‘Read Woke’ School Reading Challenge Makes an Impact

A school librarian’s reading initiative highlights social justice.

These are volatile times. Across the country, parents of color are having “the talk” with their kids about how to prevent the police from seeing them as a threat because of their skin color or how they dress. Families are being torn apart and deported. Each day on TV, we witness acts of social injustice. I come to school and talk about these events with my students, many of whom have opinions—but not much knowledge about their rights.

Every year I have a theme in my school library. In 2017, it was Harry Potter. In our current political and social climate, I knew that my students were hurting and needed something different this year. After coming across the Stay Woke edition of Essence magazine, I launched Read Woke at my library.

What is Read Woke? It’s a feeling. A form of education. A call to action, and our right as lifelong learners. It means arming yourself with knowledge to better protect your rights. Learning about others so you treat people with respect and dignity, no matter their religion, race, creed, or color.

I concluded that a Woke Book must:

• Challenge a social norm • Give voice to the voiceless • Provide information about a group that has been disenfranchised • Seek to challenge the status quo • Have a protagonist from an underrepresented or oppressed group

We started Read Woke in September. The students were asking questions in response to the many cases of unarmed black boys and men being shot by police officers. They wanted answers. They were angry. They staged a walkout, but that did nothing to appease their rage.

My school is more than 70 percent Latino. The day DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) was repealed, my students were crying and afraid. That made my movement even more relevant.

Students who read four recommended books from my Read Woke list can win a T-shirt, a free book, and post a photo on our Instagram. They may review titles, too. I also asked teachers to adopt Woke Books—they read them and use trivia questions to quiz the students on their knowledge of the titles.

Our most popular books are Dear Martin, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, The Book of Unknown Americans, and The Hate U Give. They all have characters who look like my students and face issues plaguing our society. There’s a waiting list for these titles, and our circulation has increased from 2,340 to 2,817. Faculty circulation shot up by almost 50 percent!

“Before this, I had never read an entire book,” one student commented. “I will keep reading woke books.”

Students are recommending books and engaging in serious dialogue.

I bought the books using my county-allocated funds. A student-run school T-shirt lab created the shirts in exchange for publicity.

When I started Read Woke, I asked myself how I could make an impact. A quote from The Librarian of Auschwitz exemplifies my mission: “The library has now become her first-aid kit, and she’s going to give the children a little of the medicine that helped her recover her smile when she thought she’d lost it forever.”

Let the healing begin.

Woke books

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brenden Kiely

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard

The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas

Hunger by Roxane Gay

I am Malala :The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sánchez

Sugar by Deirdre Riordan Hall

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander 

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

What's on your Woke Books list? Let us know in the comments.

Cicely Lewis is a small-town girl from Mississippi with a passion for promoting literacy in nontraditional ways in her media center at Meadowcreek High School in Norcross, GA. Currently, she’s featured on the cover of the 2017 “The Power of Librarians” calendar.

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Erin Flood-Harrison

I love this--thank you! I recently promoted a similar theme, and called it authentic voices. You, however, have a great title and strong, succinct criteria. I teach at a K-8 school, so I would add some additional middle grade titles such as Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed, Internment by Samira Ahmed, How it Went Down by Kekla Magoon, The Night Diaries by Veera Hiranandani, Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga, March trilogy by John Lewis and Andre Aydin, Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson, Ghost Boys by Jewel Parker Rhodes, Ivy Aberdeen's Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake, and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.

Posted : Oct 10, 2019 10:52

Tamara Turner

That’s a typo permission.

Posted : Jul 27, 2019 08:24

Tamara Turner

I want to start a ‘Read Woke’ book club at my school. Do I need Pro mission to do so?

Posted : Jul 27, 2019 08:23

Jill Becker

Fantastic!Would love to send a copy or two of Ruby On The Outside. Please email me your address. This book is realistic fiction, a coming of age book about a girl whose mom is incarcerated.

Posted : Jun 23, 2019 01:43

Aliya Schwerner

Is there a way I could purchase a Read Woke tshirt?

Posted : Apr 03, 2019 07:38

Kristen Rademacher

I just did this same theme this month! I put it up and wow, it got attention. I've gotten thank yous from kids and even teachers for highlighting and promoting POC stories and authors and showing the awesome diversity of material. Its not just realistic fiction but fantasy, sci-fi, memoirs, history, mystery, poetry, picture books and so much more. I plan to continue to do this and promote these books in particular in as many subjects and projects as possible.

Posted : Feb 04, 2019 07:09

Emily Visness

Thanks for this! Our 8th grade team is using #readwoke as our reading challenge next year! I know the kids will love it because the books on these lists that I have in my classroom library are the most frequently checked out titles. We're giving you all the credit, and posting this article in all of our classrooms. So excited for next year!

Posted : May 11, 2018 08:14

Nicole Thompson

What an incredibly engaging and important program!! THANK YOU, for doing this and for giving me such an amazing platform to try something like this! We are going to mimic this programming in our school and we will be giving you credit on our library page. You’re an inspiration!

Posted : Apr 27, 2018 11:34

Zandra Harris

This is awesome! This just maybe the key that will unlock the door for my totally unmotivated 4th grade class of 8 students. Thank you. My plan is to buy the books and give them the copy of whatever they read.

Posted : Apr 25, 2018 08:29

Bev. Hare

Awesome. Thanks Ms. Lewis for pushing not only literacy but the agenda we often neglect talking about in a diverse country. I'm recommending your tips to the elementary school where my son is the principal. Also would love to use your list in a Summer Reading program through my church! Thank you again.

Posted : Apr 24, 2018 08:08

Laura Beam McKinney

This is so amazing! I love everything about this challenge! I’m currently doing my masters thesis on why access to diverse (specifically own voice) books in schools is so important!

Posted : Apr 20, 2018 07:56

Nancy Lynn Barth

I've read three, and now I have some more intriguing books to check out. What a wonderful project!

Posted : Apr 19, 2018 10:55

Jessica E

Wonderful idea and program! Was there a book club involved? How did you keep up with students that read four books from the list?

Posted : Apr 19, 2018 08:17

Angela Reid

I am delighted that Cicely has begun a project to involve students in reading. Not only are they engaged in books, but they are also engaged in how they will interact in this world.

Posted : Apr 17, 2018 06:40

Melanie Wible

Great job empowering our GCPS students! We ARE all more alike than we are different. Thanks for all you do!

Posted : Apr 16, 2018 11:31

Melanie Wible

And y'all do need to sell those cool t-shirts!

Posted : Apr 16, 2018 11:33

Angela C

Yes, I'd buy!

Posted : May 02, 2018 08:26

Debra Apple

We reading and discussing like never before and I love it!

Posted : Apr 16, 2018 04:09

BJ Neary

I am going to give some RECENT books and some OLD titles: How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon The Border by Steve Schafer I Am Anflonso Jones by Tony Medina Refugee by Alan Gratz The Perfect Chemistry Series by Simone Elkeles A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena Saints and Misfit by S.K. Ali FireSong by Adam Garnet Jones Roughneck by Jeff Lemire Love, Hate And Other Filters by Samira Ahmed American Panda by Gloria Chou Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson Mexican White Boy by Matt delaPena Paul Volponi books The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez by Alan Sitomerr The Brothers Torres by Coert Vorhees Stay With Me by Paul Griffin Dark Dude by Oscar Hijuelos Muchacho by LouAnne Johnson The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X Stork Disappeared by Francisco X Stork Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick Jason Reynolds books Kwame Alexander books Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero We Were Here by Matt dela Pena Shadowshaper series by Daniel Jose Older The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera The Girl Who Could Silence the Wing by Meg Medina (all of her books!) Anna-Marie McLemore books (magical realism) Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx by Sonia Manzano The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson Enjoy!

Posted : Apr 14, 2018 02:35

Valerie Loper

I so love this! Do you mind if my campus does this, too? I don't know yet how I'll spin it to make it ours, but thank you for sharing! This is awesome.

Posted : Apr 13, 2018 01:08

Adriel Ahern

We have been trying to elevate these books and your concise definition of a woke book is so clear and thoughtful. Thank you for this work and for sharing.

Posted : Apr 12, 2018 10:10


Cicely, I think that you’re doing is so inspiring and incredibly important and necessary at this time in our country. Might I suggest a book? Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez. Also, how possible would it be to get a shirt? I’m a librarian in Missouri and I would love to wear this shirt and promote your mission.

Posted : Apr 12, 2018 05:18

Lindsay Cesari

This is awesome and I'm so all over it. I took Cecily's idea and ran with it this week -- here's how I'm promoting it in my junior high - http://noshhinghere.blogspot.com/2018/04/launching-readwoke-challenge-with.html

Posted : Apr 10, 2018 06:07

Cicely Lewis

I love this! You are doing an amazing job with your students. Thanks for sharing! Power to the Librarians!

Posted : Apr 11, 2018 05:22

Ivette Sosa

This is completely awesome! A group of students at my school & I have been civically engaged this school year addressing current issues. We even hosted a DACA assembly at our high school, to inform people about the importance of DACA & to raise awareness. This is a unique way for students to create an impact. I just finished reading " I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter" by Erika L. Sánchez & when I googled it, I came across this website. It makes me proud & gives me hope to see that other students are working together to make a change. Unity is key. I'm excited to read these books! #ReadWoke

Posted : Apr 09, 2018 09:25

Cicely Lewis

Yes, unity is the key and we are more alike than we are different. Thanks for being a part of the movement!

Posted : Apr 11, 2018 05:23

Karen Orr

Great program! For high school students, I recommend The Tortilla Curtain by T.C.Boyle. It was a powerful book, changed my entire perspective on ethnicity and opportunity in the US.

Posted : Apr 08, 2018 02:25

Rebecca Jelen

I love this article and everything about the Read Woke program. Does anyone have any suggestions for some younger chapter books (2nd-4th grade) that could be added to a junior Read Woke list? I have some great titles in my middle school library but am finding that the selections for my daughter's age (2nd grade) are lacking. Thanks!

Posted : Apr 05, 2018 09:28

Cicely Lewis

9-10 by Nora R. Baskin Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry- Oldie but goodie Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson She Persisted Little Leaders by Vashti

Posted : Apr 11, 2018 05:18

Cicely Lewis

Also check out this link https://socialjusticebooks.org/booklists/

Posted : Apr 11, 2018 04:53

Iris Lovelace

Dear Cicely, What an awesome thing you are doing. This is also a passion of mines. What an impact you are making in our young children live. My little neighbor in Mississippi who always loved reading. I am so proud and thankful of you. Hopefully you can come here and share soon. I pray God open so many doors for you in every school. God Bless. Love you, Pastor Iris Lovelace

Posted : Apr 04, 2018 05:54

Cicely Lewis

Thanks so much! I would love to share! Please keep in touch!

Posted : Apr 11, 2018 05:28

Tavita Quinn

This is incredible!!!! I’m not surprised at all, because Cicely has always been passionate about reading. She is in her element, and I love how she is using a refreshing, creative approach to get young people to not only read but become more aware of what’s going on in the world. I pray that God continues to elevate you so that you may continue to impact the lives of all that you come in contact with.

Posted : Apr 04, 2018 03:50

Cicely Lewis

Thanks so much! This means so much to me! I am truly blessed to be able to share my passion for reading.

Posted : Apr 11, 2018 05:12

Stephanie A Williams

This is so awesome! Kudos to you for your creative approach to addressing a systemic problem in an educational way! I applaud your school’s open-minded leaders who allowed you to be creative in addressing a matter such as this. #MSgirls!

Posted : Apr 04, 2018 12:03

Cicely Lewis

Thanks! I do have a great leadership team that allows me to take things to the next level! Thanks for reading!

Posted : Apr 11, 2018 05:11

Brenda House

What an amazing program! Great job, Cicely.

Posted : Apr 03, 2018 10:45

Rena Lewis

When I read how you (Cicely) are making an impact on your local young adults, I can appreciate that someone is speaking out on injustice. I'm very saddened that many churches and it's members who claim to serve God and to know what his word exemplifies have not gotten on the bandwagon to decrease injustice. I'm thankful that God is utilizing young people to bring about justice for all. It is no longer for me to wonder why Jesus told his disciples "To Let The Children (young) come", For you truly understand God and you are "About Your Father's Business." Amen!!!

Posted : Apr 03, 2018 05:32

Cheryl Benjamin

Outstanding Job Mrs. Lewis! It takes a person who has a God given passion to push others to be great, especially youth. Thank you for standing up and pushing forward to inspire and encourage our young people to strive for more knowledge and greatness. Knowledge is power and through your influence you are helping to shape a world of powerfully strong individuals. We must all read and stay woke. Thank You for your dedication. You have made a positive difference and a great impact. We are so proud of you!

Posted : Apr 03, 2018 02:29

Cicely Lewis

Thanks for much for reading my article. It has truly been a blessing to work with such amazing students. I truly feel like this is my ministry.

Posted : Apr 11, 2018 05:26

Shaun Prewitt

I love it. There are some awesome books on this list. Great job Cicely!

Posted : Apr 03, 2018 12:08

DOROTHY Hamilton

I love it! Great, Awesome, and Fantastic!

Posted : Apr 01, 2018 09:47

DOROTHY Hamilton

Dear people Cicely is an inspiring daughter that don't mine intervention creative with Read Woke. Great job D2- Cicely.

Posted : Apr 01, 2018 09:46


Cicely is awesome! She is a colleague in my district. I am proud of her as she has found ways to make reading relevant and meaningful for her students. Social action and literacy = a winning combination to creating passionate and intelligent lifelong learners who will lead us!

Posted : Mar 31, 2018 09:10

Cicely Lewis

Thanks Mentor!

Posted : Apr 11, 2018 05:25


Amazing list of books! I too have found these titles extremely important for my students to read, I have had many students thank me for buying titles, “that matter” to them. Many students will often argue about which title is better than the other, amazing work with your school. I am hoping to create some sort of club like this but also integrating teachers as well, any advice?

Posted : Mar 31, 2018 02:28

Cicely Lewis

Yes, I am currently working on an article about woke book for teachers. Most teachers like YA lit so they enjoyed reading these books. I started a Teacher book club this year to see what teachers were reading and to suggest books for them. In addition, I made posters to put on their doors that say, "Currently Reading". This helps to spark the conversation because students ask them about their book. I hope this helps. Thanks for responding!

Posted : Apr 11, 2018 05:09


I read to the babies.... I am the librarian for a pre-school to 1st grade early literacy campus. This year I committed to including at least one book with an underrepresented main character in every story time. Students have seen their lives reflected in a book and I have re-energized my teaching time. Woke is for all ages.

Posted : Mar 31, 2018 02:27


Love, love, love! Your definition of Read Woke and the criteria for a woke book are perfect.

Posted : Mar 30, 2018 11:37

Meg B.Allison

Love everything about this: Bravo, Cicely! Our students are hungry to make learning inside school relevant to their lives outside. You’ve tapped into that hunger - no wonder your Woke Book program is such a hit. Brilliant. In addition to these titles, I would add American Street by Ibi Zoboi (2017), and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz.

Posted : Mar 30, 2018 03:20

Cicely Lewis

I am about to start reading American Street now. Thanks for the recommendation and thanks for sharing!

Posted : Apr 11, 2018 05:24


What a fantastic program! I would love to see a list of the books recommended - I'm working on improving and updating a new-to-me collection and the books mentioned in this post are definitely on my order list. I'd love more ideas.

Posted : Mar 29, 2018 10:58

Sarah Bayliss

Hi Diana, we added more books from Cicely's list to the post. Thanks for asking!

Posted : Mar 30, 2018 12:38


What a program! Creative, powerful, responsive to the school community, promotes professional collaboration, and gets young people reading amazing books--kudos to Cicely Lewis.

Posted : Mar 29, 2018 09:28

Cicely Lewis

Thanks for reading! My students are reading and discussing like never before and I love it!

Posted : Apr 11, 2018 05:31



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