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July Shelfie: Picture Books as Tools to Take a Stand

Picture book biographies and books that represent a social justice cause, with young people as the main characters, are powerful tools that allow younger children to identify injustices, develop empathy for others, and recognize their place in the world.

One of the many reasons I love my job as an elementary school Library Teacher/Media Specialist is that throughout the year I get to offer these books as resources to help my students learn about this complex world we live in, and the many challenges they and others may have to face.

Children should be allowed to learn about the injustices experienced, here in our nation and abroad, and discover how people take a stand -- for themselves and for others. Picture books that illuminate these injustices -- and the powerful forms of resistance to them -- give my students the opportunity to look within and imagine how they would like to leave their mark in the world. Of course, they are young and guidance is necessary. I help my students continually evaluate what are “big problems” and “little problems,” and what they can solve on their own or with help from friends or adults.

Picture books that illuminate injustices -- and the powerful forms of resistance to them -- give my students the opportunity to look within and imagine how they would like to leave their mark in the world.

In her article “Empowering Your Kids to Stand Up for Themselves (and Others),” Dr. Devorah Heitner discusses the important role of this kind of adult mentorship, arguing that it gives kids “the tools they need to help build their confidence in standing up for what and who they believe in.” I’d like to think that reading and creating dialogue around these types of books with my students will inspire them to think of their own strengths and beliefs, and encourage them to stand up for themselves and others.

When listening to these stories I want my students to reflect on the following:

  • What problem did the main character identify in the story?
  • What feeling did this problem create for the main character and others in the story?
  • How did the events in the story make you feel?
  • What would you have done to help or be supportive?
  • Would you have handled it differently?

Here are some of the books from the Diverse BookFinder collection that I have used with my students.


This is not your typical ABC book for little ones. This book is filled with rich language and addresses many concepts and events that have promoted progressive activism around the world. Students in 2nd grade and up can benefit from the vocabulary words introduced, and discover the historical events and leaders that have encouraged people to take action -- from equal rights to healthy food, from feminism to solar power. My students loved and chanted Nagara’s words for the letter Y: “Y is for You. And Youth. Your planet. Your rights. Your future. Your truth. Y is for Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes!”


This true story has a theme that wishes can come true. Born in a country where girls and women typically have no voice, Malala Yousafzai was determined and focused on creating change in Pakistan. My students could see that Malala, as a little girl, wished for very simple things, as young children do. As she got older she became more aware of her world -- families were hungry, girls didn’t go to school, and civil unrest was the norm. My students were surprised that Malala’s way to address the injustices was to write about them, eventually letting an international journalist know. Soon she was known all over the world. Even though her enemies tried to silence her she survived and returned with a louder voice. For my students, Malala demonstrated focus, determination, and the fact that a simple task, such as writing, could get the attention of many.


Look what happened to this little girl after listening to grown folks’ conversation! Discussions about getting rid of segregation laws in Birmingham, Alabama made little Audrey’s ears burn and her heart race. She knew she wanted to help make things right by participating in the Children’s March. My students were shocked and their reactions were priceless! They couldn’t imagine a child willing to break the law so they could be sent to jail! They kept repeating, “She was so brave!” This book is written in a child’s voice, helping young readers to stay engaged with its content, and the illustrations vividly support the text. Other strong features of this book are the author’s note about Audrey Faye Hendricks, a timeline of events, and that “Hot Rolls Baptized in Butter” recipe (which are mentioned in the very first paragraph of the book)!


Again, another book focusing on the Civil Rights era and how children were inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr to take a stand against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. These children stepped up because the adults risked losing their jobs if they marched. This story’s text and illustrations shared more dark details of the events during the protests, allowing my students to question why they weren’t allowed to march in peace. The front and back end pages display a creative and informative timeline for readers to discover more about the Civil Rights Movement and the Children’s Crusade. Furthermore, the author provides additional resources and photos in the back of the book to heighten a young child’s awareness of that era. Thoughtful discussion was conducted after reading the author’s words: “Your march is what made them see. With nothing more than our feet, voices and courage, we had done what others could not.”


With guided dialogue about these books and others, my students began to look within. They concluded that their first step was to show that they care -- about themselves and others. They realized that the stories we read together were about children meeting great challenges and injustices head on. However, they realized that the children in these stories were just like them -- they made wishes, were hopeful, nervous and afraid, brave, focused, determined, and caring.

My students realized that sometimes, they could take a stand alone but at other times they would need support. My students learned that their words and actions to take a stand had to be meaningful and relevant to fulfill their purpose. In turn, I promised that I would continue to build their confidence and model this same positive behavior so they can pass it on to others.

The stories we read were about children meeting great challenges and injustices head on. [My students] realized that they were just like these children -- they made wishes, were hopeful, nervous and afraid, brave, focused, determined, and caring. My students learned that their words and actions to take a stand had to be meaningful and relevant to fulfill their purpose.

If you’re interested in finding more picture books about social justice efforts, check out the Diverse BookFinder’s collection of books about activism featuring Black and Indigenous people and People of Color!


Our July Shelfie comes to you from Advisory Council member, Aishah Abdul-Musawwir. Aishah has been an elementary school Library Teacher for the Cambridge Public School District in Massachusetts since 2007. She has a Master's of Education/Library Media Specialist degree from Cambridge College. As an African American Muslim woman/mother/educator, she has worked with other Muslim educators to provide schools with professional development seminars about Islamic culture and customs. Aishah works tirelessly to introduce diverse literature to her students and colleagues, and to ensure her students see themselves as well as develop an awareness of the world around them. Aishah also writes picture book reviews for Horn Books and enjoys reading with her 7 grandchildren.

Many of the cover images on this site are from Google Books.
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