Books that Portray or Could Inspire Social Justice Activism
This month, we are sharing our responses to five books that portray or could inspire readers to consider or engage in social justice activism. In their book For a Better World: Reading and Writing for Social Action (Heinemann, 2001), Randy and Katherine Bomer note that every classroom creates a discourse that is partially maintained by the ideology of the teacher. The many ways the teacher uses literature, designs activities, and prompts questions are part of that discourse. When teachers’ sharing and the books teachers read continually and consistently focus on values, students can naturally and openly discuss values as well. These five books provide jumping off places for students and teachers to engage in critical conversations.
In A Cloud of Dust by Alma Fullerton, art by Brian Deines (Pajama Press, 2015)
Judi: In A Cloud of Dust tells the story of Anna who walks many miles to get to and from her school in Tanzania, Africa. The road is so long that by the time she returns each evening to her home without electricity, it’s too dark for her to do her homework. One day at lunch time, a “Bicycle Library” truck brings bikes to kids at her school, but Anna, who does her homework at lunch time, doesn’t get in line soon enough to get a bike.
Although she is disappointed, Anna helps her friends learn to ride their bikes. After school, Mohammad gives Anna a ride on the back of his. When they arrive at Mohammad’s home, he surprises his friend by giving her the bike to ride the rest of the way to her house. The story ends with Anna’s promise to pick him up for school the next day and with the happy cloud of dust she makes as she rides toward home.
The notes at the end of the book include information about how people in Tanzania and other parts of Africa use bicycles as primary transportation. It also notes that many children walk several hours to and from school. To help people who cannot afford to purchase bicycles, organizations like the Village Bicycle Project and Bikes for Humanity donate bicycles or support bicycle libraries where children check out bicycles like library books.
Deb: In a Cloud of Dust is certainly a charming story, but left me wanting more than the pure simplicity it offered. I was reminded of my own childhood and the joys of independence and pure delight of going out with my friends on our bikes and making room for any who did not have one – or at least a functioning one. Although the story is informed by the author’s experiences with humanitarian projects such as Bikes for Humanity, the story does not go far enough into the lives of children like Anna, who may have to opt out of attending school because getting there is too difficult when the school is so far away. Children who experience poverty and subsistence living must endure far more than the logistics of getting to and from school. Chores before and after school heighten the challenges that a child like Anna faces each day when the basic necessities (i.e. clean water, food, lights, etc.) that children in a first world country would likely take for granted.
The one day that the “Bicycle Library” truck emerges is just that – one day. It leaves me wondering how the library really impacts the lives of the children it presumes to be helping or does it just create a bigger hole for those who don’t have a bike of their own. This is why the story left me feeling empty and rather sad for Anna and all of the children who had the opportunity to experience the joys of riding a bicycle and the movement from place to place, so effectively illustrated by Deines, which had the potential to be a trope for new possibilities and advancement in the young lives of the characters in the story. Perhaps there will be a “sequel” to that will incorporate the real-life story of humanitarian groups, such as the Village Bicycle Project and Bikes for Humanity, that donate bicycles to Tanzanian children to keep as their own.
Judi: Alma Fullerton’s quiet story celebrates a resilient child who organizes her life in order to have the best possible schooling experience. Anna is also a child who makes the best of her friendships and does not show her disappointment or does not experience jealousy when her friends have something she does not—a bicycle to ride to and from school.
Brian Deines’ illustrations capture Anna’s determination, the children’s delight in their bicycles, and the rugged Tanzanian landscape. The dusty backdrop for this story makes me think of how Anna and her friends use their bicycles to leave the obstacles that could keep them from learning “in their dust.”
I believe there are a number of young readers who will connect with the bicycle as a symbol for independence, overcoming obstacles, and taking charge of one’s life. Canadian author Anna Fullerton () overcame a learning disability in early in her life and in her writing, seeks to reassure her readers that they too can meet with success when faced with challenges.
Readers may want to learn more about bicycles as primary and secondary sources on transportation in various communities around the world. They may also want to learn more about the organizations that provide bicycles or set up bicycle libraries, particularly those that help children who use bikes to get to and from school. This could lead to questions and inquiry explorations about the difference between bicycles that are the only affordable means of transportation for some people and bicycles as alternative means of transportation to reduce pollution and provide exercise.
In A Cloud of Dust makes a personal connection for me with the bicycle (nicknamed “the pants eater”) that was my only mode of transportation during my college years. The story also connects with the Querencia Community Bike Shop (QCBS), an all-volunteer 501(c)(3) non-profit community bike shop in Denton, Texas, the college town where I currently live and teach. This bike shop aims to provide people with a “healthy, affordable, environmentally friendly, and fun alternative to automotive transportation.” QCBS offers open access to work space, tools, parts, and instructional resources for bike owners to build, repair and maintain their own bicycles.
The Promise by Nicola Davies, Illustrated by Laura Carlin (Candlewick, 2014)
Deb: The Promise is a picture book about a poor young girl who lives by stealing in the mean streets of a mean city. One day she grabs the bag of an old woman who relinquishes it in exchange for “the promise.” The girl had no idea what she promised as she snatched the bag from the woman. All she knew is that she wanted the contents, hoping they would be food or money. To her surprise, the old woman’s bag was full of beautiful green acorn seeds. The promise she unknowingly made was to plant the seeds wherever she may go. Her unexpected delight with the promise she made propels the story into an environmental discourse where mean cities and mean people change when trees spring up everywhere the seeds took root. The promise assures a life-changing journey for the young girl who finds her purpose in paying happiness forward.
Judi: The first-person perspective in this story and the personification of the environment deeply touched me. I believe young readers also be likewise impressed by the aesthetics of this book. The print and the illustrations made me feel the desperation of the girl at the beginning of the story. I understood the alienation she felt; I could “excuse” her for becoming a thief.
The Promise made a strong text-to-text connection for me to Langston Hughes’ short story “Thank You, M’am.” Similar to the girl in The Promise, Roger is a boy whose life circumstances contributed to him becoming a thief. When he attempts to steal Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones’s purse, he loses his balance. This gives the elderly woman the opportunity to kick him and take him home where she lectures him about getting his life in order. In the end, Mrs. Jones gives Roger the money he wanted to buy new blue suede shoes.
In both stories, these un- or under-nurtured young people have lost their moral compass. An elderly “everywoman” figure provides them with counsel and the means to change their hearts and find their way in a society that did not give them a clear path to redemption. While “Thank You, M’am” leaves readers with questions about Roger’s future, The Promise shows that once the girl has found a positive path, she sees that others, too, can change their hearts and their life choices for the better. She passes on the promise to the next human being.
I would use this picture book in combination with the short story with upper elementary students and teens. Both texts provide opportunities for readers to consider how people can make choices to help rather than hurt others and to make the world a better place through their actions.
Deb: The Promise is a delightful picture book with an unusual story, which I found unsettling in the beginning. First, the main character happens to be a young girl living on streets and who makes her living as a thief, stealing bags from unsuspecting old women. Carlin’s illustrations are appropriately grey and gloomy to match the hard life of the girl who lives in the mean streets. As the girl begins to plant the seeds she finds in the old woman’s bag, the illustrations become increasingly more colorful and the city more beautiful. Each day the girl plants more seeds—in abandoned parks, near factories, and in places where people would normally gather. And, each day she brings more joy to the people living in the city who are amazed by all of trees. At the end of the story, she finds herself walking down a dark alley when a young thief runs up and attempts to grab her sack of acorns. She smiles and gives him the same bargain knowing that the seeds may change his life, too.
The Promise is an excellent story for discussing environmental discourses along with the theme of paying forward. Both have the potential to be presented in ways that are simplistic and uninspiring. However, the illustrations help us to see the connections of paying forward and the impact that one can have not only on others, but also on oneself. Davies and Carlin show how one does not have to have means to start making a positive difference. That is why it is important for the story to return to a dark and lonely alley where the girl is approached in much the same manner as the old woman.
One of the flaws in the story is that there is no reason for the girl to be overjoyed with the green acorn seeds when she opens the bag she snatched. In fact, her reason for stealing was in hopes of finding food or money. The seeds are not going to quell her hunger. In fact, the seeds have no value unless they are planted. Her happiness with the seeds and excitement in planting them is not motivated by her reasons for stealing—to get food. Therefore, there is a disconnect in the story line. Another flaw is that Davies depicts the young girl as being mean because her environment is mean. She completely sidesteps the fact that the girl is a hungry child trying to survive on the streets. In hindsight, I’m wondering if the girl ever received anything tangible to pay forward. After all, instead of finding food or money in the bag so she could eat, the girl finds acorn seeds that she plants, as promised, for the old woman.
Judi: Yes, this girl survives by stealing. She describes her city as “mean and hard and ugly.” (The child does not describe herself as “mean.”) I think the author and the illustrator communicate the word “mean” in a different way than Deborah does. Laura Carlin’s gloomy illustrations portray this harsh and hostile urban setting. Clearly, this environment has affected the child and made her feel as barren as the place she lives where “nothing grew. Everything was broken. No one ever smiled.”
Deb and I see the “seeds” differently, too. I believe the author is using the “seeds” metaphorically and that the girl also sees the seeds in terms of their symbolism—hope. When the child planted the acorns among the “rubble, ruins, and rusty railings,” in the broken-glass soil of gardens and abandoned parks, she “pushed aside the mean and hard and ugly” and “planted, planted, planted.”
The story does not end with the child’s discovery of the seeds (rather than food or money) in the bag. The child narrator goes from city to city planting acorns and spreading beauty until another thief steals her bag. She makes the same bargain with the thief—the promise—to plant the contents of the bag “knowing how a heart can change.”
This story could be set in any country around the world where children living in urban areas go hungry. I do not know about community gardens in other countries but in schools and neighborhood across the U.S., youth and families are coming together to turn schoolyards and abandoned urban land into community gardens. In Berkeley, California, students, teachers, and neighborhood volunteers at the Martin Luther King Junior Middle School have collaborated to sustain an “edible schoolyard,” which is totally integrated into the middle science curricula. The Edible Schoolyard Berkeley project has been going strong for almost twenty years. Recently, they have offered family nights during which the middle school students teach their families what they are learning about growing, preparing, and serving nutritious meals. See the video about the “Family Nights Out” classes on their homepage. I see this as an example of the kind of community activism this author and illustrator hope to inspire in readers.
The Soda Bottle School: A True Story of Recycling, Teamwork, and One Crazy Idea by Seño Laura Kutner and Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Aileen Darragh (Tilberry House 2015)
Judi: Fernando’s school in Granados, Guatemala, was crowded and noisy. Due to a shortage of funds, there were unfinished classrooms. Before his favorite teacher Seño Laura came to his school, Fernando had been the only person in the school who wore glasses—glasses, which according to Fernando helped the two of them see things others could not—including new ideas.
While the village needed more classroom space, there was something the neighborhood had plenty of—trash. There was no dump and lots and lots of plastic water and soda bottles, chip bags, and grocery sacks piling up everywhere because there was no place to put their trash.
One day, Fernando watched as Seño Laura placed her empty plastic soda bottle down next to one of the metal frames for the unfinished classrooms. The boy noticed the bottle was the same width as the metal bars. This gave Fernando the idea to use empty soda bottles to build classroom walls.
The whole community came together to collect empty plastic bottles and stuff them with trash. They called these eco-ladrillos. After they cleaned up Granados, the children walked to nearby towns to collect more bottles and trash. They stuffed bottles until they had 6,000. Using existing metal frames and chicken wire, Fernando and his friends used the eco-ladrillos to build the walls, which they also plastered with cement, to create the new classrooms. Village masons poured cement floors and welders installed windows and doors. Finally, the children painted the walls with rainbow colors.
Fifteen months after Fernando had the idea to reuse trash to build new classrooms, the village held a fiesta to celebrate. News of this success story spread to neighboring villages that also used their trash to build new schools, recycling centers, and more.
According to the authors’ note, at least twenty-nine other communities have built similar structures by recycling trash. Coauthor Laura Kutner said she wrote the book because she wanted to “inspire young readers to believe in themselves and work together to make the world a better place, and have fun at the same time.”
Deb: When I first read this book, I was uncomfortable with the eco-ladrillo solution eliminating waste by using it to build new structures. The idea of creating a classroom with plastic bottles raised questions for me about the viability as a healthy, sustainable solution. We know that ingredients used to make plastic bottles can be toxic to the environment over time. Michael Todd (2013) writes, “. . . as plastics degrade. . .their properties can change.” He further notes that many of these plastics can be ingested or inhaled with potentially malign effects at the cellular level. So how are we to conceive of plastic bottles as an environmentally safe solution for a structural addition to a school? Prior to using an eco-ladrillo solution to the problems presented, how rich of an experience this would have been for Fernando and his classmates if they were given the opportunity to problematize their solution. As a STEM project, problematizing the solution and investigating its feasibility would give students a wonderful opportunity to incorporate environmental science into their solution.
Judi: This true story captures the potential of children to solve problems over which adults may have thrown up their hands. Fernando’s imagination that solved two of his village’s problems is an inspiration. His idea to put the community’s trash to good use to build his school’s abandoned, unfinished classrooms made Fernando and his classmates change agents in improving their own opportunities for learning.
Fernando’s idea also brought all the people of Granados together in ways that others may not have imagined possible. The community project demonstrated the power of people to work together to improve their lives. The oft-cited Margaret Meade quote comes to mind: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
This story may inspire readers to consider the many ways they can improve their classrooms, schools, communities, and world. U.S. students may want to connect with children in other parts of the world who seek to solve problems in their communities. Children may challenge students in other classrooms to recycle and repurpose materials for new and creative uses.
The Kids Invention Book by Arlene Erlbach (Lerner, 1999), still available in paperback, may support readers in thinking about how youth have used their creativity and problem-solving skills to make things that are useful to themselves and others. Websites like Green Planet 4 Kids can provide additional inspiration and can launch and support students’ inquiry learning. Reading this book in the context of values and a global perspective may also expand students’ thinking about the purposes for which they make things in their library or classroom makerspaces.
Deb: I agree with Judi. I really liked the way the project was a student’s creative address to a problem. The Soda Bottle School is a powerful true story that shows children how they can be effective problem solvers and create positive change for their community. The book provides is an excellent starting point for introducing problem posing as well as problem solving. However, the project (and all projects that are solutions to problems) need to consider the long-term ramifications—socially, culturally, and scientifically.
Judi: I would need more information to know if the plastic in the bottles the children reused would cause less, as much, or more harm to the environment if left lying on the ground. Yes, the problem of trash is enormous in all countries around the world. U.S. students reading The Soda Bottle School might consider how much trash they and their families or their school’s cafeteria produce every day and explore where their own community dumps trash and how recycling is handled in their town or city.
Twenty-two Cents: Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank by Paula Yoo, illustrated by Jamel Akib (Lee & Low Books, 2014)
Deb: Twenty-two Cents is a delightfully true story about Muhammad Yunus who became best known for creating the microcredit bank for the poor. Beginning at the young age of four, Muhammad had developed a strong interested in helping people in need. As a Boy Scout, he helped to raise money for those who had few means.
Muhammad noticed how just a few coins could buy enough rice to feed a family for an entire week.
As a young man, Muhammad decided to study economics so that he could learn how to teach people to borrow and manage their money. He then took a position at Middle Tennessee State University in 1970. He became very worried about the tensions in his home countries, Bangladesh and Pakistan. He returned to his war torn country that had also been stricken by a severe drought that destroyed crops. Many of those in his country were living on just handfuls of rice and twigs to eat. Muhammad took his knowledge of economics to his village where he learned how people survived on so little.
Muhammad met a young woman named Sufiya who wove bamboo into beautiful stools. She was weak and malnourished but trying to raise money for her family to eat. She just needed twenty-two cents to purchase bamboo to make stools to sell, but nowhere could she go to get a loan. Banks would never loan such a small amount, so she had to go to a mahajon, a moneylender, to borrow the money at a very high interest rate. After paying the money back, she was left with two cents—hardly enough to feed her family. Muhammad was touched by her story and at first thought about giving her the money as it was such a small amount to him.
But Muhammad hesitated. If he gave Sufiya the money, she would always be dependent on strangers for charity. Giving her the twenty-two cents would not solve her problems in the long run. He needed to figure out a way to help Sufiya and others in her situation break out of the cycle of poverty.
This realization inspired Muhammad to create the first microcredit bank, Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. The microcredit system has since spread throughout the world to help families fund a small business that would allow them to have a sustainable living that is independent from any single source.
Muhammad Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 in addition to numerous other awards and forty-eight honorary doctorate degrees.
Judi: Dr. Yunus’s life and work are an inspiration for all readers. Fortunately for younger readers, his picture book biography tells how Muhammad Yunus was an empathetic person from a young age. Author Paula Yoo opens the book with a story of how eight-year-old Yunus was looking forward to eating a treat his mother had prepared for him and his eight siblings. When a poor woman and her child came to the door, Yunus gave them his food. Being charitable to others was something that Yunus learned in his home. His mother was known in the community as someone who fed the poor and gave them money and her children’s outgrown clothing.
Young Muhammad was guided in helping others in his community. His father encouraged Muhammad and his brothers to join the Boy Scouts. It was during Boy Scout outings that young Muhammad saw the slums where the poorest Bangladeshi people lived without fresh water and clean food. His Boy Scout troop raised money for the poor by polishing boots and selling books and tea.
Children reading this book may make connections to the caring adults in their lives who guide them in learning empathy and compassion for others, particularly for their less-privileged neighbors. Adults reading this book may think about how they influence youth and how they prepare young people to act on behalf of others in their own communities or around the world.
Deb: This true story depicts what the Chinese proverb: Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime. This short biography demonstrates the power of responsible giving so that the receiver can be self-sufficient. Twenty-two Cents not only demonstrates a real life example of this, but it also provides the reader with an economics lesson against a backdrop of a particular historical period during the ‘70s when Bangladesh was suffering from the aftermath of war that included grinding poverty and starvation.
As a picture book, this book really gives the reader a lot to process. The story includes events during the ‘70s such as anti-war demonstrations in D.C. as well as concepts of banking, to cite just a couple. Thus, there will need to be some development of background knowledge for the reader to fully understand the story and the incredible impact Muhammad Yunus had on banking for the poor and the assistance he gave them so that they can be financially independent. For teachers, this is an excellent resource to launch a social studies unit on economics and banking, aid vs. development, responsible giving, and about the issues facing not only Bangladesh but also the United States during this historical period.
Judi: I agree that helping young readers understand more about the historical events that occur during the story and about Bangladeshi culture will help them get the most out of this book. Illustrator Jamil Akib’s chalk pastels portray these events and cultural components, but there are aspects of Dr. Yunus’s life and times that will be unfamiliar to many readers.
In addition, many U.S. children who read this book today may have read or heard unkind, even racist, remarks about Muslims in the media or in their homes and neighborhoods. For me, the author missed an opportunity by not noting in the story or in the afterword that Dr. Yunus is Muslim. In fact, when he received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2010, he was the first American Muslim recipient of the award, the most prestigious award distributed by the U.S. Congress. Knowing this aspect of Muhammad Yunus’s biography may help non-Muslim young people wonder about how his religious beliefs influenced his life choices. After learning about Dr. Yunus’s work and his dream for a world without poverty may cause readers to question comments made by others who stereotype Muslims or denigrate the Islamic faith.
My Heart Will Not Sit Down by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Ann Tanksley (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012)
Deb: My Heart Will Not Sit Down is based on a true story about a young girl, Kedi, who finds out from her American teacher that the United States is embroiled in a major economic crisis—The Great Depression. It all began one day at school when Kedi’s American teacher told the class about the crisis and that many people in his “village” of New York City were starving because they did not have enough money to buy food.
Kedi is shocked by this news and cannot stop thinking about the people in New York who will go to bed hungry because they have no food to eat. She asked Mama, the women down by the river, the old men playing a game of stones, and finally the headman of the village for money to send to the village of New York City. No one had any money to send across the great salt river (the Atlantic Ocean) to America.
One morning as Kedi was heading off to school, Mama called her back and handed her something. It was a single small coin to give to her teacher.
“Little one,” she said, “give this to Teacher, for the people in his village. Tax time is not here yet. We will find a way.”
Kedi runs off to school to give the coin to Teacher but knows this is far from enough to help the teacher’s village. As she sits in class, she wonders about how many children there are in New York. When Teacher tells her about the large population in New York, Kedi becomes tearful and embarrassed to give her teacher such a small donation. . . until she heard the sound of the villagers’ footsteps leading up to the school.
One by one, the people went up with their money, till it poured from the Teacher’s open hands. Kedis small bright coin glittered among the rest.
The author’s note states,
My Heart Will Not Sit Down was inspired by a true event. In 1931, the city of New York received a gift of $3.77 to feed the hungry. It came from the African country of Cameroon.
Judi: The expression “my heart stands up and it will not sit down” comes from the Bulu people who live in southern Cameroon. This translation of their language provides a powerful metaphor for social justice activism. When we hear of other people’s suffering or injustice, our hearts take notice—they stand up. Once we have knowledge of the plight of others, we cannot turn away; our hearts will not rest until we act.
Ann Tanksley’s watercolor, pen and ink, and oil paintings portray aspects of Bulu culture at the time this story occurred. She shows the people harvesting peanuts and yams, pounding cassava, carrying water pots on their heads, weaving baskets, and playing a game with stones. She contrasts this agrarian culture on the title page illustration where she illustrates the New York City skyline across the “salt ocean” and on a double-page spread that shows a multi-ethnic street scene in the “village” of New York.
For me, this story makes a strong statement in terms of how tender-hearted children experience empathy toward those who are less fortunate. Expressing compassion for other human beings should not be limited by one’s age or by geography; it should not be limited by comparing one’s relative affluence to that of others. Kedi’s compassion and sense of responsibility to help hungry people she would never meet influenced the adults in her Cameroon village and they, too, gave to help the less fortunate.
Deb: This story left me very conflicted about the acceptance of the gift from the villagers. However, I rather liked having this unsettling feeling because the story leaves much to wonder. For example, should the teacher have accepted the money from the villagers who themselves were making ends meet through a subsistence living? By accepting the money, did he make sure that it went to a soup kitchen or other public assistance program? Given the financial sacrifice the villagers made, he at least owed that to them. If the teacher refused the money based on the financial sacrifice the villagers had to make, he would have humiliated the villagers and denied them the opportunity to give.
My Heart Will Not Sit Down is definitely a story that has a lot of potential for teaching children about giving and giving responsibly. The teacher could have facilitated this by identifying a source other than the State of New York as the receiver of the gift. Perhaps a foundation could have been started with the small gift so that it would have the potential to keep on giving. Then the school children and villagers would have an opportunity to expand their learning about impact giving and even begin a fund for those in their own community.
Judi: In her author’s note, Mara Rockliff connects this story with other true stories of people who have given what they can to help others. Children in Santo Domingo, Guatemala collected aluminum cans to help feed hungry children in the country of Malawi in Africa. Islanders in Papua, New Guinea wrote to the United States government to ask that homeless people in the U.S. be given land on which to grow their own food.
Young readers may be aware of people who give money or work in community food banks and soup kitchens. They may not know about groups that work to solve the root causes of hunger and poverty in the U.S. and around the world. This could be an opportunity for students to inquire more deeply about social injustice and discover how they might take action.
As Mara Rockliff notes: “This book belongs to everyone whose heart will not sit down.” I believe this expression applies equally and powerfully to anyone who understands as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Deb and Judi: We hope My Take/Your Take Book Dialogues readers will consider sharing and giving young people opportunities to respond to global literature that portrays or could inspire social justice activism. “Stories summon us to wisdom, strength, and delight and make the richness of imagination available to all of us in order to envision a better world and to take action that makes a difference. Stories have the power to direct and change our lives and world—if we provide the time and space necessary for their role in meaning making, life making, and world making” (Short, 2012, p. 17).
Short, Kathy G. (2012). Story as world making. Language Arts, 90(1), 9-17.