14 Picture Books for Raising Kind Young Citizens

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Today’s post is from Parnassus manager of books for young readers, Stephanie Appell.

This time last year, my friend Jane and I were warming our hands around some mugs of Fido’s life-giving Firepot Chai. Jane is both a librarian and a mom of two young girls. She and I gather about once a month with other friends whose passions or professions involve young readers and their books to unleash our inner nerds and geek out about books even more than we do in our admittedly already very nerdy daily lives. This time, however, Jane had me — and everyone at our table — stumped.

“So, I’d like some books for Lily about . . . how do I phrase this? . . . political consciousness? What it means to be a citizen, or part of a community, I guess?” was the question she’d posed.

“Not just how to treat others, but how she can make a difference in the world around her?” someone else elaborated.

“Right,” Jane agreed. “A way to talk about the idea that democracy is a way of living that means everyone can participate, and what that participation can look like.”

Jane’s daughter, Lily, had, at the time, just turned 5.

Silence fell over our table as we all sifted through entries in the veritable databases of children’s literature in our minds.

cover“Well, there’s A is for Activist,” someone suggested. “It’s a board book, so Lily might find it a bit juvenile, but I love the illustrations.”

“It’s available as a hardcover picture book, too,” someone else added. “And don’t forget about Counting on Community.

“There’s a Cat in the Hat Learning Library book called One Vote, Two Votes, I Vote, You Vote,” I offered. “That would be taking a very literal approach — but that’s not quite what you’re looking for, is it?”

It wasn’t.

I returned to Jane’s question over and over during the rest of 2017, because it’s one that our customers have been asking over and over. Where are the books for my 3-year-old about injustice? My first-grader is afraid of war — do you have a book about that? Are there books about activism for my preschooler?

Children’s publishers have picked up on these questions as well. Some have taken what I called “the literal approach” that night, with books like The Little Book of Little ActivistsThe Pink Hat, and many inspiring and beautifully illustrated biographies of real life role models such as Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Pete Seeger, and Malala Yousafzai.

But other books are addressing the spirit of Jane’s question, which is: Where are the books with stories that will encourage young readers to live lives of kindness and empathy? Where are the books that will foster in them a spirit of openness and acceptance of those whose experiences and beliefs differ from theirs? Where are the books that will help them both understand the world’s injustices and empower them to create change now, when they are young? And where are the books we can share with them in times of darkness, the books that will light their way forward?

I’ve put together some suggestions, with brief notes, below. Picture books take an especially long time to publish — because they have to be illustrated as well as written — so a few of these haven’t made it to our shelves yet, though we’d love it if you preordered them from us using the links below.

9781524740917There is one book I want to tell you about now, though, while I have your attention, because it’s a book that, in its own way, is answering the heart of every one of those questions, and because its author and illustrator are coming to Nashville later this month. The book is called Love; it was written by Newbery Medal-winning author Matt de la Peña and illustrated by New York Times bestselling author/illustrator Loren Long. It is not so much a picture book as an illustrated benediction, a poem in which every word was perfectly chosen by de la Peña and then made visible by Long’s lush paintings. I’m not exaggerating when I say that if you have ever loved someone or been loved by someone, I want to share this book with you. (You should also not miss Matt’s beautiful essay in Time magazine, nor Kate diCamillo’s heartfelt response.)

I want to stress that the titles below are just a place to start, not the final answer to these questions. The books we read when we are children help to shape us into the people we become. Knowing that young readers will have these books with them on their journeys gives me hope for this year, and next year, and all the years to come. – Steph

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Books on kindness, empathy, engagement, and courage for the youngest readers:


 Available now!

Love Cover ImageLove 

For everyone who has ever loved or been loved. (See more above.)

Brave Cover ImageBrave 

What does being brave look like? Each page of this book illustrates one way a child can be brave, from looking for monsters under their sibling’s bed, getting back up after falling down during recess, apologizing when they’ve made a mistake, or standing up to a cafeteria bully.

Come with Me Cover ImageCome with Me 

A spare story about one little girl who asks her parents what she can do to make the world a better place. “Come with me,” they tell her, and show her that small actions, together, can make big impacts.

On the Night of the Shooting Star Cover ImageOn the Night of the Shooting Star

Bunny and Dog live on two sides of a fence, and although they see each other every day, they never so much as say hello until one night, a shooting star prompts them each to take the first step toward friendship.

Pandora Cover ImagePandora 

Lush, gorgeous illustrations pair with a text that has not one poorly chosen or unnecessary word to tell a fable about friendship and the power of hope, even when all seems lost, to transform the world.

Super Manny Stands Up! Cover ImageSuper Manny Stands Up! 

Manny has a collection of different-colored capes he wears into battles with imaginary foes, but when he sees Small One being bullied by Tall One at school, he feels paralyzed and unable to do anything, until he remembers his invisible cape and finds the courage to stand up.

Why Am I Me? Cover ImageWhy Am I Me? 

Two children encounter one another and ask mirrored questions (“Why am I me and not you?” “Why are you you and not me?”) in this philosophical story that leaves the answers to its questions up to readers to discuss and decide.

Windows Cover ImageWindows 

A child goes for a walk through their neighborhood at dusk and glimpses into the lives of other people in her community and then — like Maurice Sendak’s Max, who comes back from his adventure to a still-hot supper — returns to their own home, where someone who loves them is waiting.

By Kate Jane Neal

An omniscient narrator explains the ways in which the words we use go in through our ears and straight to our hearts, as the illustrations playfully elevate the straightforward text.

You Hold Me Up Cover ImageYou Hold Me Up 

The plainspoken text of this book belies its extraordinary message of affirmation: Through ordinary, everyday actions, we hold one another up in our families and our communities.

The following books will be out soon and are now available for pre-order. We’ll hold your book for you the moment it comes in or ship it to your door!

Be Kind Cover ImageBe Kind 

Through the story of two girls and a glass of spilled grape juice, Pat Zietlow Miller explores what it means to be kind and the ways in which we are all presented with opportunities to practice kindness every day.

The Breaking News Cover ImageThe Breaking News

“I remember when we heard the bad news,” this story begins, as the narrator relates the story of an unspecified bad thing and the impact it has on her family and community (“Mom forgets to tuck me in … It seems like everyone else feels it too.”) She wants to do something big to make everyone feel better, but her efforts fall short until she realizes that sometimes, it’s better to do one small thing after another than one big thing all at once.

Elmore Cover ImageElmore 

By Holly Hobbie

Elmore is a lonely porcupine struggling to make friends in the forest, until he realizes how he can connect and form friendships in his own special way. In the hands of a less skilled storyteller, Elmore could easily veer into sappy sentiment, but Holly Hobbie instead tells a powerful story of empathy, connection, and the importance of valuing what makes you unique.

The Rabbit Listened Cover ImageThe Rabbit Listened 

When the extraordinary thing Taylor builds comes crashing down, all the animals have ideas about what to do (shout about it, pretend it didn’t happen, try to rebuild it, etc.), but Taylor doesn’t feel like doing any of them until the rabbit approaches and just wants to sit quietly and listen. Powerful, powerful stuff.