Children's Social Justice Literature

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Building Empathy
Social Justice
Children’s literature is an effective resource to help children develop values through conversation and exposure to new ideas, people, and places. Picture books at a child's level of understanding, with themes of social justice, kindness, advocacy, and human rights allow children to develop empathy through images, poetry, and story. Chapter books with heroic protagonists allow youth to interact with worlds beyond their own and to contemplate characters’ decisions and resilience that can help form their own actions in related situations. Character development, problem solving, and story help build social and emotional skills.

by Alyson Landers



Children’s (or juvenile) literature is defined by the Library of Congress as books especially written for an audience of children from birth up to grade 9 (age 15), and young adult literature is defined as material for ages 12 through high school (grade 12). Children’s literature is a relatively new category: the first children’s book division at an American publishing house was founded in 1918. This does not mean, however, that children were an overlooked audience. Children have always listened to, and been read, stories. Genres included in children’s literature include fairy tales, realistic fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and more.


Historic Roots

Cultures, traditions and histories are passed down from generation to generation through shared stories. Before the 15th century, the literary traditions of Europe were centered on oral traditions and laborintensive parchment manuscripts. Children had no access to these writings unless they were enrolled at monastery schools, a privileged education not for the masses. With the rise of the printing press in the late 1400s books could be mass produced, but still few were produced specifically for children. Books were used to offer lessons to improve manners or teach moral lessons, not to entertain (Norton, p. 42).

The earliest colonists to the United States brought with them books for their children to learn about religion, history and shared values. The Puritans believed children’s stories, about witches or fairies or the like, to be a corrupting force, and so Puritan children’s literature from that time (and for more than a hundred years after) focused on instruction and reinforcement of the morals and values of the community (Ibid., p. 44).

The Victorian Age (1837-1901), with an emphasis on Christian piety and regimented rules of social behavior, had a significant impact on children’s literature in Europe and North America. As increasingly affluent middle- and upper-class views on childhood began to change (from “small adult” to a unique and special period of life), children’s literature began to reflect principles that included tenets such as religious values, and the rejection of cowardice or meanness. Children’s literature also began to consider stories about the less fortunate, with the intention that the young audience would be sympathetic to the ill-fated characters. Through this sympathy, perhaps young readers might consider different choices than those made in the stories or, in line with the values of the authors, be spurred to help others if presented with a similar scenario in real life (Ibid., p. 52).

American publishers and supporters of children’s literature in the post-Civil War years used stories and themes to continue to enhance a young person’s moral and academic education, and also to reinforce and/or correct, if necessary, ideals that had previously been shared in literature. For example, young Northern readers had been given stories about the evils of slavery, and young Southerners had been encouraged to read books such as The Dixie Primer (Marcus, p. 5).

The 20th century in the US saw an explosion of growth in children’s literature. That year, more than 400 new children’s books were published, and a decade later that number would approach one thousand (Ibid., p.104). In the run up to World War II reading material for children morphed from traditional books into mass-produced comic books, which were derided by many self-proclaimed children’s literature experts as “trash” (Marcus, p.145). Moreover, savvy publishers realized that children’s books could provide an escape from current events and also mold young opinions: in addition to “regular” children’s titles, young readers could also read titles such as Defending America or Dave Dawson at Dunkirk (Ibid., p. 169).

The second half of the 20th century, with the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, Vietnam, the fall of communism, and the rise of terrorism culminating in the 9/11 attacks among the various societal and cultural shifts of these years, provided rich topics for children’s literature. Still today, an increasing emphasis on diversity in the classroom specifically, and across society generally, suggests that the need for books to guide young readers through themes of inclusivity, tolerance, and race relations will remain strong. As one librarian noted, there is value in utilizing literature to assist with navigating our complicated world (Vadell, p. 5).



Noted educator James Britton suggested that humans use language to as a way to organize their world, and that the reading of stories helps a child acquire life experience, and thus organize their worldview (Britton, p. 84). Existing research on emerging literacy emphasizes the value of reading to learn things about oneself and the world, in addition to simple pleasure. Readers are influenced by what they read, and it follows that children’s emotional and social development can be influenced by the use of philanthropically-themed literature. Study after study confirms the impact that literature has on readers, and recent research highlights how stories are useful to children for developing and practicing empathy (McKearney 2015). The use of children’s literature to teach and reinforce moral development is an obvious mechanism for parents and educators to do this, since the opportunity to read to young children, and have readers read on their own, is a valued tool in emerging literacy. As children learn to become engaged readers – interacting with the text, finding meaning, bringing their own experiences to round out their understanding of the story – the ways in which these young readers value a story’s ideas are grounded in their own social and cultural experiences of themselves and of the author (Galda, p.40).

Child psychiatrist Robert Coles noted that children are witnesses to behavior, always looking for cues to decipher what is right and wrong (Coles, p. 5). One way to offer children a model of behavior is to read stories that allow children to consider what actions result in which consequences, or how different choices might change a situation (Upright p. 15). Children’s books are enticing to young readers and communicate a story, moral, or lesson with beautiful pictures and simple language. Complicated concepts can be easily shared, and readers can engage with interpersonal or emotional relationships, intellectual challenges, and make connections to a larger world (Saracho, p 401). 


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Children’s literature can help develop a philanthropic child. Books and stories which center around broad philanthropic themes, from kindness to advocacy to volunteerism, can spark the moral development of children. Engaging with books about caring and generosity and other philanthropic topics allows, as all literature does, readers to develop their own ideas and opinions about the topics. Providing children with thematic books on giving and kindness offers them the opportunity to extrapolate these concepts to their own experiences (Crippen, 2012). Stories about helping and charitable response can model this behavior and invite the reader to consider scenarios where they might act similarly. Stories that show moments of trouble, and a character’s decision to act, can help children think about reasons why to act, and work through related decision making processes (Norton, p.34).

Good children’s literature includes stories that are authentic, and might include weighty topics as justice and human welfare (Pillar, 150). As children mature and begin to consider the challenges of life in the 21st century, from cultural problems to socio-economic divides to environmental emergencies to geopolitical crises, children’s literature will help them find meaning in the world around them. This may be one of the most important outcomes of literature as a development tool for children: as researcher Northrup Frye asserted, “the fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in. In this sense, we live in two worlds: our ordinary world and our ideal world” (Galda, p. 7). In concrete ways for young readers, children’s literature offers them a view into a philanthropic mindset, one which asks us to consider moral action in response to the human problematic – to undertake, as Payton & Moody define it, voluntary action for the public good (Payton, p.6).


Key Terms and Related Ideas

  • character education: curriculum that is concerned with developing the characteristics that embody compassionate, engaged and ethical citizens (
  • social and emotional learning: an evolution of character education, where emphasis is on the acquisition of the skills to, among other skills, develop caring and concern for others, make good decisions, and manage challenging situations (Edmonson).
  • empathy: an ability to care about others and, importantly, to be able to see yourself in their shoes. This is a higher-level function of emotional intelligence that children need to develop (Upright).

Many beloved children’s books promote philanthropic ideals. A quick way to curate a list of theme-appropriate books is to begin with curated lists by nonprofit websites, and annotated bibliographies by other educators, and review children’s literature award winners.

  • Breen, Karen, Ellen Fader, Kathleen Odean, and Zena Sutherland. “One Hundred Books That Shaped the Century.” School Library Journal, January 2000, 50–58.
  • Zeece, Pauline Davey. “Happy Me a Story.” Early Childhood Education Journal 33 no. 5 (2006): 347- 355.

A list of children’s literature awards can be found at the website for the Association for Library Service to Children ( In particular, the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award annually recognizes children’s books of literary and aesthetic excellence that effectively engage children in thinking about peace, social justice, global community, and equity for all people. Its website offers a search engine allowing books to be discovered by topic, historical character, themes, and more ( 


Related Children’s Literature Awards

  • Amelia Bloomer Book List Focus: books with significant feminist content. (
  • Coretta Scott King Book Awards Focus: books that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values (
  • Rainbow Book List Focus: books with significant and authentic GLBTQ content. (
  • Schneider Family Book Award Focus: books that embody an artistic expression of the disability experience. (
  • Stonewall Book Awards Focus: books relating to the GLBT experience. (
  • Américas Award Focus: books that authentically and engagingly portray Latin America, the Caribbean, or Latinos in the U.S. (
  • The Christopher Awards Focus: media that affirm the highest values of the human spirit. (
  • Dolly Gray Children’s Literature Award Focus: books that appropriately portray individuals with developmental disabilities. (
  • Walter Dean Myers Award Focus: books that best exemplify Myers’s commitment to providing children with powerful mirrors and windows. (
  • Notable Books for a Global Society Focus: books that enhance understanding of individuals and cultures throughout the world. (
  • Carter G. Woodson Book Awards Focus: social studies-related books that depict ethnicity and race relations sensitively and accurately. ( 


Important People Related to the Topic

  • Lawrence Kohlberg – Kohlberg (1927-1987) was an American psychologist who furthered Jean Piaget’s research on children’s moral development with research of his own, primarily involving Piaget’s storytelling technique. A subject would be told a story with a moral dilemma and was then asked questions. Kohlberg identified stages of moral development by studying children’s answers to his questions.
  • John Newbery – Newbery was an 18th century London publisher. He has come to be known as the “Father of Children’s Literature” and is credited with establishing the commercial market for children’s literature. The Newbery Medal is named for him.
  • Jean Piaget – Piaget (1896-1980) was a Swiss psychologist who first considered the intellectual development of children.
  • Jacqueline Woodson – Woodson is a Newbury-honor winning American author who writes for children and adolescents. She has held the post of Young People’s Poet Laureate (2015-17) and most recently was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature (2018-19) by the Library of Congress. Woodson has said that her writing seeks to incorporate different perspectives, and she writes on issues of class, gender and race, among other themes. 


Reflection Questions

  • Social values and norms are dynamic, reflecting influences of different groups and ideologies (Court, p. 407). Who decides what book is appropriate for a young reader, a parent? A teacher? A school system? A government agency? What implications could this have for a child’s philanthropic development?
  • What value is there in sharing children’s literature about outdated values or morals with young readers?



  • Albrecht, Milton C. “The relationship of literature and society.” American Journal of Sociology 59, no 5 (1954): 425-436.
  • Almerico, Gina M. “Building Character through Literacy with Children's Literature.” Research in Higher Education 26, (2014).
  • Breen, Karen, Ellen Fader, Kathleen Odean, and Zena Sutherland. "One Hundred Books That Shaped the Century." School Library Journal 46, no. 1 (2000): 50-58.
  • Britton, James. Language and learning. New York: Penguin Books, 1970.
  • Coles, Robert. The Moral Intelligence of Children. A&C Black, 1998.
  • Contemporary Authors Online, “Jacqueline Woodson.” Literature Resource Center, Hennepin County Library, June 13, 2009
  • Crippen, Martha. "The value of children’s literature." Oneota Reading Journal (2012).
  • Edmonson, Stacey, Robert Tatman, and John R. Slate. "Character Education: A Critical Analysis." International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation 4, no. 4 (2009): n4.
  • Frye, Northrop. The Educated Imagination. Indiana University Press, 1970.
  • Marcus, Leonard C., and Leonard S. Marcus. Minders of make-believe: Idealists, entrepreneurs, and the shaping of American children's literature. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008.
  • McKearney, Miranda, and Sarah Mears. “Lost for Words? How Reading Can Teach Children Empathy.” The Guardian, May 13, 2015.
  • Norton, Donna E., and Saundra E. Norton. Through the Eyes of a Child: An Introduction to Children’s Literature. Pearson, 2011.
  • O'Sullivan, Sheryl. "Books to live by: Using children's literature for character education." The Reading Teacher 57, no. 7 (2004): 640-647.
  • Payton, Robert L. and Michael P Moody. Understanding Philanthropy. Indiana University Press, 2008.
  • Pillar, Arlene M. “Using Literature to Foster Moral Development.” The Reading Teacher 33, no. 2 (1979): 148-151.
  • Vardell, Sylvia M. Children's literature in action: A librarian's guide. Libraries Unlimited, 2008.
  • Wilhelm, Mark Ottoni, Eleanor Brown, Patrick M. Rooney, and Richard Steinberg. "The intergenerational transmission of generosity." Journal of Public Economics 92, no. 10-11 (2008): 2146-2156.


This briefing paper was authored by a student taking a philanthropic studies course in 2019 at The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.