There’s no question that reading to your kids is good for them. It helps them learn to read sooner, enjoy reading throughout their lives, and have larger vocabularies than kids who aren’t read to regularly.
A new study from Ohio State brings the impact of nightly reading home in the form of numbers: by the age of 5, kids who have been read 5 books a day have heard 1.4 million more words than kids who are rarely read to. That’s a lot of words! But the benefits of reading to your kids don’t stop there.
Almost every book is an opportunity for social and emotional learning- whether you’re actively trying to support that growth during storytime or not. Books inherently let us try on another person’s perspective. Boom! Empathy! A book isn’t interesting unless there’s a problem that needs solving. Voila! Problem solving skills! The protagonist in a picture book often displays a range of feelings. Aha! Nonverbal communication cues!
This list could go on and on, but to be honest, there’s just no part of my day I so reliably enjoy as much as snuggled-up bedtime reading. I’m constantly adding to my child’s library, but I’m picky about our books. I require ridiculously pretty illustrations, characters worth acting out later in imaginative play, and nearly poetic language. I prefer books that include people of color, female protagonists,and other underrepresented main characters. I also don’t really enjoy books that are written with the express purpose of teaching a social or emotional lesson. Therapy books rarely meet my criteria.
So I’ve spent a lot of time perusing books, and you don’t have to. Here are ten books that look pretty, sound pretty, engage imagination, and also teach social and emotional lessons without trying too hard. They’re all mom/therapist and four-year-old boy tested and approved.
These books are ones I regularly read with my 4 year old, but all of them easily carry through to the early elementary years. Every kid is different, but I would say this list is most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 8 and adults age 18 through 118.
(Note: I have distilled each book’s message into a short phrase. This grossly oversimplifies some magnificent stories and in no way sums it all up, but it does make it easier for you to read the list and pick a book to try).
(Second note: I have linked to Amazon for simplicity’s sake, but please, for the love of all things holy, go pick these up at a local bookstore if you can. Scrawl in Reston has a great selection of kids’ books!)
Ooko by Esme Shapiro
Message: It’s more fun when you are yourself
This funny and quirky book about a fox named Ooko is a story about trying to change yourself to win approval and finding no joy there. Ooko wants to be like all of the dogs who are beloved by their owners, but once he achieves his goal, he finds that being a dog just isn’t any fun for a fox like him. Just then, Oomi, a raccoon, shows up on the scene and shows Ooko it’s more fun to play with people (animals) who like you for who you are.
The Book of Mistakes by Corinne Luyken
Message: Mistakes can be fabulous things
This one gets me bigtime, every time. Like, I cry every time I read it. As the name suggests, this book is all about mistakes- but it’s all about how mistakes can lead to you finding yourself and creating something beautiful out of the mess. The first page of the book shows the first strokes of a drawing, and by the second page, there is a mistake. By the fourth, the mistake has spurred a good idea. The rest of the book progresses in this way. More and more of an illustration is completed, and each mistake leads to something more beautiful. With sparse illustrations on most every page and even sparser text, this book manages to accomplish something emotionally moving, creatively inspiring, and mistake-affirming while also being peaceful to read. This is a must for the perfectionist kid (or perfectionist you) in your life!
The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes
Message: Help and hope can carry us through
A little tiny boy lives in an unkempt, forgotten garden with his pet worm. Try as he might, he just cannot keep up with all of the work his garden needs to survive. One night, after a back-breaking day of frantic labor, the exhausted little boy whispers a wish for help. “No one heard his little voice, but someone saw his flower.” Inspired by the flower, a human-sized girl begins the clean up effort, and by the time the tiny boy awakes, his garden, tended to with love, is alive and well again. It’s a story of dedication, personal limitations, help, and hope.
Parachute by Danny Parker and Matt Otley
Message: The world can be scary but you don’t need a parachute
This slightly-fantastical-yet-all-to-relatable story about a boy who is afraid of everything is sure to warm your heart. Illustrations drawn from unique perspectives emphasize just how scary the world is to Toby,a little boy who brings his parachute with him everywhere. It is love and concern for his pet dog that eventually leads Toby to conquer his fears without his parachute, and this one moment of bravery loosens the grip of his anxiety.
The Stuff of Stars by Marion Dane Bauer, illustrated by Ekua Holmes
Message: We are all infinitely connected and unique
The winner of the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award and featured on the Washington Post’s list of Best Children’s Books of 2018, this book puts a scientific spin on the classic children’s book message of “you are special.” Emphasizing our connectedness as well as each child’s uniqueness, this book traces each child’s lineage back to the big bang, inspired by Carl Sagan’s famous quote “we are made of star stuff.” The illustrations of this book are truly incredible, and this book is guaranteed to make the scientifically-minded parent smile.
This is Sadie by Sara O’Leary, Illustrated by Julie Morstad
Message: Your imagination can take you anywhere
Sadie is a little girl with a huge imagination. Her creativity carries her around the world, from one adventure to the next. I like that this book doesn’t show adults at all. The entire thing is about how Sadie entertains herself the entire day armed only with stories, her imagination, and a box (a parent can dream, right?). Sweet and simple, this one makes my list for featuring an independent young girl who loves to dream and play on her own.
The Lion and the Bird by Marianne Dubuc
Message: There are seasons of joy and seasons of loss in friendship
Here’s another beautifully-illustrated book that’s short on words and long on meaning. A lion is working in his garden one spring day when he encounters a wounded bird. “Oh! Poor little thing! Lion can’t just leave him there.” So begins a friendship, as lion and bird spend the year together… until the bird’s flock returns in the spring. This little book for little audiences covers huge emotional ground: from worry to joy, love to loss, and sadness to hope. A happy ending, an irresistible friendship, and a highly expressive lion make this one a repeat-read at my home.
Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love
Message: You don’t have to conform to be loved
Julian is a little boy who longs to be a mermaid. His abuela takes him to the pool where he imagines he is a beautiful mermaid with a pink and yellow tail. After returning home, Julian fashions himself a mermaid costume using flowers, a window curtain, and a swipe of lipstick while Abuela is in the shower. When she finds him, there is a pause. Will he be scolded? Shamed? No. He is loved. His Abuela hands him a necklace and walks him down to the Coney Island Mermaid Parade. This book’s vibrant illustrations of people of color in all shapes,sizes, and dress is a welcome addition to our book rotation.
Maurice the Unbeastly by Amy Dixon, Illustrated by Karl James Mountford
Message: The weird features that make you stick out are the ones that make you irreplaceable
Maurice is a beast, but he doesn’t want to act like one. His parents worry that his behaviors are not rude, crude, and loud enough for a monster, so they send him to the “Abominable Academy for Brutish Beasts.” Too melodic, polite, and light-footed for his school, the headmaster threatens to expel Maurice. His peers and teachers finally see Maurice’s worth when he gently and kindly tames a creature the other beasts find terrifying- a fluffy little dog. My son loves that Maurice is encouraged time and time again to act in beastly, naughty ways! For adults, this cheeky book wins with lines such as “His paper, ‘Coaxing Creatures 101: Using the Beast’s Softer Side,” won first prize in the school essay contest,” but it’s most winning feature is how the characteristics that make Maurice different from all the beasts turn out to be the characteristics that make him so lovable and valuable.
I Carry Your Heart With Me by e e cummings, Illustrated by Mati McDonough
Message: You are always with me
Just how Mati McDonough ever figured out that an e e cummings poem would be the perfect salve for kids (and parents!) anxious about separation, I will never know- but I am sure glad that she did. This sweet reinterpretation of the poem gently lulls parent and child alike with the message “i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)/ i am never without it.” It’s the very last book I read with my son each night at bedtime, and if we are having a hard goodbye, the sweet refrain reminds him we are never far apart. Masterful poetry, lovely collage illustrations, and affirmation of the unbreakable parent/child bond. What else could you ask for?
So there’s your peek onto this therapist/mommy/four year old’s bookshelf. Want to up the ante on social emotional learning from bedtime books? Try asking your child questions like:
“How do you think she is feeling?”
“Have you ever felt that way?”
“What do you think he should do?”
Now go read all the words, snuggle all the snuggles, and feel all the feelings! Goodnight!
Ohio State study: