50 books that do what politicians don't: Teach kids to be moral

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.

Katy and the Big Snow Virginia Lee Burton

A classic from 1943! Themes of patience and hard work — with a wee bit of subtle feminism thrown in there.

Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse Kevin Henkes

About remorse and forgiveness and treating others how you want to be treated.

The Little Engine That Could Patty Piper / Loren Long

I LOVE this version of The Little Engine.

Book Trailer: “I think I can… I think I can…” Spoiler alert: He can.

Malala: A Brave Girl from Pakistan Jeanette Winter

About tolerance, justice, courage, human rights and honor.

Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary Beverly Donofrio & Barbara McClintock

I adore this book. Themes include gentleness, curiosity, friendship and equality.

Memoirs of a Goldfish Devin Scillian / Tim Bowers

Sometimes we have to sacrifice something (peace and quiet) to experience something far better (love and friendship).

Michael Rosen’s Sad Book Michael Rosen / Quinten Blake

Deals with death, mourning and the powerful message that sometimes

it’s okay to not be okay.

My Chincoteague Pony Susan Jeffers

About generosity, the value of hard work and helping others. A tear-jerker in the happiest way.

My Princess Boy Cheryl Kilodavis

Themes of acceptance, compassion and standing up for who you are. The faceless illustrations inspired those in Maxine's How to Be a Feminist.

No! That’s Wrong! Zhaohua Ji and Cui Xu

Encourages kids to test things out for themselves and reach their own conclusions. (I've recommended this book, like, a hundred-million times; it's laugh-out-loud funny.)

Now One Foot, Now the Other Tommy dePaola

The world is a better place because this book is in it. Teaches the value of compassion, persistence, hope and taking care of our elders. DePaola does it again.

The Okay Book Todd Parr

Like all Parr books, this one focuses on diversity, self-acceptance and kindness to others. A must for little ones.

Penny and her Marble Kevin Henkes

About honesty, remorse and doing the right thing.

Pezzetino Leo Lionni

A "little piece" finds out he is enough all by himself. Best. Message. Ever.

Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog Mo Willems

Sharing is caring.

Also, it’s hilarious.

The Quiltmaker’s Gift Jeff Brumbeau / Gail de Marcken

Generosity outweighs greed in this wonderful book, which also extolls the virtues of living a simple life.

Raggedy Ann and the Cookie Snatcher Little Golden Books

About honesty and forgiveness, friendship, empathy and generosity.

Scarlett Monster Lives Here Marjorie Weinmann Sharamat / Dennis Kendrick

If you can find this book, buy it. It’s so damn good. About loneliness, insecurity, inclusion and love.


Janell Cannon

An adorable bat in a bird's world. Themes are overlooking differences and finding common ground.

Stone Soup Marcia Brown

Villagers learn that working together

is more yummy than greed. 

Three Questions Jon J. Muth

Based on a work by Leo Tolstoy, this one  discusses the nature of a good life, beautifully.

Velveteen Rabbit Margery Williams / William Nicholson

About wisdom, experience and love.

What People Do All Day Richard Scarry

About how much we rely on each other to do our jobs and live our lives. Bonus: Will keep toddlers busy for hours.

When Dinosaurs Die Laurie Krasny Brown / Marc Brown

About death and acceptance — and, no, it’s not really about dinosaurs.

Where Did I Come From? Peter Mayle / Arthur Robins

Sort of like Genesis, but more graphic.

(And true.)

Where The Wild Things Are Maurice Sendak

A story about an important emotion too rarely touched on in children’s literature: Anger.

The World Belongs to You Riccardo Bozzi / Olimpia Zagnoli

Featuring my favorite line: “You are… free to believe in nothing at all.”

World of Pooh A. A. Milne 

All the themes. All of them.

You are Stardust Elin Kelsey / Soyeon Kim

About how we are all intimately connected to the natural world.

Zen Shorts Jon J. Muth

About sharing, justice, kindness, the true meaning of luck and the burden of bearing a grudge.

Okay, yeah, so there are a few more than 50 on the list. (Can you blame me?) If you feel I'm leaving any out, send them my way. I'll try to squeeze them in.