Life-Shaping Books for Kids

By Kathleen McGinnis 12-22-2008

Children's literature provides one of the most uplifting, energizing, and soul-freeing pursuits for any child—or any adult who cares about children. For those of us who live and breathe social justice or who grab at the edges of social justice whenever we can, children's literature can be visionary, comforting, and challenging as we think about our own role in the peace and justice universe.

The following books -- for preschoolers to grade 3 -- are examples of the kind of children's literature that is rooted in gospel values and has a role in creating a more just world. The books reflect themes of respect for self and others, nonviolent communication, dealing with anger and forgiveness, respect for the environment, the importance of play and creativity, our global interdependence, and courage in the face of war and injustice. These values are shown in both practical and magical ways. Stay tuned for a list of books geared toward older kids.

On the Day You Were Born, by Debra Frasier. "On the eve of your birth, word of your coming passed from animal to animal …" are the opening words of this wonderful statement of the importance of each individual person. Harcourt Children's Books, 1991.

A Ride on Mother's Back, by Emery Bernhard. Illustrated by Durga Bernard. This book celebrates the different ways people carry their babies around the world. The illustrations are very appealing. Gulliver Books, 1996.

Whoever You Are, by Mem Fox. Illustrated by Leslie Staub. This is a strong statement of the connectedness among children all over the world. Voyager Books, 1997.

Hot Day on Abbott Avenue, by Karen English. Collage art by Javaka Steptoe. Two girls, mired in a "never-going-to-be-friends-again day," find a way to reforge their friendship. The graphics are stunning. Clarion Books, 2004.

When Sophie Gets Angry -- Really, Really Angry ..., by Molly Bang. Sophie finds comfort in nature as she deals with her feelings. Scholastic, 1999.

The Hurt, by Teddi Doleski. Justin gets his feelings hurt and retreats into himself to nurse The Hurt. The longer he holds on to it, the bigger it grows. Finally he learns to deal with his feelings and let The Hurt go. Paulist Press, 1983.

Mama, Do You Love Me? by Barbara Joosse. Illustrated by Barbara Lavallee. This is a tender story of a young Eskimo child testing her independence from her mother, and a wonderful mother who constantly reassures the child that nothing could ever change her love for the child. This book is also a good introduction to Eskimo or Inuit culture. Chronicle Books, 1991.

Papa, Do You Love Me?by Barbara Joosse. Illustrated by Barbara Lavallee. In this wonderful follow-up to Joosse's original book, unconditional love is the theme and the setting is Africa. The book offers a good introduction to Maasai life. Chronicle Books, 2005.

Between Earth & Sky, by Joseph Bruchac. Illustrated by Thomas Locker. "Everything is sacred between earth and sky." The author does a wonderful job exploring the concept of "sacred" in Native American tradition. Harcourt Children's Books, 1996.

Jonathan and His Mommy, by Irene Smalls. Illustrated by Michael Hays. Jonathan and his mother walk, run, and hop through their neighborhood in a spirit of absolute joy. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 1992.

The Color of Home, by Mary Hoffman. Illustrated by Karin Littlewood. This is the story of a Muslim family who fled from Somalia to the United States. The healing powers of art and a wonderful teacher help the child deal with his painful memories. Penguin, 2002.

Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by Doreen Rappaport. Illustrated by Bryan Collier. A beautifully illustrated and wonderfully told story of the life of Martin Luther King Jr., ending with the assurance that "his big words are alive for us today." Hyperion Books for Children, 2001.

¡Si, Se Puede! / Yes, We Can!: Janitor Strike in L.A., by Diana Cohn. Illustrated by Francisco Delgado. "While everyone sleeps, my mama goes to work." This is a powerful bilingual story of the struggle of janitors in Los Angeles to be treated with dignity and justice. It represents a critical insight for young readers today. Cinco Puntos Press, 2002.

Crossing Bok Chitto, by Tim Tingle. Illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges. Set in Mississippi in the days before the Civil War, the author and illustrator create a tale of friendship across cultures. A Choctaw girl befriends a family of slaves on a plantation. The result is heartwarming and magical. Cinco Puntos Press, 2006.

Friends from the Other Side/Amigos del otro lado, by Gloria Anzaldúa. Illustrated by Consuelo Méndez. This bilingual story of friendship between a South Texas Chicana girl and a boy from Mexico is very appropriate in today's reality with regard to immigration. Courage, friendship, and wisdom abound. Children's Book Press, 1997.

Kathleen McGinnis, executive director of the St. Louis-based Institute for Peace and Justice, is an author, teacher, and workshop consultant. She and her husband, Jim, have three children and three grandchildren.

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