Addressing Race and Racism with Readers

This week and throughout the coming month, the United States marks several notable anniversaries: The 2nd anniversary of George Floyd’s death on May 25, the 101st anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre on May 30, and Juneteenth on June 19 commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in Texas.

These events are emblematic of a long and continuing reckoning with racism in the US. While educators, librarians, and parents recognize the importance of discussing these distant and not-so-distant histories with readers of all ages, approaching these topics requires care, nuance, and consideration for students’ own experiences.

Below is a selection of books—both fiction and nonfiction—that offer historical context and provide foundations for discussions about race. We’ve also included links to downloadable teaching guides where available to help further facilitate discussions with readers.

Today Is Different

  • Interest Level: Kindergarten – Grade 3
  • Reading Level: Grade 2

Mai, a young Hmong girl, and Kiara, a young Black girl, are best friends. They do everything together—riding the bus, eating lunch, playing at recess. But one day Kiara misses school and Mai goes looking for answers. When she learns that her best friend is protesting an act of police violence against the Black community, Mai decides to join the protest too. Her parents at first want to protect her by keeping her at home, but she shows them that standing together makes all of us stronger.

Written by author and actor Doua Moua, this picture book provides an inspiring look at the value of allyship and solidarity with Black Lives Matter.

Come Together, Change the World: A Sesame Street® Guide to Standing Up for Racial Justice

  • Interest Level: Preschool – Grade 2
  • Reading Level: Kindergarten

What can you do to stand up for racial kindness?

Elmo and friends learn along with young readers about racial justice. Inspired by CNN and Sesame Street’s Town Hall, Coming Together: Standing Up to Racism, this gentle guide helps kids celebrate what makes them special, use words to talk about race, and understand why it is important to treat everyone fairly.

Call Me Miss Hamilton: One Woman’s Case for Equality and Respect

  • Interest Level: Grade 2 – Grade 5
  • Reading Level: Grade 3

Mary Hamilton grew up knowing right from wrong. She was proud to be Black, and when the chance came along to join the Civil Rights Movement and become a Freedom Rider, she was eager to fight for what she believed in. Mary was arrested again and again—and she did not back down when faced with insults or disrespect. In an Alabama court, a white prosecutor called her by her first name, but she refused to answer unless he called her “Miss Hamilton.” The judge charged her with contempt of court, but that wasn’t the end of it. Miss Mary Hamilton fought the contempt charge all the way to the Supreme Court.

Powerful free verse from Carole Boston Weatherford and striking scratchboard illustrations by Jeffery Boston Weatherford, accompanied by archival photographs, honor this unsung heroine who took a stand for respect—and won.

 Ruth and the Green Book

  • Interest Level: Grade 2 – Grade 5
  • Reading Level: Grade 3

Ruth was so excited to take a trip in her family’s new car! In the early 1950s, few African Americans could afford to buy cars, so this would be an adventure. But she soon found out that black travelers weren’t treated very well in some towns. Many hotels and gas stations refused service to black people. Daddy was upset about something called Jim Crow laws . . .

Finally, a friendly attendant at a gas station showed Ruth’s family The Green Book. It listed all of the places that would welcome black travelers. With this guidebook—and the kindness of strangers—Ruth could finally make a safe journey from Chicago to her grandma’s house in Alabama.

Ruth’s story is fiction, but The Green Book and its role in helping a generation of African American travelers avoid some of the indignities of Jim Crow are historical fact.

Harriet Tubman: Abolitionist and American Hero

From the Series Boss Lady Bios (Alternator Books ®)

  • Interest Level: Grade 3 – Grade 6
  • Reading Level: Grade 4

Harriet Tubman dreamed of freedom from a young age. After suffering enslavement in her early life, Tubman escaped to freedom through the secret network of the Underground Railroad. From then on, she devoted herself to freeing and helping others. She led daring escapes along the Railroad, traveling by night and wearing clever disguises so she and her “passengers” could avoid capture. During the Civil War, she served as a nurse and spy for the Union Army and even led a raid. Learn about Tubman’s extraordinary life and how she kept fighting for freedom and justice.

Jim Crow: Segregation and the Legacy of Slavery

From the Series American Slavery and the Fight for Freedom (Read Woke™ Books)

  • Interest Level: Grade 4 – Grade 8
  • Reading Level: Grade 4

Even after the institution of slavery became illegal, the legacy of slavery continued through injustices created by the Jim Crow laws. Learn more about these discriminatory laws that have shaped America’s past and present.

Get the American Slavery and the Fight for Freedom Teaching Guide >

Mass Incarceration, Black Men, and the Fight for Justice

From the Series Issues in Action (Read Woke™ Books)

  • Interest Level: Grade 4 – Grade 8
  • Reading Level: Grade 4

In the United States, Black men are almost six times more likely to be imprisoned than white men. This disproportionate impact can be traced back to slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the criminalization of Black people into the modern day. With growing awareness about unfair treatment in the justice system, more and more people are calling for change. Read more about the history and causes of mass incarceration and how activists are reforming and rethinking justice.

Get the Issues in Action Teaching Guide >

Focus on Civil Rights Sit-Ins

From the Series History in Pictures (Read Woke™ Books)

  • Interest Level: Grade 4 – Grade 8
  • Reading Level: Grade 4

The civil rights movement started in the mid-1950s. Fueled heavily by young adults, the movement saw many people protest to demand equal rights for Black people. Through photographs from the time, learn about the many individuals and groups who fought for change, from Freedom Riders to the Greensboro Four to the Tougaloo Nine. Then discover the civil rights movement’s connection to modern issues and see how today’s youth activists continue leading the way.

Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre

  • Interest Level: Grade 3 – Grade 6
  • Reading Level: Grade 4
  • Winner of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards for Author and Illustrator
  • A Caldecott Honor Book
  • A Sibert Honor Book
  • Longlisted for the National Book Award
  • A Kirkus Prize Finalist
  • A Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book

Celebrated author Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrator Floyd Cooper provide a powerful look at the Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the worst incidents of racial violence in our nation’s history. The book traces the history of African Americans in Tulsa’s Greenwood district and chronicles the devastation that occurred in 1921 when a white mob attacked the Black community.

News of what happened was largely suppressed, and no official investigation occurred for seventy-five years. This picture book sensitively introduces young readers to this tragedy and concludes with a call for a better future.

Download the free educator guide here:

A Spy Called James: The True Story of James Lafayette, Revolutionary War Double Agent

  • Interest Level: Grade 2 – Grade 5
  • Reading Level: Grade 2

Told for the first time in picture book form is the true story of James Lafayette—an enslaved person who spied for George Washington’s army during the American Revolution.

After his resounding defeat at the battle of Yorktown, British general Charles Cornwallis made a point of touring the American camp, looking for the reason behind his loss. What he didn’t expect to see was James, an escaped enslaved person who had served as a guide to the British army. Or at least that’s what Cornwallis was led to believe. In fact, James wasn’t actually a runaway—he was a spy for the American army.

But while America celebrated its newfound freedom, James returned to slavery in Virginia. His service as a spy hadn’t qualified him for the release he’d been hoping for. For James the fight wasn’t over; his next adversary was the Virginia General Assembly. He’d already helped his country gain its freedom, now it was time to win his own.

Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship

  • Interest Level: Grade 3 – Grade 6
  • Reading Level: Grade 4

Two poets, one white and one black, explore race and childhood in this must-have collection tailored to provoke thought and conversation.

How can Irene and Charles work together on their fifth grade poetry project? They don’t know each other . . . and they’re not sure they want to.

Irene Latham, who is white, and Charles Waters, who is Black, use this fictional setup to delve into different experiences of race in a relatable way, exploring such topics as hair, hobbies, and family dinners. Accompanied by artwork from acclaimed illustrators Sean Qualls and Selina Alko (of The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage), this remarkable collaboration invites readers of all ages to join the dialogue by putting their own words to their experiences.

Black Lives Matter: From Hashtag to the Streets

From the Series The Fight for Black Rights (Alternator Books®)

  • Interest Level: Grade 3 – Grade 6
  • Reading Level: Grade 4

What is the Black Lives Matter movement? How have people been protesting the ongoing violence against the Black community? From its inception as a social media hashtag in 2013 to a movement with supporters around the world, Black Lives Matter has become much more than a slogan. It has changed the way people protest using social media as well as the public discourse around police brutality. Learn about how Black Lives Matter has roots in America’s long struggle for racial justice and how the movement will change the future.

The Civil Rights Movement

From the Series Movements That Matter (Alternator Books® )

  • Interest Level: Grade 3 – Grade 6
  • Reading Level: Grade 4

Civil rights have been in the news with the rise of Black Lives Matter, Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem at NFL games, and more. Yet civil rights activists have many other causes they are fighting for, such as calling attention to police brutality and combating racism in everyday life.

The Civil Rights Movement started in the 1800s and remains a prominent movement within our modern society. Find out how activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer set the stage for activists in modern times and learn how activists are speaking out today to expand rights for African Americans.

Let ‘Er Buck! George Fletcher, the People’s Champion

  • Interest Level: Grade 3 – Grade 6
  • Reading Level: Grade 4

In 1911, three men were in the final round of the famed Pendleton Round-Up. One was white, one was Indian, and one was black. When the judges declared the white man the winner, the audience was outraged. They named black cowboy George Fletcher the “people’s champion” and took up a collection, ultimately giving Fletcher far more than the value of the prize that went to the official winner. Award-winning author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson tells the story of Fletcher’s unlikely triumph with a western flair that will delight kids—and adults—who love true stories, unlikely heroes, and cowboy tales.

Martin Luther King Jr.: Walking in the Light

From the Series Gateway Biographies

  • Interest Level: Grade 4 – Grade 8
  • Reading Level: Grade 5

Martin Luther King Jr. was an influential and inspiring leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. His life, work, and death are brought to life for readers like never before.

Locked Up for Freedom: Civil Rights Protesters at the Leesburg Stockade

  • Interest Level: Grade 5 – Grade 8
  • Reading Level: Grade 5

In 1963, more than 30 African-American girls ages 11 to 16 were arrested for taking part in Civil Rights protests in Americus, Georgia. They were taken without their families’ knowledge to a Civil War–era stockade in Leesburg, Georgia, where they were confined in unsanitary conditions and exposed to brutal treatment. Over the following weeks, their commitment to the fight for equality was put to the test. Combining historical research and personal interviews with several of the girls, Heather E. Schwartz brings this true story of the Civil Rights Movement to life.

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