Children’s Books Featuring Social Justice Themes A Practical Bibliography Prepared for the Rita Gold Community

Some teachers and parents at my daughter’s school wanted to know if I had any recommendations for children’s books that have a social justice bent. This is the list that I prepared for them. I thought others might find some ideas and solace here as well.


The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade by Justin Roberts, illustrated by Christian Robinson. 978-0399257438 Extremely compelling exploration of what happens when one person chooses to stand up set in a context that young readers will understand. Subtle, powerful, best choice on the list.

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson. 978-0399257742. Direct representation of people acting for social change. Highly recommended gift book, most critically acclaimed picture book of 2016, winner of the Newbery Award and a Caldecott Honor book.

Maddi’s Fridge by Lois Brandt, illustrated by Vin Vogel, 978-1936261291 Food scarcity in elementary school. Direct experience and action by protagonist and her family to a classmate in need.

The Peace Book by Todd Parr. 978-0316043496 Todd Parr is a great goto for big issue books. His work is bright, colorful, and never condescending.

A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara. 978-1609805395 This alphabet primer of social justice concepts is a great conversation starter. It does treat complicated issues in a somewhat facile way however and one of my favorite early childhood librarians loathes this book so take it with a grain of salt. NB ISBN and link are for the Board Book edition. Our copy has held up well through repeat readings but a larger format picture book edition is available for kids who might feel that they have outgrown boardbooks.

We All Sing With the Same Voice by J. Philip Miller & Sheppard M. Green, illustrated by Paul Meisel, 978-0060274757 Mulit-cultural singalong, appropriate for the youngest readers and their families.

Children Just Like Me: A New Exploration of Children Around the World by DK Publishing. 978-1465453921 Striking visual encyclopedia of how kids around the world live, what they eat, do for fun, and go to school. This is a fairly advanced text for our community but it is a great one to have on the bookshelf, to use as a visual guide for discussion, for older siblings, and as a book to grow into. NB ISBN and link lead to updated 2016 edition.

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley. 978-1481465595 While not strictly a social justice title this book has been getting rave reviews.

Brave Irene by William Stieg. 978-0374309473 This is not a social justice book but it IS an excellent exploration of courage and how even the smallest of us can have the stoutest of heart.


The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer. 978-0714848778 Beautiful and moving picturebook about the redemptive power of choice.

The Lorax by Dr Seuss. 978-0394823379 A classic children’s book about environmentalism this one offers a chilling commentary on remaining silent in the face of disaster.

There are numerous works for all ages about the history of the civil rights movement, the suffragettes, GLBTQ rights, and the immigrant experience. If you would like further details about any of these topics please feel free to contact me directly. Any excellent titles which you may know of that are missing here have been left off unintentionally. I have only listed titles here that I am familiar with and have used in our household with our daughter Sydney.

Newbery Thoughts – The Matchlock Gun

coverEdmonds (Winner 1942) – This is a horrid piece of racist, warmongering, xenophobic propaganda that won the Newbery Medal in 1942 as America launched itself into World War II. It is a study in fear of invasion and the terror of “the other”. This is a short fast read, the paperback I read clocked in at 62 pages, and the reading level is easy with little introspection or discussion of higher issues. This is a book about the women and children who are left behind and the innate danger that finds them when the menfolk are off.

The setting is update New York during the French and Indian Wars and our protagonists are a group of Dutch settlers. I will say that this Revolutionary War era fiction was MUCH more popular in the past and was very prevalent when I was a kid around the bicentennial. It is interesting to see a group of people and an era of American history that isn’t represented often. That is about the only redeeming quality of this book for me.

It’s pretty racist. The family who are our heros are, in fact, slave owners. They live in mortal fear of the “Indians” who are invading their valley. The illustrations throughout the book show these Native Americans as lurking, sneaking, watching from the woods while the good mama, boy, and toddler girl, all grow more and more fearful of their safety. There is no attempt to humanize the enemy, far from it, in fact they are described as:

They hardly looked like men, the way they moved. They were trotting, stooped over, first one and then another coming up, like dogs sifting up to the scent of food.

I guess that kind of thing was OK in 1942 but it seems hardly worthy of accolades and laurels, unless of course you are a nation caught up in the fever of war.

I also find the incredibly bad parenting hard to take. The father, Teunis, goes off to “hold the bridge” but you get the sense that this is a bunch of guys hanging out more than actual soldiers. The only “Indian” they kill is one that they find crippled and injured in a stream. When one of his friends goes to the farm to check on his family the one thing that Teunis asks to have brought back is his flask of schnapps. Gertrude, the mother, chooses to not take her children to her mother in law’s house despite the fact that it is made of brick and populated by armed slaves for security. She thinks that they are safer, her and her two children, in their tiny cabin. This decision nearly costs her her life and those of her children.


Perhaps the thing that is hardest to take in this regard is that in the end she makes her ten year old son pull the trigger on the Spanish gun that the book is named for. She sets herself up as a lure (which is really just a terrible idea) so that she can lead her attackers into the line of fire of what amounts to a portable cannon. She makes it so that her child kills three people and nobody blinks an eye at it. In fact:

Trudy grew sleepy, after a while, and lost her interest in the dead Indians. She was no longer afraid of them.

That’s the little sister who is about four or five who then falls asleep on her brother’s lap while they are warmed by the fire of their house burning down while their mother is unconscious from blood loss next to them.

I’m glad I read this one even if I did hate it. It’s not a badly executed book, just prejudiced and xenophobic. This is a Newbery which acts as a mirror to its age, an age when the nation went to war, even our kids.  

Newbery Thoughts – Rascal

coverNorth (1964 Honor Book) – This is a memoir which is unusual in the Newbery world. This is the first straight up personal memoir I have encountered in my Newbery reading. It’s a pretty great book, light, fun, accessible. The prose is easy to take and the characters are likable one and all. North starts off with the best disclaimer I have ever read.

All of my friends in this book, both animals and humans, were real and appear under their rightful names.

A few less lovable characters have been rechristened.

In other words, this is all true but if I didn’t like you then while I may have changed your name you are still in here.

North lives in a kind of early 20th century woodland boyhood idyll. He fishes, climbs, and explores all with his inquisitive companion Rascal, a raccoon that he raises as a pet. The book is actually a record of the year that the two spent together from when Rascal was a tiny kit that had to be fed by hand until North finally releases him back into the woods. They have a great friendship and Rascal is a delightful and irascible companion.

There isn’t much conflict and there is little overarching story. The narrative is more one of anecdotes and incidents than it is a convention start middle end story. North is a great writer and he allows a lot to come through his good midWestern prose. He misses his mother, he wonders about the changing nature of the world around him, he worried about his brother off fighting in WW I.

While North and Rascal’s freedom is a major point of discussion in the book (as in they portraitcan’t possibly get enough of it), there are some cultural shifts which make reading this book now quite shocking. Sterling North was frankly neglected by his father. This is hard to hear and he has a very loving attitude toward his father but we also see that his father leaves him alone in their farmhouse for weeks at a time. Food is delivered, the boy is not hungry, but he spends long periods of time alone and without adult supervision. At the time of the book he is 11 years old and yet:

My father sent a postcard from Montana saying he would not be coming home for another ten days or two weeks. Fortunately we ran a charge account at the meat market and at one of the groceries. But to raise money for staples and hinges I had to dig and sell two more bushels of my potatoes. I was somewhat lonesome and very grateful for Rascal’s companionship day and night.

The modern reader would also have trouble with the way that Rascal comes into North’s life. He and a friend dig him out of his den after scaring away his mother and take him away. It is tough to read for the 21st century audience. The raccoon has a perfectly good and healthy mother, indeed she tries hard to shield and protect the kit, but North, who has lost his mother himself, takes him anyway. Then, when it is clear that Rascal is a full grown adult raccoon North abandons him in the woods. Much of this book is a hymn to a much loved animal but there are parts of it that are hard for modern animal lovers to take.

It’s really interesting to see this book in the context of the larger Newbery ecology. This was an honor book the year that It’s Like This Cat by Emily Naville won the prize. It’s REALLY interesting to consider them side by side. Both works have a young male narrator who has a prized pet which leads them into young adulthood. That is about where the similarities end and that is what makes it interesting. One is very rural (farmland Wisconsinrascaltree) one is very urban (NYC, Manhattan no less). Sterling North’s parents are largely absent and David’s parents are very present. One is a memoir, one is fiction (written by an author of another gender).

I think that the greatest difference, and the one that makes me feel that the Newbery Committee made the right decision, is that
Rascal looks backwards (an early subtitle which is not now used as much is “A Memoir of a Better Era”), while It’s  Like This Cat looks forward. Rascal looks back to a distant past when boys wandered undisturbed forests and a horse and chaise could beat a Model T in a race at the County Faire. It’s Like This Cat looks to the future of young people engaged in the modern world around them. Rascal is focused on “the good old days” while It’s Like This Cat is a consideration of our bright new future.

JobSeeking and The Gambler’s Fallacy

rouletteLike many of us in the profession I have been looking at changing jobs over the last year or so. I am lucky in that I started my career at a time when it was easier to get that first entry level librarian job that is so elusive now but I have reached a stage where I need to make a change and move up. It’s been a long process as I applied for jobs both within my system and outside of it and altogether I have had about a dozen interviews of some kind or another and am still stuck in the same rut that I was in when I started the process.

This is obviously very discouraging. I spent some time beating myself up over it, going back over to consider how I “blew the interview” (something I am normally quite good at) or otherwise misstepped and didn’t get an opportunity. After a few months of this I had a realization, I was falling victim to the Gambler’s Fallacy and I needed to change how I was looking at things.

The Gambler’s Fallacy is a term for the belief that past performance will impact future results. As an example say you are gambling on the roll of one six-sided dice. You put your money down on 1 sure that it will win and the dice comes up 6. OK you lost, no problem, but this is where the fallacy sets in. If you then think “OK no problem that will just increase my chances because we’ve already rolled a 6 so now my odds are even better” then you are falling prey to the Gambler’s Fallacy. The fact of the matter is that the next roll of the dice has the exact same probability that the first one did. There is just as good a chance that it will hit 6 again as there is that it will roll 1 for your win.

This is also called the Monte Carlo Principle after a really famous incident at the casino at baccarat-9Monte Carlo when a wheel at the casino hit black 26 times in a row. People lost millions of dollars that night predicting that “this time it HAS to land on red” when each subsequent spin of the wheel (25 times over) had the exact same probability as the first one. Each spin of the wheel is unique, each spin has the exact same conditions and odds and each spin has the complete range of possibilities. It doesn’t matter how many times it lands on black, the chances of it landing on black the next time around are exactly the same.

I will admit that I like to gamble, I don’t do it much but I do OK when I do. I love roulette but have mixed results, have been doing well of late with Baccarat, and while I enjoy craps I am no good at it, just ask Carson Block. I’m actually amazed that it took me this long to make the connection here.

crapsIf you have been on five interviews you still do not have a tick list that you are working down/ There is no punch card where you go on ten interviews and you get your job for free. It’s discouraging to go out on interview after interview and not get hired. This can start to be a self-fulfilling prophecy though as you go into interviews gun shy and nervous for reason the interviewer does not understand.
I would like to submit to you that the Gambler’s Fallacy can actually be very freeing as you look at your job hunt. Each roll of the dice is unique and different. You have just as good a chance of getting that great position on the 15th job you apply for as you did on your first. Try and see each application, each interview, each opportunity as a unique one and apply yourself to it wholeheartedly. Your chances are just as good no matter how many times you spin the wheel.

Newbery Thoughts – Because of Winn-Dixie

winn dixieDiCamillo (2001 Honor Book) Because of Winn Dixie is all about making connections. It’s about finding friends in a new place but there is a lot more to it than that. It is about reconnecting to the family that you have and letting go of some ghosts and burdens you have been carrying. It’s about finding allies where you don’t expect them and about how even the people who are being jerks to you may very well have more to them than you expect. It’s about letting go of a mother who is a mystery and about finding the man who has been hiding inside your father for years.

It’s also about a dog and Winn Dixie is my favorite of the dutiful dogs of Newbery fame. He’s loopy and sloppy and silly and just generally great. He’s a friendly nonjudgmental meeting point for everyone in the book, a source of boundless and non judgmental love with a heart so big that it has room for everyone in the story. People make their connections to one another based off of their connection with him and he creates a common space of love. He is a most disarmingly charming dog.

There is some great magical realism going through this book and it is achieved in a way that is utterly enchanting. It’s subtle but this is more than just a town in the South…it is EVERY town in the South. There is a deliberate timelessness about the story too. There are no cell phones and technology isn’t really talked about. This story could be happening at any point in about a fifty year span, it could have been the 60s, it could have been last week (and nobody is using their cell phones). The Littmus Lozenge, a candy that tastes like melancholy is another part of this. In another book that little candy would be the entire conceit of the narrative (and it would be much more limited as a result). DiCamillo is weaving a much subtler tapestry than that though. This stuff adds to the mis-en-scène of the book but it never overpowers it. This is ultimately Opal’s story, hers and Winn Dixie’s.  
I reread this one right before I read The Great Gilly Hopkins and I thought it was pretty interesting to completely randomly chose two Newberys where the mother ran off. There are LOTS of dead mothers in Newbery books and dead parents about in children’s lit across the board. It’s an odd conceit, that you have to have to have a dead or absent parent to  give a story depth. It makes for a strong conflict and we all like to read about stuff that scares us. If you ever do any book talking to the YA crowd you know that sometimes the sadder the story the better it is going to move off your shelves (ie those horrid horrid books by Ellen Hopkins). I get it but there are times when I really want to just read a kids book that has happy well adjusted parents. It seems like it would be so refreshing.

Koch Brothers Gunning For Small Town Library


The Koch Brothers are going after a small town library in Illinois. This is actually happening. Why would a pair of billionaires who largely control Republic politics care about a local small town library? It’s a great question and a perfect illustration of how big money politics are wrecking Main Street America.

Plainfield IL is trying to raise money for a new library building. The library is currently an anchor for downtown and is a much loved and heavily used part of the community. They are asking for a 20 year bond and a small increase in property taxes. The end result will be a brand new library that is three times larger than the current library, still in downtown, and will feature new technology, public meeting spaces, classrooms, and more space for books DVDs and other materials for the community.

The Plainfield Library came up with this after years of focus groups, surveys, and public town meetings. The leadership of the library worked closely with community leaders and stakeholders to create a comprehensive plan that would give them cutting edge library services in ways that the community values. This is good old American democracy in action, a public institution needs an update, the community gets involved, a shared vision is formed, people move forward. That is how America is supposed to work.

Then big interests got involved. In this case it is the mega PAC Americans for Prosperity who have decided any tax is a bad tax. They have started a campaign run by professional political operatives from out of town to do a hit job on this library vote. They are doing robocalls to the community with wrong information and doing a social media push that suggests that the new library is frivolous.

This is exactly what is wrong with American democracy today. Large operators mess with Business-Development-and-Job-Training-by-Luis-Prado-Red-Low-Ressmall town politics and try to use them to push a national or regional agenda. They do this with no regard for the people who actually live in the community they are impacting. Whatever prosperity this PAC is pushing it is certainly not prosperity for the people of Plainfield where studies have shown that for every $1 spent on the library the community receives $5.93 worth of services. I am not sure how anyone can suggest that an entity that returns value at a rate of 500% can be seen as a bad investment.

I have friends who are in the Tea Party, mostly old buddies who I grew up with. We have a lot of laughs and avoid talking about politics for the most part. The one thing that they will tell me though is that libraries get a pass from them. They can see their tax dollars there on the shelves and in the hands of their kids. They like having a place they can drop off their moms to hang out for a few hours and know that they will be safe and well treated. They know that the librarians are not getting rich and they respect the work that they do. They are proud of their library and they brag to me about what it is doing and how my big city library needs to keep up. Ultimately it is that pride that makes a difference.  

I’m really proud to be an American but I feel like the America that I grew up in the 70s is long gone. We used to build things as a nation, big beautiful things that we built so that our grandchildren could use them. We used to work together to help our neighbors and our communities. We used to stand for things that couldn’t be seen on a bank statement. Now, with the Americans for Prosperity in the lead, there is a tone of “I got mine so tough luck for you” in the national dialog. We piss away our community’s future to save $10 a month in taxes (which we would have just spent at Starbucks anyway), and somehow feel proud of ourselves for doing so. .

It’s on the people of Plainfield IL to take back democracy. It’s on them to decide if they want to create a space in their community for children and seniors and families and entrepreneurs. It’s on them to decide if they want free classes and concerts. It’s on them to decide if their neighbors and the people who live beside them in their town mean more to them than the agenda of a couple of billionaires from another state. It is on the people of Plainfield to stand up for everyone in their community so that all the people in the community can benefit together.

Please vote YES for Plainfield Library on March 15th.

Images used with permission of


Library Date Night

We are always saying that we lose patrons when they are teens and don’t see them again until they have kids of their own. While there has been a LOT of work done to change this up we still need to do more programming dedicated to young professionals and single adults.

Library Date Night has the potential to hit that sweet spot in programming. It is active enough to get people in and moving around and passive enough that people are not going to feel like they are signing up for a big commitment. It allows you to cater programming to various populations and show those populations individual value by respecting their needs and differences.

Scheduling If it were up to me I would do: 

1 week straight – 1 week gay – 1 week lesbian – 1 week anything goes

NB I may very well be offending people with this. If I am I’d welcome correction here. I am going with breaking them out so that everyone can know what to expect. I am not trying to ghettoize any groups or persons.


  • Games – do your standard teen board game lineup. I would not do the big complicated bookshelf games on this, just light fun quick turnover games. Family game night stuff.
  • Short story discussions – I think that short story discussions are better and easier for this than a book discussion group. You can post the story itself on the library website and people can read it pretty quickly and easily without committing a huge amount of time and prep to it.
  • Crafting – something that can be completed in one session and requires a very low level of entry skill. You don’t want people looking like ham handed idiots but something that they can help each other with would be charming.
  • Cooking – Any kind of no cook cooking class you can offer is great. There may be cleanup issues though so plan accordingly.

Staffing – All staff should be able to work any date night. I don’t really go in for the “well that makes me uncomfortable” excuse overmuch BUT you might want to honor this because otherwise people could be judgemental jerks and ruin the vibe.

Weddings – Isn’t this the obvious hoped for conclusion to Library Date Nights? If you get one then you HAVE to honor it and let them get married in the library or at least take a bunch of pictures there.

NB This continues The One That Got Away

Newbery Thoughts – The Family Under the Bridge

Carlson (1959 Honor Book) Thifamily under the bridges is a short little page turner that can easily be read in an evening and makes for a deeply satisfying literary experience. It is hopeful, charming, and optimistic. This is a book that will genuinely make you feel good reading it.

Which is pretty incredible given that the topic is urban family homelessness. The family that is under the bridge is there because they have no place else to live. It’s not drugs or crime or any of that very dramatic stuff  that bring them there, just bad luck and difficult circumstances. They aren’t even really a family at the outset of the book and that is part of the charm of the narrative.

The protagonist of The Family Under the Bridge is actually not the children but an elderly vagrant by the name of Armand Pouly. This in itself is pretty fascinating. Yes there are children in the book, yes investment in them is a driving motivator in the narrative but ultimately this is a children’s book that is the story of an elderly man. How wild is that? Armand is an utterly delightful old codger, relentlessly optimistic and devoutly attached to his life without responsibilities and without work.

When he discovers the children hidden at “his” spot beneath one of Paris’ bridges he is immediately cautious lest the “little starlings” steal his heart. The children have a mother who works as a laundress and is desperate to make it clear that they are NOT tramps despite the reality of their situation but it is Armand who quickly takes over care of them while she works in the day.

Poor Armand, three small children and a stray dog change him utterly as a armand foodperson. There is a MAGNIFICENT moment at the end of the book where he has transformed into a figure of great gravitas engaged in seeking employment and housing for his new family:

Monsieur Brunot noted his hesitation. “We really want a family man,” he said.

That brought Armand’s mind back to the needy Calcets. “Oh, I’ve got a family all right monsieur,” he said, “Three children and their mother. You should see my grandchildren. They would steal your heart away.”

At this point in the book if you are not crying your eyes out then you have no soul and are a horrible horrible person.

The Family Under the Bridge also has lovely gentle little illustrations by Garth Williams who also did the very famous illustrations for Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. It’s pretty amazing that he can create images of children literally sleeping on the streets of Paris and still have them be charming and easy on us the reader.

sleeping under the bridgeWhile the Newbery books often deal with poverty it is usually rural poverty. People are tenant farmers or sharecroppers or on the road after the farm fails. This is the first Newbery that I have encountered that deals with child poverty in an urban environment particularly a text that is based on family homelessness. It is interesting that this book which is a product of the golden era of American prosperity and conformity (the 1950s) deals with poverty and individuals on the fringe of society in such a gentle and generous way.

Armand’s transformation is an inspiration for us all. Who knows what small act will freight us with great responsibilities? I think that what we do for those who have been entrusted to our care is one of the great measures of mankind. Armand, the shabby, drifting, Parisian tramp, is a literary hero for the ages.

Side note: I will be looking at a LOT of the honor books here. The winners of the Newbery are, of course, amazing but a lot of really fascinating books ALMOST got the prize as well and a lot of them have fallen out of favor or been forgotten over the years.


Hello World!

zabriskie1I feel like I need to write an introductory post talking about what I hope to discuss in here. I’m sure this is very old school and past media but hey, I gotta be me.

There are a few areas I am going to be really interested in and working from.

Trad Library Skills– man I love that old time library science. I see huge swaths of what we do as extensions of this classic skills base applied in new and interesting ways. For me most of the work that libraries are doing with tech and new services is the new delivery of the same old skills and tasks we have been offering our users for decades.

Graphic Novels – I have a couple of areas in Graphic Novels I am really interested in. I’m really interested in diversity in comics and have been looking at it for years and talking to amazing people about what it means to have diversity on the comics page. I’m also really interested in the idea of a core list of classic comics. I see a Canon of comics and I think libraries are the perfect place to explore that. Sure we should all read THE KILLING JOKE but we don’t all need to own THE KILLING JOKE. This is where libraries can step in. It’s like the regular canon, does everyone need a copy of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE sitting on their personal bookshelves, nope they do not, but it is great to know that you can find one at the library. I feel the same way about THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.

Adoption Children’s Books – I am part of an adoptive family and it has made me hyper aware of the depiction (or lack) of nontraditional families in kids books. I look for this stuff like a hawk and I will be sharing my favorites and discussing the issue (a lot, like A LOT a lot).

The Newbery Award – I’m also kind of obsessed with the Newbery Award. I have looked a lot at the list of past winners and I am fascinated by how the winning titles can be seen as emblematic of the year they won. I’m no historian and I don’t pretend to be an expert in children’s lit but I do have an English degree (a Masters no less) so I’m happy to slice a narrative awfully thin.

Library Advocacy – I write about this stuff lots in other places so I am not going to get too deep into it here but I am sure it is going to come up in here plenty anyway.

I’m sure there will be stuff in here about managing staff, dealing with burnout, conference updates, and the trials and tribulations of the NFP Executive Director.

Thanks for reading.