I spent the weekend before last visiting one of my good friends and her two adorable children. My friend is one of those rare people who radiate compassion and positivity. She follows the same world events I do and holds dear the same values I have, and yet her outlook is somehow different. I always leave our visits feeling distinctly more hopeful, like the future is just slightly brighter.
I’ve known since my first Women’s Studies classes that there is more than one way to be a good feminist. There is more than one way to bring about meaningful social change. But often I think of this work as public, whether it be advocacy through the courts, in the media, or in our workplaces. I don’t often think about the ways we can change the world from home. My friend and her two adorable children reminded me of one of the most important and perhaps most effective ways to change the world: by raising the next generation.
I’m not just talking about parents here. I’m talking about all of us. Whether we be aunts, uncles, grandparents, teachers or friends. We all play a role in raising the little people who will one day have to fix our mistakes.
So how do we raise socially conscious kids while we are being bombarded with messages about fear, prejudice and violence? How do we teach kids compassion, equality and hope while we are barraged with rules about appearances, gender roles and who should be with whom? Well, for starters, we can read to them.
“We don’t need a list of rights and wrongs, tables of do’s and don’ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.” — Philip Pullman
I did some digging and I compiled a list of socially conscious books that I consider worthy of the next generation. Here goes.
- The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch
Before there was Katniss Everdeen there was Princess Elizabeth. It should come as no surprise that this was one of my favourite books growing up. It is about a heroic princess who outsmarts a fierce dragon to rescue her prince, wearing only a paper bag. It turns out the prince is a superficial doofus, so she dumps him and lives happily ever after. Robert Munsch wrote this book after his wife asked him, “How come you always have the prince save the princess? Why can’t the princess save the prince?” And so this treasure of a story was born. I love this book because it bends gender stereotypes. And let’s be serious, there aren’t enough girl heroes in literature.
- Giant Steps to Change the World by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee
This is a book about standing up for your beliefs despite the obstacles in your way. It is about the power each of us has to make a difference in our world. Each page references a famous person in history who overcame adversity to change the world. As an adult, it’s fun to try to identify the heroes. The message: no one is too small to make a big change. I’ll admit, I felt pretty inspired myself.
- Migrant by Maxine Trottier
Migrant tells the story of Anna, the daughter of temporary foreign workers who come to North America for the agricultural season. Throughout the book, Anna feels like various animals: a jack rabbit, a bee, a kitten. Each analogy reveals a different aspect of the hard life of temporary foreign workers and their families. We have a lot of temporary foreign workers in Canada, and as citizens we greatly benefit from their hard work. And yet, we do not afford them the same rights, respect and protections that we extend to citizens and visitors alike. This story makes you question why that is.
- I Have the Right to be a Child by Alain Serres and Aurelia Fronty
This book illustrates the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It describes in accessible language what it means to have rights – from the right to food, water and shelter, to the right to go to school and be free from violence. This book would be a good way to introduce the concept of human rights and to start a conversation about the situation in other parts of the world where children do not have the basic things we take for granted.
- The Enemy by Davide Cali and Serge Bloch
This is a book about war that really is about peace. The story begins with two soldiers, each in their own hole. The soldiers are enemies. As the story unfolds we see that these enemies really are not that different. They both get hungry, they both look at the stars and dream of peace and they both miss their families. And yet they each believe that the other is a monster. This book is about seeing “the enemy” as a person and about the futility of war. Given current world events, the message that we should see each other as fellow human beings is an important one.
- Wangari’s Trees of Peace by Jeanette Winter
This book tells the true story of Wangari Maathai, environmentalist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Horrified by the deforestation in Kenya and the impact it was having on her country and its people, Wangari empowers the women in her village to plant trees. Word travels and soon other women in other villages and towns and cities plant trees too. Until there are over 30 million tress where there were none. This book is about environmental stewardship and the empowerment of women.
- And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
Roy and Silo are two boy penguins who fall in love. Like the other penguin couples, Roy and Silo want a family. Unfortunately for them, no matter how long they sit on their nest of stones, there is no baby penguin. Until a zoo employee slips an egg that would otherwise not have been cared for into their nest. I love this story because it celebrates diverse families in a totally disarming way. Even better, the story is true. What a great way to start a conversation about gay and lesbian families.
These are seven of the best socially conscious children’s books I found, but I’m sure there are many, many more. If you know of any others that are worthy of the next generation, please share. My wife and I are building our collection.