Back to Top

Finding Justice-Minded Books for Kids- Part 3

Depending on where you live, the new school year is either quickly approaching or has already begun! After noticing that some of the books we grew up reading were less than inclusive and made for attitudes about our neighbors that had to be unlearned, we started do parents and educators find books that both explicitly and implicitly support a cornerstone of our theology--that all people are made in the image of God? We've asked a number of justice-minded parents and educators for their thoughts, including Alyssa Van Erden (a 3rd grade teacher from Grandville, Michigan) and Liza and Steve van de Hoef (parents from Belleville, Ontario). Today we continue the series with Dorothy Vaandering, a former Grade 3 teacher and current professor of restorative justice in education at Memorial University in Newfoundland.

1. What are the questions you ask yourself when deciding what books to read to your students?

There are several things that go through my mind as I select books for children and youth. First, I find it important to remember that all books are written from a specific stance or worldview and as such can be opportunities for exploring social justice concerns. Second, I have taken time to define justice explicitly: justice is the capacity to honour the inherent worth and interconnectedness of all and recognizes that our well-being is nurtured by each other. Third, I use 3 questions as a filter for understanding the content of the book or video:

-Are people honoured for who they are as image bearers of God (regardless of their commitment to God)? 

-Are people measured and put into categories and thereby objectified?

-What message does the content leave the reader/viewer with?

How the content stands up to these questions will then guide how I use the book. If the characters are objectified and dishonoured, I might use the book as an example of how easy it is to marginalize people to make ourselves look better.

Other questions I use to expand on the message the story leaves us with as readers are: in this story, who is benefitting? Who is bearing the burden?  Stories in very subtle ways can send messages that perpetuate injustices of all kinds. Often the stories that might appear to be safe are moralistic and full of stereotypes (i.e. think Disney)

2. What are some of the challenges you've faced when trying to incorporate justice into your curriculum, especially when searching for books?

The biggest challenge is recognizing and accepting that my own perspective might actually promote injustice. As a member of a dominant class of people (white, middle class, able-bodied, Christian, heterosexual, Canadian) my default is to want to ‘help’ people who are less ‘privileged’ than I am. In so doing, I have come to realize that ‘helping’ has great potential for patting myself on the back and reinforcing the standards that lock marginalized peoples in their places. Thus, I need to be very aware of the lens I am ‘looking through’ to consider if literature is appropriate and nurturing of the well-being of all peoples.

A second challenge is being tempted to think that some curriculum doesn’t need to include justice concepts. The easy example is to think that math or science is more factual and so I don’t need to consider how these curriculum concepts can perpetuate harm. Yet these and all subject areas have hidden messages woven throughout. 

Finding good quality literature takes time. But we live in a time when these resources are becoming more abundant.

3. Where do you see racism and injustice most prevalent in curriculum and "conventional" (or widely used) children books?

Injustices are prevalent first in what or who is NOT being included in the content and second in HOW marginalized groups are presented. Omitting segments of society or certain topics is an incredibly subtle way of perpetuating injustice (i.e. disabled, Indigenous, same-sex & single parent families, impoverished, etc.)  Equally harmful is inclusion of these groups in ways that are tokenistic or stereotypical. (i.e. Have characters been included simply to show that they are present? Are they in roles that reinforce a particular expectation of ‘normal’?)

A prominent example of this today in Canada is how Indigenous peoples are included, excluded, or portrayed. We, as educators and parents who are not Indigenous, must humbly acknowledge that our Indigenous neighbours have suffered and continue to suffer incredible abuses. We need to learn how to create spaces for literature and content that honours the depth of wisdom and insight that comes from their cultures. To do this, we need to include some of the growing amount of quality literature that is being written by Indigenous peoples themselves and invite Indigenous peoples into our classrooms and our lives to read this literature and tell their stories.   

4. How can parents and teachers support each other in teaching solidarity and social justice principles to their children?

Create spaces that are welcoming and open for dialogue. As educators we need to inform the parents of our children about the experiences the students are having as well as invite them into our classrooms. As parents we need to share the insights and resources we have with our children’s teachers. It would be great to organize meetings where educators and parents together explore their capacity for perpetuating and addressing injustices as a school community. Sharing resources is also very important so we all continue to learn. We live in incredibly exciting times when we are learning so much about justice and injustice and how we can make a difference in the world just in how we live daily.

As teachers are preparing for the school year, what are a few social justice oriented books that you could recommend for them to share with their students? What are some of your favourite books that are especially inclusive of different races and cultures? 

There are many. Three of my favourite books at the moment are:

Campbell, N. I. (2008). Shi-shi-etko. (K. LaFave, Illus.). Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books.

Campbell, N. I. (2008). Shin-chi’s canoe. (K. LaFave, Illus.). Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books.

Aliki (1998) Marianthe’s Story: Painted Words & Spoken Memories. NY: Greenwillow Books.

Also I would highly recommend three websites:

Canadian Literature for Social Justice 

10 Ways Well-Meaning White Teachers bring Racism into Schools

Rethinking Schools

And one video:

Mickey Mouse Monopoly: Disney, Childhood and Corporate Power (Art Media Production)

[Image: Flickr user Rishi S.]

The Reformed family is a diverse family with a diverse range of opinions. Not all perspectives expressed on the blog represent the official positions of the Christian Reformed Church. Learn more about this blog, Reformed doctrines, and our diversity policy on our About page.

In order to steward ministry shares well, commenting isn’t available on Do Justice itself because we engage with comments and dialogue in other spaces. To comment on this post, please visit the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue’s Facebook page (for Canada-specific articles) or the Office of Social Justice’s Facebook page. Alternatively, please email us. We want to hear from you!

Read more about our comment policy.