About Inequality and Economic Justice
Here are examples of some of the kinds of books which are great for talking with kids about inequality and economic justice. There are many more excellent books out there! The book reviews are from Goodreads unless otherwise noted.
“A House is Not a Home” By Anne Liersch (Pre-k+) Winter is coming, and the animals are busy building a house to keep them warm and cozy. The hares gather stones from the field. Hedgehog helps Wild Boar get wood from the forest. Deer lays the stone wall and Fox mixes the concrete. They work hard but happily until Badger, an expert house builder, joins them. Nothing suits bossy Badger, who insists they are doing everything wrong.Disgruntled, they leave him to complete the work on his own. Badger builds a splendid house — but soon discovers that a house is not a home with no one to share it, and that cooperation and compromise are important tools when it comes to building friendships.
“love as strong as ginger” By lenore look (Pre-k +) Katie loves to show her grandma how to dress a Barbie…and GninGnin loves to show Katie how to make rice dumplings. More than anything, Katie longs to go with GninGnin to work, to crack a mountain of crabs alongside her at the crab cannery. One day Katie gets her wish, but nothing is the way she’d imagined it. GninGnin swings a heavy mallet from sunup to sundown in a noisy, smelly room, earning barely enough for bus fare and a fish for dinner. That evening, when Katie eats the delicious meal that GninGnin has cooked — “made with love as strong as ginger and dreams as thick as black-bean paste” — she has a new understanding of her beloved grandma’s hard life, and the sacrifices she’s made to give her granddaughter a brighter future.
“Two White Rabbits” By Jairo Buitrago (Pre-k +) In this moving and timely story, a young child describes what it is like to be a migrant as she and her father travel north toward the U.S. border. They travel mostly on the roof of a train known as The Beast, but the little girl doesn’t know where they are going. She counts the animals by the road, the clouds in the sky, the stars. Sometimes she sees soldiers. She sleeps, dreaming that she is always on the move, although sometimes they are forced to stop and her father has to earn more money before they can continue their journey. As many thousands of people, especially children, in Mexico and Central America continue to make the arduous journey to the U.S. border in search of a better life, this is an important book that shows a young migrant’s perspective.
“Spuds” by Karen Hesse (Pre-k +) A heartwarming story set in the backwoods of Maine that glows with integrity, love, and true family values. Ma’s been working so hard, she doesn’t have much left over. So her three kids decide to do some work on their own. In the dark of night, they steal into their rich neighbor’s potato fields in hopes of collecting the strays that have been left to rot. They dig flat-bellied in the dirt, hiding from passing cars, and drag a sack of spuds through the frost back home. But in the light, the sad truth is revealed: their bag is full of stones! Ma is upset when she sees what they’ve done, and makes them set things right. But in a surprise twist, they learned they have helped the farmer.
“Those Shoes” By Maribeth Boelts. Illustrated by Norah Z. Jones. (Pre-K +) But all the kids are wearing them! Any child who has ever craved something out of reach will relate to this warm, refreshingly realistic story. “I have dreams about those shoes. Black high-tops. Two white stripes.” All Jeremy wants is a pair of those shoes, the ones everyone at school seems to be wearing. But Jeremy’s grandma tells him they don’t have room for “want,” just “need,” and what Jeremy needs are new boots for winter. When Jeremy’s shoes fall apart at school, and the guidance counselor gives him a hand-me-down pair, the boy is more determined than ever to have those shoes, even a thrift-shop pair that are much too small. But sore feet aren’t much fun, and Jeremy comes to realize that the things he has — warm boots, a loving grandma, and the chance to help a friend — are worth more than the things he wants.
“The Dumpster Diver” By Janet S. Wong. Illustrated by David Roberts (Pre-k+)
Anyone can dive for treasure in the ocean, but Steve dives for it in his neighborhood dumpster! As he delves into the trash each weekend, Steve encourages his young neighbors (aka the Diving Team) to see the potential in what other people throw away. With a little bit of imagination, trash can be transformed into treasure — and as the Diving Team soon discovers, it might even help a friend in need.
“Yertle The Turtle” By Dr. Seuss (Pre-k+) Dr. Seuss provides this amazing social commentary in the form of rhyming turtles. My kids love this story. In real life it takes more than a sneeze to topple tyrants and tyrannical systems, nevertheless this story provides an illustration of the climb to the top and what it’s like to be on the bottom of the pile. (commentary by Angela Berkfield)
“Each Kindness” By Jacqueline Woodson (1st grade +) Each kindness makes the world a little better. Chloe and her friends won’t play with the new girl, Maya. Maya is different–she wears hand-me-downs and plays with old-fashioned toys. Every time Maya tries to join Chloe and her gang, they reject her. Eventually, Maya plays alone, and then stops coming to school altogether. When Chloe’s teacher gives a lesson about how even small acts of kindness can change the world, Chloe is stung by the lost opportunity for friendship, and thinks about how much better it could have been if she’d shown a little kindness toward Maya.
“¡Sí, Se Puede! Yes, We Can!: Janitor Strike in L.A.” By Diana Cohn (2nd grade +) This bilingual fictional story is set against the backdrop of the successful janitors’ strike in Los Angeles in 2000. It tells about Carlitos, whose mother is a janitor. Every night, he sleeps while his mother cleans in one of the skyscrapers in downtown L.A. When she comes home, she waves Carlitos off to school before she goes to sleep. One night, his mamá explains that she can’t make enough money to support him and his abuelita the way they need unless she makes more money as a janitor. She and the other janitors have decided to go on strike. How will Carlitos support his mother? Carlitos wants to help but he cannot think of a way until his teacher, Miss Lopez, explains in class how her own grandfather had fought for better wages for farmworkers when he first came to the United States. He and the other children in his class join the marchers with a very special sign for his mom!
“Peppe the Lamplighter” By Elisa Bartone, Illustrations by Ted Lewin (1st grade +)
In the tradition of Lois Lowry and Paul Fleischman, Elisa Bartone’s Caldecott Honor-winning book gives children a glimpse into American history and the immigrant experience. This is the story of Peppe, who becomes a lamplighter to help support his immigrant family in turn-of-the-century New York City, despite his papa’s disapproval. Peppe’s family is very poor, and though he is just a boy he needs to find work. Being a lamplighter is not the job his father had dreamed of for Peppe, but when Peppe’s job helps save his little sister, he earns the respect of his entire family.
“Selavi: A Haitian Story of Hope” By Youme Landowne (k+)
The true story of Selavi (“that is life”), a small boy who finds himself homeless on the streets of Haiti. He finds other street children who share their food and a place to sleep. Together they proclaim a message of hope through murals and radio programs. Now in paper, this beautifully illustrated story is supplemented with photographs of Haitian children working and playing together, plus an essay by Edwidge Danticat.
“Pearl Moskowitz’s Last Stand” by Arthur A. Levine (k+)
Pearl Moscowitz takes a stand when the city government tries to chop down the last ginko tree on her street.
“The Hundred Dresses” By Eleanor Estes (4th grade +)
Eleanor Estes’s The Hundred Dresses won a Newbery Honor in 1945 and has never been out of print since. At the heart of the story is Wanda Petronski, a Polish girl in a Connecticut school who is ridiculed by her classmates for wearing the same faded blue dress every day. Wanda claims she has one hundred dresses at home, but everyone knows she doesn’t and bullies her mercilessly. The class feels terrible when Wanda is pulled out of the school, but by that time it’s too late for apologies. Maddie, one of Wanda’s classmates, ultimately decides that she is “never going to stand by and say nothing again.” This powerful, timeless story has been reissued with a new letter from the author’s daughter Helena Estes, and with the Caldecott artist Louis Slobodkin’s original artwork in beautifully restored color.
“The Mighty Miss Malone” By Christopher Paul Curtis (6th grade +) “We are a family on a journey to a place called wonderful” is the motto of Deza Malone’s family. Deza is the smartest girl in her class in Gary, Indiana, singled out by teachers for a special path in life. But the Great Depression hit Gary hard, and there are no jobs for black men. When her beloved father leaves to find work, Deza, Mother, and her older brother Jimmie go in search of him, and end up in a Hooverville outside Flint, Michigan. Jimmie’s beautiful voice inspires him to leave the camp to be a performer, while Deza and Mother find a new home, and cling to the hope that they will find Father. The twists and turns of their story reveal the devastation of the Depression.
“The Whispering Road” By Livi Michael (for 6th grade +) I really love this book. It’s a good one for opening up conversations about economic inequality. It’s hard to find books that approach poverty from a resiliency and systems perspective (rather than deficit or blame) and this book does an excellent job of it. While Michael is writing about the realities of poverty in mid 19th century, through the lives of Joe and Annie, it is not hard to draw the comparisons to today. The views that Mr. M holds about the poor are not so different than the views that many hold about the poor today. Joe and all of the wonderful friends he meets along the way do an excellent job of telling the story of poverty being something that presses upon the poor, instead of initiating with the poor. What a bunch of characters! It was hard to put the book down. (review written by Angela Berkfield!)
The Hunger Games” By Suzanne Collins (Middle School +) Read this article by Rethinking Schools on how The Hunger Games can be used to teach about class and collective action. The context for the sci-fi story is this…The nation of Panem, formed from a post-apocalyptic North America, is a country that consists of a wealthy Capitol region surrounded by 12 poorer districts. Early in its history, a rebellion led by a 13th district against the Capitol resulted in its destruction and the creation of an annual televised event known as the Hunger Games. In punishment, and as a reminder of the power and grace of the Capitol, each district must yield one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 through a lottery system to participate in the games. The ‘tributes’ are chosen during the annual Reaping and are forced to fight to the death, leaving only one survivor to claim victory.
About Race, Racism, and Racial Justice
Read books that are by people of color, books about hard historical truths, books about the challenges people of color face today (I had a hard time finding one I wanted to share for this category, suggestions welcome!), books about social change, books that illustrate people of color experiencing the many facets of life, books about your ancestors. I’ll keep adding more books here, so check back periodically. And here’s a link for 10 tips for analyzing children’s books for racism and sexism.
“A is for Activist” By Innosanta Nagara, (Pre-k +) A is for Activist is an ABC board book for the next generation of progressives: Families that want their kids to grow up in a space that is unapologetic about activism, environmental justice, civil rights, LGBTQ rights, and so on.
“Counting on Community” By Innosanta Nagara (age 1+)
Counting on Community is Innosanta Nagara’s follow-up to his hit ABC book, A is for Activist. Counting up from one stuffed piñata to ten hefty hens–and always counting on each other–children are encouraged to recognize the value of their community, the joys inherent in healthy eco-friendly activities, and the agency they posses to make change. A broad and inspiring vision of diversity is told through stories in words and pictures. And of course, there is a duck to find on every page!
“My Grandma/Mi Abuelita” By Ginger Foglesong Guy (age 1+)
Follow an imaginative boy and his family as they take a faraway trip above the clouds and across the sea to visit his beloved grandma. Simple words in both English and Spanish provide valuable bilingual vocabulary lessons on every page.
“Feast for 10” By Cathryn Falwell (age 1+)
A counting book that features an African-American family shopping for food, preparing dinner, and sitting down to eat. Lively read-aloud text paired with bright collage illustrations.
“Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message” By Chief Jake Swamp. Illustrated by Erwin Printup, Jr. (age 1+)
“Giving Thanks” is a special children’s version of the Thanksgiving Address, a message of gratitude that originated with the Native people of upstate New York and Canada and that is still spoken at ceremonial gatherings held by the Iroquois, or Six Nations.
“Cassie’s Word Quilt ” By Faith Ringgold. Alfred A. Knopf. 2002. (Pre-k+)
In this 32-page book we join Cassie, the main character from the picture book Tar Beach. As she takes us on a tour of her home, neighborhood, and school, dozens of new words are introduced with simple labels throughout. Young readers will love the simple story line and all the new words they’ll encounter. They’ll relish the beautifully designed spreads, each with its own quilt motif. The bright, boldly colored pages will attract even the youngest lookers, and the words will teach pre-reading skills to slightly older children.
“The Show Way” by Jacquline Woodson, 1st-middle school
Soonie’s great-grandma was just seven years old when she was sold to a big plantation without her ma and pa, and with only some fabric and needles to call her own. She pieced together bright patches with names like North Star and Crossroads, patches with secret meanings made into quilts called Show Ways — maps for slaves to follow to freedom. And the powerful story continues, connecting one generation to the next until the present day.
“Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom” By Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Kadir Nelson (1st grade+)
Moses, tells the story of Harriet Tubman’s courage and faith that freed many souls from the bondage of slavery. While telling of Harriet’s courageous acts, the book focuses more on her faith in God and internal battle with trusting His timing. Moses has thought-provoking content that invites critical analysis through the mention and use of specific words about slavery as well as in-depth treatment of issues.
“Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad” By Ellen Levine. Illustrated by Kadir Nelson. (1st grade +)
Henry Brown doesn’t know how old he is. Nobody keeps records of slaves’ birthdays. All the time he dreams about freedom, but that dream seems farther away than ever when he is torn from his family and put to work in a warehouse. Henry grows up and marries, but he is again devastated when his family is sold at the slave market. Then one day, as he lifts a crate at the warehouse, he knows exactly what he must do: He will mail himself to the North. After an arduous journey in the crate, Henry finally has a birthday — his first day of freedom.
“Amazing Grace” By Mary Hoffman (K+)
Grace loves stories, whether they’re from books, movies, or the kind her grandmother tells. So when she gets a chance to play a part in Peter Pan, she knows exactly who she wants to be.
“Rosa” By Nikki Giovanni. Illus. By Bryan Collier (1st grade +)
She had not sought this moment but she was ready for it. When the policeman bent down to ask “Auntie, are you going to move?” all the strength of all the people through all those many years joined in her. She said, “No.” A picture book account of Rosa Park’s historic choice.
“Nelson Mandela” By Kadir Nelson (1st grade+)
One day when Nelson Mandela was nine years old, his father died and he was sent from his village to a school far away from home, to another part of South Africa. In Johannesburg, Mandela saw fellow Africans who were poor and powerless. He decided then that he would work to protect them. When the government began to keep people apart based on the color of their skin, Mandela spoke out against the law and vowed to fight hard in order to make his country a place that belonged to all South Africans. Kadir Nelson tells the story of Mandela, a global icon, in poignant verse and glorious illustrations. It is the story of a young boy’s determination to change South Africa and of the struggles of a man who eventually became the president of his country by believing in equality for people of all colors. Readers will be inspired by Mandela’s triumph and his lifelong quest to create a more just world.
“A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis” By Matt De La Pena. illus. By Kadir Nelson (1st grade+)
On the eve of World War II, African American boxer Joe Louis fought German Max Schmeling in a bout that had more at stake than just the world heavyweight title; for much of America their fight came to represent America’s war with Germany. This elegant and powerful picture book biography centers around the historic fight in which Black and White America were able to put aside prejudice and come together to celebrate our nation’s ideals.
“Rad American Women A-Z” By Kate Schatz. Illus. By Miriam Klein Stahl (1st grade+)
Like all A-Z books, this one illustrates the alphabet—but instead of “A is for Apple”, A is for Angela—as in Angela Davis, the iconic political activist. B is for Billie Jean King, who shattered the glass ceiling of sports; C is for Carol Burnett, who defied assumptions about women in comedy; D is for Dolores Huerta, who organized farmworkers; and E is for Ella Baker, who mentored Dr. Martin Luther King and helped shape the Civil Rights Movement. And the list of great women continues, spanning several centuries, multiple professions, and 26 diverse individuals. There are artists and abolitionists, scientists and suffragettes, rock stars and rabble-rousers, and agents of change of all kinds. The book includes an introduction that discusses what it means to be “rad” and “radical,” an afterword with 26 suggestions for how you can be “rad,” and a Resource Guide with ideas for further learning and reading. American history was made by countless rad—and often radical—women. By offering a fresh and diverse array of female role models, we can remind readers that there are many places to find inspiration, and that being smart and strong and brave is rad. Rad American Women will be appreciated by various age groups. It is Common Core aligned for students grades 3 – 8. Pre-school and young children will be captured by the bright visuals and easily modified texts, while the subject matter will stimulate and inspire high-schoolers and beyond.
“Circle Unbroken” By Margot Theis Raven. Illus. E.B. Lewis (1st grade+)
Keeping the African heritage alive. As she teaches her granddaughter to sew a traditional sweetgrass basket, a grandmother weaves a story, going back generations to her old-timey grandfather’s village in faraway Africa. There, as a boy, he learned to make baskets so tightly woven they could hold the rain. Even after being stolen away to a slave ship bound for America, he remembers what he learned and passes these memories on to his children – as they do theirs.
“Freedom Riders” by Ann Bausum. (6th to High School)
Freedom Riders compares and contrasts the childhoods of John Lewis and James Zwerg in a way that helps young readers understand the segregated experience of our nation’s past. It shows how a common interest in justice created the convergent path that enabled these young men to meet as Freedom Riders on a bus journey south.
“Separate is Never Equal” by Duncan Tonatiuh. K-4th.
Almost 10 years before Brown vs. Board of Education, Sylvia Mendez and her parents helped end school segregation in California. An American citizen of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage who spoke and wrote perfect English, Mendez was denied enrollment to a “Whites only” school. Her parents took action by organizing the Hispanic community and filing a lawsuit in federal district court. Their success eventually brought an end to the era of segregated education in California.
“Harvesting Hope: The story of Cesar Chavez” by Kathleen Krull. (1st grade +) Cesar Chavez is known as one of America’s greatest civil rights leaders. When he led a 340-mile peaceful protest march through California, he ignited a cause and improved the lives of thousands of migrant farmworkers. But Cesar wasn’t always a leader. As a boy, he was shy and teased at school. His family slaved in the fields for barely enough money to survive. Cesar knew things had to change, and he thought that–maybe–he could help change them. So he took charge. He spoke up. And an entire country listened. An author’s note provides historical context for the story of Cesar Chavez’s life.
“The Sweet Smell of Roses” by Angela Johnson. K-4th.
There’s a sweet, sweet smell in the air as two young girls sneak out of their house, down the street, and across town to where men and women are gathered, ready to march for freedom and justice. Inspired by the countless young people who took a stand against the forces of injustice, this book offers a stirring yet jubilant glimpse of the youth involvement that played an invaluable role in the Civil Rights movement.
“The Other Side” by Jacqueline Woodson. Pre-k – younger elementary.
Clover’s mom says it isn’t safe to cross the fence that segregates their African-American side of town from the white side where Anna lives. But the two girls strike up a friendship, and get around the grown-ups’ rules by sitting on top of the fence together. I love this book because it illustrates how simple it can be to bridge the divide – and how good kids are at doing it. This racial divide is very real today, and when reading this book we can help kids to recognize the fences in their lives and think together about how to overcome the fences.
“The Chicken Chasing Queen of Lamar County”, by Janice N. Harrington. Pre-k – 4th.
Meet one smart chicken chaser. She can catch any chicken on her grandmother’s farm except one – the elusive Miss Hen. In a hilarious battle of wits, the spirited narrator regales readers with her campaign to catch Miss Hen, but this chicken is “fast as a mosquito buzzing and quick as a fleabite.” This book is fun to read with my kids because we used to live on a farm and they spent a lot of time chasing chickens and figuring out ways to catch them, as well as raising baby chicks. Finding commonality is fun and important.
“Bein’ With You This Way” By W. Nikola-Lisa. Illustrated by Michael Bryant. (Pre-k +) An African American girl visits the park and rounds up a group of her friends for an afternoon of fun and playground games. The children discover that despite their physical differences, they are all really the same.
“Brown Girl Dreaming” By Jacqueline Woodson (middle school +)
Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.
“Fiona’s Lace”, by Patricia Polacco. PreK-younger elementary.
This is a story about poverty, labor, migration, tragedy, perseverance and resilience. It is an Irish story. I read it with my kids and then we looked in our family tree and saw that their Great-Great-Great Grandparents on both sides of the family came from Ireland – probably around the time of this story. Knowing our history is crucial for understanding the way forward. Our brains and bodies have been colonized – it takes a lot of work to look at the painful history of the USA – land theft, genocide, and slavery. And it also takes a lot of work to keep our family’s stories alive – they so easily become assimilated into the “White” story. What is your story? And how do you talk with your kids about it? How do you help them to recognize and appreciate others’ stories?
About Housing Justice
“The Can Man”, by Laura Williams. (Grades 1-5).
A young boy wants to earn the money to buy a skateboard, and is inspired by a local homeless man, Mr. Peters, to collect and redeem empty soft drink cans as a way to reach his goal. In the end he realizes that Mr. Peters needs the money more than he does and the story takes a “Gift of the Magi” twist. I loved this book as a read-aloud with my 7 year old. Beautiful pictures and a simple story with a few different themes worth talking about with your kiddos. Homelessness, compassion, who has the right to the trash?, needing vs. wanting, class. When we read this together my 7-year-old son decided he wanted to start collecting cans to buy a drone. I pointed out that there are some ‘can men’ in our town, too—people that collect the cans and bottles because that’s how they make their money. He was unmoved and still wants to earn a drone. Oh well. You win some, you lose some.
“I Can Hear the Sun”, by Patricia Polacco. (Older elementary).
A boy comes to the park every day and helps the park’s caretaker, Stephanie Michele, care for the geese. He is from a home for homeless children, and when he finds out that he is to be moved to a permanent placement, away from the geese he loves, he taps into some incredible magic and flies away with the geese. A tear-jerking combination of magic and realism. I have a hard time reading any of Patricia Polacco’s books without crying, and this one is no different.
“The Teddy Bear”, by David McPhail. (PreK-younger elementary).
A young boy loses a loved teddy bear, which is then found by a homeless man. As time passes, the boy forgets about his bear, and the bear is as treasured by the man as he was by the boy. Circumstances bring them all back together and the little boy is able to react to the situation with a clear and loving compassion.
“Gracie’s Girl” by Ellen Witlinger. (Middle school).
Now that Bess Cunningham is in middle school, she’s determined to get noticed. With her new glasses, her wild thrift-store clothes, and her job as stage manager for the school play, she’s sure her days of being invisible are over.
Being forced to volunteer with her parents at the local soup kitchen doesn’t exactly fit into Bess’s popularity plans, especially since she finds the place so creepy. But when she meets Gracie Jarvis Battle, an elderly homeless woman, Bess can’t help but feel compassion for her. Bess grows more involved with trying to feed and shelter the older woman, but as the weather turns colder and Gracie grows thinner, Bess begins to wonder — will her help be enough? (Synopsis by Goodreads).
“Crenshaw” By Katherine Applegate (upper elementary & middle school)
Jackson and his family have fallen on hard times. There’s no more money for rent. And not much for food, either. His parents, his little sister, and their dog may have to live in their minivan. Again. Crenshaw is a cat. He’s large, he’s outspoken, and he’s imaginary. He has come back into Jackson’s life to help him. But is an imaginary friend enough to save this family from losing everything? Beloved author Katherine Applegate proves in unexpected ways that friends matter, whether real or imaginary.
About Food Justice
Reading to young ones:
- “Spuds” by Karen Hesse. preK-5th.
- “Amelia’s Road” by Linda Jacobs Altman. preK-4th.
- “The Can Man” by Laura E. Williams. K-6th.
- “Harvesting Hope: The story of Cesar Chavez” by Kathleen Krull, K-6th
Reading for pre-teens and teens:
- “Song of the Trees” by Mildred Taylor
- “Just Juice” by Karen Hesse
- “Invitation to the Game” by Monica Hughs