Adversity is something my kids haven’t had to face much of in their lives. They have struggled but not in any great way. While I do know that there will be a time when they will really struggle ( gosh just thinking about that brings tears to my eyes) . I want them to know they are strong that their strength is greater than they know. One way I can show them that while also teaching them empathy is to share books about other children who have faced adversity. All of these books are tough to read, many include extreme adversity , many have left us weeping and that’s not a bad thing. I want my children to put themselves in other people’s shoes and not only feel gratitude for the life they lead but more importantly see that the human spirit is stronger than any challenge.
All book lists include affiliate links.
A Picture Book of Harriet Tubman (Picture Book Biography)by David A. Adler. Often when I am reviewing a book with my kids I will jot down notes. This book had only one note. ” Amazing!!!” I have always known the bare facts about Harriet Tubman and her involvement in The Underground Railroad but I loved being able to learn more at the same time as my son. Our eyes both got wide as we read her incredible story of strength and leadership. My son loved this book as well and I appreciate how the author gives details without getting lost in them. My son told me “She was crazy brave !” and I agree. This is a wonderful book about a real American hero.
A Mama for Owen by Marion Dane Bauer makes me cry every time I read it, and not just because I am pregnant ( this review is from 2010 I am not expecting) It’s a true story about a baby Hippo who lost his mama in the Tsunami that so many other babies both creature and human did . The story is one about friendship , about adoption and about love. See Owen the little Hippo finds Mzee a big old giant tortoise and even though they are different species, and Mzee is a boy, Owen treats him like his mama.
Edited in 2013 – Even though I had read it with my son many times as a toddler when we read it together when he was five and fully aware of the finality of losing a parent it devastated him and I was left feeling terrible. He was very upset by this and I wanted to mention how differently kids can accept books years later because of their greater understanding of the world.
How Many Days to America?: A Thanksgiving Story by Eve Bunting made my heart beat fast and stomach tie in knots. I was so worried for the young family that was fleeing their homeland in a small fishing boat. The book doesn’t tell you exactly where the family is from although it seems like they are from somewhere in the Caribbean. What it does do is provide readers with a sense of the urgency, sadness, and the trials along the way when you are a refugee.
Rudi’s Pond by Eve Bunting is about two friends, one who is sick and dies and the other who is left to grieve. What I liked about this book was that a child dies. OK I hated that too and had to take more than a few moments to compose myself while reading this to my son but it’s a useful book for those who need it. Kids get sick, kids die and this is a good book about ways to remember friends when they do. I think the way that the little girl dealt with her sadness was honest and wonderfully portrayed.
Edwardo the Horriblest Boy in the Whole Wide World by John Burningham is a must read for anyone who is in a position of authority among children, it is a poignant look at what happens when you scold and belittle a child and then what the outcome is when you praise. I have always had a extra special place in my heart for students who act out . It’s rarely not for a reason and this book will help remind anyone how children need understanding more than harsh words and punishment especially when they are being horrible.
The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi is such a lovely book. The main character is Unhei a little girl who has just immigrated from Korea. She is trying to decide on an easy to pronounce American name and her new class helps by offering up suggestions and places them in a name jar. As she gets used to her new surroundings and develops friendships she realizes she doesn’t need an American name after all. I really loved this book because there are so many great lessons about being yourself, about being supportive of friends and about being brave in new situations.
Her Mother’s Face by Roddy Doyle is not really a book for very young children, but I loved it. I would read it with a child who is 6 or older , the text is long, the humor is subtle but the message is fantastic. Set in Ireland , a little girl is silently suffering from her mom’s passing. She doesn’t tell anyone she is sad, she doesn’t tell anyone she can’t remember her mother’s face or that she can’t talk to her dad about her loss. A chance meeting with a young woman in a park changes things for her in the simplest of ways. As the years pass her pain lessens and eventually she is able to talk to her dad who clearly misses her mother desperately too. I like that this book wasn’t about the moment her mom passed away, but rather years later, about how she was trying to hold on to the memories and deal with her grief.
My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by Christine King Farris. Teaching preschoolers about history is tricky, but you can do it, you just have to break it down and give them bits they can relate to. This book does a fantastic job, while reading it I always have to hold in tears, it is just such a unique look at the childhood of a man who’s dreams changed the world. What I love about this book is that the majority of it is about his childhood and children can relate so much more easily to him as a child growing up then simply as this great man on the podium. Kids always love learning that he played pranks on people just like they like to do. The author explains prejudice and segregation in a straightforward and simple way so that children can understand and reflect on how it feels to be treated like that. The book doesn’t ignore the great accomplishments and wonderful man the little boy became but does a wonderful job making Dr. King into a hero your child can feel something in common with , and in return become more interested about.
Rosa by Nikki Giovanni is not so much a biography, but it is most definitely a historical account of one woman who changed a nation. We all know the story of Rosa Parks but no matter how well you know the facts, reading a children’s book about it makes me cry. The author has done a fantastic job setting the stage, explaining how Rosa Parks was not your typical heroine, she was just a seamstress, just like everyone else. This is imperative to the message that a single person can stand up for what is right and make big changes. I also appreciated that the author included so much about the women who spearheaded the bus boycott. I am 36 and I feel inspired reading this as a woman, to think of the power it can have over the younger generation excites me. This would be a wonderful introduction to learning about the civil rights movement for kids 5-10.
Most Loved in All the World by Tonya Cherie Hegamin moved me so much when I read it that I am in tears just reviewing it. It’s heartbreaking in it’s bravery. The story is about a mother who is part of the underground railroad and prepares her daughter for a journey to freedom, without her. When my son and I read this together after reading about the underground railroad he fully grasped the implications that the mother sacrificed her safety for her daughter’s freedom. There weren’t too many dry eyes that bedtime. Even though this is a picture book I think it’s really for the 5-8 year old crowd who can get the deeper meanings and historical significance.
That Summer by Tony Johnson. I read this at the library alone knowing that my 3 year old wasn’t ready for a book about death quite yet. I didn’t even try to conceal my tears, I wasn’t crying I was sobbing. The book is about the summer that one little boy watches his brother Joey get sick and die from Cancer. The author does a masterful job at relating grief, and the sadness of watching someone you love and don’t expect to die, get weak and leave you. As Joey’s condition worsens he learns to quilt and ultimately it’s his brother who finishes his quilt. I can’t rave about this book enough it simply makes the reader get it, as much as you can without ever living this particular nightmare. The line that haunted me was ” I learned a lot that summer, how to grin when your heart is in shreds..” that was the line that forced me into the “ugly cry”.
My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis has been talked about so much I think I had inflated expectations. Don’t get me wrong I think the message is so important and the book does a good job at introducing readers to her son who is different , to how he gets hurt when people laugh at him and how great his family is at accepting him. I like how simply blunt the book is and it should be because the lesson should be about acceptance and allowing people, especially children to express their true self. I think I was expecting more of a story even though I knew it was non fiction. It opened a great dialog with my 5 year old son about how he would treat a male friend if they wanted to dress in a dress- good discussion at our house , worth the read for sure!
Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman by Kathryn Krull Do you know who Wilma Rudolph was? She was the African-American Olympian who became the first American woman ever to win three gold medals at one Olympic Games. But her story is even more amazing that that. She also suffered from Polio as a child and was told she’d never run. Her determination stands out and inspires. I have mentioned many times how my grandmother was an Olympic medalist so this story hits a personal chord for me. I am awed and amazed by how far women have come from their first Olympic games in 1928.
The Story of Anne Frank by Brenda Ralph Lewis impressed me. I struggle with how to tell such a horrifying story to young children. I should explain that this book is not geared for preschoolers, it’s a school age book , but still it’s a daunting task. This book helps break down the facts while including details about this young girl’s personal and family life. This balance of historical facts and Anne’s family life is the key to why this book works. There is so much horror to digest that the little details like how Anne was a bit of a trouble maker, and talked too much in class helps to tune the reader back into the very personal story. I think this is a fantastic precursor to reading Anne Frank: The Diary Of A Young Girl , it will give all the needed background for your older child to fully comprehend and appreciate the diary itself.
Swimmy by Leo Lionni has been a favorite of mine for many years. I love Lionni and how he can weave multiple layers of meaning into a simple story for children. Swimmy is a story about a little fish who lost his family to a giant tuna fish and After grieving he is reminded of all the beautiful things in the ocean and goes on. When he came across a school of fish just like his former one hiding afraid of the big fish he knew he couldn’t let them miss out on all the wonders of the ocean and he rallied them to work as a team. This is a great book for teaching children about the power of bravery and working as a group to combat challenges
Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell is a fabulous book about a little girl who is bullied mercilessly. Molly Lou Melon is all the things that her bully picks on her about . She does sound funny, she is very short and she does have buck teeth but she is also confident and strong and celebrates them in the face of being bullied. I particularly love that her confidence comes from her grandmother who tells her to stand tall and be proud of who she is. This is exactly the message I want to yell from the rooftops to kids. Celebrate who you are! Children love the super fun illustrations by David Catrow which always remind me of Seuss so much so that I have referred to Molly Lou as Cindy Lou Who more than once over the years. If you have never read this book you really must!
Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventorby Emily Arnold McCully is a book that all little girls should read. I think I may buy 20 copies and give them to every girl that invites either one of my kids to their birthday parties. The reason I think this book is so wonderful isn’t because it’s about some woman that is on a coin ( no disrespect Susan…) but because I had never heard of Mattie but I should have, we all should have. Many of her inventions are still in use today… like the paper bag that stays upright. She made history many of us just didn’t know it. Her story of invention, entrepreneurship and strength of character are stunning. She stands up for herself , learns from her mistakes, and follows her passion even though it’s not the easy or even the “only kinda hard” road. All the way she faces challenges and just keeps going. This is far more inspiring than any girl power book that I have read before, and it’s true.
Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki is such an important book for children to read. This book is all about how baseball helped keep children and families busy at Minidoka the internment camp in Idaho during world War Two. A lot of adults don’t know much if anything about this part of American history and this book is a good place to start teaching your child about it. From a child’s perspective readers see the injustice and grief during and after confinement. Although my son knows a good bit about Japanese internment during WWII this book personalized it for him and baseball gave him something to connect him to the boys in the story.
The Blessing Cup by Patricia Polacco made me cry. This book is the story of the author’s great grandmother and her family fleeing Russia as a child during the progroms. There are scary bits when the Czar’s soldiers are attacking the synagog but they are imperative to read. If you decide to read this story with your children you can’t leave them out. The brutality isn’t graphic but it’s important for children to understand why the family had to leave Russia. The goodness they encounter on their way to America will take your breath away and the tea cup that comes to represent this will make you look at your mom’s fine china in a different light. This book is long but appropriately so, I would share it with children in kindergarten or older who can have thoughtful conversations about such a thoughtful book.
Let Them Play (True Story) by Margot Theis Raven and Chris Ellison is an amazing book, it tells the true story of the 1955 State Champion Little League team from South Carolina. The story is heartbreaking and heartwarming all at once as the authors tell the readers about the realities and injustice that this team of little boys faced. They were the first all black all star team who were disqualified from playing in the little league world series because they hadn’t played a single game to become state champs, because all the other teams forfeited. I dare you not to cry, I was a sobbing mess by the end. The book itself is too complex for really little guys, my son had no interest in the text, though he loved the pictures. All kids old enough though should take a look, and be prepared to answer some tough questions about why people were so mean. Wonderful wonderful, important book!
My Name Is Yoon by Helen Recorvits is a book about a little girl from Korea who is adjusting to her new life in America. When her father shows her how to spell her name in English she doesn’t like how it looks. It’s different, just like she is in her new country. At school she doesn’t write her name even though she is able, instead she experiments with other words wondering how her teacher will react when she does. Her teacher is patient and Yoon eventually decides that while her name may look different it is still her name and still has the same meaning. The illustrations have an amazing dreamlike perspective to them and balance out the big emotions in the text.
I Will Come Back for You: A Family in Hiding During World War II
by Marisabina Russo, is based on a true story of a Italian Jewish family who have to hide from the Nazi’s during World War II. The book looks like an everyday picture book but the content is mature. The family hides while their father is detained.The focus is on the bravery and kindness of the helpers but it doesn’t shy away from the realities of war. Only three members of the author’s family make it to America and there are even real photographs of the author’s family which personalizes this story for readers.
The Gardener by Sarah Stewart Is a really touching book that I would happily recommend for school age children. It’s a beautiful story about a little girl during the depression who is shipped to the city to work in her uncle’s bakery because both her parents are out of work. She is obviously nervous but knows that it’s something she has to do. She takes a little of the country with her in seed packets which she plants in the city while she learns about baking and becomes friends with her uncle’s employees. This is more a story about making the most of hard times, and would be a great way to talk about the Great Depression with your child. There are so many little things in the illustrations by David Small to talk about , from a picture of FDR to traveling by train and the general sense of sadness . It doesn’t leave you depressed though, its message is ultimately one of hope.
Amos & Boris by William Steig is a touching story about the power of an unlikely friendship and helping others. Amos is a mouse who is rescued by Boris a whale when he goes overboard in the middle of the ocean. After the rescue they develop a tender friendship despite their obvious differences and go on their separate ways with full hearts. Many years later though it is Amos’ turn to rescue Boris and we are all reminded that size does not equal ability to help a friend. This book is the odd one out on this list. My son actually started crying when I read it to him a few months ago ( not the first time we read it) and then after he explained that he was worried they’d never see each other ever again it clicked he was finally old enough to get that, and I wept.
Angel Child, Dragon Child by Michele Maria Surat is a heart wrenching and honest look at the struggles of a young girl from Vietnam as she goes to school in America. The story talks about her mother being far away and as a reader you think that maybe it’s because she is back visiting family in Vietnam. After being put in detention for fighting with a bully it comes out that they didn’t have enough money for all the children and mom to join their father. The bully turned friend helps raise money to bring her mom to America so the family can be reunited. It’s a great lesson for children about being empathetic and realizing that others may be facing struggles much greater than they let on.
Oliver’s Game (Tavares baseball books)by Matt Tavares is a great book. I will say that while this is a picture book it’s not really for preschoolers, a few might get the messages of disappointment, sadness ,and sacrifice. The story is about a grandfather who shares his big league experience with his grandson. What’s so sad about that? Well in the story the grandfather’s dreams were cut short by World War Two. My 7 year old and I had fantastic discussions after reading this book together and it was easy for him to relate this story to other stories of sacrifice and making the most of what you are given. Love this book!
Hair for Mama by Kelly A. Tinkham is beautiful. The story is about a little boy who is desperate to find some hair for his mama who has lost hers to chemotherapy. Marcus wants mama to be in the family photo but she doesn’t want to be the way she looks. His mission comes to a climax when he shaves off all his own hair hoping to give it to his mama. When the barber sweeps it up with the other hair on the floor Marcus is heart broken and goes home in tears. I was sobbing reading this, I knew it was a story about a mom having cancer but the way the author wrote it , it was magical. The complex emotions this little boy felt for his mom and she for him, jumped off the page and you can’t help but cry. I wasn’t sad ,I was touched by the love and desire to fix his mom and make everything better, and his parents tenderness to his feelings. I can’t recommend this book more highly. I should note that this is not a book for toddlers, I would probably wait until a child is 4-5 before reading them this gem.