I'll start with this: turning on the news these days is frightening. Between the statements made and the things left unsaid, I'm continually left with one fear-inducing thought: what kind of world will my precious boys inherit? My children are young, only two and four, but I often find myself grappling with how I will approach daunting conversations I know we must have in the very near future. And when my own words fail me - when I find myself coming up with conversation starters only to cast them aside due to their banality - I always turn back to the same powerful, tried and true tool: children's books.
When you can't find the words to explain to your little ones some of America's pressing issues regarding race, religion, gender and equality, children's literature has a significant ability to convey the values we want our children to learn and live by every single day. Through books, we can impart the significance of upholding the ideals our great country was founded upon. So read to your kids. Read every day, multiple times a day if possible, whenever you can get it in. Read before bed, snuggled with your kids in a comforting space where you can safely discuss their fears or your concerns. Never stop reading to them, especially when they begin to read to themselves - even our oldest children benefit significantly from read alouds with parents and teachers.
This is no longer a gentle reminder that reading nurtures empathy and can help children understand both their own feelings and those of others. No. This is a call to action. Infuse your children's bookshelves- at home or in your classrooms- with books conveying messages of respect, kindness and inclusiveness. Read them books that act as windows- giving them glimpses into the lives of people around our country and around the world who may seem different but share the same fundamental yearning for connection and respect. Read-- and then make sure you are modeling the virtues you want to instill in your own kids-- those of compassion, love and equality for all.
Every morning when I drop my oldest son off at school, he climbs out of his car seat, leans in for a hug and cranes his neck for a quick kiss on the forehead. And every morning, just as he's getting out of the car, he glances back at me and we do our thing:
"What are we going to have today?" I ask. He looks at me with a grin.
"I knooooow, Mommy," he always says. Yet my response remains the same.
"I know you know, but I love hearing it anyway." And then he smiles wider, and he repeats the mantra we've been saying every morning since he began nursery school last year:
"Kind hands. Kind words. Kind hearts."
I whisper it silently with him, and as he jumps out of the car, my heart swells with pride. I know I may not have all of the answers, and I know I'm by no means a super-mom - but I do credit the values my boys have learned through the great books we share each day. So what does that mean? It means I will never stop reading these important stories with my boys, and I will never stop advocating the power of literature to guide children through our darkest days. We can all use compelling stories to inspire the next generation of change agents and freedom fighters. We can, and we must.
Below is a list of picture books - both fiction and nonfiction, funny and factual- that can be read with children of all ages. Each of these stories convey unique messages of kindness, inclusiveness, equality, and the power of voice to make a change. Click on the links to check out the books on Amazon.
Worm Loves Worm, by J.J. Austrian, and illustrated by Mike Curato: Teach children from the outset that love is love is love, no matter who you are or how you identify yourself.
Each Kindness, by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by E.B. Lewis: Use this book to demonstrate how every act of kindness- even the seemingly tiny ones- has a ripple effect that can change the world.
We're All Wonders, by R.J. Palacio: Help kids see the beauty and wonder in every person, despite how different they may appear on the outside.
One, by Kathryn Otoshi: Share the message that children are never too young to use their voices for good.
My Two Blankets, by Irena Kobald and illustrated by Freya Blackwood: Encourage children to share a smile-- and extend a hand-- to refugees in their neighborhoods, enabling them to break invisible boundaries and celebrate multicultural friendships.
A Family is A Family is A Family, by Sara O'Leary and illustrated by Qin Leng: Show little ones that every family is unique and beautiful, and there is no such thing as right or wrong when surrounded by love.
Be A Friend, by Salina Yoon: Celebrate the beauty of accepting others for who they are at heart, especially the ways in which they are unique and special.
Strictly No Elephants, by Lisa Mantchev and illustrated by Taeeun Yoo: Convey the importance of inclusiveness with a simple story line even tiny readers can grasp.
Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, by Mem Fox and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury: Read this with infants and toddlers so they learn from the outset that despite perceived cultural differences, we are all one and the same.
Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Pena and illustrated by Christian Robinson: Help children understand gratitude and teach them that we can-- and should --always be helpers.
Spork, by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault: Convey the message to little ones that we all have a place at the table, no matter how different we believe we look.
Hello, My Name is Octicorn, by Kevin Miller and Justin Lowe: Teach your kids how to embrace their unique attributes- and to recognize that underneath the surface, we all long for the same thing- connection.
The Rooster Who Would Not be Quiet!, by Carmen Agra Deedy and illustrated by Eugene Yelchin: Teach kids to be true to who they are and never lose their voices, despite the naysayers who may try to silence them.
Freedom Summer, by Deborah Wiles and illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue: Use this story as a springboard to discuss segregation and the unfortunate reality that it takes more than new laws to eclipse hate.
Grandfather Gandhi and Be the Change, by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus and illustrated by Evan Turk: Use these two companion books, sharing the wisdom of Mahatma Gandhi, to teach children how to channel anger into light and be a change for good.
This is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids Around the World, by Matt Lamothe: Take your kids to countries across the globe to share the ins and outs of seven kids' lives and the unifying passion we all share for family, love and education.
A is for Activist, by Innosanto Agara: Allow the ABCs to teach your kids how to advocate for change.
Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis, by Jabari Asim and illustrated by E.B. White: Provide kids with background on the Civil Rights movement and the childhood story of one of its most important heroes.
The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, A Young Civil Rights Marcher, by Cynthia Levinson and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton: Inspire child activists with the true story of a little girl who fought for freedom despite her young age.
Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad, by Ellen Levine and illustrated by Kadir Nelson: Teach children about the underground railroad with this true story of a young slave who mailed himself to freedom.
She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World, by Chelsea Clinton and Alexandra Boiger: Inspire a new generation of freedom fighters with the stories of women who used their voices to better their country and their world.
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