Explaining what activism looks like to a Kindergartener or even an upper elementary school student can be a complicated task. Raise your hand if you’ve taught about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and your students then tell you that he made everyone equal because he gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech? Everyone can lower their hands now. The point is that teaching activism to students can be quite a task and understanding what actually goes into activism can be complicated. These books are an excellent mix of picture books about activism for kids that feature child activists, American social activism, and international activism.
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I Am One by Susan Verde & Peter H. Reynolds
Another amazing book from Susan Verde and Peter Reynolds from their “I Am…” series. The book takes the idea that one can be powerful. One see can start a garden. One note can start a song. One brick can break down a wall. A book about activism that even Kindergarteners could understand but deep enough for upper elementary students to take away a lot and make connections to more concrete activist movements.
Sofia Valdez, Future Prez by Andrea Beaty
Another great addition to Beaty’s The Questioneers series this time about aspiring child activist Sofia who stands up for what she believes in. She and her abuelo help their community until her abuelo hurts his leg on a trash pile at the dump. She’s determined to get that dump turned into a park. She goes down to city hall and everyone is impressed with her passion and verve and she starts a campaign. Told in verse as all of Beaty’s books in the series are. Even better, it’s also in Spanish titled Sofia Valdez, presidenta tal vez. An excellent fiction title to teach about activism for kids.
Energy Island by Allan Drummond
A true story about the island of Samso, Denmark and the island’s environmental activism. Sometimes to make a big change, all it takes is one person to convince a few people to make small changes and then that convinces others to make change. This island is now completely energy independent creating the majority of its energy from wind turbines. An excellent story I’ve used with students as young as first graders and contains lots of extra information about renewable and nonrenewable resources perfect for upper grade science. This also makes this book a favorite for Earth Day.
Pedal Power by Allan Drummond
Another excellent book about community activism centered on Amsterdam, Holland. Motor vehicles were taking over the small streets of the city making it unsafe for bicycle traffic. One day, the unthinkable happened: a child riding a bike was killed by a car. The people had had enough, so they set up protests. They blocked streets with bicycles and people. They went on bike rides to protest, and eventually the government listened. Car traffic was banned in the downtown area. A powerful story about a motivated group of citizens, child activists included, working together to bring about change over time.
Emmanuel’s Dream by Laurie Ann Thompson
This is the true story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah. Born in Ghana, West Africa, with one deformed leg, he was dismissed by most people—but not by his mother, who taught him to reach for his dreams. Emmanuel hopped to school more than two miles each way, learned to play soccer, left home at age thirteen to provide for his family, and, eventually, became a cyclist. He rode an astonishing four hundred miles across Ghana in 2001, spreading his powerful message: disability is not inability. Today, Emmanuel continues to work on behalf of the disabled. The story of this remarkable young man has since become a movie titled Emmanuel’s Gift and narrated by Oprah Winfrey.
The Water Princess by Susan Verde
This book, while not about activism in the story, was co-written with Georgie Badiel to benefit and build wells in Africa. Georgie is a model born in Burkina Faso in Africa where many need to walk miles every day to get water. In this story, young girl Gie Gie tells how she walks for water each day and dreams of one day bringing water to her home. A book about how activism can even look like writing a book to bring about awareness to raise money for change.
Malala and Iqbal: Brave Children From Pakistan by Jeanette Winter
Two stories about two children in Pakistan. Iqbal Masih was a boy who spoke out against child slavery in the carpet trade. Malala Yousafzai spoke out for the right of girls to learn and attend school. Both children were shot. Iqbal was shot and killed in 1995 for his actions and the world did nothing. Malala was shot in 2012, by a miracle survived, and she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for her continued championing of the rights of children to learn. An excellent book about activism for kids in upper elementary.
The Youngest Marcher by Cynthia Levinson
Nine-year-old Audrey Faye Hendricks intended to go places and do things like anybody else. So when she heard grown-ups talk about wiping out Birmingham’s segregation laws, she spoke up. As she listened to the preacher’s words, smooth as glass, she sat up tall. And when she heard the plan—picket those white stores! March to protest those unfair laws! Fill the jails!—she stepped right up and said, I’ll do it! She was going to j-a-a-il! A remarkable true story recommended by Kandy in the community!
Lillian’s Right to Vote by Jonah Winter
This story is based on the true story of a Black woman named Lillian who in 2008 walked up hill to cast her vote in the national election. As she walks, she recalls the struggles of her ancestors who lived in slavery. After slavery, they faced such things as poll taxes and unfair poll questions like “how many bubbles on a bar of soap.” Then she recalls another ancestor marching from Selma to Montgomery amongst other important historical events that led to the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965. Finally, Lillian makes it to the top of the hill to cast her vote for the first Black president of the United States Barack Obama. A powerful metaphor of the long uphill walk towards a more perfect union. A book about activism for kids that takes a historical view.
Miss Paul and the President by Dean Robbins
Alice Paul was indignant when, as a young girl, she noticed that her mother didn’t vote like her father did. As she grew and learned more, she participated in and organized campaigns to petition representatives to grant women the right to vote. She even met with President Woodrow Wilson. He was not interested at first, but between Miss Paul and President Wilson’s daughter, he began to listen.
That’s Not Fair: Emma Tenayuca’s Struggle For Justice
Emma Tenayuca was a Mexican American who grew up in San Antonio, Texas. She saw how the Mexican American workers at pecan-shelling factories were taken advantage of working for almost nothing. Through involvement, care, and passion she quickly became a young worker’s rights activist and organizer who led 12,000 workers to fight for fair wages, years before Cesar Chavez and his famous march. Even better, the book is bilingual and can be used to teach in English or Spanish. This is also an amazing book for Hispanic Heritage Month.
A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara
A is for Activist is an ABC board book written and illustrated for the next generation of progressives: families who want their kids to grow up in a space that is unapologetic about activism, environmental justice, civil rights, LGBTQ rights, and everything else that activists believe in and fight for. A book that inspires hope for the future.
Pies From Nowhere
This is a mostly untold story from the Montgomery Bus Boycott about Georgia Gilmore and how her pies helped keep the boycott going. Selling food with the women who she organized to cook helped pay for the many who participated in the bus boycott but still needed to get around the city. A story about how activism doesn’t always look like protesting but doing your part and helping how you can.
So Tall Within by Gary D. Schmidt
This is an amazingly illustrated biography of Sojourner Truth. A woman born into slavery who eventually gained her freedom and worked to free her children. She then walked around the country campaigning for the right of women and Blacks. The illustrations are breathtaking.
Separate Is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh
The story of Sylvia Mendez and her family’s fight to end segregation in California schools. She was a completely bilingual Mexican American girl who was not allowed to enroll in a “whites only” school. Her family’s lawsuit led to desegregation in California schools. This happened YEARS before Brown v. Board of Education. Told with Duncan Tonatiuh’s trademark illustrations.
Harvesting Hope by Kathleen Krull
The story of farm labor organizer Cesar Chavez and his march to Sacramento. This biography begins with his childhood and leads to his famous march and fight for farm labor rights. Chavez did much more in his life but the focus on this one event helps focus young readers on his message and work in the labor movement. I love that this book is also available in Spanish as Cosechando esperanza.
The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander
This book won all of the awards: Caldecott Medal, Newbery Honor, Coretta Scott King Award. Kwame Alexander wrote this originally for ESPN, but made this poem into a book. It. Is. POWERFUL. I read this book to my class of fourth graders, and there was a silence afterwards. The kids were thinking, and then it led to some of the deepest discussion I have ever had with students. We probably could have talked for hours about just one page. A poem about the Black experience in America and the strides that have been made despite and as a result of unspeakable hardship.
Mary Wears What She Wants by Keith Negley
This is a biography of women’s rights activist Mary Edwards Walker. She was a 19th century doctor who was arrested many times throughout her life for…wearing pants. This is a story that is great for younger grades to challenge gender norms and societal pressures and push children to think about gender inequality still present today. A favorite activism book for kids, especially for Kindergarten, first and second grade.
Let the Children March by Monica Clark-Robinson
In 1963 Birmingham, Alabama, thousands of African American children volunteered to march for their civil rights after hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak. They protested the laws that kept black people separate from white people. Facing fear, hate, and danger, these children used their voices to change the world. Beautiful illustrations to accompany this true story.
Elizabeth Leads the Way
Elizabeth Cady Stanton stood up and fought for what she believed in. From an early age, she knew that women were not given rights equal to men. But rather than accept her lesser status, Elizabeth went to college and later gathered other like-minded women to challenge the right to vote.Here is the inspiring story of an extraordinary woman who changed America forever because she wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.
Sarah Gives Thanks
The true story of Sarah Hale and how she campaigned to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. She was a writer and women’s magazine editor and petitioned multiple presidents to make it a holiday. Finally, during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln finally listened to her years of work and campaigning and made Thanksgiving a national holiday. A great book about activism for kids that shows that it can take years to bring about change. Also a favorite book for Thanksgiving.
Daddy, There’s a Noise Outside
A timely book that connects to the Black Lives Matter movement. Two children are awoken in the middle of the night and are trying to understand why they are doing what they’re doing. A great introductory book to social activism for students of primary or upper elementary. A book that uses simple words to explain a big idea. In addition to being an excellent book about activism, this is also one of my favorite books about discrimination and prejudice.
Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag
An age-appropriate telling of the life of Harvey Milk. The book focuses on how he realized that the best way to make change was to make the laws. It talks about his social activism and the roots of the Gay Pride Flag. It then bridges to the present when in 2015 the White House was lit with a rainbow to celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage.
I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark
The first biograpy of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The story of a girl who made a career out of disagreeing. This activism picture book for kids shows that you can work to make change within government. It does not need to happen only from citizens outside of the government. A really powerful biograpy perfect for upper elementary with how it explores the many and varied ways to express disagreement.
Marti’s Song For Freedom
A biography of writer, poet, activist, and Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti. The biography weaves a prose telling of his life with his own verses (bilingual of course). His writing ignited a movement for Cuban freedom, even after his death in battle. I love this book for upper elementary for interpreting symbols in poetry.
Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hammer
Despite fierce prejudice and abuse, even being beaten to within an inch of her life, Fannie Lou Hamer was a champion of civil rights from the 1950s until her death in 1977. Integral to the Freedom Summer of 1964, Ms. Hamer gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention that, despite President Johnson’s interference, aired on national TV news and spurred the nation to support the Freedom Democrats. Featuring vibrant mixed-media art full of intricate detail, Voice of Freedom celebrates Fannie Lou Hamer’s life and legacy with a message of hope, determination, and strength.
We Are Water Protectors
Inspired by the many Indigenous-led movements across North America, We Are Water Protectors issues an urgent rallying cry to safeguard the Earth’s water from harm and corruption―a bold and lyrical picture book written by Carole Lindstrom and vibrantly illustrated by Michaela Goade. An amazing Indigenous people book about activism for kids.
Planting the Tree of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai
Wangari Maathai, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize and founder of the Green Belt Movement, grew up in the highlands of Kenya, where fig trees cloaked the hills, fish filled the streams, and the people tended their bountiful gardens. But over many years, as more and more land was cleared, Kenya was transformed. When Wangari returned home from college in America, she found the village gardens dry, the people malnourished, and the trees gone. How could she alone bring back the trees and restore the gardens and the people? To keep with the movement, the book is printed on recycled paper.
For the Right to Learn: Malala Yousafzai’s Story
She grew up in a world where women were supposed to be quiet. But Malala Yousafzai refused to be silent. Discover Malala’s story through this powerful narrative telling, and come to see how one brave girl named Malala changed the world. A brilliant biography books about activism for kids about a child activist.
Marching With Aunt Susan
All Bessie wants is to go hiking with her father and brothers. But it’s 1896, and girls don’t get to hike. They can’t vote either, which Bessie discovers when Susan B. Anthony comes to town to help lead the campaign for women’s suffrage. Stirred to action, Bessie joins the movement and discovers that small efforts can result in small changes―and maybe even big ones. Also an amazing book for Women’s History Month.
The Poppy Lady
When American soldiers entered World War I, Moina Belle Michael, a schoolteacher from Georgia, knew she had to act. Some of the soldiers were her students and friends. Almost single-handedly, Moina worked to establish the red poppy as the symbol to honor and remember soldiers. And she devoted the rest of her life to making sure the symbol would last forever. Thanks to her hard work, that symbol remains strong today. A book about activism for kids that shows that not all activism needs to be about social change. It can be symbolic.
Martin’s Big Words
This picture-book biography is an excellent and accessible introduction for young readers to learn about one of the world’s most influential leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Doreen Rappaport weaves the immortal words of Dr. King into a captivating narrative to tell the story of his life. In addition to being one of the best books about activism, this is also a favorite book for Black History Month.
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