About the First Amendment: Selected Readings for Elementary and Middle School Students

Both nonfiction and fiction books are included on this list, organized roughly by reading level; note that the more challenging books could be read aloud to fourth- and fifth-graders.

These books can be used in many ways. For example, students could nominate characters from the books as "First Amendment Heroes" and add them to classroom displays. Students also could create a timeline showing examples of the use of First Amendment rights throughout U.S. history; a different color marker could be used to designate each right. All the books could be used as the basis for whole-class or "book group" discussions. Dilemmas posed in books could be presented to the class as skits; students could then work in small groups to role-play solutions to the dilemmas.

Easy to Read

Aunt Chip and the Great Triple Creek Dam Affair, by Patricia Polacco (New York: Philomel Books, 1996). This charming book highlights what happens when a city sacrifices its right to read books. Aunt Chip was a librarian in Triple Creek when the town fathers decided to close the library and started using books to repair potholes, buildings and a leaking dam. Aunt Chip took to her bed for 50 years but reemerges when young Eli and his friends show interest in reading. The result is comical; it also affirms the importance of free expression and a free press.

Molly's Pilgrim, by Barbara Cohen (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1983).  Molly is a turn-of-the century girl whose family emigrated from Russia because they were persecuted for their religious beliefs. When Molly's mother makes a Pilgrim doll that looks like a Russian Jew rather than a New England Puritan, Molly's class learns a lesson about the importance of religious freedom.

The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate, by Janice Cohn (Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman, 1995). When a rock crashes through the window of a Jewish family's home in Billings, Mont., the family informs people in the community about what happened. Christian ministers, community leaders and friends of the family decide to take action to show they oppose such hate crimes. Organizing a campaign to place menorahs in windows all over town, they make a powerful statement for religious freedom and against intolerance.

Stop the Presses, Nellie's Got a Scoop: The Story of Nellie Bly, by Robert Quackenbush (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992). This informative and amusing look at the work of the famous journalist in the late 1800s could prompt a discussion of how stories Nellie wrote helped make a difference in the lives of people of the time. *

Teammates, by Peter Golenbock (San Diego: Gulliver Books, 1990). The story of Jackie Robinson's difficulties as the first African-American to play major league baseball describes courageous words and actions of a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers team. Pee Wee Reese speaks out on behalf of Robinson in the face of hostile ballplayers and fans.

Books at Grade Level

Checking on the Moon, by Jenny Davis (New York: Orchard Books, 1991). Cab Jones and her older brother spend a summer with their grandmother, in a town near Pittsburgh. Crime on the street becomes an issue and neighbors band together to combat it, through neighborhood walks and a vigil.

 Just Like Martin, by Ossie Davis (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992). A young African American boy wants to emulate Martin Luther King Jr. The child's father, who served in Korea, feels nonviolence won't work and fears his son will be hurt if he participates in the march on Washington. Despite the restrictions placed on him by his father, the boy finds ways to help his community.

A Long Way to Go, by Zibby O'Neal (New York: Puffin Books, 1990). Young Lila must struggle with her parents' and brothers' restricted views of what girls can do while learning about her grandmother's efforts on behalf of women's suffrage. In the story's climax, Lila takes part in a suffrage march, a classic example of exercising the right to “peaceably assemble.”

Standing Up to Mr. O., by Claudia Mills (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1998). Seventh-grader Maggie McIntosh is a favorite of science teacher Mr. O. until she refuses to participate in dissections. Readers see her thinking develop as she works on an essay about the topic. When Mr. O. prevents her from winning a prize and she protests, Maggie experiences some of the negatives that can occur from giving voice to unpopular beliefs. At the same time, however, friends and classmates gain respect for Maggie and, although they don't agree with her, think more seriously about their own ideas.

Dancing to America, by Ann Morris (New York: Dutton, 1994). This photo essay tells the story of young Anton Pankevich, whose family emigrated from the Soviet Union to gain both religious freedom and greater freedom of expression (through dance) for Anton. Students who have not thought of dance as a form of expression can learn about how the First Amendment applies to the arts.*

Freedom's Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Stories, edited by Ellen Levine (New York: Avon, 1993). Levine presents powerful excerpts from interviews with 30 African Americans who participated as young people in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. These stories stand as evidence that young people can make a difference by exercising their First Amendment rights. After reading the book, students might conduct oral history interviews with people in their community who have used First Amendment rights to petition the government, whether through peaceful protests, letters, official petition campaigns, or other means. The oral histories could be edited and published as a class book.

Tinker V. Des Moines: Student Rights on Trial, by Doreen Rappaport (New York: HarperCollins, 1993). This book on the landmark free speech case includes narrative text about the case, newspaper clippings, excerpts from trial transcripts and the judge's decision, and interviews with major "players" in the case 27 years later. The author provides questions to help students think through the case. This book could easily be used to structure a mock trial or moot court simulation activity.*

More Challenging Reading

Crash, by Jerry Spinelli (New York: Knopf, 1996). In this funny young adult novel, Crash — John Coogan — is a seventh-grade athlete who disparages his sister Abby and a neighbor, Penn, when the two friends protest the construction of a new shopping mall. As a series of adventures take Crash and his family and friends through the school year, he begins to respect values that Penn and Abby practice — and eventually begins to express himself about issues of concern. In the story, Penn wears buttons and T-shirts to express his values, which could lead to a button- and shirt-making follow-up activity with students.

The Last Safe Place on Earth, by Richard Peck (New York: Delacorte, 1995). This young adult novel shows what can happen when rights conflict. Church members protest books that are assigned in the local junior high, claiming the books violate their religious beliefs. A young girl is frightened by stories told to her by a babysitter who belongs to the church; the girl’s parents believe the babysitter has violated their trust. A student reporter on the school paper is frustrated by the editor's refusal to carry stories on topics she believes are important; when she takes her stories to the local newspaper, however, she angers the school’s editor. All the characters and situations make for a gripping and thought-provoking story.

A Small Civil War, by John Neufeld (New York: Atheneum, 1996). The town of Owanka erupts in controversy when a group of parents protest inclusion of The Grapes of Wrath in the 10th-grade curriculum. The controversy divides families, as eighth-grader Georgia Van Buren discovers when her father supports removing the book from the schools. Georgia becomes a leader in the group "Freedom Is Reading Is Freedom" and her older sister Ava struggles with whether to remain an objective reporter or take a stand on the issue.

The Weirdo, by Theodore Taylor (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991). Samantha Sanders and Chip Clewt work together to solve two murders and extend a federal ban on hunting bears in a national wildlife refuge. Their efforts include preparing posters, discussing their views at a public meeting and providing testimony before government officials.

White Lilacs, by Carolyn Meyer (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 1993). Based on a historical incident, this book recounts the 1921 struggle of a black community in Texas when their white neighbors decide to take the black families' land for a city park. The central character is 12-year-old Rose Lee Jefferson, who watches her brother become involved in organizing to protest the community's actions. After a march to the town square, some white citizens retaliate, reminding readers of the courage required to exercise one's rights amid intolerance.

Environmental Pioneers, by Patricia Byrnes (Minneapolis, MN: Profiles, 1998). This book offers profiles of eight environmentalists, including John Muir, David Brower, Rachel Carson and Rosalie Edge. Students could analyze the ways in which these activists used their First Amendment rights to further their causes.

Schenck v. United States: Restrictions on Free Speech, by Karen Alonso (Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1999). This book presents a comprehensive examination of the history of free speech in the United States, with special attention given to the Schenck case, in which the “clear and present danger” test was first applied. Questions for discussion are provided.

* = Books that may not be available in bookstores, but should still be available through public libraries.