2017 has blasted us with acts of hate, unkindness, injustice, and violence. Our students are not immune to these acts, many might have been personally touched by these horrific experiences and look to the beginning of school as a haven of normalcy, kindness, and protection. Can we guarantee that this is what they will find all day, every day, while in our care? Realistically, it is impossible to make such promises, but we can set the standard for what each interaction should be: kind, understanding, tolerant, and empathetic, by reading stories that demonstrate that it is indeed possible and POWERFUL to do so.
I invite educators to forego the funny tale of first day jitters, nerves, and fumbles with these picture books that will set the tone for what the atmosphere and exchange between all humans on campus should be, is expected to be, and will become. (The first and last books are must-haves in this humble librarian’s opinion.)
1. Be A Friend by Salina Yoon
Dennis, also known as Mime Boy, expresses himself differently than others in his class; he communicates through mimes. Although it doesn’t seem like anyone thinks Dennis is “strange”, they don’t include him in their games and conversations, or maybe, Dennis doesn’t know how to interact with his classmates. Then a little girl, Joy, notices Dennis and how lonely he seems. Rather than trying to include him in their games, she includes herself in his, she follows along with Dennis’s mimes and their friendship grows. The last spread we see in the book, shows all of the children playing together.
Talking Points: We should notice when others are hurting, are feeling left out. We should try to understand them, enter their world, before we present them with ours. The power of one person, being kind to another, opened up the opportunity for both Dennis and the other children in their class, to learn about each other, include each other, accept each other.
2. Super Manny Stands Up! by Kelly Dipucchio Illustrated by Stephanie Graegin
Manny has a different cape for each foe he must face, the coolest one by far is the one he uses at school, the Invisible Cape. When a big kid mistreats a smaller one, Manny doesn’t know what to do! He wants to help, but how? Then he remembers his invisible cape and what it represents, and stands up for the kid being harassed.
Talking points: Standing up for others is the right thing, even when it is scary. Asserting the Power of One, will help others find their courage and stand up for anyone who is being wronged. Making new friends and protecting them is something we all must do.
3. Peace, Baby! by Linda Ashman Illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff
Recognizing feelings of frustration, anger, and annoyance and thinking about what might happen when you feel this way and what a kinder option would be, is what Linda Ashman’s book explores. It’s important to validate these negative feelings that we all have at every stage in life. It is also validating to known that our first response to these situations, although usually not the best one, is something many of us feel. When we aren’t shamed, our mind might be more open to internalize kinder alternatives.
Talking points: Be vulnerable, be honest! Share instances when you have felt the emotions explored in this book, how you’ve reacted badly and what the outcome has been. This will allow students to be vulnerable and share, too! Talk about the times when you chose “Peace, baby!” and how the outcome has been different. I can see the title of this book becoming a phrase you and your students use to deescalate situations and be reminded of better ways to respond.
4. Wings by Christopher Myers
A boy with wings is new at school. Instead of marveling at this, students and teachers make him feel like an outcast. It takes one timid girl to tell the boy how beautiful his wings are and share her views with those around her, to change things around for him, and those who couldn’t appreciate the boy’s uniqueness.
Talking Points: At the end of the book, there’s a quote by the author explaining the inspiration behind his book, discuss this with students. Talk about the word “unique” and how each one of us has something that sets us apart from others, and rather than separating us, we should be united by these, which makes life a richer and fuller experience.
5. Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell
This wordless picture book is a beauty and will invite readers to make up the dialogue, descriptions and feelings the child and the wolf go through. A boy and a wolf cub are stranded in a snow storm when they cross paths. Should they let their preconceived notions of each other take over, or should they let kindness prevail?
Talking Points: When have you gone out of your way to help a stranger? What has that experience been like? Have you ever shown kindness to an animal? How did the animal respond? A conversation about kindness coming back to you when you need it, would go along perfectly with this story.
6. The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade by Justin Roberts Illustrated by Christian Robinson
So many of our kids can relate to being the smallest! Sally is the smallest girl in the smallest grade, but she is an observer of the world. When reading this book I asked my readers to really look at each page and tell me what isn’t quite right in the picture. Some unkindnesses are subtle, others blatant, and all are acts we have seen happen in a school setting. Sally decides she should not just observe, she should do something to change the world around her, and she does!
Talking Points: Is it okay to just be an observer of unkindness? Did it take any special powers, did Sally look for someone who would be physically more-in-your-face in order to make changes? This story is also centered around The Power of One, The Power of Words, The Power of a Simple Yet Courageous Action, to change the quality of life of many around us. Imagine if all of lour students took this to heart and became a Stander-Upper for just one other child? The ripple effects would be felt far beyond the classroom!
7. What Does It Mean To Be Kind? by Rana DiOrio Illustrated by Stéphane Jorisch
Assuming that our students know what kindness means and what it looks like, is well, very presumptuous of us! This book aims to define kindness and give many examples of what it can look like in our every day lives.
Talking Points: Use the different examples given in the book to create a chart of daily kindness acts we can do for each other in class and around school. Make sure that those acts that make it to the chart are actually doable for students’ ages and circumstances, then hold them, and yourself, accountable to that list of ideas and acts of kindness.
7.1 If Kids Ran the World by Leo & Diane Dillon
This is another book that has the same feel and message as book #7: mentioning kindness and how kids can make daily interactions kinder and contribute to making the world better.
8. Julia’s House for Lost Creatures by Ben Hatke
Why do some people stop being kind? There’s probably a thousand reasons, but one that anyone can relate to is when the receiver of kindness takes advantage or is inconsiderate. Julia opens up an Inn for lost creatures who come in all shapes and sizes, with different needs, which she is willing to accommodate until… she is depleted of energy! Rather than kick out all the creatures, she comes up with a plan that has everyone contribute and take into consideration each others’ needs and talents.
Talking Points: How can we avoid feeling like Julia felt in our day to day interactions in the classroom? Come up with a plan like Julia’s that keeps kindness flowing and everyone’s energy replenished!
9. The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig Illustrated by Patrice Barton
Brian is an introvert and is “invisible” to his classmates and teacher. The things Brian goes through like not getting picked for a team during recess, or not being chosen by his classmates for a class project, are well known to all of us and the pain and disappointment that ensues are feelings most children will be able to recall. For those students who cannot empathize or recall a similar situation, Patrice Barton, the illustrator, outstandingly illustrated Brian’s “invisibility” as he is drawn in charcoal, which is a sharp contrast to the rest of the color illustration.
Then along comes a new kid to class, Justin. Brian’s quiet yet brave act of kindness towards Justin, combined with Justin’s ability to see Brian, are kindnesses that change life in this classroom.
Talking Points: Be the lead in showing vulnerability and share when you, as an adult have felt “invisible”, share how it made you feel and how you hope no one ever has to feel this way. Use the author’s guiding questions at the end of the story to further explore the themes of invisibility, kindness, and once again, The Power of One. Talk about Brian’s quiet kindness and in what ways we can all copy Brian. Discuss how Justin didn’t isolate himself when he befriended Brian, but instead, found ways for others to discover and “see” Brian.
10. May I Have a Word? by Caron Levis Illustrated by Andy Rash
This is such a funny story! C and K are struggling because they both share the “K” sound. K feels C gets all the cool words, and C disagrees. What is the alphabet to do, if these two don’t come to terms with their shared sound?
Talking Points: There are 26 letters in the alphabet, who cares if C and K aren’t speaking? But… all the letters in the alphabet are important, necessary, and have a contribution to make if we are to use all the words in the English language! This is a great conversation starter to plant and grow the seed that we are all valuable and have worthy contributions to make in our classroom and school. Branch out into how when a few members aren’t getting along it affects the whole environment!
11. Brontorina by James Howe Illustrated by Randy Cecil
Brontorina wants to be a ballerina! Although she is fully aware she is a dinosaur, she knows that in her heart she was born to dance! She searches for a dance studio and encounters difficulties; she doesn’t have the proper shoes, and she’s just to big to learn with the other children! Kindness is displayed by her fellow dancers as they are resolute in helping Brontorina achieve her dream, regardless of how impossible it seems to accomplish.
Talking Points: This story is a fine vehicle to explore how we should show kindness for each other’s dreams. How many times has a child expressed a passion that seems so far removed from possibility that it immediately gets shot down by others? Brontorina’s dance classmates and teacher, show the ultimate act of kindness when they believe she can achieve her dream and are willing to get her there. Again I ask you, imagine if every child in your class was willing to put faith in another’s dreams, how would that change the world?
12. Rude Cakes by Rowboat Watkins
Rude Cake is just plain rude in every interaction with other young cakes and adult cakes. He is the kind of cake you don’t want to have in your classroom! Then Rude Cake is mistaken for a hat by a Cyclops! Cyclops are all about good manners and kindness, and adorable little hats! Cyclops are the kind of mythical monsters you would love to have in your class! Rude Cake learns the hard way that using your manners is the safest bet to be heard and complied with.
Talking Points: One of the benefits of stories is that you can point at undesirable actions and behaviors without self-incrimination! It is so much easier to talk about a cake that is sooooooo rude (possibly as rude as yourself) without feeling like you are bringing on a guilt trip! Make sure you keep it that way during your conversations with students, examples should be cake only! A great class practice could be asking “What would a Cyclops do in this situation?” , helping kids think of a positive spin on any unkind behavior that needs examination and apologies.
13. Be the Change – A Grandfather Gandhi Story by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus Illustrated by Evan Turk
This is a powerful book! I recommend it be used starting in 3rd grade all the way to 12th grade. Arun Gandhi is Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, in this story he shares with readers how his grandfather helped him understand :
How our actions affect those around us and the earth
How being wasteful is an unkind and violent action
The difference between acts of passive violence and physical violence
How passive violence leads to physical violence
Although this sounds very heavy, it is narrated in a way readers in grades 3 and up can grasp. It also is very relatable, as Arun Gandhi makes himself vulnerable to the reader, he narrates how he committed acts of wastefulness, unkindness, and passive violence. He shares how he feels frustrated and angry because he cannot comprehend his grandfather’s teachings.
Talking Points: This book is vital in our current environment, where adults seem quick to respond in both passive and physical acts of violence without even pausing for a second to think. Understanding how we impact with our actions and attitudes the climate around us, in our classrooms, schools, and communities is a powerful weapon towards fighting unkindness, hate, and prejudice. The note from the authors further explain Gandhi’s beliefs and a “Be The Change Pledge” is included to foster commitment to taking action.
14. We’re All Wonders by R.J. Palacio
A young reader’s version of R.J. Palacio’s award winning novel Wonder, this story invites readers to understand how treating anyone as if they are “different” (Aren’t we all different in some way?) is terribly hurtful. But even more amazing, is witnessing August understand that he is full of WONDER! I would love to see each child understand this deep in his/her bones! August also believes that “The Earth is big enough for all kinds of people.”! Most wonderful of all, August, knows that he cannot change the way all people view him, and that’s okay, because he knows what he’s made of, and he believes others have wonder inside them as well, waiting to shine.
Talking Points: THIS IS A MUST READ! A MUST REVISIT FREQUENTLY! We lose perspective in the hustle of life, and we need to remind our children and ourselves that we are all wonders, that we should honor this truth with kindness and understanding. I ask you one last time: Imagine if each of your students could feel, knew that they are full of wonder, how would this change how they live each day? Our world would change exponentially if we depended a little less on external validation.
This list is by no means exhaustive, comment and share your favorites for spreading a message of kindness and understanding that can be put into action within your classroom and school family. The more we read together and discuss with our students what kindness is and how it can be put into action, the kinder we will ALL become!