Three books for kids about the Civil Rights Movement

Last week I wrote on the importance of understanding the Civil Rights Movement, and today I want to share a few books that are a good entry point for discussing the movement with your kids.

henry's freedom box

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The first two are storybooks our family has had on the shelf for years. The first is Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine, a true story about a black man who mails himself in a crate from the South to the North, where he could be a free man. It’s a good introduction to the Underground Railroad and gives kids an idea of how scary and hard it was to escape slavery. The setting obviously predates the Civil Rights Movement, but it will give kids an idea of how long African Americans have been fighting for the rights they deserve.

ron's big mission

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The second book is Ron’s Big Mission by Rose Blue and Corinne J. Naden. The story is based on true events from the life of Ron McNair, who grew up to be an astronaut and died in the Challenger explosion. The book depicts McNair as a nine-year-old in South Carolina who loves to read and doesn’t understand why he can’t have a library card of his own. So he sets out to get one the only way he knows how. This one is a tear jerker, and I can’t read it aloud without my voice cracking.

the watsons go to birmingham—1963

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Last up is a young-adult novel titled The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis. A young black boy named Kenneth tells the story, which is mostly set in Flint, Michigan, in the early 1960s. Over the course of several chapters, Kenneth’s older brother Byron makes some bad decisions, so the family plans a trip to Birmingham to visit their maternal grandmother and, hopefully, get Byron straightened out. The trip doesn’t end like they planned, and there are lots of themes worthy of good family conversation in this book—love and how we show it, loyalty, integrity, and humor, to name a few.

The character development in this book is so effective, and the characters so relatable and sympathetic that you’ll fall in love with them in no time. That relatability can make for a good discussion too about how all people have some things in common, no matter their appearance or where they come from.

There is some occasional mild swearing in this book (think “hell,” “damn,” and “ass”), so keep that in mind when deciding if your child is ready for Watsons or not. Just as a reference point, my sister-in-law teaches sixth grade and incorporates this novel into her curriculum, and her students love it. Also, this book is a Newbery Honor winner.

Sweet stories with likeable characters—who doesn’t like that? I know some families (like ours) love to buy books for their kids for Christmas, so consider adding these to your list. And if you do, let me know how your family likes them. •

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