Picture Books That Address Social Issues

Each year when we launch our Social Issues Book Club unit, I begin by letting my students know that social issues exist in most texts they encounter in their everyday lives. For example, even though we may have read Ruth and the Green Book during our unit on historical fiction, it addresses important social issues including racism and discrimination. Another non-fiction example is No Monkeys, No Chocolate, which describes the steps it takes to get chocolate from the cocoa bean, however the social issue of environmentalism lingers beneath the surface.

Last year, I wrote a post about Social Issues Book Clubs. This year, in addition to reading The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, which deals with the social issue of the treatment of animals living in captivity, my colleague recommended Faithful Elephants by Yukio Tsuchiya. 

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Faithful Elephants is a picture book based on the true story of the zookeepers and animals at the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo during World War II. The authorities in Japan feared that the animals in the zoo may get freed as a result of frequent bombings. Thus, they ordered that the animals should be destroyed. Faithful Elephants is a heart breaking story of loss and tragedy brought on by war. Even the innocent zoo animals became its victims. 

Again, though it’s a picture book the content is heavy and the tone is quite somber. I’d recommend it for use in grades 4 and up. The majority of my students were already familiar with this story before I read it to the class. Following the read aloud, we had a long discussion about war and how the author’s and illustrator’s decisions in creating the book contributed to our understanding of this social issue.

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Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting is a picture book that explores the social issues of poverty, homelessness and loss. The story is told from the point of view of a young boy living in the airport with his father. The boy and his father strive to blend in, moving from terminal to terminal and keeping a low profile. Though the setting of the story is dated, Fly Away Home is still quite powerful. 

One important detail in the story is that the boy’s dad is employed. However, his salary is not high enough to afford rent. At this point students expressed surprise because they assumed all homeless people are unemployed. This opens up an opportunity to correct misunderstandings or assumptions.

In my fifth grade class, we do a lot of work with symbolism. At one point in the book a bird flies into the terminal and the boy becomes fascinated by it. By the end of the story, the bird finds its freedom. My students had so much to say about what the bird represents in this story, that I sent them off to write about their ideas and how they connected to the larger social issues in their reading notebooks. Students then had an opportunity to participate in a gallery walk where they read and added on to each other’s ideas.

Fly Away Home (Guided Reading Level: P) is a great read aloud for students of all ages, grades 1-5.

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