Tolerance, Racism and Prejudice in Kids' and Young Adult Books for the Classroom for Preschool through Grade 9

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Featured Subject with Novels, Picture Books, Nonfiction, Discussion Starters and Classroom Activities

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The books recommended here deal specifically with issues of racism, prejudice and tolerance. In addition, in the US, we want to fill our classrooms with books featuring African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and Hispanic Americans.

The historical and contemporary realities of race relations in the US and around the world are sobering. Teachers play a vital role in helping the next generation understand the problem and create solutions.

So much of this depends on not hiding from the painful parts and developing a sense of empathy and hopefulness on all sides. Novels, picture books and compelling nonfiction are the ideal gateway to this process.

cover art Racism and tolerance is a great cross-curriculum topic for elementary and middle school students. There are obvious connections between the books below and history and government studies. However, in the activities here you'll also find connections to geography, art, science, physical education, math, social skills, music, and writing.

All this, of course, comes out of a literature-based classroom unit based on fabulous novels, picture books (even for older students) and nonfiction (the so-called "informational texts" of the Common Core State Standards). It's in the language arts that our reading can strengthen our sense of empathy, so important in this area. Studies show that kids who read more have a much stronger ability to empathize so let's saturate our classrooms with wonderfully written books populated by fully realized characters from fact and fiction.

See also Slavery in Children's Books (Featured Subject with activities, related books and links) and Martin Luther King Day (Topic Page with links to related articles) and Native Americans in Kids' Books (Featured Subject with activities, related books and links).

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Classroom Discussion and Activity Ideas

What is the history of racism? Who have been the central figures? How has the government supported or fought racism? What are the legal issues involved?

In math there are rich sources for working with statistics with students. What are the proportions of different racial and ethnic groups in your school, your community, your state or province, your country, the world?

For older students you can do more and more complex computations with statistics regarding income, social economic mobility, life expectancy, disease and occupations.

In music there are both moving songs of the suffering caused (think spirituals, the blues and rap) as well as the vibrant music of the various cultures.

There is a similar breadth of riches available in the visual arts . . . view pieces, read about them, create projects with similar themes of suffering and rising up or projects using similar styles or materials.

For health and physical education there are the previously mentioned statistics on life expectancy as well as other health measurements including specific diseases and access to health care. Dance is also a wonderful way to explore racism, oppression and struggle. Like music there are dances which express the effects of racism itself as well as dances of the various cultures.

In science and technology we can look at the breakthroughs of inventors and scientists of the oppressed races as well as exploring ways in which technology can widen or narrow achievement gaps.

For geography there are lots of mapping activities regarding racism (think the Trail of Tears, Great Migration, Japanese relocation camps). You can also look at the ways geography has affected race relations such as the relocating of Native Americans to inferior lands and the natural resources of the North and South and their effects on slavery. The early slave trade routes and the ancient migrations and development of the races are both rich with geography.

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The Books

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Grades 4 - 8
The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis. Novel. 224 pages.
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This is a very special book. It starts with humor and ends with tragedy. Byron Watson lives in Michigan with his parents, brother and sister. Most of the first part of the book is devoted to the high-jinks, many of them hilarious, of Byron who walks on the edge of delinquency. His parents are finally pushed into doing something drastic about Byron. The decision is made to drive to Birmingham, where Mrs. Watsons' mother lives and leave Byron with her for the summer. The real climax, however, comes when the church where his sister is at Sunday school is bombed. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.

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Grades 5 - 8
The Moves Make the Man by Bruce Brooks. Novel. 256 pages.
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Jerome Foxworthy, 13, ace student, first black in an all-white school and a basketball fanatic, narrates this story of his friendship with Bix. Bix's game is baseball, but Jerome recognizes in his skill the same passion and technical accuracy that he himself has in his sport. This is an exquisite portrait of Jerome, a bright, confident loner and Bix, distant and frightened, and the fragile friendship that develops between them. Read More.

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Grades 4 - 7
Thank You, Jackie Robinson by Barbara Cohen. Illustrated by John Steptoe. Novel. 128 pages.
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Sam Green is nuts about baseball. His mother runs an inn in New Jersey and Sam's best friend is Davy, the African American cook at the inn. They especially admire Jackie Robinson, the first black man in major league baseball. Together Davy and Sam set out to see a game at each ballpark within a day's drive of their home. They can't go any farther than that since, in the 1940's, segregation prevents Davy from entering any restaurant or hotel. When Davy has a heart attack, Sam musters up his courage and gets past many obstacles to get Jackie Robinson's autograph on a baseball for Davy, somehow convinced that the ball will make him better. Read More.

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Grades PreK - 8
Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Lionni. Picture Book. 48 pages.
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On a surface level, the book about friendship is easily understood by preschoolers. On a slightly deeper level, the story is about color and how primary colors can be combined to make secondary ones. Digging deeper, it may be viewed as an allegory for racism and, as such, is one to intrigue older readers and viewers. Read More.

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Grades 4 - 8
The Land by Mildred D. Taylor. Novel. 375 pages.
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The main character in this book, Paul Edward, is the Grandfather of Cassie Logan from Mildred D. Taylor's Newbery Award winning Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry making this a prequel. Slavery ended when he was still very young but he, his sister, and his mother have stayed on the plantation. Paul's mother is the cook and housekeeper. Paul was born from the partnership of a slave and the white master of the plantation in Mississippi. Paul's father acknowledges his black children and they are part of his family although they can't sit at the dinner table with them when they have white guests and they live with their mother away from the Big House. Read More.

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Grades 4 - 7
Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata. Novel. 256 pages.
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Kira-kira means glittering and this book glitters. It's narrated by Katie, the middle child in a hard working Japanese American family. Katie idolizes Lynn, her older sister, who takes time to teach Katie all the things she ought to know. In Katie's eyes, Lynn is beautiful and brilliant--kira-kira. While few people in Georgia are deliberately hateful toward the Japanese Americans who have come there to work in the factories, the racism is apparent. This is the 2005 Newbery Award Winner. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.

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Grades 3 - 9
Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli. Novel. 180 pages.
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Meet Jeffrey Lionel Magee, sometimes known as Maniac Magee, and the people of the fictional town of Two Mills. Maniac runs away from home and ends up in Two Mills, a racially split town where he becomes a catalyst for change. This excellent novel is about prejudice, love, home, baseball, fear and understanding. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.

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Grades 3 - 12
Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth by Anne Rockwell. Illustrated by Christie, R. Gregory. Picture Book, Nonfiction. 36 pages.
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The text is dramatic and gives information about slavery in the northern United States in the early 1800's because, of course, that's where the slave Isabelle, later to rename herself as Sojourner Truth lived her long and inspiring life. This is a picture book that you can use as low as third grade but don't let your high school students miss it either. Read More.

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Grades 7 - 12
They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an America Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. Nonfiction. 172 pages.
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In 2009 there were 932 active hate groups in the US including Ku Klux Klan chapters. This makes it more important than ever to have a book such as this which describes in great detail their early years. Bartoletti uses primary sources (newspapers, documented interviews, photographs and political cartoons) to great effect here. Her research is thorough and she writes about it brilliantly bringing it to frightening life for 21st century readers. Highly recommended. Read More.

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Grades 4 - 9
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson. Novel. 160 pages.
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In this Newbery Award winner, we meet Gilly, a foster child who has successfully manipulated the system for years. All that changes, however, when she is placed in the home of Mamie Trotter, an eccentric soul whose household consists of herself and W. E. (William Ernest) another foster child who, unlike Gilly, is fearful and easily intimidated. Next door neighbor Mr. Randolph, a blind African American and elderly gentleman, is a frequent visitor whom Gilly treats with contempt. Read More.

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