This is a resource list of some “inner-awesome nutritious, soulfully delicious” children’s picture and storybooks —“Inner-Awesome-Smart”— especially selected for young kids and grownups during these trying days.
Most of the book entries include additional helpful comments about the books and (very important!) ideas for child-adult sharing after reading.
Reviewed and assembled by Kathy Szaj, JNP CWT+ Writing Team Lead Writer
Please stop back, as this list will be revised/updated often.
Inner-Awesome-Smart Children’s Picture & Story Books List
What are “Inner-Awesome-Smart” children’s books? More than physiological hunger for food and thirst for beverages, children (and adults) experience additional, deep inner cravings. Here are some “inner-awesome hungers”–sometimes hiding within boredom, restlessness, anger, feelings of disconnection and alienation, fear and frustration—which crave nourishment:
· To feel safe and protected;
· To be accepted, loved and understood just as we are
· To feel connected and/or close to others; to belong to/with others; to love
· To feel special or important: what we feel, think, say and do is valued by others and meaningful to ourselves
· To feel with others (empathy and compassion)
· To make a difference; to contribute to the well-being of others
· To feel peaceful, in harmony “under our own skins”
· To have a say, to choose
· To create, making something new from the old or familiar · To feel blessed, fortunate, grateful, “full”
· To laugh, celebrate, feel joy
· To feel awe, wonder, open-minded and open-hearted about life in its diversity
· To believe in something “bigger” than an individual self
· To feel hopeful and trusting in a world that is basically good
Standard media entertainment for children─TV, video, computer games─often do not feed these hungers sufficiently. However, many children’s books offer inner-person nourishment, especially those offering “Spirit-Smart” themes such as:
· Reverence / respect / consideration
· Wonder / awe / openness (receptivity, listening)
· Truthfulness / honesty / integrity
· Generosity / sharing
· Unity / connection / community
· Mindfulness / attentiveness
· Giftedness / talent
· Hospitality / welcome / acceptance
Adoff, Arnold. Black Is Brown Is Tan. New York: Harper Collins, 1973, 1992.
Illustrator: Emily Arnold McCully
Summary: An interracial family celebrates their differences of appearance and the love that unifies them.
Themes: unity/connection, love/caring, welcome/acceptance, joy
Other theme: self-esteem
Comments: Exuberant, melodic, rhyming poetry. The text rolls of the tongue, begging to be read aloud. A terrific model for the way we–the whole human family–want to be: welcoming and celebrating differences with one heart. In this book’s family, the dad is Caucasian, the mother is African-American, their two little boys have two different shades of brown skin, and the extended family ranges between darkest brown to blond and fair.
Share your thoughts: How many human skin tone colors can you think of? Find a public place (e.g., bus or train station, school, restaurant, sports game) where you can observe people from many countries, or find a book with pictures of many different races. How many colors of skin, eyes and hair do you see? (You may also want to find corresponding crayons or mix paints to create and admire these colors.)
Try this: On a large sheet of paper, draw a large oval or round table. Find and cut out from magazines seven or more individual people with different skin colors and facial features. Paste your pictures around the table. Add details to show what your People of the Round Table are doing together: eating, telling jokes (at this special table everyone understands everyone else’s language), playing cards or a game, creating a plan, etc.
Aliki. Painted Words (Marianthe’s Story One) and Spoken Memories (Marianthe’s Story Two). New York: Greenwillow Books, 1998.
Summary: Immigrant Marianthe tells her two-part story in one book: her difficult first days of school in a new land (Story One) and her memories of her village life in her native land (Story Two).
Themes: understanding, hospitality/welcome/acceptance, creativity
Other theme: self-esteem
Comments: More than just sharing events in the life of one young immigrant, this multifaceted story emphasizes the beauty of each person’s life story and creativity to be shared with others. “Life Story Time”–which becomes a special part of Marianthe’s class activities–suggests a terrific activity for families, community groups, and schools.
Baker, Keith. The Magic Fan. San Diego, CA: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1989
Illustrator: Keith Baker
Summary: A man named Yoshi uses his magic fan to help him build: a boat to capture the moon, a kite that reaches the stars, and a bridge to save the village when a tidal wave threatens.
Themes: creativity, compassion, care/love, talent/giftedness
Comments: A wonderful story of using creativity and talents in the service of others, as well as for oneself. Yoshi discovers that the magic is not really in the fan, but within his imagination and care for others. Clever illustrations, with fan-shaped portions of pages that open to view the next scene.
Bateson-Hill, Margaret. Shota and the Star Quilt. Chicago, IL: Zero to Ten Ltd., 1998, 2001
Illustrator: Christine Fowler Lakota Text: Philomine Lakota
Summary: Best friends Shota and Esther resist the redevelopment of their city apartment by creating and giving away their hand-made star quilt to the lonely developer.
Themes: justice/right action, unity/connection/community, courage, generosity, compassion
Comments: Each page has English and Lakota text. Included: a pattern for making a star collage; plus historical notes about the Ogala Lakota (a Sioux nation), the importance of quilts in tribal life, the meaning of some traditional symbols such as stars, and some basic Lakota vocabulary. According to the author, Native Americans believe that they are judged not by what they own, but what they give away. In the story the girls feel moved to give away the quilt which they painstakingly created–as a celebration of the homes that are about to be confiscated–to the owner of the redevelopment corporation, the Starman Company. (Meanwhile, the adults are delivering a petition to the company to try to stop the takeover.) When the girls arrive in his tower suite offices, they hear the Starman owner singing, “Find the star that’s a gift from the skies. In its patchwork of light true happiness lies,” and realize that their quilt–which signifies home/family/friends–is meant for this man who is “locked in loneliness.”
Boritzer, Etan. What is God? Ontario, Canada: Firefly Books, 1990.
Illustrator: Robbie Marantz
Summary: Images and beliefs about God common to the major religions are described.
Themes: belief, unity/connection
Comments: This book honors the diversity of world religions, while recognizing principles shared by most: treating people well, not lying, not stealing, and not hurting people. Although not a story with characters and a storyline, I wanted to include this book in this list to assist parents, teachers, and caregivers who spend time with children who may be asking questions about religion. Religious intolerance of one religion for another–an important theme for children and adults to talk about during these days of religious polarization–is also mentioned.
Bradbury, Ray. Switch on the Night. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955/1983
Illustrators: Leo and Diane Dillon
Summary: A lonely boy’s fear of the night is transformed when a mysterious little girl (named “Dark”) shows him the beauty hidden within the night.
Themes: wonder/awe/openness, courage, solitude
Other themes: emotions–fear
Comments: A simple book with lyrical language dealing with complex emotions. “Dark” shows the boy that he’s not just switching off a light (scary!), but also switching on the Night with all its beauties: crickets, frogs, stars, and running on Night lawns with other children. This book could easily lead to great conversation about how the “other side” of fear may hold something wondrous–if we have the courage and trust to “let…the Night live in every room.”
Bunting, Eve. The Blue and the Gray. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2001.
Illustrator: Ned Bittinger
Summary: Two boys–one African-American, the other Caucasian–who are best friends decide that their lives will be a living memorial to the Civil War soldiers who died on the land on which their new houses are being built.
Themes: reverence/respect, understanding, unity/connection
Other themes: death (and remembrance)
Comments: Through the stories of the narrator’s father, the boys imagine the awful battle in the “field of bones” that took so many lives, brother against brother, white against black, white against white, “us against us, to tell it right,” and vow that such fighting will never happen to them. One of the boys finds a stone that he thinks may have been a bullet. Instead of keeping it, he throws it high into the air, causing the flight of the birds perched nearby–birds with “wings blue and gray, against the shine of sky.” Some of the text lines end in rhyme. The illustrations alternate between pictures of the 19th century battlefield and the present-day building of the new home. Very realistic details of the horrors of war, without scaring young readers. Once again, I am in awe of Eve Bunting’s stories. I finished reading this story, closed the book–and wanted more. (Just like little kids who want to hear a book read again and again.)
Share your thoughts: This story may open a ripe moment to bring out and share pictures or items belonging to any member of your extended family who fought and died in a war. Tell any stories you know about these men and women, including how they died, and describe what family and friends do to remember them.
Try this: In the newspaper find a story about someone who recently died whom you don’t know. (The age, race, gender, religion, occupation, or geographical location of this person is not important, but choosing a story that touches your hearts is.) What could you do to create a living memorial to honor this person’s life?
Bunting, Eve. December. NY: Harcourt Brace, 1997.
Illustrator: David Diaz
Summary: A homeless mom’s and son’s lives change “miraculously” when they share their bare-bones cardboard house with a destitute old woman at Christmas.
Themes: generosity/sharing, compassion/empathy, caring, hospitality/welcome
Comments: Fantastic illustrations: each set of pages contains a large picture framed against a backdrop of other images. A wonderful Christmas story, and much more. Because the mom and her son Simon share with a stranger, they receive in return. Note: “December” is the name they’ve given to the angel picture torn from a calendar page that hangs on the flimsy walls of their cardboard home. Not one false note while exploring a difficult theme. Although Simon does not complain about their homelessness, he honestly admits that a part of him doesn’t want to share with the old woman one of only two Christmas cookies, or his absent father’s coat, which he and his mom use as a blanket. He doesn’t want to listen to his inner promptings to share, but does anyway. In exchange for a place to sleep, the woman contributes the faded fake flower from her hat to put on the spindly branch “Christmas tree.” The boy awakens early Christmas morning to see the angel, December, stand in the doorway, hover, and disappear. Simon knows that this vision can’t be real, but soon after his mom finds a job, and they move into a real home. Only then he wonders why he never noticed the faded rose in “December’s” hair.
Bunting, Eve. Gleam and Glow. NY: Clarion Books, 2001
Illustrator: Peter Sylvada
Summary: Eight-year-old Viktor experiences the devastation of his homeland through war, and finds hope through the incredible survival of two golden fish that his little sister has named “Gleam” and “Glow.”
Themes: hope, belief
Other theme: emotions–fear
Comments: Based on a factual story about two golden fish that survive and reproduce in great numbers during the Bosnian war. In the “real-life” version, when the village people heard about the fish, they came in droves to buy them; the family who owned the fish prospered, and the ravaged village was rebuilt. This story can help kids to understand and feel compassion for children and families–wherever they live in the world, including Afghanistan–who suffer great losses in war. It personalizes the price of prejudice, hatred, and war while emphasizing that life persists “in spite of everything.”
Bunting, Eve. The Memory String. New York: Clarion Books, 2000.
Illustrator: Ted Rand
Summary: A girl named Laura, who clings to the memory of her deceased mother through a “memory string” of buttons, has trouble accepting her new stepmother.
Themes: compassion/empathy, gentleness/kindness, understanding, truthfulness
Other themes: death (and remembrance); emotions–grief, anger
Comments: A realistic, yet positive treatment of grief and memory. Laura’s memory string–begun by her great-grandmother and passed on to her–holds buttons from garments worn by her family members. There is a significant story or memory attached to each, including one from the nightgown worn by her mother on the night she died. The girl knows that her recitation of the memory string stories hurts Jane, her new stepmother, but in her grief she persists. When the memory string accidentally breaks, seemingly losing one button (from her father’s Gulf War military uniform), it is Jane who insists on finding the “real” one and not substituting another, because “No substitutes are allowed.” This story suggests a wonderful, concrete way of remembering loved ones who have died, and may prompt other remembrance activity ideas.
Bunting, Eve. A Picnic in October. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999.
Illustrator: Nancy Carpenter
Summary: A boy, Tony, is bored and embarrassed by the family’s yearly October 28 ritual celebration of the Statue of Liberty–until one year he finally understands why his grandmother insists on these trips to Ellis Island. (Note: The illustrations of the Liberty Park area in New York include the World TradeTowers.)
Themes: gratitude, belief, hospitality/welcome, unity/connection
Comments: Tony’s perception changes when he sees a new immigrant family who does not speak English holding hands and bowing in gratitude. Suddenly, he feels that he is seeing “Lady Liberty” for the first time: “Brava, Bella!” The author depicts the family situation realistically: the cousins are show-offs and goof-offs; grandpa is sentimental (“soppy,” says Tony) in his comments to Grandma. A telling scene: together, the family members hold their hands around the lit birthday candles to shield them from the wind. When they remove their hands, the candlelight extinguishes immediately.
Bunting, Eve. Riding the Tiger. New York: Clarion Books, 2001
Illustrator: David Frampton
Summary: Lonely and bored, ten-year-old Danny is offered a ride on the back of a scary, powerful tiger that demands complete obedience. The problem is, once you get on the back of this tiger, how do you get off?
Themes: respect, compassion
Other theme: emotions–fear
Comments: A strong allegory about joining any person or group that causes fear in others through bullying or other aggressive tactics. Another character, an older boy, offers Danny other options, while a girl they meet is eager to join the tiger, pledging to “want what [it] wants” and “think what [it] thinks.” Danny risks getting off the tiger–and potentially injuring himself in the fall or getting mauled by the tiger–to help an injured man. His belief about the importance of helping someone who is hurt is stronger than his desire to “look cool” and feel powerful by threatening others. The illustrations–bold woodcuts with “Halloween” colors–emphasize the theme of external power via intimidation and force vs. internal strength.
Bunting, Eve. Rudi’s Pond. New York: Clarion Books, 1997.
Illustrator: Ronald Himler
Summary: After Rudi’s death from a heart ailment, his best friend and classmates build a pond in the school yard to honor his memory.
Themes: love/caring, belief, creativity, unity/connection
Other themes: death; emotions–grief and anger
Comments: The author describes with spare, yet poignant details the grief of the girl narrator who was Rudi’s friend. The girl brings to school the hummingbird feeder that she and Rudi had made, hanging it by the pond. Day after day, a lone hummingbird stops at the school window to look at her before it eats from the feeder, which makes her feel that somehow Rudi is still present.
Bunting, Eve. So Far from the Sea. New York: Clarion books, 1998
Illustrator: Chris K. Soentpiet
Summary: A seven-year-old Japanese-American girl, who visits the Manzanar War Relocation Center where her grandfather died, leaves a special symbol–her dad’s boy scout uniform scarf–as a memorial.
Themes: right action/justice, empathy
Comments: A terrific book to open a complex moral issue: What should we do when we witness little or big wrongs? A beautiful finish: the boy scout uniform scarf left blowing in the wind at Manzanar looks like a sailing boat–a perfect tribute to her grandfather, who loved and dreamed of returning to the sea. Terrific illustrations: sepia tones for memories, colored pictures for the present.
Share your thoughts: Laura is outraged by her family’s internment during World War II, and doesn’t understand or accept her father’s resignation and willingness to let go of the past and move on. This powerful book can easily launch lively discussion: Is the father being passive, or is he accepting?Is feeling outraged–like Laura–a better “right action” response?
Bunting, Eve. Swan in Love. New York: Atheneum Books, 2000.
Illustrator: Jo Ellen McAllister Stammen
Summary: A swan persists in his love for a wooden swan-shaped boat named “Dora” despite the advice and scorn of other real swans.
Themes: love (unconditional), belief, patience, acceptance, openness (receptivity, listening)
Comments: A gentle yet powerfully moving book, Swan knows that “difference makes no difference to love.” A mysterious voice that he periodically hears at critical moments counsels him, “Don’t ever stop loving.” His devotion and commitment to Dora endure to the end, when both are transformed into two water lilies. (Note: Swans are known for their life-long fidelity to their mates.) This heart-centered book can open dialogue about loving another to the point of death–and beyond.
Bunting, Eve. Terrible Things (An Allegory of the Holocaust). Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 1980, 1989.
Illustrator: Stephen Gammell
Summary: Species by species, the wildlife of a forest are carried away by “the Terrible Things,” while no one protests or takes action. The sole survivor, one young rabbit, wonders what preventive action could have been taken. Themes: (lack of) compassion, (lack of) right action, (lack of) unity/connection
Other theme: emotions–fear
Comments: Not only do the other creatures look away while others disappear, but some say “good riddance” as each is removed. Only one Little Rabbit asks questions–and survives. This book doesn’t need the subtitle–which is heavy-handed–to retain its power. Obviously an allegory for many kinds of discrimination, hatred and domination, sharing this book can easily provoke discussion about any “Terrible Things” familiar to kids–from playground bullies to groups (terrorist or not) that kill others. An important point in the book is that fear can freeze us into inaction, preventing us from expressing our better selves: concerned, caring and compassionate.
Cutler, Jane. The Cello of Mr. O. New York: Dutton Children’s Books, 1999.
Illustrator: Greg Couch
Summary: A concert musician raises the spirits of a war-torn city’s citizens by playing his cello each day in the public square, until a bomb destroys the instrument. Mr. O stubbornly returns to play his music (Bach)–on a harmonica.
Themes: courage, generosity/sharing, belief, connection/community, giftedness/talent
Comments: The author presents a detailed picture of the experience of living in a land at war. Mr. O’s music–which the girl narrator calls “another kind of food”–helps the townspeople to feel less angry, because the persistent appearance of the aged cellist gives them courage. Well-paired with Eve Bunting’s Gleam and Glow (also on this list).
Dragonwagon, Crescent. Will It Be Okay? New York: Harper and Row, 1977.
Illustrator: Ronald Himler
Summary: A young girl questions her mother with fearful “what if’s,” which include snakes under her bed, bee stings, forgetting lines in a play, and her worst fear, her mother’s death. Her mother responds positively to each fear, sometimes whimsically, and always with love.
Themes: love, trust, solitude
Other themes: Self-esteem; relationships (mother and daughter); emotions–fear, insecurity
Comments: I love this book–so much that I’ve put this on the “Someone’s Home” book list, too. Isn’t the title question what all of us–including wegrownups–are asking each other, especially during these scary days?
Fox, Mem. Whoever You Are. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1997.
Illustrator: Leslie Staub
Summary: Despite the differences among people around the world, similarities, such as pain, joy, and love, bring us together.
Themes: unity/connection/community, respect
Other theme: self-esteem
Comments: A simple, important message presented within minimal text. The central theme of unity-within-diversity is made concrete: while schools, lands, and languages may appear to be different, laughter, joy, love, tears and hurts are much the same all over the world. Especially poignant at this time: “Pain is the same, and blood is the same.” Bold, vivid oil painting illustrations, each set in a hand-carved ornamental frame.
Share your thoughts: If you could visit children who live anywhere in the world, where would you go? What would you say? What would you do? What would you bring as a gift?
Try this: See if you can spot the flying man holding the children that is located in almost every illustration of the book. Who is this man? What is he doing on so many pages? (See the book’s last two illustrations for further clues.) Give “Flying Man” a name and occupation.
Frost, Heather. Stone Soup. Little rock, AR: August House Little Folk, 1998.
Illustrator: Susan Gaber
Summary: Two hungry strangers show a town the marvels of creating soup with a stone–and a little sharing from each person.
Themes: generosity, unity/connection, right action/responsibility (to feed the hungry)
Comments: Although I prefer other, more subtle adaptations of this old folk tale that rely on the story to make the point (rather than added “preachy” text), particular features make this version noteworthy. First, the illustrations are wonderful and rich. Second, the message–each person’s contribution adds up to become more than he or she thinks–is positive and needed, more than ever. Third, the rhyming ending verse is easy to memorize and recite often: “Bring what you’ve got. / Put it in the pot. / Every bit counts / from the largest to the least./ Together we can celebrate/ A Stone Soup feast.” Lastly, the book includes a recipe for “Stone Soup” (which includes one very clean stone).
Share your thoughts: Why do people refuse to share? Because they/we are “selfish”? What if “selfish” means “afraid”? Afraid of what? Of what might children or adults be afraid (but may not want to admit)?
Try this: Match this story with this quote (you may want to reword) from anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Hamanaka, Sheila. Peace Crane. New York: Morrow Junior Books, 1995.
Illustrator: Sheila Hamanaka
Summary: A young African-American girl confides to an imagined Peace Crane her fears of violence and hopes for peace.
Themes: peace, hope, right action/responsibility, belief, compassion
Other theme: emotions–fear
Comments: This book’s prologue explains that in Japan the crane is a symbol of long life, and if one folds a thousand paper cranes, a wish for long life is granted. A a girl named Sadako Sasaki, a survivor of the Hiroshima atomic blast, folded more than a thousand cranes, but died at age12 from leukemia contracted from the bomb’s radiation. A monument to Sadaka and all the children who died from the atomic bomb was built in Japan bySadako’s classmates. People all over the world still send paper peace cranes to rest at the foot of the statue. Fabulous artwork: strong, bold, sweeping.
Share your thoughts: The narrator says: “We are rising to greet you, Peace Crane, one by one. We are soaring, many millions, on a journey just begun.” Imagine seeing a live Peace Crane. What message would you want the bird to carry on its wings? Think of a time when you chose to be peaceful, rather than saying or doing something that might provoke an argument. What happened? Tell the story.
Harshman, Marc. All the Way to Morning. (New York: Marshall Cavendish,1999)
Illustrator: Felipe Davalos
Summary: A boy imagines children around the world whom he’s never met who are “listening for sleep”–just like him–“all the way to morning.”
Other themes: relationships (friendship)
Comments: Rich illustrations: each child’s picture is framed by a larger scene of his or her country. A tiny map at the bottom right corner of the right page shows the name and location of each featured country. (Countries included: Western Samoa, Japan, Kampuchea, India, Kenya, Israel, Egypt,Italy, Norway, Scotland, Brazil, Mexico, and the United States.) Kids will learn at least one fact about each country in just 4-5 rhythmic lines. Spare, yet lyrical text emphasizes similarity with diversity: all over the world, children hear the sounds of other people and nature before going to sleep.
Hearne, Betsy Gould. Seven Brave Women. New York: Greenwillow Books, 1997.
Illustrator: Bethanne Anderson
Summary: A young girl recalls the courageous peace-making deeds of five generations of women in her mother’s family.
Themes: courage, caring/love, right action/responsibility, giftedness/talent
Comments: The author re-defines history: instead of events–especially wars–fought by men, she shows how her female ancestors “fought many battles, but never any wars” through ordinary lives as farmer, artist, missionary, writer. Her central theme: “They found a million ways to be brave. And so can you.” Provides wonderful role models for girls–and boys–who want their lives to somehow “make a difference.”
Try this: Using just 2 or 3 third-person statements in the past tense (e.g., “Kathy Szaj loved reading, writing and sharing children’s books…”), describe how your life contributed to others. Since you are just “making it up,” feel free to dream aloud about how you made a difference by the end of your life.
Johnson, Paul Brett and Lewis, Celeste. Lost. New York: Orchard Books, 1996.
Illustrator: Paul Brett Johnson
Summary: A girl fortifies her belief that she will find her beagle lost in a desert by keeping something special in her pocket for her dog.
Comments: A clever illustration layout: whatever happens to the lost dog Flag is shown in watercolors on the left pages; the events of the searching girl and her father are roughly sketched on the right pages. Readers are able to see how Flag became lost while chasing a rabbit and the dangers faced by the dog (a cougar, rattlesnake, cactus prickles, etc.). After a month, Flag is found in rough shape. In her pocket the girl has kept a lima bean for Flag, for reasons revealed in the story.
Share your thoughts: This story may gently open a conversational door to talk about our human need to hope for the best, whether during grim major events or just everyday frustration. For what do you hope? What simple, practical actions could you take to help those hopes become “real” events? What if you don’t receive what you hope for? How are trusting and waiting necessary for hope?
Lionni, Leo. Tico and the Golden Wings. New York: Pantheon, 1964
Illustrator: Leo Lionni
Summary: A little bird born without wings receives his deepest wish–and gives it (them) away.
Themes: integrity, giftedness/talent, generosity/sharing, compassion, right action
Comments: After being granted his golden wings, other birds are jealous and shun Tico. Feather by golden feather, he gives away each to a needy recipient, receiving a black feather as a replacement. Now the others accept black-feathered Tico because he is no longer different. But Tico knows better: “We are all different. Each for his own memories and his own invisible golden dreams.”
Share your thoughts: Do you know anyone who envies someone else’s giftedness, talent or ability? Why would someone feel that way? What words might you say or actions might you do to show this envious person how he or she is gifted or talented? Describe one of your gifts, talents or abilities that you would like to start sharing with others. What’s the first thing you could do to begin?
Loomis, Christine. Across America, I Love You. New York: Hyperion, 2000.
Illustrator: Kate Kiesler
Summary: A parent’s enduring love for his/her child is compared to the wonders of the American landscape, from coast to coast.
Themes: love, hope/trust
Other themes: relationships (with parents)
Comments: Timely, in terms of our current reaffirmation of the pride and promise of being an American. The idea of using the geographical landscape of the U.S.A. as a progressive metaphor is interesting and original. However, the text itself is more ordinary and less rhythmic and rich than many great children’s books. Meant to be loving and consoling, you may also want to read Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever and CrescentDragonwagon’s Will It Be Okay. (See descriptions elsewhere in this bibliography and in the “Someone’s Home” book list.)
Try these: Locate on a map or globe each place mentioned in the book. For each, create your own special statement describing your love for the special people in your life. Sing “America, the Beautiful” or “This Land Is Your Land,” improvising appropriate hand gestures while you do so.
Lorbiecki, Marybeth. Sister Anne’s Hands. New York: Puffin Books/Putnam Penguin, 1998.
Illustrator: K. Wendy Popp
Summary: Anna faces racism for the first time when she has an African-American nun as her second grade teacher at a parochial school in the 1960’s.
Themes: respect, unity/connection, acceptance, compassion, forgiveness
Comments: Anna’s first, natural response is that she likes her new teacher, Sister Anne, yet she pulls away when the nun tries to touch her cheek. She notices that her teacher’s hands are a mixture of colors: brown, white and pink. The students have great fun learning with Sister Anne until a student sends a nasty paper airplane note about Sister Anne. On the following day, the teacher hangs around the room photos of African-Americans, some poor, dying or suffering. “These are the colors of hatred,” explains Sister Anne. She introduces them to African-American role models, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At the end of the school year, Anna makes for her teacher (who is moving away to teach in another city) a drawing of two hands: one white with orange polka dots, the other with browns, pinks and white. From then on, Anna always draws hands or toes with shades of brown, pink, white, red, yellow, and blue, and with polka dots, circles and squares. Bravo! Well done. A strong, important message without becoming a sermon: this is the story of one compassionate woman, a teacher, an African-American nun doing what she does best–teaching with love. It is this firm love that changes the narrator, Anna. Although many young children may not be familiar with Catholic nuns, the deep humanity of this teacher is easily evident to all.
Share your thoughts: Think of a person who you know who welcomes and accepts everyone, no matter what age, race, physical appearance, or religious beliefs. Tell a story about him or her.
Luttrell, Ida. Three Good Blankets. New York: Atheneum, 1990.
Illustrator: Michael McDermott
Summary: Despite the protest of her three grown children, an old woman shares the three blankets they gave to her with her donkey, goat, and dog.
Themes: kindness, compassion, generosity/sharing
Comments: An incisive, amusing parable, with no overt “preachiness.” The old woman’s clever rebuttal to her children’s concern prevents this from being merely a story about a nutsy, but kindly old woman sharing her possessions with her animals. She can’t retrieve the blanket from the donkey, she says, because she will smell like one; the goat’s blanket is full of burrs; and the dog’s is full of biting fleas. Then she delivers the real message zinger: a goat that is warm while sleeping will give twice the milk; a well-warmed, rested donkey will carry twice the load of wood. Plentiful hot milk and abundant firewood will keep the old woman healthy and well. Her old gray blanket is all she needs.
Share your thoughts: The old woman believes that being kind pays off–in practical, as well as virtuous, ways. In what ways do your kindness and sharing “pay off”? Who (including yourself) or what benefits?
Try this: Name a situation or a person who could use your immediate kindness or sharing. Ready, set, do it!
McPhail, David. Mole Music. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1999.
Illustrator: David McPhail
Summary: Mole changes his humdrum life when he learns to play the violin with skill and joy.
Themes: giftedness/talent, creativity, patience, caring, connection/unity (Although her never actually sees his audience outside his mole hole, he feels connected to them.)
Comments: Mole’s life–secure, scheduled, predictable–is not enough. After seeing a violinist on TV, he feels drawn to “make beautiful music” and orders a violin. To his dismay (and that of the creatures directly above his mole home), his initial attempts to play the instrument produce awful results. He persists, month after month, year after year. His skill and love for his music-playing grows, as does the audience above ground who stop and listen to him. Mole imagines that his music “might reach into people’s hearts and melt away their anger and sadness”–then laughs at his grand dream, not knowing about those who gather above-ground to hear him play, not realizing that the power of doing what he loves can change the world.
Share your thoughts: Describe something that you’ve “kept underground” that you’d like to do or learn to share with others. With whom would you share this?
Try these: Track what happens in the illustrations to the creatures living above-ground as mole learns to play the violin. Find a piece of music that makes you feel wonderful. Play it while pretending to play one or more of the musical instruments that you hear.
Napoli, Donna Jo. Albert. San Diego, CA/New York: Silver Whistle/Harcourt, 2001
Illustrator: Jim La Marche
Summary: Timid Albert’s life is changed forever when a pair of cardinals builds a nest in his outstretched hand.
Themes: courage, gentleness, integrity, forgiveness/reconciliation
Other themes: self-esteem; emotions–fear
Comments: Albert is a near recluse. Each day he hears from the city street “good noises,” followed by “bad noises,” which, along with the not-so-good weather he discovers while extending his hand through his window’s grillwork, prompt him to stay safely indoors. One day, a cardinal drops a twig into his hand to build a nest, and twelve days later, the eggs hatch. Although he dislikes some of the “bad noises” he hears each day, Albert steadfastly holds up the fragile nest, learning to eat the berries, seeds and even beetles fed to him by Papa bird. Many days later, he encourages a reluctant fledgling to fly from the nest…and finally leaves his own room to take a walk. Many theme layers for children and adults to explore together. A charming, amusing, and thoroughly engaging book. Rich colored pencil illustrations.
Share your thoughts: Albert wants to withdraw from the world when he sees a menacing cat, a man and woman who argue, and hears loud jets. However, he manages to transform each of these into something positive, deciding that the good and the bad are both a part of “this big, wonderful…just right…” world. Describe several dangers or irritations that sometimes make you hesitate to venture out into the world. How might you convert these into something positive?
Near, Holly. The Great Peace March. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1986. Illustrator: Lisa Desimini
Summary: Holly Near’s song about humanity as one community and the need for world peace is accompanied by illustrations.
Themes: peace, care/love, unity/connection, right action, courage
Comments: The emphasis of the lyrics (which are included on the last page with the music) is on the power of each individual to create peace.Brilliant, intense paintings as illustrations.
Nye, Naomi Shibab. Sitti’s Secrets. New York: Aladdin Paperbooks, 1997 / Simon and Schuster, 1994) Illustrator: Nancy Carpenter
Summary: During a visit with her grandmother who lives in the West Bank, an Arabic-American girl’s relationship with her Palestinian grandmother becomes close, even though they don’t speak the same language.
Themes: unity/connection, love/caring, peace
Other theme: relationships (with grandmother)
Comments: “Sitti” is “grandmother” in Arabic; Sitti calls her granddaughter, Mona, “habibi,” which means “darling.” At the end of the story, Mona writes a letter to the president of the United States, telling about her grandmother, her worries about war, and “voting for peace” on behalf of herself and her grandmother. In the notes on the last page, the author includes equivalents for “grandmother” in numerous languages. She says, “If grandmas ran the world, I don’t think we’d have any wars.” Especially wonderful illustrations: the first few pages show montages of typical objects that fill the space between Mona’s life in the U.S. and her grandmother’s home in Palestine; also a stunning double-page illustration towards the book’s end with Sitti touching Mona’s forehead against a star-studded night sky.
Share your thoughts: This book readily invokes the enduring warmth and love of a grandmother, suggesting the sharing of memories about and mementos from grandmas (or grandpas) who live far away or are deceased. What photos, documents, physical objects, or physical or personality traits have you inherited from your grandparents? What are some practical ways that individual people–kids and grownups–can help make peace? How about groups of people, such as neighborhoods, schools, congregations, etc.?
Try these: Write a letter to the President and/or your representatives in Congress describing your ideas about how individuals and/or groups can help make peace. Pretend that you are a grandma. What would you want to tell your grandchildren about the world? About making peace?
Rawady, Ed. Everywhere and Everything: A Spiritual Story About the First Dream. Rochester, NY: Table 12 Publishing, 1997. Illustrator: Joseph Cordaro
Summary: “The One” dreams every plant, animal and mineral into existence in this creation story, with humans forgetting God’s dream: to be in love with the whole Earth.
Themes: unity/connection/community, love/caring
Comments: In this story humans forget to honor their relationship with all creation because they relentlessly pursue their dreams of making things–such as countries, nations, corporations, money and power–even if lying, stealing, cheating and even killing is involved. Conflict arises when humans believe so totally in their dreams about what they could make, buy or own, that they separate themselves from “God’s dream.” Respectful of all major religions and spiritualities that honor stories of creation with a divine origin. The publisher suggests “ages 8 and up” as the target readership, but I believe sensitive and introspective younger children will understand this book as well. Strong, totally computer-generated graphics may inspire a budding computer artist.
Share your thoughts: How might you remember to love the whole earth? What could you say or do?
Try this: Make a list of 12 or more activities to help you remember to love our entire world. Distribute these over a 12-month period, writing each month’s idea(s) on a calendar.
Sasso, Sandy Eisenberg. In God’s Name. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1994.
Illustrator: Phoebe Stone
Summary: People from different races, places, ages and walks of life argue about the “true” name of God.
Themes: unity/connection, respect
Comments: “Multicultural, nondenominational and nonsectarian,” this book offers bold, folk-art style illustrations with strong colors. The argument, in which individuals favor specific names for God to which they can especially relate–e.g., “Creator of Life,” “Healer,” “Comforter,” “Father,” “Mother,” etc.–is settled when all gather around a lake and see the reflections of their own faces, and realize that God, like them, is One. Wonderful presentation of a question that has ignited wars, persecutions and all forms of human alienation and suffering, yet simply expressed so that young children will understand.
Soros, Barbara. Grandmother’s Song. New York: Barefoot Books, 1998.
Illustrator: Jackie Morris
Summary: A timid, fearful Mexican girl finds trust, courage, dignity and the gift of healing through her grandmother’s singing touch.
Themes: love, courage, trust, giftedness/talent
Other themes: emotions–fear, grief; death
Comments: A gorgeous book! Grandmother is tall and sturdy; granddaughter is fragile, afraid of life. Grandmother sings and strokes trust into her granddaughter’s bones where “she hears fear inside,” because “the world is a frightening place for those without courage…for those who cannot help others…for those without dignity…for those who cannot trust.” The granddaughter grows up to be a confident, generous and strong woman who takes care of her grandmother until the old woman dies. But Granddaughter’s subsequent grief makes her tremble once again. She falls into despair, until she feels Grandmother’s “strong warm hands tenderly stroking her back.” Finally, Granddaughter is an old grandmother…who sings and strokes into her grandchildren the trust that Grandmother will always be there, holding them closely. The author is a body/mind practitioner, writer, and director of a storytelling theatre. She includes endnotes about the healing power of touch, and Mexican beliefs about spirits of the deceased.
Steig, William. Brave Irene. New York: Sunburst Books/Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1986.
Illustrator: William Steig
Summary: Irene braves a terrible snowstorm to take to a duchess a ball gown made by her mother who becomes too ill to deliver it.
Themes: courage, love, hope
Other themes: relationship (mother and daughter)
Comments: Fairy-tale style with very realistic details of a snowstorm that endangers a little girl. Although Irene is strong-willed, fighting the winter elements is almost too much for her. The dress box is ripped out of her hands, losing the dress; her feet freeze from getting snow in her boots, and she twists her ankle after falling in a hole. Nearly all hope is gone. She wants to give up. However, her courage revives when she thinks of her sick mother’s painstaking work on the dress, and the possibility of not seeing her again. She finds the frozen dress, delivers it to the palace, attends the ball herself, and is safely returned home in a sleigh the next day to her revived and waiting (and worried) mother. A wonderful boost to anyone facing obstacles or problems who is not sure s/he can “make it.” An amusing touch: Irene’s mother uses names of foods as endearments when speaking to her daughter.
Share your thoughts: Have you ever tried walking in a fierce storm of wind, rain or snow? What did it feel like? What did you do? Tell the story. Irene’s snowstorm–which tries to stop her from finishing her important errand–can be a reminder of any obstacle or difficulty preventing us from doing something important. Think of a time when you almost gave up (but didn’t) because of problems. What did you do? Tell the story.
Try this: Pretend you are walking in a big storm. Mime your struggle with the storm. Succeed in spite of the hardship, and celebrate your courage with a glass of lemonade or cup of hot cocoa.
Szaj, Kathleen. Something Good in Something Bad. (Unpublished; click title to read story)
Summary: A young boy, who has outgrown his “little kid” fears, follows his deceased grandmother’s counsel to find something good hiding inside his grown-up size worries.
Themes: love/care, courage, hope/ trust
Other themes: relationship (with family); self-esteem
Comments: I wrote this story about six years ago, occasionally sending it to a few publishers. However, most of the time it remained snugly in its folder, hibernating in my file cabinet. This summer, in July, I pulled out the story because I had a hunch that it was time to look at it again. Some six weeks later the nightmare of September 11 took place. I invite you to read this story after clicking the title.
Wild, Margaret. The Very Best of Friends. San Diego, CA: Gulliver Books/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989
Illustrator: Julie Vivas
Summary: A cat named William earns the trust and affection of the grieving widow of his beloved deceased master.
Themes: reconciliation, unity, caring/love
Other themes: death; emotions–grief
Comments: A superb book with a “tough” story. Jessie falls into a deep depression after James’ sudden death and rejects her husband’s cat, William, whom she never really liked. William becomes a rejected wild cat…until Jessie changes her mind and heart.
Share your thoughts: Sometimes people who experience the death of a loved one sink into a long, deep sadness like Jessie, or become “wild cats” like William. What could you say to comfort someone who acts either way? If you were to lose someone you love through death, what would you like others to say to or do for you?
Wood, Douglas. Old Turtle. Duluth, MN: Pfeifer-Hamilton Publishers, 1992
Illustrator: Douglas Wood
Summary: Animals and elements of nature quarrel about the true nature of the Creator.
Themes: diversity, respect, caring/love, unity/connection, harmony
Comments: A fable intended to advocate for the earth’s unity, and the interconnection of all inhabitants, the storyline involves a very human-like argument about whose version of God is right. The wise old turtle helps them to see that the Creator–who is described as both male and female–is “all of the above,” and more. Respectful of all religious viewpoints, this stunningly illustrated book can help kids to understand what happens when any religious group insists that only their beliefs are right, and are intolerant of other perspectives and experiences.
Share your thoughts: How does this story help to understand the fighting about whose religion is right that we are seeing and hearing in today’s world?
Try this: Like the Old Turtle, think of one thing you could say or do to help stop the fighting about whose religion is right. Ready, set, do it!
Woodson, Jacqueline. The Other Side. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2001. Illustrator: E.B. Lewis
Summary: Two girls of different races gradually become friends as they sit on the fence that divides their town.
Themes: acceptance, courage, hope
Comments: A simple, elegant story: making a friend with someone from “the other side of the fence” can change everything, one person at a time. Told from Clover’s point of view, the mothers of both girls have forbidden their daughters to climb the fence to the other side because it “isn’t safe.” But, as her new friend Annie Paul says, neither mom ever said anything about sitting on it. Day in and day out, even in the rain (in which she dances in the puddles), Annie persists in sitting on the fence offering smiles and friendly looks to Clover. But Clover’s mother advises her daughter to “stay inside here–where it’s warm and safe and dry.” One day, Clover feels brave and free enough to ask Annie her name and sits on the fence with her. Their friendship begins and spreads to include some of Clover’s watching friends. All play together, and all rest together…sitting on the fence. “Someday,” says Annie, “someone will knock the fence down.” Clover agrees…someday.
Yolen, Jane. Raising Yoder’s Barn. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1998
Illustrator: Bernie Fuchs
Summary: After fire destroys his family’s barn, eight-year-old Matthew helps his Amish community to rebuild it in one day.
Themes: unity/connection/community, right action/responsibility, love/caring
Comments: Communal relationship is the major focus; Matthew is a proud contributor with his “good hands.” Beautiful oil painting artwork.
Share your thoughts: People often feel helpless when a crisis strikes. Matthew’s Amish community takes immediate action to rebuild the damaged building–and to help heal the family’s sense of loss. What do you feel when crisis–little or big–happens?
Try this: Think of one simple way that you could contribute your heart, thoughts and “good hands” to rebuild a destroyed home, town or city, or to heal the loss of a some family in the world. Ready, set, do it!
Zolotow, Charlotte. Who Is Ben? New York: Harper Collins, 1997.
Illustrator: Kathryn Jacobi
Summary: A young boy feels a deep connection with the vast dark night, as he thinks about where he came from before he was born, and where he will go after he dies.
Themes: unity/connection, solitude, mindfulness/attentiveness, wonder/awe/openness
Comments: Tight, lyrical text communicating a mystical sense of time and space. A kind of meditation on one’s place in the universe, similar to the reveries in which children sometimes spontaneously engage (often startling parents with their depth and fresh insights). Wonderful for quiet, star-gazing, “I wonder” moments–or to induce such to help a child settle down during times of overactivity or emotional distress. (See also in this book list Ray Bradbury’s Switch on the Night.)
Share your thoughts: Have you ever felt as if you were one small, but important part of something much “bigger”? Where were you? What were you doing at the time? Tell a story about how you felt.
Try these: Go to a park at night and find a place where you can clearly see the night sky. Or, if you are indoors, turn off all the lights at night and stand by a window where you can see the night sky. Pretend that you can instantly travel to the sky and become a part of it, like a patch in a quilt. Feel yourself quietly blending in with the sky. After a few minutes, describe your experience in words (talking or writing) or pictures. Or, store the experience in your heart to share later.