Top 10 Picture Books for Activists in Training by Mathangi Subramanian

Here’s the thing grownups constantly forget about childhood: sometimes, it sucks. Kids all over the world face poverty, war, bullying, discrimination, and oppression. Being young doesn’t protect you from the pressures of adulthood. It just gives you fewer ways to deal with these pressures, not to mention less control over your life.

But here’s the other thing grownups constantly forget about children: they’re smarter than us. Most of the time, they’re also stronger, more hopeful, and more creative. I’ve met kids all over the world who greet each morning joyfully despite the fact that they don’t know where their next meal is coming from, or where they’re going to sleep that night.

Although I constantly encounter diverse, fiercely optimistic children in real life, I hardly ever see them between the pages of children’s books. Too often, stories for young people feature protagonists whose sanitized adventures occur in immaculate suburban neighborhoods where grownups call the shots and kids face no problems more severe than deciding what color socks to wear.

Fiction can be a tool for imagining realities so perfect that they can never be achieved. Or, it can be a tool to celebrate what we are capable of doing with however little we have been given. This is one idea behind the #Weneeddiversebooks campaign: children of all races, classes, genders, faiths, and geographies commit story-worthy acts of heroism and empathy every day, no matter what their circumstances. Yet, we rarely make space for them on our library shelves.

Luckily, treat children as, above all, irrepressible. Here are my top ten storybooks for Activists in Training (which, if you ask me, is pretty much anyone under the age of eight).


something beautiful

1. Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth, Illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet

Perhaps my favorite children’s book of all time, this simple but compelling story is about a girl who, after learning the definition of “beautiful” in school, goes in search of something beautiful in her inner city neighborhood. It’s a story about treating imperfections as possibilities, and about discovering your most powerful self.


the why why girl

2. The Why Why Girl by Maheshwati Devi, Illustrated by Kanyika Kini

The true story of an indigenous Indian girl named Moyna who is full of questions, but does not attend school. With the help of the author, Moyna learns to read and eventually sets up her own school where children from her village can get answers to all of their whys.


catch that cat

3. Catch that Cat by Tharini Viswanath, Pictures by Nancy Raj

When Kappi, the neighborhood cat, runs away, naughty Dip Dip decides to find her. No one thinks she can do it – after all, Dip Dip is in a wheel chair. But Dip Dip shows them that not being able to walk doesn’t slow her down.


four feet two sandals

4. Four Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed, Illustrated by Doug Chayka

This is the story of two girls living a refugee camp in Pakistan who share a pair of sandals brought in by relief workers. Co-authored by a full time writer and an executive director of a refugee center, this book is a wonderful story about unexpected friendship in times of war.


king & king

5. King and King by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland

When a prince’s mother decides he has to get married, he rejects all the girls and decides to wed a boy. This humorous and clever book is all about the power we have to choose who we love.


black misery

6. Black Misery by Langston Hughes, Illustrated by Arouni

A funny, sad, and poignant poem about growing up Black in America. As true now as it was in 1969 when it was first published. I used this book in a peace education class I taught to open up a conversation about racial privilege, and had the students write poems about themselves entitled (their racial group) Joy. The students loved it, and kids love it, too.


pancho rabbit and the coyote

7. Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale by Duncan Tonatiuh

This gorgeously illustrated book is the story of Pancho Rabbit who goes north in search of his Papa, who left two years ago to find work among the carrot and lettuce fields. On the way, Pancho Rabbit meets a Coyote who offers to help, but then becomes dangerous.  The illustrations are inspired by Aztec art, and the story is one that too many immigrant children experience firsthand.



8. Bird by Zetta Elliott, Illustrated by Shadra Strickland

Mekhai, whose nickname is Bird, uses drawing to cope with the death of his grandfather and his brother’s drug addiction. An inspiring story about the healing power of art, this Lee & Low New Voices Honor Award book is a favorite among kids in my life.


a is for activism

9. A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara

This gorgeously illustrated board book cleverly introduces children to concepts like democracy, human rights, protests, and cooperatives. The author is a founding member of the Design Action Collective, and every page is beautifully crafted, both in terms of images and words.


click clack moo cows that type

10. Click Clack Moo: Cows that Type by Doreen Cronin, Illustrated by Betsy Lewin

I’m a sucker for barnyard animals and collective action, so naturally I love this book about a group of cows who unionize and engage in collective bargaining with Farmer Brown. This Caldecott Winning board book is the first in a series about coming together and standing up for your rights.


Mathangi Subramanian is an activist, educator, and writer who loves to read and write stories about social change. She is the author of Bullying: The Ultimate Teen Guide and the forthcoming novel Dear Mrs. Naidu. You can follow her on twitter at @mathangisub.