7 Children’s Books that Teach What We Should Have Been Learning All Along

It’s happened. I’ve officially crossed the threshold into grouchy grown-up. I never thought I’d be here, and wow, is this weird, but here I am. I am standing in my kitchen, throwing together what I can for dinner when I hear something ridiculous and uneducational coming from the television, and I think to myself, “What is this garbage my child is watching?”

Sigh. It happens, I guess.

And my solution doesn’t fall far from my own parents’ suggestions from years past when they overheard me watching something they deemed unworthy of my time and brain cells…

“Go read a book.”

This is an ethos that has seen us through a great deal. More than once have I distracted my daughter with “Let’s practice your letters,” and “What did your teacher read to you today?” This is commonly followed by “Let’s pick out a new one,” and we sit criss-cross-applesauce on the floor in front of her bookshelf side by side.

Among the dozens of hand-me-downs and Christmas gifts and thrift store finds, there are a handful I’ve hoarded from my own learning-to-read days that somehow didn’t manage to find their way into any yard sale boxes or the shelves of my two younger brothers. Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel is a classic I still love that addresses loyalty. Make Way for Ducklings has helped me teach her about immigration, and Always Room for One More is a treasured favorite in our house that serves to remind us that everyone is welcome.

I’m the first to admit that some of my childhood favorites left me with more than a few problematic lessons.

But at some point as we sit and explore together, I’m forced to confront the fact that not all of the books of my youth taught me what I really ought to have been learning.

I’m the first to admit that some of my childhood favorites left me with more than a few problematic lessons. I adored The Giving Tree and held tight to the copy my grandmother gave me as a kid. Reading it now as an adult, I understand that it’s a metaphor for parenthood, but I’m naturally left to wonder why in the world should we teach our kids to demand everything from someone (or for the sake of the story, some tree) that gives up their entire identity? Is this not emotional abuse? Manipulation? Entitlement? Of course I want to teach my daughter to be kind, to be giving, to love others, but not at the expense of everything that makes her who she is.

Simply put, there are things I want my child to learn that I don’t know how to teach her without a bit of an update to our library. I discovered quickly that I needed to expand, to seek out books that she can hold tight to and keep as guides as she grows. While I could go on for days about the merits of The Heart and the Bottle, The Invisible Boy, and Rosie Revere Engineer, I had to pare down. Here are a few of our favorites that have made their way onto my kiddo’s bookshelf.

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History

Listen, I had never heard of Katherine Johnson until I saw the trailer for Hidden Figures. The black women I grew up hearing about didn’t extend far beyond Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks. I knew nothing of Sojourner Truth or Charlotte E. Ray or Alice Ball. Why? Were they not also brave, brilliant women who instigated change with their contributions and their strength? Shouldn’t I have been looking up to them, too? Do I not have a responsibility to bring up my daughter with a broader range of heroes than I had? She quickly decided that Josephine Baker was her new role model based on the mini biography from this book. Author and illustrator Vashti Harrison has added Little Dreamers and Little Legends to her repertoire to teach children about yet more visionary women from around the world and exceptional men throughout black history.

A Family is a Family is a Family 

This one got to me. Nearly every year since her first year of daycare, my little one has had teachers who ask the class about their families. Not unusual at all, and I’m happy that there is encouragement to discuss this as a group. I want her to be confident in her contribution to that discussion. I want her to have no fear at all in saying her family is herself and her mom, and that’s a perfectly good family, thank you very much. I want her to see gay parents and single parents and grandparents and foster parents. I want her to see childless families and chosen families and adoptive families.

From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea

This is an artful, heartfelt, beautiful way to talk about the concept of gender identity and fluidity with children. Born when both the moon and the sun are still in the sky, how does our hero decide who to be? A bird or a fish? A boy or a girl? A flower or a shooting star? Met with questions and confusion at school, but reassured by a compassionate mother, Miu Lan understands that no matter who or what they are, they are worthy and loved.

Julián is a Mermaid 

Alternately, home is not always where marginalized people can find immediate acceptance and understanding. Here is the story of a little boy who wants to dress like the beautiful women he sees on the subway, but worries less about the reactions of his school friends, and much more about the feelings of his own family. It is worth addressing that families often struggle with children growing into someone other than what is expected, and this is a great story to teach children that in spite of our fears, it’s important to be true to who we are and what we want.

Hug Me

My God, this moved me in ways I didn’t expect at all. A little cactus named Felipe just wants a hug, but his family isn’t the touchy feely kind. Setting out on a journey to find someone who maybe also craves the affection he is so desperate for, Felipe meets only heartbreak until he slowly learns to love his own company. Only then does he meet someone just as lonely and in need of a hug as he is. It’s a lesson of empathy and free will as well as it is a lesson of understanding one’s own needs.

Prince & Knight 

For the fairytale obsessed (and I was definitely one of them), this is a must. We’re far past the days of rescuing helpless damsels who have no choice in who they marry. My daughter and I would much rather read the love story of a prince and a knight who vanquish a dragon together and realize they are meant to be.

BONUS: if you’re a fan of Prince & Knight, you might also enjoy Princess Princess Ever After, a lesbian inclusive fairytale.

The Curious Garden 

We’ve come full circle, and instead of a story of a boy who takes all of the apples and branches and trunk from a very generous tree, we find a boy who lovingly tends to a struggling garden. While environmentalism can seem like an awfully high level concept, you’d be amazed how quickly kids pick up on it. The visual of seeing a little boy care for a simple little garden in the midst of a dark, industrial world until his entire city becomes lush and green is an encouraging reminder that it’s everyone’s responsibility to take care of our world.

Have more suggestions for kids’ books with wonderful lessons? Feel free to share your favorites in the comments below!

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