Can picture books teach life lessons? I think so. To find life lessons, I went to some original sources … life lessons from a 90-year-old woman and a 99-year-old man. Their words of wisdom were similar and it’s about living well to live long.
I added in a few life lessons that I’ve found along the way and the picture books that help to illustrate it. How about you? What life lessons resonate for you? Please do share!
Laugh (Every Day)
A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever by Marla Frazee
Funny picture books are very popular in my house, but it’s hard to get both adult and child to snort laugh at the same time. Especially if said picture book gets read over and over again, which typically makes the humor wane over time.
Perhaps A Couple of Boys Have The Best Week Ever speaks to my son and I because he’s that kid. For all the outdoor enrichment activities that I plan for him, he’d rather be home in front of a screen. And he also has dryly sarcastic things to say about day camp and other activities forced upon him.
Humor is recommended for living a long full life. Laugh often, at least daily and surround yourself with people, and books, that make you laugh. That’s probably the #1 piece advice from those who have lived long and well. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Love (Can Be Found in Unexpected Places)
Owen and Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship by Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff, andPaula Kahumbu, illustrated by Peter Greste
Love is another mandate for a long and happy life. Find love, give love, and surround yourself with love. What moves me about Owen and Mzee is how these two forged a remarkable friendship — could be parent/child love or mentor/mentee love — that really goes against all the rules of nature. An Aldabra giant tortoise and an orphaned baby hippo? Really? Yes! This true story of how love transcends all inspires. [nonfiction picture book, ages 5 and up]
Breathe (and Enjoy The Little Things)
All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee
We all could use a little yoga philosophy in our lives and breathing — the breath — is first and foremost the mantra of yoga. But with it comes the advice to live in the moment and, in doing so, notice the little things. All the World celebrates that quiet rhythm of life, affirming the importance of all things great and small in our world. Take a deep breath with this picture book. Slow down for a moment for a cuddle with your kids. And enjoy this moment of peace. [picture book, ages 3 and up]
Manage Your Money
Alexander Who Used to Be Rich Last Sunday by Judith Viorst
Personal finance skills don’t come naturally; they must be learned like algebra or Spanish. It surprises me that we don’t teach it in our school system here in the United States. It can be as simple as Spend/Save/Donate. And then move on to making a budget. For those who are ready to understand economics and the stock market, that awaits you too.
But for starters, try this funny picture book about how a small windfall makes Alexander feel rich and what happens to that money. This could be the beginning of a summer personal finance project for kids: set up a bank account, earn money, and figure out what to do with it. Spend/Save/Donate?! [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Your Family is Precious
My Brother Charlie by Holly Robinson Peete and Ryan Elizabeth Peete, illustrated by Shane Evans
What I love about this picture book by the Peete family is how they are able to convey what is special about Charlie while teaching readers about the autism spectrum. Charlie might not express himself the same as his sister, but she understands that he loves her as much as she loves him. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
This book pairs nicely with How To Talk to an Autistic Kid, written by Daniel Stefanski who is on the autism spectrum.
Follow Your Dreams
Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael López
Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a Chinese-African-Cuban girl who broke Cuba’s traditional taboo against female drummers, is one of many female pioneers in music. And you don’t have to be a musician to appreciate this life lesson: follow your dreams and ignore the naysayers. The naysayers are the ones who gave up on their dreams long ago. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Get Outside Every Day
A Stick is An Excellent Thing: Poems Celebrating Outdoor Play by Marilyn Singer
My son is hard to entice outside, but it’s a stick — finding the perfect stick for a sword, or a bow, or an arrow — that can get him out on a hike. Whether it’s stick toys or rolling in the grass, take time to play outside. And this book is a great reminder, with the added bonus of sharing poetry with your kids. [poetry nonfiction picture book, ages 4 and up]
Don’t Give Up
The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires
I’ve been reading about grit. It’s a set of life lessons on its own: pursue what interests you; practice, practice, practice; find purpose; have hope; join a gritty group. I like this picture book which focuses on inspiration and taking a much-needed break in order to make breakthroughs. A dog is helpful too! [picture book, ages 4 and up]
The Value of Failure
Mirette On The High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully
As an entrepreneur, I have always felt that failure is life’s best teacher. It’s the number of times at bat, and therefore getting up to bat, that matters. The Mirette picture book series is a study on Growth Mindset — that abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work and that brains and talent are just the starting point. There’s also the story of Bellini, a famous high wire artist who has lost his nerve, and how richly rewarding mentoring can be. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Worry is Worthless
Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes
Wemberly is starting school and this causes a whole new set of worries for her. Luckily, on her first day, her teacher introduces her to a fellow worrywart. Together, they discover that school is too much fun to waste worrying. Pair this book All The World and the Breathe life lesson. Learning to live in the moment, a realization that I gained through yoga, helps with alleviating worry. Have you noticed that the vast majority of worries are What Ifs? speculating about the future? [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Try New Things
Halibut Jackson by David Lucas
I love this book and sadly, it’s out of print. I once read it for my son’s kindergarten class during the first week of school when I noticed one of his classmates was very shy. Halibut Jackson is so shy that he makes special outfits so that he blends into the background. When he gets invited to the King and Queen’s party, he has a resplendent costume meant for blending but, alas, he didn’t know it was a garden party, so he stood out instead. His outfit is so fabulous that everyone wants one too. Soon, he sets up a shop so everyone can have one too. Whether it’s accidental or premeditated, trying new things can lead to wonderful new experiences. Try pairing this book with Try Everything life lesson and I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato by Lauren Child
PickyKidPix loved Charlie and Lola as a little girl. We watched the TV shows endlessly and I read the books over and over again. While not all older siblings are as patient as Charlie, it helps to have someone to coax the resistor into trying new things, whether it’s a sport, an activity or a new food. And it worked for PickyKidPix, she went on to become a fearless eater, from frog’s legs to pig’s ears. Why? She never wanted to miss out on anything![picture book, ages 4 and up]
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig
This is a beloved classic from my childhood that has stood the test of time. Sylvester finds a magic pebble that he uses accidentally to turn himself into a rock. His parents are frantic but he remains a stone for a long time. Finally, a miracle happens and he gets turned back into himself. Sylvester and his family put the magic pebble up in a safe place because, now that they are together, they have everything they need. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
It’s so easy to take things for granted. I think it’s human nature. One of the best ways I’ve found for my kids and I to practice gratitude is to volunteer and help others less fortunate. Doing random acts of kindness works like a charm as well.
Create Your Own Luck
Zen Shorts by Jon Muth
The second story in Zen Shorts has always stuck with me about the farmer and the horse. It’s a story about how things happen and each incident gets defined as either “good luck” or “bad luck.” But what appears to be good luck turns out to be bad luck and vice versa. The thing about luck is that you can’t always tell when it happens. It has to be viewed over a long period of time. I have more Zen philosophical picture books that make you think. As for luck, I’ve always believed in the quote by Thomas Jefferson: I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Be Yourself, Everyone Else Is Taken
Frederick by Leo Lionni
In the rush to get ready for winter, Frederick reacts differently than his field mice friends. While they scurry about gathering food, he seems to be lazing about. His friends are indignant that Frederick is gathering the sun’s rays, words, and colors. But when the winter sets in and food is nearly gone, Frederick makes his contribution. Frederick, the poet and dreamer, fills his friends with images and words that feed them just as much as the seeds and nuts. Being different isn’t always recognized as an asset but that perspective is always valuable. [picture book, ages 2 and up]
Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson
Chloe and her friends reject the new girl at school, Maya. Her teacher talks about small acts of kindness can change the world, with an exercise of dropping a stone into water to watch the ripple effect. Chloe can’t think of an act of kindness to participate. She wants to smile back at Maya, but she never gets the opportunity because Maya has stopped coming to school, eventually moving away. This lost opportunity is something that Chloe will think about for a long time. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
This books pairs beautifully with Early Chapter Book, The Hundred Dresses. Both books address anti-bullying messages, particularly girl bullying.
Travel Expands You
Mirror by Jeannie Baker
This beautiful wordless picture book depicts two families on different sides of the world as they go about their daily lives: a boy and his family in Australia and a boy and his family in Morocco. What I love about this unique perspective is that it shows how truly similar we all are, if we look carefully in the details. Travel expands us, because it makes the world a smaller place and that we are more similar than different. [wordless picture book, ages 5 and up]
Your Biggest Weakness is Also Your Greatest Strength
Hooway for Wodney Wat by Helen Lester
Wodney Wat has a speech impediment; a lisp that makes pronouncing his “r’s” hard. This is especially tough for a rodent, and it makes Rodney Rat a very shy rat at school. When a new kid starts school, she intimidates the entire class. She’s huge, she’s mean, and she’s smart. Who knew that Rodney’s lisp would save the day? Sometimes our weaknesses are our strengths (and vice versa). [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Honesty Really Is The Best Policy
The Empty Pot by Demi
The emperor of China has no children and devises a clever plan to find a successor. Whoever can grow the most beautiful plant will get his kingdom. Ping is an exceptional gardener but the seed from the emperor that he nurtures with great attention fails to grow. When it’s time to present his pot to the emperor, Ping is ashamed. All the other kids have glorious plants. He, alone, has an empty pot. Ping’s honesty wins him a kingdom for the emperor had distributed boiled seeds.
This is a beautiful tale to demonstrate the value of honesty. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
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BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.