We can teach our kids to deepen their kindness simply by reading them great books.

Paula Zamora-Gonzalez, is the lower school librarian at Friends Seminary in Manhattan.  I was lucky enough to interview her about the books that she loves.

Meeting Paula was a dream.  Ever since I saw The Music Man, I’ve wanted to be, or at least be friends with, a librarian! Then I was an English major at Wesleyan and really geeked out over books.  Often Nathaniel has to drag me away from the children’s section of the library.  I just can’t get enough.  Books are the springboard for the dramatic play and the impetus for the great theater that we make at Child’s Play NY.

During our time together I really picked Paula’s brain about kids literature.  She gave me (and in turn, you!) the scoop on the best books to build empathy, encourage reluctant readers and even the best wordless books.

Books stir our emotions, spark our curiosity, create lasting memories, and become portals to other worlds.  In some cases, a book can whip our conscience, shift our perspective, or activate our feelings so we stand up and change the world for the better.  The right book can stir a child’s empathy better than and lesson or lecture ever could.  And the right book matched with the right child can be the gateway to opening his heart to humanity.

– Michele Borba, Ed.D, UnSelfie: Why Empathic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World

The fact that she is surrounded by young readers all day long makes Paula uniquely qualified to speak about the best books out there.  Besides this, she has such a down-to-earth way of imparting her wisdom.   I’m sure you’ll appreciate hearing about this great kid lit that builds compassion, perspective-taking and, above all, kindness in our kids.

Before you read, check out my post on creative ways to turn books into playtime.

Click below to watch the video, or read the the transcript of the interview with Paula to learn about the different books!

Picture Books Get Us Specific About Kindness

“So I do feel like there is this interesting phenomenon that’s happening where we are talking about kindness in this kind of generic way that feels a little bit empty.
Of course, no one’s going to argue that we shouldn’t be kind. Yes, we should be kind.

But why and how and the specifics of it I think can be a little bit difficult to approach, especially because it really means having understanding. Like, how can we be kind without having understanding? Which to me is really what empathy is about.

Empathy has kind of become a buzzword. But really being able to understand the circumstances that lead to a person’s experience can be so difficult for us because any one of us only has our set of experiences. That’s really where we turn to picture books to anchor our conversations and to extend our conversation. So, there are a few books that I find very impressive and very helpful (and also beautiful and very enjoyable!) Let me introduce you to them.”

Last Stop on Market Street

Staying Present.  Togetherness.  Community.

“So, this one is no buried treasure.  It won the Newbery Award last year. It is called, Last Stop on Market Street written by Matt de la Pena, who is usually a chapter book writing author, but he made this incredible picture book.

This is all about this boy, CJ, who is taking the bus on a rainy day with his Nana and just wishing: Why don’t they have a car? Look how happy his friends look! Why they have to wait in the rain? Just feeling kind of covetous of other people’s experiences. But Nana doesn’t miss a beat. She brings CJ back and really anchors him in the experiences that they are having and shows him how they are special experiences as well.

I feel like even as an adult, especially as a city dweller, it is so easy to feel inconvenienced by our urban circumstances. What I love about this book, is that it really strips away this idea of better or worse, more or less than, and anchors it back in the relationship and the experience that CJ is having with his nana.

When CJ finds himself dreaming of these things that are just not part of his life, she really reels him back into the moment to emphasize the fact that it’s about their time together. It’s about where they’re going together.  I won’t reveal to you where it is that they are going. But the whole trajectory of the story mirrors our understanding of how we fit into a larger community and what our role is within that.”

Extra Yarn

Kindness.  Sharing.  Considering other people’s experiences.

“One of my favorite author-illustrator combinations is Mac Barnett and John Klassen.  They have this really incredible way of sneaking humor into the crevices of every story but not sacrificing heart for that comedy.

This book, Extra Yarn, I love: about a girl, Annabel, who just happens upon a magic box of yarn.

She starts starts knitting.  Her little drab town starts transforming as she knits.

She doesn’t just knit something for herself, she has extra yarn so she starts knitting for her dog. Even the naysayers, the people who are making fun, she just knits something for them too. Her classmates, the teacher, the neighbors that don’t even wear pants, they get knitted goods! She keeps going and she keeps going. There’s this image in here that I absolutely love of the whole town just completely transformed by the magic yarn.

But you know if we dig a little bit deeper and ask even our youngest students: “What is that yarn and what does it stand for?” They can pick up on these themes of kindness, of sharing, of considering other people’s experiences. I won’t tell you exactly what happened but Annabelle’s magic yarn catches the eye of a very wicked Archduke who comes and tries to steal it away from her. Rest assured, it winds up in good hands but not without some travails along the way.”

My Name is Sangoel

Identity. Understanding big issues through empathy.

“This book, My Name is Sangoel, (by Karen Williams and Khadra Mohammed) it’s not a new book, but it’s new to me, and I just I can’t put it in enough people’s hands. It has really blown my mind.

It is the story of Sangoel, this young boy, who has just immigrated to the United States with his mom and sister. Sangoel and his family are Dinka. They are from Sudan and before leaving for the refugee camp, one of the elders in the town reminds him: “Your name is a part of our Dinka tradition.” He emboldens him to remember that, that his name is a strong part of his identity.

The thing is, once Sangoel and his family reached the US, even though they are extended a lot of generosity and kindness from strangers (and they are they are grateful and appreciative), one thing that keeps happening is that the kids in his class are mispronouncing his name constantly. He can’t seem to muster up the courage to correct them until, lo and behold, he comes up with this brilliant idea to actually illustrate his name so that all the students can pronounce it correctly. And, in fact, they start doing the same with their own names to illustrate the pronunciation of their names.

It’s a simple straightforward story. But what I love about it is that it brings up all of the larger questions of “Why do people immigrate? What is instability in someone’s home? What is a refugee? What’s a refugee camp? Why do we have refugees? What are our responsibilities?” Those are maybe not developmentally appropriate for young students. But the experience of relating to someone who is in an uncomfortable situation, who is feeling newness, who’s feeling discomfort, those are things that most children can pull on. And it’s just a matter of extending those to a larger circumstance. And that’s something I think this book does really beautifully.”

How to Heal A Broken Wing

How one act of kindness can go so far.

“The last book that I’ll tell you about is this very sweet story, How to Heal a Broken Wing by Bob Graham.
The thing that I love about this book so much is I feel like often, as New Yorkers, we are rushing around, just trying to take care of our business as quickly as possible. That is the feeling that we get at the beginning of this story.  Until this one small child notices a bird with a broken wing that was hurt in the middle of this very busy moment. The child pauses and picks it up.   It’s only in that that moment, of stopping and extending his kindness, that the mom starts to notice. And the whole family becomes invested in the care taking of this pigeon.

I just think it’s a beautiful illustration of how one act of kindness can go so far. And for our young students, I think it’s incredibly powerful to remind them that there is a scope of consequence that we can all affect.

So these larger questions of ‘How can we bring about world peace??’ Okay, I don’t know how to tackle that! But I do know how to reinforce these acts of kindness through understanding. That is, I think, the best thing that we can hope for for our youngest students. Picture books are a great way to do that.”

Reading Games for Kindness

Make sure you read playfully with your child.  Watch this video for parents and teachers to learn some tips on how to “play your books!”.

Thanks as always for watching, reading and sharing.

If you have books you love that foster kindness in kids, please chime in below!


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