Seeking Social Justice

Social justice in the United States evolved when Marxist principles were applied to the criminal justice system. This is a justice that seeks remedies that are meant to be good for the entire society but because of the transient nature of societies, there is no single, clear definition for social justice. It is a rather elusive concept that differs in application from place to place and from time to time while taking into account economic, political and social conditions. (Capeheart, 2007) It has been applied to the fields of education and social work as well as criminology. Social justice considers things like the causes of harm and institutional biases when establishing new actions and policies that better serves those who have been disenfranchised. Social justice realizes the debilitating impact of white supremacy and works toward solutions based in equity; the solutions are not administered from on those who have been empowered. Even in these contentious times, finding those solutions requires dialog.

Systems including law, education and economics in the United States evolved from imperial western powers and many of those structures are what become challenged through social justice. I believe that to move toward practices that are based in social justice and equity, we have to understand the historic roots of these colonial systems in our country and we have to be willing to talk about them. And, we have to be willing to name racism, white supremacy and oppression for what it is. Otherwise, I don’t know how we can develop into a country that truly provides human rights. We have to accept that in the abundance provided by the Creator, there is enough for Disabled, Albled, LGTB+, heterosexual, White, Black and Brown people to live full lives in these United States. It’s sad to know that we have to realize that there is enough to know that it’s OK to feed, house and educate every child in this country, but that’s where we are.

Maybe books can help get us there. Perhaps the stories we share can help us understand, accept, appreciate, befriend and ally with one another.

These thoughts on social justice began with a request from someone on Twitter for a source for social justice books. While several of us provided sources to them, I really don’t know what they wanted. Perhaps they wanted books that do the following.

provokes resistance
Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters by Andrea Davis
The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano
Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story by Paula Yoo and Lin Wang
Sweet Smell of Roses by Angela Johnson
We March by Shane W. Evans

addresses restorative justice
This Side of Home by Renee Watson
8th Grade SuperZero by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich
Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan
Last American Love Story by Brendan Kiely
Pig Park by Claudia Garcia Martinez
Juliet Takes a Breath by Gaby Rivera
Twin Towers by Jewell Parker Rhodes
That’s Not Fair / No Es Justo! By Carmen Tafolia and Sharyll Teneyuca
Struggle for Justice by Emma Tenayuca
The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon

challenges how history is told
Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige
Freedom over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan
Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott
Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang
Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh

establish identity
As Brave as You by Jason Reynolds
Unidentified Suburban Objects by Mike Jung
Saving Montgomery Sole by Mariko Tamaki
None of the Above by I. Wl. Gregorio
Ms. Marvel by G. Wilson and Adrian Alphona
Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match by Monica Brown and‎ Sara Palacios
Dreaming in Indian: Contemporary Native American Voices by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale

brings missing voices into history
Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac
Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White by Lila Quintero Weaver
Red Scarf Girl by ji-li jiang
Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson
Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer by Carole Boston Weatherford
Granddaddy’s Turn by Michael S. Bandy
Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson

Build a capacity for empathy
Peas and Carrots by Tanita Davis
The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi
Shooting Kabul by N. H. Senzai
House of Purple Cedar by Tim Tinge
Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena and Christian Robinson
Lailah’s Lunchbox: A Ramadan Story by by Reem Faruqi and Lea Lyon

I can’t speak to others who use social justice in creating lists but, I do know that the We the People Summer List brings social justice practices into our critical review process by questioning how power is articulated in a text. Each book is read twice and each time, the review considers the following.

Whose story is being told?
Whose voice is missing?
How does this book position me as a reader?
Who is being empowered?
How are characters introduced?
How are neighborhoods and families portrayed?
Would I be comfortable giving this book to any child?

We ask those questions even though our list contains works by Indigenous People/People of Color (IPOC) authors or illustrators because we can all have biases. This is just one way reviewers can bring social justice practices into children’s literature.

Social justice addresses systematic injustices in publishing or through storytelling. Representation is a facet of social justice and addressing this began in youth literature with the call for diversity. I see this as a call for more boxes to be checked, more race neutral brown faces, an inclusion of those with disabilities or who are LGBT+. It’s about numbers more so than attitudes, opportunities or equity. It may or may not consider injustice (equitable opportunities, pay equity, accessibility, discrimination free work places…) throughout the system that includes bookstores, publishers, reviewers, educators and librarians. Using ‘diversity’, rather than ‘decolonization’ as a call has led to higher sales and the marketing of representation rather than the systematic changes that are long overdue.

What if we were to stop calling these books ‘diverse books’ in order to stop centering on Whiteness? This doesn’t eradicate Whiteness but, it does begin to seek equity for those who have been marginalized. And, it doesn’t take away space from white authors or characters. There is no scarcity. 

Merely having increased numbers books that exist with Indigenous People/People of Color IPOC, with disabled or LGBT+ characters are not significant acts of social justice in 2017 and this is why I’m conflicted when someone asks for a source of social justice books. What are they really seeking? Could it be a list of books that features marginalized characters or perhaps #ownvoices? And, why is children’s literature, particularly young adult literature, the ground where adults battle for social justice? Is this change for our children, or through them?

I would imagine that being a writer today in these politically charged times is a very thought provoking, challenging and growth oriented process because writing, telling stories, would involve not only stretching one’s skill, but also one’s sense of humanity. Stories after all, are political. I know that what I bring to my writing has changed. I’ve grown from the time of my first blog post, and I continue to do so. I think as more of the children’s literature community becomes involved in that growth, as we becoming more aware of the injustices we communicate to children and of the way we live our lives, that we well get the roots of social justice. Social justice is a continual process that involves way more than increasing the numbers of books with representation. It begins with stories we bring – stories that we live and that we tell– that honestly relate the human experience and push us to collectively believe in our possibilities. All of our possibilities. Maya Gonzales wrote that “creativity is a place where we can clean up our relationship with power, come into our own truth and watch our truth and true power grow and flourish naturally from within. This kind of awareness and focus progressively repels falsehood and realigns power dynamics from within one’s self.”

But, stories that are meant to push our children’s creativity, build their sense of humanity or just make them laugh have to do this for all of our children. If we are truly seeking social justice in children’s books, we have to work to make the entire industry free of biases, prejudices, stereotypes and repair other broken mirrors and cracked windows. The systems of white supremacy have to be dismantled or the stories are empty, token gestures that are supposed to make us feel good.

I’m writing this the morning after the elections in Alabama. I’m thinking of all those people who went out to vote, many of whom thought their individual vote really wouldn’t make much difference. Oh, but it did! Social justice is enacted by the disenfranchised getting up, speaking up, resisting and creating a new way.

Special thanks to Zetta Elliott for acting as my Editor. I don’t usually but this much time and collaboration into one of my posts, but sometimes, something sticks with me and needs additional attention. I’m also grateful to Olugbemisola Amusashonubi-Perkovich and Kelly Starling Lyons for providing titles to this list and for their conversation around this topic and I especially thank them for avoiding 2017 titles. So many of them would fit this list! They can be added in the comments, they just couldn’t appear in the post.

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