Clean your room, do your homework, listen to your elders... While these are good pieces of advice, memorization and rote obedience are not what ultimately make your children interested, caring, and creative members of the world. Below are 5 important life lessons for kids, and books to help teach each lesson.
Olivia from the Olivia series (by Ian Falconer) is one of my favorite characters for how multidimensional she is. She is just as interested in the opera and ballet as she is in being a monster for Halloween (since she does not want to dress girly). Princess Elizabeth in The Paper Bag Princess (by Robert Munsch) is also a non-traditional female character, as she takes on the role that is typically reserved for male characters (that of dragon-slayer).
Just as children need to learn that it’s okay if they do not fit into a box, they also need to learn about the pleasures (and sometimes difficulties) of being around those who are different than them. Rules (by Cynthia Lord) follows the story of a girl whose brother has an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and how that has impacted her life. Wonder (by R.J. Palacio) is a book about a boy, August, who has an unusual face, and it is told from multiple perspectives so we see how each person’s life is enriched and challenged by August’s difference.
The psychologist Jean Piaget aptly identified children as being naturally egocentric. In other words, they benefit from feeling a sense of responsibility or ownership. While it is not accurate to pretend that children can do everything on their own, self-reliance is an essential life skill. Smile is a graphic novel (by Raina Telgemeier) that is about the dental trials and tribulations of the main character, Raina. Maniac Magee (by Jerry Spinelli) is a tall tale that focuses on the life of Jeffrey “Maniac" Magee, who experiences homelessness and racism, but perseveres.
Despite their egocentrism, children have the capacity to understand that they are members of a community, of a continent, and of the world and universe at large. (This is an important part of Montessori teaching, called Cosmic Education.) Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax highlights the drawbacks of corporatizing and mass production, and the impacts that can have on the environment. Holes (by Louis Sachar) is part Kafka’s The Trial and part Shawshank Redemption. It indirectly critiques many aspects of the justice system, from the questionable fairness of trials to the questionable effectiveness of prisons.
Books can also help teach children just how much fun language can be. Spoon and Chopsticks (by Amy Krouse Rosenthal) are both filled with clever puns and idioms that are sure to make any child or parent chuckle. For older kids, there is no book more into wordplay than the Phantom Tollbooth, which plays with everything from alliteration to rhyming and math words to color words, all while teaching us about growing up.
Beydler, J.A. (2009) Cosmic Education: The Heart of the Montessori Elementary Classroom. Retrieved from: For Small Hands.
Cherry, Kendra. Piaget’s Stages. Retrieved from About.com.
Nodelman, P. & Reimer, M. (2002). The Pleasure of Children’s Literature, 3rd Edition. Winnipeg: Pearson.