Choosing Kindness: Picture Books to Read Aloud

Featuring young protagonists and realistic scenarios, these inviting picture books demonstrate how kids can make choices that positively affect their classroom community and beyond.

Whether reaching out a hand in friendship or searching for just the right way to provide comfort, small acts of kindness can change the world. Featuring kid-like protagonists and realistic scenarios, these inviting picture books demonstrate how youngsters can make choices that positively affect their classroom community and beyond. Share these stories with young readers to initiate discussion of important issues, set a standard of empathy and inclusiveness, and empower kids to bring about constructive change.

Told entirely without words, Kerascoët’s I Walk with Vanessa (S&W/Random House, Apr. 2018; PreS-Gr 4) shows how a simple act of kindness can transform a community. It’s Vanessa’s first day at a new school, and she sits in her classroom nervously looking down at her hands, feeling isolated and anxious. On her walk home, she is verbally accosted by a bully and brought to tears. Observing this encounter, a concerned fellow student tells her friends about it, and then spends her evening worrying about the situation. With the morning sunshine comes a bright idea: the girl knocks on Vanessa’s door and offers to walk her to school. Strolling hand in hand, the newly forged friends are gradually joined by more and more students, and Vanessa arrives at the front entrance nestled in a crowd of caring classmates. There is no doubt that today will be a better day for everyone (except the bully, who skulks off, red-faced and alone). The charming ink-and-watercolor illustrations utilize facial features, body language, and shading to eloquently convey the action and the characters’ emotions. The wordless format encourages youngsters to take a participatory role in the storytelling, look closely at the pictures to interpret and internalize the events, and contemplate how they would react in similar circumstances. Tips for children on how to help someone who is being bullied and language for adults to use when discussing this story with children are appended. Readers will be inspired and empowered by this heartfelt and hope-filled book.

Everyone feels like an outsider sometimes, and Jacqueline Woodson’s emotionally astute and poignantly written picture book acknowledges just how difficult—and ultimately rewarding—it is for youngsters to open their hearts to others. The lyrical text introduces several students who feel isolated because they are different: Angelina is the only one who had to stay home and caretake her younger sibling while classmates took summer trips; Rigoberto, newly arrived from Venezuela, finds that no one understands “the way the words curl from [his] mouth;” another girl discovers that the meat and kimchi she brings for lunch are “too unfamiliar for others/to love;” a boy is left sidelined from outdoor games because “the climbing bars are too high,/the run is too fast and far.” All stand on their own, lonely and forlorn—until the day they begin to share their stories. Finding her voice, which gradually becomes stronger, Angelina tells her classmates how she spent the summer reading books with her little sister, “and/even though we were right on our block it was like/we got to go EVERYWHERE.” Suddenly, common ground with other students is revealed, and “the world opens itself a little wider.” Rendered in rich jewel tones, Rafael López’s mixed-media artwork portrays the characters’ circumstances and feelings with blend of relatable realism and imagination-soaring whimsy. The Day You Begin (Nancy Paulsen Bks./Penguin, Aug. 2018; K-Gr 4) encourages readers to appreciate the things that make them unique, find the courage to reach out to others, and glory in making friends that are “something/a little like you—and something else/so fabulously not quite like you/at all.”

When Tanisha splatters grape juice all over her new dress, everyone laughs—except for the narrator of this gentle picture book, whose mother has always insisted, Be Kind (Roaring Brook, Feb. 2018; PreS-Gr 2). “Should I have handed her my napkin? Let her borrow my sweatshirt? Spilled juice so everyone stared at me instead? What does it mean to be kind anyway?” Pat Zietlow Miller’s simple text and Jen Hill’s vivacious illustrations explore this question with concrete examples that are easy for kids to both comprehend and replicate in their day-to-day interactions. Kindness can mean giving (making cookies for a lonely neighbor or passing along a pair of too-tight shoes), helping (with the dishes at home or the classroom pet), or paying attention (noticing a classmate’s new boots, or patiently listening yet again to a relative’s oft-told stories). Being kind can be as easy as saying, “Thank you,” or much more difficult (“sticking up for someone when other kids aren’t kind is really hard”—and scary). And even small kindnesses—like the way the narrator comforts Tanisha by painting a picture for her in their shared favorite color of purple—have a way of growing into something big and changing the world. Visual vignettes add detail to each situation, and the characters’ deftly depicted emotions encourage readers to contemplate the impact of acts of kindness on both provider and recipient. Sweet and sincere, this accessible picture book makes a solid starting point for discussion.

Alexandra Penfold and Suzanne Kaufman celebrate a vibrant and caring school community where All Are Welcome (Knopf, Jun. 2018; PreS-Gr 2). The brightly illustrated front end page shows a variety of caregivers and their smiling charges—representing diverse hair types and skin tones, styles of cultural dress, means of mobility, and family situations—strolling to their city school to begin the big day. Goodbyes are said and seats are found as the students gleefully dive into the business of learning, playing, and enjoying one another’s company. Whether trying out musical instruments and making art, sharing a bounty of different types of bread at lunchtime, learning from science displays, or swinging for the skies at recess, the smiling children exude confidence in the text’s message of acceptance and repeated refrain: “We’re part of a community./Our strength is our diversity./A shelter from adversity./All are welcome here.” The verses are fun to read aloud, and the detailed illustrations allow readers to track individual students, observe as new experiences are tried and friendships formed, and follow them home for a glimpse at cozy family evening rituals. The book ends with a classroom potluck, where a double gatefold reveals that the sense of community and inclusiveness shared by the students has blossomed and been embraced by their adults. “You have a place here/You have a space here./You are welcome here.” What a wonderful way to set a tone of inclusiveness, acceptance, and enthusiasm for learning for the entire school year.

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