Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Picture Books for Civic Engagement and Social Activism ~Christy Mihaly

A quick announcement up front: I'm excited to be serving as a Round 1 panelist for the Cybils book awards this season, in the Nonfiction category. I'll be very busy reading many fabulous books over the next couple of months! Nominations are open through October 15, and anyone can nominate a worthy book--more info here.

Today's Topic: Picture Books and Civic Engagement 
In 2020 we face an election year like no other. Amidst the disruptions to schools, schedules, and psyches, many adults are wondering how they can engage young people in meaningful conversations about our nation's challenges. 
Picture books can help. There's a cornucopia of recent releases to choose from. I asked a passel of creators of recently published picture books to share their inspirations, insights, and pointers for using these books in engaging with kids. 
Don't miss the additional titles they recommend, at the end of the post. And finally, I've included links to book-related additional resources.

Books about Civics
Sometimes we want a book that introduces the conceptual framework of democracy: elections, rights, and the roles of government officials. 

When Catherine Stier couldn't find a book to help her explain to her preschoolers what the President is supposed to do, she wrote it herself.  If I Were President (Albert Whitman, 1999, illustrated by DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan) offers a kids'-eye view of the presidency. 

Stier's recently released A Vote is a Powerful Thing (Albert Whitman, Sept. 2020, illustrated by Courtney Dawson), provides a kid-friendly take on elections. Stier says she encourages adults sharing this book to talk with kids about issues that are important to them, and encourage them to design campaign posters for causes they care about.

Ruth Spiro's "Baby Loves Political Science" board books explain democracy's basics to even younger kids. (Charlesbridge, 2020-2021, illustrated by Greg Paprocki.) It's never too early to start!
Ruth explains that these new additions to her popular "Baby Loves Science" series use everyday events and observations to teach the fundamentals of government. Democracy introduces elections, while Justice, along with the forthcoming Congress and The Presidency, cover the three branches of government.

In a similar vein, in Free for You and Me: What Our First Amendment Means (Albert Whitman, 2020, illustrated by Manu Montoya) my intention was help kids appreciate the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment, and to understand how these freedoms shape our lives. I incorporated poems, historical vignettes, and a contemporary story in which kids exercise their rights to make the world a better place. While some high-profile adults don't always seem to understand the Constitution, I hope this book gives young readers a good start on the road to civic engagement. 

Books to Foster Social Engagement

What better way to capture a young reader's imagination than with a well-told story? That's what these picture books do. Here's a selection of excellent recent and forthcoming PBs that use true stories to bring history to life, promote empathy, and encourage young people to get involved in their communities.

No Voice Too Small: Fourteen Young Americans Making History (Charlesbridge, 2020) profiles 14 contemporary young activists with brief bios and poems by diverse poets. Edited by Lindsay Metcalf, Keila Dawson and Jeanette Bradley, with art by Jeanette Bradley, this book invites kids to read it again and again. It includes back matter explaining the poetic forms, profiles of the poets, and suggestions for activism.

Jeanette Bradley says her daughter inspired her to create this book. After reading other picture book biographies, she told Jeanette, "I wish I lived in the past, so I could change things." This child had concluded, from her reading, that only famous dead people could make a difference in the world! Jeanette hopes that by collecting the stories of modern activist kids, she can correct this misconception and "empower kids to speak out and act when they see a wrong." 

The book's editors also created additional materials to inspire engagement. Keila wrote an activity guide, and Lindsay and Jeanette collected book club materials for teachers on Flip Grid. As Keila says, not only should kids learn about leaders from the past, but they also "can be a part of making history too."
Author Elisa Boxer is drawn to unsung heroes. In The Voice That Won the Vote: How One Woman's Words Made History (ill. Vivien Mildenberger, Sleeping Bear Press, 2020), she celebrates a lesser-known figure in the women's suffrage movement. Febb Burn was a mother who helped push through the ratification of the 19th Amendment by writing a letter to her lawmaker son. This story resonated for Elisa, who knew it could "help children realize the power of one voice, and one vote." She hopes her book will "inspire children to give voice to what matters to them." 
Beth Anderson was also moved to tell the story of a lesser-known woman. Lizzie Demands a Seat: Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights (ill. E.B. Lewis, Calkins Creek, 2020) introduces readers to a young African American schoolteacher in New York City who fought against segregated streetcars in 1854, a century before Rosa Parks took her stand.

In presenting this book to young people, Beth highlights how the "heroic people that come before us inspire us and how we, too, have a responsibility to leave 'footsteps' to inspire others that follow us." Beth leads the kids in an activity in which they trace their feet on colored paper and cut out "footprints." On one footprint, she asks them to write the names of those who have inspired them, and on the other, how they'd like to inspire others.

Author Traci Sorell works to bring greater visibility to members of the Native Nations in literature for young people, and to empower kids to use their voices. Her first Picture Book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga (ill. Frane Lessac, Charlesbridge, 2018), offers readers a look at contemporary Cherokee life. Traci continues to bring Native stories to light in many formats. Look for her forthcoming nonfiction picture books, Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer (Millbrook 2021), and We Are Still Here! Native American Truths Everyone Should Know (Charlesbridge 2021).

Do you have other favorite books to share on these topics? Please leave them in the comments! 

More Recommended Recent Picture Books for Young Activists
☑ Sometimes People March, by Tessa Allen (Balzer + Bray, 2020)
☑ Shirley Chisolm is a Verb, by Veronica Chambers, ill. Rachelle Baker (Dial Books, 2020)
☑ Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968, by Alice Faye Duncan, ill. R. Gregory Christie (Calkins Creek, 2018)
☑ Shaking Things Up: 14 Young Women Who Changed the World, by Susan Hood, ill. Sophie Blackall and 12 more (Harper Collins, 2018) 
☑ We Are Water Protectors, by Carole Lindstrom, ill. Michaela Goade (Roaring Brook, 2020)
☑ Vote for Our Future! by Margaret McNamara, ill. Micah Player (Schwartz & Wade, 2020)
☑ Peaceful Fights for Equal Rightsby Rob Sanders, ill. Jared Andrew Schorr (Simon & Schuster, 2018)
☑ The Teachers March: How Selma's Teachers Changed History, by Sandra Neil Wallace, Rich Wallace, ill. Charly Palmer (Calkins Creek, 2020)

Additional Resources


  1. Wow, what a great set of resources you amassed for info on elections and social activism. TY, Christy.

    1. Thanks, Kathy. I've been thinking a lot about these issues recently. (Haven't we all?)

  2. These really are outstanding new offerings, and they serve audiences from preschool to middle grades. Thanks for pulling them al together into one list.

    1. Sandy -- Yes, that's something not everyone realizes -- picture books are good for all ages. I'd say they can also be good for high school students, and adults! Thank you for reading!

  3. Replies
    1. Thanks, Beth. And thank you for putting all those wonderful books out into the world. :)

  4. Youth voices matter!!!!! Great list. Let's do this!

    1. Yes indeed, Keila. Thanks for all you're doing to empower these voices that we need to hear.

  5. Yes! These recommendations are great! Thanks for this list!

  6. Thank you, Christy, for these amazing resources to introduce the youngsters to Civic Engagement and Social Activism.

    1. Thank you, Charlotte. Hoping to get these books into kids' hands.

  7. So many fantastic books here. Thank you for including NO VOICE TOO SMALL!

    1. Thank YOU, Lindsay, for your part in creating NVTS.

  8. we need so many books about civic engagement. Thankfully wonderful writers are getting the stories out there! Thank you to all.

    1. Indeed! Thanks for reading, Sue -- let's get these books out there into kids' hands.

  9. Nice job Christy!! MUCH needed and terrific books.

    1. Lindsey, thanks so much! There are so many more wonderful books I could have included (but didn't have space) -- thank you for caring about kids and books.