Book Theme: Civil Rights Movement

Since next Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I thought I’d round up a few novels based on the Civil Rights Movement. I like teaching about the Civil Rights Movement in my ESL reading classes because it’s such an integral part of recent American history, but something that not many international students know much about. Also, understanding the Civil Rights Movement is absolutely key to understanding the current political climate, which I think is something that international students in the US are interested in.


Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper

When the Ku Klux Klan’s unwelcome reappearance rattles Stella’s segregated southern town, bravery battles prejudice in this Depression-era tour de force from Sharon Draper, the New York Times bestselling author of Out of My Mind.

Stella lives in the segregated South; in Bumblebee, North Carolina, to be exact about it. Some stores she can go into. Some stores she can’t. Some folks are right pleasant. Others are a lot less so. To Stella, it sort of evens out, and heck, the Klan hasn’t bothered them for years. But one late night, later than she should ever be up, much less wandering around outside, Stella and her little brother see something they’re never supposed to see, something that is the first flicker of change to come, unwelcome change by any stretch of the imagination. As Stella’s community – her world – is upended, she decides to fight fire with fire. And she learns that ashes don’t necessarily signify an end.


11982396Glory Be by Augusta Scattergood

A Mississippi town in 1964 gets riled when tempers flare at the segregated public pool.

As much as Gloriana June Hemphill, or Glory as everyone knows her, wants to turn twelve, there are times when Glory wishes she could turn back the clock a year. Jesslyn, her sister and former confidante, no longer has the time of day for her now that she’ll be entering high school. Then there’s her best friend, Frankie. Things have always been so easy with Frankie, and now suddenly they aren’t. Maybe it’s the new girl from the North that’s got everyone out of sorts. Or maybe it’s the debate about whether or not the town should keep the segregated public pool open.

Augusta Scattergood has drawn on real-life events to create a memorable novel about family, friendship, and choices that aren’t always easy.


108077The Watsons go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis

The Newbery Honor-winning American classic, The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963 , celebrates 20 years with this anniversary edition featuring a special letter from Christopher Paul Curtis and an introduction by noted educator Dr. Pauletta Bracy.
Enter the hilarious world of ten-year-old Kenny and his family, the Weird Watsons of Flint, Michigan. There’s Momma, Dad, little sister Joetta, and brother Byron, who’s thirteen and an “official juvenile delinquent.” When Momma and Dad decide it’s time for a visit to Grandma, Dad comes home with the amazing Ultra-Glide, and the Watsons set out on a trip like no other. They’re heading South to Birmingham, Alabama, toward one of the darkest moments in America’s history.


20821284Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Jacqueline Woodson, one of today’s finest writers, tells the moving story of her childhood in mesmerizing verse.

Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.


6609764One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

In the summer of 1968, after travelling from Brooklyn to Oakland, California, to spend a month with the mother they barely know, eleven-year-old Delphine and her two younger sisters arrive to a cold welcome as they discover that their mother, a dedicated poet and printer, is resentful of the intrusion of their visit and wants them to attend a nearby Black Panther summer camp.

In a humorous and breakout book by Williams-Garcia, the Penderwicks meet the Black Panthers.




11699349The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine

Two girls separated by race form an unbreakable bond during the tumultuous integration of Little Rock schools in 1958

Twelve-year-old Marlee doesn’t have many friends until she meets Liz, the new girl at school. Liz is bold and brave, and always knows the right thing to say, especially to Sally, the resident mean girl. Liz even helps Marlee overcome her greatest fear – speaking, which Marlee never does outside her family.

But then Liz is gone, replaced by the rumor that she was a Negro girl passing as white. But Marlee decides that doesn’t matter. Liz is her best friend. And to stay friends, Marlee and Liz are willing to take on integration and the dangers their friendship could bring to both their families.


18527498Revolution by Deborah Wiles

It’s 1964, and Sunny’s town is being invaded.  Or at least that’s what the adults of Greenwood, Mississippi, are saying. All Sunny knows is that people from up north are coming to help people register to vote.  They’re calling it Freedom Summer.

Meanwhile, Sunny can’t help but feel like her house is being invaded, too.  She has a new stepmother, a new brother, and a new sister crowding her life, giving her little room to breathe.  And things get even trickier when Sunny and her brother are caught sneaking into the local swimming pool — where they bump into a mystery boy whose life is going to become tangled up in theirs.

17346698March by John Lewis

Congressman John Lewis (GA-5) is an American icon, one of the key figures of the civil rights movement. His commitment to justice and nonviolence has taken him from an Alabama sharecropper’s farm to the halls of Congress, from a segregated schoolroom to the 1963 March on Washington, and from receiving beatings from state troopers to receiving the Medal of Freedom from the first African-American president.

Now, to share his remarkable story with new generations, Lewis presents March, a graphic novel trilogy, in collaboration with co-writer Andrew Aydin and New York Times best-selling artist Nate Powell (winner of the Eisner Award and LA Times Book Prize finalist for Swallow Me Whole).

March is a vivid first-hand account of John Lewis’ lifelong struggle for civil and human rights, meditating in the modern age on the distance traveled since the days of Jim Crow and segregation. Rooted in Lewis’ personal story, it also reflects on the highs and lows of the broader civil rights movement.


22504709Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the Selma Voting Rights March by Lynda Blackmon Lowery

As the youngest marcher in the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Albama, Lynda Blackmon Lowery proved that young adults can be heroes. Jailed nine times before her fifteenth birthday, Lowery fought alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. for the rights of African-Americans. In this memoir, she shows today’s young readers what it means to fight nonviolently (even when the police are using violence, as in the Bloody Sunday protest) and how it felt to be part of changing American history.

Straightforward and inspiring, this beautifully illustrated memoir brings readers into the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, complementing Common Core classroom learning and bringing history alive for young readers


2657To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it, To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.

Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill A Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behavior – to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos. Now with over 18 million copies in print and translated into forty languages, this regional story by a young Alabama woman claims universal appeal. Harper Lee always considered her book to be a simple love story. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece of American literature.


Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

19351043Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Nemeses! Dragons! Science! Symbolism! All these and more await in this brilliantly subversive, sharply irreverent epic from Noelle Stevenson. Featuring an exclusive epilogue not seen in the web comic, along with bonus conceptual sketches and revised pages throughout, this gorgeous full-color graphic novel is perfect for the legions of fans of the web comic and is sure to win Noelle many new ones.

Nimona is an impulsive young shapeshifter with a knack for villainy. Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain with a vendetta. As sidekick and supervillain, Nimona and Lord Blackheart are about to wreak some serious havoc. Their mission: prove to the kingdom that Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin and his buddies at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics aren’t the heroes everyone thinks they are.

But as small acts of mischief escalate into a vicious battle, Lord Blackheart realizes that Nimona’s powers are as murky and mysterious as her past. And her unpredictable wild side might be more dangerous than he is willing to admit. (Description from Goodreads)

Topics: identity, friendship, heroes, villains

Suggested Age Level (Native Speakers): Meant for young adult readers, but lexical analysis shows that this books is acceptable for a 5th grade reading leve

Suggested ESL Level: This book would be good for an intermediate class, and because it’s a graphic novel, it is a fairly quick and easy read. It would be good to read this book in the first half of a semester to get students interested in reading in English, and then transition to a traditional novel.

This Guide: This guide is divided into five sections, and further divided into chapters within those sections. This guide contains suggested vocabulary, comprehension questions, and writing/discussion questions.

Amazon | Goodreads

Nimona was a very fun, interesting read. The first few chapters are short and quirky – they’re fun and adventurous. However, the more you read, the story gets darker and more complicated. ESL students will like the action and readability of Nimona (lexical analysis shows that roughly 87% of the words are K1 words), and advanced students will benefit from analyzing the themes of good vs. evil and hero vs. villain found within this graphic novel.

Click here to purchase Nimona: An ESL Teaching Guide


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Ms Marvel: Generation Why

23017947Ms. Marvel: Generation Why by Wilson, Alphona, and Wyatt

Who is the Inventor, and what does he want with the all-new Ms. Marvel and all her friends? Maybe Wolverine can help! If Kamala can stop fan-girling out about meeting her favorite super hero, that is. Then, Kamala crosses paths with Inhumanity — by meeting the royal dog, Lockjaw! But why is Lockjaw really with Kamala? As Ms. Marvel discovers more about her past, the Inventor continues to threaten her future. Kamala bands together with some unlikely heroes to stop the maniacal villain before he does real damage, but has she taken on more than she can handle? And how much longer can Ms. Marvel’s life take over Kamala Khan’s? Kamala Khan continues to prove why she’s the best (and most adorable) new super hero there is! (From Goodreads)

Topics: family, tradition, fitting in, super heroes, religion

Suggested Age Level (Native Speakers): Teens and young adults

Suggested ESL Level: This can be adapted to most ESL levels, depending on how much you want students to read every week, or how in-depth you want to go into discussion and analysis.

 This Guide: This is more like a mini-guide, since comic books are not that long, and a lot of the story is told visually. Trade paperbacks are a collection of five to six issues of a comic, so I’ve divided this guide into six sections – one section per issue. You can always combine sections if you want students to read the book more quickly. This guide contains suggested vocabulary, comprehension questions, writing/discussion questions, and quotation analysis.


Ms. Marvel: Generation Why is a continuation of Ms. Marvel: No Normal, so students should probably read the first trade paperback in order to understand Generation Why. I found this to be a really enjoyable read, and younger ESL students (teens to young adults) will really enjoy Kamala Khan as a character. Personally, I found No Normal to be much more interesting than Generation Why, but this one is still pretty great!

Click here for the Ms. Marvel: Generation Why comic book mini-guide!!

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Books With a Little History

I’m currently working on a reading guide for Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising. I’m a big fan of middle-grade books based on historical events because a) they’re a great vehicle for cultural education and discussion among ESL students, and b) they feature a lot of themes that are recognizable to adults without characters being overly childish. You can also find historical books based on a wide range of cultures – even some that your students may relate to. I usually use these middle-grade books in my low-intermediate reading classes.

So if you’re looking to inject a little history into your reading class, check out this list of middle-grade historical novels!

The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle (Cuba, 1896)

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool (Kansas, Great Depression)

Heart of a Samurai by Maggi Preus (Japan, 1841)

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (England, WWII)

Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War by Helen Frost (Indiana Territory, 1812)

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine (Little Rock, Alabama, 1958)

Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper (North Carolina during segregation…couldn’t find the exact year)

I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosin (Chile and the US, 1970s)

The Lightning Queen by Laura Resau (Mexico, 1950s)

Some Kind of Courage by Dan Geimenhart (American West, again, couldn’t find the exact year)

These are just a few to get you started! There are tons of really great historical novels out there that would work perfectly well in an ESL classroom. I have only read a few of these…the rest are based on Goodreads lists and recommendations…but one of my favorite things about teaching reading is discovering new stories along with my students. I’m currently on the lookout for good middle-grade historical fiction featuring Chinese or Arabic characters (since that’s usually the make-up of my classes), so I’ll be adding to this list in the future!


Ms. Marvel: No Normal

Ms. Marvel: No Normal Wilson and Alphona51lgrm5dxol-_sx321_bo1204203200_

Marvel Comics presents the new Ms. Marvel, the groundbreaking heroine that has become an international sensation!

Kamala Khan is an ordinary girl from Jersey City — until she’s suddenly empowered with extraordinary gifts. But who truly is the new Ms. Marvel? Teenager? Muslim? Inhuman? Find out as she takes the Marvel Universe by storm! When Kamala discovers the dangers of her newfound powers, she unlocks a secret behind them, as well. Is Kamala ready to wield these immense new gifts? Or will the weight of the legacy before her be too much to bear? Kamala has no idea, either. But she’s comin’ for you, Jersey!  (From Goodreads)


Topics: family, tradition, fitting in, super heroes, religion

Suggested Age Level (Native Speakers): Young adult

Suggested ESL Level: This can be adapted to most ESL levels, depending on how much you want students to read every week, or how in-depth you want to go into discussion and analysis.

This Guide: This is more like a mini-guide, since comic books are not that long, and a lot of the story is told visually. Trade paperbacks are a collection of five to six issues of a comic, so I’ve divided this guide into five sections – one section per issue. You can always combine sections if you want students to read the book more quickly. This guide contains suggested vocabulary, comprehension questions, writing/discussion questions, and quotation analysis.


I had a lot of fun reading Ms. Marvel, and I think ESL students (especially young adult age) will find her to be a funny and relatable character. Use this link here to download the PDF for the Ms. Marvel reading guide.

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Can I use comic books in the ESL classroom?

Short answer: YES! Absolutely!

Longer answer: Comic books are experiencing a sort of renaissance right now. Before the current popularity of super hero movies (looking at you, Iron Man), comic books were sort of a niche market, and could only be found in comic book stores. But now, comic books are extremely popular, and can be found in most book stores (and can still be found in your local comic book store!). With the popularity of comic books in the US, and around the world, many ESL students will definitely be drawn towards comic books as a source of fun reading material. Therefore, teachers might want to consider introducing comic books as part of their regular reading classes. Here are a few reasons why:

1. Comics capture the written word in a different way than books do. Comic book dialogue is closer to the spoken word, and is engaging and dynamic to read. The dialogue in comics can help ESL students with cultural humor and contextual speech.

2. Comics are not just for children any more. With the increasing popularity of comics, you can find many comics geared towards adults and young adults, with themes ranging from the terrifying and gritty to the fun and light-hearted. There are so many options for comics, and it’s easy to find comics meant for adults with relatable characters and themes. (One common complaint I hear from students when we read juvenile fiction novels is that the characters are all too young and they can’t relate…this is easy to fix with comic books!)

3. Comics are relatively short; they range from the three panel comic up to entire graphic novels. If you are interested in having students read comics for extended reading, they can read an entire issue (about 18-20 pages) in one class period, or a trade copy (6 issues of the comic) in 2-3 weeks. This is a great way to introduce ESL students to reading in English before jumping head first into a novel.

4. Comics are excellent for teaching inferences. Because a lot of the plot is divided between dialogue and illustration, students must use background knowledge and inferences to determine what exactly is happening in each panel. They can also use visual context clues to figure out meanings of unknown words.

These are all great reasons, but how can I ensure that the use of these comics is still achieving curricular goals?

Great question! You can basically use comics in the same way you might use novels or short stories in the classroom to increase vocabulary and reading fluency. Here are a few suggestions on how to use comics in the classroom:

1. Cultural discussion questions – As stated above, comics are not just for children any more, and they cover a wide range of themes and topics. Some of these will be very American cultural topics, and are a great jumping off point for cultural discussion.

2. Reader’s Theater – Because comic book dialogue captures the spoken word so well, comics books can easily be adapted into your own version of Reader’s Theater. Students can read out loud to practice pronunciation, stress, intonation, and speaking rhythm.

3. Understanding visual symbols – While reading comics, students not only practice reading English, but they practice reading symbols as well. Students can work in pairs or with a group to find and decipher various comic book symbols. They can also talk about comics or visual reading in their own language – do they have symbols with similar meanings?

4. Fill in the text – Copy a few pages of different comics and white out the dialogue. Students then have to use visual clues to fill in the missing dialogue. You can also have students use specific vocabulary words that you may be working on in class.

5. Sequencing – Take any length of comic you’d like (from the 3 panel up to an entire page) and cut out all the individual panels. Students then have to use their knowledge of sequencing and conversation flow to put the comic panels into the correct order.

I hope that this helps you explore a new and fun approach to English reading and literacy. Enjoy!