Positive Character Traits: Top 10 Books about Kindness
We hope you enjoy today’s special guest post by Topher South, an online high school English teacher at Nevada Connections Academy.
Online school isn’t just about learning how to do algebra, memorizing state capitals, doing assignments on time, and being respectful to your teachers (though those are very important!). School, in the end, is about building good grown-ups, about taking kids from before they can even read and turning them into awesome people.
This blog post is the first in a series of posts about character traits that you need to have to be a good person. A character trait is a piece of what makes you who you are, and there are good ones and bad ones, just like with anything else. For example, you can be kind or cruel, and you can be courageous or cowardly.
In many ways, people are simple machines—you get out what you put in. Good stuff in, good stuff out. So, it stands to reason that when you read, what you’re putting in your brain will stick there and leave a mark, changing your character traits, even if only a little bit.
The following ten books have a lot to say about kindness. Kindness is a good thing to think about around this time of year, because we’re now well into the holiday season. Holidays such as Thanksgiving (last month), Hanukkah (December 12–20), Christmas (December 25), Boxing Day (December 26), Kwanzaa (December 26–January 1), and New Year’s Day (January 1) remind us that kindness is a powerful, wonderful thing to have. We celebrate it for almost two months straight after all!
We hope you will use this list during the winter break to keep your students reading, and to remind your whole family to be kind to each other and to people in need.
The Dreidel That Wouldn’t Spin by Durga Yael Bernhard
This is a wonderful book for early readers that will be delightful for kids already acquainted with Hanukkah and its traditions, but it works even better for curious kids who don’t know what Hanukkah is all about. Filled with lovely illustrations and a simple yet weighty story about the importance of having an open heart, this book promises to lead even kids who don’t celebrate the Festival of Lights to ask for a dreidel to spin.
Pablo’s Christmas by Hugo C. Martin and Lee Chapman
This early reader picture book is surprising in its gritty authenticity. Pablo is a little boy in rural Mexico who has to take on extra responsibilities when his father goes off to make extra money before a new baby arrives. The book is perhaps more realistic and serious, even heavier, than some children will be used to, as Pablo’s family’s anxiety and hardship is highlighted unflinchingly throughout. However, the ending, bursting at the seams with kindness and love, feels all the more earned and joyful because of that. Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, the theme of a family surviving struggle while practicing kindness is a lovely addition to the holiday season.
Together for Kwanzaa by Juwanda G. Ford and Shelly Hehenberger
A simple, sweet story that shows how Kwanzaa, like the other wintertime holidays, is built on a foundation of kindness, particularly family kindness. Similar to Pablo’s Christmas, this book’s main character, a young girl named Kayla, is facing a cherished holiday without a beloved member of her family. Gorgeous illustrations and fun details about holiday traditions paint the pages with a lavish resonant story of family kindness and love that will resonate deeply for those who celebrate Kwanzaa, and even for those who may not have even heard of it!
James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl’s opus is full of classic examples of the opposite of kindness. His villains are frequently exaggerated representations of cruelty, and he writes them colorfully—the kind of bad guys you can laugh at even though they’re actually pretty scary. In James and the Giant Peach, Dahl creates horrendously cruel circumstances for the hero, but through the mutual kindness of him and his friends (the eccentric bugs inside a giant peach they ride inside), James perseveres against the loss of his parents, evil aunts, attacking cloud men, hungry sharks, and even more misfortune, proving that it pays to be kind.
Wonder by R. J. Palacio
A middle grade book deftly written to be experienced by very young children, their older siblings, and their parents alike, Wonder is a deeply felt tribute to the power of kindness in the face of deeply unfair circumstances. August is a ten-year-old boy who was born with serious physical deformities and has had to have twenty-seven surgeries, leaving him looking very different from other kids. He’s been homeschooled all his life for fear of how he’d be treated, but for fifth grade, he decides to go to a traditional school. Told from the perspectives of August and various other people in his life, this is a moving, powerful story of why kindness counts.
Smile by Raina Telgemeier
It’d be a big mistake not to include Smile on this list. After all, it’s named after the thing you do when you’re being kind or someone’s being kind to you. This delightful yet very realistic middle grade graphic novel (novel-length comic book) follows sixth grader Raina (yes, this is an autobiography!), who endures an accident that destroys her smile, causing her to go through a long series of dental surgeries and difficulties to bring it back. Funny, sweet, and honest, with phenomenal artwork that truly brings Raina’s world to life, Smile ultimately is about how kindness can sustain one through the most difficult of circumstances.
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
A series of little stories and scenes that add up to something much greater than the sum of its parts, The House on Mango Street follows a family’s joys and sorrows, and triumphs and difficulties, all set in the titular house. Through everything, the glue that holds the characters all together is a deep kindness that runs glowingly through each vignette. During the holidays we sometimes need a reminder of why we love the people we do, and what to do with that love. This book makes a great case for how kindness can be the glue that holds a family together.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Yes, this is the book about kids with cancer. And, yes, it’s extremely sad. But it’s also hilarious, thoughtful, and very touching, all of which comes from the kindness exhibited by Hazel and her friends and family as they deal with the pain and fear of cancer, a trauma no one should have to deal with, let alone kids. The love story is beautiful and honest, the struggles are well-wrought, and the ending is life-affirming—and yes, it’s very kind.
The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
From best-selling author Nicola Yoon comes the New York City–set love story of Natasha, the hyperlogical, scientifically minded daughter of Jamaican immigrants, and Daniel, the touchy-feely son of Korean immigrants, on the day they fall in love with each other in one of the most famous city on earth. The catch? Natasha’s parents brought her to the United States illegally, and at the end of this one jam-packed day, she is going to be deported back to Jamaica. Amazingly heartfelt, with an edge of whimsy, this beautiful work of aching kindness is absolutely worth a read (or two … or three. Kids love to reread favorites!).
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut
This selection is geared toward grown-ups or grown-up-minded high school juniors or seniors. It’s a complex character study of a man who is considered to be lazy, insane, and useless by his superwealthy family, and something of a savior by the people of his hometown, through his work with his absurdly charitable Rosewater Foundation. The characters are often difficult to like, and the book is frequently deeply sorrowful with no easy resolutions. But at its core, the book shows a belief in the power present when one human is kind to another. This belief is summed up in a beautiful speech Mr. Rosewater gives when asked to christen twin babies. I won’t spoil it here—you’ll want to experience it for yourself!
We hope you and your students enjoy these recommended books for all ages. Remember that reading aloud is a great way to support emerging readers and to start a lively discussion with the whole family.
What books do you recommend for teaching children positive character traits? Share your favorites in the comments.