The best children’s books about social justice

Ellen Schwartz Author Of Heart of a Champion
By Ellen Schwartz

Who am I?

I grew up during the civil rights movement in the US, and my ancestors—the lucky ones—escaped pogroms in eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century and made it to North America. (The unlucky ones were slaughtered in the Holocaust.) So I suppose it is natural that I would be drawn to write stories about the struggle to overcome persecution, racism, and injustice. I love creating characters who, at the beginning of the story, don’t know that they have what it takes to fight for justice, but then slowly build the confidence and courage to make a difference. And writing about these triumphs is fun, too!

I wrote...

Heart of a Champion

By Ellen Schwartz,

Book cover of Heart of a Champion

What is my book about?

When war is declared against Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, everything changes for the Sakamoto family. They are banished to an isolated internment camp, and ten-year-old Kenji’s hopes of becoming an Asahi baseball player like his big brother are overtaken by the harsh realities of camp life. 

But then Kenny comes across a field covered with scrap wood, broken shakes, and torn tar paper. He gets permission to clear it and convert it into a baseball field. One by one, the boys in the camp pitch in, and the work gives purpose to their long days. Kenny’s persistence, hard work, and big dreams shape the teen he is to become in this story of happiness found despite all odds.

The books I picked & why

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The Breadwinner

By Deborah Ellis,

Book cover of The Breadwinner

Why this book?

From our comfortable perch in North America, it’s almost impossible to imagine how children—girls, especially—survive in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. The Breadwinner made it real to me, with all the oppression that the main character, eleven-year-old Parvana, experiences and all the courage she demonstrates. This book showed me the common humanity we share with people whose lives are so different from our own. And it forced me to ask myself: Could I have been as brave and resourceful as Parvana?

The Crazy Man

By Pamela Porter,

Book cover of The Crazy Man

Why this book?

I couldn’t put this book down—not just because of the beautiful free verse in which it’s written but also because of the gripping story. After Emaline suffers a serious injury in a farming accident, her father, feeling responsible, abandons her and her mother. That’s bad enough. But when Emaline’s mother hires a patient from the local mental hospital to help on the farm, their neighbours treat him with prejudice and suspicion. Emaline’s courage and compassion filled me with hope, showing what one person can do to fight stereotypes and hatred—responses our world can surely use more of these days. 

The Hate U Give

By Angie Thomas,

Book cover of The Hate U Give

Why this book?

The moment when unarmed Khalil is shot by a police officer, I was devastated—and hooked. This is not only a book about racial profiling and the quest for justice; it’s also a personal journey for Starr, the main character. Will she find the courage to tell the truth, no matter the consequences? I was fascinated by the contrast between Starr’s two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she lives and the upscale world of her private school. No wonder she’s torn.

My Name is Seepeetza

By Shirley Sterling,

Book cover of My Name is Seepeetza

Why this book?

Before I read this book, in the 1990s, I had never heard of Canada’s residential school system for Indigenous children. I was horrified, and also ashamed to have been so ignorant. Over the years, I have heard many Indigenous authors speak and have read many books on the subject, and have come to realize that the residential school tragedy is parallel to the Holocaust for Jews—my family’s story. This is the book that opened my eyes.

Girl in the Blue Coat

By Monica Hesse,

Book cover of Girl in the Blue Coat

Why this book?

As both a reader and a writer, I seem to be drawn to books about characters experiencing oppression and persecution, and drawing on inner reserves of courage and compassion to combat it. This book fits that description perfectly. I was on the edge of my seat following Hanneke as she works for the Dutch Resistance during World War II. I was left wondering: How do you find the bravery and determination to risk your own life in order to save someone else’s?

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