Best Civil Rights Kids Books

This page lists some of the best civil rights kids books that depict the civil rights movement and era in age appropriate and meaningful ways for children. These stories help the reader to understand the widespread and legal segregation and discrimination practices of the time, and also bring to life the heroism of those who fought to change the system. Personal stories or powerful historical fiction novels are often the most effective in helping children see how discriminatory society was and how dangerous it was to fight the system. Children today often find the stories hard to believe given how far we've come.

In our multi-cultural society, it's essential to teach children that every person is important regardless of whether they are "different" than you are. Kids pick up on the attitudes and opinions they hear from the adults in their life, and sadly, some students hear messages of prejudice at home. As their teacher, you may be the only adult voice of equality and acceptance in their life!

The following civil rights books vividly bring to life the civil rights era--depicting the pervasive and often institutional discrimination and depicting the courageous and determined actions of the freedom fighters who were not going to stop until there was equality for all.

best civil rights kids books

Martin's Big Words by Doreen Rappaport

This picture book biography is "a stunning, reverent tribute" (School Library Jrnl) to the man and his legacy. Rappaport weaves King's own words into the narrative, powerfully communicating his passion and ideals. This book is an "ideal introduction" (Publ. Weekly) and great for MLK's birthday or Civil Rights movement units.  Rappaport's text is a strong component, but what we really like is the creativity in Bryan Collier's collages!  This book has won NUMEROUS prestigious awards, including the Caldecott Honor, the NCTE Orbis Pictus Honor for Outstanding Nonfiction, and the New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Book Award. 

Interest Level: Gr. 2-5  / DRA: 18  / Lexile: 410L / Guided Reading: K / Grade Equivalent: 2.5

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We March by Shane Evans

A Sweet Smell of Roses by Angela Johnson

Two African-American sisters sneak out of their house and walk down the street to join folks who are going to march with and listen to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The sweet smell of roses is a metaphor for the scent of freedom. "Powerful charcoal images dominate the pages with particular attention paid to facial expressions" (School Library Journal).

Booklist ended their review by promising that "this book is not only about segregation; it's also about the crowds of people "walking our way toward freedom," the thrilling portrait of Dr. King, and the two brave kids who cross the line."

Interest Level:   Kindergarten - 3rd grade

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Child of the Civil Rights Movement by Paula Young Shelton

These Hands by Margaret Mason

by Margaret Mason; illustrated by Floyd Cooper

Little Joseph loves spending him with his grandpa, learning all the many things that grandpa can do with his hands -- help him tie his shoes, play the piano, do fancy card moves... One day grandpa shared with Joseph that there was something he couldn't do with his hands when he was younger -- make bread at the local bakery. The white owner determined that white  customers people would not want to buy bread touched by an African American's hands. And then explains how determined people joined hands and eventually helped society change these discriminatory views.  And now, grandpa can do anything he wants to do with his hands! In a starred review, Kirkus said "For all the many titles that appear on segregation and protest for younger readers, this one stands tall not just for delving into a piece of labor history not previously covered, but for its ability to relate history with heart and resonance."

Interest Level:  Pres-Gr. 3           DRA Level: 20                 Lexile Measure: 680L
Grade Level Equiv: 2.8               Guided Reading:  L

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Goin' Someplace Special
by Patricia McKissack

by Patricia McKissack; illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

Set in 1950s Nashville, this picture book shows the injustices of segregation through the story of Tricia Ann, an African-American girl, who's finally allowed to go outside her neighborhood on her own. The laws say she can't be in many of the places white people can, so she goes to the public library, where everybody is welcome. In their review, Booklist called this book "beautiful tribute to the libraries that were ahead of their time."  Sweet and true!

Interest Level: K-Gr. 2                 DRA Level: 24                   Lexile Measure: 550L
Grade Level Equiv: 3.3              Guided Reading: M

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White Water by Michael Bandy

by Michael Bandy and Eric Stein
illustrated by Shadra Strickland

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March On!: The Day My Brother Changed the World

by Christine King Farris; illustrated by London Ladd
The sister of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., answers questions about her brother and the 1963 March on Washington, including how he prepared for his well-known 'I Have a Dream' speech. This title has an "appealing rhythm for reading aloud." (School Library Journal, starred review)

Interest Level:  Gr. 3-7              DRA Level:  40                   Lexile Measure: 860L
Grade Level Equiv: 5.6            Guided Reading: S

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White Socks Only by Evelyn Coleman

The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson

by Jacqueline Woodson
illustrated by E.B. Lewis

Interest Level: Gr. 1-4              DRA Level: 40                  Lexile Measure: 300L
Grade Equivalent: 2.6            Guided Reading: Q

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Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles

Interest Level: Gr. 1-4           DRA Level: 24                 Lexile Measure: 460L
Grade Equivalent: 2.7          Guided Reading: M

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The School Is Not White! A True Story of the Civil Rights Movement

by Doreen Rappaport; illustrated by Curtis James

The true story of one Mississippi family who bravely sent their seven children to an all white school, and ended up losing their home and their jobs, plus had to deal with violent threats. "Chalk pastels effectively capture the tale's intense emotion." (Publisher's Weekly)
Interest Level:   2nd grade - 5th grade

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Grandmama's Pride by Becky Birtha

by Becky Birtha; illustrated by Colin Bootman

Sarah Marie has just learned to read and now, on their trip to Grandmama's house in the segregated South, she understands the "Whites Only" signs and the pervasive discrimination. But grandmama handles it all with quiet dignity and wisdom.

In their review, School Library Journal promises this book "will touch both heart and mind."  Interest Level: Gr. 2-5            Grade Equivalent:  4.2            Lexile Measure: 720L

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Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins

by Carole Boston Weatherford; illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue

Two African-American girls from northern states are exposed to the segregated South for the first time, but their mama and grand- mama handle it all with quiet dignity and wisdom. This title is "distinguished by superb watercolor artwork that makes segregation personal." (Booklist)

Interest Level:  Gr. 1-4                DRA Level:  30                   Lexile Measure: 660L
Grade Level Equiv: 3.2              Guided Reading: N

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Boycott Blues
: How Rosa Parks Inspired a Nation

An uplifting, visually stunning overview of the civil rights movement, starting with Rosa Park's refusal to give up her seat on the bus and then continuing onto Dr. King's boycott speech and the ever growing movement. Pinkney's vivid, dramatic illustrations are perfect for the subject. In a starred review, SLJ said that "this story will read aloud well, mesmerizing listeners." One of our favorite civil rights kids books.

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Rosa by Nikki Giovanni 

Rosa by Nikki Giovanni is a stand-out children's book that provides "a handsome and thought-provoking introduction" (School Library Journal) to Rosa Parks's role in the Civil Rights Movement. Full of stunning collage illustrations by Bryan Collier, this middle grades book starts with Park's life as a seamstress, then moves to her famous refusal to relinquish her seat on the bus. From there the story progresses to other key events and people in the movement. We mostly like this book because of Bryan Collier's interesting collage illustrations, which are a mixture of watercolor and collage and so uniquely executed.

That's not to say we don't like the text and storyline, however. We agree with Booklist, who said in a starred review that teachers will appreciate that "history comes clear in the astonishing combination of the personal and the political."  This book would be a perfect choice to use when teaching about the civil rights movement, courage, American heroes, or even on Rosa Parks Day.

Interest Level: Gr. 3-5                DRA Level:  50                Lexile Measure:  900L
Grade Equivalent: 5.1               Guided Reading:  T

     * Caldecott Honor Book 2006
     * American Library Association Notable Children's Book 2006
     * American Library Association Coretta Scott King Award 2006

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civil rights era books for older kids

Below are some good chapter books and non-fiction books on the civil rights era for older kids. If any of these books seem like a good fit for you, click the link below.  Some of these connect to review pages by us and others connect directly to Amazon. Please note that if you purchase an item from Amazon, they give us a small referral fee. This helps pay for site hosting costs, thus allowing us to keep everything free for site visitors!

Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges
Six year old Ruby was the first black student to attend an all-white school in the segregated South. In this book, Ruby tells the story as she remembers it. Her account shows her sweet innocence about what a historic event this was. (ie: She didn't realize they were yelling at her. She thought it was Mardi Gras!)  Very powerful..."like poetry or prayer, they melt the heart." (Publisher's Weekly) Grades 3-7

Circle of Fire (History Mysteries series)
Jeffrey, a white boy, and Mendy, an African-American girl are best friends until one summer Jeffrey's parents forbid him from playing with Mendy. Ethnic tensions in the area are high, but Mendy is excited that Eleanor Roosevelt is coming to speak in her town...until she and Jeffrey uncover a Klan plot to bomb the event. (Based on an actual planned bombing by the KKK and uncovered by the FBI!)  Grades 3-6

Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
Most people do not realize the coordination and sacrifice that went into the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott. This title combines segments from memoirs, scholarly articles, personal stories, and historical accounts with large black-and-white photos on every spread to create an "exemplary presentation [and]...a powerful introduction to the Civil Rights Movement" (SLJ, starred review).   Grade 4-6

One Crazy Summer 
What Delphine and her sisters really want is to get to know their estranged mother, who they are visiting in Oakland during the summer of 1968. But their mother is cold to them ("No one told y'all to come out here") and sends them to the local Black Panther day camp to get them out of her hair. While there, the girls learn about racial injustice and black power. Great for learning about the era, as "the setting and time period are vividly realized." (Horn Book)   Grade 4-7

Fire from the Rock
Sylvia is honored to have been selected to be one of the first African American students to attend Little Rock's Central High School, but it's 1957 and racial tensions are high. She doesn't aspire to be a hero of the movement. Maybe she should just stay at her black school with her friends. This stirring first- person account helps "personalize the civil rights struggle beyond slogans and politics." (Booklist)  Grade 4-7

Yankee Girl 
Alice's family has just moved to Mississippi, where her father job is to protect civil rights workers and African Americans registering to vote. Alice has a hard time making friends at school because of her father's job. When the school is integrated by two black girls, Alice struggles with whether she should befriend the girls and be further ostracized by the popular but racist girls at her school.  Grade 4-8

The Journal of Biddy Owens: The Negro Leagues
(My Name is America series) 
Biddy Owens writes in his journal about being the equipment manager for a 1948 Negro League baseball team, including stories about the games, about road trips, and about the racial segregation and blatant bigotry in Birmingham. "The writing is infused with a love of baseball" (Booklist), making this a great book to give to baseball fans, who will learn about the racial prejudice of the era in the process.  (
5th grade & Up)

Freedom Riders: ...on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement
Two young men, one black, one white, participate in the historic freedom rides of the early 1960s, and exemplify the amazing courage and unending determination of the youth who put themselves in great danger to participate. In vivid detail, the author brings the story of the end of segregated transportation to life. In a starred review, School Library Journal called it an "excellent work of nonfiction."  Gr. 5-9

Walking to the Bus-Rider Blues
In this mystery book set during the Alabama bus boycott, 12-year-old Alfa and his sister try to find out who is stealing grandma's rent money. They begin cleaning houses to help pay the rent, and when they are wrongly accused of theft, Alfa discovers that whites have money problems too. Racial inequalities permeate the story, but Alfa rises above them with determination and nonviolence. Grade 5-8 

The Return of Gabriel
When civil rights workers come to Cooper & Jubal's Mississippi town to try and get the blacks to vote, Cooper finds himself in the middle between Jubal's black family and his own prejudiced white family. Can the boys stay friends despite all the pressures? "An inspiring story set during Freedom Summer." (School Library Journal)  Grade 5-8

A Dream of Freedom: The Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968
A "compelling retrospective" (SLJ) of the civil rights era by a white woman who grew up in the segregated South and admits she didn't often see the racial injustices around her. This title offers both a personal recollection and a factual accounts. Of the civil rights books listed here, this is one of the most "compelling but challenging." (Booklist)  Grade 5-9

Marching for Freedom
This moving book is about the vital role that children played in the Civil Rights Movement, with personal stories of young demonstrators (ie: 10 years old!) paired with "well-selected, breathtaking photographs." (Kirkus)  Students will be startled and impressed by these tales of bravery and conviction.  Grade 6+

The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963
In this title, Curtis creates "a warmly memorable evocation of an African American family" (Horn Book) living in 1960s Michigan. When the eldest brother starts to get into trouble, the family travels to Alabama for him to spend the summer with his grandmother, and arrive just in time to experience the church bombing known as Birmingham Sunday. Full of "ribald humor, sly sibling digs, and a totally believable child's view of the instant hit" (School Library Journal).  Grade 6+

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice
Did you know that Rosa Parks was not the first African American to refuse to give up her seat to a white person. It was 15-year-old Claudette several months prior. Claudette was arrested, but did not become the face of the movement. This Newbery title is an "outstanding choice" among the collection of civil rights books for kids as it will "give [students] new perspective on the era." (School Library Journal)  Gr. 6+