• Grace McKinney

Have Courage and Be Kind: Books for Brave Children

Readers, I've been holding out on you. I know you've been on pins and needles waiting for the continuation of a series I promised over a year ago (!), but I am here to make good on my word. Thanks for sticking with us, even through such unreliability.

(I jest.)

But, for those of you who have been following this blog for some time, you may recall a post entitled "A Great Conspiracy," in which I outlined a position that Gaby and I hold very dear: story, in terms of literature written for children, should always be prioritized over lesson. Didacticism isn't going away in children's books, but some creators are doing a brilliant job of nestling their messages within narratives that make children want to read them anyway. We're constantly looking for those books, because they can accomplish more than any old thinly-veiled fable.

Here's what I promised in that last post, just to refresh your memory:

"Over the next few months, I'll be sharing lists revolving around particular qualities we hope to share with children—call them elements of character, virtues, morals, whatever you prefer. I polled a group of educators to find out what qualities they consider most important for children to develop, and I'll be using their thoughts to guide me (though a little more help from the people in the back is always welcome!). These books won't necessarily be about peace, and they may not be about community. But they will be books with a close touch on humanity and reality; books that are fleshy, story-filled, and beautiful; books that invite young children to conspire in bettering the world around them."

With that little refresher and a tiny drum roll, I offer you a short list of books that address bravery.

Picture Books on Bravery

I pulled the title for this blog post from a line in Disney's "live-action" Cinderella: Have courage and be kind. This is the wisdom that Cinderella's deceased mother shares with her, and I've found it to actually be very sound and useful. That is, once you've settled into a definition of courage and its close cousin, bravery.

Bravery, fortitude, courage, determination: they seem to be all sides of the same coin. In short, they all imply acting in the face of fear and persevering when the going gets tough.

But how can children, whose littleness often limits their agency in our world, practice bravery? Daily life does not often include grand heroic gestures or daring feats. For children, bravery can more often consist of confronting fear, challenge, and uncertainty in everyday situations as they become more and more independent. Supporting brave children as they develop courage and fortitude gives children the resilience for so many important skills:

Facing mistakes and persevering through challenges. As adults, we can model how we work through our own challenges so that children develop a toolkit for their own. Turning a mistake or an obstacle into an opportunity to learn gives a child the space to fail, try again, and ask for help when they need it.

Trying new things and learning new skills. Novelty can be a source of anxiety for young children! When adults support children with strategies to navigate new situations—meeting new children, trying a new food, or hopping on a two-wheeled bicycle—they feel more empowered and equipped to jump right in.

Choosing acts of kindness and opting to do the right thing. Sometimes the most difficult thing of all is stepping away from the crowd and choosing to do the compassionate thing for others. Bravery may not always be associated with this, but it certainly takes courage for a child to stand up for what's right—especially when no one around them is willing to do the same.

We've selected a small group of books that show bravery in all of these forms, in hopes that the little people in your life can enjoy these stories of triumph and learn to face the trials in their own lives with courage and kindness.

Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall

On the way to the pool, Jabari declares to his dad that today’s the big day: he’s going to jump from the diving board. Well, after he lets a few children go ahead of him in line… and after he does his stretches. His father offers a little bit of comfort and encouragement by sharing the way he handles his own fears: “If I feel a little scared, I take a deep breath and tell myself I am ready.” When Jabari finally makes the leap, he finds that a simple change in perspective can turn a moment of fear into a big splash of fun.

Small in the City by Sydney Smith

In this exquisite, moving picture book, a bundled-up child makes their way through a busy, wintry cityscape. “I know what it’s like to be small in the city,” the child narrator says, speaking to an unknown subject. The child proceeds to share advice about moving through a world that is so much larger and so much noisier than a child’s tiny frame, noting the alleys to avoid and the benches where one can safely take a rest. Courage for many children can simply be the act of learning to navigate the big and busy world in which they live. Small in the City offers a thoughtful glimpse into the nature of a child’s resilience and quiet confidence, reminding us that sometimes bravery can be quite small.

I Walk With Vanessa: A Story of a Simple Act of Kindness by Kerascoët

Hear us out: though the virtue most strongly associated with this wordless picture book is the titular kindness, we’re here to argue that bold kindness is one of the most important kinds of bravery that children (and adults) can practice. A young girl witnesses an alarming example of bullying when a white, blue-eyed boy erupts in the face of a curly-headed, dark-skinned girl, whom we come to know as Vanessa. Troubled by this scene, the girl returns home and wonders what she could do to help. The next morning, Vanessa finds herself walking to school in the company of this brave girl—and nearly every child in her class. The ever-expanding group parades down the street and into the school, demonstrating the power of choosing to stand up instead of choosing to stand aside.

Truman by Jean Reidy, illustrated Lucy Ruth Cummins

Truman is a very small tortoise who lives in the city with “his Sarah.” One day, he notices a few changes in the daily routine: Sarah left more green beans in his bowl than usual, and her backpack today was “particularly big.” After Sarah leaves on the Number 11 bus and doesn’t return for what seems like a very long time, Truman makes a decision: he will go after his Sarah. At a tortoise’s pace, he makes his way out of his tank and treks across the pillows, sofa, and the “endless” rug. Just before he squeezes beneath the door to the outside world, Sarah opens the door and exclaims with delight at her brave pet. Satisfied with his efforts and overjoyed by Sarah’s return, Truman ends the day back in his tank, feeling “peaceful and pensive and proud.” This donut-sized tortoise shows readers that people and pets alike can do remarkable things for the people they love.

Bo the Brave by Bethann Woollvin

For older children more familiar with fairy tale tradition and its usual subjects—damsels in distress, brave knights, and monsters to be slain—Bo the Brave offers a new kind of twist on heroism. Bo’s older brothers, armed with weapons and confidence, head off to conquer the latest terror upon the kingdom, while she’s left home for being “far too little” to help. Not to be stopped, Bo sneaks out to catch a monster of her own. She nearly corners a griffin, but it ends up offering to help her with directions. Before she’s able to capture the terrible kraken, it rescues her from the risk of drowning. Each of the “monsters” she meets along the way surprise her with their helpfulness and generosity, which gives readers an insight into one side of bravery: taking a moment to listen, even in the face of fear.

We'd love to hear—what would you add to this list? And how would you define bravery?

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