© 2000 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

My Right to Be:
Children’s Voices in Trade Books


Stephanie Wasta and Carolyn Lott

Integrating social studies with the study of literature can empower students in their personal struggles toward adulthood as well as introduce them to larger social issues. The books discussed here feature—in quotes, letters, personal stories, and artwork—children’s voices addressing questions of civil rights, social power, and justice. Several books are about child labor, which is still commonplace in many countries and (it is argued) even continues on a small scale in the United States.


I started working when I was six. I learned to scavenge from the ragpicker boys who came to the riverbank to look for pieces of plastic. I had to fend for myself.

—Pramila, age 12, Nepal1


Contrasting cultures and ways of life are reflected in many of these books through children’s artwork and descriptions of family traditions and beliefs.


Each book title below is followed by lesson ideas for intermediate grade students (see notes and bibliography for complete citations). Books can give students a vicarious sense of a different time and place. They can present a more personal or emotional description of an event than would be allowed in a text book. The use of trade books in the classroom might enable students to feel more curious about social studies and to think more critically about their own society and their world. Also, they might gain some perspective from the experience, courage, and convictions of other young people.2


Last week I read in the newspaper about someone who had been put in prison for saying something against his government. This is so wrong. Everyone should be able to think and say what they like, as long as they aren’t lying. If you believe something from the bottom of your heart—say it and don’t be afraid.

— Liam O’Neill, age 13, Ireland3

The children’s voices heard in these trade books are expressed in art and photos, as well as in words. Their images in photographs often reveal the condition of the environment around them, but also hint at the inner spirit of the person. Their artwork—paintings, needlepoint, collages—expresses their experiences, hopes, and memories.

Another valuable aspect of the trade books discussed below is that they can be a bridge between the disciplines.4 These books should be of interest to teachers of language arts and art as well as of social studies. Their value in the social studies is clear. They offer an avenue for discussions about personal struggles and social issues that affect children. They can give students an opportunity to reflect on other cultures and societies, and on their own.

Voices for Human Rights

Stand Up for Your Rights explains the articles of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in easy-to-read, clear language. The work includes a graphic representation of the history of human rights and background information on the Declaration of Human Rights. The editors summarize each article of the declaration and supply helpful additional information, from definitions to discussions. Children from around the world have provided artwork, quotations, poems, and letters for this book. Reference to many human rights advocates such as Bishop Tutu, Rosa Parks, and Aung San Suu Kyi are included. This book includes helpful resources such as a list of international organizations that focus on human rights.


Student Activities

• Choose one article from the Declaration of Human Rights and reflect on its meaning as it relates to your life. How do you take advantage of this right? Share your insights through poetry, music, or artwork.

• Create a classroom book of human rights. What rights are most important, according to members of the class?

• Choose a “right” you are interested in. Respond to other students’ comments about that right as presented in the book or as shared by your classmates. Compare and contrast your ideas with theirs.

• Is there a parallel responsibility that goes with each right? Can students think of behavior that would not be protected by a right? Are two people’s rights ever in conflict?

• Visit the website of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child at www.unicef.org/crc

Dear Mrs. Parks: A Dialogue with Today’s Youth presents children’s voices in their letters and inquiries to Rosa Parks. Students often ask about historical Civil Rights events that have influenced Mrs. Parks’ life, but many also address their own struggles and challenges. Parks provides encouraging words grounded in her faith, experience, and concern for humanity.


Student Activities

• What power struggles are evident in the Rosa Parks letters? What advice does Mrs. Parks provide regarding conflicts within our society?

• Find a letter in the book from a student with whom you identify. Why do you identify with that student? What is your reaction to Rosa Parks’ comments as expressed in her letter to the selected student?

• If you were to write a letter to Rosa Parks, what would you ask her? How do you think she might respond?


Voices of Child Laborers

Listen to Us: The World’s Working Children uses quotations from young people in the work force, including street kids and indentured laborers, that lend support to the general discussions of child labor and its attendant conditions. This global overview of the present-day exploitation of children offers charts, pictures of children working, and descriptions of international organizations that are dedicated to reform. Moving descriptions of children working long hours in isolation without sanitation or with poor lighting exemplify the working conditions of some children around the world, from Brazil, to Nepal, to Canada. The children are sex workers, domestic helpers, factory workers, or farm laborers.

Stolen Dreams tells of childhood being thwarted when children must hold a job to support their own basic needs. Current photographs of children at work chronicle the poor conditions still prevalent around the globe. Some organizations, listed at the book’s end, suggest social action to help alleviate some of the worst working conditions.

Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor is the historical and biographical story of photographer Lewis Hine and his crusade against child labor in the early part of the 1900s in the United States. Imagery in the text depicts adolescent boys working in glass factories, four-year-olds shucking oysters, and young children changing bobbins in textile mills. This documentary account of a social movement in U.S. history exhibits the extreme working conditions that children faced at that time. Concerted efforts by Hine and other concerned individuals resulted in the passage of child labor laws by Congress.


Student Activities

• After looking at the photographic history of child labor in these three books, choose a country and investigate its current child labor laws. Determine what labor practices are allowed as well as which are prohibited.

• Discuss to what extent the historical working conditions are still prevalent in the United States and in other countries. Use all three books as well as a search of child labor practices on the Internet for collaborating facts and stories. See, for example, www.freethechildren.org.
At the United Nation’s site, www.un.org, go to “Human Rights,” then “General Information,” and finally “Children’s Rights.” Also, www.un.org/Pubs/CyberSchoolBus has occasional items on child labor.

• Make a Venn diagram (see figure) of the kinds of labor (listed in the circles) performed by children in the past and present (the two circles) in the United States. What conclusions can you draw?


Voices from Different Cultures

A Rainbow at Night features artwork by twenty-three Navajo youth. Each entry has a photo of the artist, a color image of his or her work, a quote by the artist, a discussion of the work and its cultural sources, and suggested activities for the reader. “The art in this book is a blend of traditional Navajo ways of living and modern ideas.”

Dia’s Story Cloth tells the story of Dia Cha and other Hmong during the 1960s and 1970s in war torn Laos. The vivid illustrations (photos of story cloths) and poignant text capture the fear, challenges, and tragedies associated with war and the displacement of numerous families. Cha’s story describes how she had to adapt to life in the United States at age fifteen and how she bridged the history of her old country and her new life through the story cloths. Information about the Hmong people is featured at the end of the book.


Student Activities

• Create your own painting or a simple story cloth (using felt and glue) about significant events from your life.

• Create a class story cloth linking student work together. Combine individual story cloths or together describe key events or accomplishments that have taken place in the classroom this year.

• Discuss how your own cultures are reflected in your paintings or your story cloths.


Unit Culminating Activities

Many of the children’s stories mention conflict or hardships like war, child labor, and discrimination.

• Choose one person from any of the books and discuss how conflict affects the life of that person.

• How did this person deal with conflict? What suggestions can you offer for how this person might address conflict?

• How has the way people deal with conflict changed over time?

• If you could have a conversation with one of the individuals in the book, what would you say? What questions would you ask this person?

• Create a voice for a child in one of the photographs. “Read” the child’s eyes, the expression, and consider his or her living conditions. If this person could keep a diary for one day, what would that entry look like?



1. Excerpt from Voice of Child Workers (January-April, 1993) in David L. Parker, Lee Engfer, and Robert Conrow, Stolen Dreams (Minneapolis, MN: Lerner, 1998), 74.

2. DeAn M. Krey, Children’s Literature in Social Studies: Teaching to the Standards (Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1998), 10-11.

3. Paul Atgwa, Jasper Bakyayita, Damien Boltauzer, Gözde Boga, Alberto Granada, Vivek Guha, Christine Jasinski, Alejandro Jiménez, Sheku Syl Kamara, Bremley W. B. Lyngdoh, Sayed Mosediq, Daniel Juwel Ngungoh, Toyin Ajasa-Oluwa, Joseph Robert, Leah Thigpen, Lissa Wheen, Alexander Woollcombe, and Jeta Xharra, eds., Stand Up for Your Rights (Chicago, IL: World Book, 1998), 51.

4. Kathy Everts Danielson and Jan LaBonty, Integrating Reading and Writing Through Children’s Literature (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1994), 4-6.

Children’s Literature

Cha, Dia. Dia’s Story Cloth. New York: Lee & Low Books, Inc., 1996.

Freedman, Russell. Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor. New York: Clarion Books, 1994.

Hucko, Bruce. A Rainbow at Night: The World in Words and Pictures by Navajo Children. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996.

Parks, Rosa, with Gregory J. Reed. Dear Mrs. Parks: A Dialogue with Today’s Youth. New York: Lee & Low Books, 1996.

Springer, Jane. Listen to Us: The World’s Working Children. Toronto,Canada: Groundwook Books/Douglas & McIntyre, 1997.


About the Authors

Stephanie Wasta is an assistant professor and Carolyn Lott is an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction of the School of Education at the University of Montana in Missoula.