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What if teaching your children to be kind, grateful and empathetic was as easy as opening a good book? Whether they're in preschool or high school, these six titles, each a catalyst for thought-provoking discussion, make it possible.
"A Sick Day for Amos McGee" by Philip C. Stead (Roaring Brook Press)
Age range: 2 to 6
Stead's charming children's book features his wife Erin Stead's woodblock and pencil illustrations, each gorgeous enough to be a stand-alone piece of art. The book tells the story of Amos, a kind zookeeper with an eclectic mix of friends that includes an elephant who plays chess, a sock-wearing penguin and a rhino with allergies. One day, Amos wakes up with a cold and is too sick to go to work, so the animals decide to visit him at his home. The book's second half mirrors the first, as the animals treat Amos with the same thoughtfulness he's shown them, whether it's by keeping his feet warm during a nap or patiently playing a game with him. The book's central theme is the importance of not only having close relationships, but taking the time to nurture them as well. "This is a story about friendship, and even though all the animals in Amos are different from one another, they all care about one another very much," says Erin Stead in this video about the making of the book's artwork.
"The Thankful Book" by Todd Parr (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
Age range: 3 to 6
Parr, who's known for his engaging, colorful illustrations and soothing text, has written popular stories such as The Peace Book and It's Okay to Be Different. The Thankful Book, a New York Times best seller, opens with the simple message, "Every day I try to think about the things I am thankful for." As a host of colorful characters like purple-haired girls and pink rabbits express gratitude for the silly ("underwear because I like to wear it on my head") and sweet ("hugs because they make me feel good"), readers both young and old will also be inspired to talk about what brings them joy and even, as Parr suggests in his closing letter, "talk about some of them every day."
"Each Kindness" by Jacqueline Woodson (Nancy Paulsen Books)
Age range: 5 to 8
Woodson's highly lauded book, which has won a Jane Addams Peace Association Award, is used in classrooms to spark discussions about ways to practice kindness and how destructive bullying, or even just being indifferent to it, can be. In the story, Chloe and her friends are mean to Maya, a new girl in their class, despite her attempts to engage with them at recess. After her teacher discusses the importance of even small kind gestures ("Each kindness makes the whole world a little bit better"), Chloe vows to change her attitude. But she's too late: The class soon learns that Maya has already moved away for good. Unlike many books which have a satisfying, tied-up ending, Woodson doesn't sugar-coat the truth. "The chance of a kindness with Maya became more and more forever gone," says Chloe, turning the story into a cautionary tale for any student grappling with playground politics.
"Blackbird Fly" by Erin Entrada Kelly (Greenwillow Books)
Age range: 8 to 12
This debut novel from Filipino-American author Kelly is about Apple, a 12-year-old Filipina girl who's living in Louisiana and struggling to fit in among her mean-spirited peers at middle school. Racism, cruel bathroom graffiti and lists like the "Dog Log" (the school's alleged ugliest girls) are just a few of cringe-inducing scenarios that offer an honest portrayal of tween cruelty. But as the title implies, music (specifically Beatles' songs) becomes a refuge for Apple, as do new, loyal friends who teach her that her identity is one worth embracing.
"Rain Reign" by Ann Martin (Feiwel & Friends)
Age range: 9 to 12
Baby-Sitters Club series author Martin has penned a middle-grade tale told from the perspective of Rose, a highly functioning autistic fifth grader. As Rose talks about the routines and rules that govern her life, such as her obsessions with homonyms and prime numbers, readers will learn to empathize better with their peers who are also on the autism spectrum. Moral dilemmas are also explored when her beloved dog is lost during a storm and Rose is faced with a decision: Should she do what will make her happy or make a heartbreaking choice that she knows is also the right thing to do?
The Changers Book One: Drew by T Cooper & Allison Glock-Cooper (Black Sheep Press)
Age range: 12 and up
To be empathetic, you often need to imagine yourself in someone else's place. But in this series opener by the husband-and-wife team of Cooper and Glock-Cooper, a teenage boy named Ethan actually wakes up as a different person. On his first morning as a high school freshman, he discovers that he's become an attractive blonde girl and is now named Drew. His parents explain: Drew and her father are Changers, and part of an "ancient race of humans" who transform four times during high school into four different people. (The authors plan to follow the protagonist through four books, and in the second book, Oryon, Drew changes into an African-American skater boy.) At the end of senior year, a Changer selects one permanent identity from the past four, but they can't return to being who they were before the process started. Ideally, Changers couple up with non-Changers to produce their own shape-shifting kids, because, as the book says, "...more Changers equals more empathy … and that only through empathy will the human race survive." Through its unusual premise and candid portrayal of the fraught high-school experience, the book looks at issues relating to friendship, gender identity and sexuality with grace and humor.