I recently came across a study that reported that kind children grow up to be the most successful adults. That’s encouraging news, but the big questions is: how do we raise kind children?
“There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all.” (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis)
It seems to me that the most important factor is what behaviors their parents, and then other adults in their lives, model. If they see consistent kindness, they are likely to be consistently kind. If the people around them are unkind, how likely is it that they can overcome that example and become models of compassion themselves?
Another factor is surely the media they are exposed to, perhaps “bombarded by” is a more accurate description. What do they see on TV, what do they experience in online games, what do they read or have read to them?
I went on a hunt in our local library for children’s books about kindness, and I’ve spent the last week reading them every evening. So, with Friday marking the start of the holiday shopping season, I thought I’d share with you some fun kids’ books that have kindness as a theme.
One caveat: as I have mentioned before, I do not have kids, I have had virtually no contact with children in my life, and I have never entirely seen the point of them. That being said, I have high hopes that they will make a better world than we have.
When I think back on my childhood Christmases, the best gifts I got were books. One year, my parents gave me the entire set of Cherry Ames books. First in the series was Cherry Ames, Student Nurse, and there were dozens that followed (27 in all). Cherry was plucky, daring, quick-witted, and always embroiled in some mystery or adventure. The series included Cherry Ames, Flight Nurse…School Nurse…Camp Nurse…Cruise Nurse…even Department Store Nurse. I devoured them. Unlike Nancy Drew, Cherry seemed to have a brief shelf-life. Has anyone else ever read (or heard of) Cherry Ames?
Another year I got a box with the entire set of classic comic books—these were my first introduction to A Tale of Two Cities, Wuthering Heights, Ivanhoe, and countless others. One of the best things about getting books for Christmas was that I could spend the rest of the day reading, and then the rest of the Christmas vacation. It’s still my favorite thing to do on a holiday or vacation.
For Middle Grade Readers
Back to my recent bedtime reading: Most of the books I read were for little kids, but this first one would be for somewhat older kids—probably in the range of 8-12, maybe 3rd to 7th grade. Actually this book was so good, I would recommend it to any adult who wants to experience the joy of reading—and thinking—again.
Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, is the story of August (Auggie) Pullman, who was born with severe facial disfigurement that prevented him from going to a regular school—until now. He’s about to start 5th grade, and not only is he the new kid, he’s the new kid who’s also a freak (his words). Wonder follows the challenges he faces as an ordinary kid whom no one else can see as ordinary, the effect on his family, and the responses to him of teachers, students, and their parents. Auggie is the primary narrator, but Palacio occasionally shifts perspective to other characters. She does it deftly and to great effect—this is a well-written book. Wonder is funny and warm—at times sad—and has a delightfully happy ending. This would be a great book for parents to read at the same time as their kids and have discussions around the dinner table. It would also be a great book for parents to read to think about how they would respond if Auggie were their child, or if Auggie became a classmate of their own child. It’s terrific!
Books for Little Kids
The remainder of the books I’m listing below are for much younger children. I guess you’d call them picture books. Not having any experience with kids, I’m not sure of the ideal age ranges—but I suppose if it’s a picture book, they’re going to be non-readers or at least pretty new to reading….what’s that, maybe 2-5 years old?
I will digress here to explain that age-appropriate reading was not part of my upbringing. My mother started passing her Harold Robbins, Henry Miller, and similarly adult books to me when I was about ten. I still remember the look of horror on my 6th grade teacher’s face when he asked me what I was going to write a book-report on. I told him I had just finished reading Peyton Place, and his eyes got very wide. I ended up writing the book-report on Jane Eyre. I think he gave me an “A” out of pure relief.
This book was charming. In Zen Ties, Stillwater the Panda is visited by his haiku-speaking young nephew, Koo. Together with their human-children friends they enjoy summer activities and assist a “scary” elderly neighbor, who turns out to be a lovely new friend. I really liked the art in this book, and was totally captivated by the irrelevant but delightful inside cover art of pandas doing tai chi. It’s a fun story of kindness and friendship and our connections to one another. Author and Illustrator: John J. Muth
Paulie Pastrami Achieves World Peace would be an enjoyable book to read with a child. It’s silly. Paulie—something of a misfit nerd—wants to achieve world peace before he turns eight. He does it by engaging in simple acts of kindness, and eventually his father joins him and they achieve world peace together. Tolstoy it’s not, but it made me smile and would probably do the same for a little kid. It’s funny and cute, and likely to generate a good conversation about kindness. Author and Illustrator: James Proimos
Each Kindness was the winner of a Coretta Scott King Award and the Jane Addams Peace Award. This would be a thought-provoking book for little ones, and one that could resonate as they make their own decisions about friends and friendship. A new girl, Maya, has joined Chloe’s class, but no one wants to play with her. Chloe and her friends reject Maya’s attempts to join in, and they make fun of her strange ways and second-hand clothes. Later, when their teacher gives a lesson about kindness and asks each child to describe a kindness they have shown, Chloe is unable to think of anything. She realizes how unkind she has been to Maya, and decides she wants to be kind, but Maya has stopped coming to school and her family has moved away. The book ends with Chloe feeling regret for the opportunity she missed to be kind. This one should spark all sorts of good conversations about kindness, bullying, inclusion, and awareness of other people’s feelings. The illustrations are quite lovely. Author: Jacqueline Woodson; Illustrator: E.B. Lewis
Little Bird: I’m a sucker for birds. In this colorful book, a funny little man drives his truck up to a cliff’s edge and opens the back to let out a flock of diverse, strange, and beautiful birds. However, one small bird remains—afraid or unable to fly away. The man and the little bird bond. After sharing a sandwich, the man tries to teach the bird to fly—comically illustrated and with delightful results. It’s a story of friendship, caring, and mutual support. The blocky illustrations in primary colors were fun and kids would probably get some giggles, as well as a warm message. Author: Germano Zullo; Illustrator: Albertine
Brian is The Invisible Boy. As the shy and quiet boy in class, neither his classmates nor his teacher seem to ever notice him or include him in anything. When a new boy, Justin, comes to class, they befriend one another and things start to change for Brian. By the end, the two boys are accepted have made other friends, too. The illustrations in this one are engaging, especially Brian, who is drawn as small and only in blacks and greys early in the book, but as he becomes less invisible, he becomes larger and more colorful. Shy kids would find this book affirming. It also includes discussion questions that one could have with a child after reading the book together. Author: Trudy Ludwig; Illustrator: Patrice Barton
In Enemy Pie, a new kid moves into town and “ruins” the summer for our unnamed hero/narrator. Dad offers to bake an “enemy pie”—guaranteed to get rid of the new boy. But there’s a catch, before enemy pie can work, our hero must spend one entire day with his enemy. So that’s what he sets out to do, and, of course, by the end of the day, the two boys are fast friends. It’s a sweet book, with endearing illustrations and a simple but important message about friendship and getting to know people before we judge them or shun them. It’s not Proust, but what 5-year-old wants Proust? Author: Derek Munson; Illustrator: Tara Calahan King
Speaking of not being Proust, Daniel Pinkwater’s Bear in Love is a cute story of a bear with a secret friend who is leaving delicious carrots and other treats for him every night. Unable to stay awake to identify the mystery creature, the bear leaves treats for it, and, of course, a friendship is formed between two very different animals. There’s no deep meaning here—just a sweet story of friendship, unexpected kindness, and sharing. You need to be outrageous and somewhat theatrical while reading this one out loud to a child. If you can do that, you—and the book—will probably be a hit. Author: Daniel Pinkwater; Illustrator: Will Hillenbrand
If any of these sound good to you, see if your local library has them (warning: they are likely to be a bit sticky), or take a chance and order from your local bookseller. Use them as an opportunity to have a conversation about kindness with the child in your life.
Are there books you’d recommend for helping kids or teens learn the importance of kindness?
If we’re ever going to have a kind world, it will be because we learned how to raise kind children. What better place to start than the books we give our children or grandchildren, or the books we read to them as we put them to bed?
Anybody know where I could rent a kid?
“There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book.” (Marcel Proust)