Why Explore Human Rights with Children Through Picture Books?

What comes to mind when you think of human rights? Perhaps footage of violations on the news, provocative headlines in the press, or the treatment you have witnessed or experienced. This is why many people are surprised when I talk about exploring human rights with young children or share Amnesty’s resources for early years and primarySurely there will be time enough to talk about such things when children grow up?

Human rights are a joyful thing and entirely appropriate for early years

But for me, human rights are a joyful thing and entirely appropriate for early years. I think of children enjoying the rights to play, learn, be with their families and friends and be safeFor me, human rights are about putting into action values that I hold very dear: equality, freedom, fairness, respect. If we wait until children are old enough to learn about rights being taken away, we miss the opportunity to celebrate. Even more importantly, human rights are children’s rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is explicit that children have the right to know what their rights are. 

Of course, all this doesn’t mean that talking about human rights is easy. If everyone agreed on what freedom means, politicians would engage in a lot less arguing. As Debi Gliori once said, ‘words are weasellySo we shouldn’t ignore the unique power of picture books to explore the curious, the complex and sometimes the uncomfortable. Great picture books can inspire empathy, raise awareness, broaden horizons and empower young readers to stand up for themselves and others. 

Since 2016, Amnesty has partnered with CILIP on the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals to produce human rights themed resources for all the books on both shortlists and to award the Amnesty CILIP Honour. The Honour judging panels look for books that celebrate the values of freedom, truth, justice and fairness, as well as contributing to a better understanding of any one or more of our human rights, as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Talking about human rights is an important way to grow children's empathy and help them feel empowered to make a difference

Honour winner and judge Ross Collins described the 2017 winner, The Journey, as ‘really quite extraordinary’. It is an artfully designed book that tells, with great warmth, the story of a family forced to flee their home because of war. As Ross says: 'This family could be anyone, anywhere - they could be you. Ultimately it is a tale of hope over adversity which will not only open new doors for young readers but enchant them with its beauty.'  

Although always think first about the enjoyment of human rights, that is not to deny the long shadow cast by violations and the vulnerability of children and their families. We must not pretend that children are not exposed to these realities. Talking about human rights is an important way to acknowledge their lived experience, grow their empathy and help them to feel empowered to make a difference. And what better and more sensitive way to talk about human rights than through the magic of picture books?


Find out more about the work of Amnesty International UK by visiting their website.

Main image from The Journey by Francesca Sanna.

Rowena Seabrook

Rowena Seabrook is Human Rights Education Manager at Amnesty International UK.