It's been a rough couple of weeks in America.
Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, chances are good that you viewed the storming of the capitol Jan. 6 as pretty f'ed up. For many parents, the violent images demanded yet another hard conversation with their children — many of whom are still learning what it means to be human, what it means to be patriotic, what it means to be good.
Indeed, setting kids on a moral path can feel challenging when our values don't seem to be reflected in the world around us.
Of course, this is not the first time people have made extraordinarily bad decisions for themselves, nor is it the first time kids have had to process violence and hate. And it's certainly not the first time parents have had to look past political carnage to teach children about friendship, honesty, forgiveness, courage, compassion, peace, tolerance, hope, equality, love, justice and the Golden Rule.
And, luckily for us, we've got backup: Children's literature.
Seriously, most of what we want to teach our kids — what we need to teach our kids — is in picture books. I mean, sure, there are plenty of breezy kids' books written just for the fun of it. (Totally okay.) And there are plenty of self-righteous books that push lessons down our throats while treating kids like idiots. (Not okay.)
But when you hit on really good picture book — one that's both sweet and funny, down-to-earth and masterful — it makes for an almost visceral experience, filling our hearts with peace and reminding our kids (and us, frankly) that everything's going to be okay if we put kindness first.
If you are feeling a need to amp up the moral lessons in your house, here are 50 books that made my job in that regard not just easy, but an absolute pleasure. Hopefully they'll do the same for you.
A Bargain for Francis
Russell Hoban / Lillian Hoban
Explores themes of friendship, honesty,
forgiveness and materialism.
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day Judith Voirst / Ray Cruz
Bad things happen; you’ll live through it. (And yes, that’s a picture of my childhood copy.)
An Awesome Book Dallas Clayton
Encourages kids to dream, dream often and dream BIG. And the illustrations are, well, awesome.
The Bear Who Wanted to Be a Bear Jörg Steiner / Jörg Miller
About environmental protection, the pursuit of self and feeling good in your own skin.
Black Beauty Sharon Lerner / Susan Jeffers
About kindness, compassion, animal rights and helping the less fortunate.
Bridget and the Muttonheads Pija Lindenbaum / Kjersti Board
Out of Sweden, and hilarious, this one tackles loneliness, confidence and finding joy in helping others.
Bully Patricia Polacco
Friendship, conformity and the
courage to do what's right.
Can I Play Too? Mo Willems
Like all Mo Willems, this one is a-freaking-dorable. Themes of friendship, creativity and problem-solving.
Duck at the Door Jackie Urbanovic
About love, compassion and the importance of self-expression. I’m crazy about this book.
Eloise Kay Thompson
This girl oozes independence and confidence. If you don’t love Eloise, you’re probably fascist.
The Story of Ferdinand
by Munro Leaf
A classic, this one's about conformity, the ethical treatment of animals and the value of peace.
Frog and Toad Are Friends Arnold Lobel
Honestly, any and all of the Frog and Toad books should go on this list. The moral lessons abound.
George and Martha James Marshall
One of the best books about true, limitless friendship that I’ve ever read. And so. damn. funny.
The Golden Rule Ilene Cooper / Gabe Swiatkowska
The ethic of reciprocity — humanity’s moral gold standard — is not a religious things. It's a human thing.
The Grandmother Fish Jonathon Tweet / Karen Lews
A brand-new favorite and a superb introduction to evolution.
Green Eggs and Ham Dr. Seuss
If you don’t know the lesson of this one, you’ve been living in a box… or on a fox… or in a boat…
Have You Filled a Bucket Today? Carol McCloud / David Messing
Be a bucket filler, not a bucket dumper. Ethically speaking, you can’t do much better.
Henry’s Freedom Box Ellen Levine / Kadir Nelson
A story of suffering, courage, redemption and, ultimately, conquering the evil known as slavery. Beautiful.
The Hole Øyvind Torseter
About the imperfect goal of trying to rid one’s life of imperfections.
How To Be a Feminist (For Little Girls & Boys)
by Maxine Russell
Okay, but you knew this was going to be on the list.
Sets right some misperceptions about feminism.
How to Behave and Why Munro Leaf
Because sometimes you just want to spell it out.
I’ll Be You And You Be Me Ruth Krauss / Maurice Sendak
Kindness. Love. Friendship. All in KraussSendak’s signature style of GENIUS.
Iggy Peck, Architect Andrea Beaty / David Roberts
Believe in yourself. Be true to yourself. Make the world a better place. I’ve never not cried while reading this book.
Ira Sleeps Over Bernard Waber
This charmer is about fear and insecurity, and the understanding that we all feel that way sometimes.
If your child has a blankie, this is a must read.