If you are trying to teach about historical values and ideals, children's books can be a great teaching tool. Many books teach a moral or the set of values that were idealized when the story was written. Some of the morals still ring true today while others are outdated. It can help students see how society has changed and evolved throughout history. It might also help the students to write their own modern children's story. Stories often include elements of the world around them when they were written. A children's story written in today's world would have very different characters and settings than those written in previous times. You might also look into stories that have been revamped for the modern world. Politically Correct Bedtime Stories is a book that satirizes old children's stories. I used this with my creative writing class to help them understand the differences in culture and they way our views about stories change over time.
Depending on the grade level of the students in question and the type of children's literature being used, those types of sources have better illustrations and break the material into more manageable segments. When I was preparing lectures for my freshmen world civilization classes I would spend as much time in the children's department of the public library as I would the adult's. The children's literature usually got to the essential information in a more direct way than adults books on the same subject. Some books are just "too much information" for students.
Especially if you include some historical novels in the genre of children's literature, there is a great opportunity to allow children to see historical characters as real people and understand that they had strengths and weaknesses.
This allows for a far greater understanding of history because instead of thinking of Rosa Parks as the woman who stood up to the abuses of discrimination, one might understand that she was a complete character, that she participated in all kinds of protests, the bus incident was planned, that she had great strength and weaknesses and was human. All too often history books present very flat characters as the human pieces of history but stories and even fictionalized accounts of history help to flesh them out.
I also agree that children's literature teaches the history of different cultures. Given that many are based in folklore, the texts are an easy way to teach the importance of handing down one's past/cultural ideas. They are great to teach creationism (how things came to be known as they are) and myth.
Children's literature has been used for generations to teach lessons, concepts, and even morals. Because it's an accepted medium already for passing down ideas to other generations, I think that it could also be a way of teaching social studies to students. After all, when teaching my students events and lessons from social studies, I'm often teaching them stories.
As cheesy as it sounds, School House Rocks is not only how I learned what a conjunction is, but also how I learned how a bill becomes law. Even now I find myself humming, "I'm just a Bill and I'm sitting here on capital hill." I think children's literature, while maybe not as musical, can help kids in the same manner. It takes concepts that they normally wouldn't think about and places them in a situation with characters that they can relate too.
I agree with readerofbooks. Using children's literature can make difficult concepts easier to understand. I struggled through history and social studies classes in high school because I didn't watch the news or read newspapers very much. I think so many students lack the prior knowledge needed to really understand what is going on in the world. One fantastic book about the effects of war is The Faithful Elephants. It is about elephants in a zoo in Tokyo during World War II and how they suffer. Reading stories like this exposes students to perspectives they probably wouldn't otherwise consider.
In order to answer this question, a brief definition of social studies is necessary. Social studies is the study of social sciences and humanities for the promotion of civic competence. If we take this statement as the goal of social studies, we will be able to see that children's literature can help in many ways.
First, by studying children's literature from different part of the world, you will be able to make many point on the richness of our world. More importantly, you will be able to speak of diversity among different culture and children. This alone is a valuable lesson.
Second, good children's literature can communicate complex points in simple ways that will engage children and adult alike. For example, the Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein is a perfect example. Just sheer simplicity of the book teaches children and adults the beauty of giving. If we could all learn something from this book, then our society would be a better place.
Third, you can even try to read books written by children. This might give a different perspective as well. You will be able to show that children can make a difference in society as well.