Books open children’s minds to quests for justice and equality


LGBTQ rights, voting rights, human rights and abortion rights are making headlines in a contentious America. With all the hostility out there, it’s sometimes hard to be optimistic. That’s when it’s time to remember the words of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.: “Change does not happen on the wheels of inevitability, but through continuous struggle.”

To see progress in many ongoing struggles, check out some recent children’s books. They document the ways people fight for what’s right – through the courts, sewing, art, legislation, community action and music. In doing so, their stories give me a much-needed boost.

“I Am an American: The Art Story of Wong Kim,” written by Martha Brockenbrough and Grace Lin; Illustrated by Julia Kuo. Photo: Small, Brown

“I Am an American: The Story of Wong Kim Ark”

Written by Martha Brockenbrough and Grace Lin; illustrated by Julia Kuo
(Little, Brown; 40 pages; $18.99; ages 4-8)

This narrowly focused story concerns a little-known real-life case with far-reaching implications.

In 1895, San Francisco-born Wong Kim Ark returns home from a visit to China only to find himself detained by authorities, sparking a legal fight over what makes someone an American. Poster-style art conveys racial division in a city known today for its diversity as we learn that although the 14th Amendment guarantees citizenship to all people born in the United States, government lawyers argue that Wong Kim Ark’s Chinese ancestry made him “unfit” to be American. All the while, Ark insists, “I’m an American.”

This landmark case lands in the Supreme Court, which ultimately rules in Ark’s favor by upholding the right to “birthright” citizenship in the future.

“Dot by Dot,” written by Rob Sanders; illustrated by Jamey Christoph Photo: Magination Press

“Dot by Dot: Cleve Jones and the AIDS Memorial Quilt”

Written by Rob Sanders; illustrated by Jamey Christoph
(Magination Press; 40 pages; $17.99; ages 4-8)

“Slowly/ Over time./ One step at a time./ This is how change happens.” Seven of these thoughtful verses weave together perfectly in this multi-layered picture book. Like the AIDS Memorial Quilt itself, which was last displayed at the Washington Mall in 1996 and now partially displayed in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the book covers a lot of ground. Most important is the story of how the quilt grew from an idea in 1985 into a tangible national memorial for those lost to AIDS. (It weighs 54 tons!)

Families and friends provided squares to remember, heal, show love and “do something when it seemed like nothing could be done”. Facts about AIDS counter the misinformation, and key players in San Francisco’s early LGBTQ movement appear, including Harvey Milk, the city’s first openly gay supervisor, and Cleve Jones, the originator of the quilt. “Step by step” they earn the recognition, respect and rights of the AIDS community.

“Playing on the Frontier,” written by Joanna Ho; Illustrated by Teresa Martinez. Photo: Harper

“Playing at the Frontier: The Story of Yo-Yo Ma”

Written by Joanna Ho; illustrated by Teresa Martinez
(Harper; 40 pages; $17.99; ages 4-8)

Music is a force for good and not just a source of beauty for a world famous cellist. This explains this nice biography which focuses on the Yo-Yo Ma concert of April 13, 2019 along the Rio Grande between Texas and Mexico.

Bay Area author Joanna Ho offers a melodious summary of the day: “Feet planted on the soil of one nation, facing the shores of another, Yo-Yo Ma closed her eyes as the music flowed from his heart through his hands.” Part of a two-year global Bach project, this concert was Ma’s response to the anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies of the then US president.

Graceful digital art helps weave together the story of a child prodigy turned Goodwill Ambassador, his beloved cello, and the rediscovery of Bach’s suites that become central to his project’s goal: “to build bridges, not walls”.

“The People’s Painter,” written by Cynthia Levinson; illustrated by Evan Turk. Photo: Abram

“The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn fought for justice with art”

Written by Cynthia Levinson; illustrated by Evan Turk
(Abrams; 48 pages; $18.99; ages 4-8)

Ben Shahn “did not paint the mauve majesties of the mountains or America the beautiful”, according to this admiring biography of the artist, known for depicting “Americans who lived in the shadows” such as immigrants, laborers , civil rights activists, etc. Shahn arrived in New York in 1906 as an 8-year-old Lithuanian immigrant with early passions for drawing and justice which, despite the odds, eventually converged into a body of versatile works including photographs, paintings, murals, stained glass, packaging, record albums and stage sets. Stunning illustrations, mostly in gouache, pay homage to Shahn’s style – bold, layered, and focused on real stories from real people.

Also covered is his mercurial relationship with the US government, including a “disloyalty” investigation ultimately dismissed by the FBI. With clever writing and reverential illustration, this carefully crafted life story eloquently proves the title’s claim.

“An Equal Shot”, written by Helaine Becker; Illustrated by Dow Phumiruk. Photo: Henry Holt

“An Equal Blow: How Title IX of the Act Changed America”

Written by Helaine Becker; illustrated by Down Phumiruk
(Christy Ottaviano/Henry Holt; 40 pages; $19.99; ages 4-8)

“Women could be fired from certain jobs if they got married or became pregnant. Girls could be denied the opportunity to play sports. Girls could even be prevented from becoming doctors, professors or scientists,” reports this social story that is both serious and festive. But the change comes in 1972 with the passage of Title IX, and this spirited book establishes a stark contrast between the past and the present.

No women are mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address or the Emancipation Proclamation, but now, thanks to this new federal law, boys and girls and men and women would have the same rights, responsibilities and opportunities. In clear examples, children will appreciate the role of Congress in passing laws to strengthen women’s rights, a work still in progress.

“Red and Green and Blue and White,” written by Lee Wind; Illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky. Photo: Levine Querido

“Red and Green and Blue and White”

Written by Lee Wind; illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky
(Levine Querido; 32 pages; $17.99; ages 4-7)

Based on real events that happened in Billings, Montana, this book chronicles how someone in 1993 maliciously smashed a Jewish boy’s decorated window. how his family defiantly relights their Chanukah candles the very next evening; and how her best friend then thoughtfully places a menorah design in her window by the Christmas tree. His simple act of solidarity shows up first at the school and then throughout the city to include 10,000 windows in all.

The measured text supports art that changes dramatically to capture a range of emotions – anticipation, friendship, drama, fear, healing and celebration. This sobering book asks us to reflect on the true spirit of the holidays and the true meaning of community; the power of a child to make a difference and the power to collectively stand up against bigotry.

  • Suzanne Faust

    Susan Faust is a member of the Association for Library Service to Children, and recently served on the selection committee for the 2018 Children’s Literature Legacy Award. She was a librarian at Katherine Delmar Burke School in San Francisco for 33 years. Email:


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