As the United States watches a new administration take over the White House after a contentious election year, a wave of social and political activism has swept the country. For generations, young people all over the world have taken an interest in social justice and found the courage to fight for their own rights and the rights of others. Here are eight inspiring middle grade books that prove you’re never too young to stand up for what you believe in and make a difference.
Paperback $13.81 | $18.95
The Breadwinner Trilogy, by Deborah Ellis
This series follows 11-year-old Parvana, who lives under Taliban rule in Afghanistan. When her father is arrested and her family is left without someone who can work or even shop for food, Parvana, forbidden to earn money as a girl, disguises herself as a boy to help her family survive. The Breadwinner is an empowering tale with a sharp and brave heroine.
Stella by Starlight, by Sharon M. Draper
Stella lives in the segregated south in 1932. Out, late one night, wandering around, Stella and her brother witness a Klu Klux Klan activity, starting an unwelcome chain of events in her otherwise sleepy town. With a compelling and courageous voice, Stella tells the story of how she and her community ban together against racism and injustice.
A Little Piece of Ground, by Elizabeth Laird
Living in occupied Palestine, twelve-year-old Karim is trapped in his home by a strict curfew. Wanting to play football with his friends, he decides to clear a rocky plot of land for a soccer field. When Karim is found outside during the next curfew, tensions rise, and his survival is at stake.
One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams Garcia
Set against the backdrop of the Black Panther movement, Delphine and her sisters visit their estranged mother in California, attend a Black Panther day camp, and discover their mother’s dedication to social justice issues. A moving, funny novel with a captivating voice, the sisters learn about their family and their country during one truly crazy summer.
Sylvia & Aki, by Winifred Conkling
Sylvia and Aki never expected to know one another, until their lives intersect on a Southern California farm and change the country forever. Based on true events, this book reveals the remarkable story of Mendez vs. Westminster School District, the California court case that desegregated schools for Latino children.
Operation Redwood, by S. Terrell French
When Julian is sent to stay with his disinterested aunt and uncle for four months, he discovers that his Uncle’s corporation plans to cut down a group of redwood trees at Big Tree Grove and decides to take a stand to save the trees. Perfect for the young environmentalists in your life, Operation Redwood is an adventurous and gripping tale as Julian and his friends hatch scheme after scheme to save these giants of nature.
Paperback $7.31 | $12.00
I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, by Nujood Ali with Dephine Mainoui
For more mature readers, this unforgettable autobiography tells the true story of Nujood Ali, a ten-year-old Yemeni girl married off at a young age, who decides to resist her abusive husband and get a divorce. A moving tale of tragedy, triumph, and courage, Nujood’s brave defiance has inspired generations of women and young girls.
Return to Sender, by Julia Alverez
After Tyler’s father is injured in a tractor accident, his family hires migrant workers from Mexico to save his Vermont farm. Tyler bonds with one of the worker’s daughters and navigates complicated moral choices in this award-winning novel about friendship, cooperation, and understanding.
More than 40 years ago, my seventh grade English teacher began the year by telling us that we were definitely not allowed to read “The Catcher in the Rye” because we weren’t “ready” for it. So naturally we all went out and read it immediately.
I told this story to my son when he was a seventh grader. I meant it as a funny story, and I pointed out that it had taken me years to appreciate that teacher’s pedagogic strategy. But then my son read the book himself right away. The mere long-ago echo of a possible ban was enough to make it interesting.
Adults have been known to worry a great deal about the possible corrupting influence of the printed word on children. If you look at the list of “frequently challenged children’s books” maintained by the American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom, you will see a wide range of touchy topics. (A book is “challenged” when someone tries to get it removed from a library or a school curriculum.)
Books can get challenged because they involve magic (Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling), or because they offend religious sensibilities. “A Wrinkle in Time,” by Madeleine L’Engle, has been challenged as both overly and insufficiently religious. Some books are challenged because they depict children behaving, well, childishly (Junie B. Jones, the heroine of a series of books by Barbara Park, gets in trouble for using words like “stupid.”) So adults worry that books may be bad for children’s morals and for their manners.
“I think it happens in the U.S. more than in some other countries,” said Leonard Marcus, a children’s book historian and critic. “There’s a squeamishness in the U.S. about body parts I think that goes back to the Puritan tradition, and has never completely died out.” He pointed to the controversy around Maurice Sendak’s 1970 children’s book “In the Night Kitchen,” which centered on the illustrations showing the naked — and anatomically correct — little boy whose nocturnal adventures make up the story.
“Anything with any sexual content is likely to attract attention and hostility,” said Joan Bertin, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. “Regardless of the nature of its message — whether it is deemed to be helpful or instructive or insightful in some way or just merely titillating — people don’t make that distinction.”
In fact, banned book lists can be a great resource for parents looking for books that teach kids about the world and themselves.
When your children read books that have been challenged or banned, you have a double opportunity as a parent; you can discuss the books themselves, and the information they provide, and you can also talk about why people might find them troubling. Here are a few books that are often challenged, yet present great opportunities for children to learn.
“IT’S PERFECTLY NORMAL: CHANGING BODIES, GROWING UP, SEX AND SEXUAL HEALTH” BY ROBIE HARRIS. Your children should have age-appropriate books to help them learn about bodies, and you can find plenty of those on any list of banned or challenged books. This book, with illustrations by Michael Emberley has become a classic of information about bodies, development, and sexuality. First published in 1994, it has now gone through several editions and updates. Ms. Harris, who also wrote “It’s So Amazing,” for younger children, and “It’s Not the Stork,” for those even younger, says most of the challenges to her books have revolved around issues of gay sexuality, though masturbation and contraception can also be flash points. (She is also a good friend, and I have helped at times with pediatric questions on some of these and other books.)
“CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS” BY DAV PILKEY. This series, which has long been legendary for its compelling power over small boys, has sometimes been at the top of the most-challenged list, perhaps in part because (surprise) there are many jokes about undergarments. These books will definitely help children appreciate that bodies and their functions can be profoundly funny and silly (actually, most children seem to know this anyway).
In addition to being attacked for their potty-mouthed humor, the “Captain Underpants” books have come under scrutiny because they are full of children playing tricks and disobeying and generally creating havoc; again, as with Junie B. Jones and her big mouth, there is this strange sense that children need stories about obedient model children.
“ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET” BY JUDY BLUME. In this widely beloved novel by Judy Blume, originally published in 1970, but still on the most-challenged list, the narrator is deeply preoccupied with the when and how of menstruation. An other Judy Blume perennial, “Deenie,” which came out in 1973, is about a young girl struggling with scoliosis and the brace she has to wear, but it was the most attacked of her books, Ms. Blume says, because it included references to masturbation.
Much of the controversy about Judy Blume’s books centered around information about puberty. “I think the feeling was, if my child doesn’t read this, my child won’t know about it or it’s not going to happen to my child,” said Ms. Blume. “I used to get up there on stage and say, I have news for you, your kids are going to go through puberty whether you like it or not, so why not help them — it’s going to happen whether they read my books or no books or somebody else’s book.”
Ms. Blume said that often when adult tourists come into Books & Books Key West, the independent bookstore that she helped found and where she often works, they want to tell her how much they learned from her novels. “It’s like, thank you, thank you, my mother never told me anything and I wouldn’t have known anything without your books.”
Ms. Blume said she recently sold a copy of “And Tango Makes Three,” the 2005 book by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell about two male penguins who hatch an egg and raise the baby together (you’ll find it on the list of challenged picture books) to a man who had just adopted a little girl with his male partner. “That’s my new thrill as a bookseller,” she said, “to put that right book into the hands of someone who appreciates what it’s saying.”
“I AM JAZZ” BY JESSICA HERTHEL AND JAZZ JENNINGS. This 2014 picture book about being transgender has been at the center of controversy recently with some schools coming under attack for using it in the curriculum, and others arguing that it can be helpful in teaching tolerance.
Some banned and challenged books upset adults because they teach children that the world is a complicated and sometimes disturbing place, in which good people sometimes behave badly and evil sometimes goes unpunished. This category stretches from modern young adult “problem novels” to great classics of literature. What makes a book “disturbing” often is tied to what makes it interesting or important or worth reading.
If you look over lists of frequently challenged young adult books, you’ll find everything from “The Chocolate War” by Robert Cormier (challenged for violence and for scenes of masturbation) to Anne Frank’s “Diary of a Young Girl” (challenged for sexual explicitness and for depressing tragic outcome). Also on the list — Alice Walker’s “Color Purple” (challenged for sexual explicitness and bad language), and of course, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which last month was removed from classrooms and libraries in schools in Accomack County, Va., along with “To Kill a Mockingbird,” when a parent complained that the books contained racial slurs.
Those are all books I came across and read on my own, growing up, and yes, they were disturbing, in places, and yes, there were things I didn’t completely understand, and basically skipped over to return to on later readings. (This is a very valuable skill possessed by most precociously bookish children.) I was never forbidden any book by my book-loving parents (we all know what the result would have been), and I don’t think I ever tried to stop my children from reading any book (we all know what the result would have been), though I occasionally said something like, “I think that one may creep you out, so maybe you want to wait.”
One of the jobs — and joys — of parenthood is recommending books at what you think are the right ages. On of the corollaries is that sometimes you get it wrong and your child is not ready — or is much farther along than you thought. Mostly, as a parent, you should be glad and proud if your child is a reader.
In fact, many of the books which are on the most-challenged lists are also frequently assigned as classics (and being assigned may be what gets you challenged). Common Sense Media has a nice list of books on this border between classic and controversial, suggesting parents and kids read them together and discuss why people find them disturbing.
As a parent, I was dazzled when my daughter’s high school summer reading assignment was to choose a book “out of your comfort zone,” however the student chose to define it. Because that is, of course, what literature does, and part of the glorious freedom (and human right) of literacy is the opportunity to journey with words well beyond your comfort zone.
Posted on February 8, 2016 by Katherine
From the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Greensboro sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, school integrations, the March on Washington, Freedom Summer, the Selma to Montgomery marches, we hear many stories about the pivotal events of the Civil Rights Movement, but so many are about the remarkable men in leadership positions at the time. But what of the women? What of the girls? Rosa Parks’ story is a powerful and important one, but surely hers can’t be the only story of courageous girls and women in the Civil Rights era.
In this post, we highlight numerous books for both children and teens that tell the stories of girls and women’s contributions to the monumental events of this period and to the national movement to bring full civil rights and equality under the law to all Americans. By sharing these stories of past champions of civil rights, we can inspire the current generation of Mighty Girls to be the champions of the future.
For more books about the experience of African-American girls and women throughout history, visit our African-American History & Historical Fiction collection.
HEROES OF THE MOVEMENT: BIOGRAPHIES
From Ruby Bridges, a 6-year-old child who desegregated the first elementary school in the South, to Rosa Parks, whose refusal to switch seats on a bus is only one example of her devotion to civil rights causes, there are many Mighty Girls and women who contributed to the Civil Rights Movement. These books will teach children and teens about these heroes and their dedication to justice.
When kids hear about Rosa Parks’ defiant refusal to move seats, they may think that it takes special courage to take that big a step — but the reality is that ordinary people can do incredible things! This title from Meltzer’s Ordinary People Change The World series shows how Parks’ willingness to stand up for justice began with small moments from childhood, but became a driving force in her life that made her a major figure for the Civil Rights movement. For more books about Parks, visit our Rosa Parks Collection.
To kids today, the idea of a child having to be escorted to school by armed guards to protect her from an angry mob is shocking, but 6-year-old Ruby Bridges faced exactly that in 1960. After a judge ordered that Ruby should attend the previously all-white William Frantz Elementary School, parents withdrew their children and held angry protests in front of the school. This compelling depiction of the child who became a civil rights hero just by attending first grade is now available in a special anniversary edition. For more books about Bridges, visit our Ruby Bridges Collection.
Paula Young Shelton, the daughter of Civil Rights activist Andrew Young, grew up in a world where everyone she knew was dedicated to the fight for equality. Even children knew the injustice of segregation — she recalls crying loudly when owners of a restaurant refused to seat her family in “my very first protest, my own little sit-in.” And as she grew, her understanding of her father’s cause grew, until it became her own and she too marched from Selma to Montgomery. In this unique child’s eye view of the Civil Rights struggle, Shelton balances honesty about the struggles her father and his friends faced with the sense of hope that drove them forward.
Many people know her only as Coretta Scott King, but she holds her own place in Civil Rights history for her work both before and after her husband’s death. In this poetic picture book, Ntozake Shange captures her childhood — including defining moments like walking five miles to the colored school while the white kids’ bus showered her with dust — to the marches at Selma and Washington, and ends with stirring images of protesters set to lines from the gospel song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round.” A prose biography at the end encourages kids to learn more. This evocative book is a powerful way to introduce this key figure of history. Kids can learn more in Coretta Scott King: I Kept On Marching (ages 7 to 10). For more books about King, visit our Coretta Scott King Collection.
In this book, Ruby Bridges tells her own story in simplified text for newly independent readers! With carefully chosen vocabulary suitable for developing readers, Bridges provides a clear explanation of segregation and how it affected everyone, including school children, in the 1950s. Historical photographs of Bridges herself, as well as signs for segregated restaurants and protest signs objecting to desegregating schools, bring the topic to life. Kids will be amazed to imagine that Bridges was learning to read — just like them — when she had to walk past those angry mobs to go to school. For more books about Bridges, visit our Ruby Bridges Collection.
It wasn’t just the US that wrestled with segregation and civil rights; Canada has its own civil rights heroes, among them this savvy businesswoman who found herself the center of the fight for equality when she sat down in a movie theater. When Viola Desmond bought her ticket in 1946, she was arrested after refusing to move from the main floor to the balcony. The varying perspectives in this book capture the emotional intensity of Desmond’s trial, and Richard Rudnicki’s illustration depict her as a confident woman who was determined not to give way.
Audrey was only 9 years old, but that didn’t mean she didn’t listen when the grown-ups talked about wiping out Birmingham’s segregation laws. So when she heard them say that they were going to picket those white stores! March to protest those unfair laws! Fill the jails! — she stepped right up and said, “I’ll do it!” This newly release picture book biography of the youngest person to be arrested for a civil rights protest in Birmingham proves that there’s no such thing as being too young to make a difference.
It’s one thing to hear Ruby Bridges’ story in the third person, but in this remarkable book, you get to hear her story through her own eyes. In simple language, Bridges recounts the experience of simultaneously knowing that she was part of a bigger era in history, yet still being a child who didn’t fully understand why people were so angry at her. With additional material including photographs, sidebars about Bridges’ influence in popular culture, and an update on her later life and civil rights work, this volume creates a newly complex portrait of this iconic figure. For more books about Bridges, visit our Ruby Bridges Collection.
The “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement” gets her own entry in the popular Who Was…? biography series! This accessible biography introduces the influences in Rosa Parks’ life that led her to devote her life to the cause of civil rights. Useful sidebars and timelines help kids understand both Parks’ work and the overarching progress of the Civil Rights movement. Engaging and accessible, it’s a great way to introduce middle grade readers to this inspiring figure. For more books about Parks, visit our Rosa Parks Collection.
Ten women who contributed to the fight for equal rights, from Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman during the time of slavery to Rosa Parks and Fannie Hamer during the Civil Rights era, each get their own profile in this inspiring book. Andrea Davis Pinkney’s text bursts with admiration for these dedicated campaigners for abolition, desegregation, and women’s rights, while her use of colloquialisms and vivid description will have kids flipping the pages to find out what happens. Each profile is accented by a dramatic, stylized portrait from Alcorn. This lively book will bring history to life for young readers.
“I am sick and tired of being sick and tired”, Hamer once famously proclaimed, and that sentiment drove her to be a champion of civil rights for over two decades. Her booming oratorical voice and her signature song “This Little Light of Mine” became a key part of the movement, including the Freedom Summer of 1964; her speech at the Democratic National Convention aired on national news despite interference from President Johnson and spurred people to action. Told in the first person, this book’s lyrical text and collage illustrations depict the perseverance and courage of this heroic woman.
When the Little Rock Nine defied their state’s governor to integrate Central High, Elizabeth Eckford didn’t get the message to meet the group — so she faced entering the school alone. A local photographer snapped an iconic photograph of a girl jeering at Elizabeth as she stoically walked through the protesting crowd, and that photograph focused the world’s attention — and disapproval — on Little Rock’s resistance to desegregation. Shelley Tougas’ tale of determination and bravery ends with an important postscript to the story: decades later, Elizabeth and Hazel Bryan Massery, the screaming girl in the picture, met and achieved a reconciliation. Touching and heartwrenching, this book captures the power of a single person’s photograph to bring change.
Tweens can learn Rosa Parks’ story in her own words in this compelling autobiography! Parks’ word provide a fresh take on both her famous act of defiance on a Montgomery bus and the many other contributions she made to the Civil Rights movement. In her stirring story, she tells of a childhood listening warily for members of the Ku Klux Klan in the night; time as a secretary for the NAACP; and the experience of becoming a symbol to a nation-wide movement. This book provides a more complex picture of both Parks herself and of the Civil Rights movement as a whole. For more resources about Parks, visit our Rosa Parks Collection.
Marian Anderson never intended to become a symbol of equal rights; she just knew that she had to sing. But in the 1920s and 1930s, social constraints limited the careers of black performers. Anderson’s voice, though, could not be silenced and she achieved international acclaim despite segregation in the arts. But thanks to the help of influential admirers — including Eleanor Roosevelt — her landmark concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 signaled a change for this history of art. This well-researched and expertly told book includes a bibliography, a discography, and an excellent examination of the cultural and social context of Anderson’s life turned her into a civil rights icon.
Nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin did the same — but instead rather than receiving support, she found herself shunned by classmates and dismissed by community leaders. And yet she remained determined to effect change, and a year later, she challenged Jim Crow laws again by becoming one of the key plaintiffs in Browder vs. Gayle, a landmark court case. This National Book Award winner shines a light on an important but little-known figure from Civil Rights history.
Lynda Lowery was the youngest marcher in the 1965 Selma protest, but her youth never protected her; she had been arrested eleven times, and sent to jail nine times, before her fifteenth birthday. This gripping memoir captures the experience of being a teenage protester in Selma, from the constant threats of violence to the inhumane “sweatbox” steel cell where she and twenty other girls were imprisoned until they all passed out. And yet, Lowery’s memoir is one of home and optimism: while she doesn’t shy away from the realities of what protesters faced, she highlights that she suffered these ordeals in order to change American history for the better.
Melba Patillo turned sixteen in 1957, the same year that she became an unwitting warrior for desegregation. As one of the Little Rock Nine, she faced a firestorm of opposition as she entered the previously all-white Central High. In a harrowing ordeal, Melba faced everything from taunts to threats to an attack with acid that injured her eyes, but she never gave up her courage or her dignity. “Searing” is exactly the right description this affecting story of friendship, faith, and personal commitment.
FIGHTING FOR JUSTICE: HISTORICAL FICTION
In order to understand the impact the Civil Rights Movement has had on American history, kids need to learn what life was like before these hard-fought changes. These works of historical fiction depict life during segregation, as well as the fierce resistance that civil rights campaigners and groundbreakers faced every day.
Belle is looking forward to an exciting summer: Grandmama Coles is touring the South with a swing jazz band, and Belle gets to come! But while the places she visits are new, some things are just the same… like the segregation Belle and Grandmama face at every stop. When Grandmama sings, though, everyone comes to listen, and Grandmama says she can see a day when people are united all the time. “That’s the kind of world I want for you,” she tells Belle. This book doesn’t shy away from the realities of segregation, but the optimistic tone highlights the power of art to bring people together.
When Connie and her mother go shopping at Woolworth’s, they can have a soda as a treat — but they have to drink them standing up, since African Americans aren’t allowed at the lunch counter. In fact, all over town there are signs telling Connie where she can’t go. Then, one day, her father says that Dr. King is coming to town, and soon Connie gets to see her older brother and sister joining the sit-in protests, in hopes that someday, anyone can sit down where they please. Carole Weatherford perfectly captures a child’s perspective, but still conveys an important message about the power of peaceful protest.
Clover’s mother has always warned her against crossing the fence to the side of town where the white people live. But when she’s intrigued by Anna, her free-spirited white neighbor, the two girls come up with the perfect solution: neither of them has to cross the fence if both of them sit on top of it. Soon, all the children are gathering to play together, resting on top of the fence, and agreeing that “Someday somebody’s going to come along and knock this old fence down.” This poetic story celebrates the power of children to look past prejudice.
A little girl and her sister sneak out of the house, down the street to where men and women are gathering for a protest march. In the air is the sweet smell of roses; in their minds, the sweet hope of justice and equality. Inspired by the many children who also participated in protests and marches, Johnson has written a poetic tribute to the spirit of optimism that pervaded the Civil Rights movement, perfectly accented with Velasquez’ charcoal illustrations, where small pops of color illuminate key details like the ribbon on a teddy bear, the roses, and the American flag.
Today is election day, and nothing — not even the steep hill she has to climb to get to the polling station — will keep 100-year-old Lillian from placing her ballot. As she walks, she remembers the path through history that resulting in her path to the polls: her great-grandfather, voting for the first time after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment; her parents, trying and failing to register to vote; and her own participation, many years ago, in a protest march from Selma to Montgomery. This vivid story of one woman’s determination provides an apt metaphor for the determination of those who fought for equal rights for all.
Ella Mae is excited when she outgrows her hand-me-down shoes — for the first time, she’ll get a new pair of her very own! But when they go to the shoe store, Ella Mae and her mother discover the shop owner only allows white people to buy. Determined to fight back, Ella Mae and her friend Charlotte create their own business, gathering used shoes and repairing and polishing them to perfection. And at their shoe sale, the African American members of their community get to “try on all the shoes they want.” This story provides an introduction to the concept of segregation, but also a powerful message of optimism.
In this story-within-a-story, a granddaughter listens raptly as her grandmother tells her a tale of the segregated South. As a child, she saw a water fountain labelled with a sign reading “Whites only.” Innocently, she misinterpreted the sign to mean that she could only drink if she stood at the fountain in her white socks, so she kicked off her shoes… only to get pulled away by an angry white man, threatening to whip her. However, the African American adults nearby rallied to her aid, one by one kicking off their own shoes and taking their own deep drinks from the fountain. The depiction of segregation in this story is simplified to make it more accessible to young readers, but the message is clear: judging people by the color of their skin is as silly as judging them by the color of their socks.
After lots of hard work, Ruth’s family have bought a car! Now they can take an adventurous journey from their home in Chicago to grandma’s home in Alabama. But the roadtrip becomes more difficult than they expected when they discover that many gas stations, hotels, and restaurants won’t serve black people. Fortunately, a kind gas station attendant introduces them to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guidebook listing places across the country where their family will be welcomed. With The Green Book in Ruth’s hands, the family can finally look forward to the joyful reunion. This fascinating and little-known piece of history makes a unique subject for a picture book; an endnote includes more information about The Green Book.
There’s talk in town about the new sixth-grade teacher at Shady Creek. Word is spreading quickly — Mrs. Smyre is like no other teacher anyone has ever seen around these parts. She’s the first African American teacher. It’s 1969, and while black folks and white folks are cordial, having a black teacher at an all-white school is a strange new happening. For 12-year-old Sarah Beth, there are so many unanswered questions. What is all this talk about Freedom Riders and school integration? Why can’t she and Ruby become best friends? And who says school isn’t for anybody who wants to learn — or teach? In a world filled with uncertainty, one very special teacher shows her young students and the adults in their lives that change invites unexpected possibilities.
With the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, Dawnie’s world is turned upside down. Now, she has to attend a previously all-white school — alone, without her friends beside her — and face the harsh realities of angry reactions to enforced integration. Dawnie struggles to prove that she deserves the opportunity for a good education, but when her father loses his job and her brother is bullied, she questions whether it is all worth it. Fortunately, Dawnie has the determination to face these challenges head on, in hopes that others won’t face them in the future. This book from the popular Dear America historical fiction series captures the reality of what many students faced every day on the journey to school integration.
On the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that ended legal school segregation, this astounding book was published in remembrance of the struggle to achieve this milestone of civil rights. Acclaimed author Toni Morrison uses archival photographs as the inspiration for a fictionalized account of the lives of children during the time of “separate but equal” schooling. By focusing on ordinary people, including children, and their roles in ending school segregation, Morrison has created a much needed reminder of the importance of this moment in American history.
Glory has always looked forward to celebrating her July 4th birthday at the community pool. But in 1964, the summer she turns 12, that proves to be complicated. The town is in an uproar: Yankee “freedom people” are insisting that the pool be desegregated, and in response, the town has closed the pool “for repairs” indefinitely. As the conflict continues, and Glory comes of age, she begins to look beyond her own situation and see the closure of the pool in the context of the broader world. This memorable story captures the thoughts and feelings of a girl caught on the cusp of adulthood and facing true injustice she had never noticed before.
It’s 1958, and twelve-year-old Marlee struggles at school, friendless and shy to the point of silence outside of her own family… until she meets Liz, the new girl at school. Fearless and determined, Liz knows just what to say to quiet the resident mean girl and to encourage Marlee to find her voice. Then, one day, Liz is gone; rumor has it that she was only passing as white. But Marlee decides that she doesn’t care: Liz is her best friend, and Marlee will do anything — even face the danger that comes with standing up against segregation — to have her friend back by her side. Heartfelt and satisfying, this story of friendship and the fight for justice will make young readers cheer.
12-year-old Sylvia is an honor student who is both thrilled and scared to be selected as one of the students to integrate Central High School in 1957 Little Rock. Unlike her older brother, she doesn’t want to be a hero; she just wants a chance to learn. And as the racism in Little Rock explodes — and even members of Sylvia’s own community speak out against integration — Sylvia starts to wonder if she would be better off in the black-only school, focusing on getting to college instead of changing the world. With an ending that will surprise young readers, this book is sure to prompt discussion, beginning with the question, “What would I have done?”
By JESSICA LAHEY date published JANUARY 29, 2015 10:42 AM date updated
January 29, 2015
A question I’ve been getting a lot recently, both via email and in person, is this: How can I help my perfectionist child worry less, and understand that it’s normal to make mistakes?
“Perfectionism,” in its dictionary definition, is simply, “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable,” but the word carries a powerful double meaning in our achievement-obsessed culture. Parents shake their heads and sigh with frustration in conferences, describing their children as “perfectionists” with an unmistakable note of pride in their voice.
Aye, there’s the rub — we all know perfection is an unreasonable burden to place on our children, but we also reward them when they strive for that perfection. Whether it germinates in a child’s own mind, is sowed in the high expectations of parents, or grafted on from our larger societal expectations, perfectionism robs children of opportunities to become stronger, more adventurous thinkers.
I first met Victoria when she was in sixth grade. She showed up for school every day nearly incandescent with happiness. She loved school, adored her friends and was genuinely excited about learning. Over time, however, her fear and anxiety about not measuring up — to her own high standards, her parents’ hopes and her peers’ high praise — began to dull that enthusiasm. Her struggles with perfectionism culminated in a near-paralysis in my writing class, social anxiety, and an eating disorder that threatened her physical health and emotional stability in high school. I asked her to describe what it feels like to struggle with unreasonable and unrelenting high expectations:
My perfectionism feels like an assembly-line supervisor whose job it is to ensure that every part of me is flawless, without any sign of weakness. Writing my graduation speech in your class, for example, felt so big, so critical, that it became impossible. When I entered high school, my body felt like the most flawed part of me, so I felt the need to align it with the rest of my “perfect” image of myself. It’s weirdly satisfying to punish yourself with exercise or restricted food while at the same time becoming more “perfect”; it’s a twisted cycle. My perfectionism still gets in the way of forming friendships, too. I set out looking for the “perfect” friend and then act perfect around her so as to create what I think will be an ideal relationship.
I asked Martin Antony, professor of psychology at Ryerson University and an author of “When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough,” to give parents and teachers advice on how to help kids like Victoria manage their perfectionism, and develop a healthier perspective on their worries.
In a phone interview, Dr. Antony described two forms of perfectionism. The first type, the kind that manifests as extreme attention to details, lists, order and arbitrary rules, is associated with obsessive compulsive personality disorder. The second type, Dr. Antony said, “is the tendency to set really high standards that you can’t possibly meet, and then judge your worth based on whether or not you meet those standards. The need to get all A’s, or the need to always make a good impression on others, for example. This type of perfectionism is more likely to be associated with anxiety and depression.” If the perfectionism causes significant distress or impairment in day-to-day functioning, Dr. Antony suggested professional help. At more moderate levels, parents and teachers can do a lot to help:
Expose worries. While it can be tempting to avoid upsetting kids, it’s important to get them talking about their worries, and to help them develop an emotional vocabulary about those concerning situations or activities. Once they open up about what makes them anxious, parents and teachers should repeatedly expose them to those triggers. This “exposure therapy” works particularly well for children with social anxiety, Dr. Antony said.
Change perspective. Dr. Antony suggests that parents or teachers help kids change the way they understand their perfectionistic thinking. Help kids understand that the dire consequences they envision are one possible outcome of many. Alternately, practice looking at worrisome situations from other people’s perspectives. Ask “What would Dad think if his pencil broke while he was working?” or “How might your friend Eli react if he got some of his homework problems wrong?”
Examine the evidence. Once kids are able to view their dire predictions as guesses or from the perspective of other people, help them gather evidence about the real-life consequences of those anxiety-fueled predictions. One way to do this is through engaging in what Dr. Antony calls “behavioral experiments.” He explained, “some people are convinced that if their towels aren’t straight, or their books aren’t in alphabetical order, or they pronounce something the wrong way, that something terrible will happen. So we’ll have them go out and try that, see what happens, to challenge that perfectionistic thinking.”
View failure more broadly. Try to help kids see mistakes “as an opportunity to improve performance, or even to learn that a particular activity is not for you,” Dr. Antony said. “Sure, there are some cases when you make a mistake and there are negative consequences, but there are also a lot of cases in which scary, worrisome predictions may not come true.”
When my daughter was three years old, I taught her the word “stereotype.” She was just beginning to string words together into sentences, had determined that pink was definitely not her favorite color, and asked (demanded, actually) why all the “girl stuff” was pink and the “boy stuff” was blue. Because there’s no three-year-old version for a word describing why colors are gendered in our society, I figured that planting the seed might yield fruit soon enough. And somewhat surprisingly, I was correct.
Who’s Different and What’s Fair
As a society and within our educational institutions, discussions about bias, diversity, discrimination, and social justice tend to happen in middle and high schools. We’ve somehow decided that little kids can’t understand these complex topics, or we want to delay exposing them to injustices as long as possible (even though not all children have the luxury of being shielded from injustice).
However, young children have a keen awareness of and passion for fairness. They demand right over wrong, just over unjust. And they notice differences without apology or discomfort.
Racial identity and attitudes begin to develop in children at a young age. Two- and three-year-olds become aware of the differences between boys and girls, may begin noticing obvious physical disabilities, become curious about skin color and hair color/texture, and may also be aware of ethnic identity. By the time they’re five and entering kindergarten, children begin to identify with an ethnic group to which they belong and are able to explore the range of differences within and between racial/ethnic groups. In terms of bias, by age three or four, white children in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Europe show preferences for other white children. Further, current research suggests that children as young as three years old, when exposed to prejudice and racism, tend to embrace and accept it even though they might not understand the feelings.
The good news is that bias can be unlearned or reversed if we’re exposed to diversity in a positive way. Harnessing young children’s desire for fairness and using it as opening to discuss bias and discrimination is not a hard leap, but one that needs to be made explicitly and with instruction. They are also not afraid to comment on observed differences. Decades of research indicate that even if parents and adults are not talking about race or other differences, children still notice differences and prejudice. If we choose not to teach or talk about it, children’s notions about race and differences will go unchecked and likely become further entrenched in their minds.
It’s also important that adults in children’s lives do not perpetuate the idea that we should be “colorblind” to racial differences or shush them when they notice someone with a disability. Sometimes adults do this out of their own discomfort with talking about differences, or because they think noticing differences somehow makes you biased. We want to encourage children to notice differences because they do so naturally, yet at the same time, honor people’s identities without judging or discriminating based on differences. In other words, noticing people’s differences is natural, but when adults assign judgments or value to these differences, bias can develop in young children.
5 Elementary Strategies
Elementary school is a time ripe for these discussions. Provided that teachers have the right tools and resources and use developmentally appropriate language and activities, teaching about these concepts can be rich and engaging for children, laying the groundwork for more sophisticated understanding when they move into the tween and teen years.
Here are five concrete ways of bringing discussions about bias and diversity into the elementary classroom:
1. Use children’s literature.
There’s a wealth of children’s books that can be read aloud and independently to approach the topic of bias, diversity, and social justice. Whether it’s about people who are different than your students (window books), an affirmation of their identity (mirror books), or one that exposes bias or shares stories of people who stood up to injustice, reading books is a core part of the elementary classroom curriculum and therefore a seamless way to address the topic.
2. Use the news media.
Find topics and news stories that bring forth these themes, discuss them in the classroom, and build other reading, writing, social studies, and math lessons around them. Relevant news stories that highlight bias and especially those where someone stood up to it and justice prevailed — like the nine-year-old boy who was banned from bringing his My Little Pony backpack to school because it was the source of bullying, or the story ofMisty Copeland becoming the first African American appointed as a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater in its 75-year history — are terrific teachable moments.
3. Teach anti-bias lessons.
We know that all educators face a plethora of daily demands. But because children’s social and emotional development is a key part of the elementary curriculum and because much of the teasing, name-calling, and bullying is identity-based, it’s helpful for the classroom climate to set aside a time every week for an explicit lesson on this topic. Social and emotional skill development lessons are the foundation, and then teachers can move to lessons on identity, differences, bias, and how bias and bullying can be addressed individually and institutionally.
4. Give familiar examples.
Take advantage of children’s interest in books, TV shows, toys, and video games, and use them as opportunities to explore diversity, bias, and social justice. Whether it’s about toys and gender stereotypes, a New Jersey girlwho was tired of seeing books only about white boys and dogs, or discussing a new line of dolls with disabilities, you can provide openings for children to see how bias takes place in media and the everyday objects that they use.
5. Explore solutions.
Re-think the concept of “helping others” (through service learning projects or other volunteer opportunities) to include discussions with children about the inequities that contribute to the problem and consider actions that can address it. For example, while it’s useful to provide food to homeless people, we want to deepen the conversation to convey a social justice perspective and a wider lens with children. Therefore, discuss the stigma and stereotypes of homeless people, learn about unfair housing policies, and reflect on solutions that will reverse the problem in a lasting way and encourage students to take action.
Recently, several prominent national education organizations (including theNEA, AERA, AFT, and NCTE) have called for addressing equity in schools and society, specifically recommending that we need to highlight the “systemic patterns of inequity — racism and educational injustice — that impacts our students,” and that educators and school leaders “receive the tools, training, and support they need to build curricula with substantive exploration of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination.”
We need to begin this process with our youngest hearts and minds in order to have a lasting impact. What are your thoughts? How do you approach social justice issues with elementary students? Please share in the comments section below.
If there’s one thing many parents want more than to lead happy, successful lives, it’s to make sure their kids lead happy, successful lives.
Now a former dean of Stanford University freshmen, Julie Lythcott-Haims, says many parents’ hearts may be in the right place—but they’re screwing things up big-time nonetheless.
In her New York Times bestseller How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, Lythcott-Haims says the problem is a phenomenon we’ve been hearing about since the 1990s—one that’s now crashing hard into American society: helicopter parenting.
She summed up her experience in an interview with the Los Angeles Times:
“Working with the quote-unquote best and brightest, I was seeing more and more [students] who seemed less and less capable of doing the stuff of life. They were incredibly accomplished in the transcript and GPA sense but less with their own selves, evidenced by how frequently they communicated with a parent, texting multiple times a day, needing a parent to tell them what to do.
“I’d been scolding other people for five or six years. One night I started cutting my 10-year-old son’s meat and realized I was enabling dependence on me. I could see the link between parenting and why my college students, though very accomplished academically, were rather existentially impotent.”
Ouch! That may be the most original and cutting insult I’ve ever heard.
What’s more, Lythcott-Haims said it applies largely to some of the most privileged kids in our society. Students from less affluent families—who statistically speaking might be more likely to join the military or work while attending community college—seemed to her to be at least as self-sufficient as their predecessors.
But the students she was dealing with as dean of freshmen students, who were attending one of the most elite universities in the world, and who were more likely to graduate and have amazing opportunities, were overwhelmed and unable to function as real adults.
No phone calls?
For example, Lythcott-Haims cited the idea that many Millennials—using her own daughters as examples—seem “paralyzed” by the idea of having to make a simple phone call, because they never had to do so while growing up.
(Her solution with her daughters was to give them tasks that could be resolved only by making phone calls—“because you need to know how to talk to a stranger on a phone and ask a question.”)
So what do we do about this? Her advice for parents, she said in a speech reported by the Chicago Tribune, is to “put ourselves out of a job” by doing a few specific things:
Remember the difference between “I” and “we.”
“If you say ‘we’ when you mean your son or your daughter—as in, ‘We’re on the travel soccer team’—it’s a hint to yourself that you are intertwined in a way that is unhealthy.”
Be your kids’ advocate, not their lawyer.
“If you’re arguing with teachers and principals and coaches and umpires all the time, it’s a sign you’re a little too invested. When we’re doing all the arguing, we are not teaching our kids to advocate for themselves.”
Remember that their work is their work.
Don’t do their homework, she said. “Teach them the skills they’ll need in real life, and give them enough leash to practice those skills on their own. … Chores build a sense of accountability.”
Bottom line, let them try things—and fail.
“We want so badly to help them by shepherding them from milestone to milestone and by shielding them from failure and pain. But overhelping causes harm,” Lythcott-Haimes wrote in How to Raise an Adult. “It can leave young adults without the strengths of skill, will and character that are needed to know themselves and to craft a life.”
Here’s a link to the book 100 Questions & Answers About Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) In Women And Girls by Dr. Patricia Quinn
But it’s not just online anymore. She finds herself behaving the same way with a novel.
“It’s like your eyes are passing over the words but you’re not taking in what they say,” she confessed. “When I realize what’s happening, I have to go back and read again and again.”
To cognitive neuroscientists, Handscombe’s experience is the subject of great fascination and growing alarm. Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.
“I worry that the superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing,” said Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist and the author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.”
If the rise of nonstop cable TV news gave the world a culture of sound bites, the Internet, Wolf said, is bringing about an eye byte culture. Time spent online — on desktop and mobile devices — was expected to top five hours per day in 2013 for U.S. adults, according to eMarketer, which tracks digital behavior. That’s up from three hours in 2010.
Word lovers and scientists have called for a “slow reading” movement, taking a branding cue from the “slow food” movement. They are battling not just cursory sentence galloping but the constant social network and e-mail temptations that lurk on our gadgets — the bings and dings that interrupt “Call me Ishmael.”
Researchers are working to get a clearer sense of the differences betweenonline and print reading — comprehension, for starters, seems better with paper — and are grappling with what these differences could mean not only for enjoying the latest Pat Conroy novel but for understanding difficult material at work and school. There is concern that young children’s affinity and often mastery of their parents’ devices could stunt the development of deep reading skills.
The brain is the innocent bystander in this new world. It just reflects how we live.
“The brain is plastic its whole life span,” Wolf said. “The brain is constantly adapting.”
Wolf, one of the world’s foremost experts on the study of reading, was startled last year to discover her brain was apparently adapting, too. After a day of scrolling through the Web and hundreds of e-mails, she sat down one evening to read Hermann Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game.”
“I’m not kidding: I couldn’t do it,” she said. “It was torture getting through the first page. I couldn’t force myself to slow down so that I wasn’t skimming, picking out key words, organizing my eye movements to generate the most information at the highest speed. I was so disgusted with myself.”
The brain was not designed for reading. There are no genes for reading like there are for language or vision. But spurred by the emergence of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Phoenician alphabet, Chinese paper and, finally, the Gutenberg press, the brain has adapted to read.
Before the Internet, the brain read mostly in linear ways — one page led to the next page, and so on. Sure, there might be pictures mixed in with the text, but there didn’t tend to be many distractions. Reading in print even gave us a remarkable ability to remember where key information was in a book simply by the layout, researchers said. We’d know a protagonist died on the page with the two long paragraphs after the page with all that dialogue.
The Internet is different. With so much information, hyperlinked text, videos alongside words and interactivity everywhere, our brains form shortcuts to deal with it all — scanning, searching for key words, scrolling up and down quickly. This is nonlinear reading, and it has been documented in academic studies. Some researchers believe that for many people, this style of reading is beginning to invade when dealing with other mediums as well.
“We’re spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scrolling and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habits of jumping, clicking, linking is just ingrained in you,” said Andrew Dillon, a University of Texas professor who studies reading. “We’re in this new era of information behavior, and we’re beginning to see the consequences of that.”
Brandon Ambrose, a 31-year-old Navy financial analyst who lives in Alexandria, knows of those consequences.
His book club recently read “The Interestings,” a best-seller by Meg Wolitzer. When the club met, he realized he had missed a number of the book’s key plot points. It hit him that he had been scanning for information about one particular aspect of the book, just as he might scan for one particular fact on his computer screen, where he spends much of his day.
“When you try to read a novel,” he said, “it’s almost like we’re not built to read them anymore, as bad as that sounds.”
Ramesh Kurup noticed something even more troubling. Working his way recently through a number of classic authors — George Eliot, Marcel Proust, that crowd — Kurup, 47, discovered that he was having trouble reading long sentences with multiple, winding clauses full of background information. Online sentences tend to be shorter, and the ones containing complicated information tend to link to helpful background material.
“In a book, there are no graphics or links to keep you on track,” Kurup said.
It’s easier to follow links, he thinks, than to keep track of so many clauses in page after page of long paragraphs.
Kurup’s observation might sound far-fetched, but told about it, Wolf did not scoff. She offered more evidence: Several English department chairs from around the country have e-mailed her to say their students are having trouble reading the classics.
“They cannot read ‘Middlemarch.’ They cannot read William James or Henry James,” Wolf said. “I can’t tell you how many people have written to me about this phenomenon. The students no longer will or are perhaps incapable of dealing with the convoluted syntax and construction of George Eliot and Henry James.”
Wolf points out that she’s no Luddite. She sends e-mails from her iPhone as often as one of her students. She’s involved with programs to send tablets to developing countries to help children learn to read. But just look, she said, at Twitter and its brisk 140-character declarative sentences.
“How much syntax is lost, and what is syntax but the reflection of our convoluted thoughts?” she said. “My worry is we will lose the ability to express or read this convoluted prose. Will we become Twitter brains?”
Wolf’s next book will look at what the digital world is doing to the brain, including looking at brain-scan data as people read both online and in print. She is particularly interested in comprehension results in screen vs. print reading.
Already, there is some intriguing research that looks at that question. A 2012 Israeli study of engineering students — who grew up in the world of screens — looked at their comprehension while reading the same text on screen and in print when under time pressure to complete the task.
The students believed they did better on screen. They were wrong. Their comprehension and learning was better on paper.
Researchers say that the differences between text and screen reading should be studied more thoroughly and that the differences should be dealt with in education, particularly with school-aged children. There are advantages to both ways of reading. There is potential for a bi-literate brain.
“We can’t turn back,” Wolf said. “We should be simultaneously reading to children from books, giving them print, helping them learn this slower mode, and at the same time steadily increasing their immersion into the technological, digital age. It’s both. We have to ask the question: What do we want to preserve?”
Wolf is training her own brain to be bi-literate. She went back to the Hesse novel the next night, giving herself distance, both in time and space, from her screens.
“I put everything aside. I said to myself, ‘I have to do this,’ ” she said. “It was really hard the second night. It was really hard the third night. It took me two weeks, but by the end of the second week I had pretty much recovered myself so I could enjoy and finish the book.”
Then she read it again.
“I wanted to enjoy this form of reading again,” Wolf said. “When I found myself, it was like I recovered. I found my ability again to slow down, savor and think.”
As an uncle I’m inconsistent about too many things.
Birthdays, for example. My nephew Mark had one on Sunday, and I didn’t remember — and send a text — until 10 p.m., by which point he was asleep.
School productions, too. I saw my niece Bella in “Seussical: The Musical” but missed “The Wiz.” She played Toto, a feat of trans-species transmogrification that not even Meryl, with all of her accents, has pulled off.
But about books, I’m steady. Relentless. I’m incessantly asking my nephews and nieces what they’re reading and why they’re not reading more. I’m reliably hurling novels at them, and also at friends’ kids. I may well be responsible for 10 percent of all sales of “The Fault in Our Stars,” a teenage love story to be released as a movie next month. Never have I spent money with fewer regrets, because I believe in reading — not just in its power to transport but in its power to transform.
So I was crestfallen on Monday, when a new report by Common Sense Media came out. It showed that 30 years ago, only 8 percent of 13-year-olds and 9 percent of 17-year-olds said that they “hardly ever” or never read for pleasure. Today, 22 percent of 13-year-olds and 27 percent of 17-year-olds say that. Fewer than 20 percent of 17-year-olds now read for pleasure “almost every day.” Back in 1984, 31 percent did. What a marked and depressing change.
I know, I know: This sounds like a fogy’s crotchety lament. Or, worse, like self-interest. Professional writers arguing for vigorous reading are dinosaurs begging for a last breath. We’re panhandlers with a better vocabulary.
But I’m coming at this differently, as someone persuaded that reading does things — to the brain, heart and spirit — that movies, television, video games and the rest of it cannot.
There’s research on this, and it’s cited in a recent article in The Guardian by Dan Hurley, who wrote that after “three years interviewing psychologists and neuroscientists around the world,” he’d concluded that “reading and intelligence have a relationship so close as to be symbiotic.”
In terms of smarts and success, is reading causative or merely correlated? Which comes first, “The Hardy Boys” or the hardy mind? That’s difficult to unravel, but several studies have suggested that people who read fiction, reveling in its analysis of character and motivation, are more adept at reading people, too: at sizing up the social whirl around them. They’re more empathetic. God knows we need that.
Late last year, neuroscientists at Emory University reported enhanced neural activity in people who’d been given a regular course of daily reading, which seemed to jog the brain: to raise its game, if you will.
Some experts have doubts about that experiment’s methodology, but I’m struck by how its findings track something that my friends and I often discuss. If we spend our last hours or minutes of the night reading rather than watching television, we wake the next morning with thoughts less jumbled, moods less jangled. Reading has bequeathed what meditation promises. It has smoothed and focused us.
Maybe that’s about the quiet of reading, the pace of it. At Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City, whose students significantly outperform most peers statewide, the youngest kids all learn and play chess, in part because it hones “the ability to focus and concentrate,” said Sean O’Hanlon, who supervises the program. Doesn’t reading do the same?
Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, framed it as a potentially crucial corrective to the rapid metabolism and sensory overload of digital technology. He told me that it can demonstrate to kids that there’s payoff in “doing something taxing, in delayed gratification.” A new book of his, “Raising Kids Who Read,” will be published later this year.
Before talking with him, I arranged a conference call with David Levithanand Amanda Maciel. Both have written fiction in the young adult genre, whose current robustness is cause to rejoice, and they rightly noted that the intensity of the connection that a person feels to a favorite novel, with which he or she spends eight or 10 or 20 hours, is unlike any response to a movie.
That observation brought to mind a moment in “The Fault in Our Stars” when one of the protagonists says that sometimes, “You read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.”
Books are personal, passionate. They stir emotions and spark thoughts in a manner all their own, and I’m convinced that the shattered world has less hope for repair if reading becomes an ever smaller part of it.