Below is an annotated list of children's literature for the elementary classroom. The books are organized by the Six Elements of Social Justice Curriculum Design (Picower, 2007). It is based on work by pre-service teachers at Montclair State University. They have read and reviewed these books and provided insights into how they can be used in K-5 settings.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Seeds of Change

Author: Jen Cullerton Johnson
Illustrator: Sonia Lynn Sadler
Grade Level: 3-5

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PBS Wangari Maathai Ideas for the Classroom
Video- Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai

Summary: Seeds of Change is the harrowing life story of Wangari Maathai, the founder of the Green Belt Movement, and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.  The story follows Wangari through her time as a young Kikuyu girl, who defies gender roles in her small farming village and attends school.  From a young age Wangari’s family instilled in her the importance of nature and caring for the land they lived on.  Wangari eventually broke even more barriers for African woman when she studied Biology in the United States.  While pursuing her academic career in the US she was inspired to return the Kenya to help other woman to pursue their academic dreams as she did.  Upon returning to Kenya she saw that the lush landscape that she loved had been destroyed by companies who cut down trees for lumber.  Working with Kenyan woman she began to plant seedlings of the trees that gave her village life.  As word spread, more and more woman began planting trees.  The landscape began to look like green belts, giving the group their name, The Green Belt Movement.  When news of Wangari spread, wealthy business men became angry with Wangari for her interference with their work and the government did not like the advancement being made by women.  She was arrested and thrown in jail.  Friends of Wangari from Kenya and other countries came to her rescue and freed her.  She knew that she must travel the world to discuss injustice against woman and the importance of preserving the Kenyan landscape.  Her work in the world community and in Africa awarded her a place in the Kenyan Parliament as well as the most prestigious peace prize in the world, the Nobel Peace Prize.  

Element 3- Exploring issues of Social Injustice: The story of Wangari and her Seeds of Change represent Element 3, by not only exposing students to some aspect of the Kiyuku Kenyan culture, but it also introduces theme of sexism.  It may be hard for our elementary aged students to understand a culture in which girls do not normally attend school, rarely attend college, and especially do not study science, but this story introduces the theme subtly, leaving the opportunity for expansion.  

Activity: This book can be used to foster a silent dialogue discussion within small groups.  After the class is read the book out loud, students will divide into groups of 3.  Prompted by the question “How do you think the lives of Kenyan women may have changed after Wangari’s Green Belt Movement?” the first student will write their response silently.  Next, the following student reads the first students response and writes their own.  This continues in silence until all students in the group has responded and the first student is able to read all responses.  They then have a come together as a group and speak about the common themes and ideas they had amongst themselves. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Delivering Justice: W.W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights

 Title: Delivering Justice: W.W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights

Author: Jim Haskins

Illustrator: Benny Andrews

Grade Level: K-5

Buy it here!

Resources: Author Information

Resources: Lesson Plan on Racism/Segregation

Delivering Justice: W.W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights is a beautiful true story about the effects of segregation in Savannah, Georgia.  The story follows the life of Westley Wallace (W.W.) Law and his struggle being confronted with racism, how these issues helped to shape him, and lead him to his life purpose.  This life purpose involved him helping to lead the Great Savannah Boycott and the eventual desegregation of the city of Savannah (three years prior to the federal Civil Rights Act making all segregation illegal).  The author and illustrator do a great job combining a simple, yet poignant story with beautiful, full page, oil paintings that help bring the words to life. 

Element #3- Exploring Issues of Social Injustice:
Delivering Justice: W.W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights does a wonderful job uncovering many of the issues created by segregation.  It accomplishes this by giving a real first-hand experience of an African American man's obstacles, hurts and realities as a result of being treated differently because of the color of his skin and ethnicity.  The author also shows how segregation affected the whole city of Savannah.  Many of the social injustices discussed in this book still have lingering effects all around our country today.  For example, some of the issues about dirty voter registration tactics, uncovered in this book, to keep certain populations from voting are still happening today.  These contemporary issues help to make this a great book to bring awareness to your students about past and present social injustices in the our country and the world.

Follow-Up Activity:
In the resources section above, there is a great activity offered on segregation, where the students have a "mock segregation" experience, dealing with affects of privileges being offered to the majority classmates and not being offered to the minority classmates.  Both groups take turns experiencing both sides of this dynamic.  This activity goes really in-depth and is best done over a 2-3 day period.  This activity, by Discovery Education, is really recommended.

However, a quicker activity that could be done in one sitting would be to do a read aloud with this book.  The way the book is written, with each page having its own heading and central focus, provides several teachable moments about segregation, white privilege, non-violence, sit-ins, boycotts, unity, etc...  After reading and discussing the book with the class, this activity could be extended into a writing workshop format, where the students could write about their feelings and/or experiences associated with some of the issues revealed in this book.

The Devil's Arithmetic

Title: The Devil's Arithmetic
Author: Jane Yolen

Grades: 4-8

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Summary: The Devil's Arithmetic is a story about a twelve year old girl named Hannah who is forced to go to a Passover Seder at her Grandparents apartment.  While at the Seder Hannah becomes increasingly frustrated with her family's traditions and cannot understand why there is so much emphasis on tradition in the first place.  Hannah is chosen to open the apartment door to let in the prophet Elijah, but in doing so she is transported back in time to Poland in the 1940s.  Here she is exposed to the traditions and tragedies of that time in her Jewish culture, and begins to appreciate those traditions she once believed to be silly.

Element 3: Yolen explores this difficult subject and time period in a way that students can fully grasp the tragedy that occurred during the Holocaust through this wonderful work of historical fiction.  She gets at the root of the injustice by portraying the attack on Jewish culture in Poland during the 1940s.  In the book the Nazi soldiers disrupt a traditional wedding ceremony and force all the people living in the village onto trucks to take them to the concentration camps.  While the Holocaust can be a very difficult event in history to teach, it is an important one that must be taught.  Yolen is able to address this social injustice in a way that lets students make inferences from the text and learn about history through the book's characters.  Instead of blatantly saying that the Jews were exterminated in these camps by the Nazi soldiers, Yolen emotionally writes about what the camps were like and the feeling of impending doom that Hannah and her friends felt in the camp.  The overarching theme of tradition throughout the book creates a sense of pride for the Jewish culture and promotes religious tolerance by exploring the great injustice that was done to the Jewish people during the Holocaust.

Activity: Teaching students about the Holocaust can be hard, but it is important to teach this genocide and example of religious intolerance.  An activity that could be done in a classroom, would be to ask students to think of another time in history when people were killed and oppressed because of their religion, race, gender, etc.  Then ask the students why they think it is important that we learn about these events.  Make a list of the reasons that they came up with and then ask how have these events have shaped their lives and cultures.  Ask students to write letters to someone in their family or a figure in their culture explaining the effects that oppression has had, or maybe even still has, on their lives today.  In this activity, students will be able to express their feelings on these difficult topics through writing, while critically thinking about the lasting effect of oppression and social injustice in the world.

The Other Side

Title: The Other Side
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
Illustrator: E.B. Lewis
Grade Level: 1st - 4th

More Information About the Author
Buy This Book Here
Teacher Resource (Lesson)
Teacher Resource (DVD)


The Other Side, written by Jacqueline Woodson is a story that indirectly explains the struggles of  the segregation of blacks and whites in the southern portion of the United States before the Civil Rights movement. The setting of the story takes place during the summer months and is told by a young black girl named Clover. Clover is very interested in the fence that has been placed down the center of town and is confused as to why she can not cross it. Her mother explains that bad things will happen if she crosses the fence. As summer continues, Clover begins to notice a little white girl around her age that plays alone on the other side of this fence; she has even seen her in town. One afternoon the two girls work of the courage to converse. Clover finds out that the little white girls name is Annie. The two girls want so badly to play with one another; however, they are not allowed to cross to the other side of the fence. Annie suggests that the two girls sit on the top of the fence because no one ever said they couldn't.  So there they sat, talking and looking at the vast lands around them. Then Annie poses a very insightful question.

 "Someday somebody’s going to come along and knock this old fence down." Annie Said. And I nodded. "Yeah,’"I said. ‘Someday.

Element 3: Exploring Issues of Social Injustice

This book, by Jacqueline Woodson, completely encompasses the important lessons in Element 3. The story takes place in a southern state pre-Civil Rights Movement where the segregation of blacks and whites was very common and unquestioned by adults. Woodson, however, brings a child’s curious accepting perspective to the situation, allowing our students to learn and understand how racism affected children and adults alike during this time period. She also leaves it open to explain how different our lives are today because forward thinking people like Annie and Clover.


Some examples of activities to do before, during and after reading can be found by clicking the link above which says “Teachers Resources (Lessons)”. This link provides some helpful literary supplemental questions and strategies such as word lists, think-pair-share, Venn diagrams, character clusters, and important critical thinking questions.

Along with this helpful link other supplemental lessons can be introduced into the classroom. Other activities depending on grade level student can interview of family members who may remember a time when segregation still existed. This will allow an exploration into the subject a little deeper for the student and can become a fun family project as well. If the student’s parents are not from the United States then maybe they have a different story about segregation from their own countries. The possibilities of activities with this story really are endless. 

So Far From the Sea

Title: So Far From the Sea

Author: Eve Banting

Illustrator: Chris K. Soentpiet

Grade Level: 4-7

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Summary: This book is about a young Japanese-American girl named Laura who goes with her family to visit her Grandfather's grave at a former internment camp.  This is the last time they will be able to visit the grave because they are moving across the country from California to Boston, Massachusetts.  Their mother brings silk flowers to place on his grave, and Laura brings something special to leave her Grandfather.  Her Grandfather was a fisherman before World War II, and he loved the sea.  He was relocated to the Manzanar War Relocation Center with Laura's father.  There were once guard towers and a barbed wire fence that surrounded the camp, however all that is left now is a gatehouse, monument, and gravesite.  Laura's father explains that they were relocated to this place after Japan attacked the United States.  Laura's mother was in a different camp in another state, but the camps were all the same.  When Grandfather was relocated, the government took his pride and joy, his boat, Arigato, along with his house and dignity.  At the end of the story, Laura leaves her father's Cub Scout neckerchief on her Grandfather's grave.

Element 3: So Far From the Sea identifies the social injustice that Japanese-Americans faced during World War II.  It encompasses the issues of prejudice that existed at that time, and the results of that prejudice was interning American citizens.  There was such fear and anger held by Americans over the bombing of Pearl Harbor that it directly influenced their prejudices towards anyone of Japanese descent.  It is discouraging to think that we basically imprisoned a whole group of people based on the actions of others and the mistrust we had towards them.  The end of the book is really great because Laura's father says, "Sometimes in the end there is no right or wrong. It is just a thing that happened long years ago.  A thing that cannot be changed."  While many people might find this apologetic towards the actions of the United States, I think it really encompasses the fact that social injustices exist, but we are meant to learn from them.  There is the opportunity to move on and create equilibrium and trust once more.

Activity: An activity to do with students after reading this book would be maybe to parallel the similarities and differences between what was happening in the concentration camps in Germany at the same time in World War II with a big Venn Diagram for the class to fill in together after doing a unit on  the Holocaust. This will show similar uses of oppression to different cultural and ethnic groups.  You can then create connections to cultural, racial, or ethnic groups that might be feeling similar forces of oppression, such as Native Americans on reservations or African Americans in low-income housing in the inner-city.

The Story of Ruby Bridges

Title: The Story of Ruby Bridges
Author: Robert Coles
Illustrator: George Ford
Reading Level: 2-5
The Story of Ruby Bridges is a non fiction book about a courageous little girl who stood up for her rights despite the racism that was geared toward her.  It was a time when New Orleans had not yet integrated black and white children in its schools.  Ruby Bridges was the first black child sent to an all white school called the William Frantz Elementary School.  On her very first day of school Ruby encountered a mob of protestors holding up “white only” signs and shouting at her.  White parents did not allow their children to attend school as a form of protest.  These extreme racist measures never deterred Ruby from going into the school and receiving her education.  In fact, she went to school all alone for quite some time before two white students finally joined her.  The angry mob of people were enraged that the white students went back to school.  However, eventually more of them began to notice that their children were missing out on their education and more students began to come back to the school.  Ruby’s valor helped her make history by helping white and black people come together.  
Element 3: Exploring Issues of Social Injustice
This would be a wonderful book to teach children about social injustice.  The book represents element three by showing a piece of the history of racism.  It shows the impact that racism had on people and how it affected them.  Children will learn about Ruby Bridges and all the hatred and bigotry that surrounded her when she was sent to an all white school.  By hearing Ruby Bridges’ story children will also learn about equality.  This is a very positive story to read for element three because in the end students get to see that Ruby succeeds in life- and that all her sacrifices were not done in vain. 
A good activity for this book would be one called corners.  In this activity you tape 4 words in the 4 corners of your classroom: patient, courageous, hopeful, and peaceful.  Then you have the students think about this question: What word that best describes Ruby Bridges? Ask students to decide which word they agree with most and ask them to stand in that corner. Make sure that the children know what each of the words mean before you expect them to successfully accomplish this activity. As a group, students should discuss their reasons behind choosing their word and then explain it to the rest of the class. Students will then write a letter telling Ruby Bridges why they think what she did was important. Letters will be handed in to the teacher, at the end of class, to look over and mail to:
Ruby Bridges
P. O. Box 870248
New Orleans, LA 70187

Grandmama's Pride

Author: Becky Birtha
Illustrator: Colin Bootman
Grade Level: 3-5

Buy it here


Additional Resources

Summary: Grandmama’s Pride takes place in the south in 1956.  Six year old Sarah Marie and her mother and sister take a bus from the north to the south to visit Grandmama for the summer.  Throughout the story, Sarah Marie and her sister are told to do things a certain way by their mother and grandmother.  Their mother tells them to sit in the back of the bus because there it is “big and wide and roomy.”  She also tells them not to sit at the lunch counter at the rest stop because they brought their own lunches.  The girls do not know that there are laws in the south preventing them from sitting in the front of the bus and eating at the lunch counter.  Once they get to Grandmama’s house for the summer, Grandmama also keeps the girls from knowing the truth.  When the three decide to go downtown, the girls believe they are going to take the bus.  But Grandmama says, “God gave us each two good strong legs for walking.”  The girls do not know that Grandmama refuses to take the bus since she would be forced to sit in the back.  They did not know that “Grandmama’s pride was too tall to fit in the back of the bus.”  Because Sarah Marie does not know how to read yet, she cannot read the signs across town that read “Whites only.”  However, during the summer, Sarah Marie slowly learns to read, and once she begins to understand these signs and what they mean, Sarah Marie is upset and wants to go home up north.  At the end of the summer, when the family is waiting in the bus station, Sarah Marie’s sister goes to sit on a bench that is for whites only, and Sarah Marie stops her, by saying “You don’t know who’s been sitting there.”  Sarah Marie learns to shield her sister from the injustices in their world.  The story ends with the segregation laws being overturned, and when Sarah Marie goes to visit her Grandmama the next summer, the signs are gone and they experience new freedoms.

Relationship to Element 3 The third element, exploring issues of social injustice, can be introduced into the curriculum through the use of this book.  Grandmama’s Pride gives students the opportunity to learn about ways African Americans were segregated and oppressed throughout the United States, and how those laws were eventually overturned.  It also could promote a discussion of the Civil Rights Movement.   The teacher and the students could discuss ways that people are still oppressed today, both in the African American community and others.  It will be important for the teacher to make connections between how African Americans were oppressed in the past and how this still affects society today, including affirmative action and segregated housing patterns.

Activity: A good way to incorporate this book into a lesson would be to use the discussion of the story as a jumping off point to talk about social injustice in our society today.  The teacher could provide news articles about different social issues happening today and have the students decide which issue they would like to explore further.  The students could write in their journals a response to the story and to issues happening today, making connections between the past and present.  One example of an issue that is closely connected with the story is de facto segregation which happens in poor school districts across our nation.  Making the connection between oppression in the past and social injustice today is crucial as students move from learning about issues to taking action in the subsequent elements. 

Beatrice's Goat

Author: Page McBrier
Illustrator: Lori Lohstoeter
Grade Level: Pre-K - 3rd Grade

Buy it here :) 
More Resources

Summary: Beatrice's Goat is the true story of a young African girl who lives in a small village in Uganda with her mother and five younger siblings. Though she dreams of attending the local school, Beatrice is unable to do so because in order to go to school in her village, one must have enough money to purchase the school uniform and books. Sadly, Beatrice's family barely has enough money to live by. One day, Beatrice's mother tells her that their family has been chosen, along with eleven other families in their village, to recieve a special gift: a goat. Beatrice wonders what is so special about a goat?  Little does she know the wonderful things this goat, which she names Mugisa, will bring to her family. Aside from being able to build a new home and furnish it, Beatrice's family  will finally be able to fulfill her dream of going to school.

Element 3-Social Injustice: This book relates to the element of social injustice because of the fact that in Beatrice's village, only families who had enough money can send their children to school to get an education. This leaves the other children of poorer families without access to an education, being that they can not afford the school uniforms and books. It is unjust that education is restricted from certain people, whatever the reason may be, and differentiates between families by financial status. All children should have access to an education regardless of such a status or financial abilities. It is a right of theirs they should be able to exercise. Exposing students to a book like this can help them to appreciate and not take for granted the right to attend school and get an education.

Activity: I could use this book in my classroom as part of a Social Studies lesson where students can compare and contrast Beatrice's community with theirs. I can also use this book to discuss with my students the importance of having access to an education, and how some countries around the world still don't have this access for all of its children for various reasons, including financial inability. Another topic that can be discussed is the availiblity and use of resources, and how that might also differ in different countries around the world. I would also emphasize the importance of giving to those less fortunate thanourselves, for the very goat that Beatrice's family received that helped to improve their lives came from a non-profit organization called Hiefer International. In fact, I would also mention to the students that by just buying this book, 2% of the proceeds will go this organization. This can help them to start thinking from a young age how they are able to help others by means of donations or charitable work, amongst other things, and how it affects their awareness of events around the world in order to gain a more global perspective.

Monday, February 25, 2013

And Tango Makes Three

Title: And Tango Makes Three
Author(s): Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
Illustrator: Henry Cole
Grade Level: K-2


Summary:  Based on a true story, And Tango Makes Three focuses on the different animal families that live in the Central Park Zoo in New York City.  Two penguins in the penguin house were a little bit different than the other penguins.  Roy and Silo were both boys, but they did everything together.  As a couple, they want a family like the other penguins at the zoo. After an unsuccessful attempt to hatch a rock, Roy and Silo are given an abandoned egg to care for. After their diligent efforts, their egg hatches and baby Tango joins their family.

Element 3: Exploring Issues of Social Injustice: And Tango Makes Three celebrates the diversity of families.  Because Roy and Silo are both male penguins,the book gives students a chance to explore same-sex relationships.  The book sends out the message that it is absolutely okay to be different, accepting the fact that everybody has his or her own way of defining a family.

Activity:  A good follow up activity after reading this book would be a classroom discussion.  I would openly ask the classroom to elaborate on their own perspective of family.  As a project, I'd have them go home and illustrate their family.  With the help of their parents/guardians, they could put together a collage including the different things that define/sums up his or her family.  Finally, the students could present their project, and then I'd display their finished work around the classroom.