Representing Activism in Children’s Literature

Today’s post was written by Carol Raby, Library Events Manager. 

children holding protest signs
From “The Little Book of Little Activists”

How is activism represented in children’s literature? To answer this question, we need to look no further than the William H. Hannon Library’s Curriculum Materials Collection (CMC) on the second floor. The CMC primarily supports teaching in the School of Education. The collection also supports early literacy development and curriculum for educators, students, and families at the Loyola Marymount University Children’s Center. It is a great spot to browse and immerse yourself in the power of children’s books. The Little Book Of Activists defines activism as, “Taking action in order to create social change.” or, in the words of 11-year old Carsyn, “We need to make our generation a nicer one. If there’s a mess it’s our job to fix it.” Children certainly have clarity about the way the world works!

It is difficult to select just a few titles to highlight. Searching within the CMC in the library catalog using the terms activism/activist, social justice, or social movements will return many interesting choices. Here are a few:

Our Earth: How Kids are Saving the Planet, written and illustrated by Janet Wilson, showcases children from age 7 to 17 who have made a positive impact for our environment. The children come from all around the globe and their work on a myriad of problems from curing cancer to saving the rain forest.

Knit Your Bit, by Deborah Hopkinson, is based on a “knit-in” event in Central Park in 1918. Children and adults knit for three days making clothes for soldiers. This act helped children cope with missing their parents who were soldiers. The power of finding a way to help by learning something new (both boys and girls learned to knit) is powerfully depicted in this easy-to-share book. The end papers have actual photos of children knitting from 1918.

A hundred years ago, in 1920, women were finally given the right to vote by the 19th Amendment to our Constitution. Did you know that Susan B. Anthony came to Berkeley, California in May, 1896 to lead a suffrage rally? Well, there’s a children’s book about it based on the family papers of a Berkeley girl named Bessie Keith Pond who marched in that rally! Marching With Aunt Susan, written by Claire Rudolf Murphy, is an easy to read aloud story of the day Bessie was told girls don’t hike by her father and brother so instead she goes with her mother and Aunt Susan to the rally. It is an exciting recounting of the event from a child’s perspective. The back pages which follow provide a treasure trove of timelines, newspaper articles, and photographs of the history of suffrage in California.

Children have participated in other marches throughout our country’s history to further social justice. The book The Youngest Marcher tells the story of Audrey Faye Hendricks when she marched in Birmingham, Alabama to protest Birmingham’s segregation laws. At just 9 years old, Audrey knew she might go to jail. And she did! Children of all ages who protested in the 1963 Birmingham Children’s March were jailed for up to a week. The inhumanity is stunning and the book is very moving when it explains that because Audrey was so much younger than the other children she felt overwhelmed and isolated. However, she was strong and brave. One feels empathy as well as admiration for her strength.

Children and families were standing up to school segregation in California during the 1940s. Separate Is Never Equal brings to light insidious school segregation during the 1940s in Westminster, California where children of Mexican families were being sent to substandard schools due to their race. Sylvia Mendez and her family fought back and won the right to attend neighborhood schools for all children in California in 1947. This compelling story with stunning illustrations is eye opening and emotional. The reader feels Sylvia’s pain and enjoys her eventual triumph. The Aztec style illustrations add to the reader’s experience. The back matter is very informative and includes photos of Sylvia when she was young and when she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2011.

photo of page from "Through My Eyes"
From “Through My Eyes” by Ruby Bridges

No list of children’s books on activism would be complete without mentioning the autobiography of Ruby Bridges, Through My Eyes. Ruby is the 6 year old girl who integrated the William Franz School in New Orleans, Louisiana on November 14, 1960. Can you remember being 6 and going to your first day at a new school in first grade? Now try imagining being escorted up the steps of your new school surrounded by federal marshals with guns to keep a shrieking crowd of angry white people from hurting you. That is Ruby’s experience. She told herself it must still be Mardi Gras with people acting wild. And she went to school, where, with her teacher, she got her education. The book is a photobiography of that year. For the mature reader, it is a clear look at the horror of racism and the determination of one small girl in a sea of rage to get her education. For younger readers, there is The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles.

“If many little people, in many little places, do many little things, they can change the face of the Earth” (African proverb). These stories and many more might inspire any one of us. Check some out from our Curriculum Materials Collection. Need help finding what you want? Looking for recommendations? Contact Carol Raby for readers advisory support.