What Does Social Justice Look Like in Children's Literature?

Many contemporary children’s novels aim to delve into the mind of a child and help them understand something about the world around them. For example, Where The Wild Things Are helps kids understand their anger and frustration, and The Giving Tree seeks to teach them about generosity and loyalty. In recent years, a trend has emerged in children’s literature towards more explicit exploration of social-justice and identity related issues.

When I visited a bookstore recently with a kid I babysit, I was very surprised by the children’s literature selection. Among the classic picture books that I grew up with, there were books like Jack (Not Jackie) which seeks to help children whose siblings are transgender make sense of their transition and explore early forms of frustration surrounding identity. There were also books like Don’t Touch My Hair! that hope to empower young black children to stand up against microaggressions long before they have the words for their frustration. For slightly older readers, there were books like Ghost Boys in which a young, black child is shot by the police for holding a toy gun and then, in the afterlife, meets the ghost of Emmett Till.

All of these books introduce children to aspects of the world that they may not understand yet but experience the consequences of nonetheless. By refusing to gloss over difficult issues or assume that children are too young to understand them, these authors are showing a great deal of respect for children and their individual identities and experiences. Even if a child cannot understand the larger framework into which these topics fit, they can connect with characters like them and see their own feelings and experiences represented on the page.

There is also an encouraging trend in children's literature towards telling stories that have gone unheard. For example, series like Little Feminists are designed to bring the stories of women who are often looked over in history into the spotlight. By making these stories known from an early age, authors are giving them importance, as well as giving young readers new role models to identify with. This can be seen as children’s authors refusing to give into the long history of marginalizing non-white, non-male voices and contributions in curriculum.

This movement toward socially aware children's literature is evident, but why is it emerging now? One possible explanation is that, in an increasingly ideologically divided international political climate, authors are recognizing the importance of empowering the youngest generation to stand up against injustice and fight for inclusion. When a cisgender child reads Jack (Not Jackie), they not only learn the importance of respecting everyone’s gender identity, but also that some individuals fall outside of “typical” gender expression. When a trans child reads it, they see a character who understands the conflict of not identifying with the way the world sees you, and they see a healthy example of a family’s love and support through the transitioning process. In addition to encouraging empathy and understanding, these books may also be a reflection of society beginning to form a deeper understanding of children and a deeper respect for their complexity as individuals.