This series surveys some of the best picture books for children, Christian and non-Christian alike. We pray these roundups would offer opportunities for conversations with children, stir faith in Christ, and point to the things that are good, true, and beautiful.
In the late spring of my third-grade year, my family moved to South Carolina. I still remember how different everything felt the first week in my new school. There were three girls in my homeroom class named Meredith, a name I had never heard in my life and struggled to pronounce.
Two rowdy kids in the line for PE knocked me over, and nobody could remember my name to tell the teacher what had happened. And everyone else in the third grade had just finished reading Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White and were working on their final projects. I scrambled to read the book and catch up on the discussion.
The first time I read Charlotte, the spider’s unexpected salutations to Wilbur, the lonely pig who wants a friend, made me shed a tear of sympathy with Wilbur and gratitude to Charlotte. That initial act of kindness leads to a series of dramatic acts of friendship that define the characters’ lives and deaths. But it was this early scene, with its small, kind overture, that most affected my displaced 8-year-old self and made me long to model Charlotte’s kindness to the new people around me.
Christian kindness, commanded in passages like Ephesians 4:32, is a type of grace that we give out of the abundance of grace given to us. When we give goodness to someone else in a way that was not earned or expected, we shine reflections of the light of God’s immense kindness to us. The picture books in this list work like Charlotte’s Web to model this type of kindness. They show us and our children how to be kind through characters that incarnate acts of courageous or faithful kindness—even when it’s costly or unwelcome. We learn that being kind is both possible and good.
1. Mousie, I Will Read to You by Rachael Cole and Melissa Crowton (2018)
The Story: This book is about a mother mouse teaching her baby mouse to speak and then to read as the baby grows into a child and then a young adult. It’s clear that the process takes years and innumerable acts of care and investment, punctuated by moments of wonder.
Why We Like It: Mousie, I Will Read to You is actually a book about language development in children, but it provides tender examples of the myriad ways parents or teachers can show acts of kindness to children, who for many of us comprise our primary mission field and ministry opportunity.
The book is also inspiring. I can remember sharing moments described in the book with my kids—reading books to them in the middle of the night when they couldn’t sleep, their first words, hearing them sound out a written word in a book on their own. Now, as my older children enter the teenage years, our family is on a page near the end of Mousie, I Will Read to You: “On a spring evening walk, we will discover that you are taller than me, then talk about the stars, the planets, and where we all come from.” It’s powerful to remember the cumulative goodness of all those small acts.
2. Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña (story) and Christian Robinson (illustrations) (2015)
The Story: Little CJ and his Nana walk out of church every Sunday and board a city bus for a long ride to the end of Market Street in a dirty part of town. During the ride, CJ and Nana interact with the other people on the bus and talk about how they live a little bit differently than other people they know. They ride in a bus rather than a car and do not have fancy music players. Instead, they use the opportunities those choices give them to invest in the people they meet. Last Stop on Market Street is part of the very elite group of books that have won both a Caldecott Honor for illustrations and a Newbery Medal for story.
Why We Like It: This is a book about finding magic in city trees, in bus fares, in music, and in the people around us. It’s about finding beauty in unexpected places: in a homeless woman’s new hat, in a rainbow over a soup kitchen, and especially in giving our time and attention to others.
3. Knuffle Bunny Free: An Unexpected Diversion by Mo Willems (2010)
The Story: This is the third and final of the Caldecott Award–winning Knuffle Bunny books, which chronicle various adventures of Willem’s daughter Trixie and her toy Knuffle Bunny. The book begins when Trixie loses her beloved bunny on an international flight to Holland and ends with an act of courage and kindness.
Why We Like It: Knuffle Bunny Free takes readers through a surprisingly wide range of emotions. It’s a little hard to think of the book teaching a lesson because the story is so much fun, but it does clearly show that learning to think about other people is an important part of growing up. This is one of my 6 year old’s favorite books, and the picture of Trixie trying her Opa’s coffee in Holland makes my daughter laugh every time.
4. The Lion & the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney (2009)
The Story: Jerry Pinkney became the first African American to be awarded the Caldecott Medal when he created this book for his great-granddaughter. It is a vividly illustrated, nearly wordless retelling of Aesop’s fable about a lion who spares the life of a mouse and later finds his act of kindness repaid.
Why We Like It: In the author’s note at the back of the book, Pinkney says: “As an adult I’ve come to appreciate how both animals are equally large at heart: the courageous mouse, and the lion who must rise above his beastly nature to set his small prey free.” But in addition to the main narrative about two life-saving acts of kindness, the story also has unexpectedly Christian undertones of a powerful being showing undeserved mercy and the recipient of that mercy responding with courage out of gratitude.
5. A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams (1982)
The Story: In this Caldecott Honor book from the Reading Rainbow era, a family works together with their community’s help to rebuild their lives after their house burns down. Each member of the family—Grandma, Mama, and the little girl narrating the story—finds ways to contribute coins to a jar to save up for a big, comfortable chair where Mama can take a load off her feet in the evenings after waiting tables in the Blue Tile Diner.
Why We Like It: The pictures have a bright, splashy, urban feel. The story is about big and small ways that people show kindness when someone has a need, and it shows how a lot of small acts of giving over time can add up to something big.