The Top 10 Picture Books With Life Lessons
There are certain universal life lessons that all children need to learn sooner or later. There are beautiful, inspiring lessons about love, empathy, and kindness - and there are terribly hard lessons like fear and death. If you're trying to raise a happy, confident, and compassionate child, you've probably put a lot of thought into what lessons to emphasize in your home and how to introduce them to your kids.
There are of course many trials and challenges that everybody has to deal with at some point in their life, and there are also many moral imperatives that thoughtful parents want their children to understand. For most of these lessons, the best teacher in the world is personal experience. The problem is that we don't exactly experience these life lessons every day.
If our kids don't experience these lessons on a normal day, how are we supposed to teach them? The answer is in the magic of storytelling. Picture books can be the most incredible tool at our disposal. Books take us on adventures we've never been on before. They take us to places we've never been and introduce us to people we've never met. The more books a child is exposed to the more life they experience. They can build empathy simply by walking in the shoes of their favorite characters. They can deal with difficult issues like death in the safety of their own home, and contemplate it at their own pace.
The best picture books take incredibly important life lessons and isolate them down into a completely accessible, beautiful, compact work of art. They expose children to new thoughts and feelings and allow them to process it at their level. And these works of art not only expose kids to the world, they also help them feel connected to it. Books can show kids they aren't the only ones who've ever been afraid or embarrassed. They can build up their confidence as well as their empathy as they see their feelings and experiences are shared by others.
In order to craft the Top 10 Best Picture Books with Life Lessons, we first and foremost considered the most important lessons we want to teach our own children so that they can be happy, confident, and compassionate in their life. We then went through all of our very favorite picture books and considered whether or not they had any of these lessons at their heart, and how well they delivered their message. These books had to be special, and they had to make us very powerfully feel something. Not only do these books convey important life messages, they are all beautiful works of art and are some of our very favorite overall books as well.
Disclaimer: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. The links of book titles and images will lead you to view the books' listings on Amazon.com.
10. Jabari Jumps
Written and Illustrated by Gaia Cornwall
Jabari is absolutely sure he's going to jump off that diving board today. But when the time comes he finds himself telling kids they can go ahead of him if they want. He needs to think about what kind of jump he's going to do, and he needs to stretch a little more.
It's okay to be scared. It can be scary to try something new. It is completely normal. Kids need to know this. Have your little ones ever been ashamed to admit they were afraid to do something? Kids sometimes think there's a stigma attached to having fear. Whether it's being scared of the dark, zombies, or jumping off a diving board - these are critical moments in life where we have to squash that shame and build up the confidence of our children with love. Jabari Jumps has the added bonus of a perfectly loving and patient father that says all the right things to Jabari to help him conquer his fears.
Written by Sara O'Leary and Illustrated by Qin Leng
A Family is a Family is a Family is a celebration of all of the many different ways a family might look. It accomplishes two wonderful, important things at the same time: 1) It can help all children feel confident and secure that there is certainly nothing wrong or abnormal about their family - and by extension nothing wrong with them. And 2) It can help children understand and build empathy for families that don't look like theirs. If there is nothing wrong with any of these families, there is nothing inherently better about their family either. For many children, this book is a wonderful tool for self-affirmation. And for many other children, including ours, it's a very important glimpse into different family structures they might be hearing about for the very first time - whether it be marrying with previous children or having foster children. My favorite line is the response a foster mother has when someone asks her to point out which of her children are her real children.
"Oh, I don't have any imaginary children," Mom said. "All my children are real."
This book is a powerful message of equality and love that everybody needs.
Written by Robb Pearlman and Illustrated by Eda Kaban
Even the wisest and kindest child you know is destined to be convinced that pink belongs only to girls before they turn two years old. This might not sound like a big problem at first, but stop and consider that it's merely a precursor to the many expectations society has for what boys and girls are supposed to like and do. We think Pink is for Boys has a lesson so important for our world that it should be required reading in kindergarten classrooms. Not only are girls and boys equal, but children should be encouraged to follow their own passions and always be true to themselves. You can read many more of our thoughts about this wonderful book and why it's so important in our recent article.
Written by Matt de la Peña and Illustrated by Christian Robinson
This book is magic. The dialogue in this story is some of my very favorite in all of children's literature. I don't want to give too much away, because going in with a blank canvas is really emotional and powerful.
Like children do, CJ is asking a lot of borderline rude questions and commenting about things he sees and thinks without a filter. When a blind man steps on the bus, CJ asks "how come that man can't see?" And Nana always knows the right thing to say. Nana is the absolute best.
"Boy, what do you know about seeing?"
Holy smokes that's a good line. Last Stop on Market Street is definitely an instant classic. It teaches us many things: appreciating what we have, identifying the things that really matter in life, and the importance of giving back. It's difficult to describe the beautiful spirit of this book and its emotional impact. You simply have to read this one yourself.
6. Zen Shorts
Written and Illustrated by Jon J. Muth
Stillwater is definitely one of the best characters in children's lit. He's a giant panda with Buddhist lessons for children. One of the beautiful watercolor pictures even has a child lying on his tummy like he's a giant Totoro.
To have the ability to take a step back and change your perspective on life is an amazing thing. It would be a wonderful gift to give to children if you could help them develop that ability. Children get caught up with attachment to worldly possessions and are sometimes consumed by emotions like anger just like the rest of us - and managing those emotions is an incredibly important skill.
Stillwater the panda suddenly drops into the life of three children like Mary Poppins, and he tells them three memorable Zen tales. He is a very wise panda and a calming influence, and the stories he tells drive home the most peaceful lessons about twisting our perspective on life.
Written and Illustrated by Jon J. Muth
Another beautiful story written and illustrated by the incredible Jon J. Muth, The Three Questions tackles the source material of Leo Tolstoy pondering the meaning of life and how one should best live. The three questions the boy Nikolai has are: 1) When is the best time to do things? 2) Who is the most important one? 3) What is the right thing to do? By the end of this book, Nikolai finds his answers.
The meaning of life is obviously a very deep concept for children, but The Three Questions makes it very accessible to readers of all ages. Once again, the watercolor drawings of Muth (and Nikolai's many animal friends) are endearing, and the lessons are quite simple to understand. I often ask my own son what the answers to the three questions are, because I hope he carries the lessons from this book with him for the rest of his life.
4. The Dot
Written and Illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds
Have you ever met a child who was a perfectionist - with a crippling fear of making mistakes? Have you ever taught a child with a fixed mindset - kids who say things like they can't do math? The Dot is the most empowering book I know that attacks "I can't" and replaces it with beautiful, self-affirming confidence. Like I've said before, we all want our children to grow up happy and confident, and there are very few things for parents or teachers that are as heartbreaking as witnessing children lose confidence in themselves. Luckily, The Dot is here to warm our hearts and celebrate the creativity and ability in all of us. There's a bonus lesson in this book for teachers as well, as Vashti's art teacher is a remarkable, confidence-building ninja that every parent and teacher can learn from. The confidence you can pass on to another human being can make all the difference in their life.
Written by Trudy Ludwig and Illustrated by Patrice Barton
As I wrote in our article on The Invisible Boy, I always only have one question for my son's teachers at conferences: Is my son nice to the other kids? As a parent and a teacher - empathy is incredibly important to me. For me, The Invisible Boy is the book on empathy. This is another one that should be required reading for kindergarten - another basic concept that should be instilled into the hearts of every child.
Brian's lonely school experience is simply heartbreaking - enough to bring you to tears. But the way Justin brings him back to life and makes him feel seen again is the most incredible triumph of kindness. By writing this book and inspiring conversations with my children, Trudy Ludwig also provided me with a new question I love to ask my son. Are there any invisible children in your class?
Written by Glenn Ringtved and Illustrated by Charlotte Pardi
This is the hard one. How do you teach children about death? How do you ever begin to help a child with their grief if they lose a loved one? How could we ever really be prepared to say goodbye?
Cry, Heart, But Never Break is a book that will make me cry every time I read it. It's a very sad and very beautiful book. The topic is lovingly handled and the artwork is fantastic. Death comes to visit the grandmother of four children, and he keeps them company around the dinner table for many hours before he goes up to her room. He even does his best to help them understand why people have to die.
"Some people say Death's heart is as dead and black as a piece of coal, but that is not true. Beneath his inky cloak, Death's heart is as red as the most beautiful sunset and beats with a great love of life."
Death tells the children a love story that explains how joy and sorrow are dependent on each other. "Who would enjoy the sun if it never rained?" "What would life be worth if there were no death?" In the end, although they know he's right, the children aren't entirely convinced they understand. You could probably say the same for all of us.
1. The Lorax
Written and Illustrated by Dr. Seuss
There simply couldn't be any other #1. All of the lessons on this list are important, but The Lorax talks about our relationship with all of the other living creatures on our planet and our huge, gigantic responsibility for ensuring their very existence. We're talking about life itself here, and the only home we have - Earth.
Dr. Seuss really displays his genius in The Lorax. It's simply the most perfect allegory that children can very easily understand and relate to. We called The Lorax the undisputed king of morals when it came in at #7 on our best picture books of all time list.
As a teacher I've seen that sometimes kids are actually affected and inspired by The Lorax even more than adults are. They don't understand why destroying the environment would ever be considered necessary and they're more apt to empathize with the animals. Which is good, because, as the Once-ler says:
"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."
Do you have any books with lessons in them that you love to share with your children or your students? Do you think we missed any important books or important lessons? Let us know in the comments!