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.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

"Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story From the Underground Railroad"

"Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story From the Underground Railroad"
Author: Ellen Levine
Illustrator: Kadir Nelson
Grade Level: Preschool- 3rd Grade 
Summary:  This book tells the story of an African American slave child and the struggles he was forced to deal with.  From not knowing his birthday and/or age, to being sold and separated from his family to eventually having a family of his own, only to have them sold and taken away from him.  Henry coped with plenty and eventually his calling to be free took him on a journey in a box that ultimately landed him in a place where he could "officially" begin a life he could call his own.
Element 3: Exploring Issues of Social Injustice:  This element is related to this book because the author describes the life of slave and the social injustice done to this young man.  From being a slave, to the absence of a birthday and an age, to the selling of a human being, and the stripping away of ones family.  This books enlightens one to the social injustices slave were force to endure during this time.
Activity:  An activity that a teacher could do with her classroom is The Discovery of "The Underground Railroad"  Researching what it was and how it worked could be one part.  The next part could be to create an oversized drawing or map that had landmarks of places that were known stops on the railroad to freedom for slaves.  This would enlighten the students on the history of the railroad as well as the endurance of the slaves who traveled and just how important their freedom was to them.  

The Night Crossing

Author:  Karen Ackerman
Illustrator:  Elizabeth Sayles
Grade level:  4-6

Clara's family is Jewish.  It is 1938, and Clara’s parents have decided that it is no longer safe to stay living in Austria.  Her once laughter filled home is now filled with fearful whispers of having to sell their belongings in order to leave.  The once beautifully clean streets are now littered with signs of midnight arrests, vandalism, and burglaries.  Soon, it becomes clear that Clara and her family must sneak out of Austria to avoid being caught by Hitler’s Nazis.  So they start out at night, bringing a few valuable family possessions, wondering if they will ever make it to the Swiss border safely.  The family cuts off the yellow stars on their coats and sets out on their mission of escape towards the mountains into Switzerland.   

Element 3:  Exploring Issues of Social Injustice. 
The Holocaust is a topic that is the least likely to be discussed at the elementary level.  I personally do not recall learning about this topic until high school.  I believe that this book is a great way to introduce the reality of the religious oppression the Jews suffered but without all of the horrible details.  This book is a great introduction for children in the topic of the Holocaust.  With the help of this story, the students will learn about how other Jewish families, like Clara’s, have had to struggle for social change over the years.  This book explores the issue of racism and demonstrates to children how racial discrimination has impacted the Jews in the past.  Students learn the history of religious intolerance and oppression.  Through the creative black and white illustrations, the students will see signs of the Nazi symbol and the midnights escape to the Swiss mountains. 

After reading the story I would ask the students to generate any questions they had towards the reading.  The descriptive dialogue about Clara and her family having to cut off their stars, will convey a hidden message and have them asking questions as to why they had to cut their stars off.  I would form them into groups and have them discuss with each other how they would feel if their families had to leave like Clara’s in the middle of the night, and ask them to come up with one possession they would like to take with them on their mission to Switzerland.  I believe this would invoke empathy towards Clara and her family by having them put themselves in their shoes.   

An at home activity I would have them do, is to go home and interview a parent or caregiver on what they remember about learning the Holocaust.  They would write 2-3 paragraphs on this interview.  The next day they would share their interviews with the class.  

We Shall Overcome- The Story of a Song

Title: We Shall Overcome- The Story of a Song
Author: Debbie Levy
Illustrator: Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Age Range: 5- 8 years old

But it here !



This book is about the history of "We Shall Overcome" which is a very inspiring song to African Americans during the time of slavery and civil rights movement. The author takes the reader throughout the struggles of what it was like to be African American where freedom and equality did not exist for African Americans; however that this song was the shimmer of hope that African Americans needed to overcome obstacles in history. This book does not just touch upon the struggles of African Americans however it is applied to everyone around the world who is fighting to have a better life and future. It extends to the point where it brings you to present day era where it demonstrates that change is possible and that indeed  "we can overcome" not just racial injustices however poverty, the fight for freedom and equality overall.

Element 3:  Exploring Issues of Social Injustice

I think that this book exemplifies element three well because it addresses important social injustices that have occurred throughout history. It gives the reader an outline of African American history in which they struggled in overcoming racial injustices such as not being equal to white people and establishing themselves. It demonstrates how cruel people can be to their own people despite of the color of their skin. Not only does this book explore this issue but it reveals to the reader that standing up together as a whole promotes change to these social injustices.


Before I would start reading the book, I would ask all of the students to hold hands around in a circle. Have them in a circle formation in which they are able to see all of their classmates. One of the instructions I would give is to ask the students to  pay attention for a word that they feel has touched them while I was reading. Then afterwards have every one go around in a circle saying the one word they felt that touched them and describe how they felt when they heard it. With this activity, as a teacher I hope that they have felt that strong sense of unity within a whole as one class.

Grace for President

Title: Grace for President

Author: Kelly DiPucchio

Illustrator: LeUyen Pham

Grade Level: K-2

Ages: 5-8


Grace for President is a realistic fiction book about a young girl named Grace Campbell who is absolutely outraged when her teacher informs her that the United States of America has never had a female president. "NO girl president? EVER? Grace shouts, as she truly cannot believe her eyes when looking a poster of all the past presidents. Puzzled and angered, Grace sits at her desk until coming up with the "star-spangled" idea that she would like to be President. So her teacher, Mrs. Barrington and Mr. Waller's elementary classes decide to have a mock presidential election, with Grace and another student named Thomas Cobb as the candidates. Her opponent claims to be "the best man for the job" but Grace is up for the challenge to do what it takes to win. She accomplishes this by proving to her fellow students that although she may not be "the best man," she is "the best person for the job."

Element 3: Exploring Issues of Social Injustice

This informative book not only gives students an introduction to how the American electoral system works but also touches upon the important issue of the social injustice, sexism. It allows the student to see that issues of sexism are still present in today's society, as we have still yet to see a female become President for the United States.  It stresses the importance of seeing a person for the qualities they have to offer, rather than letting gender have any influence. As they explain in the book, the reason as to why Grace won the election was because the final vote felt that she was the better person qualified for the job. Grace won for all of her hard work and effort, and her gender really did not matter. This is important issue to discuss in an elementary classroom because it empowers the students to try and achieve their goal, no matter their gender. It brings awareness to student at a young age that society should not judge merely on the gender of a person but rather by which person is better qualified for the position.

Follow-Up Activity 

I personally feel that this book would be a great book to read during the month of February for President's Day. This way, the book will be relevant to the material being taught, since many teachers gear lessons towards Washington and other past presidents during this time.  A great follow-up activity to this book is having students fill out a worksheet of their own. The worksheet would be title, "If I were President…" The students will be asked to write down (a few sentences) the reasons why they feel they would make a good president. The students will then be asked to draw a picture of him or herself as President and also come up with a catchy campaign slogan that they would use as well. The overall purpose of this activity is to not only relate it to the book but to also try and have positive impact on the students self-esteem, as they talk about the positive qualities they seen within themselves as a leader, similar to how Grace Campbell felt in the story when becoming the "first female President."

More Resources for Teachers (Read Aloud Lesson Tips)

Martin's Big Words

Title: Martin’s Big Words
Author: Doreen Rappaport
Illustrator: Bryan Collier
Age Range: 5-8 year olds

            Martin’s Big Words is a story on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  The story starts out with MLK as a young boy who comes across a sign that reads “WHITE ONLY.”  His mother explains that signs like that are all across the Southern states and he should remember that he is as good as anyone else.  These words empowered MLK to do great things.  In the story it states that he always used the word “love” when everyone else used “hate.”  The story talks about Rosa Parks and how she got arrested and goes on to say that many African Americans decided to stop riding the buses until they were allowed to sit where ever they pleased.  MLK was one of them.  The story states that for years after this incident African Americans continued to protest for equal rights and how many where murdered and beaten but MLK had to convince them to not fight back and how love was more powerful than fists.  The story ends with MLK’s “I have a Dream” speech and that ultimately results in the end of segregation. 

Element 3: Exploring Issues of Social Injustice
            I think this book is a great way to teach element 3.  This book provides students with information on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., segregation, civil rights, and a little bit on Rosa Parks.  This book allows students to understand some of the problems African Americans had to overcome.  This book is a great way to teach students the history of segregation and the civil rights movement and how far we have come from this.  I believe this book was written very well for students to understand the history concepts. 

            I think this book would be great to share on Martin Luther King day.  As a follow up activity I would show students the Martin Luther King speech and also use a template with eight boxes on the page.  The first box will be titled “My Big Words.”  In the following boxes I will have students write their own big words at the top in big letters then have them draw a picture or describe why that word is big to them.  This activity will coincide great with the book because it talks about Martin Luther King’s big words and how he used them to empower himself and others.  I will encourage students to share their big words and see which students chose the same words and have students explain the words are big to them.  I would then hang all of the students' words on a bulletin board in the classroom or hallway to empower students with their own hopes and dreams.