Classroom Bookshelf: Teaching Social Justice Through Children's Literature

Books can help children learn to read, but also provide a glimpse into unfamiliar worlds, people, and situations.

When Teaching Social Justice is a Goal

Say you’re an educator or a caregiver, and you’d like to introduce children to the concept of social justice—defined loosely as the equal distribution of rights and opportunities within a society. You want to show them how they can contribute to a more fair world, and give them examples of when social justice is at work, and when it is not. You’d like them to understand better a variety of cultures, types of people, situations. What can you do?

The three originators of The Classroom Bookshelf blog have ideas about that, and they involve books—a wide variety of books.  Using children’s literature for social justice learning, say Lesley professors Mary Ann Cappiello, Erika Thulin Dawes, and Grace Enriquez, can teach not only content and reading comprehension, but can introduce children to people, places, and ideas they may not be familiar with.  A book can “tell the untold stories, give children a variety of perspectives on a situation, and open up discussions for children to explore experiences.” Using books for social justice issues tells untold stories, and assures that there are multiple ways to look at a person, story, or history; it counters “the danger of a single story.”

Classroom Bookshelf authors Grace Enriquez, Erika Thulin Dawes, and Mary Ann Cappiello, in front of bookshelf
Grace Enriquez, Erika Thulin Dawes, and Mary Ann Cappiello

Erika Thulin Dawes says, “Well-crafted children’s books, both fiction and nonfiction, offer students the opportunity to be immersed in the life experiences of people whose social and cultural backgrounds may be quite different than their own. Reading life stories creates opportunities for perspective taking—a chance to try on a worldview different than one’s own. Perspective-taking, in turn, engenders empathy. And empathy is a strong motivator for social change."

What makes a good book for this purpose? 

When choosing books to review for their blog, the authors say that they “never look at a book without consideration of quality, complexity; quality of writing, the many roles it can play in a the classroom, the audiences for the book, and the cultural accuracy and authenticity within the text and illustrations; and what important conversations the book might provoke.” The book must also be visually enticing, “art that kids can hold in their hands.”

What was life like for African Americans in colonial America? The authors recommend Ashes, by Laurie Halse Anderson, which gives one perspective through the life of Isabel, an enslaved teenager fighting for her freedom.  Life just before the Civil War? How about Steamboat School, which relates the true story of the preacher John Berry Meachum, who, when he had to close a school because there was a state law in Missouri against educating African Americans, reopened his school on a steamboat in the Mississippi River, outside of state jurisdiction. For a perspective on immigration and the American identity, they recommend, for example, Towers Falling, about Deja, who learns about the events of September 11, 2001—and thereby her family’s current struggles, including homelessness—through study at school.

“The more often young people are given the opportunity to read across multiple texts of all genres focused on a topic or a theme,” says Cappiello, “the more accustomed they get to considering multiple perspectives and points-of-view other than their own. If we use children’s literature to contextualize the complexity of our world for young people, we can grow the next generation of world leaders while also developing their reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills.”

The Classroom Bookshelf blog posts also offer teaching ideas and invitations for the classroom, as well as resources for further investigations into the topics covered.

The Classroom Bookshelf authors have not confined themselves to their blog in their pursuit of using children’s literature for social justice. They teach children’s literature classes at the graduate and undergraduate levels; they collaborate with colleagues to introduce books to be used in other types of courses; they attend conferences and engage in research partnerships with teachers and students.

They have also expanded their visibility. Not only is their Classroom Bookshelf blog now on the School Library Journal website, their reviews are being published in the Language Arts journal of the National Council of Teachers of English. They collaborate with museums, professional organizations, and schools districts. Enriquez is the editor of the book review column of Language Arts; Cappiello is the chair of the Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children; and Dawes is chair of the Charlotte Huck Award for Outstanding Fiction for Children.

“The more often young people are given the opportunity to read across multiple texts of all genres focused on a topic or a theme, the more accustomed they get to considering multiple perspectives and points-of-view other than their own. If we use children’s literature to contextualize the complexity of our world for young people, we can grow the next generation of world leaders while also developing their reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills.”
Mary Ann Cappiello, Professor and Classroom Bookshelf Author