Turn left here, kids
December 11, 2017 12:33 PM   Subscribe

What are some books -- fiction or nonfiction -- that will help very privileged kiddos develop a sense of empathy for and obligation to other people?

Kids in question are elementary and high school aged.

When I was 14 I read There Are No Children Here and Savage Inequalities, which were relatively recent at the time and totally eye-opening for me. Those texts set me on the career path I'm still on, almost twenty years later. For the older kid I'd love to find some equivalent (but obviously more recent) texts. Older kid is thoughtful, a strong reader, and headed in the right direction generally, but a push can't hurt.

Younger kid has possibly never met a person who isn't white and at least upper middle class? For this kid, anything that will broaden their worldview would be great. Better if it's got strong kid appeal -- they are a less enthusiastic reader.

But basically, any book recs for these age groups that will help them start thinking about race/gender/class while they're relatively young, so they can grow up to use their power and privilege to fight for justice.
posted by goodbyewaffles to Media & Arts (37 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: For the high schooler: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
posted by prewar lemonade at 12:47 PM on December 11, 2017 [5 favorites]

I'm a digital divide pill and I've found MT Anderson's Feed to have a lot of casual reminders about the societal effects of institutionalized inequality while also being a good read at the same time.
posted by jessamyn at 12:56 PM on December 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: For the high schooler:
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Cruddy by Lynda Barry
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut
posted by jillithd at 1:05 PM on December 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill made me root for the underdog, worry about monopolies, and think about historiography. I think its great for elementary kids.
posted by spamandkimchi at 1:23 PM on December 11, 2017 [8 favorites]

Best answer: When I was eight, I got my mind blown by a book about "Christmas Customs in Other Countries". It was was a fluffy easy read, but it also gave me this major epiphany about "wait....some people do things differently than I do them and they always have been. ....Whoa." I doubt the author's goal was any kind of "exposure to diversity" thing, but that's the effect it had on me.

Maybe the younger kid would appreciate a similar "How they do X in other countries" thing, or a "weird/cool facts about the world" thing - something they can dip into now and then and come up with cool facts like "hey! In Guatemala they put cheese in hot chocolate instead of marshmellows!" or "Wow! In Dubai there's a place where you can ski indoors!" Differences presented as a positive thing - as a "hey, here's a cool thing" kind of thing - helps with this.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:24 PM on December 11, 2017 [10 favorites]

These were all books that were important to me and the development of my perspective when I was a kid.

This might be pitched too young, but it was one of my favorites. Children Just Like Me
The Mildred Taylor books about the Logan family - Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is the first, but there are many.
Yoshiko Uchida - The Invisible Thread, and Journey to Topaz, and Journey Home.
Sherman Alexie - The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Walter Dean Myers - Monster
Sharon Flake - The Skin I'm In
Christopher Paul Curtis - The Watsons go to Birmingham, 1963
Jane Yolen - The Devil's Arithmetic
Zlata Filipovic - Zlata's Diary
Beverly Naidoo - Chain of Fire
Laura Williams - Behind the Bedroom Wall
posted by ChuraChura at 1:31 PM on December 11, 2017 [6 favorites]

+1ing "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry," which had a powerful impact on me as a child.
posted by crazy with stars at 1:34 PM on December 11, 2017 [6 favorites]

For the younger kid, Notebooks of a Middle-School Princess, by Meg Cabot. The main character is biracial and it's an adorable series.
posted by Tamanna at 1:39 PM on December 11, 2017

For the younger kid, The Misfits by James Howe. It depicts the struggles of some kids who don't fit in in middle school in a realistic, but uplifting way; it's not a challenging read at all. It's the book that inspired No Name-Calling Week!
posted by lysimache at 1:48 PM on December 11, 2017

Best answer: For the older kid, I would say Katherine Boo's Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, which is a documentary account of life in an Indian slum, with emphasis on class divides.
posted by praemunire at 2:03 PM on December 11, 2017

+1 for Feed. Great book.
posted by COD at 2:13 PM on December 11, 2017

Best answer: For younger kids: Hungry Planet and Material World are both pretty visually compelling.
posted by coevals at 3:11 PM on December 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

I was thinking about this in relation to my own life recently. My three siblings and I were brought up in a conservative family in a conservative part of the country. All four of us are left leaning. I blame part of it on Calvin and Hobbes. We all loved it, and had a number of the compilations. Though it wasn't overtly about classism, racism, or sexism, it critiqued society in a way that allowed you to critique it yourself instead of spoon-feeding you the revelations, and gave a lens with which to critique things going on in the real world.
posted by GregorWill at 3:30 PM on December 11, 2017 [6 favorites]

For the high-school-aged child: Malorie Blackman's Noughts & Crosses series.

In an alternate Britain, the dominant race, the Crosses, hold all the positions of power, the money, the influence. The noughts are sent to different schools, marginalised, referred to as blankers. The Crosses are black, and the noughts are white.


"I wanted to play with people's preconceptions," [Blackman] says, pointing to a scene where a nought child cuts herself and is forced to use a glaringly obvious brown plaster, because there are no pink ones available (an event which happened to Blackman, in reverse, as a child). "If you're the majority you don't necessarily see it because you don't need to see it and that's what I wanted to explore by turning the tables."
- Grauniad interview
posted by Morfil Ffyrnig at 3:31 PM on December 11, 2017

Also, Jan Needle's Wild Wood - a socialist retelling of The Wind in the Willows, from the point of view of the working-class Wild Wooders. (Definitely read TWitW first before diving into this excellent counterpart.)
posted by Morfil Ffyrnig at 3:39 PM on December 11, 2017

E-mail me and I can send you a PDF of my grandmother's children's book, Red Is No Longer a Color. She was a medical missionary in China. It would address your point.
posted by WCityMike at 4:53 PM on December 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

If they are into fantasy, try Terry Pratchett's YA series - Tiffany Aching, and also maybe the Amazing Maurice.
posted by geek anachronism at 5:01 PM on December 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm told that the Leaphorn and Chee series of detective novels are amazing for getting readers to understand how deeply Native Americans were fucked over by white people - that could work for the older kid.
posted by Tamanna at 5:09 PM on December 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Maniac Magee, for the elementary school kid.
posted by theodolite at 5:17 PM on December 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ms. Marvel. Lumberjanes.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:37 PM on December 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

For the high schooler: "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou.
posted by scrubjay at 5:38 PM on December 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For the high schooler, I read Nickel and Dimed when I was in high school. It's not a perfect book, but I was in serious danger of becoming a very "pull yourself up by your bootstraps," "society is a meritocracy" etc type person, and this book is one of the first influences that pulled me back from that cliff.

Along those same lines, I'll note that when I was a kid I read a lot of the books that have been mentioned already in this thread, and, importantly, they didn't leave a big impression on me because they were from "the past," and my middle class education in the 90s and early 00s strongly emphasized that those issues were behind us. I don't know what kids think nowadays, but I really needed contemporary sources to "get it" and I can imagine that might still be true.
posted by telegraph at 5:46 PM on December 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: telegraph, that's exactly right. Several of the books listed in this thread were formative for me a couple decades ago (including Nickel and Dimed), but I would really like to find something recent to give them. (Especially because the parents are likely to say "oh, but that was x years ago!!" if I give them something that isn't from, like, last week. I'd like to at least make them come up with a better excuse...)

Thanks for all the responses so far!
posted by goodbyewaffles at 5:57 PM on December 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In our house, one of the most successful things was Faces Magazine, which each month features a different world culture through its art, accomplishments, religion, food, and the voices of local kids . It's aimed at ages 9 - 14, and it's beautifully done. There's something really nice about a magazine subscription that keeps a fresh text coming each month...
posted by flourpot at 6:04 PM on December 11, 2017

The Diary of Anne Frank
I Am Malala
Seraphina (YA fiction)
posted by epj at 9:01 PM on December 11, 2017

Younger kid has possibly never met a person who isn't white and at least upper middle class? For this kid, anything that will broaden their worldview would be great. Better if it's got strong kid appeal -- they are a less enthusiastic reader.

Try Laurence Yep, whose books I loved as a younger child. He has one fictional series, the Golden Mountain Chronicles, which follows a Chinese family from late 1800s to late 1900s. They are told from a Chinese perspective, and even if he doesn't quite get the Chinese bits he will probably enjoy the outsider's view of his own culture. I also like that it emphasizes our long history in this country, something which is more often forgotten about Asian Americans than other minority races. Another is the Dragon series, which is a loose retelling of Chinese mythology.

As for the elder, high school should be old enough to read adult books, right? New Jim Crow, Ants Among Elephants, A Crime So Monstrous.

Also, I've always found science-fiction and fantasy to be a good vehicle for thinking about alternative ways of life (or reconsidering familiar ones). The Never Ending Sacrifice follows a Cardassian boy raised by Bajorans during the Cardassian occupation of Bajor after his repatriation to Cardassia. Or, basically all of Tamora Pierce's Tortall universe works, but especially the Trickster series, which follows the revolt of a racial underclass in a vaguely Malaysian jungle archipelago, and the Mastiff series, which follows a police officer in a very different regulatory environment. I also liked Kameron Hurley's Bel Dame Apocrypha, whose setting is heavily Islamic, with lots of quotidian details like the curious custom in Egypt and maybe other places where people negotiate by first (and falsely!) offering their services for free. It's fun to play Spot the Reference.
posted by d. z. wang at 10:32 PM on December 11, 2017

Where Children Sleep is a book of portraits and bedrooms of children from around the world. You can see many of the photos on James Mollison's website.
posted by gennessee at 12:59 AM on December 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child by Francisco Jiménez probably helped me with this when I was in middle/high school.
posted by sibilatorix at 1:57 AM on December 12, 2017

In The Sea There are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda shaped a lot of my response to the refugee crisis, in part because I was less than a decade older than the protagonist when I read it. The fact that a ten year old had to negotiate his exit from a hostile country when I whined about waking up for early classes at uni slapped me out of my bubble. Plus, in spite of its sad premise, the book is suffused with hope.
posted by Nieshka at 2:20 AM on December 12, 2017

develop a sense of empathy for and obligation to other people?

If this is want you want to do, I think the kids need exposure to the world outside the bubble they live in. That is what I would address first with a choice of weekend activities that forces them to meet less privileged people outside the bubble. If they don't have anything other than white upper middle class friends, it's probably because their parents don't either. Walk the talk and all that.

Turn left here, kids

But I also see that one of your tags is social justice which, based on your post's title, you seem to think is a leftist concern. I don't know how much you can engineer a child's politics (I personally don't think it is even desirable) but the key is to help them develop critical thinking and there are some good recommendations upthread. My eye openers to injustice and inequality were Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Emile Zola's Germinal and both are within the reach of teeenagers.
posted by Kwadeng at 7:13 AM on December 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Nickel and Dimed), but I would really like to find something recent

Linda Tirado's Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America may do the trick. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote forward.
posted by carrioncomfort at 7:14 AM on December 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For the teenager, Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me, a letter to his teenaged son about blackness in America and surviving adolescence as a young black man.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:34 AM on December 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

I wouldn't discount historical fiction and older books - part of what opened my eyes to the fact that people experience the world differently from me was learning about historical events and historical prejudices and getting a broader perspective on, say, WWII, than I was getting in my 6th grade social studies classes.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:48 AM on December 12, 2017

Best answer: Alan Gratz's Refugee is great for middle-grade to teen readers. Three linked stories of refugees from Germany, Cuba, and Syria that resonate in surprising ways.
posted by rikschell at 10:22 AM on December 12, 2017

For the younger kid:
House Arrest by K.A. Holt
Camo Girl by Kekla Magoon
Money Hungry by Sharon Flake (this one is a bit older --2001? but still feels pretty current)
You didn't say where in elementary, which is a wide range. If those seem too old (they are all good for 10-13ish) try these excellent picture books:
Those Shoes & A Bike Like Sergios by Maribeth Boelts
Maddi's Fridge by Lois Brandt

For the teen, I'll add my voice to The Hate U Give and Eleanor and Park and add Shadow Shapers by Daniel Jose Older (if they are into fantasy)
posted by tangosnail at 11:58 AM on December 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

For an older kid, almost anything by Octavia E. Butler.
posted by benzenedream at 10:45 PM on December 14, 2017

Another good one on poverty is $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn J. Edin
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:07 PM on December 23, 2017

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