Everyday American Civil Rights Heroes: Kids Books About Regular People Who Dared to Stand Up

I'm participating in a series of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day resources for kids, a non-profit collaborative effort spearheaded by Multicultural Kid Blogs. Take a look here to find out what other bloggers wrote about to celebrate this national holiday. 

You've heard of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Crazy Horse, and Cesar Chavez. Your kids may have, too. They're certainly people worth knowing about. But what about non-famous, everyday American people who exhibited enormous courage in the face of racism, discrimination, and segregation? And how about fictional characters that give us a bird's eye view of incredible bravery? Below are non-fiction and fiction titles, for kids of all ages, that teach young people about unknown people who dared to fight for civil rights.

Non-fiction Picture Books for Kids Ages 6-10

Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson

Let me start by noting that pretty much any book Kadir Nelson has collaborated on or written is worth your time. This one is an overview of African-American history, from slavery to Barack Obama's election, as told through the voice of a fictional 100-year-old black woman. It won many awards. Nelson's oil paintings and the narrator's words are equally stunning.

Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney

The Pinkneys introduce elementary schoolers to a seminal event in the American Civil Rights Movement, the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in, which took place 55 years ago. This one was awarded multiple recognitions.

We March by Shane W. Evans

This simple. but powerful, picture book features a family preparing to participate in, and marching as part of, the 1963 March on Washington. With only a few words per page, you can share this one with kids as young as five years old.

Child of the Civil Rights Movement by Paula Young Shelton and Raul Colon

This award-winning, critically-acclaimed picture book tells of the Selma march through the perspective of the author, whose father, Andrew Young, was a mover and shaker in the Civil Rights Movement.

Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family's Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh

This picture book, which tells the story of the integration of California schools by a Mexican-American family decades before Brown v. Board of Education, fills a gaping hole in American popular history. It's also accessible and interesting, and was one of my favorite new kids books of 2014. Read my full review here.

This Is the Dream by Diane Z. Shore, Jessica Alexander, and James Ransome

While this beautiful poetry and art collection features famous people of the Civil Rights Movement, it also focuses on the everyday heroes who made change happen during the era. One of the nice things about this book is that it's appropriate for a wide range of ages, from about age six on up to adults. (Also, I've categorized this one as non-fiction, because it's a poetry collection, and that's where we shelve poetry in the library.)

Fictional Picture Books for Kids Ages 6-10

A Sweet Smell of Roses by Angela Johnson and Eric Velasquez

A visceral story of a civil rights march told through the eyes of two fictional girls. Powerful, quiet, and a tribute to the children of the movement. 

Freedom Song: The Story of Henry "Box" Brown by Sally M. Walker and Sean Qualls

A fictionalized account of real-life slave Henry "Box" Brown," who stowed away in a crate to escape slavery. This book received several starred reviews upon its publication in 2012.

Goin' Someplace Special by Patricia McKissack and Jerry Pinkney

In this tender story of 1950s Tennessee, a grandmother teachers her granddaughter to hold her head high, despite Jim Crow laws and the indignity of segregation.

Unspoken: A Story From the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole

I fell in love with this powerful, wordless picture book when it was released in 2012. It's the story of a white girl and a young slave who encounter each other as the latter seeks to escape via the Underground Railroad. It's also a powerful affirmation to kids of just how important their role can be when it comes to making a moral choice and doing the right thing. It garnered many accolades, too.

The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson and E. B. Lewis

Woodson's poetic prose shines alongside Lewis' powerful illustrations in this tale of two girls of different races who decide to play their friendship out sitting on a fence when they learn that neither is allowed to cross over to "the other side." 

Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki and Dom Lee

This powerful, award-winning picture book demonstrates how a young boy used baseball to deal with discrimination on and off the field. It focuses on the Japanese-American experience during the World War II internment camps, as well as after.

Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey, Gwen Strauss, and Floyd Cooper

Even though I majored in history in college, and took every American history class I possibly could, I had never heard of the Green Book until I read this story. Just goes to show you how much adults can learn from children's literature! Green Books were essentially AAA-like travel guides for African-American families during the Jim Crow era. With these in hand, black families could find restaurants, gas stations, and other places in the south that were willing to serve African-Americans. In this unique picture book,young Ruth becomes the family member in charge of the Green Book on a road trip from Chicago to Atlanta in 1952. 

Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson and James Ransome

This classic picture book, which has been in print for more than 20 years, has a particularly creative storyline, in which a young girl stitches a map into a quilt to help slaves escape on the Underground Railroad.

Non-fiction for Kids Ages 10 and Up

Above are six non-fiction titles on everyday civil rights heroes that are appropriate for kids ages 10 and above. 

Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Russell Freedman won four major awards and starred reviews from every major children's book journal. While Freedman covers the major players in the boycott, special emphasis is placed on forgotten and everyday participants.

Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice by Phillip Hoose tells the remarkable true story of an Alabama teen who refused to give up her bus seat just months before Rosa Parks did the same, but was largely forgotten by history. You can see from the four medals on the front of the book that this one is not to be missed.

Leon's Story by Leon Walter Tillage and Susan Roth features the autobiographical story of a sharecropping family in the Jim Crow era, as told through the eyes of a young boy. 

The Girl from the Tar Paper School: Barbara Rose Johns and the Advent of the Civil Rights Movement by Teri Kanefield was published last year. It provides a fascinating look at a brave teenage girl who led her segregated Virginia school peers on a walkout in 1951, years before the more famous aspects of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin was also published in 2014, and is expected to make a serious showing during the 2015 book awards season. After a deadly 1944 explosion at a segregated navy base, hundreds of men refused to report for duty until unsafe conditions were remedied. Fifty of the men were accused of mutiny, a charge that still stands today.

Fictional Chapter Books for Kids Ages 10 and Up

The seven chapter books above tell the story of the struggle for American civil rights through the eyes of fictional children and teens.

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levineis a novel about two girls, one black and one white, willing to cross the color line to be friends in the Jim Crown 1960s south.

Day of Tears by Julius Lester is the fictionalized account of a slave family torn apart by an auction in 1859. Told in multiple voices, Lester's novel is critically acclaimed. 

Revolution by Deborah Wiles was published last year to multiple starred reviews. It was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award. It's told from the point of view of a white girl and a black boy living in Mississippi on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement. It contains documentary images interspersed throughout the narrative. 

Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata is a novel about a young Japanese-American girl whose life is turned upside down when she and her family are forced into a World War II internment camp.

Trouble Don't Last by Shelley Pearsall is the tale of a slave boy's escape along the Underground Railroad from Kentucky to Canada. Infused with adventure and suspense, it won the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction.

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson was a National Book Award finalist and won the Scott O'Dell Award. It features Isabelle, a teenage slave willing to do anything to attain freedom, even spy for the Rebels during the American Revolution. 

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan garnered multiple starred reviews and won the Pura Belpré Award. Esperanza is a young girl forced to emigrate from Mexico to a migrant farming community in California during the Great Depression. 

My Name is Not Easy by Debbie Dahl Edwardson is the critically-acclaimed, fictionalized account of the author's husband's experience as a 12-year-old Native American student living at a Catholic boarding school in the 1960s. (Please note that this title is generally appropriate for kids ages 12 and up.) 

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