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

The Books I Picked & Why

Let the Children March

By Monica Clark-Robinson, Frank Morrison

Book cover of Let the Children March

Why 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.

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Malala's Magic Pencil

By Malala Yousafzai, Kerascoët

Book cover of Malala's Magic Pencil

Why 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.

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No Voice Too Small: Fourteen Young Americans Making History

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

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

Why 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.

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Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt's Treasured Books

By Karen Leggett Abouraya, Susan L. Roth

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

Why 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.

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The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet!

By Carmen Agra Deedy, Eugene Yelchin

Book cover of The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet!

Why 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.

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