17 must-read books for activists

Image: MASHABLE COMPOSITE: HarperCollins Publishers / Beacon Press / AK Press

Reading is one of the best solutions to a rainy day, cancelled plans, and maybe even the state of our world. Whether you’re an activist or just want to take a deep dive into an issue you’re passionate about — immigration, racial justice, gun control —a book is a great tool. 

The catalog of books coming out in 2019 is jam-packed with powerful writers and activists who are encouraging conversations in the hopes of creating a more inclusive, just society. Some, like Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai and Valerie Jarrett’s memoir, Finding My Voice, draw from direct experiences — at refugee camps, the White House, and other places around the world. 

In the below books, you’ll hear from women’s rights trailblazer Gloria Steinem, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America Shannon Watts, former editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue Elaine Welteroth, who helped prove teenage girls in this country care about both fashion and politics. 

Some books provide an escape from the never-ending news cycle while others rejuvenate your desire to protest on the streets, call your representatives, vote in upcoming elections, and continue the work of 2018. 

Whether you’re interested in learning more about the LGBTQ movement, introducing a young reader to the power of community protests, or finding a YA book that features a Muslim American protagonist, consider adding these books to your TBR pile: 

Malala Yousafzai shares stories from refugee girls around the world.

Image: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

In her second book, We Are Displaced, education activist Malala Yousafzai begins with her experience of being internally displaced and eventually relocating to England — far from her home in Pakistan. The book also features stories from refugee girls from around the world who, despite their devastating circumstances, demonstrate resilience and hope. 

Explore how memes are changing social protest.

Memes are known to magnify and poke fun at pop culture moments, but technologist, writer, and artist An Xiao Mina makes the case that they play a role in today’s politics, as well. While activists in China use them to evade censorship, certain governments and hate groups utilize memes to spread propaganda, according to Mina. Meme culture is engraved in our feeds and conversations, but this book takes a deeper look at the power pictures and hashtags can have. 

Read unpublished interviews with James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, and others.

This book is a collection of interviews between American poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren and various civil rights leaders, including James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, Ralph Waldo Ellison, and Roy Wilkins. Although excerpts of those conversations have previously been published in Penn Warren’s Who Speaks for the Negro?, this is the first time they will be released in their full, original form.

This picture book will empower young black girls to put their hands up.

Image: Penguin Young Readers Group

Follow the story of a young black girl who raises her hands on a regular basis — to play peek-a-boo and get dressed. When she gets older, the daily action takes on a more powerful meaning when she stands in solidarity with her friends and community at a protest. Parents and children, especially black children, will feel empowered and inspired to make a difference after reading McDaniel’s debut picture book. 

Feminista Jones explores how black feminists are using social media to build communities and platforms.

In Reclaiming Our Space, social worker and activist Feminista Jones explores how black feminists are using social media to build movements, communities, and platforms to discuss feminism. To better understand the power and innovative nature of hashtags and movements like #BlackLivesMatter, #BlackGirlMagic, and #SayHerName, you’ll want to read Jones’ latest work. 

This book is a great introduction to pleasure activism.

Engaging with politics and social justice issues, whether it’s climate change, race, or gender, can feel like work (and it is). Adrienne maree brown makes the case that you can feel good while doing so, hence the term, “pleasure activism.” In addition to brown, you’ll read published essays by feminists Audre Lorde and Joan Morgan, as well as an interview with Cara Page, the former executive director of the Audre Lorde Project. They and other contributors will challenge you to rethink your approach to changing the world. 

Get inspired to help end mass incarceration.

Danielle Sered is the executive director of Common Justice, a restorative justice program of the Vera Institute of Justice. In her book, Until We Reckon, she offers ideas on how to help end the mass incarceration of Americans who’ve committed violent offenses. It’s a must-read for people advocating to reform the criminal justice system. 

Internment is perfect for fans of The Handmaid's Tale and The Hate U Give.

Image: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Brought to you by the bestselling author of Love, Hate, & Other Filters, this book follows Layla Amin, a Muslim-American who leads a revolution when she and her family are forced into an internment camp in the U.S. Set in the very near future, this book will inspire readers to fight against Islamophobic rhetoric and politics, ensuring this scenario remains a work of fiction.

This book helps explain the unconscious bias that influences our everyday lives and actions.

Image: Penguin Publishing Group

You may want to treat everyone with respect and dignity, and maybe you’ve even made efforts to promote equality, but unconscious racial bias can still influence your perception and behavior, which manifests in classrooms, streets, and prisons. In her book Biased, Jennifer Eberhardt, a professor of psychology at Stanford, offers suggestions to organizations and individuals on how to address unconscious bias. 

Get inspired by Valerie Jarrett, the senior advisor to President Barack Obama.

Image: Penguin Publishing Group

Valerie Jarrett’s life was forever changed when she interviewed Michelle Obama (then Robinson) for a city government job. She just didn’t know it yet. Jarrett’s memoir, Finding My Voice, follows her journey to becoming a senior advisor to President Barack Obama, as well as an advocate for gender equality, civil rights, criminal justice reform, and working families. 

Learn how indigenous people have fought for environmental justice.

History books have glossed over indigenous people, especially when it comes to their fight for environmental justice. In As Long As Grass Grows, you’ll learn about it all, including treaty violations and efforts to protect sacred sites. Dina Gilio-Whitaker is a scholar, educator, journalist, and Colville Confederated Tribes descendant. 

Gun control activists will want to read this.

In conversations about how to end gun violence, we’ve heard a variety of approaches, such as background checks and bans on assault-style military weapons. Igor Volsky, the co-founder and director of Guns Down America, suggests building a future with fewer guns altogether with federal and state buybacks.  He also proposes a licensing and registration initiative and stricter regulations. Actress and activist Alyssa Milano endorsed the book, writing “Anyone who wants to build safe American communities must read this book.” 

Read this in time for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall rising.

Image: Penguin Publishing Group

Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising (June 28, 2019), you’ll want to read this anthology. It includes first-hand accounts, diaries, periodic literature, and articles from LGBTQ magazines and newspapers from that time period, all pulled from the New York Public Library’s archives. 

This book honors more than 50 LGBTQ pioneers and activists.

Image: HarperCollins Publishers

For a look at LGBTQ history — from the 1960s to now — turn to Mason Funk’s The Book of Pride, which honors more than 50 LGBTQ activists and revolutionaries, including Evan Wolfson (the founder and president of Freedom to Marry, the campaign that won the right to same-sex marriage) and Charles Silverstein (a licensed psychologist who got the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality as a mental illness). 

Hear from Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

Image: HarperCollins Publishers

Shannon Watts is well-known for being the founder of the national advocacy group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. In her book, she offers a closer look at what inspired her to start the movement and why women have innate power to become engaged and effective activists in their communities. 

Official cover to come, according to publisher.

Official cover to come, according to publisher.

Image: Penguin Publishing Group

Fans of Teen Vogue and its former editor-in-chief, Elaine Welteroth will be thrilled to get a first-hand account of how the award-winning journalist broke boundaries in the industry, as well as the struggles and lessons she learned along the way. She was the first African American beauty and health director at Condé Nast and then became the youngest editor-in-chief in 2017. In that role, she integrated social justice issues into the magazine’s coverage, validating and empowering teenagers who care about fashion and politics. 

Ibram X. Kendi’s memoir explores how we can all help to build an antiracist society.

Image: Random House Publishing Group

Ibram X. Kendi’s memoir not only challenges readers to think about what constitutes an anti-racist society but also empowers them to think of ways to make one a reality. In telling his own story, Kendi includes history, philosophy, and even imaginative fiction. Kendi is a National Book Award winner, professor, and columnist. 

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