Teaching Social Justice: 25 Books To Encourage Students To Change The World

by Ashley McCann

What are the kinds of ideas that convince people that they can change the world?

What about students–what kinds of inspiration or knowledge or confidence or vision do they need to believe they can affect real change in their community?

This is, at its heart, a matter of critical literacy–the kind of knowledge that empowers students to change their world. Social activism often appears in light of political leaning, but is first a matter of people gathering for a common cause in pursuit of change.

See also: A Self-Directed Learning Model For Critical Literacy

A large part of feeling like an empowered citizen is the ability and desire to stand up for what you believe in and to feel the potential of becoming a catalyst for lasting change. The idea that you can make a difference in your community inspires everything from small acts of kindness to full-scale revolutions, and living with the kind of passion that encourages action fosters connection with others and a sense of purpose beyond everyday living.

Books allow students to see social experiences, interpersonal relationships, and historical events in a way that would be hindered by the limitations of reality, and being able to step into a new perspective through story is a powerful tool for teaching empathy and the importance of being involved with the world around you. The following is a list of books that will hopefully inspire students to be the change we’d all like to see in the world.

See also: 30 Books Of The Best Books To Teach Children Empathy

Teaching Social Justice: 25 Books To Encourage Students To Change The World

1. Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries who Shaped Our History . . . and Our Future!

Like all A-Z books, this one illustrates the alphabet—but instead of “A is for Apple”, A is for Angela—as in Angela Davis, the iconic political activist. B is for Billie Jean King, who shattered the glass ceiling of sports; C is for Carol Burnett, who defied assumptions about women in comedy; D is for Dolores Huerta, who organized farmworkers; and E is for Ella Baker, who mentored Dr. Martin Luther King and helped shape the Civil Rights Movement.

2. I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark

Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has spent a lifetime disagreeing: disagreeing with inequality, arguing against unfair treatment, and standing up for what’s right for people everywhere. This biographical picture book about the Notorious RBG, tells the justice’s story through the lens of her many famous dissents, or disagreements.

3. We March

On August 28, 1963, a remarkable event took place–more than 250,000 people gathered in our nation’s capital to participate in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march began at the Washington Monument and ended with a rally at the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech, advocating racial harmony.

4. Amelia to Zora: Twenty-Six Women Who Changed the World

Twenty-six amazing women; twenty-six amazing stories. From Amelia Earhart, pilot and adventurer, to Zora Neal Hurston, writer and anthropologist, learn about the hardships and triumphs that inspired each woman to change the world around her.

5. Separate is Never Equal

Almost 10 years before Brown vs. Board of Education, Sylvia Mendez and her parents helped end school segregation in California. An American citizen of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage who spoke and wrote perfect English, Mendez was denied enrollment to a “Whites only” school. Her parents took action by organizing the Hispanic community and filing a lawsuit in federal district court. Their success eventually brought an end to the era of segregated education in California.

6. The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist

Meet the youngest known child to be arrested for a civil rights protest in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963, in this moving picture book that proves you’re never too little to make a difference. Audrey Faye Hendricks was confident and bold and brave as can be, and hers is the remarkable and inspiring story of one child’s role in the Civil Rights Movement.

7. The Story of Ruby Bridges

The year is 1960, and six-year-old Ruby Bridges and her family have recently moved from Mississippi to New Orleans in search of a better life. When a judge orders Ruby to attend first grade at William Frantz Elementary, an all-white school, Ruby must face angry mobs of parents who refuse to send their children to school with her.

8. Let’s Talk About Race

In this acclaimed book, the author of the Newbery Honor Book To Be a Slave shares his own story as he explores what makes each of us special. Karen Barbour’s dramatic, vibrant paintings speak to the heart of Lester’s unique vision, truly a celebration of all of us.

9. Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909

From acclaimed author Michelle Markel and Caldecott Honor artist Melissa Sweet comes this true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history. This picture book biography includes a bibliography and an author’s note on the garment industry. It follows the plight of immigrants in America in the early 1900s, tackling topics like activism and the U.S. garment industry, with hand-stitching and fabric incorporated throughout the art.

10. Malala, a Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal, a Brave Boy from Pakistan: Two Stories of Bravery

One country: Pakistan. Two children: Iqbal Masih and Malala Yousafzai. Each was unafraid to speak out. He, against inhumane child slavery in the carpet trade. She, for the right of girls to attend school. Both were shot by those who disagreed with them—he in 1995, she in 2012. Iqbal was killed instantly; Malala miraculously survived and continues to speak out around the world.

11. As Good as Anybody: Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March toward Freedom

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Their names stand for the quest for justice and equality.Martin grew up in a loving family in the American South, at a time when this country was plagued by racial discrimination. He aimed to put a stop to it. He became a minister like his daddy, and he preached and marched for his cause.Abraham grew up in a loving family many years earlier, in a Europe that did not welcome Jews. He found a new home in America, where he became a respected rabbi like his father, carrying a message of peace and acceptance.

12. Rosa

Fifty years after her refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus, Mrs. Rosa Parks is still one of the most important figures in the American civil rights movement. This tribute to Mrs. Parks is a celebration of her courageous action and the events that followed. Award-winning poet, writer, and activist Nikki Giovanni’s evocative text combines with Bryan Collier’s striking cut-paper images to retell the story of this historic event from a wholly unique and original perspective.

13. Emmanuel’s Dream

Born in Ghana, West Africa, with one deformed leg, he was dismissed by most people—but not by his mother, who taught him to reach for his dreams. As a boy, Emmanuel hopped to school more than two miles each way, learned to play soccer, left home at age thirteen to provide for his family, and, eventually, became a cyclist. He rode an astonishing four hundred miles across Ghana in 2001, spreading his powerful message: disability is not inability. Today, Emmanuel continues to work on behalf of the disabled.

14. Passage to Freedom

A portrait of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania in 1940, explains how he used his powers–against the orders of his own government–to assist thousands of Jews escape the Holocaust, actions that resulted in the imprisonment and disgrace of his entire family.”

15. The Red Piano

During China’s Cultural Revolution a young girl is taken from her family and sent to a far-off labor camp. Forbidden to play the piano, she nevertheless finds a way of smuggling handwritten music into the camp and sneaking away at night to practice a piano in a secret location—until, one night, she is caught. Inspired by the amazing true story of international concert pianist Zhu Xiao-Mei, this acclaimed picture book poetically relates an astonishing story of perseverance set against a cataclysmic period of history.

16. Four Feet, Two Sandals

When relief workers bring used clothing to the refugee camp, everyone scrambles to grab whatever they can. Ten-year-old Lina is thrilled when she finds a sandal that fits her foot perfectly, until she sees that another girl has the matching shoe. But soon Lina and Feroza meet and decide that it is better to share the sandals than for each to wear only one.

17. Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan

Young Nasreen has not spoken a word to anyone since her parents disappeared. In despair, her grandmother risks everything to enroll Nasreen in a secret school for girls. Will a devoted teacher, a new friend, and the worlds she discovers in books be enough to draw Nasreen out of her shell of sadness? Based on a true story from Afghanistan, this inspiring book will touch readers deeply as it affirms both the life-changing power of education and the healing power of love.

18. Civil Rights For Beginners

Unlike most civil rights books, Civil Rights For Beginners focuses less on major leaders and more on the ordinary African Americans who provided the backbone of the successful protests and demonstrations. Moreover, it deals with the expressive culture of the movement, surveying key developments in literature, music, visual art, and film, all of which served both as integral features of the movement as well as contributing to its enduring legacy.

19. Chicano Movement For Beginners

As the heyday of the Chicano Movement of the late 1960s to early 70s fades further into history and as more and more of its important figures pass on, so too does knowledge of its significance. Thus, Chicano Movement For Beginners is an important attempt to stave off historical amnesia. It seeks to shed light on the multifaceted civil rights struggle known as “El Movimiento” that galvanized the Mexican American community, from laborers to student activists, giving them not only a political voice to combat prejudice and inequality, but also a new sense of cultural awareness and ethnic pride.

20. March

March is a vivid first-hand account of John Lewis’ lifelong struggle for civil and human rights, meditating in the modern age on the distance traveled since the days of Jim Crow and segregation. Rooted in Lewis’ personal story, it also reflects on the highs and lows of the broader civil rights movement. Book One spans John Lewis’ youth in rural Alabama, his life-changing meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., the birth of the Nashville Student Movement, and their battle to tear down segregation through nonviolent lunch counter sit-ins, building to a stunning climax on the steps of City Hall.

21. The Silence of Our Friends

This semi-autobiographical tale is set in 1967 Texas, against the backdrop of the fight for civil rights. A white family from a notoriously racist neighborhood in the suburbs and a black family from its poorest ward cross Houston’s color line, overcoming humiliation, degradation, and violence to win the freedom of five black college students unjustly charged with the murder of a policeman.

22. We’ve Got a Job

We’ve Got a Job tells the little-known story of the 4,000 black elementary-, middle-, and high school students who voluntarily went to jail in Birmingham, Alabama, between May 2 and May 11, 1963. Fulfilling Mahatma Gandhi’s and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s precept to fill the jails, they succeeded where adults had failed in desegregating one of the most racially violent cities in America. Focusing on four of the original participants who have participated in extensive interviews, We’ve Got a Job recounts the astonishing events before, during, and after the Children’s March.

23. I am Malala

I AM MALALA is the remarkable tale of a family uprooted by global terrorism, of the fight for girls’ education, of a father who, himself a school owner, championed and encouraged his daughter to write and attend school, and of brave parents who have a fierce love for their daughter in a society that prizes sons.

24. 101 Changemakers: Rebels and Radicals Who Changed U.S. History

In the great tradition of Howard Zinn, 101 Changemakers offers a “peoples’ history” version of the individuals who have shaped our country for middle school students. In the place of founding fathers, presidents, and titans of industry, are profiles of those who courageously fought for social justice in America: Tecumseh, Harriet Tubman, Mark Twain, César Chávez, Rachel Carson, Harvey Milk, Henry Wallace, and many more. 101 Changemakers aims to provide young students with new ways of understanding how history is written and made.

25. The Librarian of Basra

Alia Muhammad Baker is a librarian in Basra, Iraq. For fourteen years, her library has been a meeting place for those who love books. Until now. Now war has come, and Alia fears that the library–along with the thirty thousand books within it–will be destroyed forever.

Help students understand that their voices and actions make a difference by providing inspiring examples from the book list above and by giving them a safe place to practice in school.

Affiliate Disclosure

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25 Books That Encourage Activism