With July 4th coming, up, this is a time my family often discusses what it means to be American, how we can make the country better, safer, and more equitable for other Americans, and what we can do to help live up to our nation’s promise of liberty and justice for all.
One way to do that, is to turn to books. While notable American biographies for children are always a great place to start, here are some new children’s books I am so happy to have on our bookshelves right now.
They’re all special to me because they help bring more meaning to the stars and stripes on those flags we’re waving — though I think these are perfect books for kids to pick up up long after the last fireworks have stopped booming.
Top: Sonia Sotomayor illustrated at top by John Parra in We Are The Change
Find these books at our affiliate Amazon, your library, or your local independent book seller.
We Are the Change: Words of Inspiration from Civil Rights Leaders
With intro by Harry Belafonte
With an introduction from ACLU ambassador Harry Belafonte, this new book released this spring was created to honor the work of the ACLU to protect our constitutional rights. It features a stunning array of illustrations from 16 diverse illustrators (above, Lisa Congdon), each highlighting quotes from leaders who have fought for women, people of color, farm workers, people with disabilities, journalists and more.
You’ll find quotes from notable civil rights leaders past and present like Maya Angelou, Frederick Douglass (I hear he’s doing an amazing job these days), Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt, Barack Obama, Sonia Sotomayor, and Dr. Martin Luther King — as well as names your children may be less familiar with, like Khalil Gibran, Hawaiian Queen Lill’uokalani and W.E.B. Du Bois.
What makes this book more than a book of quotes though, are the thoughtful explanations from the illustrators themselves on what a particular quote means to them; I especially love Dan Santat’s personal thoughts about Congressman John Lewis’s We have not chosen the time but the time has chosen us.
Amazing jumping-off point for parent-kid discussions about “good trouble.”
I Was Their American Dream: A Graphic Memoir
by Malaka Gharaib
I am so captivated by this autobiographical graphic memoir from from first-generation American of Egyptian-Filipino descent, NPR journalist Malaka Gharib.
It’s quirky, honest, funny, solemn, introspective — basically everything a great book should be for a reader of any age. And while this isn’t a kids’ book per se, I know YA readers will love it as much as I do.
Gharib takes us through her parents’ perception of the American Dream from abroad, and the ways in which their perceptions changed after they immigrated; then how divorce — and plenty of real life challenges — changed those plans and dreams along the way.
What’s most poignant to me are her very specific and personal reflections of trying to fit in. From childhood (“I was taught from an early age that everything white people did was better?”), to college at Syracuse U (she spent a lot of time kissing white guys and googling karaoke lyrics to Neil Diamond and Bon Jovi), to adulthood in DC, where she first identified the problem with asking, “what are you?”– then eventually to her marriage with an white American man.
It’s a beautiful reminder of the rich cultural diversity that keeps our country a dynamic, exciting, inspiring melting pot, and keeps the “American Dream” alive for millions around the world — even if everyone’s American Dream isn’t quite the same.
What Does it Mean to Be American?
by Rana DiOrio and Elad Yoran
With even our youngest kids hearing quips on the news or in their schools what it means “to be a real American” these days, this book could not have come along at a better time.
When I first shared this book earlier this year, I explained that it was written by left-of-center mom and author DiOrio together with right-of-center dad and military vet Yoran. This makes it a spectacular example in itself of what happens when two people from opposite sides of the political spectrum, with very different backgrounds, put their heads together in friendship and good faith to find the ideals that unite us.
The book opens with lighthearted suggestions that being American doesn’t mean loving fast food , or even living in the United States, then goes on to offer a series of ideas about what it does mean, by highlighting the values that this country was built on.
Like believing that all people are equal and should have the opportunity to be happy. That we have the freedom to choose who we love. That we honor those who protect and serve, and we help people in need. That we value creativity and imagination and invention and exploration. That we respect natural resources. That we balance pride in our accomplishments, with humility about what we still have to learn.
I especially love the ending, which implore kids to “fill your heart with love for who we are” and to consider how you “can make the greatest nation in the world even better.”
Because they can. And they will.