Kids’ books for social justice: learning and unlearning

“As a parent of a young child, I find that there are two kinds of opportunities for learning about social justice with kids. The first are the learning moments when an opportunity arises to talk to my kid about the impacts of discrimination and injustice—for example, talking about why we wear orange shirts on Orange Shirt Day.

The second are unlearning moments. These are the times when I am challenged to rethink my own biases and work on not imposing my own learned behaviours and beliefs on my kid. 

 For example, it’s important to me to respond supportively when he tells me he wants to wear a pretty dress for the Lunar New Year, and to talk about the fact that people use lots of different pronouns, not just he/him and she/her. One of the joys of parenting is learning to see the world (and myself) through new eyes!”

-West Coast LEAF Executive Director Kasari Govender

Photo of a baby standing at a book box pulling books out
Photo Credit:  by Brina Blum on Unsplash

To work towards social justice, we need to learn about the world and our place in it. 

And to make way for new learning, we often need to examine and challenge our most basic assumptions. What we view as common sense tends to flow from the dominant culture and to erase everybody else.

By the time most of us reach elementary or secondary school (or law school!), we have already absorbed a lot of assumptions that limit our ability to imagine and pursue a different world—a world where all of us are valued and supported.    

How can learning at the very start of life foster progress towards that better world rather than keeping us stuck in the belief that the way things are now is the way they must be?

Today is the World Day of Social Justice, a perfect opportunity to reflect on this question. In honour of the occasion, we would like to share a few of West Coast LEAF’s favourite children’s books to lay the foundation for a lifetime of justice-seeking.

Four books are displayed on a table top: "Ada Twist, Scientist", "A is for Activist", "Julian is a Mermaid", and "How Mamas Love their Babies".
Photo Credit: Alana Prochuk  

 Using beautiful collage art with vintage photographs, How Mamas Love Their Babies explores the many ways mothers work to provide for their kids, from cleaning hotels to flying airplanes to dancing in a strip club. All mothers in the book are recognized as loving and dedicated—and often very tired from all their hard work! This might be the first-ever book for young children to represent a mama who does sex work. Its author, Juniper Fitzgerald, is a mother, scholar, and former sex worker.

A is For Activist is a chunky, baby-friendly ABC book—with a difference. Its rhyming text and colourful pictures depict social justice movements and introduce words such as “Activist,” “Banner,” and “Co-op,” instead of “Alligator,” “Ball,” and “Cat.” Well, that’s not quite true, as there is also at least one cat to spot on every page! This book and is sure to inspire little activists and big ones with its loving portrayal of feminist, anti-racist, and LGBTQ struggles.

This recently released book is about a little girl who loses her Kôhkum’s fresh bannock and enlists the help of animal relatives to find it. Written by Dallas Hunt of Wapisewsipi (Swan River First Nation), a teacher, scholar, and writer who is passionate about language revitalization, the story incorporates many Cree words. The book even includes a recipe for the world-famous bannock!

This is the lyrical story—told mainly through images—of a kid named Julián who longs to be a mermaid with long hair and sparkly jewelry. It is rare and refreshing to find a children’s book focused on a gender non-conforming child of colour, particularly one whose family is unwaveringly supportive. Julián’s abuela helps him find his community at a mermaid parade: “Like you, mijo. Let’s join them.”

Ada Twist, Scientist is high on the goofy factor that kids love. It follows the ever-curious and adventuresome Ada Twist as she conducts a scientific investigation of a mysterious stink in her house and gets into all kinds of smelly trouble. Readers are sure to fall in love with Ada, a girl of colour with an inquiring mind and an indomitable spirit.

This gorgeous board book, illustrated by the renowned Cree-Métis artist Julie Flett, focuses on human connection, tradition, home: the aspects of our lives that bring us joy. Writer Monique Gray Smith, who has Cree, Lakota, and Scottish heritage, wanted the book to support the wellness of Indigenous kids and families and to prompt young ones to think about the things that fill their hearts with happiness.

Using simple, compelling language and rich illustrations, We March follows a family of four at the 1963 March on Washington. They rise early and join with others from their community to create protest signs and gather at the Washington Monument to hear Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous address. We March takes the perspective of one family while also highlighting the power of solidarity and collective struggle in the African-American civil rights movement.

Happy World Social Justice Day!  We hope these books will offer starting places for you and the little ones in your lives to learn and unlearn together—to clear space in your minds to dream of a radically transformed future, and to start building it.

Alana Prochuk manages education programs for West Coast LEAF. As a kid, she read all the time: when eating dinner, when walking, and probably even when she was supposed to be listening to the teacher.  The vast majority of the books she read back then revolved around middle-class white kids like her, and she appreciates book recommendations for lifelong unlearning. 

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