Nevada Sharp has a Master of Library and Information Science degree. She has been a children's librarian for 25 years.
What Is Narrative Nonfiction?
When we think of nonfiction books, we most often think about books that explain facts in a format called “expository nonfiction.” These are the texts that explain concepts like the Bill of Rights or describe the planets of the solar system. They can use techniques like listing facts, analyzing causes and effects, or comparing and contrasting two things.
But there is a way of relating actual stories that happened in a form called narrative nonfiction. For this type of format, authors convey factual information in a form that uses many of the elements of storytelling. When using the narrative nonfiction mode, writers will typically introduce an actual character (for instance a basketball player, or a baby elephant at the zoo) and narrate some sort of journey or experience that the character has taken, all the while teaching kids a thing or two about history or zoology, or another topic along the way.
By using the structure of a narrative (beginning, middle, and end), writers can recount nonfiction material using many of the techniques of the storyteller: characterization, dramatic tension, foreshadowing, etc. In this way, narrative nonfiction provides kids with information in a format that is familiar and interesting to them.
Books for Children About Social Justice
The dictionary definition of social justice reads, “fair treatment of all people in a society, including respect for the rights of minorities and equitable distribution of resources among members of a community.” We can say that when people talk about social justice, they are talking about the following three ideas:
- Equal rights
- Equal opportunity
- Equal treatment
The United States was unique when it was founded because it enshrined these ideals in its Declaration of Independence and in its Constitution. And it is no surprise that Americans have continually worked throughout our history to expand rights, opportunities, and treatment for all people in this country.
When we look at our history, we naturally need to look at groups that have tried to curtail social justice for others, see how they did it, what the effects for, and how people worked against it. Often people have been oppressive and cruel to groups that they wanted to shut out of equal rights and equitable opportunities.
The idea of telling this history to children has always made people feel uncomfortable. Many argue that if we describe to children the cruel things our ancestors did in the past, the children will feel, discomfort, guilt, or anguish. But there is a way to cover history so that children learn why and how unjust things happen without placing undue burdens on them. They can learn about the contributions of people who worked to make things better for everyone and learn how they might also become a positive influence.
The books listed here feature authors who have worked very hard to research people’s lives and relate their stories to children in an age-appropriate manner. In their pages, you will learn about people like Mother Jones who fought to get working-class people and children more humane working conditions, or like Jennifer Keeland, a girl with cerebral palsy who joined demonstrations in order to get people with disabilities better access to buildings and activities. In the pages of these books, children can learn about the young woman who persuaded Charles Dickens to change how he talked about Jews in his books. They can learn about Shirley Chisholm, the first Black congresswoman who famously said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
They can learn about people who work so hard to get equal rights for women, Mexican Americans, Asians, and African-Americans. We learn that other people treated them badly, yes, but more importantly, we learned how they were able to change people’s minds and secure the rights, opportunities, and treatment that all people deserve.
20 Social Justice Children’s Books
These 20 narrative nonfiction titles will be reviewed in this article. Keep scrolling down to find the full reviews, which include a summary of the content as well as age level, format, topics covered, number of pages, and AR reading level, when available.
- We Want to Go to School! The Fight for Disability Rights by Maryann Cocca-Lefler & Janine Leffler
- Dear Mr. Dickens by Nancy Churnin
- The Singer and the Scientist by Lisa Rose
- Ready to Fly: How Sylvia Townsend Became the Bookmobile Ballerina by Lea Lyon
- A Girl Named Rosita: The Story of Rita Moreno: Actor, Singer, Dancer, Trailblazer by Anika Aldamuy Denise
- Shirley Chisholm Is a Verb! by Veronica Chambers
- All the Way to the Top: How One Girl’s Fight for Americans With Disabilities Act Changed Everything by Annette Bay Pimentel
- Mother Jones and Her Army of Mill Children by Jonah Winter
- Bread for Words: a Frederick Douglass Story by Shana Keller
- Unspeakable: the Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford
- Without Separation: Prejudice, Segregation, in the Case of Roberto Alvarez by Larry Dane Brimner
- I Am an American: The Wong Kim Ark Story by Martha Brockenbrough
- Hear My Voice: The Testimonies of Children Detained at the Southern Border of the United States compiled by Warren Binford
- Let ‘Er Buck: George Fletcher, the People’s Champion by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
- Soldier for Equality: José de la Luz Sáenz and the Great War by Duncan Tonatiuh
- Hammering for Freedom: The William Lewis Story by Rita Lorraine Hubbard
- Susan B. Anthony: Her Fight for Equal Rights (Step into Reading) by Monica Kulling
- This Is Your Time by Ruby Bridges
- Anne Frank (Great Lives in Graphics) by Susie Duff, Editor
1. We Want to Go to School! The Fight for Disability Rights by Maryann Cocca-Lefler & Janine Leffler
Ages 5-9, Format: picture book , Subjects: Children with disabilities, educational opportunity, advocacy
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We Want to Go to School! is a short and upbeat book that describes how several families went to court to get their children access to a free and equal public education. Author Janine Leffler narrates the book, giving children a relatable guide to the history she’s going to recount. On the first page, we see her sitting in a chair with a book in her hand wearing fuzzy pink slippers with a dog at her feet. “Hi, I’m Janine,” the text reads. “When I was a kid, it took me a long time to learn to talk and walk. My muscles were weak. I was born with something called cerebral palsy, or CP for short. I learned to read before I could talk, but I needed help doing lots of other things.”
On the next two-page spread, we see young Janine going to school and learning from her classroom teacher, physical therapist, speech therapist, and occupational therapist. Turn the page, and we see her laughing, playing, and studying with her friends. But, she tells us, kids in the past didn’t always get to have the opportunities at school that she did.
She describes how, in the early 1970s, millions of children weren’t allowed to go to public schools. Those who did were often placed in segregated classrooms without the same quality of education that the other children received. From there, she introduces us to the seven children named in a suit to allow children with disabilities to go to public school. On one especially effective two- page spread, she mentions that 18,000 children in the Washington DC area weren’t receiving a public education because they had disabilities. The illustrator has put 1,000 children’s faces on this spread, and the text asks us to imagine 18 pages of children who didn’t get to go to school.
We see the lawyers arguing their cases to the judge, and we see finally that the court ruled that students with disabilities must be given a free public education.
The illustrations are rendered in a friendly, cartoon style. All in all, this book serves as a brief and lively introduction to how the children and their families fought for their rights. The back matter includes more information about disability education rights, a timeline, notes from the authors, the plaintiff’s attorney in the case, and selected sources for more research.
2. Dear Mr. Dickens by Nancy Churnin
Ages 6-10, Format: picture book nonfiction, Subjects: writers, Jews in literature, women, advocacy
The thing I like best about reading these children’s narrative nonfiction books is that I learned so many of these fascinating little stories that might not make it into larger works. In Dear Mr. Dickens we learn about a Jewish woman, Eliza Davis, a contemporary of Charles Dickens, who loves reading his books and stories.
Except for Oliver Twist. When Fagin appears in chapter 8, she sees that “Charles Dickens described ‘the Jew’ as dishonest, selfish, cruel, and ugly. The character’s name was Fagin, but over and over Dickens wrote the Jew, the Jew, the Jew. Each time, the words hurt like a hammer on Eliza’s heart.”
She picked up a paper and a pen, and wrote him a letter saying that the way he portrayed Fagin was “a vile prejudice” and asked him to “atone for great wrong.”
Mr. Dickens wrote back in a sharp tone, saying that his character was based on actual criminals who were Jewish and pointed out that there were also criminals in his books that were not Jewish. He said that any Jewish people who thought him unfair were not “sensible” or “good tempered.”
Eliza was of course distressed to get this reply, but she persisted (sorry, couldn’t resist.) She remembered how Scrooge needed to be visited three times before he changed, and she wrote him again. Eliza wrote back about Dickens’ past (that he loved the book Ivanhoe as a boy, a book which featured noble Jewish characters), his present (rightly pointing out that every one of his current Jewish characters was a criminal), and of his future (how generations would judge him by how he had portrayed others).
I am happy to say this time, her words worked. In one of his next books, he included a kind Jewish man. And when Oliver Twist was reprinted, “He told the printer to take out many instances of ‘the Jew’ and change them to ‘Fagin,’ to make it clear that Fagin didn’t represent all Jewish people.
The artwork is lovely, and the details represented give a real feel for the time period. Churnin includes an author’s note giving a brief history of the treatment of Jews in Great Britain and describing continued correspondence between Eliza Davis and Charles Dickens.
3. The Singer and the Scientist by Lisa Rose
Ages 6 to 10, Format: picture book nonfiction, Subjects: African-Americans, singers, scientists, Marian Anderson, Albert Einstein, prejudice
The Singer and the Scientist is a lovely book to read to children as the starting point of a discussion about how hurtful prejudice and discrimination can be and how important kindness is.
As the story begins, we see the famous singer, Marian Anderson, as she performs in Princeton New Jersey in 1937. When she finishes, the audience erupts into applause, but once she gathers her things and heads to the lobby, “The well-dressed people mingled with one another – but not with her. Nobody came up to Marian to compliment her or to thank her or even to say hello. As so often happened, she felt invisible in the white crowd.”
When she asks the theater owner to broker a room in a nearby hotel, he explains loudly that it is a whites-only hotel, embarrassing her in front of everyone. Then a man with “wild white hair” steps up. She had seen him in the front row, and now realizes that he is Albert Einstein. After he raves about her performance, he invites her to stay in his house for the night.
As they walk, Einstein tells her about his difficult time as a Jew in Germany, and she understands that he knows how painful it is to be treated like an outsider in a person’s own country. The two talk into the night, and Einstein plays his violin while Anderson sings, the beginning of a friendship that lasted for a long time.
Anderson returns to that same theater many years later when attitudes had changed somewhat. The theater owner offers to arrange a room for her at the same hotel she had been denied earlier, but she says that she will be staying at the home of her friend, Albert Einstein.
The illustrations, which feature deep jewel tones, portray the emotions of the story quite well. We see the friendliness and delight in Anderson and Einstein, and we also see Anderson’s distress at how she is treated. The picture that particularly affected me was the one of Anderson sitting on her suitcase, and rubbing her feet after her performance. It conveys the exhaustion she felt after what had been a long day.
This book serves as a gentle, yet deeply poignant introduction to the pain of discrimination and the delights of empathy and friendship.
4. Ready to Fly: How Sylvia Townsend Became the Bookmobile Ballerina by Lea Lyon
Ages 5-8; Subjects: ballerinas, African-American women, self-education, libraries; Format: picture book biography
Ready to Fly relates the kind of story that I wish we would see more in children’s books: how you can realize your dreams, even if you don’t reach the absolute pinnacle of a field. It’s of course appropriate, that we give children biographies of people who became president or famous inventors or Olympic champions, but most of our children are going to need to find success and fulfillment in places that are not considered the very tip top. And they should feel proud of their accomplishments and contributions.
This biography focuses on Sylvia Townsend, and African American girl who had dreams of being a ballerina when black girls did not have many opportunities to go to ballet school. She succeeded in becoming a dancer and in starting her own ballet school.
When Sylvia’s parents told her that they didn’t have the money for ballet lessons, she improvised her own outfits out of scarves and checked out ballet books from the bookmobile that rolled through her neighborhood. As a librarian myself, I love the depiction of the smiling librarian who works to get every book she can find on her little patron’s interest.
We see Sylvia improvising a barre using two chairs and a broom handle, and practicing her pirouettes and arabesques that she has learned from her books. She also starts to teach the girls in her neighborhood how to dance.
When her fourth-grade teacher offers to pay for her lessons she finds no one will accept her because she’s a little black girl. She is dispirited, until she realizes she still needs to pull herself together to teach all the little girls who have been coming to her and who look up to her.
Later, after she and her girls perform in a talent show, a Russian dance teacher offers to let her to come to the school for free. Sylvia finally gets the schooling she had hoped for. Turn the page, and we see her all grown up teaching her students in her own studio.
The back matter has a section on the history of bookmobiles, complete with photographs.
5. A Girl Named Rosita: The Story of Rita Moreno: Actor, Singer, Dancer, Trailblazer by Anika Aldamuy Denise
Ages 5-8, Subjects: women, actors, dancers, singers, Puerto Ricans, Latinas, bullying, Format: picture book biography
A Girl Named Rosita tells the story of the life of Rita Moreno, a Latina woman who has won the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards, and is an enduring cultural icon. Children who are too young to have seen her in West Side Story, The Electric Company or One Day at a Time can get a sense of her energetic performing style from this clip from West Side Story. (She is the one in the light purple dress.)
Back in 1935 she was a little girl from Puerto Rico who moved with her mother to the mainland and ran home from school to avoid the bullies who teased her about her accent and darker skin.
Through it all, she persists in learning a new language and taking dance lessons. Ironically, even though she worked hard to speak un-accented English, once she broke into acting, she was required to put on an accent for the kinds of roles she was given. The book ends on a triumphant note showing how she won an Oscar for West Side Story.
6. Shirley Chisholm Is a Verb! by Veronica Chambers
Ages 7-10, Format: picture book biography, Subjects: African-Americans, Black women, political office, teachers
Shirley Chisholm Is a Verb! tells the story of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, and the first Black person and the first woman to run for president. Many of the verbs in the text are highlighted, stressing the actions which Chisholm took, and also providing a nice little side lesson on recognizing verbs. My favorite quote from Chisholm, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
As readers, we follow Chisholm from her childhood in Barbados through her career directing daycare centers (helping to implement and organize Head Start) and on to her decision to go into politics so that she could advocate for the people she had worked with.
We see how she campaigned and won a seat in the US House. “There wasn’t a single person who looked like her,” Chambers tells us. “It was a lonely time. Being the first and only often is.”
We see how she worked on her first assignment, the House Agriculture Committee, to help start the WIC program for hungry children and also helped to create the national school lunch program. Chambers explains in an aside that she wasn’t in charge of the menus. “So if you don’t like your lunch, please don’t blame her!”
We learn that she campaigned to be president in 1972, paving the way for other women and people of color, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. (This book was published before Kamala Harris became Vice President.)
The illustrations are colorful and vibrant, giving a sense of Chisholm’s warmth and strength.
7. All the Way to the Top: How One Girl’s Fight for Americans With Disabilities Act Changed Everything by Annette Bay Pimentel
Ages 5-10; Format: picture book nonfiction; Subjects: people with disabilities, perseverance, cerebral palsy, civil rights Americans With Disabilities Act; Pages: 32
It’s easy to see how children may take for granted the ways in which buildings and other elements of our lives have been designed to be accessible to people of all abilities, since they have seen it all their lives, but many buildings used to be much harder for people with disabilities to navigate.
All the Way to the Top tells the story of Jennifer Keelan, a young girl born with cerebral palsy, who demonstrated along with the adults in favor of passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the early 1990s.
The phrase “all the way to the top” refers to her participation in a “Capitol Crawl” in which activists crawled up the capitol steps to demonstrate how difficult it was for people with disabilities to access all kinds of buildings. We see how long it took her to crawl to the top of the steps and how much perseverance she showed along the way.
8. Mother Jones and Her Army of Mill Children by Jonah Winter
Ages 7-10; Format: picture book biography; Subjects: labor leaders, child labor, mistreatment of workers, women activists ; Pages: 40
Mother Jones and Her Army of Mill Children is a book that does a great job of making history come alive for children. It shows them how the social and work policies we now take for granted came to be. So many of the children I've spoken with have no idea that in the early 1900’s, little kids used to have to work in the factories for ten hours straight for just two cents an hour. The factories were dangerous places, full of dust that damaged children’s lungs and machines that could cut off a finger, or worse.
This book describes the struggle to end child labor. It works brilliantly because author Jonah Winter decided to narrate this story of the March of the Mill Children in Mother Jones's voice. The story would make an excellent read-aloud.
Open the book, and on the first double-page spread we have an illustration of Mother Jones, dressed in her trademark black and white, striding purposefully towards us. "My name is Mother Jones, and I'm MAD," she says. "And you'd be MAD, too, if you'd seen what I've seen."
When she talks about the mill children, she says, "I saw children YOUR AGE--nine and ten years old--who worked like grown-ups, forced to stand on their feet for TEN HOURS STRAIGHT, tying threads to spinning spools, reaching their hands inside the dangerous machines that make the fabric...breathing deadly dust--robbed of their childhoods, robbed of their dreams, and all for a measly TWO CENTS AND HOUR, while outside the birds sang and the blue sky shone." The illustration shows young children, most of them barefoot, hunched over at their machines, looking exhausted. We see one little girl looking back at us, her face a mixture of sorrow and longing.
When we turn a couple of page, we see Mother Jones calling the newspapers on an old-fashioned telephone and telling them in no uncertain terms what the mill owners have done. However, those newspapers were owned by rich men "who were buddies with the rich folks who owned the mills," and they weren't about to print any stories about how evil and greedy the mill owners were. On the facing page, we see a bunch of newspaper editors holding the phone away from their ears and laughing while they hold a newspaper with a headline that reads "Kids Enjoy Factory Work."
Mother Jones tells us, "Money is a powerful thing. But there is power in the people. There is POWER in the UNION...What--you never heard of a union?" she says. Then she explains briefly what a union is and what it does.
She came up with a plan to gather the children together and march them to see the president and tell him about their working conditions. Lots of people along the way helped them out: train conductors would let them ride for free and other people would bring them food.
Unfortunately, by the time she got to the president's mansion, she only had three children with her, and the president would not agree to see them. But, Mother Jones tells us she does not consider the march a failure. "HECK NO! What we did that summer changed the world." The march had "shined a great big SPOTLIGHT on child labor.” She then lists the types of law they succeeded in getting passed: children under 18 could not work the dangerous jobs, children under 16 would be prohibited from working during school hours, and the children under 14 could not work after school.
It's a lively and inspiring book that portrays an important time in American history. The back matter includes a bibliography and an Author's Note in which Winter reminds us that there are still 215 million child workers worldwide. Even here in the US, some people want to reverse the child labor laws. He ends by saying "We need Mother Jones."
9. Bread for Words: a Frederick Douglass Story by Shana Keller
Ages 6-10; Subjects: slaves, education, reading, African-Americans, abolitionists, perseverance; Format: picture book biography
Bread for Words serves as an accessible introduction to the life of the influential abolitionist Frederick Douglass by showing how he cleverly traded bread to the hungry boys on the street in exchange for them teaching him how to read.
Choosing to narrate her book in first person, author Shana Keller uses words from Douglass’ writings to tell how he grew up with his grandmother in Maryland until she informed him that he was actually a slave and would soon need to go and work for Old Master. “They won’t teach you a thing, but to work,” she tells him. “And you won’t have a choice.” But Douglas did learn to read and write through his ingenuity and persistence, and eventually was able to escape slavery and become a human rights activist.
10. Unspeakable: the Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford
Ages 8-12; Format: picture book nonfiction; Subjects: racism, African-Americans, US History, Tulsa Race Riot; Pages: 32
Unspeakable recounts the story of a prosperous African-American settlement in Tulsa, Oklahoma which was destroyed in 1921 by a white mob. It can be a disturbing story, but it is also an important one to introduce to children, and I suspect that is why this book won more children’s book awards than any other for the year in which it was published. The events of that day served to illustrate how racial animosity has so often systematically erased gains made by the African-American community.
Weatherford uses spare, yet evocative text in this book to describe how African-Americans built a flourishing community in a place called Greenwood outside Tulsa. She tells how the area became known as “Black Wall Street.” They had restaurants, grocery stores, furriers, a pool hall, a bus system, and an auto shop – nearly 200 businesses in all. The community is also had numerous institutions such as libraries, hospital, post office, and a school system.
The rich illustrations, which portray the warmth of the community and the dignity of the people, picture each person as an individual so that you feel as though you have seen and met them before.
“But in 1921, not everyone in Tulsa was pleased with the signs of 10,000 people’s wealth – undeniable proof that African-Americans could achieve just as much, if not more than, whites,“ Weatherford tells us. “All it took was one elevator ride, one seventeen-year-old white elevator operator accusing a 19-year old Black shoeshine man of assault for simmering hatred to boil over.”
What exactly happened in the elevator has been lost to history, though we do find out that the young man in question was later released from custody without any charges. But after the white-owned newspaper in Tulsa encouraged whites to “nab” the man, 30 black men rushed to the jail where the young man was being held to prevent him from being attacked. Things spiraled out of control, until a white mob descended on Greenwood “looting and burning homes and businesses that Blacks had saved and sacrificed to build.” When it was all over, we learn, as many as 300 Black people were killed, and hundreds of businesses were burned to the ground.
As the book ends, we see picture of people gathered at Tulsa’s Reconciliation Park many years later. The park reminds us of “the responsibility we all have to reject hatred and violence and to instead choose hope.”
Unspeakable relates this story as gently as possible without losing the point of the narrative. Even though the illustrations show scenes with people running from their homes and being held at gunpoint, illustrator Floyd Cooper refrains from showing overly graphic violence. The emphasis of the book is much more on showing the thriving community.
The back matter includes notes from both the author and the illustrator, both of whom have personal connections to these stories. We also see a photograph of the smoke billowing from the fires on the day of the massacre and the sculptures that are in the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park in Tulsa.
11. Without Separation: Prejudice, Segregation, in the Case of Roberto Alvarez by Larry Dane Brimner
Ages 8-10, Format: picture book non-fiction, Subjects: school segregation, Hispanic children, California, equal education
Without Separation recounts how a school board near San Diego, California constructed a separate school for Mexican-American children after they received complaints that those children were holding the others back and endangering their health. In matter-of-fact text, we learn the story of how the families fought back in the courts. Illustrations are in a colorful, folk art style. The back matter includes an extensive author’s note that describes the case and others like it.
12. I Am an American: The Wong Kim Ark Story by Martha Brockenbrough
Ages 6-10, Format: picture book non-fiction, Subjects: US citizenship, Chinese-American, immigration
The legal case at the center of I Am an American went beyond talking about the rights of Chinese-Americans and on to the question of “What makes someone American?” Even though the 14th amendment says that anyone who was born in America is a citizen, the case was brought against Wong Kim Ark saying that he couldn’t be a citizen “because his Chinese ancestors had different customs and language from most people in America.” One can see how that kind of criteria would have excluded large swaths of people from claiming American citizenship, and in 1898, the Supreme Court decided that Kim Ark was a citizen by virtue of being born in the US.
13. Hear My Voice: The Testimonies of Children Detained at the Southern Border of the United States compiled by Warren Binford
Ages 8-12, Format: picture book non-fiction, Subjects: detention, immigrant children, refugee children, family separation, justice
In Hear My Voice Binford uses short excerpts of children’s sworn testimony taken around the year 2017 to show readers what the children detained at the border have experienced: how they were so crowded that the babies didn’t even have a place to crawl, how they had to sleep on cement benches with the lights on all night, how a guard slammed the door on them when they couldn’t tell him how many stripes are on the US flag.
The book ends a bit more upbeat with children relating their hopes and wishes. Different Latinx artists illustrate each two-page spread. The text is in both English and Spanish. Though the text can be understood by younger children, the stories can be heartbreaking and the illustrations can be frightening at times. The experiences of these children can be distressing, but they are important for us all to know.
14. Let ‘Er Buck: George Fletcher, the People’s Champion by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
Ages 8-12; Format: picture book biography; Subjects:, African-Americans, cowboys, rodeos; Pages: 40; AR reading level 4.7
People usually think of cowboys in the West who look like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, but in reality twenty-five percent of the cowboys in the old West were black, and even more were of Mexican origin.
Let ‘Er Buck tells the story of a young African-American man, George Fletcher, who was a skilled bronc rider and of his participation in a rodeo contest in eastern Oregon.
Author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson tells us about George Fletcher’s early days, and flavors her work with Old West phrases, “…there weren’t many black people in Eastern Oregon, and most whites didn’t cotton to them. George suffered meanness and hurt because of his skin color. Life at home was no bushel of peaches either. He had to make his own way.” The family lived near the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and Fletcher took a liking to them “like a wet kitten to a warm brick.”
She describes how he loved to pretend he was riding a bucking horse in a game he played with the other children in which they would put a person on a barrel and pull ropes attached to make the barrel “buck.” When he grew up, Fletcher moved to actual bucking broncos, riding in rodeos and exhibitions all around town.
At the age of 21, Fletcher competed in the Saddle Bronc Champion contest, the biggest rodeo held in the Northwest. Jackson Sundown, a Nez Perce, and John Spain, a white rancher, were his main competitors. Sundown lost a stirrup and was disqualified, and Spain held on to have a "dandy ride." But it was Fletcher's superior the ride that inspired the crowd. According to the local newspaper, George rode his horse "with such ease and abandon that the crowd shouted itself hoarse." It described him as "limber and elastic as a rubber band" and "easily made the most showy ride of the Round-Up."
But when it was time to announce the winner, the judges awarded Fletcher second place. Nelson tells us he "took it like a cowboy. He'd felt the sting before." The judges’ decision didn't sit well with the sheriff, however. His solution was to cut up Fletcher's hat and sell the pieces to crowd members as a keepsake. The sales brought the bronc rider more money than if he’d won the first prize, a silver-trimmed saddle. The audience had "plumb decided--heck with the judges--George'd won." Today, people still know him as "The People's Champion," and in 2014 the City of Pendleton erected a statue to honor him.
15. Soldier for Equality: José de la Luz Sáenz and the Great War by Duncan Tonatiuh
Ages 8-12; Format: picture book biography; Subjects:, Mexican Americans, Army soldiers, World War I, civil rights workers; Pages: 40; AR reading level 5.3
Soldier for Equality is an important book that fosters empathy for people who have been bullied because of their heritage. It tells the story of José de la Luz Sáenz (called Luz in the text), a soldier who fought in World War I, and helped found the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), which is a civil rights organization working for equal rights for Americans of Latinx descent.
Author Duncan Tonatiuh starts this story with a situation that children can easily understand. When Luz was a young boy, the other children bullied him because he came from Mexico. When a boy yelled out "Greaser!” Luz “ran toward the boy and tackled him to the ground. Luz had had enough. ¡Ya basta! Why were those kids mean to him just because his family had come from Mexico?"
Luz and all his siblings were born in the US, making them American citizens, just like the kids who tormented them. But the children of Mexican descent were forced to attend inferior schools. Additionally, some businesses had posted signs that said, "No Mexicans allowed."
When he grew up and became a schoolteacher, Luz was still frustrated by the injustice his pupils had to deal with. In 1918 he joined the army, even though he could have received exemption. He believed it was his duty, and he believed that his service would show other Americans that his people were entitled to the same rights because they fought for the country.
While he was at training camp, an officer once again called him "greaser." "This army will fight against tyrannical rulers and injustice in Europe," he thought. "How is it possible that some officers here can be so unfair to their own countrymen?"
Once he returned home, Luz found conditions had not changed for Mexican Americans. His people had all done their part for the war effort, and now they wanted equality and justice. Luz began to give speeches and helped to found LULAC with other activists.
In his Author's Note, Tonatiuh tells how he was able to read Luz's journal which provided insights into life of Tejanos in the military and in south Texas.
Tonatiuh also did the artwork, showcasing the folk-art style he has used in his other books such as Separate is Never Equal. They convey the mood of the story: the isolation Luz felt, the dangers of war, or the joy of a homecoming celebration.
Back matter also includes a bibliography, and index, timelines, and a glossary of Spanish words and phrases.
16. Hammering for Freedom: The William Lewis Story by Rita Lorraine Hubbard
Ages 6-9; Format: picture book biography; Subjects: blacksmiths, African-Americans,slavery, freedmen ; Pages: 32; AR Reading Level 4.6
Hammering for Freedom recounts the story of an enslaved man, William “Bill” Lewis, born in the early 1800’s, who worked to buy his family’s way out of slavery. When he was young, he learned to be a blacksmith and the plantation owner would at times let him keep the extra money he made doing work for other people.
Lewis hit on the creative idea of asking the owner to let him “rent” himself out, and then charge other people for the work he did. The owner agreed, saying that if he paid $350 to rent his freedom, he could keep however many dollars he made above that amount. (I looked on the internet to find out what $350 would be in today’s dollars, and found it would be roughly equal to $8,900 today.)
Author Rita Lorraine Hubbard tells this story in picture book format with full-page color illustrations and two or three paragraphs on the facing page. Illustrator John Holyfield captures Lewis’ dignity and hard work along with showing details of the surroundings in 19th-century American South.
It’s a positive and hopeful book that ends with a portrait of the extended family that Lewis managed to free from slavery.
The back matter includes an Afterword with more details about Lewis’ life as well as a source list.
17. Susan B. Anthony: Her Fight for Equal Rights (Step into Reading) by Monica Kulling
Ages 6-8; Format: easy reader biography; Subjects: women’s rights, suffragists, voting, civic engagement
The book Susan B. Anthony does a good job of covering the major points of her life concisely for beginning readers, while introducing them to the unfairness that she fought against. It’s part of the “Step into Reading” series of early readers and is labeled at Step 2, for children who recognize familiar words on sight and can sound out new words with help. The type is quite large, and the text contains only one or two sentences per page, with full-color illustrations that show what is going on. Author Monica Kulling starts by pointing out, “Today, girls can go up to be anything they want. They can be rocket scientists, racecar drivers, or even the president!”
She goes on to describe how women did not have the same rights as men in the early 1800s, and many women fought for the right to vote, including Susan B. Anthony. We see her in school, and find out that her teacher wouldn’t teacher long division saying, “Girls don’t need to know that.” To his credit, Susan’s father then schooled his children at home.
Susan Anthony became a teacher, but left when she was paid much less than a man doing the same job. We see her working for human rights, and for the Underground Railroad, and at meetings where she was told to “listen and learn.” We see her pairing with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and daring to vote in the November 1872 election for president. She wrote to Elizabeth, “I have gone and done it!” She was arrested and put on trial in order to pay a fine, but she replied “I will not pay one dollar!” And it turns out she never did.
We learn that she fought for women’s rights for over 50 years and died in 1906, 14 years before the law changed in 1920.
18. This Is Your Time by Ruby Bridges
Ages 9-12; Format: small-format nonfiction; Subjects: African-American children, school integration, civil rights movement, education, race relations
This Is Your Time, Ruby Bridges’ book that tells of her experiences being the first child to integrate New Orleans’ all-white school system, is a small, slim volume that makes quite an impact in its pages. Bridges was only six years old when she walked with the protection of four federal marshals into an all-white school.
Her words are powerful, but what I found really struck me are the black-and-white photos that accompany each page of text. Here we see little Ruby, a wide-eyed six-year-old with a white bow in her hair, then flanked by men and hats and dark suits as she leaves the schoolhouse. Next, we see the white women lined up outside the school to scream threats and throw things, mouths open in fury. There is even a photo of parents carrying a small coffin with a black doll inside. It makes you wonder how people got to the point where they stand and yell at a little six-year-old girl, or bring a symbol like a coffin
We also see a picture of the teacher, Barbara Henry, who came to teach the class and ended up having only one student because all the white parents refused to send their children to class with Ruby. Despite the ordeal of getting to school, Bridges tells us, “I felt safe and loved, and that was because of Mrs. Henry, who, by the way, looked exactly like the women in that screaming mob outside. But she wasn’t like them. She showed me her heart, and even at six years old I knew she was different. Barbara Henry was white and I was black, and we mattered to each other. She became my best friend. I knew that if I got safely past the angry crowd outside and into my classroom, I was going to have a good day.” The accompanying photo shows an adult Bridges standing next to Barbara Henry at the unveiling of a statue in Ruby’s honor in 2014.
I was happy to see a later photo of Bridges sitting with her white friends at school the next year.
Bridges goes on to tell us a little bit about the civil rights movement and about the work she now does, as an activist and speaking to groups of schoolchildren. We see children participating in Black Lives Matter marches, and, sadly, learn that Bridges lost one of her sons in a random shooting in 2005. She ends by saying, “May my past, my story, inspire you. The first steps towards change are never easy, but six-year-old Ruby Bridges taught us that it is necessary to take the steps. Don’t be afraid. This is your time in history. Keep your eyes on the prize. And at all costs, stay united.”
19. Anne Frank (Great Lives in Graphics) by Susie Duff, Editor
Ages 7-10; Format nonfiction graphic presentationSubjects: Holocaust, Netherlands, hidden children, Jews, Nazis
Anne Frank is part of the Great Lives in Graphics series which will especially appeal to children who like things laid out visually, and will also serve as a way for children to learn to interpret things like timelines, charts, posters, maps, and other infographics.
We start with an introduction to Anne and her family, with a brief overview with what happened to them and how the diary “is an important reminder of the dangers of hatred and prejudice.” On the next two page spread, we see a timeline with graphics that note the year of Anne’s birth, the rise of Hitler, the year and receives a diary as a present for her 13th birthday, Pearl Harbor, and the year in which she died.
One reason for the longevity of her diary is how it humanizes her, and on the next two page spread, we see a graphic called “All about Anne” which tells us that she had a reputation as a chatterbox, her favorite color, her favorite subjects in school, the name of her cat, and what she dreamed of doing.
It’s a bit surprising how immediate this format makes everything feel, but I found myself looking for a long time at things like Nazi posters regarding rules for Jews – “You must hand over your bicycle if you have one,” and “You are banned from riding in a car…”
I can also see this book inspiring projects in which children create their own infographics to illustrate notable people’s lives.
20. Twelve Days in May by Larry Dane Brimner
Ages 9-16; Format: large format nonfiction chapters; Subjects: African-Americans, civil rights, Freedom rides, history; Pages: 112; AR Reading Level 8.6
Twelve Days in May tells the story of the Freedom Riders who traveled by bus and by airplane from Washington D.C. to New Orleans in 1961.
The book first gives readers some context, recounting the situation of African-Americans in the South and briefly explaining court decisions like Plessy vs. Ferguson and Brown vs. Board of Education. We see black and white photographs of life in the south, like a young man drinking from a water fountain that is labeled "colored," and a group of students huddling around a stove in a black-only school.
The rest of the book recounts the story of the Freedom Riders: where they traveled, which actions they took to demonstrate de-segregation, and the reactions to them. The courts had said that buses and lunch counters should be desegregated, but in most of the South, people still followed the segregation rules. A variety of Klan members and other white men intimidated people who did not follow the law.
This book doesn’t shy away from disturbing facts, but it doesn't seek to overplay them, either. We are left with a profound respect for the people, both black and white, who committed themselves to non-violence and demonstrated their rights, even under the threat of beatings and angry mobs chasing them in cars.
The print of the book is fairly large, and the text is broken into chunks so that it is not overwhelming. Large photos appear every two or three pages, and they serve to illustrate their points well.
The back matter includes short biographies of each rider, a bibliography, an index, and source notes.
This book serves as a good narrative of the civil rights movement that focuses on a short period of time but touches on many of the broader issues.
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