5 Picture Books That Have Influenced My Teaching of Social Justice Issues by Vanessa Capaldo
I am a voracious reader and a devoted middle school English teacher. Every year, my focus has been to teach my students about being kind to others and being an upstander who stands for doing what is right and taking care of those who need it. Here are 5 picture books that have influenced my teaching of social justice issues in my classroom. (They are also good for sharing with our own children.)
Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson
(social justice issue – bullying)
I had the chance of hearing Woodson speak last January at a teaching conference and I was struck by how eloquent and endearing she is. This certainly bleeds into the stories she writes. This book is about a young girl at a new school who is not accepted by her peers. Rejected, Maya eventually stops coming to school. Chloe, one of the girls who did not accept her, learns from her teacher that small acts of kindness can make great changes in the world. Chloe is regretful of not befriending Maya and truly realizes that “each kindness makes the world a little better.”
Terrible Things: An Allegory About the Holocaust by Eve Bunting
(social justice issue – the Holocaust)
This book is a great way to ease into a unit on the Holocaust. Little Rabbit and Big Rabbit are frightened by the treatment, and disappearance of, their fellow forest creatures. Rather than standing up for their friends, the rabbits discuss what made the other creatures different. Thinking they are safe from the “Terrible Things,” Little Rabbit and Big Rabbit are not prepared for when their time comes. I often pair it with Pastor Martin Niemoller’s poem, “First They Came.”
Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts
(social justice issue – poverty)
A young boy named Jeremy, who lives with his grandmother, does not have money for the shoes all of his friends wear. When his shoes fall apart, his teacher gives him a pair from the lost and found that the other students make fun of. When he finds “those shoes” at a secondhand store, he buys them even though they don’t fit. When he discovers a classmate has shoes much worse that his old shoes were, he gives him “those shoes” and learns that sometimes what you think you want is not what you need.
The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi
(social justice issue – immigration)
I read this book to my students the first week of every school year. A young girl, newly arrived to America from Korea, is afraid that her classmates will not like her if she tells them her real name, Unhei. She tells them that she will tell them her real name by the next week. The students in her class decide to create a name jar, to help Unhei in picking a new name. When the day of the naming comes, the jar has disappeared. Unhei teaches her new friends how to say her name and the students beg her to teach them their names in Korean.
The Sandwich Swap by Queen Rania of Jordan Al Abdullah
(social justice issue – racism/prejudice)
Salma and Lily are good friends who have lunch together at school every day. While Lily loves her peanut butter sandwiches, Alma also loves her hummus sandwiches. One day, when Alma asks Lily to try her hummus sandwich, Lily tells her it’s gross and the friendship falters. When their classmates begin to debate about whether peanut butter is better than hummus, the girls decide to try each other’s sandwiches to end the class argument. The girls learn to accept each other’s differences and learn to have tolerance for one another’s culture.
Teaching these difficult concepts to children is daunting, but sharing these books and having these conversations with them is paramount to their social and emotional growth. Teaching students about injustices and inequities encourages them to show kindness to others and helps them develop a social conscience. Education is about creating change and empowering future generations. These books are a great place to start.
Vanessa Capaldo is an English teacher in Burleson, TX. She lives with her husband and daughter, three cats, two dogs, and their many precarious piles of books.