Teaching all sides of history and utilizing resources that aim to showcase diverse peoples is essential in the modern social studies classroom. Recognizing the unique struggles of people of color throughout history and empathizing with them takes precedence in learning, now more than ever.
Exposure to materials highlighting racial and cultural diversity, disabilities, and LGBTQIA representation in the elementary years helps students see beyond themselves and builds emotional connections to people who may be unlike themselves. There are thousands of children’s books on the market that are abstract and literal representations of diversity. Based on user reviews and content, I’ve selected a few for each grade level that are sure to impact students.
Separate Is Never Equal
Almost a decade before Brown v. Board of Education, Sylvia Méndez was denied enrollment to a whites-only segregated school. Despite the fact that she spoke perfect English, her parents were told that she must attend the “Mexican” school, which was farther away and underfunded. The Méndez family brought a case against the district and their fight helped end school segregation in California. A good touchstone for the history of diverse classrooms, Separate Is Never Equal presents a powerful account of inequality and racism in a way that both children and adults can understand and identify.
Let the Children March
Let the Children March, with its artfully simple language and beautiful illustrations, accounts how children volunteered to march for the civil rights movement when the financial repercussions were too dangerous for their parents. In May 1963, thousands of brave children took to the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, to march for civil rights. They were received by a hostile white police force, water hoses, and dogs. Many were jailed, and yet more children showed up day after day to keep on marching. Their perseverance and sheer bravery are depicted in this book.
Grace for President
Grace for President is a cute and thought-provoking introduction into teaching young students about elections. When Grace’s teacher reveals that the United States has never had a female president, Grace decides that she wants to be the nation’s first and immediately jump-starts her political career by running in her school’s mock election. When her male opponent makes the election process harder than she imagined, she must think outside the box to become the best person for the job. This timely story gives students a fun look into the American electoral system and teaches the value of hard work, courage, and independent thought.
Same, Same but Different
A positive, colorful juxtaposition of life from two perspectives across the globe, Same, Same but Different focuses on the importance of understanding and accepting other cultures. Elliot lives in America, and Kailash lives in India. They are pen pals, and through the exchange of letters and pictures, they learn that even though their worlds might look different, they are actually similar. This wonderful book celebrates the differences and similarities between the two characters and allows students to see American and Indian cultures side by side.
Baseball Saved Us
A historical children’s book, Baseball Saved Us depicts how baseball helped the Japanese American citizens who had been placed into internment camps during World War II find meaning and worth during their struggle. A wonderful asset to any early elementary social studies curriculum, the book allows students to understand how different groups of people were treated poorly and empathize with their experience. It also shows students that despite unfair odds, anyone can achieve great things, no matter what race, ethnicity, or background they come from.
Henry’s Freedom Box
Henry’s Freedom Box is a powerful story that can teach younger children about the Underground Railroad. It is the true story of Henry “Box” Brown, who mailed himself to freedom. His bravery and ingenuity will serve to inspire students and foster deeper discussions about the history of slavery. While the themes are heavy, the illustrations and textual words are age appropriate and work together to successfully convey the cruelty of slavery without the use of an overtly violent pictures or narrative. Young students will grasp the importance of the events in Henry’s life while recognizing the atrocity of slavery.
Julián Is a Mermaid
Albeit somewhat different than the others on this list, Julián Is a Mermaid is a story filled with heart and wonder that encourages self-expression and acceptance. Julián sees women dressed as mermaids on the subway, and he wants to be like them. While his grandmother is having a bath, he dresses himself up as a mermaid using a houseplant and some curtains. When his grandmother first sees him, she doesn’t look very happy. Julián thinks he’s going to be in trouble, but in the end, his grandmother encourages Julián to express and love himself. The heartwarming story shines a light on the LGBTQIA community but also shows children that they are most courageous when they stay true to themselves.
Inside Out & Back Again
Inspired by the author’s own immigrant experience, Inside Out & Back Again is an inspirational story sure to capture young readers’ hearts and open their eyes. Hà is only ten years old and doesn’t want to leave the place she has lived her whole life. Not only that, but she fears her missing father will never come back to them if they leave Vietnam. But leave they do. And when the family arrives in Alabama, they are met with suspicion and racism. Neighbors refuse to talk to them until they convert to Christianity, which they do, and even then Hà faces bullies every day at school. It is a beautiful novel, written completely in verse, that explores important themes of racial injustice, immigration, and Asian American culture.
Save Me a Seat
At its heart, Save Me a Seat is the age-old tale of two characters from different backgrounds that come together to face a common enemy. Ravi recently moved from India and is unfamiliar with the customs of the United States, which makes for some painfully awkward moments. Joe has auditory processing disorder, which makes some school tasks harder for him and him seem less capable than he is. Even though the characters are different, they have a lot in common: both are misunderstood, both are outsiders, and both are struggling to make friends. The story will remind students to empathize, find commonalities, seek to understand others around us, and not judge one another based on preconceptions or assumptions.
An inspiring story of struggle, hardship, and hope, Esperanza Rising will leave your students with much to discuss about race relations, prejudice, and human rights. Esperanza, the daughter of a wealthy landowner, and her mother must leave their home in Mexico and start over as farm workers in California after the death of her father. Set in the early 1930s, this book gives you a feel for the struggles of the Great Depression as well as California history. This novel serves to illuminate the unique plight of Mexican American laborers, including forced deportation, labor strikes, and discrimination. Filled with Spanish words and phrases, it’s a great introduction to multilingual learning and Mexican American culture.
A Boy Called Slow
A Boy Called Slow is the true story of the man who would become known as Sitting Bull, told from when he was a child. Since this boy does everything slow, that is what his name is. The only way he can change his name is by having a “dream” when he gets older. Rich with themes of Native American history and culture, the story encapsulates the early life of Sitting Bull in a way young children can understand. It is a relatable but truly unique coming-of-age story about how a young person’s journey can be defined through effort and bravery.
Number the Stars
Set in a German-occupied Denmark in World War II, Number the Stars tells the story of a teenager named Annemarie Johansen, whose family helps rescue her Jewish best friend, Ellen Rosen, and her family. The Johansens are ordinary people who take extraordinary risks to stand against injustice in the only way they know how: becoming active in the resistance movement, helping to smuggle targeted groups of people to safety. An award-winning classic for young readers, the novel is sentimental and thought-provoking but mostly an inspirational testament to the human spirit. A beautiful tribute to the Holocaust and Jewish culture, the story shows that everyday people can do incredibly courageous things when backed into a corner.
One Crazy Summer
One Crazy Summer is one part the tale of a family torn apart and one part recollection of the early days of the Black Panther movement. The story follows Delphine and her younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern, as they travel to Oakland to meet their biological mother. There, they encounter a very different mother than the one they pictured, who winds up sending the children to a nearby Black Panther summer camp. The story teaches students about the struggles African Americans faced during the civil rights movement and how far America still has to come. It recounts the excitement and myriad of changes during the 1960s while also exploring the resilience of children in a less-than-perfect world crafted by adults.
Wonder is a true gem of a book that will give students who look a little different or are bullied unconditional hope. The book details August Pullman’s journey into the fifth grade and serves as a stark and honest portrayal of the problems with being different. Though the story is mainly told through Auggie’s point of view, there are also five other perspectives for readers to see the story through. Each voice contributes superb developments to the plot and will help students understand Auggie’s life experiences. A heartwarming tale with surprising depth and insight into disabilities, this book will spark discussions about acceptance and kindness.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
The Newbery Medal winner Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is a classic middle-grades novel about families and the strong ties that bind them. Taking place in Mississippi in 1933, the novel takes on strong themes of postslavery and racism in America during the Great Depression. The narrator, a young black girl named Cassie, recounts an entire year as her family struggles keeping up with its cotton farm and endures cruel and harsh treatment from white neighbors. From this heartbreaking yet inspiring story, students will learn an enormous amount about the untiring battle against social injustices and racism and be able to compare and contrast themes that still resonate today.
Arguably one of the most impactful books to come out in recent years, Refugee teaches about the horrific plight of refugees from the perspective of different experiences. There are three separate stories told, each of which evokes empathy: Josef and his family in 1939 (Jews escaping Hitler’s Europe), Isabel and her family in 1994 (Cubans attempting to escape Castro), and Mahmoud and his family in modern day (Syrians trying to escape war-torn Aleppo and ISIS). Each family suffers in different ways but is commonly mistreated along the way. Compelling and relevant, the novel presents a juxtaposition of the human experience that will spark many discussions about history and modern-day immigration.
Stella by Starlight
A story with depth and some mature themes, Stella by Starlight is an important diversity resource. The story follows Stella, a young African American girl in the segregated south during the Jim Crow era. Her parents are hardworking individuals who value education and ethics in a world where they are treated unfairly because of the color of their skin. The active KKK in their town spread fear among the African American residents, but Stella is taught that courage begins with walking out of the house every day and facing your fears. Students will identify with Stella’s bravery and tenacity but also with her struggles to write and express her own story.
For additional diversity resources, access our collection of nonfiction Social Studies Readers through our Young Citizens platform
Monet Hendricks is the blog editor and social media/meme connoisseur for Social Studies School Service. Passionate about the field of education, she earned her BA from the University of Southern California before deciding to go back to get her master’s degree in educational psychology. She currently attends the graduate program at Azusa Pacific University pursuing advanced degrees in school psychology and Applied Behavior Analysis. Her favorite activities include watching documentaries on mental health and cooking adventurous vegetarian recipes.