Anti-Racist Book Recommendations for Children and Adolescents

It’s hard to know how to talk to our children about racism, protests, and injustice. “Not talking about it sends a message that maybe what (children are) feeling isn’t right,” says Dr. Jacqueline Dougé, a Maryland pediatrician and an author of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) policy statement The Impact of Racism on Child and Adolescent Health. “It also sends a message when it comes time to deal with hard conversations and hard issues … that perception that child has is, ‘I’m not going to be able to open up my (parents).’”  Adults don’t have answers, but it’s still so important to have conversations about what is going on. (Dougé, and colleagues Heard-Garris and Nunez share ways to talk to children about the protests, Floyd’s death and racism. ) As we all tread the difficult path of trying to figure out how to Do Somethingand make a difference, books and reading with our families can support our actions.  In the past, I have recommended some books that can form a basis, and I hope to add to them in the coming days.  Here are a few you might start with:

Read-Aloud for the Whole Family:

Let It Shine:  Stories of Black Women Freedom Fightersby 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

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.


Sit-In:  How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney

Fifty years ago, four young black men decided to take a stand against the injustice of integration and began a sit-down strike at Woolworth’s luncheon counter, where “Whites Only” was the rule.  It’s not easy to tell their story simply, but the Pinkney’s write poetically, clearly, and with energetic pictures to show how these young people peacefully protested and changed communities in the South forever.  “Their order was simple.  A doughnut and coffee with cream on the side.”  At the end of the book, there’s a very informative Civil Right Timeline that shows how these four friends’ bravery was the beginning of a groundswell of support, friends coming together, to change the world.


Kids on Strike by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Before the child labor laws, young children in the United States worked long hours, often in terrible environments alongside their older working companions.  And they were at their side as well during the labor strikes.  Children as young as 11-year-old Harriet Hanson took steps to change workers’ situations, joining in strikes, leading rent protests, walking hours in long marches.  Written as narratives, the stories are very accessible and filled with rich historical details. A wonderful resource as well as inspiring historical information.

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.

Brwon-GirlBrown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (Newbery Honor Book 2015)

What was it like for writer Jacqueline Woodson to grow up in the 1960’s and 1970’s as an African-American with the remnants of the Jim Crow laws and the growing Civil Rights movement?  Her touching and eloquent poems tell the reader what she experienced in South Carolina and New York City as she came of age.  Her early literacy struggles are a revelation, yet it is no surprise she always loved words and story, spinning tales for her family and friends, and publishing her own little books of poems and stories.  As different as her experiences were, her memories spark connections for me and bring me back to my own youth during that time.  It’s truly a beautifully crafted work, a joy for families to share together.


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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