Picture books are not just entertainment; often, they are a way to show young readers how the world works, and how we all must behave to make the world around us a better, more compassionate, happier place. Here are six picture books that do just that, and readers of a wide range of ages will enjoy them. These are books that should be available in every library and school. They have important messages to share.
“Just Ask” by Sonia Sotomayor and illustrated by Rafael López is a picture book that explains how just as plants in a garden are different, so are children. Some are shy and quiet while others are chatty and loud. She goes on to say, “Some of our differences are easy to spot. Others take longer to notice. Each of us grows in our own way, so if you are curious about other kids, just ask!” She shares how, during her childhood, she was different from many other children because she had diabetes and had to give herself shots. In “A Letter to Readers,” she writes that kids “…never asked me, my parents, or my teachers about it. I also often felt they thought I was doing something wrong.” So in this book, she encourages children to ask when they have questions. About diabetes or asthma, or a wheelchair or someone who cannot see, about being hearing impaired or dyslexic, about autism and ADHD and allergies and Down Syndrome. She briefly explains how children are different and asks the readers questions about how they experience the world. The book is insightful and eye-opening. “Just Ask” could include asking kids, parents, teachers, but it definitely should include a fabulous discussion about differences and similarities. (Philomel Books)
“We Really Do Care” by Tami Lewis Brown and illustrated by Tania de Regil is a book about a boy who, like many young children, claims ownership of his ball, his dog, his brother, and everything within his purview. However, when he sees a lonely little girl, he confides that he’s felt lonely, too. And he begins to share with her — his toys, his dog, his cat, even his brother. And the text provides the message that “We care about our mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and all families all over the world.” Kids will learn that we care about the environment and animals no matter what size. Kids will learn that we can shout about our caring and write about it and even march about it. It’s a book about sharing and compassion, and it’s a book about action. (Philomel Books)
A book that would be perfect to read with “We Really Do Care” is “The Fate of Fausto: A Painted Fable” by Oliver Jeffers. This simple story with a dark message begins in a similar manner. Fausto claims ownership of everything he encounters. He was a man “who believed he owned everything…” A flower, a sheep, a tree, even, eventually, a mountain. But when Fausto went to “own” the sea “for a mountain, a lake, a forest, a field, a tree, a sheep, and a flower were not enough for him,” things change. Suffice to say that Fausto learns, the hard way, that no one can own everything. This book ends quite differently than the previous book, but the message is no less important. Greed and selfishness do not lead to positive outcomes, and it’s never too early to learn that lesson. Jeffers’ illustrations are different that his other picture books. He explained that “while the story is a fable for today, it also feels like an old tale. To honor this timelessness, I wanted to make it using traditional lithography and typesetting.” (Philomel)
“Sulwe” by Lupita Nyong’o is about a girl who doesn’t look like anyone else in her family. Her skin is dark, much darker than her sister’s or her mother or father’s. She is teased and called names because of her dark skin while her sister, whose skin is lighter, is popular. Sulwe tries many things to lighten her skin, but it takes a fairy tale dream to show her that light comes from within and not from the color of anyone’s skin. The illustrations deserve note as Vashti Harrison creates a rainbow of colors for the skin of the characters in the story. Sulwe’s skin is as dark as can be, yet the use of light with the dark makes the illustrations glow. The moral of the story is one that can be shared with children of every color — our light, our brightness, our beauty comes from within. (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)
“A Boy Like You” by Frank Murphy and illustrated by Kayla Harren is a book for boys. It’s about what it means to be strong (hint: it’s not lifting weights), and what it means to be smart (hint: it’s not just getting good grades). It shows boys gardening, baking, playing instruments, reading, experimenting, and raising a hand in class. Boys will learn that “you can’t be brave without first being afraid,” and that asking for help shows that you’re smart. The advice in the book is great advice for girls and boys. Listen to all kinds of people and hear their stories. “Leave every place you visit better than you found it.” I’d love to read this book to a class and have them discuss whether this advice is for boys or for everyone. (Sleeping Bear Press)
“Common Threads: Adam’s Day at the Market” by Huda Essa is about a boy who visits an Eastern Market with his parents. He gets separated from his parents but mistakes other adults for his parents because they have a similar head covering or shirt. Finally, he finds his parents, but along the way, readers see how different cultures are similar in some ways. At the end, there is a section called “Becoming a Cultural Detective” in which the author explains that different cultures wear different clothing for different reasons. And, like Sotomayor’s book, “Just Ask,” the author advises readers that “when we respectfully and kindly ask questions, we can learn more about why people choose to dress the way they do — and learn a lot more about individuals and cultures.” (Sleeping Bear Press)
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover books provided by the publishers for review purposes.