Human Rights in Children’s Literature: Imagination and the Narrative of Law by Jonathan Todres & Sarah Higinbotham, and: Bringing Human Rights Education to US Classrooms: Exemplary Models from Elementary Grades to University ed. by Susan Roberta Katz & Andrea McEvoy Spero (review)
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Reviewed by
Jonathan Todres & Sarah Higinbotham, Human Rights in Children’s Literature: Imagination and the Narrative of Law (Oxford, 2016), ISBN 978-0-1902-1335-0, 291 pages;
Bringing Human Rights Education to US Classrooms: Exemplary Models from Elementary Grades to University (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), ISBN 978-1-1374-7112-3, Susan Roberta Katz & Andrea McEvoy Spero eds., 251 pages.

Just months before his death in 2003, Sergio Vieira de Mello observed in an address to what was then the Commission on Human Rights:

Human-rights culture must be a popular culture if it is to be able to innovate and to be truly owned at the national and sub-national levels. “Education” is the word we use to describe this process, and it deserves more attention.1

Two outstanding new books illustrate both the vital importance of making human rights part of everyone’s basic education and the challenges of doing so, especially in the United States. They also suggest the vast range of disciplines and levels, from law schools to preschools, encompassed by the term human rights education (HRE).

Human Rights in Children’s Literature takes as its fundamental premise that “[i]f a primary goal of a democratic society is to have an engaged citizenry that is aware of its rights and respectful of the rights of others, then that society must educate its newest members about human rights.”2 The authors, Jonathan Todres and Sarah Higinbotham, respectively professors of law and English, emphasize that the creation of legal meaning takes place through an essentially cultural medium, and show how children’s books can convey the core values underlying human rights. In his preface, Todres points out the unique provision in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) that requires governments “to make the principles and provisions of the Convention widely known, by appropriate and active means, to adults and children alike” (Article 42), and the book is structured around rights concepts central to the CRC: participation, nondiscrimination, identity, family, and the child’s best interest. While acknowledging that civil and political rights are often thought to be beyond the world of children, the authors focus on aspects that relate directly to children’s experience such as accountability, responsibility, and freedom from cruel treatment. The chapter on economic, social, and cultural rights looks at rights that help secure child well-being.

Of particular value is the analysis of children’s rights issues that begins each chapter, providing a context in international human rights law, family law, and cultural traditions that most parents and educators lack. Although only a limited number of children’s books are cited (with Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who rating a mention in almost every chapter), the authors demonstrate how stories can introduce human rights values to even very young children. Their emphasis is not on what to read but on how to read from a human rights perspective. [End Page 835]

Although Todres and Higinbotham examine only works in English and provide a useful children’s literature bibliography, they acknowledge the cross-cultural relevance of their topic and encourage others to widen the human rights discourse on children’s literature and contribute examples from other traditions via the website.3

What is missing from this useful book is an examination of the importance of emotional and relational context. The authors have done due diligence, seeking to understand the ways in which children experience law in literature by reading and discussing books with more than seventy-five children. However, an hour spent with a book and a strange adult cannot be compared to the emotional impact and ethical validation given a story experienced in the warmth of a loved adult.

By contrast, the relationship between adults and young learners are at the heart of Bringing Human Rights Education to US Classrooms: Exemplary Models from Elementary Grades to University. The authors have collected ten outstanding examples of HRE praxis, and it is the voices of these dedicated teachers and their students that bring human rights to life in this book. Following an insightful overview of HRE in the United States by Felisa Tibbitts and an introduction by Susan...


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