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10 Books for Universal Human Rights Month

December 11, 2017

December is Universal Human Rights Month, honoring the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR was adopted nearly 70 years ago, but I only first heard of it 8 or 9 years ago with the publication of We Are All Born Free: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Pictures. That book blew my mind. To see different artists taking on these statements about freedom and justice and equality, all of which I regularly and easily take for granted, was powerful enough. But to hold up this document that was established as a statement to secure rights for individuals all around the world and to realize that there are many, many places around the world where these statements and others like them are not upheld? That was an awakening moment that has stayed with me for years and years. And it all happened because of a picture book.


How ignorant I was to not be aware that this document exists, yet how powerful a statement to consider that it's through picture books and those that share them that some of our students are experiencing these concepts, too, for the very first time. 


I wrote a piece for Upstart on "Tips for Exploring Universal Human Rights Month in December."

I know we're nearly halfway through the month already. And I know this post might not even reach you for months beyond that. But when you're ready I hope the books shared below can help serve you and your students as you have conversations around the rights of all people that require our protection. 


I'm glad that book found me nearly a decade ago and I'm grateful for the conviction the UDHR has placed on my heart toward the rights of all individuals everywhere. May these books serve you well.


Bring this list to your local library or independent bookstore and add your own favorites in the comments below!




We Are All Born Free: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Pictures by Amnesty International
This is the book that started it all for me. Renowned picture book artists including Peter Sis, Polly Dunbar, and Chris Riddell each take on a different article of the UDHR. The results are moving, sometimes humorous, sometimes sweet, and very often lasting. There's even a forward by the Tenth Doctor himself, David Tennant.


The Little Book of Little Activists by Penguin Young Readers
When children speak up, adults tend to listen. When children make observations about the world, the words that come out tend to be profound. And when adults see kids working to change the world, well for me at least that stirs something up deep inside me. The photos and quotes from kids in this little book are a venerable call to action and the short, descriptive text along the way will help other readers understand why the children in this book march, protest, and refuse to go unheard in order to secure freedom and equal rights for others. One of my favorite quotes comes from Mari, age 9, who says "Kids can do anything they set their minds to! You just have to keep speaking up, keep moving forward, and don't get discouraged if people don't take you seriously at first. Adults are harder to convince than kids."
Dream Big Dreams: Photographs from Barack Obama's Inspiring and Historic Presidency by Pete Souza 


These intimate photos can help children understand what kind of person it takes to stand up for the rights of all people in a nation as diverse as ours. And understanding an individual's values through the way we seem him interact with people from different religions, different cultures, different jobs and backgrounds? I think that experience speaks to how others might judge us based on how we carry ourselves through this world.


Small by Gina Perry 


Being small and looking small does not mean that a person needs to feel small, as Perry reminds us in her story. A big city, tall buildings, long lines, and noisy cars all make the protagonist feel small, but readers will also see in the art countless other unnamed ways we can feel small, including being surrounded by strangers, looking different from other people, or feeling small in the arms of a parent. None of these need to be bad feelings, and that's exactly where Perry takes us as her main character finds ways to feel big by recontextualizing her surroundings. And in this way we also have the power to make others feel big as well.


 The People Shall Continue by Simon J. Ortiz and Sharol Graves (Illustrator)


When talking about universal human rights it's important to not only look toward ideals for all people of the world, but also examples of how others may have had those rights taken from them. One of the clearest  and most readily available examples is that of the history of the Native/Indigenous peoples of North America and the invasion and usurpation of Native lands. The People Shall Continue uses clear narrative text to communicate all that was lost and was taken from the Native/Indigenous peoples and also guides readers toward a more inclusive, tolerant, yet resolute attitude toward the future. From the text, "We are all the People of this land. We were created out of the forces of earth and sky, the stars and water. We must make sure that the balance of the Earth be kept. There is no other way. We must struggle for our lives. We must take great care with each other. We must share our concern with each other. Nothing is separate from us."


Speaking Our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation by Monique Gray Smith 


The caring and powerful tone Smith uses to communicate with her readers here is that of a teacher from which we all could learn. And while this nonfiction book is focused on the journey toward reconciliation for the people of Canada as they as a nation come to terms with the long-term effects of the residential school system, many parallels can be drawn to our own history in the United States, though we as a nation have not yet made such deliberate or encompassing acts of reconciliation. As stated by the publisher, "Healing and repairing the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people requires education, awareness, and an increased understanding of the impact the residential school system had--and still has--on Survivors and their families. Recognizing the rights and freedoms we must all treat as universal most certainly can and should begin in your city, state, or country.


This Is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids from Around the World by Matt Lamothe 


If empathy toward others is built by widening our experiences and world views, then this book is working wonders from cover to cover. Children from seven families around the world were interviewed and details about their daily lives then illustrated for readers to compare one next to the other. Context plays a greater and greater role in the book as we put together clues about each child's life that ultimately help readers to understand the bigger picture and draw comparison in similarities and differences to the reader's own life as well as the lives of others he or she may know from school or their neighborhood communities. No detail feels overlooked and the affect is both intimate and open, playful and sincere. This book is a perfect primer for getting readers to think about others and other peoples' lives outside of their own realm of experience.


Sparkle Boy by Leslea Newman and Maria Mola (Illustrator) 


There are so many things I love about Sparkle Boy that finding the place to start might just be the hardest. I love how this book celebrates being drawn to what we're drawn to, but also challenges the apprehensions others may have toward those choices. I love how the adults in Casey  (aka Sparkle Boy)'s life all give space for him to take interest in whatever he chooses, but also that Jessie (big sister) struggles with Casey's non-gender normative choices. I especially love how, when these choices are challenged by external forces (namely, two kids at school), Jessie's love for her brother and want to protect him overpowers any hesitations she may have been feeling previous to that moment. Newman gives space for her readers to explore their own feelings without needing to make a decision by book's end, but having walked away perhaps a bit better informed as to how we can be treating one another when we respect others and how others choose to present themselves to us. 


In a Cloud of Dust by Alma Fullerton and Brian Deines (Illustrator) 


A truck pulls up outside a little schoolhouse in a Tanzanian village with a sign marked "bicycle library." The children all hurry out, excited to borrow a bicycle. There are not enough bikes for all, but Anna's disappointed is made up for in the excitement she shares helping her friends. This look at an experience foreign to most readers in the United States hits on some easy-to-spot universals of children around the world, including the experience of learning, of disappointment, and of playing with friends. If our focus is on helping secure universal rights for people of all ages all around the world, hearing stories of the lives of those people certainly aides in our ability to envision who we are helping which, in turn, can help drive why we are helping. 


My Little Book of Big Freedoms by Chris Riddell (Illustrator) 


Chris Riddell illustrates a selection of articles from the UDHR, often time pairing a human or humans with an animal amid the key concept of the article. A person stands beneath a giant hound dog with the word "JUSTICE". A girl sleeps wrapped in a blanket alongside a huge fox under the word "SAFETY". A child holds a wrapped gift while sitting in a nest and being cared for by a great bird along with "OWNERSHIP". The pairing is evocative of deeper meaning, especially as considered alongside the UDHR article with which its paired. The book is quite, yet the display of illustration against handwritten article conveys strength and conviction. It's as if the whole of this book was hand drawn in order for it to be a testimony to the artist's beliefs in the strength of the words and their meanings. And that has an effect on those reading the story as well.



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