this accessible middle grade novel introduces readers to Valli, a young girl who lives on the streets. Her self-sufficient attitude cannot make up for the tremendous poverty, danger, and invisibility she experiences daily. When diagnosed with leprosy, Valli, and readers, are challenged to consider how society ignores “throwaway” people.

FREEDMAN, Russell. Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain . HMH. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780547903781.
Gr 5-8– The Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay has been called the Ellis Island of the West. Originally an entry for Gold Rush laborers from afar, it became the site of persecution and confinement for immigrants from China and other countries during a period of fierce exclusion laws. Freedman’s historical overview is characteristically compelling.

GARLAND, Sarah. Azzi in Between. illus. by author. Frances Lincoln. 2013. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781847802613.
Gr 2-5 —As war approaches young Azzi’s home, her parents make a difficult decision to flee. Now refugees in a new country, Azzi and her parents try to establish their new lives, though it is impossible to forget what they have left behind. Illustrated with sequential art, this child-centered story is both honest and hopeful.

GINO, Alex. George . Scholastic. 2015. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780545812542; ebk. $16.99. ISBN 9780545812580.
Gr 4-6 –Fourth-grader George identifies with the eloquent and kind spider in Charlotte’s Web and wants to portray Charlotte in the class play—a role reserved for girls. As a result, George eventually reveals to her best friend and family that she is transgender. George is a sensitive, realistic, and timely addition to collections. Audio version available from Scholastic.

1512-FO_CVStrip2MARTIN, Jacqueline Briggs. Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table. illus. by Eric-Shabazz Larkin. Readers to Eaters. 2013. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9780983661535.
Gr 3-6 –Professional basketball player–turned–urban farmer Will Allen never expected to teach thousands how to grow their own food. This lively picture book biography cultivates the concept of community action and leadership while also exploring how access, environment, and class affect health and livelihood.

MORA, Pat & Libby Martinez. I Pledge Allegiance. illus. by Patrice Barton. Knopf. 2014. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780307931818.
Gr 1-3 –Libby and her great-aunt Lobo are learning the Pledge of Allegiance together. Libby will lead her class in the pledge, and Lobo is preparing for her citizenship ceremony. As Libby and Lobo practice the words, they reflect on what citizenship means for individuals, for their Mexican-American family, and for the country. Accentuated with warm watercolor illustrations.

TINGLE, Tim . How I Became a Ghost. RoadRunner Pr. 2013. Tr $18.95. ISBN 9781937054533; pap. $8.95. ISBN 9781937054557.
Gr 5-8 –Isaac, the Choctaw narrator, warns readers that he is not a ghost—yet. So begins this captivating chronicle of the Trail of Tears, the forced military removal of Choctaws from their lands in the early 1800s. While Isaac does not survive the journey, his experience is sensitively told with humor, pain, and endurance.

WINTER, Jeanette. Malala, a Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal, a Brave Boy from Pakistan. illus. by author. S. & S./Beach Lane. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481422949.
Gr 2-4 –Two young heroes from Pakistan stood up for education and freedom at great personal cost. Iqbal, forced into the carpet industry at age four, spoke out against child slavery. Malala, denied an education, spoke out on behalf of gender equality. Both stories in this split picture book are told with honesty and compassion.

YOO , Paula. Twenty-two Cents: Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank. illus. by Jamel Akib. Lee & Low. 2014. Tr $18.95 ISBN 9781600606588.
Gr 2-5 –The story of Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus and his innovative development of microcredit financing is chronicled in this detailed picture book biography. From an early age, Yunus witnessed the effects of poverty on women and children and used his education to establish Grameen Bank, a global anti-poverty institution.

Middle School/High School

ELLIS, Deborah. Looks Like Daylight: Voices of Indigenous Kids. Groundwood. 2013. Tr $15.95. ISBN 9781554981205.
Gr 7 Up –In signature style, Ellis brings attention to the voices of unheard youth. Through interview excerpts, indigenous North American teens express their experiences with cultural identity loss and triumph, connections to history and land, and hopes for the future. Quotes from native leaders, brief introductory essays, and photos of the teens provide contemporary context to these memorable profiles.

ENGLE , Margarita. Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal. HMH. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780544109414.
Gr 6-9 –The building of the Panama Canal was heralded as a human and geographical triumph, but connecting two oceans came at a high cost. Issues of race, class, gender, politics, and environment are explored in poetic episodes voiced by fictional characters such as a laborer, a geologist, an herb collector, and the flora and fauna of the forest.

1512-FO_CVStrip3FARIZAN, Sara. If You Could Be Mine. Algonquin. 2013. Tr $16.95 ISBN 9781616202514; pap. $9.95 ISBN 9781616204556.
Gr 9 Up –Sahar and Nasrin, best friends since childhood, are passionately and secretly in love. In their native Iran, homosexuality is punishable by death. Nasrin’s mother, suspicious, hastens plans for an arranged marriage. Desperate for a solution, Sahar contemplates government-sanctioned gender reassignment surgery. Gender, sexuality, and marriage rights are poignantly explored in this teen novel. Audio version available from HighBridge Audio.

FLOWERS, Arthur. I See the Promised Land: A Life of Martin Luther King Jr. illus. by Manu Chitrakar. Groundwood. 2013. Tr $16.95 ISBN 9781554983285.
Gr 8 Up –Through a compelling graphic narrative, the familiar biography of Martin Luther King Jr. is revisited. Flowers’s griot storytelling text and Indian scroll painter Manu Chitrakar’s Patua art combine to uniquely examine the civil rights leader as both man and myth, revealing new perspectives on his, and our, history.

KOYCZAN, Shane. To This Day: For the Bullied and Beautiful. Annick Pr. 2014. Tr $19.95. ISBN 9781554516391.
Gr 6 Up –Originally a spoken-word poem and animated video (see Digital Picks), Koyczan’s passionate message about acceptance and anti-bullying are brought to life in a text illustrated by 30 artists from around the world. The author’s note, history of the poem, and resource page round out this compelling text.

MAGOON, Kekla. How It Went Down. Holt. 2014. Tr $17.95 ISBN 9780805098693; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781250068231.
Gr 9 Up –A work of fiction, the story of black 16-year-old Tariq Johnson, who dies from gunshot wounds outside of a convenience store at the hands of a white man, painfully parallels recent headlines. Magoon skillfully recounts the incident and the aftermath from the conflicting perspectives of neighbors involved in the violence. Audio version available from Recorded Books.

MONTGOMERY, Sy . Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World . HMH. 2012. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780547443157; pap. $10.99. ISBN 9780544339095.
Gr 5 Up –Temple Grandin’s life story exemplifies not only the discovery of one’s talent and place in the world, but the embracement of ability versus diagnosis of disability. Descriptions of Grandin’s ability to “think in pictures” and other aspects of her autism offer inspiration for channeling personal strengths into serving the underserved. Audio version available from AudioGo.

QUINTERO, Isabel. Gabi: A Girl in Pieces . Cinco Puntos Pr. 2014. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9781935955948; pap. $11.95. ISBN 9781935955955; ebk. $11.95. ISBN 9781935955962.
Gr 9 Up –High school senior Gabi is trying to figure out a lot of things—dating, sex, math tests, and college applications as well as issues more complicated—addiction, pregnancy, homophobia, and rape. Gabi’s raw, frank, and funny observations about her body, being a Latina daughter, and finding her poetic voice are suitingly recorded in diary format.

SHEINKIN, Steve. The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights. Roaring Book Pr. 2014. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781596437968.
Gr 8 Up –During World War II, an ammunitions explosion at a naval base in California catalyzed a group of African American sailors to stand up for their rights at the risk of imprisonment and death. Photographs, interviews, and other rich primary source material chronicle the clash between service to country and denial of basic freedoms. Audio version available from Listening Library.

Tessa SchmidtTessa Michaelson Schmidt is a public library youth and special services consultant, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Madison, WI, and is a member of the 2016 Caldecott committee.

Digital picks

For Educators

Jane Addams Peace Association. Jane Addams Peace Association. (Accessed 10/21/15).

Established in 1953, the Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards are given annually to books “that effectively promote the cause of peace, social justice, world community, and the equality of the sexes and all races as well as meeting conventional standards for excellence.” A database of award-winning titles from 2000 to the present is searchable by specific social justice issues.

Schneider Family Book Award. American Library Association. (Accessed 10/21/15).

This newer award honors “an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.” The website lists recent award winners and offers a bibliography of recommended books for youth about the disability experience.

Carter G. Woodson Book Awards. National Council for the Social Studies. (Accessed 10/21/15).

In 1974, the NCSS created the Carter G. Woodson Book Awards to recognize “the most distinguished social science books appropriate for young readers that depict ethnicity in the United States.” A list of award winners is available at the site.

For Students

To This Day Project. Shane Koyczan. To This Day. Moving Tales Inc. 2013. Version 1.0. iOS, requires 6.0 or later. Compatible with iPad. Free. (Accessed 10/21/15)

Gr 6 Up– Shane Koyczan’s spoken-word poem has origins as an animated online video. The poem, the video, and extensive anti-bullying resources are available through the website. The free app is designed so that no two viewings of the poem are the same. App users can record their own versions of the poem or share selected stanzas with others.

This article was published in School Library Journal's December 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.