We’re big readers in this family. My dad once told me, “For me, not being able to read would be like not being able to see.” The smell of my favorite used book store is as comforting to me as the smell of Christmas cookies. Miles won me over because he understood my reference to Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. My house has four floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and it’s still not enough to fit every book we own. And of course, this applies to Bean as well. Bean’s favorite librarian, Ms. Alei, has known her longer than any other adult (aside from us). I even had to start taking the light bulb out of her lamp at bedtime because I kept finding her wide awake an hour afterward, surrounded by books.
So I’m sure it’s about 0% surprising to you that we use books as another opportunity to Learn Liberation.
There are a lot of incredible children’s books about the civil rights movement, LGBTQ families, and other ways people have overcome oppression. You can definitely find lists of such books floating around Pinterest, especially in February and March. I love books about demonstrations and the social movements of the 60’s, but they’re not always a great choice for very young children, who don’t have the background knowledge needed to connect with those historical events. But this doesn’t mean that pre-schoolers, toddlers, infants, and their caregivers can’t enjoy social justice books together! It just means we have to look beyond the temporary “Black History!” displays at Bunns and Noodle.
In that spirit, Learning Liberation brings you our current favorite books for sparking social justice conversations with very young children. Enjoy!
A is for Activist
What’s it about?: A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara is an ABC primer for future freedom fighters. This sturdy board book introduces babies and toddlers to the language of liberatory politics, from Activist to Zapatista. It’s a great book to use if you’re doing childcare thanks to its sturdy construction, familiar “A is for…” format, and all-ages-friendly content.
How we share it with kids: Pages like B is for Banner, which includes an illustration of protestors dropping a banner from a massive crane, allow caregivers to connect a new idea (civil disobedience) with what children already know. For a toddler, that may be as simple as saying “a banner can share a message with lots of people;” in our house, it looks like a conversation about how people take big risks to share an important message. Other pages can be used to prompt your child to take their own action. For example, when reading “H: Healthy food is a Human right,” you can ask, “how can we help more people get healthy food?” Maybe your child will want to plant a garden, donate to your food bank, or volunteer at a soup kitchen! Speaking of…
Last Stop on Market St
What’s it about?: Every Sunday, CJ and his grandma ride the bus to the very last stop on Market Street. CJ asks a lot of questions along the way about why his family doesn’t have a car or fancy mp3 players, and why they have to go down to Market St. in the first place. His Grandma answers his question with all the honesty and kindness one expects from a granny, helping CJ to be thankful for what they have and generous to everyone they meet. As you read, you suspect that maybe CJ and his Grandma live in the poorest part of town, but it turns out they are there to serve their friends at the homeless shelter and kitchen.
How we share it: The most wonderful quality I see in Grandma is how she recognizes and honors the individuality and humanity of every person she and CJ talk to. When she talks about the folks at the soup kitchen, she talks about them by name, as if they are friends — because they are her friends! This is what I emphasize when I read Last Stop, and I connect that to our own volunteer work with Feed the Community. We’re not just doing a service project, we’re helping our friends and neighbors (in fact, Bean calls it Neighbor Day). This books reminds us to respect that while housing projects may look rundown, they are homes, and those homes are full of friends and families. Last Stop on Market Street is an ideal book to follow up with a service project, bus trip, or visit to a neighborhood rec center.
Red: A Crayon’s Story
What’s it about?: Oh, how I love this book! Red is a young crayon learning how to use his color to create strawberries, red ants, a red self-portrait, and with the help of his friend Yellow, a nice big orange. The problem is that Red isn’t really red. His true color is Blue, but because of his red wrapper, everyone expects him to act, draw, and BE red. He starts to feel like a failure until a new friend asks him, “Will you draw me an ocean?” When he does, everyone realizes and celebrates what a spectacularly BLUE crayon he is.
How to share it: This book is perfect for helping young children to understand gender expression and empathize with transgender folks. As we read, we talk about all the different ways the other crayons try to “fix” red and ask, “what would really help Red be his best self? How would YOU try to help? How do you think these things are making Red feel?” For Bean, we make a connection between this story and an episode of Daniel Tiger where Daniel and friends change their appearances and realize, “you can change your hair or what you wear, but no matter what you do, you’re still YOU.” This was true for Red – no matter what wrapper he wore, he was still really BLUE inside. For school-age kids who might read Red independently, you can ask them what kinds of “wrappers” people have, and how we can support friends who want to change their wrapper to match their insides.
Little Sweet Potato
What’s it about?: Poor Little Sweet Potato! He got dug up by a tractor and knocked out of his garden patch – and now nobody will let him into their patch because he’s too lumpy and bumpy to fit in. Nobody, that is, until he comes to a big patch full of every kind of misfit vegetable or flower who tell him, “we’re the kind who like all kinds.“
How do we share it: Little Sweet Potato is excellent for talking about empathy, friendship, and inclusion. As we read, we talk about times that we weren’t invited to play with someone else, how to invite new friends to play with us, and the emotions associated with those experiences. For children who attend school, you can ask, “how can you tell if someone feels left out or lonely? If you heard a classmate talk to a friend like the flowers talked to Little Sweet Potato, what would you do?” You can talk about the fact that Sweet Potato was judged for his appearance, much like children with disabilities or from minority backgrounds are often judged. No matter how explicitly you talk about discrimination, this book is an opportunity to proactively discuss bystanderism and what it means to create an inclusive space.
Can I Play Too and I Really Like Slop
What they’re about: Both of these books come from Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie series. Gerald is a talented yet unsure Elephant; Piggie is a confident, go-getter type of gal; the two of them are BFFs. In Can I Play Too, a new friend asks to join Gerald and Piggie’s game of catch. The only problem is, the new friend is a snake who (obviously) doesn’t have hands to catch with – so the three characters have to work together to figure out how they can all enjoy the game. In I Really Like Slop, Piggie makes herself a heaping helping of odorous, old-shoe-flavored, fly-ridden Slop (a delicacy in Pig culture), and Gerald has to choose between protecting his sensitive stomach and respecting his friend’s tastes.
How we share them: One of the things that makes Mo Willems’ books so perfect for reading aloud is that you don’t have to try so hard to make connections with kids’ previous experiences. Willems’ illustrations are simple yet expressive, and children recognize the characters’ feelings easily. Gerald and Piggy state the moral messages explicitly: “You are our friend! We will ALL play catch!” and “I did not like Slop, but I am glad I tried it,” respectively. And that’s nice, because it means that the kids internalize the messages on their own – we don’t have to beat ’em over the head with a big EQUALITY MESSAGE every time we read. It is nice to refer back to these books at appropriate moments, though. Making a new food for dinner? Remind her that even Gerald tried Slop! Meeting a new friend who can’t play the same way? Ask her if they can find a way to all play together.
What It’s About: Eric Carle brings us this wonderful book about dads supporting other dads. Mr. Seahorse’s female partner has given him their fertilized eggs to protect and raise, and as he travels around the sea with his brood, he has encouraging words for all the other fathers he sees: “Mrs. Tilapia laid her eggs, and now you are taking care of them. You must be very happy. Good work.” When it’s time for his own seahorse babies to hatch, he tells them, “I love you, and now you’re ready to be on your own.”
How We Share It: Dads are typically portrayed in three ways in our culture: Total nincompoops who can’t figure out how to put baby’s socks on; over-protective macho-men with shotguns whose only joy lies in scaring away potential boyfriends; or as baby daddies who contribute nothing but the sperm (that one is reserved for men of color). This book gives us a chance to celebrate and honor all the kickass dads, uncles, and other men in our children’s lives. As we read, we talk about the fact that the dads in the book parent differently but just as well as mothers do, how great it is that Mister Seahorse is encouraging the other males to take pride in their parenting, and ways we can appreciate the guys in our lives. If you’d like a literacy connection activity, check out one of the many cool Eric Carle-inspired craft ideas out in the world, and make one for the kickass male caregiver in your life!
The Princess and the Pony
What it’s about: Princess Pinecone is the littlest warrior in the kingdom, and all she wants for her birthday is a strong, fast, warrior’s horse to help her feel like a champion. What she gets instead are some fuzzy sweaters and the funniest-looking pony you’ll ever see. She decides to train this round, fat pony for the upcoming battle anyway. He never does catch on, but it turns out it doesn’t matter. At the “battle” (which is really just a really rowdy Viking-themed dodge ball game), all the other warriors are enamored with the cute lil’ pony, and decide to spend the rest of the day embracing their cuddly sides.
How we share it: What I love about this book (besides the fact that it’s by Kate Beaton!) is that it gives parents a chance to talk about how patriarchy is limiting for men. At this point in our culture, it’s far more acceptable for women to eschew “girly” things and be tough than it is for men to be emotional and kindly. This is slowly changing, but most books about boys embracing girliness focus on clothes and princesses, rather than emotions or behavior. By reading this book, you get to talk with your kids about how much better everyone felt when they got to be cuddly, and how Pinecone learned that you don’t have to be a brute to be a warrior.
Morris Mickelwhite and the Tangerine Dress
What it’s about: Morris is a sensitive young boy who loves art, his mother, the color orange, and a beautiful dress in his classroom’s dress-up corner. Some of the children bully him for loving the dress, and he winds up missing school to avoid them. His supportive mom helps him cope, and he finds his courage and strength through his vibrant imagination. When he returns to school, he plays pretend in his favorite dress despite what the boys say. The wonderful playtime scenario he dreamed up wins the bullies over, and they all spend the day playing pretend together: “The best astronauts were the ones who knew where all the good adventures were hiding.”
How we share it: Honestly, with a story with as obvious a message as this one, there’s not much work we have to do to drive the message home for our kids. But we can still extend the story to apply to other situations, which is vital for building very small children’s comprehension. Bean and I talk a lot about how what we wear doesn’t change who we are, nor does it change our gender. I ask her what kinds of dressing up she likes to do, and what kinds her friends do. We talk about how clothes, makeup, and nail polish can be put on any body, and anybody can wear the clothes or makeup or nail polish they want – because who doesn’t want to feel fun and colorful sometimes?
Click Clack Moo
What’s it about?: The cows on Mr. Bown’s farm have gotten their hooves on a typewriter, and they have some demands. When Mr. Brown insists that he will not bargain with them, the cows go on strike – then the chickens join them in solidarity! Mr. Brown has to make concessions so he can keep the farm running.
How we share it: This story never uses the words protest, strike, bargain, union, or demands, but that’s exactly what it’s about! When we read, I ask Bean questions like, “are the cows asking for too much?” and “What would you do if you were the farmer?” I make connections between the story and marches and protests we’ve been to, as well: “The farmer got upset with the cows, but they didn’t give in or try to retaliate. Sometimes people get upset when we march. What should we do when that happens?”