The most recommended books about social reformers

Who picked these books? Meet our 49 experts.

49 authors created a book list connected to social reformers, and here are their favorite social reformer books.
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Book cover of Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells

Allison Lange Author Of Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women's Suffrage Movement

From my list on American suffragists.

Who am I?

I’m Allison Lange, and I’m a historian who writes, gives talks, teaches, and curates exhibitions. For the 19th Amendment centennial, I served as Historian for the United States Congress’s Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission. I am also creating the first filmed series on American women’s history for Wondrium (formerly The Great Courses). My first book, Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women’s Suffrage Movement focuses on the ways that women’s voting rights activists and their opponents used images to define gender and power. My next book situates current iconic pictures within the context of historical ones to demonstrate that today’s visual debates about gender and politics are shaped by those of the past.

Allison's book list on American suffragists

Allison Lange Why did Allison love this book?

You’ve probably heard of icon Ida B. Wells, but how much do you really know about her life? Wells actually knew Mary Church Terrell, and Terrell’s father even provided Wells with early financial support. Wells was a journalist who led the fight against the lynching of Black people. She left the South and moved to Chicago after white supremacists destroyed her newspaper office. In 1913, she founded the Alpha Suffrage Club to advance the political interests of local Black women and marched in the first national suffrage parade in Washington, DC. In the beautifully illustrated Ida B. The Queen, Wells’s great-granddaughter, Michelle Duster, tells Wells’s life story. Duster details Wells’s place in current popular culture and the legacy of her social justice activism that still inspires us today.

By Michelle Duster,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ida B. the Queen as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Journalist. Suffragist. Antilynching crusader. In 1862, Ida B. Wells was born enslaved in Holly Springs, Mississippi. In 2020, she won a Pulitzer Prize.

Ida B. Wells committed herself to the needs of those who did not have power. In the eyes of the FBI, this made her a "dangerous negro agitator." In the annals of history, it makes her an icon.

Ida B. the Queen tells the awe-inspiring story of an pioneering woman who was often overlooked and underestimated-a woman who refused to exit a train car meant for white passengers; a woman brought to light the horrors of lynching…

Book cover of Eleanor Makes Her Mark

Nina Nolan Author Of Mahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens

From my list on women who shaped history.

Who am I?

I’m a picture-book author who wrote about Mahalia Jackson so more people would feel the sense of awe about her that I do. When I first read how she was treated by our own country, I was furious. But her amazing grace allowed me to focus on the positive aspects of her life, like she did.

Nina's book list on women who shaped history

Nina Nolan Why did Nina love this book?

This delightful picture book opens with Eleanor Roosevelt’s firm footing in the White House. Then it transports us back to her childhood, where we see the foundation for that footing: Eleanor cultivating her own character, way before she met her husband. The wonderful backmatter asks children how they might make their own mark, to enhance their lives…and the world.

By Barbara Kerley, Edwin Fotheringham (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Eleanor Makes Her Mark as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 7, 8, 9, and 10.

What is this book about?

An inspiring true story about modeling good leadership and being the change you wish to see.

"A compelling celebration of Eleanor Roosevelt that will inspire children to follow in her footsteps." -- Kirkus Reviews

"A necessary source of inspiration." -- School Library Journal

All her life, Eleanor Roosevelt hoped to "leave some mark upon the world."

She was a shy child who found joy in helping others.

A passionate young adult who longed for adventure.

An independent young woman who formed her own opinions.

A trustworthy partner who worked tirelessly for change.

So when her husband became president and she…

Book cover of Dangerous Jane: the Life and Times of Jane Addams, Crusader for Peace

Jennifer Merz Author Of Steadfast: Frances Perkins, Champion of Workers' Rights

From my list on strong inspiring women.

Who am I?

As a picture-book writer and illustrator as well as a mother and teacher, the most important goal I can think of is fueling a child’s imagination with possibilities by providing true stories of trailblazing women. My reviews highlight remarkable women in the arts, government, sports, social work, and history. I hope you enjoy these books!

Jennifer's book list on strong inspiring women

Jennifer Merz Why did Jennifer love this book?

This is a marvelous picture book on Jane Addams, founder of Hull House in 1889. Hull House was a Chicago settlement house for newly-arrived European immigrants. When we first meet Jane, she is a sad, sickly child who relates to those living without hope. She promises to help them when she grows up – and she does! Through her tenacity and grit, she studies, travels, and figures out how to help struggling families. 

Called “Saint Jane” when Hull House opened, she also formed the Women’s Peace Party during WWI. A Nobel Peace Prize winner, Jane Addams is an inspiration. The text of Dangerous Jane is spare, clear, and poetic; illustrations are beautifully drawn and carefully designed. This book is a treasure!

By Suzanne Slade, Alice Ratterree (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dangerous Jane as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 6, 7, 8, and 9.

What is this book about?

An inspiring picture book biography of Jane Addams, the groundbreaking social activist who went from the FBI's "Most Dangerous Woman in America" to Nobel Peace Prize winner.

From the time she was a child, Jane Addams's heart ached for others—for those who were sad, hungry, and hopeless. When she grew up, Jane created Hull House, a settlement house in Chicago where she worked eighteen hours a day, providing whatever her immigrant neighbors needed: English lessons, childcare, steady work—as well as friendship, dignity, and hope. Then World War I broke out. Jane had helped people from different countries live in peace…

Book cover of Malala's Magic Pencil

Kathryn Erskine Author Of Mama Africa!: How Miriam Makeba Spread Hope with Her Song

From my list on fascinating people.

Who am I?

Technically, I’m a lawyer and pharmacy technician but I spend my time writing, mostly for kids. I'm inspired by a childhood in different countries as well as what’s currently occurring in our world. I delight in stories for all ages, believing that even adults can enjoy and learn from picture book biographies. At the very least, they provide jumping-off points for further research, and at best they inspire us to achieve the seemingly impossible.

Kathryn's book list on fascinating people

Kathryn Erskine Why did Kathryn love this book?

In Malala’s own kid’s eye view of the world, she tells how she yearned for a magic pencil, like the boy in a TV show she watched, so she could magically make the world a better place. One of the fortunate girls in Afghanistan who was sent to school because her parents believed strongly in education for women, she eventually realized she had that magic pencil already. Her words, her voice, could bring change. This is an empowering book for kids to see that they can make a difference in their world from one of the heroes of their time.

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 Dissent: The History of an American Idea

James Sullivan Author Of Which Side Are You On?: 20th Century American History in 100 Protest Songs

From my list on protest movements.

Who am I?

I’m the author of five books on subjects ranging from comedy and music to sports and pants (specifically, blue jeans). I’m a longtime Boston Globe contributor, a former San Francisco Chronicle staff critic, and a onetime editor for Rolling Stone. I help develop podcasts and other programming for Sirius and Pandora. I teach in the Journalism department at Emerson College, and I am the Program Director for the Newburyport Documentary Film Festival and the co-founder of Lit Crawl Boston.

James' book list on protest movements

James Sullivan Why did James love this book?

There are two kinds of patriots: those who insist that allegiance to flag and country means keeping things the way they are, and those who want their country to live up to its ideals and do better by all its citizens. (Which side are you on?) In Dissent (2015), history professor Ralph Young shows how the foundational protest of the American Revolution lives on in the Occupy demonstrators and Women’s Marchers, Black Lives Matter groups, and climate change activists.

By Ralph Young,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dissent as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Finalist, 2016 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award
One of Bustle's Books For Your Civil Disobedience Reading List
Examines the key role dissent has played in shaping the United States, emphasizing the way Americans responded to injustices
Dissent: The History of an American Idea examines the key role dissent has played in shaping the United States. It focuses on those who, from colonial days to the present, dissented against the ruling paradigm of their time: from the Puritan Anne Hutchinson and Native American chief Powhatan in the seventeenth century, to the Occupy and Tea Party movements in the twenty-first century. The emphasis…

Book cover of Desert Flower

Martin Fletcher Author Of Promised Land: A Novel of Israel

From my list on the refugee experience.

Who am I?

In my work as a news reporter and war correspondent, I met people on the worst day of their lives. I always wondered: What now? How will they get on with life? My own parents faced that dreadful dilemma. Penniless refugees, their families murdered in the Holocaust, unemployed in London, how on earth did they find the strength to carry on? One day at a time, they just did what they had to do. That is the subject of my fiction, always trying to answer that existential question: How do we live with trauma, and still find love and happiness?

Martin's book list on the refugee experience

Martin Fletcher Why did Martin love this book?

It isn’t the best-written book but Waris Dirie’s account of her escape from Somalia, her life as a domestic servant in London, her marriages of convenience, and her ultimate triumph in New York’s world of fashion, haunted me for years.

A frank, intimate account of a beautiful woman’s escape from a nomadic tribal life of female abuse to scaling the heights of western fashion modeling.

By Waris Dirie, Cathleen Miller,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Desert Flower as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Waris Dirie (the name means desert flower) lives a double life - by day she is a famous model and UN spokeswoman on women's rights in Africa, at night she dreams of her native Somalia. Waris, one of 12 children, was born into a traditional family of desert nomads in East Africa. She remembers her early childhood as carefree- racing camels and moving on with her family to the next grazing spot - until it came her turn to meet the old woman who administered the ancient custom imposed on most Somalian girls: circumcision. Waris suffered this torture when she…

Book cover of American Radicals: How Nineteenth-Century Protest Shaped the Nation

Benjamin Reiss Author Of The Showman and the Slave: Race, Death, and Memory in Barnum's America

From my list on making you rethink 19th-century America.

Who am I?

I am fascinated by historical figures who were deemed marginal, outcast, or eccentric and also by experiences (like sleep or madness) that usually fall beneath historical scrutiny. I am drawn to nineteenth-century literature and history because I find such a rich store of strange and poignant optimism and cultural experimentation dwelling alongside suffering, terror, and despair. As a writer, I feel a sense of responsibility when a great story falls into my hands. I try to be as respectful as I can to the life behind it, while seeking how it fits into a larger historical pattern. I am always on the lookout for books that do the same!   

Benjamin's book list on making you rethink 19th-century America

Benjamin Reiss Why did Benjamin love this book?

If you think the 1960s tops the list of eras that experimented with counter-cultural protest movements, utopian societies, and radical social experimentation, think again.

There are more free love advocates, anti-racist rebels, anti-capitalist communes, oversexed vegans, and messianic prophets in this book than you could shake a staff at. Jackson tells their stories with verve, wit, and a perfectly measured assessment of their contributions and failures.

By Holly Jackson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked American Radicals as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A dynamic, timely history of nineteenth-century activists—free-lovers and socialists, abolitionists and vigilantes—and the social revolution they sparked in the turbulent Civil War era

“In the tradition of Howard Zinn’s people’s histories, American Radicals reveals a forgotten yet inspiring past.”—Megan Marshall, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life and Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast


On July 4, 1826, as Americans lit firecrackers to celebrate the country’s fiftieth birthday, both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were on their deathbeds. They would leave behind a groundbreaking…

Book cover of Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All

Jennifer Frost Author Of "Let Us Vote!" Youth Voting Rights and the 26th Amendment

From my list on voting rights in the United States.

Who am I?

After growing up in California, earning a PhD in Wisconsin, and having a stint as an academic in Colorado, I now teach United States history in beautiful Aotearoa New Zealand. I write books on 20th century U.S. politics, social movements, and popular culture. Along the way, I have found important political content, interactions, and struggle in unlikely spots, from community organizing to Hollywood gossip. In all my work, I find Americans drawing upon the ideological and material resources available to them—whether radicalism, conservatism, and liberalism, or social movements and popular culture—to construct and contest the meanings of citizenship.  

Jennifer's book list on voting rights in the United States

Jennifer Frost Why did Jennifer love this book?

Painting a broad picture of African-American women’s political advocacy and activism, Martha S. Jones presents women fighting for a voice in our political system from the early days of the Republic through women’s suffrage to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Many of the women and their contributions to racial and gender equality were familiar to me. Others less so, including three generations of Jones’s own foremothers who worked for democratic participation in their day. Bringing home how very personal the political is, Jones finds Black women’s politics in parties, elections, government, and beyond. In churches and community institutions, in careers as teachers and journalists, they pursued an expansive vision of human rights and dignity.

It’s an informative, inspiring history, with hard-won gains contextualized with hard truths about our impaired democracy, and reminded me that the obligation to repair it belongs to us all.

By Martha S. Jones,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Vanguard as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“An elegant and expansive history” (New YorkTimes)of African American women’s pursuit of political power—and how it transformed America  
InVanguard, acclaimed historian Martha S. Jones offers a new history of African American women’s political lives in America. She recounts how they defied both racism and sexism to fight for the ballot, and how they wielded political power to secure the equality and dignity of all persons. From the earliest days of the republic to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and beyond, Jones excavates the lives and work ofBlackwomen—Maria Stewart, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Fannie Lou Hamer, and more—who…

Book cover of Malala: Activist for Girls' Education

Anne Broyles Author Of Priscilla and the Hollyhocks

From my list on real-life children who overcame hardships.

Who am I?

Ever since I read Island of the Blue Dolphins in 5th grade I’ve loved historical fiction. I am inspired by amazing humans who lived across centuries and around the globe and left their mark on the world. My 2023 book I’m Gonna Paint: Ralph Fasanella, Artist of the People is about a social activist artist. Future published books include middle grade novels on the 1838 Trail of Tears, a day on Ellis Island in 1907, and a 1935 book about Eleanor Roosevelt and the planned community of Arthurdale, WV. Like I said, I love exploring history! I read in many genres, but still enjoy learning about history through fiction.

Anne's book list on real-life children who overcame hardships

Anne Broyles Why did Anne love this book?

Malala Yousafzai inspires me because she never lost sight of the importance of education and continues to work for justice in the world. Malala was a young student in Pakistan when the Taliban took over her nation and prohibited girls from going to school. Malala spoke out against Taliban actions, advocating for universal education. That was enough to make the Taliban afraid of her. They tried to kill her; she almost died in the attempted assassination. That would have caused many people to retreat in fear, but not Malala. Once she recovered, she became an even more outspoken activist for female education and won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize. 

By Raphaële Frier, Aurélia Fronty (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Malala as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 6, 7, 8, and 9.

What is this book about?

"A realistic and inspiring look at Malala Yousafzai's childhood in Taliban-controlled Pakistan and her struggle to ensure education for girls" — Kirkus Reviews

Malala Yousafzai stood up to the Taliban and fought for the right for all girls to receive an education. When she was just fifteen-years old, the Taliban attempted to kill Malala, but even this did not stop her activism. At age eighteen Malala became the youngest person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work to ensure the education of all children around the world.

Malala’s courage and conviction will inspire young readers in this…

Book cover of So Tall Within: Sojourner Truth's Long Walk Toward Freedom

Jonathan W. White Author Of My Day with Abe Lincoln

From my list on children’s books about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.

Who am I?

I’ve been writing books about Abraham Lincoln for 15 years. I also have two daughters, and I spend a lot of time at night telling bedtime stories. A couple of years ago, I decided to combine these two areas of my life by writing a Lincoln book for kids. But I didn’t want it to be another run-of-the-mill history book. So, I developed a story about a girl who travels back in time and meets a young Abe. Along the way, she learns a lot about his life. I like to tell people that everything about it is historically accurate . . . except the time travel!

Jonathan's book list on children’s books about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War

Jonathan W. White Why did Jonathan love this book?

Most people don’t know that at one time, slavery existed in every state, not just in the South. This powerful book tells the story of Sojourner Truth’s time in slavery in New York, from her birth in 1797 until she escaped as a young woman in the 1820s. 

Unfortunately, Truth continued to face hardships in freedom, most terribly when her son was sold away from her to Alabama. Fortunately, she fought in court and won so that he was returned.

Truth continued to fight for women’s rights and black civil rights for the rest of her life. In 1864, she even met with Lincoln at the White House.

By Gary D. Schmidt, Daniel Minter (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked So Tall Within 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?

Sojourner Truth was born into slavery but possessed a mind and a vision that knew no bounds. So Tall Within traces her life from her painful childhood through her remarkable emancipation to her incredible leadership in the movement for rights for both women and African Americans. Her story is told with lyricism and pathos by Gary D. Schmidt, one of the most celebrated writers for children in the twenty-first century, and brought to life by award winning and fine artist Daniel Minter. This combination of talent is just right for introducing this legendary figure to a new generation of children.