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.) 

Link disclosure: A Book Long Enough is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com. That means if you purchase a book through an Amazon link that appears on my site, I receive a commission. 

Gifty Books for the Readers on Your Holiday List: The Best Adult Books of 2013

Soooo, 2013 was a GREAT year for adult books! Not all years are so blessed, but this year, fortunately for we readers, was. This means the editors and publishers and agents did their jobs and let the talented writers write, and then brought the magic to us. Here's what you should make sure is in someone's stocking this year ... journal reviews rather than my own thoughts again, because the most wonderful time of the year is ridiculously time consuming!

Buy this Book if No Other: My Favorite of 2013


Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

This is it. The book you MUST read this year if you read no other. I wrote about it here. Buy it, read it, keep it. Share copies with everyone you love. 

Booklist raved, "In a radical departure from her Jackson Brodie mystery series, Atkinson delivers a wildly inventive novel about Ursula Todd, born in 1910 and doomed to die and be reborn over and over again. She drowns, falls off a roof, and is beaten to death by an abusive husband but is always reborn back into the same loving family, sometimes with the knowledge that allows her to escape past poor decisions, sometimes not.  Alternately mournful and celebratory, deeply empathic and scathingly funny ... From her deeply human characters to her comical dialogue to her meticulous plotting, Atkinson is working at the very top of her game. An audacious, thought-provoking novel from one of our most talented writers."

More Novels to Consider Gifting


Someone by Alice McDermott

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly wrote, "In this deceptively simple tour de force, McDermott (Charming Billy, winner of the National Book Award) lays bare the keenly observed life of Marie Commeford, an ordinary woman whose compromised eyesight makes her both figuratively and literally unable to see the world for what it is. When we meet her on the steps of her Brooklyn townhouse, she's a bespectacled seven-year-old waiting for her father; McDermott then leaps ahead, when Marie, pregnant with her first child, recalls collapsing at a deli counter and the narrative plunges us into a world where death is literally just around the corner, upending the safety and comfort of her neighborhood; In a few months' time, I would be at death's door, last rites and all, she relates. We follow Marie through the milestones of her life, shadowed by her elder brother, Gabe, who mysteriously leaves the priesthood for which everyone thought he was destined. The story of Marie's life unfolds in a nonlinear fashion: McDermott describes the loss of Marie's father, her first experience with intimacy, her first job (in a funeral parlor of all places), her marriage, the birth of a child. We come to feel for this unremarkable woman, whose vulnerability makes her all the more winning—and makes her worthy of our attention. And that's why McDermott, a three-time Pulitzer nominee, is such an exceptional writer: in her hands, an uncomplicated life becomes singularly fascinating, revealing the heart of a woman whose defeats make us ache and whose triumphs we cheer."


The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

National Book Award Finalist, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Booklist said, "The clever Mitra brothers are inseparable even though Subhash is serious, cautious, and reliable, while Udayan is brash, impassioned, and rebellious. Both excel in their studies even though, thanks to Udayan, they get into mischief in their quiet, middle-class Calcutta enclave with its two adjacent ponds and water hyacinth-laced lowland, a gorgeously rendered landscape Lahiri uses to profound effect.  As shocking complexities, tragedies, and revelations multiply over the years, Lahiri astutely examines the psychological nuances of conviction, guilt, grief, marriage, and parenthood and delicately but firmly dissects the moral conundrums inherent in violent revolution. Renowned for her exquisite prose and penetrating insights, Lahiri attains new heights of artistry—flawless transparency, immersive intimacy with characters and place—in her spellbinding fourth book and second novel, a magnificent, universal, and indelible work of literature. An absolute triumph."


The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (AKA J.K. Rowling)

Booklist publish the following before we all knew the author's identity, "London PI Cormoran Strike’s final feud with his arguably insane fiancée leaves him camping in his office, wondering how his last two clients will keep him afloat and pay for his new secretary, Robin. When a childhood acquaintance asks him to investigate his supermodel sister’s apparent suicide, Strike finds a distraction from his problems that’s happily attached to a check. Lula Landry was surrounded by rabid paparazzi, a drug-addled social circle, a dysfunctional adopted family, and a shifty, newly found birth mother, making suicidal despair hard to dismiss. But with Robin’s surprisingly adept assistance, Strike dismantles witness statements, applying masterful deductive skills to find evidence of murder. This debut is instantly absorbing, featuring a detective facing crumbling circumstances with resolve instead of clichéd self-destruction and a lovable sidekick with contagious enthusiasm for detection. Galbraith nimbly sidesteps celebrity superficiality, instead exploring the ugly truths in Lula’s six degrees of separation. Strike bears little resemblance to Jackson Brodie, but Kate Atkinson’s fans will appreciate his reliance on deduction and observation along with Galbraith’s skilled storytelling."


The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty

Amazon wrote, "Liane Moriary is probably doomed to be forever labeled a writer of “chick lit.” But despite its dopey name, her new novel, The Husband’s Secret, is better described as a comedy of manners and one with a serious undertone. Moriarty here wittily and observantly chronicles the life of middle aged, middle class Australian women, suburbanites who grapple with prosaic issues like marital fidelity and torturous ones like moral guilt and responsibility. You can’t help but laugh along with the small observations--“And there was poor little Rob, a teenage boy clumsily trying to make everything right, all false smiles and cheery lies. No wonder he became a real estate agent.” But it’s the big ones--Can good people do very, very bad things, and what, exactly, are we responsible for, and for how long?--that will make you think. This is a deceptively rich novel that transcends its era and place at the same time that it celebrates same."

Burial Rites American.jpg

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

In a starred review Booklist said, "It is March 1829, and Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been sentenced to be beheaded for murdering her employer. Due to the cost of keeping her imprisoned, she is sent to the farm of district commissioner Jon Jonsson, where he lives with his wife and two daughters, until her execution. She arrives at the farm filthy, bruised, and bleeding due to the cruelty with which she has been treated during her imprisonment. The mistress of the farm immediately puts her to work scything the harvest, churning butter, and making sausages, while a young priest visits with her to prepare her soul for death. It is from their conversations that Agnes’ story becomes known: abandonment by her mother condemns her to life as a pauper subject to the behest of her many employers, and her intelligence only makes her more of a target. Kent’s debut novel, she says, is my dark love letter to Iceland, and rarely has a country’s starkness and extreme weather been rendered so exquisitely. The harshness of the landscape and the lifestyle of nineteenth-century Iceland, with its dank turf houses and meager food supply, is as finely detailed as the heartbreak and tragedy of Agnes’ life, based on the true story of the last woman executed there. Haunting reading from a bright new talent."


The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

Winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction

Booklist gave this one a starred review: "Abolitionist John Brown calls her 'Little Onion,' but her real name is Henry. A slave in Kansas mistaken for a girl due to the sackcloth smock he was wearing when Brown shot his master, the light-skinned, curly-haired 12-year-old ends up living as a young woman, most often encamped with Brown’s renegade band of freedom warriors as they traverse the country, raising arms and ammunition for their battle against slavery. Though they travel to Rochester, New York, to meet with Frederick Douglass and Canada to enlist the help of Harriet Tubman, Brown and his ragtag army fail to muster sufficient support for their mission to liberate African Americans, heading inexorably to the infamously bloody and pathetic raid on Harpers Ferry. Dramatizing Brown’s pursuit of racial freedom and insane belief in his own divine infallibility through the eyes of a child fearful of becoming a man, McBride  presents a sizzling historical novel that is an evocative escapade and a provocative pastiche of Larry McMurtry’s salty western satires and William Styron’s seminal insurrection masterpiece, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). McBride works Little Onion’s low-down patois to great effect, using the savvy but scared innocent to bring a fresh immediacy to this sobering chapter in American history."

And If You're In the Mood for Non-Fiction, Buy These


The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer

The 2013 National Book Award Winner

New York Times Notable Book of 2013

Publishers Weekly's Best Nonfiction Books of 2013

NPR Best Book of 2013

Booklist: "How have we come to feel that neither the government nor the private sector works as it should and that the shrinking middle class has few prospects of recovering its former glory? Through profiles of several Americans, from a factory worker to an Internet billionaire, Packer, staff writer for the New Yorker, offers a broad and compelling perspective on a nation in crisis. Packer focuses on the lives of a North Carolina evangelist, son of a tobacco farmer, pondering the new economy of the rural South; a Youngstown, Ohio, factory worker struggling to survive the decline of the manufacturing sector; a Washington lobbyist confronting the distance between his ideals and the realities of the nation’s capital; and a Silicon Valley entrepreneur pondering the role of e-commerce in a radically changing economy. Interspersed throughout are profiles of leading economic, political, and cultural figures, including Newt Gingrich, Colin Powell, Raymond Carver, Sam Walton, and Jay-Z. Also sprinkled throughout are alarming headlines, news bites, song lyrics, and slogans that capture the unsettling feeling that the nation and its people are adrift. Packer offers an illuminating, in-depth, sometimes frightening view of the complexities of decline and the enduring hope for recovery."


The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly noted, “By shining a light on a little-discussed President and a much-discussed one, Goodwin manages to make history very much alive and relevant. Better yet—the party politics are explicitly modern.”

And the New York Times said, “If you find the grubby spectacle of today’s Washington cause for shame and despair—and really, how could you not?—then I suggest you turn off the TV and board Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest time machine. … [Goodwin puts] political intrigues and moral dilemmas and daily lives into rich and elegant language. Imagine ‘The West Wing’ scripted by Henry James.”


One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

"On May 21, 1927, when Charles Lindbergh set off to be the first man to cross the Atlantic alone in an airplane, he profoundly changed the culture and commerce of America and its image abroad. Add to that Babe Ruth’s efforts to break the home-run record he set, Henry Ford’s retooling of the Model T into the Model A, the execution of accused anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, and Al Jolson appearing in the first talkie, and 1927 became the pivot point when the U.S. began to dominate the world in virtually everything—military, culture, commerce, and technology. Bryson’s inimitable wit and exuberance are on full display in this wide-ranging look at the major events in an exciting summer in America. Bryson makes fascinating interconnections: a quirky Chicago judge and Prohibition defender leaves the bench to become baseball commissioner following the White Sox scandal, likely leaving Chicago open for gangster Al Capone; the thrill-hungry tabloids and a growing cult of celebrity watchers dog Lindbergh’s every move and chronicle Ruth’s every peccadillo." (Booklist, starred review)


Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

Publishers Weekly gave this one a starred review: "The person and work of Jesus of Nazareth has been a topic of constant interest since he lived and died some 2,000 years ago. Much speculation about who he was and what he taught has led to confusion and doubt. Aslan, who authored the much acclaimed No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, offers a compelling argument for a fresh look at the Nazarene, focusing on how Jesus the man evolved into Jesus the Christ. Approaching the subject from a purely academic perspective, the author parts an important curtain that has long hidden from view the man Jesus, who is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. Carefully comparing extra-biblical historical records with the New Testament accounts, Aslan develops a convincing and coherent story of how the Christian church, and in particular Paul, reshaped Christianity's essence, obscuring the very real man who was Jesus of Nazareth. Compulsively readable and written at a popular level, this superb work is highly recommended."

Later this week I'll share my best of the best for children's books published in 2013 ... stay tuned.