There is no reason why a children's book HAS to be a tool for teaching kids important lessons but picture books that teach kids about doing the right thing and being generous to others can sure come in handy as conversation starters, or to reinforce real-life lessons.
I've tried hard to find a variety of books for this list, ranging from folktales to wordless books, and especially I wanted to find children's books about doing the right thing that don't get bogged down in didactic story lines. (Note: book titles and covers are affiliate links)
Please also consider the following companion book lists:
- Picture books about kindness
- Picture books that teach empathy and compassion
- Picture books that teach gratitude
Rabbit's Gift by George Shannon, illustrated by Laura Dronzek is a gentle Chinese folktale about giving to others. Rabbit finds a turnip in the snow, but as he is eating it, he thinks of his friend, Donkey, and wonders if she has any food. Rabbit leaves her extra turnip at Donkey's door and when Donkey finds it, she leaves it for her neighbor, Goat. On and on it goes, with each friend, in turn, considering the well being of another. Eventually, they all come together for a meal in friendship. A wonderful story. (More Chinese folktales for kids here.)
A Hat for Mrs. Goldman: A Story About Knitting and Love by Michelle Edwards, illustrated by G. Brian Karas. This is such and incredibly sweet and inspiring story! Mrs. Goldman makes hats for others. Sophie likes to help her by making the pom poms that top each one. When winter arrives Sophie notices that Mrs. Goldman doesn't have a hat of her own and although knitting is challenging for Sophie, she sets about making a hat for her friend. When she is done with the hat, her lack of knitting skills means the hat has a few holes. However, since Sophie knows Mrs. Goldman loves her pom poms, Sophie covers up the holes in a creative way. Mrs. Goldman, of course, loves the hat and the kindness shown to her.
A Bike Like Sergio's by Maribeth Boelts, illustrated by Noah Z. Jones. I have Boelts' must read book, Those Shoes, on several other book lists so I wanted to introduce you to this book about a boy wrestles with doing the right thing. Ruben desperately wants a bike just like all his friends but his family doesn't have a lot of money. One day he finds what he thinks is a dollar bill. It turns out to be a hundred dollar bill. Ruben faces a dilemma but in the end he realizes he must do the right thing.
How to Heal a Broken Wing by Bob Graham. In a busy city a boy notices a bird on the ground. He takes it home with him and nurtures it back to health. I've long loved this book with a loving family that supports the boy's act of kindness. The oversized pages, with spare text, are filled with images that tell an intricate, sensitive story.
Look Up! by Jung Jin-Ho. A wheelchair-bound girl gazes over her balcony onto the sidewalk below. She calls to the passersby to "Look up!," but they ignore her cries until one young boy looks up and then lies down in order to look up at her. This is such an unusual and interesting book, quite different from the other books on this list. Kids will love talking about both the perspective of the girl and the people on the sidewalk, as well as how being aware of our surroundings will help us see how to give of ourselves to others.
Blizzard by John Rocco. In 1978, a blizzard dumped fifty-three inches of snow on the author's town in Rhode Island. This story is based on his experience. First the protagonist is excited for the snow, but then as it keeps falling, the danger of his family and neighbors being stranded without food becomes very real. The young boy rises to the occasion and straps rackets to his feet to make his way to the store.
The Subway Sparrow by Leyla Torres. When a sparrow is trapped on a subway train, a group of diverse individuals work together to capture and release the frightened bird. Even though the subway riders don't all speak the same language, their desire to cooperate for the greater good overcomes their differences.
The Spiffiest Giant in Town by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler. George is a very scruffy giant! He decides to get a haircut and a new set of clothes and... voilà! He becomes the spiffiest giant in town. However, as he travels through the area singing a little ditty about his spiffy-ness he encounters a few creatures who need his help. He makes a present of his tie to a giraffe with a cold neck, offers his sock to a fox who needs a sleeping bag and before you know it, he's gifted away all his new clothes. His kindness does not go unnoticed and soon he receives a gift more precious than the clothes he gave away.
Trainstop by Barbara Lehman. This wordless book is a whimsical addition to the list. A girl takes a train ride and when the doors open she finds herself in a sort of Lilliputian world. The inhabitants need her help to rescue a pilot and his plane from a tree. She performs the heroic duty and gets back on the train, waving goodbye to her new friends. After she returns to her home in the city, a miniature duo glide in to give her a thank you gift.
Ordinary Mary's Extraordinary Deed by Emily Pearson, illustrated by Fumi Kosaka. This is another "chain reaction" of kindness book. Mary picks blueberries for her neighbor, who bakes them into muffins, shares them with friends, inspiring more and more kind deeds. This is a good story to start a conversation about the long term effects of our actions.
The Three Questions [Based on a story by Leo Tolstoy] by Jon J. Muth. This book is a good stepping stone for a discussion with your kids about how to know what to do the right thing. They will ask, What is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do? and reflect on the importance of doing good deeds and paying attention to the immediate moment.
Chik Chak Shabbat by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker. It is a tradition for Goldie to serve her neighbors a delicious meal on Friday nights. But when Goldie is not feeling well the whole building comes together to make things right. I absolutely love the multicultural aspect of this book. All the neighbors contribute their own culinary traditions to make a unique and wonderful Shabbat meal.
Boxes for Katje by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Stacey Dressen-McQueen. Katje lives in Olst, a town in Holland, after WWII. One day Katje gets a box from America filled with items like chocolate, socks and soap. Katje and the American girl start to exchange letters and the boxes keep coming, brightening up the lives of Katje and her family. This book is a great way to start a conversation with your kids about helping others in tangible ways, even if they are half way across the world.
Looking for more books? I've got over 200 themed book lists you can find indexed here.