March 2nd is National Read Across America Day, a holiday created in honor of the much beloved Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. Generations have grown up reading his books. Who doesn’t know Hop on Pop and The Grinch who Stole Christmas? While Dr. Seuss has said he never wrote his stories with a life lesson in mind, even young kid can easily tease them out. As a kid, I knew very well the Cat in the Hat was a warning about stranger danger and not listening to your parents. Although seriously, who would actually let a crazy looking cat-man into their home?
Everyone has their favorite Dr. Seuss story and one of mine has always been Oh the Places You’ll Go. I was a tomboy growing up and a feminist before I knew what the word even meant. I dreamed of being the first women to do anything and everything. I was constantly trying to convince my parents to let me take on challenges like climbing multiple mountains in one day – seriously. I received a copy of this book when I graduated elementary school and it reinforced my drive to seek out adventures and achieve something great.
In honor of Dr. Seuss, I’m sharing some lesser known children’s books to inspire and empower your kids. Many of these stories feature characters, both imaginary and real, who take on challenges and often struggle, only to come out stronger and/or wiser in the end.
1. A Bad Case of the Stripes by David Shannon
As a former 5th grade teacher, this was one of my favorite books to share with my students. It’s the epic (seriously) story of a girl who loves lima beans but is too embarrassed to admit it, worrying that her classmates will judge her for being weird. The girl, Camilla, gets sick with a case of the “stripes” and the only cure ends up being, you guessed it, eating and admitting to her love of lima beans. Much like Dr. Seuss books, the story is a bit fantastical, but it helps drive home the importance and the challenge of being true to yourself in-spite of peer pressure. While it’s intended for more of a K-2nd grade audience, the moral is universal and the illustrations are vibrant and engaging enough for older children to enjoy.
2. I Am So Brave by Stephen Krensky
This is Stephen Krensky’s 4th book in a series of books written for toddlers. It celebrates the small acts of courage children show when tackling new experiences and trying out new skills. I love the emphasis that bravery isn’t always about grand acts like climbing a mountain or standing up to an aggressive bully; everyone can and should acknowledge their small wins in every day life like petting a dog when you’re a little bit scared. It’s a good reminder, even for adults, that accomplishing small tasks like speaking up in a meeting count as moments of courage.
3. Stand Tall, Molly Lou Mellon by Patty Lovell
Every kid struggles with self doubt. As a girl, I struggled with how I looked. I had thick glasses and wore my brother’s hand-me-downs; I never felt as pretty as the other girls in my class. Molly Lou Melon reminds me of myself in elementary school. She is short and clumsy with buck teeth, but in her case she’s ok with how she looks. Molly’s grandmother teaches her to be proud of who she is and to smile wide with those big buck teeth. No surprise, a bully picks on her on here first day at school, but Molly has the confidence to stand up for herself. She stays true to who she is and shows that there is nothing wrong with being different from others.
4. If I Never Forever Endeavor by Holly Meade
This is the story of a baby bird trying to decide whether or not to try to fly. He worries about whether his wings will work and if he’ll fall and look silly. This book is all about the choices we face, how we reason through what to do, and the possible successes and failures we will encounter. This quote from the book is a lovely reminder: “Spread your wings and fly – you won’t know if you can or cannot do something unless you try.”
1. Sit-in by Andrea Davis Pinkney
This picture book is great to read with older elementary children. It recounts the 1960 Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in, when four college students staged a peaceful protest by sitting at a whites only counter. It became an important moment in the Civil Rights Movement and is very much relevant today with the continued struggles our communities face around racial equity. This story addresses the difficulty of facing hatred and how to choose to respond peacefully while not sacrificing one’s values. It’s a great way to engage children in conversations about social justice and how to calmly and respectfully stand-up for what is right.
2. The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordecai Gerstein
In 1974, French aerialist Philippe Petit stretched a tightrope between the two twin towers of the World Trade Center and spent an hour performing high-wire tricks a quarter mile in the sky. This picture book captures the excitement of the event with beautiful illustrations that help children feel the daring drama of his feat. It’s awe-inspiring to think about the guts, determination, and skill Philippe needed in order to do it. While you probably don’t want to encourage your kids to try something as dangerous as illegally walking on a high wire, the story challenges them to think bigger and bolder about what they want to accomplish. It also invites a conversation about the towers themselves, which may never have existed in their lifetime.
The true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history, is a great one for boys and girls alike. As a woman and an immigrant, Clara was faced with working in a backbreaking job where she and her fellow workers were treated poorly and paid next to nothing. Clara refuses to accept her situation and organizes her fellow women together to demand better. By working together, the women are able to achieve so much more than Clara would have had she tried to fight the situation alone. It’s an interesting exercise to compare the struggles faced by immigrants in the early 1900s to those faced by immigrants today.
Exceling at a sport takes grit and determination, particularly if you’re not blessed with naturally athletic abilities. This book is perfect for children who love and excel at sports, as well as those, like myself, who struggle to find success. Olympian Gertrude Ederle began her swimming career after nearly drowning in a pond. Instead of being paralyzed by a fear of water, she became determined to not only learn the skill but to become the best at the sport. At only seventeen Trudy won three medals at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Not one to rest on her laurels, she decided to swim across the English Channel in fourteen hours, becoming the first woman to accomplish this feat and setting a world record in the process. She is a great example of perseverance and grit, using her fear to motivate herself inside of letting it overtake her.