Just Books: Social Justice Summer Reading


No doubt, the younger members of many households are counting down the days until summer break begins—along with the promise of summer camp, family vacations and summer traditions, long days outside, and (at least for the tween and teen demographic) sleeping in.

Summertime’s change of pace is also an opportune time to form the minds and hearts of our children through sharing favorite stories. So make a trip to your neighborhood bookstore or library (and sign up for summer reading programs while you’re there!) and check out these four books touching on justice themes, recommended by our Just Parenting contributors.

A Wrinkle in Time | by Madeline L’Engle
recommendation by Sarah Signorino

Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time beautifully sets the stage for conversations on bullying, fighting evil, unexpected friendship, self-sacrifice, different family structures and (sing it in a Huey Lewis voice) the power of love. It is my favorite book—I am filled with deep consolation every time I read it.

The protagonist is Meg Murry. Meg is awkward, smart, struggling with school in many ways, worried about her parents (her dad has mysteriously disappeared), and hasn’t yet found her place other than being present around her brilliant and misunderstood younger brother, Charles Wallace.

The tale begins with the line “It was a dark and stormy night.” The book focuses on the dichotomy of the darkness in the universe—evil—and what we, by discerning our gifts, can do to create a light that defeats the darkness. Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin (a classmate of Meg’s)—three children—are the main warriors against the darkness.

L’Engle’s novel provides many starting points for discussions on the Ignatian principles of discernment, consolation, and desolation for people of any age. The three protagonists use their gifts (and have to figure out what they are) to fight the darkness. 

Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries who Shaped Our History . . . and Our Future! | by Kate Schatz
recommendation by Anthony Giancatarino

“Train the young in the way they should go; even when old, they will not swerve from it.”  Proverbs 22:6.

While there is truth to this passage, I think the flip-side can also be said.  Children will teach us to see which way to go and hold us accountable in how we move in this world.

Often, I am finding myself learning from our 3 ½ year old more than teaching or training her.  The innocent hope, the clarity of right and wrong, and the sophistication of nuance in the questions of “why,” “why not,” “how,” and “what about…” often gives me pause in how I am parenting and what I am focusing on in these moments.  But in those questions of “why and what abouts” I am quickly realizing my limits of my capacity and wisdom needed to satiate these questions.

And we need a way to support Anna in finding those answers.  One of those ways has been taking Anna to protests or organizing meetings as she soaks up the world around her.  And another is in books.

Our world is a mess. Our politics are rooted in hate.  And we are living in a time of urgent challenges, but technological distraction. Being able to answer these questions in ways that speak to a toddler is hard. But there are books out there that allow us to reach in and learn from the wisdom of others.

March was Women’s History Month and thought it important to share a book that we have often gone to as parents to help Anna make sense of the world: Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries who Shaped Our History . . . and Our Future! The book is rooted in sheroes of the past and today who share a story of struggle, success, and lessons that can help both kids and parents navigate this moment of challenge, trouble, and resistance.  Stories like Ella Baker investing in a community of leaders through the story of building a community of love; or Odetta using her gift of voice to sing for justice; or Rachel Carson’s story can help us celebrate the love of the earth in a time of climate-change denial.  

And as our kids find answers of “why,” “why not,” “how,” and “what about…” through the stories of these twenty-six amazing women, they also hold us accountable in our parenting today.

The Gift of Nothing | by Patrick McDonnell
recommendation by Greg Carpinello

Right before our first child was born, the student retreat team that I was mentoring at Xavier University pulled some of their own money together for a surprise baby gift for my soon-to-grow family. After working with these students for months on preparing talks and leading small groups, after discussing important topics like growing spiritually and living simply, these students absolutely nailed the perfect gift. It was a set of books by the author Patrick McDonnell and they have been a central part of our quest to pass on values to our kids for the last five years.  

My favorite might be The Gift of Nothing. In it, our kids meet Mooch (a cat) who just wants to surprise his friend Earl (a dog) with a gift. But Mooch realizes quickly that Earl has everything he needs, despite the fact that the world is telling him to buy, buy, buy. So Mooch, wise beyond his fictional character years, discovers that the best present for his buddy Earl might just be…presence!

In a world where our children are bombarded with advertisements (all of it full of subtle messages that we’re not complete enough without XYZ), Mooch helps us remember that living simply and living in the present moment are the keys to peace, joy, and connection. Of course, this is a great message for kids.  But it is also a powerful reminder for us as parents too, who also have to struggle daily in our own ways with the pressures of our consumer society, our diseases of busy-ness, and our sometimes-skewed visions of what makes a family whole.

I love Mooch. I love the challenges Mooch provides to turn off the technology, to remember that no purchase provides happiness, and to simply sit with our loved ones and notice the beautiful world all around us.

Read more about Patrick McDonnell and his comics and books

Blueberries for Sal | by Robert McCloskey 
recommendation by Lu Firestone

The sweet 1948 storybook Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey is a lesson in kinship.  

Our story introduces us to two sets of families who have come to Blueberry Hill to store up food for winter – Little Sal and her mother with tin pails in hand and Little Bear and his mother with empty bellies.  But children being children, Little Sal and Little Bear quickly get distracted by the hard work of blueberry eating and lose sight of their mothers who continue on without them.  Each child eventually ends up innocently trailing behind the other’s mother – Little Sal behind the mama bear and Little Bear behind Sal’s mother.  When the switch is discovered, the mothers are startled and afraid and quickly leave to find their rightful child and head home.  

This story opens up conversations about the choices we have when encountering what is different from us—while the mothers have learned to look on “the other” in fear, the children, in their innocence, are unafraid and open to a true encounter.   In the end, constructs that define how we engage the world around us are just that—paradigms that can be shifted.  The delight of this book is in the old story spun a new way: one world, created by God, where we might find ourselves not set against but knit together if, in the words of Pope Francis, “we do not look at the world from without but from within.” (Laudato Si’, 220).

1 reply
  1. Dr.Cajetan Coelho
    Dr.Cajetan Coelho says:

    Changing the world by sowing seeds of justice and peace from a young age – a wonderful way of proceeding.


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