10 Picture Books that Celebrate Being Yourself
There are very few things that are as tragic as a child growing up with low self-confidence. Luckily, there are many amazing picture books that can help you combat this. There are simply too many people in this world who are afraid to just be themselves. As a dad, I can say without a doubt that it’s one of my primary concerns for my kids. I very much want to raise them with a keen awareness of what makes them happy, and with enough confidence to always pursue it.
In our house, we’ve long since discovered that stories are a very effective way to convey life lessons to our kids. Good art always has a way of burning itself into your memory and burying itself in your psyche. Quite frankly, nothing gets across an important message to kids quite the same way that a beautiful picture book does.
Time and time again we’ve turned to picture books to reinforce some of the values we hold dear. And one of those values is most certainly being proud of who you are. It’s one of the most important qualities one can have in life, and one of the most important keys to happiness.
Society still works very hard to shape kids into something they are not every day. Kids are thrown into a world with an overemphasis on test scores very early in life. And they’re surrounded by a constant barrage of advertising and peer pressure that do their best to reshape their identity. Building up their self-confidence enough to withstand those pressures and love themselves the way they are truly takes a concerted effort.
If a child grows up with the right set of tools to safely navigate the pitfalls of a society hellbent on conformity and constant judgement, then I consider that a job well done. If they’re able to come out unscathed and truly happy on the other side - then you have to consider that a big success.
The picture books on this list help fight that fight for you. They all celebrate the beauty of being yourself, and they do a remarkable job conveying that life is better when we know who we are and where we belong.
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Written by Jill Esbaum and Illustrated by Nate Wragg
Elwood Bigfoot is a sweet soul, and all he wants in life is to make friends with the birds. But he goes about it in all the wrong ways. He glues feathers to himself, he tries to live in the trees, and he tries to think of everything he can do to attract the birds to him.
None of his elaborate plans for impressing the birds work, however. All he does is scare the birds away. The problem Elwood is running into is that he’s trying to attract friends by changing himself. By the end, Elwood definitely helps us realize that being someone you’re not is not the best way to find the friends you want.
Written by Munro Leaf and Illustrated by Robert Lawson
The classic tale of Ferdinand is simply the king of refusing to let society’s expectations mold who you are. Ferdinand is a bull who has no interest in fighting. Although, I think it’s ludicrous to imagine that any bull would fight for the “honor” of being in a bullfight, but it’s a very effective story nonetheless.
Ferdinand has always been more interested in smelling the flowers than running around the field and butting heads with the other bulls. It’s a remarkable message for peace as well as following your passions. And my favorite part by far is his mother’s reaction:
His mother saw that he was not lonesome, and because she was an understanding mother, even though she was a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy.
That’s a pretty great lesson for both kids and their parents. Because helping them find what makes them happy and encouraging them to pursue it is a big part of our job.
Written and Illustrated by Michael Hall
Red is a beautiful allegory about discovering who you really are. In the story, a crayon (and everyone around him) grows up his entire life believing that he’s a red crayon, because that’s what his label says. If that’s what it says, he must be red, right? But he really struggles with being red. Like when his teacher wants him to draw strawberries and they all turn out blue.
It’s a pretty straightforward problem honestly. He’s very obviously a blue crayon. But it’s a very effective and enlightening lesson for everybody that reads it. Society tries too hard to fit round pegs into square holes sometimes. Red is a good reminder that we make kids feel like failures when we don’t help them find their talents and interests, and that discovering who you are is one of the most important things you can do.
Written by Marilyn Sadler and Illustrated by Roger Bollen
I grew up with P. J. Funnybunny, so I have a lot of nostalgia for It’s Not Easy Being a Bunny. I’m a big fan of Bollen’s artwork, and I’ve always thought this tale of a runaway bunny was really funny.
P.J. decides he doesn’t want to live with the rabbits anymore, so he tries out the bears, the possums, the moose, and several more ideas. But this book kind of has a different format to other books about finding yourself. This doesn’t turn out to be an Ugly Duckling situation where he grew up in the wrong place not being his true self.
In the end, P. J. discovers he really should live with the rabbits and that’s where he’s happiest. Sometimes going out and exploring the world really drives home how happy you are - and that you’ve already found the place you belong.
6. Extra Yarn
Written by Mac Barnett and Illustrated by Jon Klassen
Extra Yarn is my personal favorite picture book of all time. It touches on a lot of my very favorite topics of childhood - like empathy, kindness, and imagination. Not to mention it’s perfectly illustrated and tells the most well-crafted story.
Annabelle is an amazing role model for children, and the book lends itself well to many different book lists for that reason - and this list is certainly no exception. A very big part of Annabelle’s charm is her self-confidence and her unwillingness to bend to expectations. She knows what makes her happy and she pursues it without question.
She’s kind and generous in the face of grumpiness all around her, and when the archduke offers her millions of dollars for her magical box of yarn she turns him down. A lot of the meaning of life is hidden in this book - and a very big part of that is being true to yourself.
Written and Illustrated by Keith Negley
Mary Wears What She Wants is the true story of a young Mary Edwards Walker, who stood up against social and gender norms of the day in the mid-1800s. During a time that all women wore uncomfortable dresses in public, Mary decided that she wanted to wear pants. It caused quite an outrage, and it makes for an incredibly inspiring story.
I personally found the biography in the back of this book incredibly fascinating. She went on to volunteer as a surgeon for the Union Army in the Civil War. She was captured by confederate forces, and even refused to wear a dress as a prisoner of war. Mary Walker was also the only female recipient in history of the Medal of Honor.
Kids need to have books like this one in their lives. Mary had a keen sense of justice and refused to allow society to dictate how she would live her life. Her actions took an incredible amount of bravery, and that’s exactly the kind of role model we need for the little ones.
Written and Illustrated by Amanda Moeckel
Khalida hears a song in her head and she simply has to get it out on the piano. Unfortunately, she’s having trouble finding the time to sit down and actually do it.
When she tries at home she’s told to go to bed, and when she tries at school she’s told to go to class. It’s hard for me not to interpret this book as a subtle critique of the way society can steer kids away from the arts and hold them back from pursuing what they love.
But, at the same time, Khalida and the Most Beautiful Song is the most triumphant celebration of the transformative power of art I know of. I wrote quite a bit about it in this special article about the book. Khalida is an artist. She’s a musician. It’s who she is and where she belongs. And when she finally sits down at that piano she makes a difference in people’s lives.
Written by Pat Zietlow Miller and Illustrated by Patrice Barton
One of my favorite authors teamed up with one of my favorite illustrators to make Remarkably You and the result is absolutely beautiful. It’s a giant celebration of childhood, imagination, and finding your strengths and interests. A wide array of personalities are on display, and Miller and Barton took great care to make sure all children can find themselves in this book.
The combination of the artwork and the words very often make my heart swell. I can’t help but reflect on the importance of providing kids with a magical childhood. Fighting imaginary dragons, wading in the creek, playing in the sprinkler - this book is very much about finding happiness. And in Miller’s quest to show off as many ways to find happiness as possible, my personal favorite has to be “the swimmer who knits”.
This book has the power to excite kids about life - and give them the strength to be confident in what they like. And, lucky for all of us, it very deliberately teaches a little resiliency to the pressures they will undoubtedly face:
You might go unnoticed
or shine like a star.
But wherever you go and whoever you are…
Don’t change how you act to be just like the rest.
Believe in yourself and things you do best.
Written and Illustrated by Jessica Love
Julián Is a Mermaid is a stunningly beautiful book. We love it so much we wrote an entire article on it. Jessica Love tackles the delicate topic of gender norms in the most effective way I can imagine. She simply gives us a quick glimpse into the relationship between a boy and his grandmother.
Julián points out to his grandmother that he is a mermaid. It’s a very matter-of-fact statement. I really love that choice too. He doesn’t say he wants to dress like a mermaid, he says he is a mermaid. And when his grandmother leaves the room, he tears down some curtains and tears up a plant to make his mermaid outfit.
I am a very big proponent of encouraging your kids to follow their heart, and I am a very big believer that gender norms can be incredibly damaging. It’s absolute nonsense to tell kids they can’t like certain colors or dress certain ways. Just like in Mary Wears What She Wants - gender norms are absolute meaningless tradition.
That’s why I am a gigantic fan of Abuela in this book. She takes one look at Julián and says “oh!”. For a split second you’re left to wonder if she’s going to be mad and admonish Julián for this beautiful bit of self expression. But this is a list of books that celebrate being yourself, so of course Abuela comes through in a big way.
Written by Davina Bell and Illustrated by Allison Colpoys
All the Ways to Be Smart is such a special book, it has me seriously rethinking our list of the greatest picture books of all time. It’s most certainly one of the most important picture books of all time. In this day and age, it carries with it a message that every single child must hear.
As we pointed out in this recent article about the book, All the Ways to Be Smart is a beacon of hope for everyone who thinks there is more to life than test scores. It even playfully critiques the current condition of our education system:
Smart is not just ticks and crosses,
smart is building boats from boxes.
For a dad whose entire ideology for fatherhood is based on providing whatever it takes to spark curiosity, imagination, and childhood wonder - All the Ways to Be Smart is exactly the book I always wanted and needed. I cannot properly express to you how beautifully the words and pictures work together to fill my heart with happiness.
This book ultimately fills me with hope too. In spite of all the pressures of society. In spite of all the people trying to make kids grow up too fast. In spite of the systems set up to make kids feel stupid and diminish the importance of their interests. There’s still hope for the magic of childhood. There are still parents and teachers out there who believe in building up self-confidence, helping kids find their passions and pursue them, and just letting them be kids.
What’s your favorite book on this list? Do you have a different favorite book that teaches self-confidence and celebrates being yourself? Let us know in the comments!