Build Your Stack: Books and Poetry on Courage, Hope, and Humanity - National Council of Teachers of English
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Build Your Stack: Books and Poetry on Courage, Hope, and Humanity

In these unsettling times, we’re sharing hope by drawing attention to some favorite blog posts from past years. This post was first published on October 16, 2018. 

This blog post was written by NCTE member Melanie Fuemmeler. It is part of Build Your Stack,® a new initiative focused exclusively on helping teachers build their book knowledge and their classroom libraries.  Build Your Stack® provides a forum for contributors to share books from their classroom experience; inclusion in a blog post does not imply endorsement or promotion of specific books by NCTE.


In a world that too often feels full of fear and danger, these books and authors work to show us the opposite. They reveal to us a world of beauty, vibrancy, and differences, and encourage us to enter into it with opened eyes and heart to connect and create community.

As a Title 1 instructional coach and coordinator for a community-based youth advocacy project, I am in constant search for books that validate student voice and honor the perspectives and values of different communities. It is a personal and professional belief of mine that student identity is largely shaped by how they see themselves portrayed through society, literature, and those within their circle of influence. For too long the narrative has been one-sided or told from a narrow vantage point.

As the education profession continues to move to promote diverse books and authors, a noble endeavor to be sure, I continue to return to Chad Everett’s words at Nerd Camp 2018. In a panel discussion with Pernille Ripp, Donalyn Miller, Sara K. Ahmed, and others, the audience was challenged to consider what happens when we call books “diverse”? Who are they diverse for and from? Who are we centering as non-diverse?

It is with this lens that the following books are recommended. They challenge modern stereotypes, they speak above the common narrative, and they stand in unity with the individuals represented on the pages within. They speak boldly into the universe that a story is only diverse if it remains untold, unheard.

And so we work to shout these stories, and so many others, into the ears and hearts that will resonate with them, demanding action and understanding beyond the surface level.

The books below refuse to maintain the status quo. These stories are not diverse, they’ve simply been buried in a biased history. They are stories of bravery, advocacy, achievement, grit, determination, leadership, intelligence and a quest for more—more empathy, more connectedness, more justice. More. It’s time to pull back the curtains and shine light on the achievements of all, to honor our neighbors for the pure sense of what it means to be human—through words and voice and action.



For Every One by Jason Reynolds

Jason Reynold’s poetic letter to dreamers does not disappoint. His message: Find your passion and follow it. It will mostly be a dark path, until it’s not. Move toward the light. It’s waiting for you, for us all. You won’t see it until it’s shining in your face. Don’t let it be diminished by the work it takes to get there.

“You hope the voice that delivers the loudest whispers of what you envision never silences. That it never cowers behind fear and expectations that other people strap to your life like a backpack full of bricks (or books written by experts). Because if it didif it disappeared, if the voices vanished and you were no longer overtaken by the taunts of your own potential, no longer blinded by the perfect vision of your purpose, no longer engorged with passionwhat would happen?”


BRAVO! Poems about Amazing Hispanics by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael Lopez

A beautiful poetry anthology that focuses not on the famous, but on the change-makers, the brave, the revolutionaries of their time. From Juan De Miralles, a Cuban who fought alongside George Washington and his army in America’s quest for independence, to Tito Puente, the young musician who, already a professional at the age of 13, became known as the King of Latin Jazz, this book weaves poetry with nonfiction to honor the voices of courageous Hispanics in our country and beyond.


Shaking Things Up: 14 Young Women Who Changed the World by Susan Hood

In this groundbreaking poetry anthology, the reader learns of fourteen different women who changed the world at a young age. Author Susan Hood and various female illustrators honor the solidarity of these young girls by telling their story. Through the seamless presentation of poetry alongside nonfiction, we connect personally to Molly Williams, the first female firefighter, Frances Moore Lappé, anti-hunger activist who reminds us all, “Every choice we make can be a celebration of the world we want,” and so many more.


I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children’s Drawings and Poems from the Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944, edited by Hana Volavková

A haunting account of the impact of World War II on our youngest citizens, . . . I never saw another butterfly . . .  takes readers inside the Terezin Concentration camp through children’s poetry, writing, and drawings to bring an unfiltered and unapologetic glimpse into the horrors of that time. In this searing anthology, the reader will not only weep alongside the victims as they share their truth, but also come to realize the absolute resolve and bravery exhibited in the words they construct as a means to survive.


I am a Jew and will be a Jew forever. Even if I should die from hunger, never will I submit. I will always fight for my people, on my honor. I will never be ashamed of them, I give my word. I am proud of my people, how dignified they are. Even though I am suppressed, I will always come back to life. Franta Bass



Where Children Sleep by James Mollison

This book takes us inside the homes and bedrooms of children all over the world. From homelessness to infinite privilege, we hear their voices, read their realities, and outgrow our own definitions of what it means to be at home.



Every Human Has Rights: A Photographic Declaration for Kids by National Geographic

National Geographic expertly takes us inside the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights with poetry from the ePals Community to share images of youth and humanity across our globe. We are immersed in the voices of those children who long and hope for a better world. This book sheds light on how basic human rights are honored and violated daily, giving the reader a growing understanding of the bias that plays out in communities everywhere and the courage within each of us to stand up to it.


Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruurs, artwork by Nizar Ali Badr

This masterfully crafted text, written in Arabic and English, recounts the journey of a refugee family fleeing Syria. The genius artwork of Nizar Ali Badr represents their voyage through stones collected in the ancient port city of Ugarit, Syria, reminding us all that, regardless of our destination, it is the small steps along the way that make the biggest difference.


Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books by Karen Leggett Abouraya, illustrated by Susan L. Roth

It was a monumental moment in Egypt at the great Library of Alexandria. Youth demonstrators had begun a movement, marching for freedom in a place where it could only be read about, but never felt. As protests and chaos spread during the unrest, the demonstrators gather momentum that ultimately leads to the formation of a human chain around their beloved library to save it, and the stories of the millions who sought refuge and comfort within its walls. The retelling of this historic moment also shows its readers what it means to have the courage to speak truth beyond confining walls, and to demand justice within a divided community.


People by Peter Spier

Peter Spier takes us all over the world through his intricate illustrations that define what it means to be human. Opening with qualities attributed to ethnicity, this book shares not only different skin tones and hair types, but also various shapes of eyes, noses, and lips. The book then moves to teach us about topics ranging from clothing, sports and activities, homes, holidays, religion, languages and so much more—from all over the world. Spier challenges us to consider what a world with over 7 billion people would be like if we were all the same, while showing the reader the exact opposite—the vibrancy and beauty created by all of our differences.



Melanie Fuemmeler is a K-5 Title I instructional coach in the Kansas City area. She is deeply involved in her local Writing Project site, which brings her passion project, KC Kids Unite, to life. KC Kids Unite aims to build a foundation of activism and unity amongst the city’s diverse communities and cultures. She is a firm believer in the power of personal stories to connect humanity and the need for voices to be heard, not silenced.