Both the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration of the Rights of the Child explicitly mention the right to an education. Achieving universal primary education is one of the Millennium Development Goals. Leaders and citizens alike recognize the importance of education, yet millions of children still lack access to education of any kind, let alone a meaningful education.
Helping students – especially those in privileged circumstances — explore issues surrounding access to education is an important and meaningful task.
Here are 12 children’s picture books to help start the conversation.
1. “Through My Eyes” by Ruby Bridges
1999. Grades 4-8.
Infused with relevant photos and quotes, Ruby Bridges tells her own story about when “the civil rights movement came knocking at the door” and transformed the life of a six-year-old girl. Ruby’s journey as one of the children chosen to integrate her school in New Orleans in 1960 reveals a time of crisis, courage, and conviction.
2. “Waiting for the Biblioburro” by Monica Brown
2011. Grades K-3.
Ana loves the one book that she owns, but she longs for more learning and more stories to read. Since her teacher moved away, there has been no one to teach the children. Then one day the Biblioburro arrives in her village, and the traveling librarian and his books offer new worlds for Ana and the other children.
3. “Josias, Hold the Book” by Jennifer Riesmeyer Elvgren
2006. Grades 1-5.
Every day, as Josias works to tend his garden, he friend Chrislove passes by on his way to school and asks Josias when he will “hold the book” and join them at school. Josias always answers that he’s too busy for schooling. But when multiple remedies fail to help his seeds grow, Josias realizes that maybe one of those books at school might hold the answer to his problem.
4. “Armando and the Blue Tarp School” by Edith Hope Fine and Judith Pinkerton Josephson
2007. Grades 1-5.
Armando’s family relies on him to help make a living by trash picking with his father. When Señor David arrives with his blue tarp on which the neighborhood kids come to learn, Armando is desperate to join the school. Based on a true story.
5. “Running Shoes” by Frederick Lipp
2007. Grades 1-5.
Every year the “numbers man” comes to Sophy’s village to count the residents. This year he notices Sophy, whose family is very poor, admiring his running shoes. When a pair of running shoes arrive for Sophy a few weeks later, she is delighted, because this means that she can run to the school eight kilometers away. When the numbers man returns the next year, Sophy has a gift for him: she can read and write.
6. “Yasmin’s Hammer” by Ann Malaspina
2010. Grades 1-5.
Yasmin and her sister spend their days working hard in the brickyards to help make money for their family. Yasmin dreams of going to school so that she can have a better life (“… I don’t want to sweep a rich lady’s floor”), and decides to take action herself to help her dream come true.
7. “Rain School” by James Rumford
2010. Grades PreK-3.
In a village in Chad, Thomas and the other children are eager to start the first day of school. But after the long walk to the schoolyard, there is no school; the first lessons are that the children and teacher build their school themselves. When the school is completed, the learning continues. At the end of the school year, when the children’s minds are “fat with knowledge,” the rains come, and the school is washed away. When the new school year begins, so will students build a new school.
8. “Elena’s Story” by Nancy Shaw
2012. Grades K-4.
Family responsibilities make it difficult for Elena to keep up with her reading and school work. And she can’t read at night because candles are expensive. When Elena solves two challenges by reading to her brother (to keep him occupied and out of trouble), Elena’s mother determines that Elena’s most important role in the family will be “the reader” – which will require plenty of candles.
9. “Razia’s Ray of Hope” by Elizabeth Suneby
2013. Grades 2-6.
When Razia learns that her village is building a new school for girls, she longs to attend. Everyone in the family but her grandfather seems to think there are reasons she shouldn’t go. When Razia brings the school’s teacher home to help persuade her family, both Razia and her teacher are able to convince her family that everyone will benefit from Razia’s education. Inspired by a true story.
10. “Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation” by Duncan Tonatiuh
2014. Grades 2-5.
When Sylvia Mendez and her family move to Westminster, California, and try to enroll in the neighborhood school, Sylvia’s parents are told “Your children have to go to the Mexican school.” The only reason given? “That is how it is done.” Sylvia, her family, and others in the community must fight to attend their neighborhood school. Will they win?
11. “Nasreen’s Secret School” by Jeanette Winter
2009. Grades 1-5.
After Nasreen’s parents disappear (likely taken by the Taliban), Nasreen refuses to talk or smile. Her grandmother wants Nasreen to “learn about the world, as I had” and risks that taking her to a “secret school” will open windows of learning, wonder, and hope for Nasreen.
12. “Gift Days” by Kari-Lynn Winters
Nassali longs to go to school like her older brother, but since their mother died, Nassali must stay home taking care of her younger siblings and doing all the many chores, day after day. When Nassali complains that it’s not fair she can’t go to school, too, she is told, “That is the way it is. That is the way it’s always been.” Nassali vows to find a way to get an education, and eventually her brother helps her get her wish.
Find more children’s books about global ethical issues in our online Resource Center.