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Picture Books that Build Character


Here is a list of recommended picture books (that build character).

braveireneThe world of the [very] young ... [is] a place where good and evil are clearly stamped.

It's a place where the better part of human nature triumphs over tragedies, and where innocence rides high. - Rosemary Wells

The Black Falcon

Boccaccio. Retold by William Wise.
Illustrated by Gillian Barlow.
Philomel, 1990

FROM BOCCACCIO'S MASTERPIECE, the Decameron, comes this moving story about an impoverished knight's passion for a beautiful woman and his determination to give her the only treasure he possesses his black peregrine falcon. Federigo has long loved Lady Orsini but, because she is married, he vows never to show the least sign of his passion. Then her husband dies and her son falls gravely ill. Desperate to find a cure, she determines to beg Federigo for his falcon the only thing that will raise the boy's spirits. Now Federigo is forced to choose between his loyal companion and the woman he loves. Sumptuously illustrated in bold watercolors, The Black Falcon evokes the very essence of the fourteenth century, a time when honor and selfless love were the hallmarks of chivalry.

The Boy Who Held Back the Sea

Lenny Hort. Illustrated by Thomas Locker.
Dial Books for Young Readers, 1987

AS SOON AS we are introduced to Peter, we know he is a typical child he has been sent to his room for misbehavior! Then the door opens, and instead of the expected punishment, Peter's grandmother comes into the room and offers to tell him a story. Long ago, she tells him, there was a little boy called Jan and he was always getting into trouble. One Sunday, he runs off into the woods instead of going to church. On his way home after a day of mischief, he spots a small leak in the dike. The hole is not very large but even Jan knows that it will not be long before the force of the sea makes it wider, and then the whole town will be washed away. Jan's attempt to warn a passerby comes to nothing after all, Jan is a naughty boy and not to be trusted. Jan's only recourse is to lie down in the ditch and put his finger in the hole. After a whole night of lying facedown in a muddy ditch, Jan is finally discovered and the town is saved. After telling her story, Peter's grandmother does not admonish him. Instead, she lovingly invites him down to dinner. Peter bows his head and resolves to do better ... like Jan. The Boy Who Held Back the Sea is preeminently a story of hope. It is never too late, it tells children, to have a change of heart and do something loving for others. But its wise message is also for adults. Never assume, it tells us, that just because a child has a history of bad behavior, he or she is beyond reform. It is an inspiring story of childhood courage and contrition, and the illustrations alone are almost worth the price of the book! Each page is sumptuously illustrated by the renowned Thomas Locker, whose beautiful oil paintings evoke the art of the Dutch masters, reminding us of a time when life was simpler and the boundary between right and wrong was more clearly defined than it is today.

Brave Irene

Wlliam Steig
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993

WHEN IRENE SEES that her mother is too sick to deliver the dress she has made for the duchess, she volunteers to go to the palace herself. But when she ventures into the howling wind, Irene realizes that this may not be such an easy task after all. And when the dress is torn from her grasp by the wind and she flounders in a deep snowdrift, Irene is tempted to give up. The only thing that keeps her going is the thought of her mother's and the duchess's disappointment if she fails. Whimsically written in the tradition of the fairy tale, Brave Irene is the story of a little girl's love for her mother and how this gives her the courage to persevere despite almost insurmountable odds.

Clancy's Coat

Eve Bunting. Illustrated by Lorinda Bryan Cauley.
Warne, 1984, 48 pages

THE MENDING OF a coat becomes the means by which two Irish neighbors learn how to forgive. Ever since Tippitt's cow, Bridget, got into Clancy's garden and made a mess of things, the two friends haven't spoken a word to each other. But Clancy's coat needs turning, and he won't trust anyone but Tippitt the tailor to do the job. So he grudgingly brings it over. The mending of the coat seems to take forever, because the two men engage in a flow of witty and inventive dialogue. Sharing conversation, good tobacco, and food, they slowly regain their friendship. Clancy's visits are supposedly to check on the progress being made on his coat. The coat never does get mended, but the friendship is renewed. In the meantime each man learns to forgive and to realize that a moment's anger cannot destroy true friendship.

The Clown of God 

Tomie de Paola
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978

ONE OF THE most insistent questions in a child's (or an adult's) life is what to do with the talents he or she has been given. What am I good at? What will I be when I grow up? A child's belief that he or she has something to offer is the basis of hope and of future achievement. The alternative is despair, which can lead to withdrawal or even violence. The Clown of God is an ancient story, first told in the Renaissance, which assures a child that everyone has been given a gift that can bring happiness to others. The orphan boy Giovanni survives by juggling in front of Signor Baptista's vegetable stand, for which he is paid with a bowl of soup. Later, he sees a troupe of traveling players and joins them. As Giovanni matures into manhood, he develops a wonderful act: the grand finale involves juggling a large number of rainbow-colored balls, the last one being golden, "the Sun in the Heavens." One day he meets two Franciscan friars who tell him that "everything sings the glory of God ... even your juggling." Giovanni doesn't pay much attention to the friars. He goes on to play for princes and their courts. But there comes a time when, as an old man, his act is so well known that no one wants him anymore. He stumbles into a Franciscan church, where he sees the townspeople bearing gifts to the Christ Child at Christmas. When the church is deserted he juggles for the Mother and Child the only gift he can give. When he throws up the "Sun in the Heavens" he falls down, dead. When the friars find him, one of them points to the statue of the Christ Child, who is holding the golden ball and smiling.


Shirley Hughes
Mulberry, 1993 (1977)

AS PARENTS, WE have all rejoiced when we witnessed one of our children performing an unselfish act, whether it was pushing a little sister on a swing or helping a baby brother climb the stairs. It reassures us that we are succeeding in the demanding task of teaching our children to develop into compassionate and caring individuals, more concerned with the needs of others than of themselves. Dogger is a story, of just such an act of selfless love. When Dave loses his favorite friend a stuffed toy called Dogger he is heartbroken. Where can it be? Dave's family turns the house upside down in its search ... but to no avail. The next day, Dave is horrified to discover Dogger sitting on a stall at the school fair. But before Dave can get Dogger back, a little girl buys him and refuses to give him up. Then Bella, Dave's older sister, does a remarkable thing; she offers the teddy bear she has just won in a raffle in exchange for Dogger. Childhood is full of these small, but significant, acts of heroism. We actually know of a six-year-old girl who, having just had Dogger read to her by her mother, immediately went and wrapped one of her Mickey Mouse toys in left-over Christmas paper, then presented it to her four-year-old brother. When her mother asked her why she had done this, she replied: "I had two Mickeys and he didn't. So I gave him one of mine, just like Bella."

Elfwyn's Saga

David Wisniewski
Lothrop, 1990

IN MANY OF the best children's stories, it is a child who saves the day. The child's innocence and lack of guile enable him or her to see evil for what it is; the adults are too caught up in their own cares and desires to perceive the dangers that lurk nearby. Elfwyn's Saga is just such a story, a breathtakingly beautiful picture book illustrated with photographic reproductions of paper cutouts. Drawing on ancient Icelandic tales, David Wisniewski tells an original story of Anlaf Haraldson and his people, who claim a rich valley for their dwelling place. Gorm the Grim, who wants the valley for himself, pronounces a curse on Anlaf, and the result is that Anlaf's daughter, Elfwyn, is born blind. Young Elfwyn, however, is beloved of the Hidden Folk, good spirits who can intervene in human affairs. One day Gorm delivers a gift that is supposed to bring reconciliation a huge crystal. But when Anlaf and his people gaze into the crystal, they see visions that make them discontented with their lot in life. Elfwyn's mother, for example, sees herself as a younger, more beautiful woman. Only the blind Elfwyn is protected from the evil of the crystal. She destroys it, and in doing so, she gains her sight, and Gorm is blinded. Children need to be reminded that they possess special qualities that they should never lose such as an innocence that is precious, that must somehow survive the complex process of growing up. Books like this help to instill this belief in their hearts.

The Emperor and the Kite

Jane Yolen. Illustrated by Ed Young.
World, 1967

THE EMPEROR OF China has four sons and four daughters, but the youngest of the daughters is so tiny that no one pays her any attention at all. Djeow Seow, whose name means "the smallest one," cannot compete with her powerful prince brothers or her radiant princess sisters. So she consoles herself by flying a kite. She does this with such intensity that her kite is described as "a flower in the sky" and "a prayer in the wind." But only a passing monk recognizes the beauty of Djeow Seow's kite; he composes a haiku poem for her: "My kite sails upward, / Mounting to the high heavens. / My soul goes on wings." The peace of the kingdom is shattered when evil men kidnap the emperor and rule in his stead. All Djeow Seow's brothers and sisters give up hope and do nothing. But she uses her kite to take food to the high tower where her father is kept. Thanks to a hint from the monk, she figures out a way to rescue her father. In gratitude, the emperor gives her his love, and he is allowed to rule beside him. Jane Yolen's fairy tale is a wonderful affirmation of a small child's loyalty and love. One of the oldest morals in all traditions is that large size, strength, or beauty do not necessarily make for goodness. As a child grows up, confronting older siblings and tired, harried parents, he or she needs to hear this moral. The Caldecott prize winner Ed Young brings his knowledge of Chinese culture to bear on the book's illustrations.

Forest of Dreams

Rosemary Wells. Illustrated by Susan Jeffers.
Dial Books for Young Readers, 1988

FOREST OF DREAMS is a little girl's hymn of thanksgiving for God's marvelous handiwork nature and her own five senses. In winter she says, "God gave me eyes .... To watch the winter sun last every evening one more minute" and we see her frolicking in the snow among the animals of the field. In spring she says, "God lets me ... smell the sunlight burrow softly underground." Illustrated with beautiful paintings by Susan Jeffers, this delightful book is filled with a child's unalloyed joy in nature. We know a young mother who, having given birth to her baby during the long Canadian winter, took her infant daughter out into the garden on a warm day in May. She was astonished when the baby burrowed her nose deep into the young grass to smell it. Although only three months old, that tiny girl, like the little girl in Forest of Dreams, knew a miracle when she smelled it.

The Gold Coin

Alma Flor Ada
Atheneum, 1991, 32 pages

THERE ARE TIMES when we learn something important without seeking that knowledge. There are times, indeed, when we run away from the truth, only to end up stumbling right into it. This original tale, set in Central America, will introduce children to just such an irony. Juan has been a thief for many years: he is pale, stooped, and shriveled because he steals at night. One night he peers into the home of an old woman, Dofia Josefa, and sees her looking at a gold coin. He immediately assumes she is hiding a fortune in gold. When he ransacks her house the next morning, after she has gone out, he finds nothing. The rest of the story tells of his attempt to track her down. Each time he tries to catch up with her, he discovers that he is too late. He is told that Dofia Josefa is a "healer" who has gone on to help the next sick person. In order to get transportation, Juan is forced to work in the fields to enable the farmers to finish their jobs and bring him closer to Dofia Josefa. Children will recognize that the honest work Juan is forced to do begins to change him. The illustrations show Juan's face and figure becoming more natural and healthy. But he pursues Dofia Josefa doggedly, and finally demands all her gold. "Have you come for the gold coin?" she replies. "I have been trying hard to give it to someone who might need it." But, she says, no one will accept it; people are grateful for her skills as a nurse. When she gives him the coin the last thing he expects he is stunned. Then she is called away to deliver a baby. But Juan knows, at last, what to do with that coin.

The Griffin and the Minor Canon

Frank Stockton. Illustrated by Maurice Sendak.
HarperCollins, 1986 (1963), 56 pages

THIS CHARMING TALE of the mythical beast who befriends a minor canon teaches, among other things, that it is not always wise to judge by appearances. When the last griffin on earth hears of a stone griffin carved over the door of a church, he is filled with curiosity. His arrival in the town causes great alarm; who's to say that this fearsome-looking beast won't gobble up all the children for breakfast? Only the minor canon is brave enough, and wise enough, to know that a beast that looks so terrifying on the outside might be as gentle as a lamb on the inside. Masterfully illustrated by the renowned Maurice Sendak, this beautiful story reassures us that it is gentleness of heart, not appearance, that ultimately counts.

The Happy Funeral

Eve Bunting. Illustrated by Vo-Dinh Mal.
HarperCollins, 1982, 40 pages

OVERCOME WITH GRIEF at the death of her beloved grandfather, Laura cannot understand what her mother means when she tells her that he will have a "happy funeral." What's happy about it? she thinks as she sees her grandmother and parents crying. But when she looks at her grandfather's face, she suddenly understands that "when someone ... has lived a good life, he is happy to go .... [Mom] never said it was happy for us to have him go." Laura's understanding of the goodness of her grandfather's life gives her permission to grieve. Set in a Chinese-American community, well known for its reverence for the elderly, The Happy Funeral does not evade the reality of death; rather, it shows how to accept it with wisdom and courage. Any child who has suffered bereavement cannot fail to be comforted by such an honest and compassionate approach.

Harald and the Giant Knight and Harald and the Great Stag

Donald Carrick
Clarion, 1988 (both books)

MEDIEVAL ENGLAND WAS a time of great contrasts: the rich were very powerful and the poor very poor indeed. Harald is a peasant boy whose parents farm a baron's lands. At every turn their simple lives are disrupted by the whims of their feudal lord. In Harald and the Giant Knight, the baron takes over Harald's farm to use as a jousting ring. Up till now Harald has regarded the knights with respect and admiration; now he sees them in a new light. No longer do they appear to be men dedicated to honor and chivalry; instead, they turn out to be nothing more than robbers, intent on their own selfish gratification. In Harald and the Great Stag the baron hunts down a mighty symbol of the forest for mere sport. In both books Harald's inventive wit secretly undermines the baron's destructive plans. In a culture where violence and greed are glorified so extensively by the media, these stories remind us that authentic nobility resides in virtues such as honor and compassion rather than in force of arms or our own selfish desires.

The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Good Cake

Nancy Willard. Illustrated by Richard Jesse Watson.
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990

THE TITLE OF this book is a fairly good indicator of the exuberance to follow. From the marvelous opening sentence "Let me tell you about my angels" to its concluding twist, this is a wild and enchanting parable. A young girl is asked by her mother to bake a mysterious cake for the mother's birthday. The cake was invented by the girl's great-grandmother, who kept the recipe secret, because it "is irresistible to man and beast, woman and bird. I fear it may fall into the wrong hands." But the girl searches in her great-grandmother's diaries and around the house, and finds the recipe. As the sun rises on her mother's birthday, and the girl fears her attempt to bake the cake has been a disaster, she is visited by three rather unconventional angels. In the end, she learns something about the bonds of love that link the generations, and the true nature of giving. Richard Jesse Watson's vibrantly colored illustrations provide the perfect visual counterpart to this inventive tale. Nancy Willard begins her story with a quotation from G.K. Chesterton that sets the tone for what is to come: "Angels fly because they take themselves lightly."

Ida and the Wool Smugglers

Sue Ann Alderson. Illustrated by Ann Blades.
Macmillan, 1988

LONG AGO IN Canada, there lived a little girl called Ida. She was not young enough to sleep in the baby's cradle like her little sister, nor yet old enough to accompany her big brother on the annual sheep run. All she was good for, it seemed, was to carry her mother's freshly baked bread to a neighbor who had just had a baby. "Will Mrs. Springman let me hold the baby?" Ida asks her mother hopefully. There must be something she is big enough to do! But her mother shakes her head. "Probably not," she says. "The Springmans' baby is too small to be passed around to small children." Ida's hopes are dashed again! just as she is about to set off on her errand, Ida's mother warns her of the sheep smugglers and instructs her to run for help if she spots them. How Ida saves her favorite sheep and her two lambs from the smugglers, and how she gets to hold Mrs. Springman's baby after all, complete this satisfying story about a small child's yearning for meaningful responsibility. As all mothers will attest, their children's happiest moments are often spent helping their parents around the house. We have watched a father take his children and a crowd of their friends out into the yard to build a sandbox. Far from getting in his way, they helped him by passing him nails and steadying the pieces of lumber so he could measure them. A year later, their mother reports that playing in the sandbox is still the children's favorite game. It stands to reason; after all, they helped build it!

In My Mother's House (CH)

Ann Nolan Clark. Illustrated by Velino Herrara.
Viking, 1991 (1941), 56 pages

AWARDED THE CALDECOTT Honor Prize for its outstanding illustrations, In My Mother's House is a collection of verse sung by the Tewa children of Tesuque Pueblo near Santa Fe. "In my Mother's house ' " begins one poem, "There is a fireplace: ... The fire is always there, . . . / To keep me warm." Filled with pictures and text that evoke not only the age-old traditions of the Tewa Indians but also the gratitude of a young child who knows himself to be loved and cared for, In My Mother's House gives us a privileged insight into a hard-working and closely knit community of Native Americans. The village and the fields, one child sings ' "make a strong chain, / To hold me close to home, / Where I live, / In my mother's house."

Just Like Max

Karen Ackerman. Illustrated by George Schmidt.
Knopf, 1990, 32 pages

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD Aaron lives in a large brownstone house in New York City. Although an only child, Aaron is never lonely; his grandparents live on the second floor, Aunt Mala lives above him on the third, and, best of all, great-uncle Max lives at the top of the house, on the fourth floor. Uncle Max is special; he is a tailor, and his tiny room is covered with patterns and great colorful bolts of cloth. Aaron loves watching his grandfather at work but, above all, he loves to listen to Uncle Max's stories. Then one day Uncle Max falls sick, and when he returns from the hospital, he has lost the use of his hands. Now Aaron must continue the legacy that Max has bequeathed to him. Years later, another little boy comes into the fourth-floor room: " 'What's that, Uncle Aaron?' he asks, pointing to the page in the typewriter . . . . 'It's about a boy whose uncle was a tailor and a story-teller,' I say softly ... and begin to read." Just Like Max is more than the heart-warming story of an old man's love for a small boy; it is a reminder of the legacy we can leave to our children by the example of our own lives.

King Nimrod's Tower

Leon Garfield. Illustrated by Michael Bragg.
Lothrop, 1982

BASED ON THE biblical story of the Tower of Babel, King Nimrod's Tower relates the consequences of King Nimrod's overweening pride from an unusual perspective -that of a young boy and his irrepressible puppy! In the end, it is the boy and his dog who unwittingly save the people of Babylon from utter destruction. Unwilling to hurt an innocent boy and his dog by destroying the tower, God throws confusion into the workmen by making them speak in different tongues. At that very moment, the boy commands the dog to sit, and then adds as an afterthought, "because I only want to be your friend." Instead of resorting to force like King Nimrod, the boy chose the way of love and humility. By bridging the gap between himself and the dog through friendship, he had unwittingly built a bridge to heaven. God Himself says, "Because My Kingdom of Heaven is better reached ... by a bridge than by a tower."

The King's Fountain

Lloyd Alexander. Illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats.
E. P. Dutton, 1971

THIS VOLUME IS the product of a collaboration between two of our finest creators of books for children. According to the note at the back of this book, as Alexander and Keats talked in Keats's studio one day, they discussed "the need for the individual to act when life demands action." "I wanted to explore ideas of personal responsibility and of people discovering in themselves resources they never expected," says Alexander. The product is The King's Fountain. A poor man discovers that the king plans to build a fountain that takes all of the city's water. He seeks help from a scholar, a merchant, and a blacksmith. None of them can help. The scholar is too caught up in his lofty thoughts. The merchant, despite his way with words, is afraid to confront the king. The blacksmith threatens to smash the castle to pieces an ill-advised plan that would only bring him a term in the king's dungeon. Distraught, the poor man returns to his home. His young daughter suggests that he go to the king himself. He overcomes his fear and marches off to the castle. When he makes his petition, the king threatens to have him killed. But the poor man states his case once more. The king changes his mind, because he recognizes that the poor man has not attempted to use fancy language or force to get his way. Keats's rich, atmospheric acrylic paintings provide a perfect complement to Alexander's simple tale. In the note at the back of the book, Keats and Alexander quote these words from the Jewish thinker Hillel: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?"

The Little Brute Family

Russell Hoban. Illustrated by Lillian Hoban.
Macmillan, 1966

NO ONE IN the Brute family seems to particularly enjoy life. At dinnertime nobody says please or thank you; nobody says, "How delightful!" (Admittedly, the stew of sticks and stones doesn't exactly encourage this!) The little house resounds all day long with growls, grumbles, and snarls. Then one day, Baby Brute finds a good feeling lost in the forest and decides to take it home with him. What happens when the good feeling flies out of his pocket and how the Brute family eventually comes to live in peace and harmony complete this satisfying story. As in all books for very young children, The Little Brute Family's central theme is a wonderfully simple one namely, that good behavior is contagious and that true happiness depends upon the way we treat others. Humorously written and accompanied with delightfully droll illustrations, The Little Brute Family is guaranteed to civilize the brute in any child!

The Little House (C)

Virginia Lee Burton
Houghton Mifflin, 1969 (1942), 40 pages

WE REMEMBER THAT our daughters couldn't get enough of this story when they were very young. They seemed to love the idea of a little house caring about the family that lived inside its walls, and when the little house was swallowed up by the growth of a huge city around it, they invariably shed tears of sympathy. Long considered a classic of children's fiction, The Little House reassures the very young child that permanence and stability are possible, despite a world filled with the pain of separated families and widespread homelessness.

Thie Man Who Kept His Heart in a Bucket

Sonia Levitin. Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney.
Dial Books for Young Readers, 1991

JACK'S HEART HAS been broken once, and he is determined that it will never happen again. Consequently, he keeps his heart in a bucket! A metalworker by trade, he carries his heart around wherever he goes. But for all its safety, his heart is sadly lacking in feeling. When the baker gives him a piece of blackberry pie to taste, he asks him, "What do you feel when you eat my blackberry pie?" "Full" is the prosaic reply. And when a poor peasant woman offers to let Jack hold her baby, he replies, "I cannot hold little things that squirm and cry." Then one day, Jack forgetfully dips his bucket into the river and lo and behold! a beautiful maiden springs out of the river. How the maiden sets Jack a riddle that teaches him how to appreciate blackberry pie, babies, music, and a host of other things completes this delightfully wise tale. The heart cannot be hoarded, the story reminds us. It must be given away if we are to enjoy life's many blessings. In a culture dominated by a psychology of the self, this is liberating indeed!

Marcella's Guardian Angel

Evaline Ness
Holiday House, 1979

MARCELLA'S SCHOOLMATES THINK she has gone crazy! She keeps slapping the back of her neck and craning her head around to look behind her. What they don't know is that Marcella has a guardian angel a pesky little creature that has the uncomfortable habit of telling Marcella precisely what she has done wrong. "RUDE!" she yells when Marcella pushes to the front of the line at the drinking fountain; "STINGY!" when Marcella refuses to share; "LIAR!" "SLOB!" No wonder Marcella wants to send her packing it's not easy having a conscience! How Marcella plays the "flip-flop" game in order to get rid of her guardian angel and, more important, how she comes to reform her selfish ways complete this humorous original story. "Wait a minute," says Marcella at the end of the story. " 'You said "Angel" is your nickname. What's your real name?' 'Marcella,' said Angel."

Ophelia's Shadow Theatre

Michael Ende. Illustrated by Friedrich Hechelmann.
Overlook, 1989

THE GERMAN WRITER Michael Ende has become well known in America for his books The Neverending Story and Momo, both of which have been made into motion pictures. In Ophelia's Shadow Theatre, Ende has created a tale with the power and poignancy of myth, a work that demands comparison with The Golden Key by George MacDonald. (See page 220.) It is a story about the power of the imagination to plumb the depths of human experience, and to deepen our compassion and understanding. Ophelia is an old woman who works as a prompter in a provincial theater; over the years she learns all the world's great comedies and tragedies by heart. But then the theater, a casualty of the television age, closes down. In her loneliness she discovers a shadow named Shady, who is unattached to anyone. Ophelia allows him to become attached to her. Soon other shadows come to her Dark Dismay, All Alone, Nevermore, Sad-and-Sorry. When the shadows begin to quarrel, Ophelia decides to teach them all the plays she knows. Then she takes her shadow theater on the road, to great acclaim. Until one day a shadow named Death comes to her. But her greatest performance is yet to come.

Owl Moon (C)

Jane Yolen. Illustrated by John Schoenherr.
Philomel, 1987

THIS MARVELOUS BOOK, winner of the Caldecott Medal for its outstanding atmospheric illustrations, conveys such a sense of harmony between parent and child that, on publication, it instantly became a classic. A young girl and her father go deep into the snowy woods in search of owls. Silently, hand in hand, under a full moon they listen to the sounds of the night and call to the birds. Suddenly they hear an answering call and a shadow comes swooping out of the woods toward them. They stare transfixed, and afterward, as they trudge home through the snow, they are happy because they have been vouchsafed an experience of the mystery of nature. "When you go owling you don't need words or warm or anything but hope."

Miss Rumphius

Barbara Cooney
Viking, 1988

WINNER OF The American Book Award, Miss Rumphius is the story of one woman's determination to "do something to make the world more beautiful." After traveling around the world in search of beautiful faraway places, Miss Rumphius returns home to her little house by the sea. There she tends her garden and is almost, but not quite, perfectly happy. She cannot forget her grandfather's words that she should try to leave the world a more beautiful place than she found it. Then she hits upon an idea; in the spring she will walk around the countryside scattering hundreds of lupine seeds. When they grow, she will have shared her love of flowers with countless others. By the time her life is almost over, Miss Rumphius has come to be known as the Lupine Lady and is a great favorite with the local children. She tells them stories of all the places she has visited but, most important, she passes on to them her grandfather's wise words of advice. Miss Rumphius is not only about the love of nature, it is about the cultivation of the young so that seeds of virtue will spring up and flourish. Only then, Miss Rumphius tells her great-grandniece, will we have made the world "more beautiful." We also recommend Hattie and the Wild Waves, by the same author.

The Runaway Bunny

Margaret Wise Brown. Illustrated by Clement Hurd.
HarperCollins, 1977 (1942), 40 pages

WE KNOW OF no other author for children who can create such an atmosphere of loving security as Margaret Wise Brown. In The Runaway Bunny she perfectly captures the need of the very young child to assert his independence and at the same time to know that he is cherished and safe. When a little bunny tells his mother that he will run away, she replies that she will always be near him, for she loves him so. "If you become a bird and fly away from me ' " she says, "I will be a tree that you can come home to." This is a marvelous book that warmly asserts the value of motherly love within the protective confines of home.

The Story About Ping

Marjorie Flack and Kurt Wiese
Viking, 1961 (1933), 32 pages

IN ONE OF our favorite childhood stories, we can still remember the picture of Ping the little duck waddling up the gangplank of a boat on the Yangtze River in China. Surrounded by his large family, Ping is blissfully happy until the day he is inadvertently left behind on the shore of the river. Lonely for his mother, father, two sisters, three brothers, eighteen uncles and aunts, and forty-two cousins (we told you it was a large family!), he swims into the middle of the river in search of them. How Ping is found by a small boy, comes close to being eaten for dinner, is rescued by the same boy, and is eventually reunited with his family completes this charming tale. Any child who has experienced the terror of being lost in a crowded shopping mall or in a park cannot fail to sympathize with Ping. Along with Ping and with Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, all children instinctively know that "there is no place like home."

The Story of Ferdinand

Munro Leaf
Puffin, 1977 (1936), 68 pages

ALL THE WORLD knows that Ferdinand the bull is as placid as a lamb and wishes for nothing better than to smell the flowers under the corkwood tree. All but the bullfighters, that is. When Ferdinand is stung by a bee, the men mistake his angry snortings of pained surprise for fierce valor. This charming and wise tale teaches that we should not always judge others by our own, sometimes flawed, standards.

Through Grandpa's Eyes

Patricia MacLachlan Illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray.
Harper Trophy, 1983

THIS HEARTWARMING STORY is about the gift of sight that a grandfather gives his little grandson. But it is no ordinary gift ... for Grandpa is blind. "Where's Nana? " John asks one morning. "Close your eyes, John, and look through my eyes," his grandfather replies, and straightaway John hears pots banging and smells food cooking. His grandmother is in the kitchen fixing breakfast. By looking through Grandpa eyes, John comes to realize that the world is a much more interesting place than he had once thought: he hears more, smells more, feels more. Through Grandpa's Eyes is a story in the tradition of older, wiser cultures than our own. Like the Native American, African, and Asian cultures, it not only illustrates treatment of the elderly with great respect, but also shows that we can learn much from their wisdom if we have the patience and humility to see the world "through [their] eyes."

Thy Friend, Obadiah

Brinton Turkle
Puffin, 1982, 38 pages

SET ON NINETEENTH-CENTURY Nantucket Island, this story is as simple and wise as the Quaker community in which little Obadiah lives. Surrounded by a loving family with four brothers and sisters, Obadiah does not consider himself in need of another friend. The only trouble is that a sea gull seems to have adopted him. When he comes out of the candle maker's, the gull is there. It even follows Obadiah to the meetinghouse on Sunday, and at night keeps vigil on a chimney pot by his bedroom window. "Thee has a friend, Obadiah," his father teases him, but Obadiah is embarrassed by all this attention and refuses to reciprocate the friendship. Then one day the sea gull disappears and, unaccountably, Obadiah misses its loyal presence. When he finds it starving some time later, its beak ensnared by a fishing hook and line, Obadiah repents of his hardness of heart and sets it free. "Mother," he says as he is being tucked into bed that night. "Since I helped him, I'm his friend too." His mother smiles; Obadiah has learned a lesson of friendship.

Tico and the Golden Wings

Leo Lionni
Dragonfly, 1975 (1964)

A FRIEND OF ours remembers this as one of his favorite books in his childhood, and well he may. Lionni's parable about the hopes and dreams of childhood is hauntingly illustrated. As a young bird, Tico has no wings; his friends bring him food and take care of him. He wishes for golden wings, and to his great surprise he gets his wish. But Tico's friends resent his golden wings and shun him. Despite his loneliness, Tico notices the distress of a poor basket maker and offers to help him by giving him one of his golden feathers. Underneath the plucked golden feather is a silky black one, just like the feathers of his friends. Tico goes on to help others in distress, until he has given away all his golden feathers. Though he is now like his friends in outward appearance, and once more accepted by them, Tico knows that he is different, a unique individual. Tico learns that the gifts we are given are valuable only if we share them with others. Our friend, a nonconformist if there ever was one, felt that this book enabled him to cherish his individual identity, while at the same time reminding him to be generous to others.

Tim and Ginger

Edward Ardizzone
Walck, 1965

TIM AND HIS best friend, Ginger, love to play on the beaches at the ocean. Tim also loves to listen to the old boatmen talking about their experiences at sea, but Ginger has little patience for this. "Poof," he says. "I ... know all about the silly old sea." One day Ginger announces he is going shrimping; when Tim begs him to be careful he gives his characteristic response. "I'm not afraid of your silly old tides." But when Ginger doesn't return and the tide starts to come in, Tim begins to worry. Plucking up his courage he borrows a little row-boat and sets out to find his friend. Beautifully illustrated by the renowned Edward Ardizzone, Tim and Ginger is more than a simple story about friendship and courage; it is also a tale that reminds us that pride invariably comes before a fall.

The Tunnel

Anthony Browne
Knopf, 1989

THE TUNNEL IS a contemporary fairy tale; like most fairy tales, it depicts a world in which love and courage can triumph over fear and discord. On the surface, Jack and his sister, Rose, are as different as night and day; Jack lives in the rough-and-tumble world of sports and friends, whereas Rose is a timid and solitary child who lives in an interior world peopled by imaginary characters. They are always fighting. One day, exasperated by their constant bickering, their mother banishes them from the house until lunchtime. Jack immediately begins to look for something to explore and decides to investigate a dark tunnel set in a wall in a junkyard. "Don't go in there.' pleads Rose. "There might be witches ... or goblins." "That's kid's stuff retorts her brother contemptuously and confidently enters the hole. But Rose knows that, like Alice following the White Rabbit, Jack has entered the realm of the imagination, where terrible things can happen to the unwary. Despite her fear, she resolves to save him. This emotionally charged and dramatically illustrated story tells of the often unsung heroisms of childhood, when courage can overcome fear, and of sibling rivalry resolved through a mutual gift of unselfish love.

Wagon Wheels

Barbara Brenner. Illustrated by Bill Bolognese.
HarperCollins, 1984, 64 pages

BASED ON A true story, Wagon Wheels recounts the extraordinary courage of one African-American pioneer family and their search for freedom in the West. When Ed Muldie and his three young sons arrive in Nicodemus, Kansas, they believe that they have finally arrived at their destination. But before they can build a house, the winter is upon them and, as one of their neighbors warns, "Winter in Kansas is mean." With the help of the Osage Indians, the settlement manages to survive the winter but, come spring, Mr. Muldie is determined to move the family to more sheltered terrain. He sets off alone, leaving his sons behind. Then, one day, he sends word for them to join him and gives them directions. With nothing but a rifle to protect them, the boys embark on their journey of one hundred fifty miles. Wagon Wheels is the inspiring story of three boys' courage, and how their trust in their father enables them to make such an arduous and dangerous journey on their own.

Waiting for Hannah

Marisabina Russo
Greenwillow, 1989, 32 pages

ONE DAY LITTLE Hannah asks the question that most young children ask their mothers sooner or later. Pointing to a pregnant lady in a grocery store, she says, "Mama, did you look like that when you were going to have me?" What ensues is the loving recounting of the joyful anticipation felt by Hannah's parents while awaiting her birth. Paralleling the growth of Hannah inside her mother is a morning glory vine that has been planted in her parents' window box. On the day that Hannah is born the morning glory blossoms. "It was a beautiful pink flower" her mother recalls in wonder. This warm, simple tale of the miracle of life reassures the very young child that she has been beloved and cared for by her parents from the very beginning.

The Warrier and the Wiseman

David Wisniewski
Lothrop, 1989

"LONG AGO IN Japan, an emperor had twin sons. They were alike in every feature and gesture, yet very different in nature and temperament." Although both sons are beloved of their father, Tozaemon is a warrior, fierce and brave, whereas Toeman is mild of temperament but wise. In order to decide which son is to rule after him, the emperor sets them a task; they must bring him the five elements earth, wind, fire, air, and water commanded by the five eternal Demons. Whoever does so first, the emperor decides, will be worthy to succeed him. Each brother carries out his quest according to his own particular nature, and with very different results. Tozaemon brings home all five elements, whereas Toeman can manage only one. The emperor is about to confirm Tozaemon as emperor when he becomes aware of a vast army gathered at the gates of his palace in revenge for Tozaemon's destructive method of acquiring the elements. Now only the gentle but quick-witted Toeman can save them. If the story is noteworthy, the unusual illustrations to The Warrior and the Wiseman are even more so. Cut out of art paper with an X-Acto blade (over eight hundred pieces of paper were used!), the illustrations, with their painstaking intricacy, are a reminder that in this world beauty and harmony are achieved more through moral precision than through the use of brute strength.

When I was Young in the Mountains (CH)

Cynthia Rylant. Illustrated by Diane Goode.
Puffin, 1982

"WHEN I WAS young in the mountains" is the refrain that runs through this childhood recollection, weaving together scenes of family worship, mealtimes, quiet evenings on the porch, childhood play, and much more. Narrated in a tone filled with gratitude for a happy childhood and dedicated to the author's grandparents, When I Was Young in the Mountains is a hymn of thanksgiving for the simple joys of family life.

Where the Wild Things Are (C)

Maurice Sendak
Harper Trophy, 1963

LONG CONSIDERED A masterpiece of children's fiction, Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are is much more than a celebration of the glorious anarchy of the imagination. It is a story of how a young boy comes to understand the loneliness his mother feels when he rebels against her firm, though loving, discipline. Banished to his room for bad behavior, Max decides to "run away" to the imaginary kingdom of the "wild things." Here he proves himself more than a match for their wildness, and is promptly made "king of all the wild things." Gleefully, he presides over the "wild rumpus" that ensues a comic equivalent to the havoc he has caused in his home. But once the festivities are over and the monsters are asleep, Max begins to realize that ruling over the wild things is not such an easy task after all, and he begins to feel homesick. When he returns home, he finds that his mother has brought his supper to his room and that "it [is] still hot." Max's relieved smile tells us that parental discipline at a child's misbehavior does not cancel out love and that the sense of estrangement that sometimes follows is only temporary. This story is as much an affirmation of the enduring bonds between parent and child as it is about the wonderful breadth of the imagination.

Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge

Mern Fox. Illustrated by Julie Vivas.
Kane/Miller, 1985

WILFRED GORDON MCDONALD Partridge is incongruously small to have such a big name. But, as we are soon to discover, his young heart is big enough to do justice to it. Living next door to a home for the elderly, Wilfred soon makes friends with all the inhabitants; "Mrs. Jordan who played the organ ... Mr. Tippett who was crazy about cricket," and, best of all, "Miss Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper because she had four names just as he did." Then one day, Wilfred learns that Miss Cooper has lost her memory. "What's a memory?" he asks his father. "Something you remember" is the reply. Dissatisfied with this answer, Wilfred asks all the old people in turn and gets a different answer each time. A memory is something warm," says Mrs. Gordon; "something from long ago," says Mr. Hosking; "something that makes you cry," something that makes you laugh" "something as precious as gold." He is determined to give his friend her memory back and the results are extraordinary. This warm, humorous story about the friendship between a very young boy and a ninety-six-year-old woman reminds us that our memories are the storehouses of all that we are. As the great Saint Augustine said in his Confessions, "The power of the memory is great, O Lord. It is awe-inspiring in its profound and incalculable complexity. Yet it is my mind: it is my self."


Tony Johnston. Illustrated by Lloyd Bloom.
Dial Books for Young Readers, 1991, 32 pages

THERE IS NO overt moral to this story. Rather, its value lies in its simple evocation of the glories of family life and of nature. "Yonder" it begins, and our eye is immediately drawn to a lush sweep of land in the background and, in the foreground, to a single figure riding a black horse. This is a farmer who is soon to be married. He brings his wife to live on the land and they plant a tree to signal the beginning of their new life together. They have many children, and, for each one, a young tree is planted. The trees and the children grow together and, in time, the children's children are playing in their sturdy branches. Life is precious, the story tells us through its simple text and vibrant oil color illustrations. Let us cherish and respect it.

The Young Artist

Thomas Locker
Dial Books for Young Readers, 1989

THIS IS A special book because it deals directly with the central moral issue of art. Is the artist obliged to be honest in his depiction of the world around him? Is art merely a pleasing decoration, or should it tell the truth, regardless of those who are offended by such honesty? An old and accomplished painter takes on a phenomenally talented young man named Adrian as his apprentice. When Adrian is asked to paint a portrait of the king's chef, he experiences for the first time the dilemma about truth in art. The success of this portrait leads the king to commission Adrian to paint his entire court on a huge canvas. All the members of the court, with one exception, demand that Adrian paint them without their blemishes: the stooped duchess wants to be depicted standing erect, and the fat finance minister expects to be shown as a trim and handsome man. Adrian is plunged into despair. His attempts at this flattering portrait are false and unconvincing. Only the young princess refuses to make any demands on Adrian, and her innocence draws him out of his depression. When the king and court storm into Adrian's studio to demand what he is doing, they see dozens of portraits of the princess. The king, despite the outrage of his court, recognizes the beauty of these works and rewards Adrian. Locker's luminous oil paintings, in the tradition of the Dutch masters, make the tale completely convincing. If you have a budding artist in your home, this is the book for him or her.



Kilpatrick, William, & Gregory and Suzanne M. Wolfe. "Picture Books." From the book list in Books That Build Character: A Guide to Teaching Your Child Moral Values Through Stories (New York, Touchstone, 1994), 65-90.

Reprinted by permission of William Kilpatrick, Gregory Wolfe, and Suzanne M. Wolfe.

The Author

kilpatrick1kilpatrickWilliam K. Kilpatrick is Professor Emeritus of Education at Boston College and the author of: Christianity, Islam, and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West, Great Lessons in Virtue and Character: A Treasury of Classic Animal Stories, Books that Build Character: A Guide to Teaching your Child Moral Values Through Stories and Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong. William Kilpatrick is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Gregory and Suzanne M. Wolfe created The Golden Key, an award-winning children's book catalogue, Climb High, Climb Far : Inspiration for Life's Challenges from the World's Great Moral Traditions and Circle of Grace: Praying with and for Your Children

Copyright © 1994 William Kilpatrick, Gregory Wolfe, and Suzanne M. Wolfe
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