How do you teach children values and help them build character without sounding like a lecturer? Character traits like respect, kindness, honesty and gratitude? One tool you have at your disposal is a wealth of wonderful children's books. The perfect picture book prompts children to consider situations in which their actions help them develop strong character traits.
The children's picture books on this list will get your kids thinking and talking about the consequences of action vs. inaction, helping others vs. thinking of yourself and curiosity vs. indifference. And they do all of this without being one bit didactic and boring!
Note: this post contains affiliate links that may earn commission.
If you shop for books online, please consider ordering from Bookshop, which supports independent bookstores. You can find this curated list on Bookshop here.
The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade
by Justin Roberts, illustrated by Christian Robinson
Sally may be small but she is the most observant kid in the class. She notices everything, especially when someone else is being bullied or teased. Sally decides the right thing to do is to stand up for others, and teach her peers about kindness. I liked this book a lot and how it emphasized that you can be kind no matter what your stature—physically or socially.
Thank You, Omu!
by Oge Mora
I adore the wonderful cut-paper collage illustrations in this timeless tale about the community value of generosity and sharing. Omu is making stew and its delicious smell enchants the neighborhood. One by one, a diverse group of visitors, drawn in by the scent of Omu's stew, knock on her door and ask for a bowl. Omu generously hands out portions but eventually realizes that she no longer has any left for herself. Not to worry! Her neighbors don't forget her kindness and they all join together to return the favor.
The Big Umbrella
by Amy June Bates and Juniper Bates
This book sparkles with its celebration of the joy that comes when we include others. It was written by a mother and her 11 year old daughter while walking to school in the rain. The story begins with a narrator introducing a big umbrella by the door; it's a really big umbrella, big enough for everyone. I love the inclusion of a diverse cast of characters, making this a wonderful book with a very positive, uplifting message.
We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga
by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Frane Lessac
In Cherokee, otsaliheliga expresses gratitude. Author Sorell, a member of the Cherokee nation, takes readers on a journey through the seasons, narrating experiences to be grateful for. The journey is both delightful and peaceful, and the illustrations depict contemporary Cherokee life. Accompanying the English text are occasional words written in Cherokee syllabary, along with a phonetic spelling. A glossary and complete Cherokee syllabary make up the end notes. This book is the perfect November read aloud–don't miss this special celebration of gratitude and community.
by Arthur Yorinks, illustrated by David Small
This may seem like the wild card on this list of children's books about meaningful values, but it is a quirky story that can jumpstart a fun conversation about how to treat guests. When aliens land in suburbia, it's important to remember your manners! It's also good to have spaghetti and meatballs on hand and not to be too hasty about calling the FBI. The story also has a nice message about refraining from prejudging others. Be sure to read the sequel, Company's Going.
MORE: I don't have a specific manners book list, but you can find some good choices on my tea party book list!
The Honest to Goodness Truth
by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by Giselle Potter
I found several books along theme of "brutal honesty is not always the best policy," but I think I like this one best. When Libby gets caught in a lie by her mother, she decides to tell only the whole truth from now on. But Libby's honesty makes others feel slighted and turns her friends away. When someone does the same to her, Libby realizes her mistake and apologies to her friends. A great book about how to be truthful without hurting others.
The Water Walker
by Joanne Robertson
Native American communities were the first to recognize what humans were doing to the planet and have always played a crucial role in raising awareness about the environment. Every morning an Ojibwe grandmother greets nibi (water) with gratitude. Knowing that unpolluted water will soon be a scarcity, she and a group of women start to walk around the Great Lakes in order to draw attention to the importance of clean water. It takes them seven years to walk around the lakes, but they do not give up. Both the text and the illustrations add sweet humor to this important story.
The House That Jane Built: A Story About Jane Addams
by Tanya Lee Stone, illustrated by Kathryn Brown
This is an inspiring story about Jane Addams, the first American woman to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, who founded a settlement home known as Hill House (still in existence!) in Chicago in the late 19th century. Addams was born into a wealthy family, but from childhood she wanted to help the poor in her community. The narration effectively draws readers into the story by portraying the unique individuals impacted by Addams' work as well as the larger importance of her work. A great talking point when reading this book to children is how projects such as Hull House contributed to the rise of community centers and what kinds of benefits they have for citizens.
We are Together
by Britta Teckentrup
The clever die cut pages show an ever increasing group of ethnically diverse (but not differently-abled) children as the book moves forward. Rhyming text offers the message that together the children are a team. As a team they can do things like splash in puddles, encourage each other to take untraveled paths, or navigate complex emotions like seeing their way through confusing times. Wonderful illustrations place the children in various natural settings, from woodlands to urban parks, and snowy tundras.
One Word from Sophia
by Jim Averbeck, illustrated by Yasmeen Ismail
Sophia's one true desire is to get a giraffe for her birthday. She prepares elaborate, individualized presentations to argue her case before each family member: a judge, businessperson, lawyer and disciplinarian (grandma!). Can she win her case, and will she find just the right word to win her case and convince the jury? This book made us smile, especially since Sophia just would not give up! Bonus: this book also teaches the value of having an extensive vocabulary!
by Jim LaMarche
Nicky goes to visit his grandmother who lives by a river in the woods. At first he thinks the summer is going to be boring, but Nicky's grandmother encourages him to get outside. On the river he discovers a raft. He takes it out one afternoon and it becomes his daily activity. While floating every day, he admires the local flora and fauna. He even begins sketching what he sees. What I also love about this book is the development of the relationship between Nicky and his grandparent.
- Books to inspire curiosity about the natural world
- Picture books about inventors and inventions
- Picture books about trying new things
The Book of Mistakes
by Corinna Luyken
This book focuses on art, and how what a child might think is a mistake — a blob, a dribble — can actually turn into something wonderful if you use your imaginative powers and tinker with it in just the right way.
by Sergio Ruzzier
Find it: Amazon
is one of my all time favorite books. Amandina is very talented, but very shy. To overcome her shyness she decides to put on a show. She cleans up an old theater, constructs the sets, sews the costumes, rehearses the acrobatics and puts up the posters. When she opens the curtains, however, the house (aka the audience) is empty. Disheartened, but determined, she puts on the performance of a lifetime, not knowing that while she sings and dances the audience is growing. Ruzzier's illustrations evoke the commedia dell'arte of his native Italy and his text perfectly captures the true spirit and heart of what it means to be a performer.
Marisol McDonald Doesn't Match / Marisol McDonald no combina
by Monica Brown, illustrations by Sara Palacios
Red-headed half-Scottish half-Peruvian Marisol bounces off the page with great enthusiasm and loves her mismatched life. When her friend, Ollie, challenges her to “match”, Marisol finds she is unhappy with life as a conformist. This is a great story that emphasizes the importance of embracing and accepting one’s uniqueness.
One Day One World
by Barbara Kerley
Absolutely stunning photographs take you on a trip around the world as children in diverse locales get ready in the morning, go to school, play, do chores and end their days. Your kids will love seeing kids around the world doing the same things they do every day, only in a vastly different way.
- picture books about multiculturalism
- picture books about refugees
- picture books about global social justice issues
Lubna and Pebble
by Wendy Meddour, illustrated by Daniel Egnéus
Lubna and her father are refugees. They arrive at the "World of Tents" to live temporarily. Lubna has no toys so she picks up a pebble, gives it a face and turns it into her friend. This book is surprisingly emotional, highlighting Lubna's creativity and resiliency. In the midst of her unstable situation, Pebble provides comfort. When Lubna meets Amir, a boy refugee on his own, the two become friends and play with Pebble. When Lubna and her father then get word they will travel to a new country, Lubna finds the courage to give Pebble to Amir.
Here and Now
By Julia Denos, illustrated by E.B. Goodale
I adore this book. Reflecting upon the act of reading is a mindfulness exercise and this wonderful book encourages kids to be "in the moment." On the first page we see several hands of different skin colors holding the page the reader is holding. "Right here, right now, you are reading this book." The narrative continues, detailing the beauty of reflecting on the here and now. In the end note, the author explains how her meditation practice influenced the writing of the book.
Being a Good Friend
A Friend for Henry
by Jenn Bailey, illustrated by Mika Song
Henry looks about his classroom, he notices all the details about the objects and his fellow classmates. He is looking for a friend and wonders how he will fit in. As he tries to find a child to be his friend, there are some misunderstandings and set-backs, and a bit of sensory overload at times. Even kids who are not on the autism spectrum will recognize the challenges and rewards that come with learning how to be a friend.
Want more on a specific topic? Take a look through our index of more that 300 book lists!