The best children's picture books about human rights and civic engagement

Why am I passionate about this?

I practiced law for more than twenty years before becoming an author. After writing several children's science books, in 2016 I turned to writing about civics and government. The internet was overflowing with politicians' misstatements about the Constitution, and I realized many Americans didn't understand fundamental democratic principles. I decided to write a book addressing kids, to help them appreciate their rights, obligations, and powers under the Constitution. In Free for You and Me, I focused on the First Amendment. I believe that talking with young people about the issues raised in all the books listed here will help us raise our kids to be informed and engaged community members.

I wrote...

Free for You and Me: What Our First Amendment Means

By Christy Mihaly, Manu Montoya (illustrator),

Book cover of Free for You and Me: What Our First Amendment Means

What is my book about?

This brightly illustrated book introduces the First Amendment using poems, historical vignettes, and contemporary stories. It explains each of the five freedoms this amendment protects: freedom of religion, free speech, free press, the right to peaceful assembly, and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances.

Free for You and Me explains what we mean by the familiar retort, "It's a free country!" It provides a starting point for meaningful discussions with kids about our constitutional rights and their limits and possibilities. By promoting an understanding of the First Amendment, I hope to help young people appreciate Americans' ability to hold our government accountable and to empower them to use their freedoms to advocate for needed changes.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Let the Children March

Christy Mihaly Why did I love this book?

This beautifully illustrated book tells the compelling story of the 1963 Birmingham children's marches when teens and children put their bodies on the line to fight for civil rights. It opens with a child narrator listing things Blacks were forbidden to do, from attending "Whites Only" schools to drinking from "Whites Only" water fountains. Then the children attend a meeting with their parents, where Martin Luther King, Jr. discusses how they can end Jim Crow segregation. Their parents fear that activism could get them fired, or worse. The children step up.

The book narrates a child's experience of marching and facing harassment, arrest, and jail. The children of Birmingham were successful: their demonstrations led to desegregation in the city. The story concludes with the young narrator playing in a park that had previously been off-limits. The book's backmatter includes historical photos and a timeline. Though some violence is portrayed, this is an appropriate, and engaging, introduction to an important topic for young kids.

By Monica Clark-Robinson, Frank Morrison (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Let the Children March as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 4, 5, 6, and 7.

What is this book about?

This powerful picture book introduces young readers to a key event in the struggle for Civil Rights. Winner, Coretta Scott King Honor Award.

In 1963 Birmingham, Alabama, thousands of African American children volunteered to march for their rights after hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak. They protested the laws that kept black people separate from white people. Facing fear, hate, and danger, these children used their voices to change the world.

Frank Morrison's emotive oil-on-canvas paintings bring this historical event to life, while Monica Clark-Robinson's moving and poetic words document this remarkable time.

I couldn't play on the same…

Book cover of Malala's Magic Pencil

Christy Mihaly Why did I love this book?

Though I was initially skeptical about "another" Malala book, this one is a delight. Lyrically written with magical illustrations, it's Malala Yousafzai's story as told (by herself) for the picture book crowd. Malala explains how as a girl in Pakistan, she enjoyed a television program about a boy with a magic pencil. She fantasized what she'd do with such a tool. Meanwhile, she took school for granted until the Taliban arrived and banned girls from school. Then, with her family's support, she began to speak out for girls' right to education.

This book introduces the notion of how people's rights are not protected everywhere, and that, for example, not all children are able to go to school. It also shows a young person effectively fighting for rights—for herself and others. While skirting the violence that the Taliban visited on Malala, it shows the power of a single voice to defend human rights and bring meaningful change. Malala tells kids that she found her "magic pencil" in advocating for the right to school.

By Malala Yousafzai, Kerascoët (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Malala's Magic Pencil as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 5, 6, 7, and 8.

What is this book about?

** Shortlisted for the Little Rebels Children's Book Award! **

As a child in Pakistan, Malala made a wish for a magic pencil that she could use to redraw reality. She would use it for good; to give gifts to her family, to erase the smell from the rubbish dump near her house. (And to sleep an extra hour in the morning.)

As she grew older, Malala wished for bigger and bigger things. She saw a world that needed fixing. And even if she never found a magic pencil, Malala realized that she could still work hard every day to…

Book cover of No Voice Too Small: Fourteen Young Americans Making History

Christy Mihaly Why did I love this book?

For kids who think that "history" is made only by old people who lived long ago, this accessible anthology showcases fourteen of today's young people who are speaking up. It profiles a diverse range of contemporary activists (starting at eight years old) throughout the United States, kids who have worked on issues from climate change to safe water to social justice.

The book's creative format is particularly engaging for children and educators and makes it stand out in the field of anthologies. It provides a brief biography of every young person included, followed by a poem. Each poem is written by a different poet (including such excellent writers as Nikki Grimes and Lesléa Newman) and in a different form. The back matter explains the various poetic forms used and provides additional information about the editors' research and ideas about how young people can improve their communities.

By Lindsay H. Metcalf, Keila V. Dawson, Jeanette Bradley

Why should I read it?

1 author picked No Voice Too Small as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Fans of We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices will love meeting fourteen young activists who have stepped up to make change in their community and the United States.

Mari Copeny demanded clean water in Flint. Jazz Jennings insisted, as a transgirl, on playing soccer with the girls' team. From Viridiana Sanchez Santos's quinceañera demonstration against anti-immigrant policy to Zach Wahls's moving declaration that his two moms and he were a family like any other, No Voice Too Small celebrates the young people who know how to be the change they seek. Fourteen poems honor these young activists. Featuring…

Book cover of Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt's Treasured Books

Christy Mihaly Why did I love this book?

This is a wonderful, uplifting story that provides a springboard for conversations about how governments don't all give their people the same rights. It showcases an incident during the pro-democracy demonstrations of the Arab Spring of 2011 in Egypt. As a bonus, this book also celebrates the tremendous value of libraries. It tells the stirring (and true) tale of people of all stripes joining hands to defend the great library of Alexandria against possible damage during the unrest.

As with the other recommended books, children are a key part of the story's action. The narration is kid-friendly and engaging and the collage-style illustrations are bright and bouyant. Finally, the back matter will intrigue readers with photographs of the library's light-filled interiors, as well as photos of the dramatic defense of the library during the demonstrations.

By Karen Leggett Abouraya, Susan L. Roth (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Hands Around the Library as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 3, 4, and 5.

What is this book about?

The inspiring true story of demonstrators standing up for the love of a library, from a New York Times bestselling illustrator

In January 2011, in a moment that captured the hearts of people all over the world, thousands of Egypt's students, library workers, and demonstrators surrounded the great Library of Alexandria and joined hands, forming a human chain to protect the building. They chanted "We love you, Egypt!" as they stood together for the freedom the library represented.

Illustrated with Susan L. Roth's stunning collages, this amazing true story demonstrates how the love of books and libraries can unite a…

Book cover of The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet!

Christy Mihaly Why did I love this book?

While I'm a big fan of nonfiction, I had to include this fabulous tale. With its folktale-style illustrations, the book recounts how the joyful and very noisy village of La Paz decides there's too much commotion. The villagers elect Don Pepe as mayor when he pledges to bring peace and quiet. Then new edicts go out: "No Singing."

When Rooster moves into the silent village and starts his song, things get interesting. Children will appreciate the courage and commitment of the obstinate rooster who remains faithful to his song in the face of Don Pepe's escalating threats and punishments. And ultimately the villagers come out in support of the rooster. Because, as he says, a song never dies as long as there's someone to sing it. This is a delightful fable about freedom of expression, the perils of authoritarianism, and using your voice against mean and bossy people.

By Carmen Agra Deedy, Eugene Yelchin (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 4, 5, 6, and 7.

What is this book about?

Pura Belpre Honoree Carmen Agra Deedy and Newbery Honor-book author/illustrator Eugene Yelchin have created a powerful tale that celebrates the spirit of freedom.

La Paz is a happy, but noisy village. A little peace and quiet would make it just right. So the villagers elect the bossy Don Pepe as their mayor. Before long, singing of any kind is outlawed. Even the teakettle is afraid to whistle!But there is one noisy rooster who doesn't give two mangos about this mayor's silly rules. Instead, he does what roosters were born to do.He sings: "Kee-kee-ree-KEE!" Carmen Deedy's masterfully crafted allegory and Eugene…

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Crossing: A Chinese Family Railroad Novel

By Lisa Redfern,

Book cover of Crossing: A Chinese Family Railroad Novel

Lisa Redfern Author Of Phases of Gage: After the Accident Years

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author DNA genealogy researcher California history storyteller & media maker Cartophile Close-call kefir exploder A philomath with too many books

Lisa's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Crossing is a vividly human re-imagining of the love, sacrifices, and accomplishments that two Chinese brothers - American Immigrants - experience as they travel to California to build the Transcontinental Railroad. 

Crossing: A Chinese Family Railroad Novel

By Lisa Redfern,

What is this book about?

Crossing is a vividly human re-imagining of the love, sacrifices, and history that laid tracks for the North America of today.

Leaving behind ancestral Chinese homelands and their family, brothers Yang and Lee face harrowing challenges as they join countless immigrants seeking a better life in the 1860s.

This story follows their remarkable journey across the ocean to San Francisco, then into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where they'll labor to build the Transcontinental Railroad. Surrounded by California's new marvels, and carrying their cultural traditions in their hearts, Yang and Lee find themselves in precarious situations. Their passions, struggles, dreams, and…

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