Books That Teach Kids About Speaking Up

When the heroine of The Paper Bag Princess, Elizabeth, tells Prince Ronald that he is a bum, all rules on name-calling are (temporarily) suspended. For many kids, it’s one of the first times an act of defiance is positioned as a positive thing. Whether the message is about speaking up for yourself or someone else, parents will want to check out these five books, which continue the legacy of teaching kids to take a stand.

The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade by Justin Roberts, art by Christian Robinson
Barely noticed by her classmates, little Sally McCabe is always watching what’s going on around her. She notices the cats gathering in the church parking lot and the janitors carrying many keys—as well as the kids whispering on the playground and some being tripped in the hall. One day, Sally decides she’s had enough of the bullying she’s witnessed and decides to say something about it. For a moment, she’s not taken seriously, but then her speaking up encourages one kid—then another and another—to do the same. Told in rhyme, the even-tiny-people-can-make-a-difference message is an important one.

Willow Finds a Way by Lana Button, art by Tania Howells
As the parent of a little girl, I can attest to the “I’m-not-inviting-you-to-my-birthday-party” struggle being very real. In this book, the title character has a bossy classmate who taunts kids with potential invites to the promised land of cupcakes and balloons, instructing people where to sit, what to play, and what to wear (pink, of course). But when Willow removes herself from the guest list entirely, and others soon follow suit, the tables are turned. What’s particularly nice about this story is that the lines of bully and friend aren’t black-and-white, and the message isn’t that there are good and bad kids, but that a simple, non-confrontational action can create change—a sentiment lost in many children’s books on the subject.

One by Kathryn Otoshi
“Red is hot. Blue is not,” according to picture book; because even colors can be unkind. Red isn’t being very nice to Blue, and while the other colors like Blue just fine, they don’t say anything to Red. Red takes to picking on them (and gets away with it) until One comes along. One won’t take it. One speaks out inspires others to do the same, so they eventually learn to defend themselves—without ostracizing Red. A colors-and-counting book, a working-together book, and a book that teaches kids “it only takes one” and “everyone counts”—cheesy, but true, and in this case, age-appropriate (little kids won’t recognize the lessons as clichés and parents will enjoy the puns).

Imogene’s Last Stand by Candace Fleming, art by Nancy Carpenter
Imogene Tripp lives in Liddleville and loves history. Her town is home to a historical society building that’s not much cared for or visited. One day word gets around that the building is going to be torn down and replaced with a shoelace factory. Young but determined, Imogene goes to the mayor and the townspeople to protest the decision—and she doesn’t give up no matter how many people disregard her plea. Speckled with historical quotes, all memorized by the heroine, this story is about voicing your beliefs.

Red by Jan De Kinder, translated from Dutch by Laura Watkinson
Red is an interesting take on the topic of speaking up because it’s told from the perspective of a kid who shares in the responsibility of being the bully. A group of classmates often tease Tommy, who has a tendency to blush easily (hence, the title), until they get out of hand and one kid even gets physical. The narrator—whose name we never learn—ends up telling the teacher what happened, despite being implicated. This book is a good way to spark a conversation about how something seemingly innocent can become a real problem.