[Featured Image description: Illustration from ‘The Worms That Saved The World’ by Kevin Doyle & Spark Deeley. The image features a large crowd of colorful worms discussing a poster labeled ‘CHARTER OF RIGHTS.’]
All images in this post are the book covers discussed by the preceding text.
If you’re raising the next generation of activists and looking for resources on civil disobedience, disruption, and knowing when it’s safe to be an upstander – these books are for you.
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Recognizing when we need to break the rules
“It’s not right.” My neighbor shakes his head, “They shouldn’t be doing that. It’s divisive and disrespectful.”
My neighbor is wonderful. He’s kind to our rambunctious boys, friendly, and helpful. We adore him. But like many a beloved grampa, he’s an older gentleman, white-presenting, a moderate democrat in one of the wealthiest cities in the nation. And he grew up, like us all, raised in a culture of white supremacy. In a culture that values our flag more than the people who stand under it.
He’s talking about the NFL players who kneel in protest of a country that stands on the backs of Black, Brown, and Indigenous bodies. I can’t think of anything to say in these short minutes across a driveway. At least – nothing that explains the importance of nonviolent disruption without making me sound hysterical (and I do get hysterical about kids getting murdered). Is there a ‘nice’ way to suggest that we’re lucky we’re impacted by inequality, oppression, and inconvenience only when it hits the news cycle?
So I pause, and respond, “Oh? Is it? Hmm…” before smiling in confusion and turning away.
He’s troubled, and wanted enthusiastic agreement. I will be kind – but I will not provide that reassurance.
Stand up for the good of humanity
Good trouble is methodical and calculated. I’m not going to change the perspective of an elderly man on the insignificance of broken windows and rotting grapes compared to the safety and dignity of human life. But I do wish I could have come up with a magical response that felt less…cowardly before my son’s school bus arrived.
Good trouble isn’t a reactionary lecture in the driveway. But it also doesn’t mean I get to stay silent forever.
It’s my responsibility to look for the right time to mention the atrocities happening less than five miles from home. It is my duty to tell him we’re poisoning people with toxic water at MCI Norfolk Prison. It’s my duty to talk about the beating Mary Holmes got when she told an officer to calm down on the subway. It’s my duty to suggest that players kneel in protest because nothing else has gotten his attention the way this has.
Recognize the time for action
Disruption shines a light on something we’ve been trying to ignore. Scary things. Things we feel powerless to change.
Without that jarring light, we can’t see festering injustice hidden in the shadows. Disruption forces conversations at our water coolers and on our lawns so we HAVE to pay attention.
Disruption is what we resort to when we’re hurting enough to risk our lives and livelihood. When critics call acts of protest divisive, well YES – that is the point.
Divide and conquer applies to education, too.
Civil disobedience divides onlookers into those who dig deeper to understand, and those who dismiss protesters as hooligans and thugs (‘thug’ is code for a poor/non-white man who refuses to tread gently around white authority and doesn’t ‘know his place.’ Stop using this word.)
When my son commands me to get him a glass of milk, I refuse. He’s not asking politely, he’s acting bratty.
When he commands me to pick him up because a big scary dog is jumping on him, I help. He’s not spoiled – he’s terrified.
People of color, disabled people, trans people, pretty much everyone but white dudes, are terrified. Ignoring this pain is inhumane. Dismissing cries for help because we don’t like the way they caught our attention, or that they demanded instead of asked politely, that’s tone-policing. We are tools of systemic discrimination when pull this entitled BS.
So let’s start introduce this wildly revolutionary new idea (this is a joke! It’s not new. It’s basic human decency).
People who are being killed by a system that we benefit from don’t owe us polite and deferential respect when they ask (or demand) we stop killing them.
At Bumblebee Hollow, we teach our kids that everyone deserves respect regardless of age, status, or what-have-you. I am comfortable with the conflicting concept that we must treat other people with respect and kindness – but that doesn’t mean we are entitled to their respect in turn.
It’s my obligation to respond to critics with humility and reflection because I get enough food, sleep, and shelter. My family is healthy and safe. 99% of the time, I’ve got the spoons to go high.
But I don’t get to demand reciprocal behavior in exchange – especially from anyone feeling attacked and afraid, who doesn’t have the luxuries I do. Expecting someone terrified and in pain to have a calm and reasonable conversation for the sake of ‘civility’ is supremacy.
Disruption is designed to make us uncomfortable. If we find it distasteful, we need to zip it and ask ourselves why we have that reaction – not to lash out or run away.
We get to choose how we react to disruption. Choose compassion, or choose disdain?
Learn As You Go
I could have handled that conversation with my neighbor better. I could have prepared an elevator pitch against systemic white supremacy, protest, and free speech. I missed that moment and there’s no getting it back.
That’s how learning works! That moment gave me a chance to ponder how I should have responded – and how I will respond in the future. Since then, I’ve gone on to try more imperfect approaches with fragile white people with mixed results.
Also – consider carefully where to focus your efforts. If you’re not a targeted identity, don’t pipe up with your dissenting opinion or ‘fresh perspective’ in an online group, page, or meeting run by and for these people – it’s derailing and erasing, and it’s not okay to make them to spend time and emotional labor defending themselves. That’s a place for listening.
There’s a benefit to noodling over things a bit before we start lecturing the neighbors. If I sunk to my knees on the lawn while ranting, without knowing the symbolism, history, and decisions behind this statement, I’d fail to bring facts and reflection to the discussion that we need for a real conversation.
When we mess up – we have to use what we learned to create our own disruptions.
Upstanders: Do the work – choose one book
If this is all new to you – don’t start here. Reflect on this idea and start teaching your kids to recognize their own privilege with a couple books from this list. Then, when you start getting that gnawing feeling of guilt because you realize things aren’t right – choose one book from this list to bolster your courage, then head to the bottom of this post for a simple action plan.
These books helped my boys recognize the difference between being willfully obstinate and standing up for the greater good.
Are we challenging authority and tradition because we want more candy, or is this a community injustice like bullying or discrimination? (They still get confused, but we’re making progress)
Speaking up is never comfortable, (sometimes it’s petrifying). That bit of fear (for your ego, not your body or sanity – please stay safe) of being laughed at by our friends, that’s a signal we’re going in the right direction. It never gets easy, but it gets easier. If my preschooler can stand up to sexist speech through his fears of being an outcast, you can stand brave, too.
Captioned age ranges are for when my sons got ‘the gist’ of the story with discussion & alternative readings – most contain text for much older ages.
Disruption Within Our Communities
Standing up against bullying and oppression is complex when it’s our own friends, classmates, or neighbors who we have to counter. ‘Noni Speaks Up‘ addresses these hesitations and the fear of being ostracized ourselves.
‘The Smallest Girl In the Smallest Grade‘ shows us that even when we feel small and weak, we can ignite change.
‘The Araboolies of Liberty Street‘ shows us how a neighborhood can unite against a tyrant.
Disruption On the Field
In ‘I Am Jackie Robinson,’ we learn about the fear and bravery it takes to break race boundaries. ‘The William Hoy Story‘ showed us how players with disabilities (Hoy was Deaf) can inspire league-wide disability accommodations that help every player.
‘Miss Mary Reporting‘ isn’t technically on the field – but this biography of sportswriter Mary Garber shows how tenacity and passing sustained Garber as she broke into a domain that was openly hostile to women.
Disruption At School
‘Amy, The Story of a Deaf Child‘ isn’t a story specifically about disruption, but it normalizes day-in-the-life of disability-rights advocate Amy Rowley. Behind the book, Amy fought for disability accommodations for equal education in the 1979 case of Board of Education […] v. Rowley case, which she lost – but it inspired more disabled students to keep fighting.
‘Separate is Never Equal‘ is the story of Sylvia Mendez, who fought for the right to attend a white-only school in 1946. The success of her case laid the groundwork for desegregation fights across the country.
14 years later, in ‘The Story of Ruby Bridges,’ we see six-year-old ruby endure threats, harassment, and organized strikes against her attendance in a formerly white-only school.
Disruption In The Stacks
‘Ron’s Big Mission‘ is based on the story of astronaut Ron MacNair in his 1959 fight for the right to check books out of the library.
‘The Library Lion‘ has been the single most effective book in discussing when it’s okay to break the rules – and what it means to sacrifice our comfort and happiness for the safety of others. Please don’t send me more studies explaining how kids are more likely to emulate human protagonists. All of them fail to account for the effects of expanded discussion. Both my 3yo and 5yo found the lion’s choice to be bittersweet and uplifting – and were able to equate times in their own lives when they might be called on to do the same during our guided discussions.
If you liked ‘The Book With No Pictures,’ you’ll love ‘This is My Book,’ a silly story breaking the 4th wall. Pett provokes readers to recognize the translation from an artist or author’s intentions, and how that morphs once a reader creates a relationship with a story. The story inspires readers to break the rules, so search for a new (rather than used) version of this book – you’re likely to find rips and scribbles throughout the pages if previous readers connected with the story. There’s also a fragile pop-up on one page, so reading requires adult supervision for kids under 4.
Disruption At Work
‘Harvesting Hope‘ was the story of Cesar Chavez from his idyllic early childhood contrasting the harsh labor conditions of the migrant farmers he led in revolt. The illustrations and storytelling were more vibrant than ‘Dolores Huerta,’ which I enjoyed but the boys found boring. (I’ll admit both stories were a bit of a fight to get them into, they’re not terribly exciting.)
‘On Our Way to Oyster Bay‘ is told from the perspective of 8-year-old Aidan, who worked 72-hour work-weeks until real-life child-rights activist Mother Jones organized a 100-mile, 16-day march of children that eventually resulted in safer child labor laws.
‘Brave Girl,’ is the story of Jewish-Ukranian immigrant Clara Lemlich leading the massive Uprising of 20,000 in 1909, leading to a revolution in working women’s rights.
‘Little Leaders’ features 40 Black women who changed the world with exceptional work in literature, art, space exploration, and beyond.
Disruption In The Justice System
‘I Dissent‘ is the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as she refuses to accept the bigotry she faced growing up and as a Jewish woman fighting for justice and equality in the US Supreme Court.
‘The Youngest Marcher‘ is the story of Audrey Fay Hendricks, who volunteered to fill the prisons along with hundreds of other black children until the jails could hold no more, scoring a victory against unfair imprisonment during the civil rights movement. (‘I Am Martin Luther King, Jr.‘ is self-explanatory.)
Disruption Against Gender Constructs
‘Jacob’s New Dress‘ is the story of a little boy determined to dress himself the way he feels powerful – despite bullying, gender norms, and his parents’ hesitations.
‘Bad Girls‘ is a bit bloody for littles (Beheadings! Revenge! Pirate Queens!) but soooo good it should be in every parent’s lexicon – and it also makes the perfect Mother’s Day Gift…if you happen to be the father of my children ::cough cough::.
‘Malala’s Magic Pencil‘ is Malala Yousefzai’s fairytale-esque autobiography about her decision to take responsibility for the inequity around her using the only tools she had as a young girl – words.
Phoebe’s Revolt is the story of one little girl determined to cast off the oppressive ruffles of constrictive frilly dresses. Caveat: toes the line on ‘not like the other girls’ tropes, but Phoebe’s hostility to her Prissy cousin’s propriety is more a reaction to Phoebe’s parental comparison and pressure than hostility toward other women. So I am okay with it.
There are so many historical inaccuracies in this biography of Victoria Woodhull it’s basically historical fiction, but it’s nice to have a kids’ book on this hallmark figure of women’s history to open discussions on gender and politics with kids.
Civil Disobedience – Causing Good Trouble by Taking Action
In ‘The Other Side,’ we watch Clover and her white neighbor on the other side of the fence push boundaries (literally) despite their parents instructions to stay apart.
‘If You Plant A Seed‘ is an allegorical tale of exploring feelings of scarcity and greed, then sharing and reciprocity and the resulting abundance – in a collaboration of adorable animals.
‘Yertle the Turtle‘ is a classic story of a tyrants and the subversive, small protest that caused his downfall. Caveat – Many of Dr. Seuss’s books were racist and problematic, and you can get a better understanding of how to discuss Dr. Seuss’s stories at Pragmatic Mom.
Miss Paul And The President shows the unique and innovative ways Alice Paul caught the attention of the President in the suffragist movement for white women’s right to vote. From my cursory (re: brief and poorly-vetted) research, Paul was a typical white suffragist – meaning she didn’t do squat for women of color, and actively discouraged women of color and Jews from attending the marches she organized. It’s worth noting that this book is illustrated by a woman with a Chinese last name – we Chinese ladies weren’t allowed to vote until much, much, much later than white ladies and Alice Paul was totally cool with that.
Nelson Mandela is a beautiful, albeit not particularly engaging book. Either way – it gives kids a brief history of South Africa’s apartheid and Mandela’s decisions to ignore unjust laws in the pursuit of racial justice. Deborah Menkart has a negative review of this book worth noting on the over-simplification of apartheid and the mything of Nelson Mandela worth check out here. I’m keeping it in because for the age ranges we focus on in BFL, we need to simplify things, and I’m relying on readers to use these books as a launchpad for further research and discussion, not as the final truth.
The Worms That Saved The World teaches kids about the power of organizing and collective action, in addition to considering calculated risks to save the lives at the expense of property destruction. (Full disclosure, the author sent this to me for free so I could check it out.)
I Am Gandhi – as a problematic role model for misogyny and sexual abuse, this age-appropriate book cherry-picks the good stuff Gandhi did. Not saying we should ignore his flaws, but for preschoolers, this is an inspirational story. He’s not perfect – but this book teaches kids what they need to know until they’re old enough to dive into the violence caused by history’s idols.
Civil Disobedience – Causing Good Trouble by Taking a Stand (or seat, I guess)
‘Sit-In‘ is the true story of the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in college-student protest of 1960. (‘Freedom On the Menu‘ is about the same protest, but from the perspective of a little girl. The storytelling is better in ‘Freedom On the Menu,’ but my kids prefered ‘Sit-In’ and were more engaged in this book because of the energetic, colorful illustrations.)
How to know when it’s time for you to speak up
- When you’re afraid to speak up about problematic behavior because you might lose clients/readers/friends – that’s a sign.
- When it feels like you are making a big deal out of nothing – that’s a sign.
- When you’re shaking your head that no one else has has stepped up – that’s a sign.
- When you can stay quiet and no one would notice – that’s a sign.
- When someone who has spoken up is getting piled on and you think ‘Whew, glad that wasn’t me!‘ – that’s a sign.
- When you’d rather run screaming in another direction than enter the arena – that’s a sign.
- When you’re worried you’re going to get judged for speaking up – that’s a confirmation.
This is exactly when you need to step forward.
“This nation was founded on one principle above all else:
The requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world –
– ‘No, YOU move.‘
– Captain America (Civil War: Amazing Spider-Man‘)