How do you teach your child to stand up for what is right, especially if it’s dangerous? I don’t know the answer to that, but I suspect that it helps to have role models who have overcome hatred, death threats, jail time, and violence to fight for a better world.
In honor of Martin Luther King, Junior, I have selected ten children’s and young adult books, both fiction and non-fiction, to help us all to understand exactly the magnitude of achievement that Martin Luther King, Jr. accomplished during his too-short life.
Happy Martin Luther King, Junior Day! And thank you to all the unsung heroes out there who stand up to injustice every day!
What are your favorite Civil Rights Movement books for kids? Please share and I’ll add to the list! Thank you!
Here are some Civil Rights Movement Books for Kids that I posted on Instagram.
p.p.s. Another post: Civil Rights Movement for Kids Through Art and Books
Civil Rights Children’s Books
10. Glory Be by Augusta Scattergood
Former librarian Augusta Scattergood’s first middle-grade chapter book tackles racism in Mississippi during 1964 when a small town’s pool faces de-segregation. 12-year-old Gloriana Hemphill’s birthday coincides with the United States and every year she celebrates at the town public pool, but in 1964 the pool stays mysteriously closed. As she tries to make sense of what is happening, her older sister gets involved with a young Freedom Fighter and things start to get complicated.
What is so great about this book is that it puts the Civil Rights Movement into a microcosm that a young reader (4th grade and up) can understand and relate to. Sometimes being a hero is as subtle as showing up to a party at a library. [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
9. March: Book 1 by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
8. Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine
It’s about a girl who is very shy but finds her voice through her best friend. But her best friend is black and she lives in a segregated community she has to find ways to see her friend but it’s very dangerous because they don’t support white people seeing black people. From my 11-year-old daughter, PickyKidPix. [middle grade, ages 10 and up]
7. The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles
When Ruby Bridges was 6 years old, she was the only African American student to attend a newly desegregated school in Louisiana. Her extraordinary ability to withstand a hostile environment while viewing her tormentors (adult and child) with forgiveness makes her an inspiration to us all. My kids were lucky to meet her at a school event a few years ago. She continues to inspire! If you want to see if you can get her to come to your school, go to this link: www.rubybridges.com/ [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Also, read Ruby Bridges’ story as told by herself. I had the honor of meeting Ruby Bridges and connecting her to Robert Cole’s son, whom I went to college with.
6. Spies of Mississippi: The True Story of the Spy Network that Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement by Rick Bowers
In 1958, the state of Mississippi began an undercover operation, The Sovereignty Commission, to spy on and potentially squelch the Civil Rights movement. Bowers’ expose of this unknown organization reveals the extent to which some were willing to go to see segregation remain the law of the state. [young adult nonfiction, ages 12 and up]
5. Ten Miles Past Normal by Frances O’Roark Dowell
This is one of my very favorite YA (Young Adult) chapter books in 2011 as it has so many interesting storylines from a coming-of-age story of high school Freshman Janie to her suit-turned-blogger farmer mother, and a Civil Rights story of ordinary people turned heroes. It’s this story of unsung heroes — that anyone can be a hero if they follow their heart and stand up to injustice — that is a lesson that can be reapplied again and again whether the issue is Civil Rights or bullying or anything else. While it seems like a hero is someone famous like Martin Luther King, Jr., I’d suspect he’d say that the heroes are the ones willing to show up and stand up to be counted. I hope that this is a lesson that I can somehow impart to my children. [young adult, ages 12 and up]
4. One Crazy Summer trilogy by Rita Williams-Garcia
I am just now starting One Crazy Summer and it looks like a fantastic read. But don’t take my word for it, it won a Newbery Honor Award, National Book Award Finalist, and on and on and on. Set in Oakland, California, three sisters visit their mother who has abandoned them, and hang out at a center run by the Black Panther Party. Though this book ties into the Civil Rights Movement, it’s an outstanding chapter book that is a literary achievement! [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
3. They Called Themselves the KKK: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
Bartoletti provides readers with an in-depth look at the formation of the KKK and its subsequent evolution into a violent organization. With primary source material, she details the horrific history of the Ku Klux Klan and the people who fell victim to its reign of terror. This was what Martin Luther King, Jr. was up against (Young Adult Non-Fiction YALSA Award Short List). [young adult nonfiction, ages 12 and up]
2. The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
I just bought this chapter book and am excited to read it. In case I don’t finish by MLK day, here’s a summary from Wikipedia: The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 is a historical fiction book by Christopher Paul Curtis, written in 1995, and republished in 1997. It is about an African-American family living in the town of Flint, Michigan who goes to their grandmother’s home in Birmingham, Alabama to get Byron to behave, in the year 1963. The book was Curtis’ first novel and received a Newbery Honor and the Coretta Scott King Award. He is the author of the Newbery Award winner Bud, Not Buddy. The book includes the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, one of the most critical events in the book. [middle grade, ages 10 and up]
1. Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport
This multi-award-winning multicultural picture book somehow manages to put the power of Martin Luther King Junior’s words into a format that is accessible to kids as young as preschoolers while simultaneously telling the story of the Civil Rights Movement in an accessible way. A must-read! [picture book, ages 4 and up]
More Civil Rights Books for Kids
Sweet Justice: Georgia Gilmore and the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Readers can connect Georgia Gilmore with Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. in their fight for Civil Rights. A hidden figure of history no more, Georgia Gilmore played a pivotal role in the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott by organizing fundraising events through food, the Club from Nowhere. Still, Georgia was personally affected, losing her job cooking for white patrons because she testified on behalf of Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was arrested for no just cause. Police, at that time, were arresting anyone who stood on a corner waiting for a ride. Activists, like armies, march on their stomachs and Georgia’s contribution was fortifying activists for the long battle to desegregate Montgomery buses.
Pair this with Pie From Nowhere: How Georgia Gilmore Sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott. for another great picture book biography on Georgia Gilmore. [picture book biography, ages 4 and up]
Unlawful Orders: A Portrait of Dr. James B. Williams, Tuskegee Airman, Surgeon, and Activist by Barbara Binns
Review by Ms. Yingling Reads:
“While there is plenty of information just on Williams’ life (and I loved Binns’ note about the archival information she was able to access, as well as the fact that his daughter was a journalist, so there was a lot of good information saved!) to write a biography, it’s fascinating to see how his life aligned with so many different important aspects of the Civil Rights movement. From his mother, who continued to attend college and learn throughout her life before dying at the age of 109, to his own struggles in so many areas, to the success of his children (who are closer to my age!), Unlawful Orders paints a vivid picture of the struggles Black Americans faced, and how those changed over time through the efforts of people like Williams.” [middle grade, ages 9 and up]
Evicted!: The Struggle for the Right To Vote by Alice Faye Duncan, illustrated by Charly Palmer
In Fayette County, Tennessee which was 2/3 Black, the white landowners did not want them to vote even though they had the legal right to vote. Black Americans were evicted from sharecropping if they registered to vote, and storekeepers would stop selling to them. But the voiceless decided to fight back. This is their story, the Tent City Movement. Alice Faye Duncan tells the stories of those individuals in the Tent City who each played their part in this movement. Their sacrifice led to national attention which eventually resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, legally ending voter discrimination. [picture book, ages 9 and up]
Black Was the Ink by Michelle Coles
Review by Ms. Yingling Reads:
“In 2015, Malcolm Williams is being raised in Washington, D.C. after the violent death of his father when he was a baby. After he is involved in a racially charged incident with the police himself, his mother sends him to spend the summer with his family in Mississippi. His grandmother has passed, but he is able to help his elderly great aunt and uncle with the farm, although farm work does NOT appeal to him, and the lack of WiFi doesn’t make him happy, either. He is intrigued when his Uncle Corey is released from jail after serving a sixteen-year sentence for marijuana possession since his uncle is his only connection with his father. When his aunt tells the family at a reunion that they are going to lose the rest of the farm to more highway construction (they had lost much of it in the 1960s), Malcolm isn’t too concerned at first and doesn’t think there is much he can do. He meets a neighbor girl, Jasmine, and goes to a fair with her, where he gets in trouble after local white hoodlums push HIM around. Luckily, Jasmine’s father is a lawyer who is well-versed in the treatment that Black men receive from the police and get him released. When Malcolm finds the diary of an ancestor, Cedric Johnson, from the 1870s, he becomes more interested in Civil Rights– especially when Cedric himself appears and sends him back in time! Malcolm finds himself walking in Cedric’s shoes as a congressional aide to Pastor Hiram Revels, the first Black congressman who served during Reconstruction. Malcolm keeps traveling back in time, moving a few years into the future with each trip, and meets an amazing array of Black historical figures. As he is witnessing the mostly hidden history of the 1800s, he is dealing with racial issues in the present, especially the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in Charleston. This, along with all of the things that Cedric witnesses, spurs him to try to save the family farm by declaring it a historical site, which the journal helps him to do. The book includes brief biographies of many of the figures mentioned and an excellent timeline.” [young adult, ages 13 and up]
Thank you to Dolores Abbott on Pinterest who said, “Remember Lunch-Box Dream by Tony Abbott, is a young child’s first look at the disparity in the experiences of people of different races in 1959 America.”
Lunch-Box Dream by Tony Abbott
Bobby and his family are visiting Civil War battlefields on the eve of the war’s centenary, while inside their car, quiet battles rage. When an accident cuts their trip short, they return home on a bus and witness an incident that threatens to deny a black family seat. What they don’t know is the reason for the family’s desperation to be on that bus: a few towns away, their child is missing.
Lunch-Box Dream presents Jim Crow, racism, and segregation from multiple perspectives. In this story of witnessing without understanding, a naïvely prejudiced boy, in brief flashes of insight, starts to identify and question his assumptions about race.
Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Gwen Strauss and illustrated by Floyd Cooper
The picture book Ruth and the Green Book is an excellent work of historical fiction. The book is set in the 1950s. It’s the story of an African-American family’s car trip from their home in Chicago to Alabama to visit relatives, the racism they encounter, and the help they receive. This help comes from other African Americans and from the Green Book. Told in the voice of Ruth, a child, and accompanied by evocative illustrations by Floyd Cooper, Calvin Alexander Ramsey’s story provides a poignant look at the impact of the Jim Crow laws. An afterword tells the little-known history of The Negro Motorist Green Book. Review from Elizabeth Kennedy
Freedom Summer: the 1964 Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi by Susan Goldman Rubin
The Fourth Musketeer has a great review on this non-fiction book for ages 10 and up.
Round and Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round Ride into the Civil Rights Movement (The Nautilus Series) by Amy Nathan
This is a great non-fiction chapter book to pair with Glory B as it also has a swimming pool segregation issue and it also is the back story behind the movie Hairspray. Centered around the public park that undergoes de-segregation, this is the true story of the Civil Rights Movement as it played out in Maryland. This is exactly the book I would hand to a child — ages 14 and up — who wants to know more.
p.s. I have more books for children on The Civil Rights Movement and Black History Month:
Top 10: African American Picture Books. If you read the 10 books in order, it covers the key periods and people in African American history through picture books.
Celebrating MLK Day with 3 Children’s Books. I selected two picture books and one chapter book to help tell the story of the impact Martin Luther King, Junior made.
As Fast As Words Could Fly: Picture Book of the Day. Ruby Bridges came to visit my elementary school and her story is contrasted with 14-year-old Mason Steele who used his typing skills both as a writer and a speed typist to prove that he had the right to attend a previously all-white school.
Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day with Children’s Books. I have seven books for kids including picture books, YA, non-fiction, and chapter books.
5th Grade Slavery Unit. I cover a little of the history of the Underground Railroad where I live, what life was like during this time, and a book list including picture books and chapter books.
Booker T Washington: Picture Book of the Day. The story of Booker T. Washington is told through an advanced picture book.
To examine any of the items listed, please click on image of item.
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Food for the Future: Sustainable Farms Around the World
- Junior Library Guild Gold selection
- Selected as one of 100 Outstanding Picture Books of 2023 by dPICTUS and featured at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair
- Starred review from School Library Journal
BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.