Reading with your children is one of the most important things you can do for them. And since this is a topic that I am extremely passionate about, I was absolutely thrilled when my friend Sheri Sankner offered to write a guest post on 20 classic children’s books that teach valuable lessons! In case you missed her first article, she is an experienced elementary school teacher in New York City and a lover of books.
If you need some help guiding the discussion around these or any books with your kids, grab a free copy of my Reading Guide for Parents!
Make sure you let us know what some of your favorites are in the comments at the bottom!
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20 Classic Children’s Books That Teach Valuable Lessons
By Sheri Sankner
Dr. Seuss once wrote: “The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” Reading is a vital gateway to learning. Never has reading been more necessary than in this age of digital distraction and immediate gratification.
Parents are a child’s first teacher. Everyone knows that reading to your child is instrumental in your child’s cognitive development. The American Academy of Pediatrics even “prescribes” that parents read aloud to their infants from birth.
This practice aids in an important part of brain development that occurs in the first three years of a child’s life. Reading to children from the earliest age enhances vocabulary and communication skills. Research studies (reported by NY Times) find reading to children of all ages grooms them to read more on their own and that children who are read to become better readers themselves and perform better overall in school. Reading also helps children develop coping mechanisms and life skills while making real world connections.
Build Character and Confidence With Your Reading Selections
While most picture books are entertaining, it is important to expose your child to quality books that help develop character and conscience. There are a variety of stories that can teach your child lessons about unconditional love, empathy, acceptance, teamwork, family dynamics, understanding, forgiveness, leadership, generosity, bullying and more. Some of these stories can help your child become a better adolescent and adult.
Below is a list and short description of some of my favorite character-building classic books. All of these books I have used in the classroom from pre-K to fifth grade. Most of these can be ordered online, purchased in bookstores, or borrowed from your local public library or school library. Happy reading with your child!
“The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn tells the story of a worried Chester raccoon who does not want to start school in the forest. He is afraid to be separated from his mother until she shares a family secret that eases his mind. This classic story teaches children that it’s all right to be away from their parents because a parent’s love goes with you wherever you go. This is the first in a series of Kissing Hand books that your child will enjoy.
“Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak was a1964 Caldecott Award winner that is still relevant and well-loved Young Max’s adventure with the wild things in a forest that grows in his bedroom is magical and captivating for children of all ages. This story offers a lesson in unconditional love and the realization that “there is no place like home.” Even when you get in trouble, and you lead a royal rumpus, you can always come home where you are loved best of all.
“Good Night Moon” by Margaret Wise Brown is a timeless animal bedtime story for babies and toddlers. Bunny is going to bed in his big green room, but before he goes to sleep, he wants to recognize all the things he loves. It gives your child a sense of comfort at bedtime with it’s lulling rhythm and alternating black and white and color pages. It can also help your child develop a bedtime routine by saying goodnight to his or her favorite things.
“The Runaway Bunny” by Margaret Wise Brown, first published in 1942 and never out of print, is another unforgettable baby bunny story that generations of young children love. In this story, baby bunny keeps running away from his mother in an imaginary game of hide-and-seek. With comforting words and dreamlike, loving illustrations, the bunny’s mother follows and finds her child every time. The story highlights security, peace, and the reassuring consolation of a mother’s unconditional love.
“The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein is the ultimate story of friendship, generosity, and selflessness vs. selfishness. This favorite of children and adults alike is the tale of an apple tree that loves a boy. The tree sacrifices everything for the boy she loves as he becomes a man and his needs increase.
“The Little Engine That Could” by Watty Piper tells the story of a small blue train that has to make it up a steep hill to help a bigger train. All the other larger trains have refused to help, but the blue engine with his “can-do” attitude persists and succeeds. First published in 1930, this book teaches youngsters the value of hard work, persistence, optimism and never giving up.
“Corduroy” by Don Freeman was first published in 1968 and remains a favorite with parents and teachers alike. Cute little teddy bear Corduroy is sitting on a store shelf waiting for a child to love him. Unfortunately, he is missing a button. The story follows his search for that button that will fix his overalls. What he doesn’t realize until the end is that the little girl who buys him, loves him just the way he is. It doesn’t matter to her that he has a flaw and that a piece of him is missing. This story teaches your child acceptance and that no one is perfect. We all have flaws. Our family and friends love us anyway, even with our faults and shortcomings.
“The Rainbow Fish” by Marcus Pfister tells the tale of a beautiful, sparkling but conceited fish that refuses to share his iridescent scales with his friends in the ocean. Blinded by his vanity, the fish ends up with no friends or admirers. Eventually, he learns that friendship means, “sharing is caring.” Your child will love the bright and reflective illustrations and the story of the meaning of friendship. Judging others by the way they look on the outside is not a way to make friends.
“How Full Is Your Bucket? For Kids” by Tom Rath and Mary Reckmeyer uses a metaphor of an invisible bucket for happiness. Each of us has a bucket to fill each day with our words and actions. When our bucket is full, we feel wonderful. But when our bucket is empty, we feel terrible. The main character Felix learns how every interaction with family, friends, and teachers in a day either fills or empties his bucket. He then realizes that everything he says or does to other people fills or empties their buckets as well. Basically, this story teaches your child about kindness and compassion and the old adage “treat others as you want to be treated.”
“Swimmy” by Leo Lionni is the story of a school of small fish and one brave little fish named Swimmy who live deep in the sea. While the ocean is beautiful and full of wonders, it is also a dangerous place. The little fish are afraid to come out of hiding until their friend Swimmy shows them how they can overcome any danger using creativity and teamwork. This timeless favorite was a 1964 Caldecott Award winner, and it’s been a favorite ever since for generations of readers.
“The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle is a best-selling story for younger children. An amusing caterpillar eats his way through the pages of this story, growing and growing until he eventually emerges from his cocoon as a beautiful butterfly. The story teaches children about the benefits of eating well while shedding light on the stages of a butterfly’s metamorphic life.
“The Mixed-Up Chameleon” by Eric Carle is a colorful and humorous story about a chameleon that isn’t happy with his appearance and wants to look more like his friends. He finds he can change his size and color, but after trying on various funny looks, chameleon learns that he is perfect just the way he is. This story teaches your child that everyone has his or her own unique traits and characteristics.
“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” by Judith Viorst chronicles one cranky little boy’s bad day from waking up with gum in his hair to having lunch with no dessert and then a cavity at the dentist and finally ending with lima beans for dinner and kissing on TV. Your child will laugh at Alexander’s adventures while learning the ultimate lesson: things don’t always go your way. Everyone gets crabby when they have a bad day. Luckily, it only lasts for one day!
“Chrysanthemum” by Kevin Henkes helps children cope with childhood teasing and self-esteem issues in an honest and funny way. A little mouse named Chrysanthemum thinks her name is perfect until she goes to Kindergarten and meets Jo, Sam, Max, Bill, and Victoria who tease her unmercifully for being named after a flower. Finally, a music teacher with a flower name of her own makes Chrysanthemum feel special in class, and the students realize it doesn’t matter how many letters are in a name. Acceptance makes everyone feel better.
“Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse” by Kevin Henkes teaches children about taking responsibility for their actions and the power of forgiveness. Lilly loves school and her teacher, Mr. Slinger, until she gets in trouble for showing off her new purse, movie star sunglasses, and shiny quarters outside of sharing time. Slinger confiscates her treasures and Lilly’s anger leads to revenge and eventually regret over her actions. Your child will learn that it’s never too late to say you’re sorry when you make a mistake.
“Sylvester and the Magic Pebble” by William Steig, a Caldecott Medal winning animal tale, follows the adventures of Sylvester, the donkey who finds a magic pebble one day that can make all of his wishes come true. Unfortunately, a fierce lion frightens him on his way home, and he foolishly makes a wish that separates him from his family. When Sylvester is unexpectedly reunited with his mother and father, he realizes a valuable lesson. You should always show love and gratitude for your family. Sometimes family is all you need.
“A Chair For My Mother” by Vera B. Williams celebrates the spirit of a poor, yet loving family that suffers a tragedy. After a fire destroyed their home, Rosa, her mother, and grandmother are forced to rebuild their lives in a new apartment with hand-me-downs from their neighbors, family, and friends. They have the basic furniture that they need like beds and a kitchen table, but Rosa’s hard-working mother dreams of buying a brand new comfortable chair where she can relax after a long day on her feet at the diner. The three women save their coins in a big jar until they have enough to buy the comfortable chair that Rosa’s mother deserves. This heart-warming story spotlights the love in a matriarchal family, the importance of hard work to achieve a goal, and how the generosity of others can lift us up.
“The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss, published in 1971, teaches children about the significance of taking care of our environment, from the forests to the animals to our waterways. With cleverly crafted, whimsical rhymes, unique characters and colorful illustrations, Dr. Seuss’ Lorax warns of the dangers of pollution and industrialization in a world where the beautiful Truffala trees are all being cut down to make way for more things. “Progress” vs. the environment’s natural beauty continues to be a challenge, making this story eternally relevant. The story ends with hope and the realization that “Unless someone like you…cares a whole awful lot…nothing is going to get better…It’s not.”
“The Great Kapok Tree: A Tale of the Amazon Rain Forest” by Lynne Cherry is another beautiful story that will help your child develop a social conscience about our environment. A man with an ax enters the rainforest bent on cutting down a giant kapok tree that is home to many animals. Suddenly the heat overcomes the man, and he naps at the base of a tree, where the animals come to him one by one to tell their stories of their life in the rainforest. They hope to influence him to change his mind and leave the tree alone. The illustrations and words in this book are breathtakingly beautiful, and you can make this read aloud come alive easily by changing your voice to imitate the various animals. It’s always my students’ favorite read aloud by far.
“Oh, The Places You’ll Go” by Dr. Seuss encourages students to find success and self-confidence within themselves as they journey through life’s ups and downs. This book is perfect for life changing events and graduations from preschool on. This inspirational and rhythmically lyrical story speaks of seeing new sights and soaring to great heights as they fulfill their wildest dreams.
So, now you are armed with a list of tried-and-true classic children’s books that will enlighten and enrich your youngster’s life. The next time your child wants to vegetate in front of the television for hours on end or complains that no one wants to play with him, just take out one of these stories and make reading an adventure for the mind, heart, and soul. The great author Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “There is no friend as loyal as a book.”
About the Author
Sheri Sankner, is a published writer and an elementary school teacher in New York City.