• Childrens & YA Literature

Civil Rights Books

May 23, 2012

Civil rights leader Mahatma Gandhi has been credited with reminding us that “You must be the change you wish to see in the world,” and there are those who might argue that part of the purpose of education is helping to change the world into a better, fairer place. Even earlier than the nonviolent civil disobedience espoused by Gandhi, Irish philosopher Edmund Burke’s sentiments about the need for fairness and social justice can be summed up in this way: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Members of the International Reading Association's Children’s Literature and Reading Special Interest Group explore recent publications that explore the nature of civil rights and social justice in different ways. 


Crowe, Chris. (2012). Just as good: How Larry Doby changed America’s game. Illus. by Mike Benny. Somerville, MA: Candlewick. 

Just as GoodThis picture book adds another chapter to the complexity of this nation’s civil rights story by focusing on the importance of Larry Doby’s role in breaking baseball’s color barrier. Homer and his father are delighted when a black man joins the Cleveland Indians, and when Doby’s team makes it to the 1948 World Series, they are unable to tear themselves from the radio as they listen to game four. When Doby eventually hits a home run that allows the Indians to triumph over the Boston Red Sox, Homer’s family celebrates the change that is on its way. Newspaper coverage the next day features pitcher Steve Gromek and Doby, "a white face next to a black one" (unpaginated), and it's clear that change has already come. No longer will Homer be prohibited from Little League baseball because of his skin color. Back matter includes a bibliography and quotes from Doby and the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers about baseball’s role in integration. The acrylic illustrations allow the emotions to play across the characters' faces, whether those characters are actual players on the field or fans listening to the game at home. For the United States during that time, baseball became so much more than a game. 

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman

Evans, Shane E. (2012). We march. New York: Roaring Brook Press.

We MarchWe March follows the release of Evan’s 2011 companion publication Underground. The setting is now August 28, 1963 in Washington, D.C. at the National Mall where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is speaking. A young family has risen at dawn to travel by bus and join the march for freedom and racial equality that ends with Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech at the base of the Lincoln Memorial. Using spare text with just one line per page and bold illustrations that include people from all races, religions and walks of life, Evans provides young readers a glimpse of this day in history that ends with MLK’s famous quote, “Free at last!” 

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant

Michelson, Richard. (2012). Twice as good. Illus. by Eric Velasquez. Ann Arbor, MI: Sleeping Bear Press. 

Twice as GoodThis powerful biography is about William Powell who wanted to learn how to play golf but was told that he was not welcome at golf courses. This didn’t stop Willie. He returned and learned how to be a caddy. His school principal told him that if he was going to get ahead in this world he needed to be twice as good as the white children. Willie took this advice and caddied during the summer and studied how the best players hit the ball. Willie practiced every chance he got and dreamed of becoming a professional golfer. After serving overseas Willie returned home and was told that he wasn’t allowed to play because he wasn’t a member. This didn’t stop Willie. He built his own golf course and welcomed people of all color to play golf. Finally, in 1998 he was awarded a retroactive lifetime PGA membership. For more information about William Powell and the golf course he designed, built and operated—Clearview Golf Club—visit www.clearview-gc.com.

- Deanna Day, Washington State University Vancouver

Mitchell, Margaree. (2012). When Grandmama Sings. Illus. by James E. Ransome. New York: Amistad.

When Grandmama SingsThis Coretta Scott King Honor award winning team of Mitchell and Ransome have returned with another look at the Jim Crow South of the early 1900’s. Grandmama is known all round the countryside in Pecan Flats, Miss., for her beautiful singing voice. When a music promoter approaches her to join a jazz band and go on the road with their music, Grandmama’s young granddaughter, Belle, wants to accompany her. Though her parents are reluctant, Grandmama thinks it would be an experience to be remembered and so, Belle is allowed to go. As the band journeys from town to town Belle gets a real feel for the “whites only” world the band must contend with; from hotels and restaurants that won’t serve them, to a club owner who refuses to pay them, to sitting in the upper balcony while white people enjoy prime seats below. Ransome’s beautiful watercolor paintings bring out the emotional level of this book as facial expressions reveal anger, joy, frustration, despair and in one heartfelt portrait of Grandmama singing her heart out, true passion. Readers can get a feel for these pictures at the illustrator’s website book trailer at www.jamesransome.com/new.html

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant


Cline-Ransome, Lesa. (2012). Words set me free: The story of young Frederick Douglass. Illus. by James E. Ransome. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Words Set Me FreeFrom husband and wife illustrator/author team comes this beautiful  autobiographically based book on the life of Frederick Douglass and its critically important emphasis on literacy. Told in first person, Douglass’ life unfolds from his early years as a slave when he is sold away from his mother and sent to Baltimore. His new master’s wife taught him to read from the Bible until the plantation owner discovered this and forbade the reading lessons to continue. Years later, Douglass used his knowledge of reading and writing to forge a document freeing him from his bondage. Though his first attempt at escaping to find freedom ends in failure, in 1838 he successfully escapes to New York and begins his life as a spokesperson for freedom and the abolition movement. The bold oils and acrylics of James Ransome provide the background for this heroic story. 

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant

Curtis, Christopher. (2010). The Mighty Miss Malone. New York: Random House/Wendy Lamb Books. 

The Mighty Miss MaloneResponding to readers’ pleas for a book about a girl, author Christopher Paul Curtis brings back the character of Deza Malone from 1930’s setting, Bud Not Buddy. Twelve-year-old Deza Malone and her family live in Gary, Indiana, and when the Great Depression strikes deep and her father loses his job, he makes the decision to go back to his home town of Flint, Michigan, and look for work. When Deza’s mother loses her job as a domestic worker and they are put out on the streets, they decide to journey to Flint in search of their father. In addition to their economic woes, Deza’s teeth are rotting and are painful as well as terribly smelly. Her older brother, Jimmie, though extremely musically talented has not grown in three years. When they arrive in Flint, the ramshackle Hooverville appears to be the only place they can find to live. Jimmie takes advantage of an offer to sing and leaves the little family to pursue a possible career in Detroit and the music world. As is typical of Curtis’s other characters, Deza is a strong and hopeful young girl with determination and optimism, though is so hurt when her beloved father comments that he can hardly stand to be around Deza because of the stench of her breath and teeth. In spite of the economic Depression ever present, Deza and her family survive. Listen to author Christopher Paul Curtis talk about his career and this new book, The Mighty Miss Malone at http://www.newslook.com/videos/396394-steve-bertrand-on-books-christopher-paul-curtis?autoplay=true. There is an educator guide at http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/teachers_guides/9780385734912.pdf.

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant

Hunter-Gault, Charlayne. (2012). To the mountaintop: My journey through the civil rights movement. New York: Roaring Brook Press.

To The MountaintopJournalist, NPR foreign correspondent, Emmy and Peabody award winner, and author Charlayne Hunter-Gault writes about her life and journey within the civil rights movement. In 1961, Hunter-Gault was one of two students to forcefully integrate the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia. The book opens with the inauguration of President Barack Obama and then begins the chronicle of Hunter-Gault’s life and experiences beginning with her 1959 senior year in high school. Published in association with The New York Times, each chapter opens with headlines from The Times representing the political atmosphere at the time starting with the 1954 “separate but equal” response to overturning Brown vs. Board of Education. Freedom riders, lunch counters, sit-ins, violence, peaceful resistance, the author has chronologically placed herself along the path to freedom and her part in the movement. Timelines, photographs, and extensive bibliographic references are found at the end. For further background information, watch the Vimeo video conversation that has extensive back matter with Charlayne Hunter-Gault at http://vimeo.com/40110841

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant


Bausum, Ann. (2012). Marching to the mountaintop: How poverty, labor rights, and civil rights set the stage for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final hours. Washington: National Geographic

Marching to the MountaintopIn the late 1960’s, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a leader in the civil rights movement championing nonviolent resistance as a means of protest. He was in the midst of organizing the Poor People’s Campaign when he was called to Memphis, Tennessee, because two sanitation workers had been killed, crushed to death by a garbage truck that was not working properly. As a result, African American workers went on strike for improved safety practices in addition to fair pay and opportunities for advancement. Picket lines sprouted, silent protests were formed and the garbage in Memphis started to pile high as the strike continued. City government would not budge to work with the strikers and an impasse prevailed as the garbage continued to pile higher. Over 70 archival photographs illustrate this book along with Bausum’s exhaustive research of the period that includes letters, pamphlets, newspapers and actual first person accounts through oral histories. The book design itself is bold with orange, blue and green tints to photographs and quotes and epigrams throughout. Sadly, on April 4, 1968, King is assassinated at the Lorraine Motel. Extensive bibliographic materials lists are included at the end of the book. Watch actual footage of the civil rights movement that concludes with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BFKx6HJLC7U. The author website is www.annbausum.com/mountaintop.html

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant

Fitzmaurice, Kathryn. (2012). A diamond in the desert. New York: Viking. 

A Diamond in the DesertShortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, thirteen-year-old Californian Tetsu Kishi and his family are forced to leave behind almost all their possessions, including their dog Lefty, and move to the harsh Gila River Relocation Center in the scorching Arizona desert. Despite the dust devils, fierce heat and lack of privacy, they manage to endure the captivity. An avid baseball player, Tetsu is at first delighted when Coach Tanaka fashions a baseball field at the camp. But he refuses to play when his preoccupation with the game causes him to lose patience with his younger sister, and she wanders away from camp. Only his father's reassurance upon his return from being grilled by the FBI as a possible Japanese spy frees Tetsu from his guilt and allows him to play baseball again. Tetsu's quiet anger and resiliency fill the book’s pages, showing that Tetsu, while imperfect, clearly is a survivor. Baseball fans will relish the passages in which the Gila River team goes up against other baseball teams while canine lovers will be touched by the passages concerning Lefty which offer hope for the future. The author’s use of short chapters and passages is particularly effective in describing this important period in American history quietly, effectively, and inexorably. Sympathetic readers who want to learn more may want to visit the Japanese American Baseball History Project Website at www.nikkeiheritage.org/research/bbhist.html

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman

Freedman, Russell. (2012). Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: The story behind an American friendship. Boston: Clarion Books.

Abraham Lincoln & Frederick DouglassThis biography profiles two fascinating men who lived more than 150 years ago and whose lives intersected briefly but at significant turning points in the nation’s history. Although they met only three times, abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, the author of the Emancipation Proclamation and president during the Civil War, bonded over shared interests and concerns. Prior to their initial meeting, Douglass had been sharply critical of the president for not eradicating slavery. Lincoln, on the other hand, seemed primarily concerned with preserving the union. After their first meeting, they gain respect for one another and the other’s perspective. Freedman acknowledges these philosophical differences between the two men, but does so in a respectful, thoughtful way. This biography’s chief appeal lies in how the author teases out the similarities of the two men, both of whom read some of the same books during their formative years. One of those titles, The Columbian Orator, helped both men polish their speaking and debating skills. As is always the case with works by Freedman, the book has been thoroughly researched, is filled with period photographs, and is likely to captivate young readers as well as their parents and teachers. 

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman

Levine, Kristin. (2012). The lions of Little Rock. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 

The Lions of Little RockIntegration of the public schools of Little Rock, Arkansas was a laborious process. Set during 1958 and 1959, the school year after the Little Rock Nine integrated the schools, this book covers the period during which the city’s school board chose to close its high schools rather than conform to policies set forth by Brown v. Board of Education. The community was deeply divided on the issue as evidences by the formation (by women) of organizations such as Stop This Outrageous Purge (STOP) and the Committee to Retain Our Segregated Schools (CROSS). Set against this historical backdrop, this story focuses on Marlee, a twelve-year-old who rarely uses her voice in public. Her reluctance to speak symbolizes the inability of many of the city’s citizens to express their own feelings about their leaders’ actions and their desire for the schools to reopen so their children wouldn’t lose a year of education or have to move to other schools in other places. A math whiz, Marlee ends up doing his homework for JT Dalton whose thuggish brother hates blacks, while being drawn to Liz, an outspoken new girl who leaves school unexpectedly once her racial identity is revealed. The book explores a little-explored period when standing up for what was right could be more costly than remaining silent. City officials even tried to fire teachers who were suspected to have integrationist sympathies, and Marlee’s mother must find her own courage to do the right thing. The way Marlee regards people as being “like things you drink” (p. 5) is especially poignant as is the bond she and Liz form despite the danger their friendship causes to themselves and those around them. 

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman

Levinson, Cynthia. (2012). We’ve got a job: The 1963 Birmingham children’s march. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree. 

We've Got a JobWithout the bravery of Birmingham youngsters in 1963, the civil rights movement might have ended with a whimper. When adults were reluctant to be arrested, the city’s children and teens were brave enough to volunteer to march through Birmingham’s streets and face arrest. Through the voices of four young protesters, ranging in age from 9 to 16, the author describes the events that led to the children taking to the streets as part of the 1963 protest. As an almost endless supply of young protesters filled the city's jails during the Children’s March, the city's law enforcement officials were unable to handle the masses of young people who kept marching through the street. Almost fifty years later, the voices of the participants are filled with hope and determination, a vivid reminder of the difference each of us may make in our world. The author conducted extensive research and interviewed many of the participants for her inspiring story. Readers will marvel at the large photographs and informative sidebars that fill this book's pages. Teachers may request a free copy of a related film and teaching kit Mighty Times: The Children’s March from Teaching Tolerance at www.tolerance.org/teaching-kits

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman 

Scattergood, Augusta. (2012). Glory be. New York: Scholastic. 

Glory BeSummers in Hanging Moss, Mississippi, are hot, and the summer of 1964 is no exception. Like most youngsters, Glory Hemphill plans to have her twelfth birthday party at the pool. Once it’s closed, Glory is determined to get it opened again. When she realizes that the closure is an attempt to keep the pool from being integrated, she fires off a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, becoming embroiled in the civil rights movement without really understanding the consequences of her actions. Although her instincts are right, they are motivated by her own wish for a place to escape the summer heat and humidity of Mississippi as well as a place for her party. There are other concerns in Glory’s life: the growing distance between Glory and her older sister, Jesslyn, who takes risks with a newcomer with a secret past; her disappointment in her best friend Frankie who seems unable to stand up to his father and older brother, both bullies and racists; and her budding friendship with the daughter of one of the Northern outsiders in town for the summer. The family maid, Emma, provides stability for Glory and her sister while their minister father goes about his own work. While the ease with which Glory and her librarian friend, Miss Bloom, challenge the status quo is somewhat unbelievable, given the narrow-mindedness of those times, the author deserves kudos for providing a narrative that reminds readers the damaging effects of prejudice and how far-reaching even the smallest actions can be. 

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman

Wright, Barbara. (2012). Crow. New York: Random House.

CrowBased on the actual events of the 1898 Wilmington, NC, race riots, author Barbara Wright makes her debut into the children’s book arena. Eleven-year-old Moses Thomas is the grandson of a former slave, his Boo Nanny. His mother works for a rich white family but his Howard University-educated father is an alderman and also a reporter and business manager for The Daily Record, “the only Negro daily newspaper in the South.” Boo Nanny feels Moses needs to learn about life by living it while his father is arguing that education is the way to succeed in life. After a racially charged incident in town, Moses’ father responds and reacts through his journalism, while white supremacists are spurred into action that results in burning the newspaper office. The historical details provide the background for this story but the emotional and moral reactions to the events are what make this an unforgettable story. Teachers can use these historical photographs as slides with classes to show what the actual race riots looked like www.barbarawrightbooks.com/BW_Books/Crow_Photos.html. Extensive resources and lesson plan ideas are available on the author’s website at www.barbarawrightbooks.com/BW_Books/Crow_Teachers.html

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant


Purcell, Kim. (2012). Trafficked. New York: Viking. 

TraffickedAfter the violent death of her parents in Moldova, seventeen-year-old Hannah and her grandmother can barely make ends meet. When she unexpectedly receives an offer to work as a nanny in Los Angeles, she leaps at the chance to leave the country, planning to go to school and send back money to her grandmother. Before she knows it, she is trapped without proper papers, no money, and with limited skills or language. None of the promises that were made to her are coming true, and she is kept locked in the garage when she isn’t working. The only bright spot in her bleak existence comes when she catches a glimpse of the family next door as she takes out the trash late at night. The book reveals exactly how vulnerable individuals such as Hannah are, lured by false promises, and how easily their rights can be taken by those who bring them into the country illegally. Imprisoned by words and fear, they often have nowhere to turn and no way to escape what becomes slavery. Hannah’s story is told with empathy as her situation worsens with every page. 

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman

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