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Book series introduces kids to legal literacy

Book series introduces kids to legal literacy

By John Glynn

Often the people who need legal help the most are the toughest to reach. Language barriers, fear of unfamiliar authority figures or other cultural differences can prevent someone from reaching out for help.

A series of children’s books called The Kids in Building 160, published by the American Bar Association Division for Legal Services, helps break down some of those barriers.

Targeting second- through fourth-grade readers, the books teach children how to get help with everyday issues through pro bono lawyers or medical-legal partnerships. The hardcover storybooks feature colorful illustrations that depict an urban neighborhood setting as the backdrop.

The series is the brainchild of Anthony Barash, former director of the American Bar Association Center for Pro Bono. He came up with the idea when he was a fellow at the Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative.

“Lawyers become mired in language that can make communication difficult,” Barash said. “These books speak directly to children on multiple levels, through words and pictures. Because of that, they are an effective tool for communicating complex legal issues.”

Barash works with author Jo S. Kittinger and illustrator Chuck Galey to develop the stories.

“Jo is very good at framing legal concepts into plausible dialogue that moves the story along,” Barash said. “It’s a real talent, and not an easy thing to do. The dialogue, along with Chuck Galey’s illustrations, engages the reader and drives the story on multiple levels.”

The first book, “A Breath of Hope,” was published in 2012 and introduces readers to Cristian, a young resourceful boy who is the central character in the series.

In this story, Cristian rushes his sister to the hospital when she suffers another asthma attack. There he meets a medical-legal partner who teaches Cristian and his family that they have rights under the law. The family’s landlord ultimately makes much-needed repairs to their apartment, including eliminating mold, which had triggered the asthma attacks.

“Medical-legal partnerships make the law more accessible,” Barash said, adding that there are currently 231 such partnerships in 34 states.

The second book, “Helping a Hero,” published in 2013, opens with a friend explaining to Cristian that her uncle isn’t the same since he came home from the war. The children get help for Uncle Jimmy through a medical-legal partner, who finds support services for her uncle.

“Helping a Hero” represents another effort in the ABA’s support of military families, in addition to the ABA Military Pro Bono Project, which connects eligible, active-duty service members with pro bono attorneys to assist with the resolution of civil legal issues, and ABA Home Front, an online legal resource center for military families and veterans.

The third book, “The Beauty of Dreams,” published this year, tells the story of Juan, Cristian’s older cousin. As Juan prepares to graduate from high school and apply to colleges, he learns he was brought into the United States illegally as an infant. He is introduced to a pro bono lawyer who specializes in immigration issues and learns he may be able to avoid deportation while he attends college.

Barash emphasized that these books don’t have happy endings. Rather, they have promising beginnings reflecting the challenging circumstances the children and their families face every day.

The first two books in the series, “A Breath of Hope” and “Helping a Hero,” won the Mom’s Choice Award for excellence in family-friendly media, products and services. 

Barash said that another book is in the pipeline to be published later this year and that plans are in the works to develop the series into a television show. Future stories will tackle other areas of the law that are supported by the work of the ABA.

In the meantime, Barash said he’ll continue his efforts to get the books into the hands of children in low-income, underserved areas through medical-legal partnerships, legal aid offices or private practices.

“The more we can get the books in front of lawyers, donors and policymakers, the more interest it will generate when they see what an important tool this is,” Barash said.

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