Books for Woke Kids

Hi Joel,

It’s summer time, which means it’s time for public library reading programs! My kids each get a certificate from the school district superintendent if they read 10 “age appropriate” books or a total of 1000 pages over the summer, plus prizes along the way from the library. We spent the morning at the university library working on this project, with the oldest reading a passage on cuttlefish from Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and the middle child working her way through a book on women saints. The major family reading list this summer including Benito Cereno in response to Ariel Dorfman’s call for us to use Melville to understand the age of Trump.

Books, just as much as my politically active parents and Mennonite church experiences, helped me develop the empathy, historical knowledge, and ability to see how personal experiences illuminated structural and institutional injustices. Books occupied a very special place in my upbringing. My siblings and I were never told “no” when we asked to buy them through the Scholastic book order program, and I consider that unlimited generosity one of my parent’ best gifts to us. Each of us had our own bookshelf–and not a little one, either, but something at least chest-high. I’m not sure if, growing up, you could have thrown a ball without hitting a book or stack of magazines or newspapers in our house. One of our most treasured possessions was an excellent set of gilt-edged encyclopedias, which could only be handled after we’d washed our hands.

Books matter just as much in my own family now, as the many saints who have helped us move them can attest.

My own children are now in preschool, upper elementary, and middle school. I’ve written elsewhere (specifically about supporting refugees) about how important books are to foster our hope that our children will be caring global citizens (and sometimes they get it, and sometimes it works!). Here are three favorites we’ve read and re-read, individually and as a family, to get our kids thinking about the ways we want to be in the world.


Above, Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shows a beautiful painting of King’s face, smiling. The book has won numerous awards for children’s literature. 

You know you love it when the book is held together with paperclips, rubber bands, or other basic office supplies. That’s the case for Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport. The book’s clear words and beautiful illustrations tell the story of a childhood King who is himself beginning to understand the racism that is shaping his life.


Above, the cover of The Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum shows a young Dorothy comforting the Cowardly Lion as Toto and her new friends Scarecrow and Tin Man look on. 

From start to finish, it’s a radical book that celebrates diversity and is unabashedly pro-queer and feminist.


9781902593579-usAbove, the cover of Addicted to War: Why the US Can’t Kick Militarism shows an illustration of a white man in a suite sweating as he attempts to hold too many items in his arms: tanks, military helicopters, an Air Force jet, missiles, a naval ship, and nuclear smokestacks. 

Addicted to War is a graphic nonfiction book by Joel Andreas was brought to our attention by folks at Joy Mennonite Church in Oklahoma City. It provides an accessible introduction to US military history from the conflict perspective, always asking, “How did this benefit the people in power?” If you have a child interested in warfare but you’d rather not romanticize it, this is a great choice. We’ve worn through two copies of it already and are on our third.

Readers: What books helped you see the world differently? Made you more empathetic? Introduced you to figures from history or fiction who changed your life? What books do you want your children to read? What books of their generation are you reading and learning from now?




  1. I happened upon a nice one recently for my 4.5yo, called “Uncle Jed’s Barbershop” (

    It’s got beautiful illustrations, and gave us many openings to talk about things like segregation, Black hair (how it’s different and requires special cutting techniques, and how seemingly small issues like a hair cut can be representative of much bigger social injustices), the Great Depression, perseverance, family, community, sacrifice, etc. It’s a lovely, sad, sweet story, and just right for young children.


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