The Power of Literature

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I have always believed in the power of literature to help us to understand, to empathize, to open our hearts and minds.  Literature allows us to see further than our own household, our own neighborhood.  It allows us to experience the lives, thoughts, and emotions of people in circumstances very different from ours.  Conversely, it’s also important that all children read about characters who they can identify with – who share their culture or religion, for example. 

These books focus on groups of people who are often discriminated against in our society.  Not all these books are specifically about prejudice or oppression. Some are pleasant stories whose characters happen to be from one of these groups. Others give peeks into various cultures in other ways (such as folk tales). Some touch on history that we must never forget.

I have read every book on this list (and it will grow as I read more).  I have roughly divided them by age, but I think even the picture books can be read and appreciated by all ages.  Also, I can attest that my ten-year-old has read (or would be allowed to read) every book listed below the Young Adult level.  My 15-year-old has read (or would be allowed to read) every book in this list.  But, I recognize I am especially liberal in what I allow my children to read. I have included a few warning notes, but if you have any question about the appropriateness of a book for your child, either because you take a stricter approach or because your child is especially sensitive, please preview the book yourself.

If you wish to start a conversation with your children about Black Lives Matter, I suggest these titles (read the full descriptions below):


My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
by Christine King Farris

Elementary School and Younger

Bud, Not Buddy
by Christopher Paul Curtis

Mid-Late Elementary

 


My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
by Christine King Farris

Elementary School and Younger

Bud, Not Buddy
by Christopher Paul Curtis

Mid-Late Elementary

 


My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
by Christine King Farris

Elementary School and Younger

Bud, Not Buddy
by Christopher Paul Curtis

Mid-Late Elementary

 

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  • My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., by Christine King Farris (for younger and elementary school age)
  • Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis  (mid-late elementary school)
  • The Mighty Miss Malone, by Christopher Paul Curtis (mid-late elementary school)
  • The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis  (mid-late elementary school)
  • Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson (late elementary – high school)
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred Taylor (late elementary – high school)
  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass (junior high – high school)
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou (high school – adult)

Picture Books for the very young

Preschool to First or Second Grade

  • The Bee Tree, by Patricia Polacco – Mary Ellen’s grandfather takes her on a hunt for a bee tree, and the whole village joins them.  
  • Grandfather’s Journey, by Allen Say – This book about the author’s grandfather’s journey from Japan to America is a wonderful story with insight into how it feels to immigrate to a new country.  
  • The Hello, Goodbye Window, by Norton Juster – A child describes his delightful stay with his grandparents.
  • Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, by Simms Taback – A man continues to get use out of his clothing as it gets more worn and ragged, until he learns he can make something out of even nothing.
  • The Old Woman Who Named Things – An old woman who has outlived all her friends finds a new one when a puppy shows up at her house.
  • Oskar and the Eight Blessings, by Tanya Simon – A Jewish boy arrives alone in New York in 1938  as a refugee from Kristallnacht.  As he looks for his aunt, he experiences acts of kindness from others welcoming him to this new home.
  • The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats – This book is such a classic there are postage stamps of the illustrations.  I enthusiastically recommend all of Keats’s sweet, sensitively written books (Whistle for Willie, Pet Show!, A Letter to Amy, etc.).  
  • Tree of Cranes, by Allen Say – In Japan, a boy’s mother, who lived for awhile in America, gives him his first Christmas.  Again, Say captures the feelings of straddling two cultures.
  • Umbrella by Taro Yashima – A little girl gets the gift of an umbrella and can’t wait to use it.
  • Wabi Sabi, by Mark Reibstein – A delightful introduction to the Japanese philosophy of Wabi Sabi, seeing the beauty in imperfection.

Picture Books for the slightly older

Early – Middle elementary (or read-aloud for younger)

  • Kibitzers and Fools: Tales My Zayda Told Me, by Simms Taback – Thirteen wonderful Jewish tales with a smattering of Yiddish thrown in for good measure.  As with Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, Taback’s illustrations are colorful and fun.
  • La Mariposa by Francisco Jimenez – Francisco feels alienated at school because he cannot speak English yet and is not allowed to speak Spanish.  He takes comfort in his ability to draw.
  • The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming, by Lemony Snicket – Subtitled “A Christmas Book,” this hilarious story features a latke who keeps trying to explain why Hanukkah isn’t the same as Christmas.
  • Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: an African Tale, by John Steptoe – A multiple-award-winning book inspired by a traditional African folk tale.  The drawings are beautiful and reflect the nature and culture of Zimbabwe.  The characters’ names are all words in Shona, a language of Zimbabwe.  This was a Reading Rainbow book.
  • My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., by Christine King Farris – Martin Luther King’s sister tells a fascinating story about the young King and their experiences growing up in the South. 
  • The Patchwork Quilt by Valerie Flournoy – A multigenerational family work together on a quilt whose fabric is a history of their lives. This was a Reading Rainbow book.
  • Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis, by Jabari Asim – A beautifully illustrated look at the childhood of civil rights leader and Georgia congressman John Lewis.
  • Sequoyah, by James Rumford – The fascinating story of Sequoyah and his work to create a Cherokee writing system.

Short Chapter Books

 

Mid – Late Elementary (or read-aloud for younger)

  • All-of-a-Kind Family, by Sydney Taylor – The author draws on her own childhood to tell the story of a Jewish family with five daughters in early 19th century New York City. This is a delightful, light-hearted book.
  • At Her Majesty’s Request: An African Princess in Victorian England, by Walter Dean Myers – The true story of a girl from an Egbado village who is saved from execution and taken to England where Queen Victoria personally oversees her welfare.  Contains scenes of violence.
  • The Earth Dragon Awakes, by Laurence Yep – Two boys and their families – one white, one Chinese – fight to survive during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.  This book provides some excellent insight into the Chinese immigrant experience at the turn of the last century.
  • The Family Under the Bridge, by Natalie Savage Carlson – In France, a homeless man befriends a newly homeless family. He also introduces them to his Romany friends.
  • Morning Girl, by Michael Dorris – A lyrical look at the life of a Taino (Native American) family right before Columbus’s men step ashore.
  • How Many Spots Does a Leopard Have? by Julius Lester – A beautifully illustrated collection of a dozen folk tales from Jewish and African traditions.  The African stories come from a variety of cultures including the Efik-Ibibio, Xosa, Basuto, Fan, Mende, Hausa, Masai, Ngoni, and Yarwin-Mehnsonoh. 
  • Rickshaw Girl, by Mitali Perkins – A Bangladeshi girl must try to find work in a culture that says work is only for men and boys.

Longer Chapter Books

 

Mid elementary – Junior high

  • The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, Young Reader’s Edition, by William Kamkwamba – The true story of William’s work to build a windmill to help his family in Malawi.  There are some intense descriptions of poverty and famine, including the death of a pet.  But I also want to point out that this book is my ten-year-old’s favorite from this list.  
  • Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis – Set during the Depression, Bud (aged 10) goes in search of his father. This is a Newbery winner.
  • The Dreamer, by Pam Muñoz Ryan – A fictionalized, sometimes poetic telling of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s childhood. The illustrations by Peter Sís perfectly fit the poetic subject. This book contains a depiction of an unhappy relationship between Neruda and his father. 
  • The Mighty Miss Malone, by Christopher Paul Curtis – This story follows the lives of a family in Gary, Indiana during the Great Depression.  The story is narrated by their daughter, the delightful 10-year-old Deza.  (In fact, Dez and Bud (from Bud, Not Buddy) briefly appear in each other’s stories.)
  • Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry – Set during World War II, this work of fiction tells the factual story of Denmark’s miraculous feat of smuggling nearly their entire Jewish population (about 7,000 people) across the sea to Sweden to escape the Nazis.  
  • A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park – Set in 12th century Korea, this is the story of a 13-year-old orphan who becomes dedicated to pottery and to a master-potter.  Another Newbery winner.
  • The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis – In Curtis’s first book, the “Weird Watson” family travels from Flint, Michigan to Birmingham, Alabama.  Although this book is set during the civil rights movement (specifically the Birmingham church bombing), its focus is on the family.  As in The Mighty Miss Malone, Curtis emphasizes how a family’s love helps them through many struggles.
  • Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin – A girl goes on a quest to save her family and her village from crushing poverty.  Contains many tales within the main tale as well as beautiful illustrations.  Inspired by Chinese folk tales.

Late Elementary – Early High School

  • Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson – A memoir beautifully told in free verse poetry, Woodson talks about her life growing up first in the South, then in New York City, as a black girl during the 60s and 70s.  Although I put it here, this is a book that can be especially enjoyed by older readers (including adults) as well.
  • I Am Malala, Young Readers Edition, by Malala Yousafzai – The true story of Malala who stood up to the Taliban when they said girls and women shouldn’t be educated.  Contains some violence (she was shot at close range), but nothing too graphic.  (As with The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, I have only read the Young Readers Edition, so I can’t comment on the standard editions.)
  • Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, by Gary Schmidt – Historical fiction about Malaga Island off the coast of Maine, where an entire interracial community, who had lived there for decades, were forced off the island by the Maine government to turn it into a tourist attraction.  
  • A Long Walk to Water, by Linda Sue Park – This is a fictionalized (but apparently highly accurate) account of the “lost boys” of the Sudan and the struggles for clean water in this region. Contains some scenes of violence.
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred Taylor – A classic Newbery winner.  Set in Mississippi during the Depression, this is the story of a black family’s struggles to survive in a deeply racist environment.  Contains some scenes of violence.
  • Stories for Children, by Isaac Bashevis Singer – A collection of stories.  Some are factual from Singer’s own life; others are fanciful, based on Jewish folklore or from Singer’s imagination.  
  • The View From Saturday, by E. L. Konigsburg – A paraplegic sixth-grade teacher creates a team from her class for the academic bowl.  The four students have problems of their own, but their friendship helps them to help each other.
  • The Wednesday Wars, by Gary Schmidt – Set during a tumultuous period in our history, this book has a lot of laughs. But Holling, the (white) main character, also sees the ugly reality of bigotry against a Vietnamese refugee in his class.
  • Yellow Star, by Jennifer Roy – Another memoir told as free verse poetry.  In this case, the author tells the story of her aunt who was one of a few children who survived in the Lodz Ghetto during WWII.  Contains some scenes of violence.

Junior High – High School 

  • A Day of Pleasure, by Isaac Bashevis Singer – Singer’s memoir of his childhood is a fascinating look at Jewish life in Poland in the early 20th century.
  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass – Douglass’s memoir of his years in slavery.  Contains scenes of violence, but is essential to an understanding of slavery’s horrors.  
  • The Story of My Life by Helen Keller – The autobiography of Hellen Keller, who was blind and deaf yet achieved so much, reminds us that being differently abled does not mean being disabled.

High School (Young Adult) – Adult

  • The Bondwoman’s Narrative, by Hannah Crafts – A rare type of literature: a novel written (probably in the mid-19th century) by a woman who escaped slavery. This is the story of a woman’s experiences in slavery and her attempts to be free.  Contains scenes of violence.
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou – An exquisitely written memoir of Angelou’s childhood and teenage years.  I’m extremely fond of this book, but you should preview it before giving it to your child.  Contains scenes of violence, including a rape, and sexual content.
  • King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild – One of my favorite nonfiction books because of its flawless writing and jaw-dropping history, this is the gruesome story of King Leopold II of Belgium and his near genocide of the people of the Congo.  Contains scenes of intense and disturbing violence; you should definitely preview this book.
  • Maus and Maus II, by Art Spiegelman – These are two of my favorite books on this list, but they are also the ones I need to give the strongest warning about.  Both are graphic novels telling the story of Spiegelman’s father’s experiences during WWII, particularly as a prisoner in Auschwitz.  The books also spend time on Spiegelman’s relationship with his father.  I’m not generally a graphic novel person, but I found these witty, absorbing, and deeply moving.  There are scenes of intense violence, horror, and despair – these books pull no punches.  The fact that they are graphic novels may make the experience even more potent.  My sensitive 15-year-old has read them, but when I gave them to him I told him to stop if he found them overwhelming.  I strongly urge you to read these before passing them on to your child.
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston – A classic novel about a black woman’s life in the South in the early 20th century.  In spite of the setting, this is not primarily a story about racism; it is more about Janie’s growth as a person.  The dialogue beautifully captures Black Southern dialect of the period.  Contains scenes of violence (including spousal abuse) and some sexual references.
  • Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe – A modern classic, this novel is a fiercely realistic portrait of the impact colonial Britain had on Nigeria’s peoples in the 19th century.  Contains scenes of violence.

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