No one is too young to make the world a better place!
Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize when she was only seventeen. She began her public life as an activist for girls’ education in Pakistan when she was just eleven years old, blogging about life under the Taliban. She’s proof that ordinary young people can have genuine influence on the world around them.
From looking after the environment to becoming conscious consumers, from agitating for social change to fostering ordinary bravery and kindness, here are some picture books to include in family life to help your kids become world-changers.
(And if you’re after more ideas on how kids can make the world a better place, I have a whole article on the topic here.)
My kids, aged five and two, adore this book! It’s one of the most popular books in the house, which goes to show ‘educational’ resource books can be every bit as appealing as ordinary story books.
This colourful and detailed picture book introduces us to Juliana, a banana farmer in the Windward Islands in the Caribbean, and her children, Bertha and Billy.
That alone makes it worth having, as a vivid, friendly introduction to a life most of us know little about. But it gets better.
Our kids are growing up in a globalised economy, and how they choose to spend their money, even as children, can have an influence on people they’ve never met.
Author and illustrator Ruth Walton does a wonderful job of drawing us into the family’s everyday life, and telling the inside story of how bananas go from farm to lunch-box.
Along the way, we learn about hurricanes, farming, supply chains, and how the fairtrade premium improves life for banana farmers, all while seeing that this family is pretty similar to our own, in all the important ways.
Juliana’s Bananas even includes recipes for smoothies and banana fritters that have become staples in our house, thanks to my kids’ enthusiasm for this book.
Juliana’s Bananas, by Ruth Walton (New Internationalist)
See also: this list of picture books about fair trade.
The Invisible Boy
For most kids, their first – and frequently repeated – opportunities to change the world for the better will be about social inclusion.
Brian feels invisible in his class. His teacher’s attention is taken up by louder students, and he’s not even chosen at all for the sports teams at recess.
When a new boy arrives, and is made fun of, Brian rises to the friendship occasion. A class project helps Justin and Brian become friends and leads to Brian’s inclusion with the wider group.
There are plenty of averagely mean kids in this book. They’re just normal kids, taking the path of least resistance and having devastating effects on the left out ones. Chat about all the choices the kids are making with your children as you read this, and practise what your child could say and do if they got picked first – or last – for games tomorrow.
The Invisible Boy, by Trudy Ludwig, illustrated by Patrice Barton (Knopf)
George Saves the World by Lunchtime
Just like many of the kids I know, George likes playing superheroes, complete with cape and undies on the outside of his trousers.
His wise Grandpa, with a twinkle in his eye, shows George a bunch of everyday things, like recycling his yoghurt pot, that can save the world, one small action at a time.
Together, they work in the garden, hang the washing to dry in the sunshine, visit the local recycling centre, and fix a toy instead of throwing it away.
This is a fun and useful book with vibrant illustrations, to show kids how their everyday actions make a difference to the planet.
George Saves the World by Lunchtime, by Jo Readman, illustrated by Ley Honor Roberts (Eden).
See also: We are extremely very good recyclers, by Lauren Child (Dial).
A is for Activist
Created by Indonesian-American change-maker Innosanto Nagara, it features all kinds of people (and a black cat to spot on every page) and is well worth getting your hands on.
This is a brilliant book for introducing sophisticated ideas of social change to a young audience. It’s produced as a board book, suitable for reading to babies, and it’s cleverly designed with plenty to interest older children and adults, too.
A is for Activist, by Innosanto Nagara (Seven Stories).
See also: Violet Mackerel’s Pocket Protest, by Anna Branford (Walker), a junior fiction book about two friends who start their own protest to save a favourite tree.
I am so brave
World-changers need to be brave, so here’s a book to help you celebrate every achievement of courage from early on.
I Am So Brave features a little person comparing what he used to be scared of to what he can do now.
The publisher’s introduction sums it up well:
This fourth book in the empowerment series celebrates the feats of growing out of toddlerhood with courage and success. Whether it’s petting a dog or waving good-bye to a parent, Krensky and Gillingham address the “small wins” of growing just a little bit braver. Young children and their parents will revel in the encouraging text and the vintage screen-print-style illustrations.
It takes courage to do things differently from the crowd, whether it’s standing up for someone being bullied, or going against the flow of consumerism. This is a great book to say ‘in our family, we try to be brave.’
I Am So Brave, by Stephen Krensky, illustrated by Sara Gillingham (Abrams Appleseed).
See also: this list of picture books about courage.
Last Stop on Market Street
In this touching and vibrantly illustrated story, CJ and his Nana make their way across town on the bus, while their richer friends go by car.
CJ has lots of questions about things along the journey, and Nana has lots of thoughtful answers. In a dozen different ways, Nana shows CJ different ways of looking at things, including how to be content with your own circumstances.
By the time they reach their destination, a soup kitchen where they serve every Sunday, CJ has come to his own contentment.
This is a sophisticated book about attitude and kindness. By the end, I wanted CJ’s grandmother to be my Nana, too.
Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson (Penguin).
See also: Those Shoes, by Maribeth Boelts, illustrated by Noah Z Jones (Candlewick).
Carmelita and her family walk down the street and say hello to everyone they meet – in their own languages. Their dog, Manny, seems to be understood just by woofing, of course.
Giving our kids plenty of awareness and respect for other cultures is a crucial part of helping them change the world for the better. One key way to do this is to fill your bookshelves with books about people who look and sound different from your children.
This gorgeous book is an easy way to kick-start interest in the nine languages Carmelita greets her neighbours in.
Say Hello! by Rachel Isadora (Putnam).
See also: Watercress Tuna and the Children of Champion Street, by Patricia Grace, illustrated by Robyn Kahukiwa (Puffin).
If you think about what 21st Century children need to survive and thrive in a rapidly changing world, an appreciation of ecology and human impact on the earth has to be pretty high up on the list.
The Lorax, by Dr Seuss, is a 1971 classic text of how people have unthinkingly or selfishly destroyed environments that support other life. It tells the story of an entrepreneur who discovers the miraculous, useful truffula trees, and then exploits the resource to the point of disaster.
Birds like to nest in truffula trees, and little fictional mammals eat their fruit, but to the inventor, they are ready to be manufactured into thneeds: ‘a thneed is a thing that everyone needs’. A lesson in the destructive power of mindless consumerism follows, but it’s all done in bouncing Seussian rhyme, so the strong message never becomes annoying, just affecting.
We see the waterways polluted, the food web broken and the animals starving, but the book ends with a note of both hope and responsibility:
“UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
“So . . .
Catch!” calls the Once-ler.
He lets something fall.
It’s a Truffula Seed.
It’s the last one of all!
“You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula Seeds.
And Truffula Trees are what everyone needs.
Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care.
Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.
Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack.
Then the Lorax
and all of his friends
may come back.”
The Lorax, by Dr Seuss (Random).
See also: Tamanui: The Brave Kōkako of Taranaki, by Rebecca Beyer and Linley Wellington, illustrated by Andrew Burdan (Huia).
Razia’s Ray of Hope
What would you do if your family said only boys could go to school? This is Razia’s dilemma, growing up in Afghanistan.
A new school for girls is being built, but her brother and father are set against her attending. This is the true story of Razia’s determination to get an education. It takes a long time, and good arguments, to convince the men in her family, but she does it, and goes on to be a leading educator in her troubled country, and the force behind the Razia’s Ray of Hope Foundation for girls’ education.
Some children will be lucky enough not to have encountered this kind of sexism. When you are ready to have a conversation about the vital need for feminism, this could be a good place to start. For children who are all too familiar with arbitrary gender restrictions, this is a useful story of people changing their minds and changing norms.
Razia’s Ray of Hope, by Elizabeth Suneby, illustrated by Suana Verelst (Kids Can).
See also: I am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai, available in adult and junior fiction versions (Little, Brown).
Mama Panya’s Pancakes
Children often have a natural generosity – partly to do with not understanding that wealth is finite – that adults have lost.
This is one of those stories. Mama and Adika are going to the market, with Mama’s two small coins, and planning supper as they walk. They decide on pancakes, and Adika excitedly invites everyone they see to come and join them. Mama is worried that they will not have enough food for all these impromptu guests, but generosity breeds generosity, and the guests bring their own contributions.
Adika’s impulsive hospitality is lovely to watch. I hope in reading this book, kids will see their own impulses validated, and adults will be encouraged to follow their lead.
Mama Panya’s Pancakes, by Mary and Rich Chamberlin, illustrated by Julia Cairns (Barefoot).
See also: The Longest Breakfast, by Jenny Bornholdt, illustrated by Sarah Wilkins (Gecko).
My Name is Not Refugee
Right now there are more than 60 million people who are refugees and asylum seekers, outside their home countries, and unable to return, because of war, famine, persecution or environmental disaster.
That number is likely to go up, not down, in our children’s lifetimes. Every child in the world needs to learn hospitality towards refugees – and many millions have their own refugee stories to tell.
In My Name is Not Refugee, a mother talks her small child through what their long journey will entail, leaving home without most of their possessions, sleeping in all sorts of strange places, learning new languages.
It’s told in a down-to-earth, simple way, without trying to force any emotional response from the reader. It’s just what happens.
Crucially, on each spread, there are questions for a non-refugee child reader, helping to build empathy. What would you pack? Where would you brush your teeth? What’s the strangest food you’ve ever eaten?
My Name is Not Refugee, by Kate Milner (Bucket List).
See also: My Two Blankets, by Irena Kobald, illustrated by Freya Blackwood (Hardie Grant).
Home at Last
This is a fairly detailed story of what it’s like for a child to be adopted when old enough to be well aware of the transition.
Lester’s parents have died, and he’s been living in a foster home until Daddy Rich and Daddy Albert have completed all the paperwork to adopt him.
He’s happy to be moving into their home and doing everyday family things with them, but he finds he can’t sleep by himself.
Wincka the dog finally solves the problem by coming to sleep on his bed.
In most parts of the world, there are many more children without forever homes than there are people willing to foster or adopt them.
Perhaps you and your children could have a conversation about this important form of hospitality, and what you could do together to support children like Lester?
Home at Last, by Vera B Williams and Chris Raschke (Greenwillow).
See also: Real Sisters Pretend by Megan Dowd Lambert, illustrated by Nicole Tadgett (Tilbury House).
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