Book Flight: People Who Made a Difference

Children experience and think about  social justice issues. We believe it’s important  to encourage rather than avoid authentic conversations about our collective dilemmas—human rights, environmental protection, economic justice, violence.  We want kids to join us in asking the question:  “What can we do about it ?”  There are so many fascinating life stories about inspiring role models who worked with others to be truth-tellers and change-makers–far more than we can include in this Book Flight.  But we can get you and your family–or classroom–started with the following collection of memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies of social justice activists for all ages.  You might also be interested in our list of books that highlight kids who make a difference, too!


Read-Aloud for the Whole Family:

Let It Shine:  Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters by Andrea Pinkney, illustrated by Stephen Alcorn

Portraits of 10 important women who were key player in the causes of  Civil Rights, Abolition, and Women’s Rights–painted in bright and vivid images and words in the dialect of “Spoken Soul” create a perfect inspiration for exploring the lives of  these brave and spirited personalities.  As readers, we are introduced to these women as children and learn about what influenced their lives as activists.  The narration includes excerpts from speeches, quotes, and references to key events, all woven into very engaging biographical sketches.  But the full-page paintings of each woman are more than a complement to the words–they are filled with symbols and metaphors that beg further exploration.

Young children will love the language and vibrant pictures; older readers will be drawn in to the fascinating and inspiring stories.


Picture Books for Everyone

Mandela:  From the Life of the South African Statesman by Floyd Cooper

Nelson Mandela recently celebrated his 92nd birthday, causing his picture and famous episodes from his courageous life to be in the news.  This picture book tells the story of his life from his childhood as the son of an African Chief through his struggles in apartheid South Africa, years in prison, and ultimate election as the first president of the “new” South Africa after state-sanctioned segregation. Younger readers will be engaged by his early years, and his hard work to gain an education.  This is a terrific book to introduce children–and older readers, too–to the life work of an important and yes, inspirational, modern leader.


Martin’s Big Words By Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Bryan Collier

There are many beautiful and well-written picture book biographies of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but this one stands out.  Not only is it a great introduction to the words and work of Dr.King, but it is written with simple elegance and grace, and can be appreciated and understood by very young children.  Scenes from King’s life are illustrated by Bryan Collier’s simply stunning paintings and collages. Many pages have intricate stained glass backgrounds which serve as a backdrop to some of the most powerful scenes.


Elegy on the Death of Cesar Chavez by  Rudolfo Anaya, illustrated by Gaspar Enrique

A picture book in poetry by renowned novelist Rudolfo Anaya.  It’s both a celebration of Chavez’ life–and a plea to work together rather than fight.  A wonderful introduction for young children, and a terrific resource for middle school and older readers, with a chronology of Cesar Chavez’ life at the end of the book.  Despite the sadness of Chavez’ passing, the book is a hopeful one as his work continues.  Intriguing illustrations–watercolor and photographs combined–help make this an arresting and fascinating picture book to share with members of the whole family.


Rachel:  The Story of Rachel Carson by Amy Ehrlich, Illustrated by Wendell Minor

Rachel Carson arguably began the environmental movement with her impassioned writing about the way pesticides were poisoning wildlife–and humans. This biography tells us more about her lifelong activism and  commitment to the wonders of nature.Young readers will love details of her life, such as her first finding a genuine fossil at the age of five, and the time she spent living on the Maine coast and writing about the ocean.  Truly stunning watercolor illustrations.


The Man Who Made the Parks: The Story of Parkbuilder Frederick Law Olmstead by Frieda Wishinsky, illustrated by Song Nan Zhang

Frederick Olmstead had a huge impact on the environment and ecology of many towns and cities across the United States, but is not a very familiar name. He designed and created Central Park in New York City, and sparked an interest in green spaces before there was such a term.  This beautifully illustrated book tells about Olmstead’s love of nature–and struggles to find a career that fit his passion.  The pastel drawings are realistic and a great fit for content.


Tweens and Teens:

Rosa Parks:  My Story by Rosa Parks

Often the most compelling versions of the lives of people who made a difference comes in their own voice.  This is definitely the case for Rosa Parks, who writes with wisdom, honesty, and grace.  Readers learn about her life as a child growing up in segregated America and how she became involved in the Civil Rights movement. Her words also show the importance of the many people with whom she worked, countering the misinformation in the media’s version of the Rosa Parks myth. Great black-and-white photographs bring her story to life.


Helen Keller:  Rebellious Spirit by Laurie Lawlor

When most people hear the name Helen Keller, they think: “Oh, she worked for the deaf and blind and she had that incredible teacher Annie Sullivan.  I think she manged to go on to college?”  But Helen Keller was much more than a tireless worker for the handicapped; she was an important 20th century activist, supporting workers, fighting for women’s rights and social justice issues throughout her long life.  And this  picture book is the only one that portrays her as the radical activist that she was.  Lots of photos and a fascinating and very complete biography of Keller throughout her life.  (If you are interested in reading more, you can download a PDF of “The Truth About Helen Keller,” posted at the Howard Zinn Education Project:  This review of children’s picture books about the life of Helen Keller reveals  the omission of any description of her active role in key social movements of the 20th century.)


Young Adults (and Older Adults, too!)

In My Hands:  Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer by Irene Opdyke

Irene Opdyke wrote this riveting memoir when she was only 23 years old, about her experiences as a 17-year-old during World War II in Poland. During her years in Nazi-occupied Poland, she is raped by Russian soldiers and forced to work serving German soldiers who are stationed at a hotel. Despite enormous risk, she worked to help Jews in the ghetto by smuggling in food and helping them escape.  Despite the heavy content, this book is a riveting story, and appropriate for early adolescents up.  We know 9th-grade classrooms that this book heads the list of top recommendations.


King of the World Muhammed Ali and the Rise of an American Hero by David Remnick

So much has been written about Muhammed Ali, world heavyweight boxing champion.  Yet this biography manages to offer new insights and also a framework for understanding Cassius Clay’s growth into the great Muhammed Ali,  hero and inspiration for pushing back against the establishment. The information is fascinating and presented in a readable style, interesting for boxing fans–and those of us who are non-fans as well. One 14-year-old read it and said, This is the best book I’ve read since The Cat in the Hat!” High praise indeed!


Americans Who Tell the Truth by Robert Shetterly

Yes, it’s a picture book, but definitely for all ages! Artist Robert Shetterly painted portraits of 50 people he greatly admired–all of them important activists and freedom fighters.  A wonderful range of important Americans are included–some are well-known, like Henry David Thoreau, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Jr.  We also delight in the inclusion of Molly Ivins, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and others.  Besides the beautiful illustrations, the brief bios and quotes make this book a rich resource.

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