17 Social Justice Books for Summer Reading Before College

Reading can improve empathy and build critical thinking skills. Check out these 17 social justice books for incoming first-year students.
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Bernard Grant, Ph.D.
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Bernard Grant, Ph.D., is a multiple neurodivergent writer, editor, and neurodiversity advocate. Cofounder of the Diversity with Dignity Global Roundtable, they also serve as a board member of NeuroGuides and a life coach at Autism Personal Coach. Ber...
Published on August 16, 2022
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Lorraine Mumby
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Lorraine Mumby is an editor for BestColleges who focuses on diversity, equity, and inclusion. She is passionate about equipping students with the tools to succeed and have meaningful, equitable educational experiences. Lorraine has a bachelor's degre...
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  • Research shows that reading improves empathy and theory of mind.
  • Reading also builds vocabulary, critical thinking skills, and cultural competency.
  • MRI scans showed that reading increases brain activity.

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In a 2013 study in the peer-reviewed journal Science, researchers David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano discovered that people who read literary fiction improve their theory of mind — their ability to recognize and understand the mental states of other people. Theory of mind allows people to predict and explain other people's behaviors.

Kidd and Castano measured the brain activity of participants who read the novel "Pompeii." During the nine-day reading period, MRI scans showed that brain connectivity increased in the somatosensory cortex, the brain region that receives and processes sensory information like movement, touch, and pain.

Reading, a learned skill, is especially important for incoming first-year students who need to build their vocabularies, learn critical thinking skills, and develop self-awareness and cultural competency.

Students who read regularly also develop empathy: the ability to feel and understand other people's emotions.

We've collected a list of 17 notable social justice books incoming first-year students can add to their summer reading lists to prepare for college and deepen their social justice knowledge.

Hood Feminism

By Mikki Kendall

In "Hood Feminism" Mikki Kendall argues that mainstream feminism neglects to discuss basic needs like living wages, accessible healthcare and quality education, safe neighborhoods, and food security.

These basic needs are all feminist issues, Kendall observes, yet feminists traditionally refuse to prioritize them. The book highlights other problems caused by white feminists who neglect to discuss the intersectional aspects of feminist struggle, including how class, sexual orientation, race, and disability intersect with gender.

Born a Crime

By Trevor Noah

The child of a white Swiss-German father and a Black Xhosa mother in apartheid-era South Africa, Trevor Noah details his challenges growing up under a racist government, labeled "coloured" in a society that doesn't value "colour."

Born in a country that criminalized interracial relationships and the existence of mixed-race children, Noah explores his unlikely path to becoming a television host.

The Person You Mean to Be

By Dolly Chugh

True allyship is about battling bias and constantly striving to be a good person. Award-winning social psychologist Dolly Chugh wrote "The Person You Mean to Be" as a guide for those who want to promote diversity and inclusion.

The book's subtitle, "How Good People Fight Bias," highlights the book's aim to help people advocate for those without privilege.

Learning Outside the Lines

By Jonathan Mooney and David Cole

"Learning Outside the Lines" is a guide for students who want to reimagine education, take control of their educational journeys, and find true success.

Authors Mooney and Cole are neurodivergent adults who graduated from Brown University at the top of their class while managing learning disabilities and ADHD.

The book offers tips and study suggestions that promote empowerment and change in educational settings.

Being Heumann

By Judith Heumann

The subtitle of Judith Heumann's 2020 memoir, written with writer and activist Kristen Joiner, is "An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist."

The book chronicles Heumann's journey from Brooklyn to San Francisco to Washington, D.C., as she fought for inclusion in a world that wasn't built for all humans. Her advocacy eventually led to the leading to the creation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.


By Robyn Ryle

Sociology professor Robyn Ryle's book is, as the subtitle states, an interactive guide to the gender binary.

"She/He/They/Me" employs a nonlinear structure that allows readers to select their own readerly path, engaging in self-exploration.

This guide is for anyone who wants to learn about gender identity, including those unsure of their gender identity and those in relationships with people who express gender fluidity.

Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution, and Imprisonment

By Angela J. Davis

This anthology of essays analyzes issues of the Black Lives Matter movement, including police murders of unarmed Black men.

The essays, written by leading legal scholars and other criminal justice experts, investigate how the criminal justice system disrupts the lives of Black boys and men at all stages, from the moment they're arrested to their sentencing.

The Hate U Give

By Angie Thomas

"The Hate U Give" is a young adult (YA) novel that was adapted into a 2018 film of the same name.

Angie Thomas's book, published in 2017, follows Starr Carter, a teenager who lives in a poor, majority-Black neighborhood and attends a wealthy, majority-white prep school.

The novel deals with systemic racism, police brutality, and bias through Starr's perspective as she navigates two different social worlds.

Sister Outsider

By Audre Lorde

Required reading in many universities, especially in literature, queer studies, and women's studies programs, "Sister Outsider" is a collection of speeches and essays written by Audre Lorde.

An influential 20th-century feminist, Lorde wrote nonfiction that examines the intersections of her complex identities as a Black lesbian, mother, activist, writer, poet, cancer survivor, and female feminist.

The Soloist

By Steve Lopez

Steve Lopez, an American journalist, writes in "The Soloist" about his "unlikely friendship" with Nathaniel Ayers, a street musician he met on Los Angeles' Skid Row. When Lopez first sees Ayers, the musician is playing a two-string violin.

The two bond, and Lopez learns that Ayers had been a student at Julliard over 30 years prior, before the school's rigorous training caused his mental health to collapse, which resulted in his homelessness.

Just Mercy

By Bryan Stevenson

In his memoir "Just Mercy," published in 2014, Bryan Stevenson chronicles his career as an attorney working with the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative.

A story of justice and redemption, the book explores the challenges of legally representing socially disadvantaged Americans and illustrates the importance of fighting for social justice by confronting injustice.

Letters to a Young Muslim

By Omar Saif Ghobash

"Letters to a Young Muslim" is a series of letters written by Omar Saif Ghobash to his sons. The book is a manifesto that offers wise reflections on faith in terms of society and culture.

These letters offer insights into Muslim culture and highlight the struggles Muslim people face on a daily basis.

A Guide to Transgender Health

By Katie Wynne, Ph.D., and Rachel Ann Heath, Ph.D.

Transgender people and those who want to support them to live happy, healthy lives will find a wealth of information in "A Guide to Transgender Health."

The book explores transgender history and provides a comprehensive analysis of the many topics and flawed arguments that surround gender diversity.

Health Equity, Social Justice, and Human Rights

By Fiona H. McKay and Ann Taket

Using examples from all around the world, "Health Equity, Social Justice, and Human Rights" illustrates how approaches to human rights have been successful in improving the health of women, people with HIV/AIDS, and other socially disadvantaged groups.

The book highlights crucial links between human health and human rights. It acts as a helpful guide for people who want to advocate against health-related inequalities.

The New African Diaspora

By Isidore Okpewho and Nkiru Nzegwu

Since 1990, the number of Africans who have chosen to move to the United States and Canada has outnumbered the number of slaves who were forced to relocate before the end of the slave trade in 1807.

This essay collection explores and examines this "new immigrant experience."

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

By Beverly Daniel Tatum

Beverly Daniel Tatum's 2017 exploration of racial segregation analyzes patterns of chosen segregation amongst contemporary American students.

Tatum's book offers strategies for creating an anti-racist society and aims to help readers overcome fear and anger to understand how racism impacts everyone.

Rage Becomes Her

By Soraya Chemaly

Soraya Chemaly blends scientific research with personal narratives to argue that female anger is a justified response to the inequities caused by the gender norms that pervade and shape our society.

Society socializes women to avoid their rage and bottle it up. Women are punished for expressing anger. But women can use anger as a tool to battle injustice and create change.