Every social justice hero was once a child. Some became activists as children; others did so as adults because of things they experienced when they were young. A new middle-grade book from the prolific Robin Stevenson explores the childhoods of activists in the LGBTQ, racial, disability, labor, immigrant, and women's civil rights' movements, among other areas, offering young readers both information and inspiration.
Kid Activists: True Tales of Childhood from Champions of Change ( Quirk Books ) includes biographical sketches of 16 diverse activists, focusing on how their early years influenced their commitment to social justice. Stevenson is smart to blend heroes of the past ( Frederick Douglass, Alexander Hamilton ) with more contemporary figures ( Malala Yousafzai, Janet Mock ), giving readers both a sense of the long, rich history of activism and a way to find current resonance. In accessible but never patronizing prose, she sketches the stories of her subjects' childhoods, deftly setting the scene for each one and providing informative details, engaging quotes, and sometimes humorous anecdotes. ( Did you know that Martin Luther King Jr., once played a practical joke on his piano teacher? Or that when water protector Autumn Peltier was invited by email to speak at the U.N., her mother thought it was a scam and almost deleted the message? ) At the same time, Stevenson does not shy away from mentioning the challenges they encountered. In fact, her exploration of their many early failures is one of the great strengths of the book, and should give young readers confidence that they, too, can fail and then succeed. She also notes when some of her subjects were victims of violence or assassination, but avoids graphic detail.
At the end of each of the 16 main profiles is a page noting one or more additional people connected to the primary figures in some way, or who were active in the same social justice movements. After Harvey Milk's profile, for example, we read briefly about lesbian activists Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, who had helped pave the way for Milk and the later LGBTQ rights movement. After reading about Dolores Huerta's childhood, we learn a bit about Cesar Chavez, her partner in starting the United Farm Workers. Much as I would have loved to read full profiles of all these figures, I understand that the economics of publishing ( and attention spans of younger readers ) necessitate some picking and choosing. Nevertheless, Stevenson has done a wonderful job of making her main profiles engaging and informative while also whetting readers' appetites to know more. Cartoon illustrations by Allison Steinfeld enliven the pages, but this is not a picture book. The biographies are thoughtful and feel substantial for their length. That's not an easy trick, but Stevenson pulls it off. Even adults will likely find themselves learning something.
If Stevenson's name sounds familiar, that's not surprising. A queer mom herself, who lives in British Columbia with her partner and their son, she's the author of numerous books for all ages, including Pride Colors, a board book for tots; Pride: Celebrating Diversity and Community, a middle-grade book that blends a history of the event with a broader look at LGBTQ identities and the struggle for LGBTQ equality; My Body My Choice: The Fight for Abortion Rights, which gives teens a look at the past, present, and future of the movement; and Ghost's Journey: A Refugee Story, a brand-new elementary grade picture book about two gay refugees and their cat.
Stevenson's latest book is part of the publisher's Kid Legends series, which also includes books about the childhoods of famous artists, athletes, authors, scientists and U.S. presidents. They may be on to something. Another children's publication, Kazoo magazine ( coincidentally founded by another queer mom ), offers advice, ideas, and inspiration from outstanding women in STEM, the arts, politics and other fields. Instead of depicting them as grownups, dispensing advice from on high, Kazoo shows images of them as children, so readers can more easily see themselves in these role models. Rather than giving children the message that people must be adults to make a difference in the world, Stevenson and Kazoo are each reminding them that every famous person started out as a child. Some became famous as children; others used the experiences from their childhoods to guide them later in life. Either way, it's an empowering approach. Kid Activists, with a focus on people who fought ( and in some cases, are still fighting ) for social justice, should find many fansand just might inspire a few new "champions of change." Seems like our world could use all it can get right about now.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian ( Mombian.com ), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBTQ parents.