[Image: Cover from ‘Noni Speaks Up’ by Heather Hartt-Sussman & Geneviève Côté]
In this post: Picture books for the youngest generation of upstanders and civil rights activists.
Books For Littles(BFL) is free and accessible for readers who can’t afford a paywall. Posts may contain affiliate links, which allow me to earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Check out the full affiliate disclosure along with the BFL statement of accountability. If you’re pairing this advice with a trip to the library (please do!), you can also support BFL on Patreon.
I’m afraid my children will grow up to be bullies.
I’m afraid they will grow up to be victims.
Most of all, I’m afraid they will grow up to be passive.
Learning to stop victimizing someone is difficult, but it’s education and compassion – no courage needed.
Learning to stand up against bullies requires courage, but it’s an act of necessity, of self-preservation. Humans are pretty skilled at that.
The choice to stand up when we see someone ELSE getting picked on though, to stand up to our friends and risk getting ostracized and placing ourselves in harm’s way – that’s a new kind of courage I don’t know how to teach.
When and how to stand up against hate
We’ve gone over scripts on what to say when a classmate attacks my kids, but explaining to them when and how to stick up for someone else against our own friends is a tougher conversation.
Noni Speaks Up connected with Q in a way our previous conversations and books about bullying never did.
It validates the fear he has – but wasn’t able to put words to.
He knew he SHOULD stand up to his friends when they say something he knows is wrong, but didn’t know WHY it was so hard to assert himself in these situations. Not until we read this book and saw Noni’s reservations and decisions to stay quiet or speak up illustrated.
How to know when it’s time for you to speak up
When you’re afraid to speak up (not because it might trigger a post-traumatic response or draw attention to your ‘otherness‘ and make you an additional target) – delegate disruption or connect with the person being targeted when it’s safe to do so.
- When the person doing harm is your friend, or someone you have influence with – when you’re nervous you might lose your position within the ‘in group’ – that’s a sign.
- When you share the same privileges and power as the person doing harm – if you are friends, family, or in the same business – that’s a sign.
- When it feels like you are making a big deal out of nothing – that’s a sign.
- When you’re shaking your head that no one else has has stepped up – that’s a sign.
- When you can stay quiet and no one would notice – that’s a sign.
- When someone who has spoken up is getting piled on and you feel a satisfied ‘Whew, glad that wasn’t me!‘ – that’s a sign.
- When you’re worried you’re going to get judged or face social backlash for speaking up – that’s a confirmation it’s within your power to disrupt harm.
How to disrupt
- Ask the person being targeted what they would like you to do. Do not be a savior. Follow their lead.
- Don’t feel like you have the power or safety to speak up? Seek someone in authority – a teacher, manager, etc. and tell them to intervene. (AVOID CALLING THE POLICE PLEASE AND THANKS).
- Do you share the identity of the person being harmed and you’re worried you’ll become a targe too? Look for another bystander with more power and ask them for help. Share a sympathetic nod or smile with the person being targeted so they know they’re not alone.
- Film the encounter from a safe distance. Give the material to the person being targeted and ask them what they want you to do with it. DO NOT share their traumatic experience without their consent.
- Get clumsy. Spill your drink. Ask what time it is. Draw attention away from the person being targeted so they can recover or flee.
- If you feel safe: Address the person doing harm in as few, direct, words as possible. “They look uncomfortable. Stop.”
- Don’t escalate. Don’t make this about you. Don’t become one more person the target has to deal with.
Disruption Within Our Communities
- Noni Speaks Up – Shows kids that the fear of being rejected by our own friends is normal, but important to push through.
- The Smallest Girl In the Smallest Grade shows us that even when we feel small and powerless, we can ignite change.
- The Araboolies of Liberty Street shows us how a neighborhood can unite against a tyrant.
- When A Bully Is President – A more didactic book for older kids to be used as a tool in understanding how to resist authoritarian regimes.
Disruption On the Field
In ‘I Am Jackie Robinson,’ we learn about the fear and bravery it takes to break race boundaries. ‘The William Hoy Story‘ showed us how players with disabilities (Hoy was Deaf) can inspire league-wide disability accommodations that help every player.
‘Miss Mary Reporting‘ isn’t technically on the field – but this biography of sportswriter Mary Garber shows how tenacity and passing sustained Garber as she broke into a domain that was openly hostile to women.
Disruption At School
‘Amy, The Story of a Deaf Child‘ isn’t a story specifically about disruption, but it normalizes day-in-the-life of disability-rights advocate Amy Rowley. Behind the book, Amy fought for disability accommodations for equal education in the 1979 case of Board of Education […] v. Rowley case, which she lost – but it inspired more disabled students to keep fighting.
‘Separate is Never Equal‘ is the story of Sylvia Mendez, who fought for the right to attend a white-only school in 1946. The success of her case laid the groundwork for desegregation fights across the country.
14 years later, in ‘The Story of Ruby Bridges,’ we see six-year-old ruby endure threats, harassment, and organized strikes against her attendance in a formerly white-only school.
Disruption In The Stacks
‘Ron’s Big Mission‘ is based on the story of astronaut Ron MacNair in his 1959 fight for the right to check books out of the library.
‘The Library Lion‘ has been the single most effective book in discussing when it’s okay to break the rules – and what it means to sacrifice our comfort and happiness for the safety of others. Please don’t send me more studies explaining how kids are more likely to emulate human protagonists. All of them fail to account for the effects of expanded discussion. Both my 3yo and 5yo found the lion’s choice to be bittersweet and uplifting – and were able to equate times in their own lives when they might be called on to do the same during our guided discussions.
If you liked ‘The Book With No Pictures,’ you’ll love ‘This is My Book,’ a silly story breaking the 4th wall. Pett provokes readers to recognize the translation from an artist or author’s intentions, and how that morphs once a reader creates a relationship with a story. The story inspires readers to break the rules, so search for a new (rather than used) version of this book – you’re likely to find rips and scribbles throughout the pages if previous readers connected with the story. There’s also a fragile pop-up on one page, so reading requires adult supervision for kids under 4.
Disruption At Work
‘Harvesting Hope‘ was the story of Cesar Chavez from his idyllic early childhood contrasting the harsh labor conditions of the migrant farmers he led in revolt. The illustrations and storytelling were more vibrant than ‘Dolores Huerta,’ which I enjoyed but the boys found boring. (I’ll admit both stories were a bit of a fight to get them into, they’re not terribly exciting.)
‘On Our Way to Oyster Bay‘ is told from the perspective of 8-year-old Aidan, who worked 72-hour work-weeks until real-life child-rights activist Mother Jones organized a 100-mile, 16-day march of children that eventually resulted in safer child labor laws.
‘Brave Girl,’ is the story of Jewish-Ukranian immigrant Clara Lemlich leading the massive Uprising of 20,000 in 1909, leading to a revolution in working women’s rights.
‘Little Leaders’ features 40 Black women who changed the world with exceptional work in literature, art, space exploration, and beyond.
Disruption In The Justice System
‘I Dissent‘ is the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as she refuses to accept the bigotry she faced growing up and as a Jewish woman fighting for justice and equality in the US Supreme Court.
‘The Youngest Marcher‘ is the story of Audrey Fay Hendricks, who volunteered to fill the prisons along with hundreds of other black children until the jails could hold no more, scoring a victory against unfair imprisonment during the civil rights movement. (‘I Am Martin Luther King, Jr.‘ is self-explanatory.)
Disruption Against Gender Constructs
‘Jacob’s New Dress‘ is the story of a little boy determined to dress himself the way he feels powerful – despite bullying, gender norms, and his parents’ hesitations.
‘Bad Girls‘ is a bit bloody for littles (Beheadings! Revenge! Pirate Queens!) but soooo good it should be in every parent’s lexicon – and it also makes the perfect Mother’s Day Gift…if you happen to be the father of my children ::cough cough::.
‘Malala’s Magic Pencil‘ is Malala Yousefzai’s fairytale-esque autobiography about her decision to take responsibility for the inequity around her using the only tools she had as a young girl – words.
Phoebe’s Revolt is the story of one little girl determined to cast off the oppressive ruffles of constrictive frilly dresses. Caveat: toes the line on ‘not like the other girls’ tropes, but Phoebe’s hostility to her Prissy cousin’s propriety is more a reaction to Phoebe’s parental comparison and pressure than hostility toward other women. So I am okay with it.
There are so many historical inaccuracies in this biography of Victoria Woodhull it’s basically historical fiction, but it’s nice to have a kids’ book on this hallmark figure of women’s history to open discussions on gender and politics with kids.
Civil Disobedience – Causing Good Trouble by Taking Action
In ‘The Other Side,’ we watch Clover and her white neighbor on the other side of the fence push boundaries (literally) despite their parents instructions to stay apart.
‘If You Plant A Seed‘ is an allegorical tale of exploring feelings of scarcity and greed, then sharing and reciprocity and the resulting abundance – in a collaboration of adorable animals.
‘Yertle the Turtle‘ is a classic story of a tyrants and the subversive, small protest that caused his downfall. Caveat – Many of Dr. Seuss’s books were racist and problematic, and you can get a better understanding of how to discuss Dr. Seuss’s stories at Pragmatic Mom.
Miss Paul And The President shows the unique and innovative ways Alice Paul caught the attention of the President in the suffragist movement for white women’s right to vote. From my cursory (re: brief and poorly-vetted) research, Paul was a typical white suffragist – meaning she didn’t do squat for women of color, and actively discouraged women of color and Jews from attending the marches she organized. It’s worth noting that this book is illustrated by a woman with a Chinese last name – we Chinese ladies weren’t allowed to vote until much, much, much later than white ladies and Alice Paul was totally cool with that.
Nelson Mandela is a beautiful, albeit not particularly engaging book. Either way – it gives kids a brief history of South Africa’s apartheid and Mandela’s decisions to ignore unjust laws in the pursuit of racial justice. Deborah Menkart has a negative review of this book worth noting on the over-simplification of apartheid and the mything of Nelson Mandela worth check out here. I’m keeping it in because for the age ranges we focus on in BFL, we need to simplify things, and I’m relying on readers to use these books as a launchpad for further research and discussion, not as the final truth.
The Worms That Saved The World teaches kids about the power of organizing and collective action, in addition to considering calculated risks to save the lives at the expense of property destruction. (Full disclosure, the author sent this to me for free so I could check it out.)
I Am Gandhi – as a problematic role model for misogyny and sexual abuse, this age-appropriate book cherry-picks the good stuff Gandhi did. Not saying we should ignore his flaws, but for preschoolers, this is an inspirational story. He’s not perfect – but this book teaches kids what they need to know until they’re old enough to dive into the violence caused by history’s idols.
Civil Disobedience – Causing Good Trouble by Taking a Stand (or seat, I guess)
‘Sit-In‘ is the true story of the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in college-student protest of 1960. (‘Freedom On the Menu‘ is about the same protest, but from the perspective of a little girl. The storytelling is better in ‘Freedom On the Menu,’ but my kids prefered ‘Sit-In’ and were more engaged in this book because of the energetic, colorful illustrations.)