Issues of race in American culture have been at the forefront of the news lately, with the grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. With all the complicated and strong feelings, chances are kids have both been exposed to the news and have questions about it. There are tons of books out there that can be read with kids, helping you facilitate a conversation with them about race, privilege, and history. Because of some of the graphic violence that comes with these issues in American history, not all books are appropriate for all children. I’ve grouped books based on age, but knowing your child’s level of sensitivity is also important. This list isn’t exhaustive, nor is it perfect, but hopefully these books can be useful in discussing issues about race, identity, and justice with your kid(s). Other helpful resources include Bookriot’s chart- Black History in Young Adult Fiction, this comic on white privilege, and the Civil Rights Leadership Conference’s guide on talking to children about racism and diversity. They point out:
“Children care about justice, respect, and fairness. Squabbles about sharing, concerns about cliques, and problems with playmates-the daily trials of childhood-reflect their active interest in these social issues. So do the questions children ask, when they feel safe enough to ask them.
One important gift we can give our children is to create a family in which difficult issues like racism are openly discussed. By talking openly and listening without censure, we can learn about our children’s concerns and help them find connections between larger social issues and their own life experiences.”
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
Let Them Play by Margot Theis Raven
Most Loved in All the World by Tonya Cherie Hegamin
Rosa by Nikki Giovanni
My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by Christine King Farris
The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi
Ruby Bridges Goes to School and Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges
A Picture Book of Harriet Tubman David A. Adler
These books cover a range of genres and time periods. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is a beautifully written novel that deals with issues of race and class in rural Mississippi during the Great Depression. Let Them Play tells the story of fighting segregation in Little League. It’s a story that will likely appeal to kids’ sense of fairness and will be relatable to many children. Most Loved in All the World is a picture book about a woman working on the underground railroad who has to separate from her daughter in order to send her to freedom. The Name Jar is a picture book about a young Korean immigrant who struggles to choose an Americanized name, before finding acceptance with her new classmates. Reading books about Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriet Tubman can help younger children learn about important African American leaders while also getting some context about the struggle against racism.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
A Wreath for Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson
Mississippi Trail, 1955 by Chris Crowe
The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis
Finding My Place by Traci L. Jones
Remember: The Journey to School Integration by Toni Morrison
To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic novel about racism, classism, and allyship in rural Alabama. Mississippi Trail, 1955 and A Wreath for Emmett Till deal with the murder of Emmett Till and could help children old enough to think critically about that violence to put the outrage over the death of Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin into a larger historical context. Finding My Place is about a young African American woman in 1975, who moves to a new school and is the only black girl. Her struggle to stay true to herself and find a sense of belonging also gives a portrait of generational differences in the Civil Rights Movement.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Southern Horrors and Other Writings; The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Mona in the Promised Land by Gish Jen
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Passing by Nella Larsen
Daddy Was a Number Runner by Louise Meriwether
Some of these books are more violent or racy than those for the younger groups. The Bluest Eye, for example, is a stunning depiction of the intersection between race, class, and gender, and a searing critique of white beauty standards, but it also includes a pretty graphic scene of rape. The Round House is similar in a lot of ways to To Kill A Mockingbird, but deals with rape and domestic violence against Native American women. Southern Horrors and Other Writings is an incredible collection by journalist and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells. It’s an important piece of African American and women’s history, but also deals pretty graphically with lynching violence. These books, are just a snippet of the huge list of titles that could be read by teens and young adults interested in social justice and civil rights issues.