Top Ten Books for Young Readers about Encountering Obstacles by Kristine Mraz
“That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.”
It is June in Kindergarten and we are getting ready to say goodbye. It is one of the hardest times of year, for any grade, as little kids try to manage rather big feelings. How many times has a five-year-old been through such a transition, or an eight-year-old for that matter? Much of what they know in their world is about to change. For some, we are the first teacher, the first classroom, the first extended community. Others may have had one or two such transitions before, but no one is exactly an expert at the cycles of the school year. So in my classroom, we do what we all do when faced with times of stress, change, and uncertainty- we turn to stories to help us find a way through.
When my parents went through their divorce, early in my adulthood, I found myself drawn, almost magnetically, to books about failing marriages and their aftermath. I couldn’t stand romantic plots anymore, I found myself wanting to buy large quantities of Nicholas Sparks’ books and burn them. I wasn’t looking to escape I was looking to understand. The stories we read and inhabit are the ways we come to understand the world. Research has shown that the after effects of novels can burn their way into our physical systems for up to five days after we finish the book, but I would anecdotally argue some stay with us forever. (For more on this, see the fascinating article The Brain Effects of a Good Novel at http://www.redorbit.com/news/science/1113038616/reading-book-novel-brain-physiological-biological-changes-stimulation-010313/)
Philippa Perry, a psychoanalyst and author, has written about the importance of stories, especially about the importance of hearing stories that help us find the positive in situations. She writes in her book How to Stay Sane “…if we do not have a mind that is used to hearing good news, we do not have the neural pathways to process such news.” (p 106) Just like any habit, resilience and optimism comes with repeated practice.
This is not to say we read books that make overcoming challenge seem magically easy, as some books can, or that suggest life for children is nothing but sunshine and roses. Rather we borrow and tell stories about characters that help us find a real way through adversity, until we have our own life stories to guide us.
This year I have searched for new books and old books that have something in them our kindergarten community can lean on, and revisit, when we encounter difficulty or something new and unusual. These books are in no way limited to a kindergarten audience, but they are rooted in the very real daily problems that our children face. Children who learn to ways to rebuild (literally) in the block center will become adults who can rebuild just about anything.
Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle by Chris Raschka
This beautifully illustrated picture book tells the story of a girl learning to ride a bicycle. Told in simple text with engaging pictures, we watch her fall and fall and fall until her ultimate success. It takes effort, pep talks, and quite a few tries before she nails it, which is a life lesson every child (and quite a few adults) could stand to hear again and again. In my own classroom, this book served as a touchstone before starting any new challenges. We would think: what helps you learn something new? Oh yes, effort and pep talks and quite a few tries.
Lily The Unicorn by Dallas Clayton
This picture book packs quite a visual punch, with bright colors, scattered text and tons of small details to linger over. Lily is a unicorn that loves new things, adventure, and life. She makes a new friend, Roger, who is essentially her opposite in every way. Roger the penguin’s reluctance comes down to one thing: a fear of failure. Roger is shocked to find out that when you fail, you can get yourself back up and just keep going. This mantra became one we stole for our own in my classroom, as a way to lift each other back up after the inevitable failures every person encounters.
Worm Builds by Kathy Caple
Worm Builds has one line per page, a simple pattern, clear engaging pictures and a huge message. Worm’s block tower keeps getting knocked down and he keeps right on building it back, making it better and more complex each time. He finds a solution to keep his tower up indefinitely that gets a laugh every time. Building blocks can be a metaphor for just about anything, and the message that you can revise your work after it falls to make it even better and stronger is a universal truth.
The Story of Spider-Man by Thomas Macri
I mean, this is Spider-Man so pretty much everyone was a captive audience over this one. This particular edition, with its easy text and simplified origin story, does not gloss over the fact that Peter Parker has some challenges in his life. He doesn’t have friends at school at the beginning and he still doesn’t have friends at the end. However, what he does gain is confidence in himself with his new powers. The pictures add some important subtext about practicing his powers before trying to use them out in the world. Superhero stories in general tend to emphasize effort and persistence, and many children have seen, in movies and in books, that transformation to true power takes time. This was a reference we used again and again in my classroom: Spider-Man didn’t shoot perfect webs on the first try!
Bunny Cakes by Rosemary Wells
Bunny Cakes is an absolute classic for a reason. There are many lenses through which you can enjoy the story, not the least of which is Max’s quest to get his hands on those marshmallow squirters. Much like Worm, Max never backs down from what he wants, but he does get more strategic and thoughtful about how to get it. When the grocer cannot read his note, he tries a different type of writing, when the grocer still doesn’t know what it says, he adapts once again. When he finally adds the picture, and the grocer understands the note, the reader has seen Max take his disappointment and channel it into finding a better way to get what he wants. For us, Max’s journey set a purpose for building flexibility into any practice. Sometimes you don’t get exactly what you want until you try it a few ways.
Ninja! by Arree Chung
This is a new-ish book and instantly became one of the most beloved books in the room. In it, a young Ninja teaches us that Ninja’s have to be brave and courageous in all they do. This book perfectly taps into the imaginative world that many of my own students inhabit and the pictures are engaging and witty. The part of the book that gave us all pause though, is the moment when the young Ninja makes his little sister cry. Countless times in life, we unwittingly step on someone’s feelings. Ninja! takes us through the critical next step of how to rebound from that moment. Creating a character that children identify with from the first page and taking the reader through a story with a very real problem, allows for the reader to take something away from the solution that will work in real life.
Elephants Cannot Dance by Mo Willems
Ahh. Piggie and Gerald, two characters that are absolutely irresistible to kids. I rebuy a set of these books every year. As with all of Mo Willems’ books, the pictures are engaging, the text is simple and clear, and the ideas a reader can draw from the story are varied and powerful. In Elephants Can’t Dance Gerald is certain he cannot dance, but his friend Piggie tries to teach him some moves. Elephant overcomes his fear and finds his groove. For our class, this gave us ways to talk about fear and optimism and trying new things.
Walk On! by Marla Frazee
I have a minor (major) Marla Frazee obsession. Her artwork, her humor, her genuine love and appreciation of kids make each of her books a little gem. Walk On! is a guide for taking first steps, literally, but it figuratively works for just about everything. There are tips and suggestions, and even permission to cry when trying something hard and new. Marla Frazee’s acknowledgment of the frustration inherent in the distance between vision and reality is a necessary part of talking to children about experiencing new and challenging things. It is okay to stop and cry, but it’s what you do next that really matters.
For parents, teachers, and all interested parties:
The Whole Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
This fascinating book is written for any adult that interacts with children. It provides research, anecdotes and strategies for helping children integrate their brains to help them become the most successful children possible. It has an entire section on the importance of storytelling, and has been instrumental in constructing how I respond to children in moments of stress.
How to Stay Sane by Philippa Perry
This short, easy to read, and interesting book gives four areas to focus on to bring balance into your own life. Besides being filled with interesting neuroscience and studies, there are useful techniques and activities to try with yourself, and to adapt for the children you teach.
I’d love to hear what books you have found helpful for children (and yourself) as you encounter all the obstacles life has to offer. Happy reading!
Kristine (Kristi) Mraz is the co-author, with Marjorie Martinelli, of Smarter Charts and the upcoming Smarter Charts for Math, Science, and Social Studies (August 2014). She is currently working on a book about building positive habits of mind with Christine Hertz (available in summer 2015). You can follow her adventures in kindergarten on twitter @MrazKristine.