Tag Archives: we need diverse books

Picture Books for Social Justice

This election season has brought a whole new slew of questions, many without answers. Many of our students do not know how to comprehend or even have the prior knowledge or experiential basis to start to form their own ideas on what they think is “right” or issues that they agree or disagree with. Thus the need to teach, explicitly teach, social justice is paramount in order to help students shape their beliefs, values, and contributions to our society. Without the basic tools of literacy, students will not be able to advocate for themselves and their beliefs in a way that is meaningful and purposeful to their futures.

Social justice can be simply defined, although it is not a “simple” term in any regards, as any oppressing social condition to a group of people. This is included but not limited to race, ethnicity, sex, gender identification, religious beliefs, poverty, and much more.

Picture books can be a critical resource in order to build upon students’ knowledge base on what social justice and social oppression looks like, feels like, and the repercussions that follow. Picture books can and should be used with all ages, including at the  middle and high school level. These books have the ability to increase student engagement and allow students to make multimodal connections with the text. The study below details the importance of utilizing picture books with students in the upper grades.

Reiker, M. (2011). The Use of Picture Books in a High School Classroom: A Qualitative Case Study. Masters Thesis. Rollins College.

I have used the following picture books to varying degrees in order to teach on social justice and engage my students in conversations surrounding oppression, the scope of authority, and when we should “rise up” and advocate for what we believe in.

Baseball Saved Us Ken Mochizuki

This book is wonderfully illustrated and centers around the children living in the Japanese Internment camps during World War II. This topic is rarely talked about in schools and is very eye-opening for students. Generally, students are saddened at the camp living conditions and empathetically align themselves with the children at the forefront of this text.

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Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation       Duncan Tonatiuh 

This text is a poignant reminder of the segregation that was present in schools prior to Desegregation. This text provides a new lens for many students when thinking about segregation due to the protagonist being of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage. This book leads to rich discussions regarding race and the oppression that minority groups have faced in the past and are still facing today.

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How Many Days to America? A Thanksgiving Story Eve Bunting

Eve Bunting is a wonderful author who writes striking books that cover a variety of social topics. I often use these texts as discussion starters or to provide some background knowledge for particular themes, projects, or novels. I also love her text Fly Away Home, which is such a heartbreaking story of poverty that rings true with so many students.

This particular text follows the journey of a family, possibly from the Caribbean area, in a small fishing boat to America. This book paints such a tragic picture of a refugee and opens my students’ eyes to the gravity of reality and what real people and families have to go through to find a better life. This text could provide as a starting point to talking about the events in Syria and the current immigration conversations happening nationally.

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What books are you using with your children or students? What kinds of conversations are you having? As always, I would love suggestions!

In the following weeks, I will be posting about novels, non-fiction, and memoirs that can be used as a lens into social justice topics. Stay tuned!



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October 10, 2016 · 3:14 am

Novels to Motivate African American Males Pt. 2

Earlier last week, I detailed the struggle of the African American male in independent reading, in that the root of this issue could be resting in the lack of novels that pursue and reflect “identity” for this demographic. In this post, I have a few suggestions on novels to include in classroom libraries or in lessons to promote the identity of the African American male in the classroom, many of which I found successful with my own students this past year.

Overall, research indicates males become more motivated with a literary text when the basis is upon connecting or making the literacy life-like and relatable. This form of connecting to the text, or seeing the text as life-like, allows students to mirror their own life in the story in some context. The emphasis on including historical literary and traditional texts, especially with the African-American male population, is critical to engagement and motivation within a chosen or class-taught text. It is imperative that educators are “honoring and respecting students’ cultural backgrounds” and integrating historical and traditional African-American texts (Flowers, Urban African-American Students, p.166). This is central to actively acknowledging the various cultures.

Including a socio-historical perspective in the culturally responsive pedagogy provides students with insight into the wide range of reasons African-American males practiced reading and literacy. Historical accounts of the earlier African-American life display the “types, characteristics, and roles of writing embraced by African-American males as they sought to protect their dignity in a racist society” which is still current and relevant in student’s lives today (Tatum, Literacy Practices for African-American Male Adolescents, p.13).

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Many times students will be compliant in whole-group literacy instruction. Note compliance and engagement vary greatly and are not interchangeable. A main struggle for African-American male students regarding motivation and engagement is within the Independent Reading or Sustained Silent Reading blocks in the English Language Arts classroom. These males tend to pretend to read or lack any interest in finding a text of their choice, therefore providing high-interest and relatable texts in the classroom or school library is critical to engaging students in actively independent reading. Novels reflecting on the African-American historical cultures are important to include because they provide a long-standing and enriching perspective on the trials, perseverance, and literacy values of significant people in the culture. Such novels can include: Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, The Autobiography of Malcom X, and The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.

All of these above texts provide students with the foundational perspective of the African-American male and the hardships endured to be where the student is today.

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More modern texts further demonstrate political unrest and racial tensions as their traditional counterparts, mainly themes such as the prejudice of the black man and the white man. These texts engage students with the longing for social change and justice. Examples of these types of texts can include Monster, The Rag and Bone Shop, and Tears of a Tiger.

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 Contemporary texts published within the last few years allow students to truly understand their own identities and permit students to seemingly look into a mirror and see themselves reflected in the text. These texts do not shy away from difficult and superficially-inappropriate topics such as gangs, death, drugs, and gun violence. Many males in the African-American demographic struggle with these topics everyday and the necessity for texts allowing students to explore these in a safe environment is essential. Newer texts as these include Street Pharm, Snitch, Takedown, Tyrell, Dope Sick, Joseph, and Response. These texts exude the topics students are grappling with today and allow for the discovery of identity through culturally relevant experiences.

Allowing students access these types of texts in the classroom-historical, critical, and topical- provide engagement and motivation in independent or whole group reading tasks due to the relevance and authenticity of the authors and subjects included in the novels.

As with most of my novel suggestions,  please be aware and educated of the content. Many of these deal with “older” themes, language, and violence. I always send home permission slips for students to check books out of my library, so that parents are aware of the types of subject matter their students could be encountering.

If you have used any of these or have other great texts that you’ve used, I would love to hear about it!

-Stephanie Branson



Cormier, Robert. The Rag and Bone Shop: A Novel. New York: Delacorte, 2001. Print.

Diepen, Allison Van. Snitch. New York: Simon Pulse, 2007. Print.

Diepen, Allison Van. Street Pharm. New York: Simon Pulse, 2006. Print.

Diepen, Allison Van. Takedown. New York: Simon Pulse, 2013. Print.

Douglass, Fredrick. Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass. N.p.: Dover Publications, 1995. Print.

Draper, Sharon M. Tears of a Tiger. New York: Atheneum for Young Readers, 1994. Print.

Equiano, Olaudah, and Robert J. Allison. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Boston: Bedford of St. Martin’s, 1995. Print.

Flowers, T. A., and L. A. Flowers. “Factors Affecting Urban African American High School Students’ Achievement in Reading.” Urban Education 43.2 (2008): 154-71. Web. 1 May 2016.

Jacobs, Harriet A., Lydia Maria Child, and Jean Fagan. Yellin. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1987. Print.

Myers, Walter Dean, and Christopher Myers. Monster. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1999. Print.

Myers, Walter Dean. Dope Sick. New York: HarperTeen/Amistad, 2009. Print.

Tatum, Alfred W. “Literacy Practices For African-American Male Adolescents.” Students at the Center. Jobs for the Future, Mar. 2012. Web. 1 May 2016.

Volponi, Paul. Response. New York, NY: Viking, 2009. Print.

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