How Great Books Can Foster Students’ Voices

Many students across the county have recently demonstrated to the world that teenagers have the power to use their intelligence, passion, and voice to bring attention to issues important to them and to bring change. A recent NCTE Chat has asked teachers to discuss student voice and student advocacy. Some of the questions included topics such as the teacher’s role in helping students find, develop, and refine their voice. How can we create an environment welcoming of student voices? What resources are there for helping students find the power in their voice?

In response to these questions around student voice, I’ve created a book list narrowed down to my top choices from 2017-2018. There are many great books—old and new—that can help motivate students to find their voices, but I’ve decided to highlight some of the newest. These books could be used in a classroom where students might be studying the power of language in any form (written, spoken, painted, etc.). Here are some guiding questions I may pose to students while exploring these texts:

  • Why have people in history chosen to speak?
  • What challenges have they faced?
  • Who has the power to speak?
  • What methods of language and communication have been used to be heard?
  • Whose voices are you currently hearing? What are they saying, and what method are they using to say it?
  • What happens when we’re silent?
  • What role, if any, does the age of a speaker play in how their voice is heard?
  • What issues do you see today that need a voice?
  • What is your voice currently saying to those around you? (Think about what you post on social media, what you say to those around you, what you write, what you paint, etc.)
  • What would you like to say to those around you, to the country, and/or to the world? How can you be heard?

You’ll see the the collection of books recommended below includes picture books, books of poetry, chapter books, biographies, and more. These can be used for students to explore essential questions you would like to discuss from a variety of perspectives, using whatever methods (lit circles, student choice, whole class discussion, individual research, etc.) that fits your teaching style. I highly recommend using any of these books, including the picture books, in a high school setting. Otherwise, my recommendations go across all grade levels; interest levels are included next to each title.

Finally, how I see ending this unit with the most meaning would be to provide students the chance to be heard. I would encourage each student in class to think about what they want to say to the world and say it. Depending on what writing skill you might be working on, this might be guided—maybe you’re practicing essay writing so students will all be writing essays. Maybe it’s poetry. Maybe you’re an art teacher, and it’s a piece of art. There is also always the option to give students the power to choose how they want to express their voice. Finally, after the students have spoken,  how could you–the teacher–help your students be heard beyond the classroom?


Here are my title choices:


Picture Books (use at the elementary, middle, or high school level)

cay and adlee find their voice gloria's voice the story of nina jazz legend that is my dream free as a bird imagine

Cay and Adlee Find Their Voice by Cali Quaglia. 2018. 9781416625056.

Gloria’s Voice : The Story of Gloria Steinem -Feminist, Activist, Leader by Aura Lewis. 2018. 9781454926665. Gr PS-2.

Nina : Jazz Legend and Civil-Rights Activist Nina Simone by Alice Briere-Haquet. 2017. 9781580898270. Gr PS-3. 

That is My Dream! A Picture book of Langston Hughs’s “Dream Variation” by Langston Hughes. 2017. 9780399550171. Gr PS-3.

Free as a Bird : The Story of Malala by Lina Maslo. 2018. 9780062560773. Gr K-2.

Imagine by John Lennon. 2017. 9781328808653. Gr K-2.



Elementary Nonfiction

joshua wong   shaking things up   moth and wasp, soil and ocean

Joshua Wong : Student Activist for Democracy by Linda Barghoorn. 2018. 9780778748731. Gr 2-5.

Shaking Things Up : 14 Young Women Who Changed the World by Susan Hood. 2018. 9780062699459. Gr 2-5.

Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean : Remembering Chinese Scientist Pu Zhelong’s Work for Sustainable Farming by Sigrid Schmalzer. 2018. 9780884484042. Gr 3-5.


Middle Grade Fiction & Nonfiction

amina's voice sky full of stars march forward girl

Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan. Fic. 05/01/2018. 9781481492072. Gr 4-7.

A Sky Full of Stars by Linda Williams Jackson. Fic. 2018. 9780544800656. Gr 5-7.

March Forward, Girl : From Young Warrior to Little Rock Nine by Melba Pattillo Beals. NF. 2018. 9781328882127. Gr 6-9.


High School Graphic Novels

brazen rebel ladies i am alfonso jones

Brazen : Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Penelope Bagieu. 2018. 9781626728691. Gr 7-12.

I am Alfonso Jones by Tony Medina. 2017. 9781620142639. Gr 9-12.


High School Fiction and Nonfiction

hate u give when they call you a terrorist

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Fic.  2017. 9780062498533. Gr 9-12. 

When They Call You a Terrorist : A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Kahn-Cullors. NF. 2018. 9781250171085. Gr 10-Adult.


High School Poetry

black girl magic don't call us dead for everyone nature poem

Black Girl Magic by Jamila Woods. 2018. 9781608468577. YA-Adult.

Don’t Call Us Dead : Poems by Danez Smith. 2017. 9781555977856. YA-Adult. 

For Everyone by Jason Reynolds. 2017. 9781481486248. Gr 8-12. 

Nature Poem by Tommy Pico. 2017. 9781941040638. YA-Adult.


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