Our top picks of books for children and teens about the fight for girls' right to attend school.
When you’re a child in a developed nation today, you don’t really think much about going to school — it’s just what everyone does. And yet, according to A World At School, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing educational access, there are an estimated 57 million children around the world who do not go to school, and another 250 million who attend school but never learn to read and write.
This is a problem that particularly affects girls: according to A World At School, “Girls represent 32 million of the out-of school children. They face discrimination, and are forced into marriage and even subjected to violence for wanting to learn. Every day, 25,000 girls are forced into marriage and out of school – the end of their only opportunity to learn.”
Pakistani girls’ education activist Malala Yousafzai, who became the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her determination to ensure that all children have the opportunity to go to school, has brought this reality into focus for children and teens around the world. Her efforts to ensure educational access for all, even after the Taliban attempted to assassinate her at 15, continue to inspire people worldwide. Sharing Malala's story provides an excellent opportunity to introduce children to the shocking idea that, in many places, education is a rare commodity — one that children are willing to risk their lives to attain.
In this blog post, we introduce numerous books that address the challenging topic of educational access in a manner accessible for young readers. With that understanding in hand, they will look at school in a new way — and work to help other children, just like them, have the opportunity to see it too.
For more resources about the fight for the right to education, visit our Educational Access Collection.
A Girl With A Book: stories About Malala Yousafzai
Chances are good that your Mighty Girl has heard Malala's name, but she may not know the details of her story. These resources explain her struggles and triumphs in age-appropriate fashion for school-aged kids, tweens, and teens.
As a young girl in Pakistan, Malala spoke up about the importance of girls' education, via speeches and a blog, risking violence from the Taliban regime that was intent on denying girls an education and silencing anyone who disagreed with their laws. In age-appropriate fashion, this book talks about the assassination attempt against Malala and how she has continued to speak for the voiceless girls around the world who want to learn. This Step Into Reading level 4 biography of Malala Yousafzai will open young readers' eyes to important issues about discrimination and educational access.
Malala Yousafzai grew up in a country where girls were supposed to be quiet, but with the support of her parents, she knew she had to make her voice heard. She defied the Taliban by blogging about life under their oppressive rule, insisting on the right of girls to be educated — and nearly lost her life to one of their assassins. But she survived and continued to speak out for the rights of girls in Pakistan...and around the world. This early chapter book, part of the Encounters: Narrative Nonfiction Picture Books series, is a terrific way to introduce newly independent readers to Malala’s inspiring story.
Malala's career as an international education activist began with a blog for the BBC, but it was after the shocking assassination attempt by the Pakistani Taliban that the world truly stood up and took notice. Today, she is the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and an inspiration to people around the world. With fun illustrations and useful sidebars full of information, this entry from the popular Who Was...? biography series provides more detailed background on Malala's life and family. This book will enlighten middle readers about the fight that many children face just to go to school.
Tweens and teens can learn Malala's story in her own words in this youth edition of her bestselling memoir. Through her own eyes, young adult readers will learn how Malala's life changed when the Taliban took control of her once-peaceful region of Pakistan, and how she had to adjust to their oppressive rules. And yet, with the support of her family — particularly her father — Malala started writing for the BBC about her life under Taliban rule, and continued to advocate for the right to education even after they tried to silence her by taking her life. Older teens can check out the original edition of the memoir, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up For Education and was Shot By the Taliban, which we recommend for age 14 and up.
Malala has credited her father's support for helping give her the courage to continue her quest to ensure access to education, even after the violence she suffered at the Taliban's hands. This intimate documentary film about Malala's family, particularly her relationship with her father, was directed by David Guggenheim and captures Ziauddin Yousafzai's progressive attitude towards the daughter that many Pakistani fathers would have scorned -- from the moment he named her after an Afghani folk hero who defeated the British in battle.
A Place to learn: Access to Schools
Many children around the world lack access to school, and it wasn’t so long ago that children in developed nations did, too. These stories will teach kids about the struggles millions of children face just to have the opportunity to sit at a classroom desk.
Years ago in Rhodesia, a child dreamed of an education that was off limits to girls like her. So while she taught herself to read and count, she reconciled herself to a life as a wife and mother only. But when she married, she followed a community tradition: she wrote her dreams down and buried them in an old can as a reminder never to give up. Years later, Dr. Tererai Trent would indeed get university degrees in America — and return to educate the children at her home. This true story of how one girl's dream of education changed the lives of many is both compelling and inspiring.
When the Mendezes moved to California in 1944, Sylvia was in the third grade...but when they tried to register her for Westminster School, she was denied enrollment and directed to the Mexican school. So her parents founded the Parents' Association of Mexican-American Children and started a legal battle that lasted three years...but resulted in the end of legal segregation in the state of California, paving the way for Brown v. Board of Education ten years later. Kids will cheer for the Mendez family's hard-won victory, even as they realize how recently these policies were struck down.
Razia dreams of going to school, but in her rural Afghan village, girls haven't been permitted to study in years. Then, one day, a new school opens — just for girls — but in order to attend, Razia will have to convince her father and her older brother that school wouldn't just fulfill her dream: it would also change their whole family for the better. Based on true stories from students at the Zabuli Education Center for Girls, which was founded by Razia Jan, this book also includes activities to help kids broaden their understanding of Razia, her home, and her quest for education.
Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional, but entrenched racism can’t just be legislated away. Ruby Bridges was 6 years old in 1960, when she became the face that represented children struggling against opposition to integrated schooling. In this book, written by Bridges herself, kids will learn the story of how this young girl, the first black child to attend a New Orleans public elementary school, had to walk past screaming protesters, surrounded by federal marshals, just to take her place in her new classroom. This personal chronicle of a landmark in civil rights history is captivating, especially since Bridges’ tone is not one of malice, but rather determination and bewilderment at the anger provoked by a desire to attend school.
This book, which is based on a true story, shows how education can provide hope to children in the darkest of times. Nasreen has already faced tragedy at her young age: since her parents vanished, Nasreen hasn’t spoken a word, and her grandmother is desperate to find any way to help. She risks herself — and her granddaughter — by enrolling Nasreen in a secret school for girls, something utterly forbidden by the Taliban regime. But at the school, Nasreen meets friends and a new teacher — and discovers a whole world of art, history, literature, and freedom in the books that she reads there. The joy that Nasreen finds in books and learning is a powerful message about why providing access to schools is so important.
In the US in the 1950s, racial segregation meant schools that were supposed to be “separate but equal.” But not only did schools differ vastly in resources, but civil rights activists also knew that integration — especially among children — was key to working towards equality. Toni Morrison’s book collects archival photos that serve as the inspiration for a fictional account of the lives of children living in the segregated system. The knowledge that these photographs are of real children, just like them, and that the stories are based in those children’s real experiences, will capture the attention of girls for whom schools have always been open to everyone.
Even today, there are kids who face tremendous difficulty getting to school. Harper Lee, named after her mother’s favorite author, dreams of being a poet — so she’s excited to hear that her school will be holding a poetry contest. But when her father walks out on the family, leaving Harper, her mother, and her brother without any income, the family is evicted and Harper has to skip school to watch her brother, while her mother struggles to find work to support them. Harper will have to work hard — and most importantly, not give up in the face of these challenges — in order to achieve her dreams. This novel will open your own Mighty Girl’s eyes to the difficulties that the person sitting next to her in class — or who’s supposed to be, but isn’t — may be facing.
13-year-old Shida's name means problem, and she certainly has plenty of those: her father is dead, her neighbors think her depressed mother is a witch, and everyone expects her to give up her dream of becoming a doctor. But when the elders make the decision to move the people of Shida's village to a new home — one where there's a school, even if it's only one room — Shida things her luck might just turn around. But can she convince everyone else that their new life is going to be better for everyone? Author Katie Quirk's two years in Tanzania provided her with plenty of authentic detail to depict the shift in culture as girls become educated.
12-year-old Amira lives an ordinary life in South Darfur, Sudan, dreaming of adulthood and the chance for an education, but there is a constant fear under the surface: the Janjaweed, who are so dangerous that Amira’s mother tells her to run immediately if she sees them. When the Janjaweed do come, Amira’s village is destroyed, her father is killed, and the rest of her family is forced to flee. Amira is so traumatized that she falls into silence, even as the family finds a place to stay in the Kalma refugee camp. Slowly, with the help of the people around her — and the gift of a red pencil — Amira must find a way to restore hope to her life. Davis Pinkney includes an endnote with details about the conflict in Sudan and the real Kalma refugee camp, which still exists today. This compassionate telling in free verse also incorporates simple pen drawings to capture a brutal conflict in deft strokes.
For Canadian Inuit in the 1940s, learning to read meant a church-run residential school, a boarding school dedicated to “assimilation,” often using humiliation or physical punishment to force Aboriginal and Inuit children into submission. In this memoir, Olemaun begs to attend one of these schools, despite her father's warnings, because she is desperate to learn how to read. Although a vicious nun nicknamed the Raven does everything she can to torment young Olemaun — who she renames Margaret — into docility, the overall message is one of hope: Margaret refuses to yield, but claims her education despite the Raven’s nasty treatment. Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton have also adapted the story of Fatty Legs for girls aged 6 - 9 in When I Was Eight. The sequel, A Stranger At Home (age 9 and up), has also been adapted into a picture book, Not My Girl (age 6 - 9).
For older girls, Deborah Ellis’ Breadwinner Trilogy (made up of The Breadwinner, Parvana’s Journey, and Mud City, all for ages 10 - 14) depicts the discrimination against women under regimes like the Taliban, where denying schooling is just one symptom of the incredible oppression girls and women live through daily. When the Taliban take control of Afghanistan, Parvana can’t go to school or even play outside. Then her father is arrested, and Parvana has to take a drastic step: she disguises herself as a boy so that she can earn money to support her family. When Kabul is destroyed and Parvana’s family is scattered, she must continue the deception as she bands together with other children, struggling to keep each other alive as they seek relative safety in a refugee camp. In Mud City, the focus changes to Shauzia, a friend of Parvana’s, desperate to escape the conditions in the refugee camp, who also tries disguising herself as a boy in search of a better life.
Deborah Ellis continued Parvana’s story in this book, in which Parvana is imprisoned by American authorities under suspicion of working with the Taliban after being found in a bombed-out school. Now fifteen years old, Parvana remembers the past four years of her life: reuniting with her mother and sisters, finding a home, and finally being able to study in a school her mother founded. Yet, even still, being a free — and educated — girl is cause for suspicion by many of her fellow Afghanis. Nevertheless, Parvana still has hope — and the strength to hold onto it. This stunning sequel reminds young readers that ensuring access to education isn't as simple as building a school.
It started as an assignment: Caitlin, a 12-year-old from a middle class American family, was given a pen pal named Martin, a 14-year-old from a Zimbabwe slum. Caitlin began by describing a world of shopping mall trips, movies, and quarrels with friends; when Martin finally opened up, Caitlin was shocked to realize how many of the things he dreamed of having were things she took for granted. In this dual memoir, the pair recount how that simple assignment became a six year relationship that changed both of their lives, as Caitlin helped Martin achieve his dream of studying at an American university, while Martin opened Caitlin eyes to the world — and her privileged place within it. Accessible and heartfelt, this book will give teens new perspective on their world.
Worlds in their pages: Access to Books
It’s also important that kids understand that books are also not something to take for granted — after all, it’s difficult enough for many kids to imagine living without Internet access, let alone not being able to read a physical book! And yet there are many children who don’t have the opportunity to read when they choose. The books below will help your Mighty Girl appreciate how special it is to be able to pick up a good book whenever she chooses!
At first, only the largest city centers could have a library, let alone a children’s room, so in the 1930s, a dedicated group called the Pack Horse Librarians brought books to people in isolated areas of the US. Cal lives in the Appalachian mountains, and doesn’t see the point of books. He’s got nothing but disdain for his sister, Lark, who’d avoid real work to read books all day if she could. But when That Book Woman comes, not just in good weather, but in rain and snow and wind, riding up the mountain over dangerous and difficult terrain just to bring books, Cal figures that if she is willing to go through all that, there must be a lot more to books than he sees. When he asks Lark to teach him how to read, she’s happy to do so — and soon Cal is also waiting for when That Book Woman will come.
Even today, if there aren’t roads, books can still get to eager readers, young and old! Inspired by the story of real-life librarian Luis Soriano, this book tells the story of the most beautiful sight that book-loving Ana has ever seen: a traveling library, brought by a kind man on the backs of two burros. In Colombia, where Soriano works to bring literacy to isolated villages, there are thousands of children just like Ana, who sit and wait excitedly for the BiblioBurro to come.
With new times came new tools, and a familiar sight for people in rural areas: the bookmobile! Dorothy dreamed of being a librarian as a child — but in her area of North Carolina, there’s no big brick building full of books. But there are roads, and a determined young woman — and Dorothy realizes that’s all that they need. Along with several neighbors, Miss Dorothy starts a bookmobile, delivering books at farms, schools, and even once in the middle of a river. This book is a testament to both the difference that a librarian can make in the lives of people, and to how creative solutions can overcome even very daunting problems.
For kids who grew up going to the children’s room at their local library, it will astound them to hear that there was a time that reading wasn’t considered important for children. In this picture book biography of Anne Carroll Moore, kids will learn the story of the woman who created the first children’s library. Her children’s room at the New York Public Library, with its bright colors, comfortable seating, and borrowing privileges for books written for children, became the model for children’s library programs everywhere.
In areas disrupted by conflict and war, the problem isn’t getting the books to people, but making sure the books survive. This graphic novel tells the true story of Alia Muhammad Baker, the chief librarian of the Central Library of Iraq who, in 2003, enlisted people in her community to spirit 30,000 books — containing irreplaceable information about the culture and history of the country — to safety. Parents of younger children who want to explore this story should check out The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq, by Jeanette Winter, which is suitable for ages 5 to 10.
Education for All
“I dream for all the children that they should go to their school because it’s their right…their basic right.” - Malala Yousafzai
When your children’s eyes are opened to just how precious access to knowledge is, their world will be transformed: they will have a new perspective on the privileges they enjoy, and a new determination to help others have the opportunity to enjoy them too. You can show them one way they can help by going to A World at School’s Stand with Malala petition; by adding their names to this international petition, they will become part of the chorus of young voices demanding that the leaders of the world take action to given educational access to all children.
Education is a powerful tool, and our Mighty Girls are fortunate enough to have easy access to it. Let’s teach them how to use the tool they have been given to make the world a better place.
Additional Recommended Resources
- For more books about the struggles children face in acquiring schooling, visit our Educational Access category in the Social Issues section.
- For stories that celebrate the special relationship between girls and their teachers, visit our Teacher / Librarian category in Relationships.
- To read biographies of teachers and librarians who have changed the world, visit our Teachers category in Biographies.
- For parenting books to encourage a love of reading and learning, visit our Literacy / Book Clubs category in our new Parenting section.
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