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KidLit: Recommended Reading on Justice and Understanding

Originally posted at The Writer’s Block

At a time of great unease and injustice, those of us who are parents of children have a challenge ahead of us. Most of our kids will be exposed to the happenings of the world, and well they should. At the same time, what books can we read to them that will help them understand, and provide tools they will need to survive, thrive, and engage? We reached out to several Minnesota writers with children to compile this list of suggestions. This is by no means definitive, nor complete.

This list was compiled by Kurtis Scaletta, Shannon Gibney, Lana Barkawi, Kathryn Savage, Molly Beth Griffin, Sarah Park Dahlen, Bao Phi, and Lorena Duarte Armstrong.

Picture Book:

Milo’s Museum by Zetta Elliott, and Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews. Both of these books center blackness and the variety of black experience in a way that is real, fun, and teaches kids something without being overly didactic. They also ask readers to question their assumptions about disputed categories like “art” and “culture,” and begin to understand the role that power plays in who gets to tell what stories, how, where, when, and to what end.

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. The gorgeous 1963 Caldecott Medal-winning classic, The Snowy Day, is a hopeful book. The magical and simple illustrations embrace a calm solitude and invite joy.

Any books by Sandra Boynton! My kids love them for their rhyme and rhythm. We make up funny songs to go along with the words. We used several of the books (Snuggle Puppy & Moo, Baa, La La La among others) as part of one of our child’s autism therapies early on and he still finds great fun and joy in them.

Beautiful by Stacy McAnulty, illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff. This book portrays girls in all their rugged glory, and affirms that all kinds of girls are beautiful. A sweet and silly book that pits its own text against its illustrations — undoing the myths of beauty that young women hear every day, one by one.

Here I Am written by Patti Kim, illustrated by Sonia Sanchez. This gorgeous immigrant story has elements of magic realism, and manages to have a strong narrative arc without using any words. It can be appreciated by any family regardless of written language.

Hungry Johnny by Cheryl Minnema, illustrated by Wesley Ballinger. This modern story of a hungry Ojibwe child at a banquet strives to teach patience and respect for elders in a non-lecturing way.

Real Cowboys by Kate Hoefler, illustrated by Jonathan Bean. This beautiful picture book describes what actual cowboys have to be like to get their job done—to be patient, to take turns, to care for the earth, to nurture their animals, to mourn when an animal is lost. Stunning art and poetic text create a story of American masculinity that is in dire need of this new perspective.

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson. A boy and his grandmother ride the city bus to help serve at a soup kitchen, and along the way, he learns to “be a witness” to the beauty all around him. This is a great book for celebrating the vibrant diversity of an urban community.

Worm Loves Worm by J. J. Austrian, illustrated by Mike Curato. In a celebration of love that thwarts convention, this simple story is about a worm and a worm who want to get married… and they really don’t care who will wear the dress. They will just change how it’s usually done, because Worm loves Worm.

The Three Lucys by Hayan Charara. This is a picture book by the Arab American poet Hayan Charara illustrated by Sara Kahn, set in Lebanon during the 2006 Israeli incursion. It’s told from the perspective of a little boy whose family has to flee their home because their village is being bombed, but they can’t take the three stray cats that he’s befriended, the three Lucys. While the family is in hiding at the aunt’s home in Beirut, the boy is very worried about the cats. It’s an emotional and beautiful story about loss and war, sadness and hope, and my 6 and 8 year olds were enthralled by it. We did have to take it slowly because the story is quite intense.

Mama’s Nightingale by Edwidge Danticat. A young girl misses her mother who is being held in a detention center. This book compels readers to see the human consequences to immigration policy. It is also a testament to the power of storytelling.

Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson. A young black girl, now slightly older, considers her casual bullying of a Spanish-speaking girl with a great deal of regret. Woodson shows social and economic fissures on a personal level, that children can understand, but even adults can learn from.

Middle Grade:

Unidentified Suburban Object by Mike Jung. In USO, a young Korean American girl begins to reflect about her identity and relationship with her immigrant parents. Events throughout the book naturally lead to conversations about race, racism, whiteness, and homogeneity, and a twist at the end will make readers think about how we think about race, culture, and family.

The Jannah Jewels series by Umm Nura is my 8 year old’s latest book obsession. He received the first four of nine as a gift, and he can’t wait to read the rest. It’s about a group of Muslim girls who are solving a mystery that takes them on journeys to different countries and different times in history. He reports that the stories are full of adventure and suspense. You can pick them up at Daybreak Press Global Bookshop, the feminist Muslim bookstore in Minneapolis.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill. This story is about the false narratives that are used to control people. It is about resistance. It is about sorrow, and the only thing that can overcome it — hope. Through fantasy (dragons and swamp monsters and witches!), we see our own world reflected back to us. Thankfully, goodness — and poetry — prevails.

Sachiko: a Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story, by Caren Stelson. If you care about peace, please read this lovingly crafted nonfiction account of one girl’s experience of the bombing of Nagasaki. It is painful, but also hopeful and inspiring. It alternates straight nonfiction sections with more narrative essay sections, to convey both information and emotion.


See No Color by Shannon Gibney. This is an unflinching and complex story about interracial adoption and identity. It is about a teenager breaking away from who her family wants her to be — and in that sense it is a classic YA coming of age novel. But it is also something completely new: a novel that addresses identity politics in a way that has rarely (if ever) been done before. Young people will be relieved to see themselves represented on the page.

Graphic Novel:

Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls edited by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo. This rad book is packed with 100 stories about the lives of 100 badass women, illustrated by 60 female artists. It is a gorgeous book for readers of any age and gender.


Before Morning by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Beth Krommes. Joyce Sidman’s poetry urges children and adults alike to slow down and pay attention to the natural world. Before Morning is a stunning winter story where the human world must stand still and be in awe of nature — and in doing so, people also reconnect with each other.

Other Resources:

A Mighty Girl

Amelia Bloomer List of Feminist Literature

ALA Rainbow List

The Brown Bookshelf

We Need Diverse Books

American Indians in Children’s Literature (Debbie Reese)


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