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 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.
For Young Children
Preschool to grade 3
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, 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: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship and Freedom , 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.
For Older Children
Grades 4 to 12
What Is My Song? by Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn. Illustrated by Francisco Miranda. Based on a traditional African tale, this book explores the idea that each child comes into the world with his or her own song to sing. Children know that song, and it is up to adults to help them find it. Paulist Press, 2005. Grades 3-6.
The Road to Paris, by Nikki Grimes. This is a poignant story of faith, family, and resilience based on the love and trust of others. As 8-year-old Paris deals with the pain of the foster care system, she learns how to “keep God in her pocket” and believe in herself and others. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2006. Grades 4-7.
Copper Sun, by Sharon Draper. A riveting story that describes in detail the realities of the slave trade and life on a plantation. The survivor’s spirit of 15-year-old Amari is an anchor in the fast-moving plot. Atheneum Books, 2006. Grades 9 and up.
Dark Sons, by Nikki Grimes. This remarkable tale of two teenagers, one biblical (Ishmael) and one modern (Sam), tells a story in free-verse narratives of pain, betrayal, loss, and hope in the midst of the struggle to forgive. Hyperion Books for Children, 2005. Grades 6 and up.
A Wreath for Emmett Till, by Marilyn Nelson. Illustrated by Philippe Lardy. This book of sonnets is penetrating and at times raw as it creates a memorial to a teenager who was lynched. It offers great food for adult-teen discussion and also conveys a sense of hope, even in the midst of terrible pain: “In my house, there is still something called grace,/which melts ice shards of hate and makes hearts whole.” Houghton Mifflin, 2005. Grades 9 and up.
The Land, by Mildred Taylor. Taylor continues her wonderful gift of combining history and storytelling. This book explores double standards in the South during the years following the Civil War. Suspense, humor, love, hope, and reconciliation fill its pages. Penguin, 2001. Grades 7 and up.
The Everything Kids’ Environment Book: Learn How You Can Help the Environment—by Getting Involved at School, at Home, or at Play, by Sheri Amsel. This volume is full of concrete ideas for action for young people. Adams Media Corporation, 2007. Grades 4-8.
A Dream of Freedom: The Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968, by Diane McWhorter. McWhorter provides excellent historical coverage of the grand sweep of the civil rights movement, highlighting some of its most important leaders. Archival photos add immensely to its power. Scholastic, 2004. Grades 5-9.
Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry. This is a fictional story based on real events around the evacuation of Jews from Denmark during World War II. A 10-year-old Danish girl is the central figure as her family decides to harbor a Jewish family. Laurel-Leaf, 1998. Grades 4-7.
Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters, by Andrea Davis Pinkney. Illustrated by Stephen Alcorn. “It is my hope that the stories of the women presented here offer a window into their tremendous power. And I hope their lives reflect something in each of us—the courage to fight for what we believe is right.” So says the author, and she accomplishes her goal beautifully. Stories of Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, and others jump off the pages and grab the reader. Scholastic, 2000. Grades 4-8.
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.