Look for the Helpers: 11 Picture Book Biographies of Social Justice Leaders
Mr. Rogers famously said that in times of trouble, children should look for the helpers. When the world is scary, and it seems like even grownups aren’t sure what actions they should take, one of the best things we can do to comfort our kids is show them the good in the world, and the good that people have done throughout history.
These are social justice leaders who have protected those who could not protect themselves, stopped evil regimes, and blocked unjust laws. They stood up to problems bigger than themselves and put themselves at risk, and they won. These picture books tell their stories in ways that are easy for young children to understand, but it’s just as likely that adults will learn something and be inspired as they read the books together with the kids in their lives.
If a Bus Could Talk: The Story of Rosa Parks by Faith Ringgold
What if the bus Rosa Parks famously rode could tell her story? That’s exactly what happens in this picture book by award-winning author and illustrator Faith Ringgold. Follow young Marcie on her way to school as she learns about Rosa Parks’s story of courage.
Be the Change: A Grandfather Ghandi Story by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus, Illustrated by Evan Turk
Mahatma Ghandi’s grandson tells a story from his childhood spent with Ghandi. Arun Gandhi relays a story his grandfather told him about how every wasteful act can affect others.
The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko, Illustrated by Sean Qualls
Many American children might be surprised to learn that people they know, like their grandparents, can remember a time when it was illegal in some states to marry someone whose skin color was different from their own. The Case for Loving tells the story of Mildred and Perry Loving and their fight to be allowed to be together. It’s particularly poignant that this book was written and illustrated by an interracial couple.
Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson, Illustrated by Sean Qualls
Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah was born in Ghana with one deformed leg. Many people told him he would never come to anything, but his mother told him that he could achieve great things. He learned to play soccer and his mother made sure he went to school. He became a cyclist and, when he grew up, rode 400 miles across Ghana. Now Yeboah works as a disability activist.
Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills by Renée Watson, Illustrated by Christian Robinson
Florence, a child of former slaves, loved to sing, and her lovely voice brought her all the way to Broadway. Instead of sitting back and enjoying her fame, she used her fame to help promote the work of other Black performers.
Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai, Illustrated by Kerascoët
Even young readers can read Malala’s story in her own words in this beautiful picture book. When Malala was young, she wished she had a magic pencil that would help her fix some of the small wrongs in her life: maybe she could sleep in a little longer or make her city smell better. But later Malala realized that there were more important things to wish for than a magic wand. She realized she could work hard to change the world and that her words could make a difference, even if she only had a regular pencil.
Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Song by Andrea Davis Pinkney
Two voices: one important message. Read the amazing story of two civil rights activists working together, who both used their talents to help to change history. This book traces both lives from childhood to adulthood, meeting at a pinnacle on the day Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech and Mahalia Jackson sang so powerfully.
La Frontera: My Journey with Papa by Deborah Mills, Alfredo Alva, and Claudia Navarro
Alfredo Alva tells his story of crossing the border—la frontera—from Mexico to Texas. with his father. This is a dual-language storybook, so you can read it with your kids in the language the story occurred in.
Passage to Freedom: the Sugihara Story by Ken Mochizuki, Illustrated by Dom Lee
Hiroki Sugihara was a WWII hero, but few knew his story until long after he died. Hiroki Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who realized he could give Jews passage out of Europe by sending them through Japan first. He disobeyed his orders, risked his life, job, and reputation, and saved the lives of thousands of refugees with some handy paperwork. This story comes with an afterward written by Sugihara’s son.
The Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin by Julia Finley Mosca, Illustrated by Daniel Rieley
When Temple was a little girl, she was diagnosed with autism. No one expected much of her, but she grew up to become one of the best known scientists in the world. She was able to use her unique abilities to change the way farms around the globe operate. This rhyming picture book gives you a complete biography of Grandin’s amazing life.
Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré by Annika Aldamuy Denise, Illustrated by Paola Escobar
Pura Belpré was a librarian who realized that the books in her public library didn’t reflect the readers in her New York City neighborhood. She fought to include bilingual literature so her library could serve everyone.
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