It’s obvious that here at Library Card, we believe in the transformative power of reading to expand our consciousness and to challenge all the -isms that dominant culture instills. But if you’re a parent, you don’t need to wait until your child can read at a YA level. (Though trust - there is so much good radical YA fiction out there. Keep an eye out for that list coming soon!) Now more than ever, there are radical childrne's books that focus on social justice issues. Gone are the days of damsels in distress and hyper-masculine heroes. Children’s book writers are challenging narratives of normativity while demonstrating that children can grasp issues such as economic inequality, LGBT relationships (obviously - many children being LGBT themselves), and racial solidarity.
This is also, of course, an issue of representation. The vast majority of children’s books still feature white, middle-class, normatively abled characters. Their plotlines are usually designed to teach some moral lesson that is wholly devoid of real-life applications. But representation matters. Representation shapes what we expect from the world and from each other. Sociologists have been studying the effects of media representation for decades, and they’ve found - particularly with children - that seeing positive examples of your race and gender boosts self-esteem, shapes a positive self-image, and increases confidence. On the other hand, lack of visibility has distinctly destructive effects. Of course, this doesn’t simply come down to seeing characters of your race or gender on-screen or on the page, but also seeing those characters in a wide variety of roles. Indeed, it can be just as damaging to see characters of your gender and race in the same constricting, stereotypical roles.
Just to put it into perspective: in 2015, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison), found that only 7.6% of characters in children’s books were Black. The number drops to 3.3% for Asian characters, 2.4% for Latinx characters, and only 0.9% for Native Americans. A massive 73.3%, on the other hand, were white.
And this is an IMPROVEMENT from decades past. A massive one.
The books on this list also expand representation in other key ways as well. We’ve included children’s books about labor struggles, homelessness from a child's perspective, and other facets of children’s lives that are never represented in mainstream publishing. So without further ado, here are 11 radical books for social justice parenting.
1. Amelia to Zora: Twenty-Six Women Who Changed the World by Cynthia Chin-Lee, Illustrated by Megan Halsey and Sean Addy
If you’re looking for compilation of badass women throughout history, look no further than this book. Each woman is accompanied by a biographic blurb and a few key quotes and accomplishments. They are presented in a simple manner perfect for children as young as five, and for older independent readers. Halsey and Addy provide twenty-six unique illustrative collages, made from photographs, cloth, flowers, and other materials that make the book much more visually enriching.
2. Ivy: Tale of a Homeless Girl in San Francisco by Summer Brenner, Illustrated by Marilyn Bogerd
Unfortunately, homelessness is a reality that touches the lives of millions of children in America. But if you live in a house or apartment, it can be difficult to envision the challenges that homeless folks experience. This book is a great way to introduce children to those hardships, through the story of Ivy, whose family is evicted from their apartment in San Francisco.
3. The Streets are Free by Kurusa, Illustrated by Monika Doppert
In a barrio of Caracas, Venezuela, children are forced to play in the streets due to a lack of parks where they live. This causes the adults of the neighborhood to grow frustrated with them, to which they reply, “The streets are free!” But despite petitioning the mayor and staging a protest, the local government refuses to help them find a safe space to play. So through collaboration with each other and the folks of the neighborhood, they decide to build a playground themselves. This true story is a great example of community organizing and solidarity building for and by children.
4. Ron's Big Mission by Rose Blue and Corinne J. Naden, Illustrated by Don Tate
Ron’s Big Mission is another true story, this time about Ron McNair’s confrontation with segregation in South Carolina. The year is 1959 and all nine-year old Ron wants is to check out books at the library, books about space exploration, science, and airplanes. But in order to do that, he needs a library card. But due to racist laws disallowing Black people from checking out books from a public library, he finds he is unable to do so on his own. But the book demonstrates that just because something is the law, doesn’t make it moral or just. With the help of a librarian, Ron stages a protest and refuses to leave the library until he is able to check out books.
5. Happy to Be Nappy (Board Book) Happy to Be Nappy by bell hooks, Illustrated by Chris Raschka
Renowned feminist and race scholar bell hooks wrote this gorgeous children’s book. It is, quite simply, an ode to nappy hair and natural textures, a celebration of Blackness and its beauty. This book is an important protest to the assumption that “white” hair is somehow better, and instead encourages little girls to embrace their natural locs. Instead of “nappy” being an insult, here it is a rallying cry.
6. ¡Si, Se Puede! / Yes, We Can!: Janitor Strike in L.A. (English and Spanish Edition) by Diana Cohn, Illustrated by Francisco Delgado
This bilingual book is perfect for both English and Spanish speaking children. It tells a fictional tale of economic injustice, as seen through a janitors strike in Los Angeles. The main character, Carlitos, is a young Mexican boy whose mother is a janitor. One day, his mother tells him that she and the other janitors decided to go on strike. All Carlitos wants is to support his mother and their coworkers, so with the help of his classmates they organize a solidarity march. This book is perfect for introducing children to the concept of labor struggles and workers’ rights. It also shows solidarity across nationalities, as the janitors come from countries across the latinx world.
7. A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara
A is for Activist takes the alphabet and turns it on its head, as each letter takes on a different concept in the world of social justice. The letter “I,” for example, states: “Indigenous and Immigrant. Together we stand tall. Our histories are relevant. An Injury to one Is an Injury to all.” The easy rhyming format makes this perfect reading material for a range of ages, and offers complex concepts in an easy-to-understand format.
8. Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, Illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Michelle Markel introduces her reader to an aspect of history that may be unknown to most adults: the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909, in which a largely female, immigrant garment industry workforce rallies together to strike for better wages and working conditions. Clara, the book’s main character, is a Ukranian immigrant and child laborer. Although the topics in this book are brutal, and although Clara faces many setbacks, the book doesn’t shy away from a vital part of women’s and workers’ history.
9. Sometimes the Spoon Runs Away with Another Spoon Coloring Book (Reach and Teach) by Jacinta Bunnell, Illustrated by Nat Kusinitz
The list’s only coloring book! Author Bunnell takes the canonical nursury rhyme “Hey Diddle Diddle” and reinvents it for the modern day. Instead of the dish running away with the spoon, in this coloring book the spoons decide to run away together, a metaphor for LGBT relationships. Other pages take on other stereotypes of children’s tales, from the ‘damsel in distress’ to the aggressive dragon. By tweaking these stereotypes in unexpected ways, this coloring book is sure to give your child many different perspectives. The whimsical illustrations will be sure to make you and the children you care for smile.
10. The Table Where Rich People Sit (Aladdin Picture Books) by Byrd Baylor, Illustrated by Peter Parnall
“Mountain Girl” knows that her family is poor, and she desperately wishes that her parents would get better jobs. Her parents, however, don’t see things in the same way. This book is a tale about the meaning of wealth in a world filled with natural beauty. Baylor’s main message is about materiality and consumerism, and challenging families to find ways to connect with each other and the world.
11. Be Who You Are by Jennifer Carr, Illustrated by Ben Rumback
Be Who You Are is a book about growing up trans. The main character starts out the story as AMAB ‘Nick,’ though she is always sure that she is a girl. This book offers the ideal situation: ‘Nick’ (who calls herself Hope) comes out to her parents, who support her transition and accept her decisions to live and dress however she feels. Although many trans kids don’t receive the same support, this book is vital reading for both parents and kids in affirming the validity of trans people’s existence.