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Growing Reader

9 Children’s Books to Help Raise Good Humans

by Jennifer Garry

Photography by Seana Williamson

When I came home from the hospital with my oldest daughter almost 16 years ago, I desperately wished she had come with an owner’s manual. I spent those first months frantically trying to figure out how to meet her needs when her only methods of communication were cries that no other human could understand.

Oh, she’s hungry, I’d say. They’d look at me quizzically.

Sounds like she needs a new diaper!

Hold on, we need to burp her.

Once she was a bit older, my panic shifted.

I can feed her, clean her, entertain her. But how do I make sure she doesn’t grow up to be a jerk?

This question has proved much more difficult. But, I have one strategy that has helped me out in countless situations — reading books.

Books are my favorite way to start Big Conversations. If you want to teach your children about kindness, empathy, and making the world a better place, the best place to start (after modeling the behavior yourself) is a good book.

Books allow you to begin with a wide lens before narrowing in on specifics. Instead of saying “you should do this” or “you should feel that,” reading a story allows you to melt into someone else’s worldview before re-examining it through your own.

The nine children’s books on this list are not the only ones that can help you raise good humans, but they’ll give you an excellent start!

  • All Are Welcome

    by Alexandra Penfold, illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman

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    With vibrant illustrations and rhyming sing-song text, All Are Welcome celebrates a safe space where students from diverse backgrounds can come together and be themselves. The children learn, play, and teach each other about their traditions. Building an inclusive community and recognizing diversity as a strength are the central themes of this story — and it’s hard to think of a better message than that.

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  • Calvin

    by JR Ford and Vanessa Ford, illustrated by Kayla Harren

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    Inspired by the authors’ transgender son, Calvin is about a boy who introduces himself as the person he has always been — even though the rest of the world didn’t see him that way. When Calvin tells his family he is a boy, they support him and help create a welcoming back-to-school experience that leaves Calvin feeling seen and respected. This book models kindness and empathy as readers feel Calvin’s nervousness and subsequent joy when he realizes his peers and loved ones are open and accepting of his identity.

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  • Milo Imagines the World

    by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson

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    Milo and his sister are on a long, boring subway ride, and he is brimming with emotions. To fight his boredom, Milo draws pictures of his fellow passengers and imagines what their lives are like. The man with the whiskers goes home to a messy apartment filled with pets. A woman in a wedding dress goes to a big, fancy wedding. The boy in a suit and immaculate sneakers goes home to a fancy castle where he’s greeted by a butler. But when the boy goes to the same place as Milo and his sister, Milo realizes you can’t judge someone just by looking at them.

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  • Each Kindness

    by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E. B. Lewis

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    Each Kindness is different from the other books on this reading list. It has a strong anti-bullying message, but it’s told by the child who did the bullying. When a new girl named Maya joins their class, Chloe and her friends refuse to play with her. When Maya stops coming to school, Chloe regrets how she handled things. I love how this book resonates with kids on both sides of bullying. It does not excuse Chloe and her friends’ behavior, nor paint them as evil villains. Chloe is a regular kid who reflects on her mistakes and wishes things ended differently. It offers many opportunities for discussion.

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  • Stories for Kids Who Want to Save the World

    by Carola Benedetto and Luciana Ciliento, illustrated by Roberta Maddalena Bireau

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    This book contains 16 biographies of people who felt inspired to become environmental advocates. Subjects range from Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai and agroecologist Pierre Rabhi to Greta Thunberg and Björk. Inspiring and informative, this book provides little readers with real-life examples of people who made a difference.

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  • Just Help!

    by Sonia Sotomayor, illustrated by Angela Dominguez

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    Every morning, Sonia’s mother (a nurse) asks her a simple question: How will you help today? Sonia wants to have a suitable answer for Mami’s question — and she wants to help her community too! On this particular morning, Sonia and her classmates create care packages to donate to soldiers overseas. More and more good deeds come from that first one as the entire community joins together to make the world a better place. This book is a fantastic way to show little readers how small actions can lead to significant results.

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  • Different--A Great Thing to Be!

    by Heather Avis, illustrated by Sarah Mensinga

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    Macy is like other kids in many ways. She swims, jumps, and takes hip hop classes. But Macy doesn’t talk much, and she takes her time even when everyone else is in a rush. Sometimes, kids are mean when they notice her differences. However, Macy teaches them that being different is not a bad thing. Like most books on this list, Macy’s story is an excellent conversation starter and can help kids appreciate their differences.

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  • We're All Wonders

    by R. J. Palacio

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    After fans asked R. J. Palacio to write a book for younger readers like her bestseller Wonder, she created her picture book debut. We’re All Wonders is a heartfelt book about recognizing and appreciating each other’s differences. It introduces readers to Auggie with simple language and engaging illustrations, pulling them into his experience as people whisper, point, and laugh at him. Readers will relate to his desire to belong, making it a great jumping-off point for conversations about empathy and treating people with kindness.

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  • The Invisible Boy

    by Trudy Ludwig, illustrated by Patrice Barton

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    Brian feels invisible. No one picks him for their team or invites him to their birthday party. Sometimes, the other kids even exclude him on purpose. When a new kid named Justin joins their class, Brian makes him feel welcome. He draws a picture for Justin after the other kids make fun of his lunch. This small act of kindness leads to a friendship that helps Brian blossom. I love how Brian is depicted in black and white until he feels accepted by his peers. This story and its pictures offer parents and teachers the opportunity to talk with kids about feelings.

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