Let’s Talk: Children’s and Teen Books that Encourage Dialogue

Let's Talk_ Books that Encourage Dialogue

In this guest post, New York Public Library Head of Teen Services Elisa Garcia and Shauntee Burns-Simpson, Manager of the New York Public Library School Support Program, share some of their favorite titles for fostering conversation and dialogue. We are so excited to have them join us on the Lee & Low blog!

Libraries play a role in social responsibility and one of the ways we do this is bringing the community together through books that foster rich conversations about current and past events. When choosing books to have these critical conversations, it is important that these titles represent diversity and will support and foster these conversations.

Use these engaging and diverse titles with your students:

  • To develop critical thinking skills in which they can engage in difficult conversations in books that mirror their experiences and what’s happening in the world around them.
  • To make conversations about diversity, inclusion and cultural awareness the norm
  • To learn about new cultures, life experiences, disabilities and emotions such as empathy, compassion, acceptance, kindness and how our differences can bring us together

We recommend the following titles to lead engaging and constructive conversations:

People, Traditions, and Culture:

Drumbeat in Our Feet

What a fun and engaging book! This is a great book to teach and lead conversations with your students about the diversity of the African peoples, culture, landscapes and how dance traditions are passed on from generation to generation. Drumbeat in Our Feet works well to lead conversations about how our cultures and traditions play important roles in our lives and how our differences make our communities rich and diverse.

Activity: Students can host a multicultural fair in which different cultures, countries and traditions are represented and highlighted.

Shame the Stars

It’s the summer of 1915, Joaquin and Dulceña are in love but on the other side of town trouble is brewing.  The Mexican Revolution is happening and as tensions grow Joaquin and Dulceña must separate, but this is something neither of them can accept.  Shame the Stars is a historical novel that delves into the tragedies that happened during the Mexican Revolution. It’s an engaging story about love, fear, political revolution and the ultimate sacrifice for love and family.

Books on Empathy, Compassion, & Self-Acceptance:

The Can Man

This book can be used to discuss homelessness, the socioeconomic factors that can lead to it, and how simple acts of kindness and community service can make a difference in the lives of those that The Can Manmay be experiencing a hardship. The Can Man is a great resource to lead conversation with students at a young age about community service, volunteering and how emotions such as compassion and empathy make our communities a better place.

Activity: Have your child/student talk about what home means to them. Follow up with the question, what do we need at home? Write it down and have your child put in order of importance to him/her and discuss their thought process.

Chess Rumble

Anger and grief are difficult emotions to deal with, let alone talk about.  In Chess Rumble we meet Marcus, who’s going through grief after his sister’s death and the absence of his dad in his life. This is a great middle school book that will foster rich and enlightening conversations about anger, grief and bullying in which students will have the opportunity to learn about these emotions and how to cope with them.

Activity: Hold a chess tournament in the classroom or school library, along with having students act out some of the scenes in the book. This will engage students in a deeper understanding of  what Marcus is going through and help them to empathize with difficult emotions.

Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut

When you look good, you feel great!! Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut is a poetic story of how transformative a haircut can be. It presents the barber as an artist, creating a masterpiece with each individual. Each client’s perception of him/herself changes along with the perception of the outside world.

Activity: Talk to your child or student about things they like about Crownthemselves. Follow that up with a game of Self-Esteem Bingo.

I Am Enough

A visually stunning picture book that just makes you feel good when you read it. With an array of girls on each page, it drives home a strong message of being yourself and loving you. An inspiration for any young child.

Activity: Help your child recite an affirmation from the book. Together, write your own affirmations. Think about what makes you unique. For fun, say them in front of a mirror.

Social Justice:


“Ahimsa” is nonviolence towards all things and it is practiced in the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religions.  Most importantly, this is the story of ten-year-old Anjali, who has to adjust to her mother leaving the family to be part of the Freedom Movement with Mahatma Gandhi. Anjali must adapt to this new life without a mom and dramatic changes to the family’s current lifestyle. This is a powerful story about the Independence Movement in India and how the life of many was impacted during these historic times.

Discussion: This book is a great tool to lead conversations about politics, culture, family, socio-economic status, social justice and the nonviolence movement.

I Am Alfonso Jones

I Am Alfonso Jones is an incredibly rich reading experience that takes us into the life of 15-year-old Alfonso Jones who is killed by an off-duty police officer while buying his first suit. When Alfonso wakes up in the afterlife, he’s on a ghost train with other individuals who have lost their lives to police brutality. This is the first graphic novel for I Am Alfonso Jonesteens to address the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality and other social justice issues.

Activity: Have students look up current events that are connected to I Am Alfonso Jones on the local and national level and follow up with a discussion.

The Hate U Give

16-year-old Starr witnessed a tragedy. Her best friend Khalil was shot and killed in front of her, by a police officer. This book addresses a variety of topics including socioeconomic backgrounds, race, media portrayal, and the connection of poverty to violence. Those subject matters can be uncomfortable to talk about, but using the story as a baseline to the discussion will help.

Activity: Find newspaper or magazine articles to connect the story to real world scenarios. Students can then write down the connections they observed between The Hate U Give and the provided article and share them as a class.


Yummy: The Last Day Of A Southside Shorty

When unfortunate acts of violence happen in our communities, it can be hard to explain to our students how these issues came about.   Yummy: The Last Day Of A Southside Shorty  goes into the life of Robert “Yummy” Sanders, an 11-year-old gang member in Southside Chicago who accidentally shoots 14-year-old Shavon Dean when shooting at rival gang members.  Based on a true story, this book can be used to lead conversations about gangs, guns, and violence. What can we do to make things better and lead to a better quality of life?

Activity: Ask questions about Yummy’s life, his living environment, and family. Why did he join a gang? Did he have other options? Talk about the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution (the right to bear arms). Listen to your students’ thoughts around the Second Amendment and the violence that is happening around the country. Follow up with a talk about gun control possibilities. What would they like to see happen? Then have your students create picket signs for peace.

Long Way Down

This poetic tale introduces us to 15-year-old Will, who seeks revenge for the murder of his brother Shawn. After securing his brother’s gun, Will gets on the elevator, where he is confronted by The Stars Beneath Our Feetghosts from his past.

Activity: Talk about the three rules that are addressed in the book. What are your thoughts on the rules? Would you add any other unspoken rules? Then talk about revenge. What does it mean to seek revenge? What can be the consequences? Share a time you wanted revenge.

The Stars Beneath Our Feet

Wallace, a.k.a. Lolly, is the main character of this middle grade survival tale. He’s learning how to navigate the world without his older brother, who was shot and killed outside of a Bronx nightclub. To help take his mind off of the situation, he starts building his own city using Legos. But outside of his magical Lego world are bullies, gangs, and difficult decisions.

Activity: Talk about the various characters in the book and their choices. Have you been in any similar situations? How did you handle them? Would you handle them the same way after thinking about them? What would your magical world look like? Use pen, paper, Legos, or even Minecraft to design and create it.

About the Authors:

Elisa Garcia is Head of Teen Services at The New York Public Library.  She is firmly rooted in fostering a love of reading in reluctant teen readers and a strong commitment to providing them with diverse books that represent them and their experience.  Elisa enjoys mentoring new librarians, connecting people to the public library and promoting diversity in librarianship.

Shauntee Burns-Simpson is Manager of School Support Program for The New York Public Library. An ambassador for libraries and librarianship, Mrs. Simpson enjoys connecting people  to the public library and its resources. As a Youth Librarian, she worked closely with at risk teens and fostered a love for reading & learning with her innovative programs. Currently serving on the Executive Board for the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (ALA) and member of the ALA Committee on Diversity, Mrs. Simpson continues to strengthen our communities and encourages librarians to collaborate with community based organizations, to introduce new populations to the library.


One thought on “Let’s Talk: Children’s and Teen Books that Encourage Dialogue”

  1. Excellent Article! When choosing books to have these critical conversations, it is important that these titles represent diversity and will support and foster these conversations. Thank you.

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