Teaching Character Through Literature: Kindness

October 1, 2020 | Sharon Cumberland

“A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees. The greatest work that kindness does to others is that it makes them kind themselves.”
— Amelia Earhart

KINDNESS: Recognizing that relationships are core to who we are becoming, and therefore being tender, courteous, helpful, forgiving and compassionate towards others and self. Looking for the goodness in all. Being unselfish and generous.

Catch Phrase: Be Nice.

This month we are exploring Kindness. What does it mean to be kind to someone? This can look very different for a 3 year old versus a high schooler—can you identify a time in which your child has recently done something kind for someone else? Do they have any ideas of how they could perform a small act of kindness this month? It’s needed right now more than ever.

To aid in your discussion of this month’s character trait, our fantastic librarians have curated a list of books that highlight kindness. The reason we love literature-based learning, in part, is because of our belief in the power of story.  Jamie C. Martin in Give Your Child the World sums it up perfectly, “…a powerful story (on page or screen) quickens [the] hero’s heartbeat within us. Well-chosen words touch and transform our souls—making us want to be better than we are right now. Nagging lectures from Mom and Dad simply can’t compare with the lessons of a story whose time has come.”

Pick a book and settle in with your kids—perhaps one of these books contains a “story whose time has come” for your child.

The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle
A grouchy ladybug doesn’t want to share, and challenges everyone she meets to a fight, regardless of size or strength. How will she learn kindness and respect?  Eric Carle’s innovative illustrations also show the time of day at the side of each page of this picture book. (For ages 2+)

The Giant of Jum by Elli Woollard
The giant of Jum sets out in search of a snack– a snack named Jack, of course! But, hungry as he is, his quest is interrupted by one child after another, each needing help with various chores. A fun read-aloud with a chorus everyone will want to say together. A silly book with a thoughtful message. (For ages 3+)

Gingerbread Friends by Jan Brett
The Gingerbread Baby is lonely when Matti goes out to play with her friends. So he sets off to the village to find friends of his own. In the bakery, he dances and prances in front of a sugar cookie girl, trying to make friends. But she just stares and doesn’t say a word, like all the other sweet treats he tries to meet. Discouraged, the Gingerbread Baby runs home, chased by a mouse, the baker and his wife, and a red fox. Back at home, Matti has a fantastic surprise for him–enough gingerbread friends to fill a giant fold-out page.  A great story for talking about how to talk to friends and how to solve problems. Sidebars offer instructions for making gingerbread friends. (For ages 3+)

A Hat for Mrs. Goldman: a Story about Knitting and Love by Michelle Edwards, illustrated by G. Brain Karas
Mrs. Goldman knits hats for everyone, but she doesn’t have a winter hat. Sophia tries to make her one, but knitting is hard! This story illustrates the joy of making something for someone else and encourages a growth mindset when it comes to projects. Small mistakes can add to the charm of the finished work. (For ages 3+)

The Golden Rule by Ilene Cooper, illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” A grandson asks his grandfather: “What does it mean? What makes it Golden?” Grandfather explains the simple statement on how to live, which is practiced by people of all ages and faiths and can be applied to our own lives. The author’s note includes original forms of the Golden Rule and where they are found in different faiths. (For ages 3+)

Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe
Mufaro has two daughters: the bad-tempered, prideful Manyara, and the loving, kind Nyasha. The girls must pass a series of tests in order for one of them to be considered a beautiful and worthy wife for the Great King. This Caldecott Medal-winning retelling of an African folktale evokes the Cinderella story, as well as the traditional theme of good triumphing over evil. (For ages 3+)

Flabbersmashed about You by Rachel Vail, illustrated by Yumi Heo
Katie’s best friend in the whole entire world is Jennifer. But one day, on the playground, Jennifer suddenly wants to be friends with another kid. Katie is left feeling “flabbersmashed.” We’ve all been flabbersmashed by a friend–left out of an activity or secret, left to feel sorry for ourselves. This book is great for discussions about balancing more than one friendship at a time, how to deal with feeling left out– and how to befriend someone new! (For ages 4+)

Boxes for Katje by Candace Fleming
This true story is based on the author’s mother’s childhood in Holland after World War II.  Katje and her family must patch their old clothing and go without everyday things like soap and milk. Then one spring morning the mailman delivers a mysterious box – a box from America! Full of soap, socks, and chocolate, the box has been sent by Rosie, an American girl from Mayfield, Indiana. Her package is part of a goodwill effort to help the people of Europe. Katje sends off a letter of thanks – beginning an exchange that begins to grow with so many surprises that the girls, as well as the town, will never be the same. (For ages 5+)

Brother Sun, Sister Moon: The Life and Stories of Saint Francis by Margaret Mayo
How Francis Tamed a Ferocious Wolf is just one of several charming stories of St. Francis of Assisi in this volume. Francis rejected his wealthy background to lead a life of poverty, good works, and kindness to animals. Peter Malone’s illustrations are inspired by medieval books of hours. (For ages 6+)

The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig
Brian has always felt invisible at school, but when a new student, Justin, arrives, everything changes. Beautiful watercolor illustrations by Patrice Barton. (For ages 7+)

The Three Questions by Jon Muth
A short story by Tolstoy recast into a beautifully illustrated tale for kids. What is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do? Nikolai knows that he wants to be the best person he can be, but often he is unsure if he is doing the right thing. So he goes to ask Leo, the wise turtle. When he arrives, the turtle is struggling to dig in his garden, and Nikolai comes to his aid. As he finishes work, a violent storm rolls in. Nikolai runs for Leo’s cottage, but hears cries for help from an injured panda.… (For ages 7+)

Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World about Kindness by Donna Janell Bowman
Dr. William “Doc” Key was born a slave in Shelbyville, TN, in the 1830s. After the Civil War, he stayed in Shelbyville and built a veterinary where he sold his homemade remedies and became very successful. Key trained a clumsy colt named Jim to amaze audiences with his uncanny ability to spell and do math. Over nine years of exhibiting across the country, Doc and “Jim” donated portions of their proceeds to humane societies and were instrumental in raising awareness for the compassionate treatment of animals. Minter’s linoleum block prints, painted with acrylic, add the perfect historic feel to an incredible true story. Includes an appendix of historical notes. (For ages 7+)

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
A beautifully illustrated story of a captive gorilla, told in beautiful prose, from the point of view of the gorilla himself.  Ivan has spent twenty-seven years behind the glass walls of his enclosure in a shopping mall. He doesn’t even think about his life in the jungle anymore. Ivan watches television and talks with his friends Stella the elephant and Bob the dog. And Ivan paints. When Ruby, a baby elephant taken from the wild, is brought to the shopping mall, Ivan is forced to see their home, and his art, through new eyes. Can kindness overcome commerce? The author was inspired by an actual captive gorilla named Ivan. Newbery Medal winner in 2013. (For ages 8+)

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate
Trees can’t tell jokes, but they can certainly tell stories. . . .
Red is an oak tree who is the neighborhood “wishtree”―people write their wishes on pieces of cloth and tie them to Red’s branches. Along with a crow named Bongo and other animals who seek refuge in Red’s hollows, this wishtree watches over the neighborhood. You might say Red has seen it all. Until a new family moves in. Not everyone is welcoming, and Red’s experience as a wishtree is more important than ever. Funny, and deep, this is Katherine Applegate at her very best―writing from the heart, and from a very unexpected point of view. (Ages 8+)

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes
A tender story with a timeless message of compassion and understanding. At its heart is Wanda Petronski, an immigrant girl in an American school, who is ridiculed for wearing the same faded dress every day. When she tells her classmates that she has one hundred dresses at home, she unwittingly triggers a game of teasing that eventually ends in a lesson for all. A Newbery Honor book in 1945. (For ages 9+)

Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan
Two boys struggle to navigate middle school, family, and friendships. Joe’s lived in the same town all his life and was doing just fine until his best friends moved away and left him on his own. Ravi’s family just moved to America from India, and he’s finding it pretty hard to figure out where he fits in. Joe and Ravi don’t think they have anything in common– but soon enough they have a common enemy (the biggest bully in their class) and a common mission: to take control of their lives over the course of a single crazy week. (For ages 10+)

Want more resources? Read Character Counts: Kindness.

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