Teaching Social Justice:
Three Book Reviews

Books that can help in teaching social justice to children
Three children's book reviews by P.J. Rooks

  1. The Butter Battle Book
  2. One Hen
  3. My Name Was Hussein

Though probably best for slightly older kids, maybe ages seven and up, you can file them under "peace-nik starter series" and use them to plant an early seed of global compassion in your child's mind.

These books illustrate all too well that true gratitude isn't always about the biggest swing-set or the toy in the bottom of the cereal box, but that sometimes our most precious gifts are the ones we think about the least, like freedom from war, poverty or persecution.

Teaching Social Justice
On War: The Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss is on the loose and here is one of his best-kept secrets. The Butter Battle Book is a whimsical gem of nuclear force, a master storyteller delivering his own clear-cut testimony to the lunacy of war.

The Yooks and the Zooks are at war, each deeply reviled by the other, ridiculously, because of the way they spread butter on their bread.

A young Yook (and up-and-coming member of the Zook-Watching Border Patrol), listens to his grandfather's narrow-minded disgust at a culture that would choose to spread butter on the bottom of the bread rather than the top:

"'It's high time that you knew
of the terribly horrible thing that Zooks do.
In every Zook house and in every Zook town
every Zook eats his bread
with the butter side down!

But we Yooks, as you know,
when we breakfast or sup,
spread our bread,' Grandpa said,
'with the butter side up.
That's the right, honest way!'
Grandpa gritted his teeth.
'So you can't trust a Zook
who spreads bread underneath!"

collaged images from the book

For the Yooks and Zooks and their engineers and military commanders, it's an arms race of nutty gadgets that eventually leads to a dangerous and familiar stale-mate as each side stands on the wall with a missile pointed at the other.

What will happen if one side fires? The answer is obvious, but in The Butter Battle Book, Dr. Seuss leaves it up to his readers to see the stupidity of this swagger. 

Teaching Social Justice
On Poverty: One Hen: How One Small Loan Made a Big Difference
Written by Katie Smith Milway and illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes

Hot off the presses just this year, One Hen: How One Small Loan Made a Big Difference, is an all-around brilliant piece of work.

In her carefully thought-out text, author Katie Smith Milway appeals to a wide age range by including both a lengthy and explanatory narrative for older kids and a simple, running poem that smaller kids would enjoy instead.

This is the story of Kojo, a child from the Ashanti region of Ghana who saves a few coins and buys a hen.

When the hen lays five eggs, he and his mother eat two, then sell the other three.

Through very careful management of his profits, Kojo is able to build a small egg business, to go to school, eventually to college and finally, to start a farming enterprise that contributes significantly to the local economy. In his senior years, Kojo begins making small "micro"-loans to others so that they may contribute to the economy as well.

One Hen is based on the real-life story of Kwabena Darko who started The Mustard Seed Trust, an organization which, according to the author's notes at the end of the book, has provided small loans to over 50,000 Ghanaian start-ups.

Vivid illustrations and an end-message on how kids can help with the micro-loan movement are sure to put a spark to every child's imagination and global consciousness.

Teaching Social Justice
On Persecution: My Name Was Hussein
Written by Hristo Kyuchukov and illustrated by Allan Eitzen

Not too scary but a little bit sad, My Name Was Hussein is a snippet of author Hristo Kyuchukov's childhood in Muslim Bulgaria.

This is an outstanding book on several different levels.

First, it gives a bit of a description of the Muslim religion -- holidays, traditions, etc. The distant and poorly understood Muslim faith is humanized through a show of kids enjoying the love and laughter of their families.

Then the tanks roll into town. In this true story of the communist occupation of post-World War Two Bulgaria, Kyuchukov steers clear of trying to explain why and instead keeps it in the perspective of our child narrator, Hussein.

There is fear and sadness in the village as mosques are closed and Ramadan is cancelled. Eventually, soldiers come to Hussein's home with guns and dogs, tear up the family's identification cards and tell them that they must choose Christian names instead. Hussein doesn't want to, but has no choice and so he changes his name to Harry.

These things often have profound impacts and, for Hussein/Harry/Hristo, it was a very positive one. Here, from the back of the book, is a re-print of the "About the Author" section:

Hristo Kyuchukov, Ph.D., is a leading figure in the advancement of human rights for Roma children in Eastern Europe and throughout the world. He has lectured widely in Europe and North America on the subject of the Roma people, their language, and culture. Dr. Kyuchukov teaches at the University of Veliko, Tarnovo, and lives in Sophia, Bulgaria.

My Name was Hussein is a sad story -- real, colorful and alive -- and just one small tale of life outside America. Freedom from persecution, though often taken for granted here, is a huge security blanket as well as a luxury not widely enjoyed in many parts our world.

Teaching Social Justice to Children

I hope you will find these books as valuable as I have. The current generation of kids may very well grow to become the first to share in a truly global village. May these early lessons of past mistakes help them steer their own future world toward peace and compassion.

More children's books about accepting other cultures.

Read P.J.'s other reviews.

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