Recently, an Internet friend asked if I knew of any good picture books that cover the Civil Rights Movement. These aren’t easy to find. Many that are supposedly about Civil Rights are actually kind of vague. Race is a taboo subject and it is hard to find books for kids that engage it honestly in age-appropriate ways. Nevertheless, there are a handful we have found and like. Here are a few of our favorites:
I like this one because it tells about Dr. King’s roots in the Black Church, it overtly discusses the racism King and others were fighting (not just the happy dream of its demise) and it highlights those others, saying Dr. King went to be with people who were boycotting buses or out on strike, rather than making him the superhero who did it all alone.
Real photos of real children and imagined first-person accounts of their feelings and lives make this a compelling book. As with all of Morrison’s work, this one does not flinch from painful truths about how hard these times were. But also as with all of Morrison’s work there is a tone of transcendence that inspires the reader.
This book is a bit wordy, but they are Nikki Giovanni’s words and she is one of my favorite poets. The illustrations are incredible and parents can always edit the words until a child is old enough to sit still for all of them. Again, there is an emphasis on the historical and community aspects of the Civil Rights Movement here, rather than a one-hero-who-did-it-all approach.
This book is not exclusively about the Civil Rights Movement of the mid century, but it includes a number of aspects of that movement, including Malcolm X, who almost never gets a mention in kids’ books about the topic. I love this book for its flexibility. You can just read out the words the letters stand for, or you can read the sidebars that go into detail about each topic. I started reading it to my kids when they were quite little. Now we’re exploring the heavier details.
And two to grow on:
These are books with lots of pictures, but the reading level is higher than the books listed above. All the same, you can explore them with younger children through the pictures or let older children read them alone or with you.
The wonderful thing about this book is that it focuses on a child–well, a teen–who refused to give up her bus seat months before Rosa Parks. So kids can really identify with her sense of unfairness and also perhaps get a stronger sense of appreciation for what they have today that other kids struggled to leave the future as a legacy.
Okay, I’m cheating with this one, because it isn’t about the mid century Civil Rights Movement. But there has been more than one racial justice movement in the United States and I think that knowing a bit about what happened earlier is important to putting the 50s and 60s in proper context. Also, this series by Scholastic is just plain fabulous. (There are several other “If You Lived When…” books.) The book is colorfully illustrated and is formatted as a question/answer book with topics like “Why did slavery start in America?” or “Would you go to school?” and other child-specific questions about this period in history. It’s a great way for early readers to learn about research itself as well as the topic it covers.