Using Books To Teach Tolerance to Young Children

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

When it comes to the importance of tolerance in our society, no one could express the message better than Helen Keller, who said: “The highest result of education is tolerance.” 

Young children look to their parents and caregivers for guidance and support in navigating their world. There is a wealth of literacy resources that adults can use to help youth understand the concepts of acceptance, tolerance, diversity, racism, and compassion. In previous years, tolerance was associated with predominantly ethnic and religious beliefs — now the term encompasses much more. As noted in the article, “Teaching Your Child Tolerance” : “Tolerance means respecting and learning from others, valuing differences, bridging cultural gaps, rejecting unfair stereotypes, discovering common grounds, and creating new bonds. Tolerance, in many ways, is the opposite of prejudice.”

How to select and use literature to teach tolerance to your child

Selecting the appropriate books for your child is important, but how you read the book to your child is just as critical. Books can create a dialogue between you and your child to help them understand all the different people, families, and customs of our world. It is also important to note that there are many books on the market for very specific situations — a young girl that likes to wear unusual clothes, a little boy who likes to dress as a princess, a child with two dads, or one who has a sibling who has autism. Parents and caregivers can find specific books to meet the needs and concerns of their family.

Before reading a book to your child, take a quick read and think of questions or comments to be used before reading, during reading, and after reading the book. For example, before reading the book Everywhere Babies (Susan Meyers, Marla Frazee), ask your child about the babies on the cover of the book. The front cover illustration features babies of different ethnicities all doing different activities. A parent could point out different hair colors and skin tones, and how some babies are crawling, walking, or standing. While reading the book, the parent can point out the different families in the book. This book shows same sex couples, biracial couples, babies with a single parent, and some with siblings. Again, this is an opportunity for dialogue, and the parent can introduce these concepts to their child.

Another great book for discussing the theme of acceptance would be Eggbert: The Slightly Cracked Egg (Tom Ross, Rex Barron). This is a sweet story of an egg that is told to leave the refrigerator because he has a crack in his shell. Eggbert did not know this was a problem until the other foods told him he must leave. During his banishment, Eggbert discovers that there are many wonderful things in the world — some of them have cracks just like him. Again, the important concept is to talk to your child while you are reading this book. During the beginning of the book, ask them if they have ever felt left out because of something about their appearance or personality. Maybe this did not happen to them, but perhaps they have seen it happen to someone else. Take a minute and ask your child how they think that might make someone feel. For example, what if someone was not invited to play on the playground because they had a leg brace? Really take a minute to ask your child if there is someone at school like this — a child who has a feature that others do not like and, therefore, causes them to reject the child. This is an important moment to have with your child, to encourage them to think about others’ feelings.

The story The Brand New Kid (Katie Couric, Marjorie Princeman) tells the common tale of a new boy at school who is teased and ostracized because he looks and talks a little different from his classmates. One little girl is witness to this, but does nothing until she realizes just how much this is affecting him and his family. She ultimately decides to do something positive about the situation. 

There is a great lesson with this book in that a parent can have a discussion with their child before turning to the next page. For example, after reading a page where the students tease the new boy, a parent can ask their child, “How do you think this makes him feel?” or “What would you do to help this situation?” Just remember to have this dialogue as you read the story to make the most of the book as a lesson in tolerance.

Keep in mind that there are also many books available to help your child understand their own unique features, be proud of who they are, and increase their self-esteem. If children do not feel good about themselves, they tend to exhibit negative behaviors toward others. A great example of this would be Invisible Isabelle (Wendy Sefcik). 

Isabelle is a little girl who loves wearing quirky clothes that she has created through her own imagination. When she is ridiculed by her classmates, she makes the decision to blend in with others — essentially making herself invisible. A kindly art teacher encourages her to embrace her unique self and be proud of her special gift. 

While reading this book, a parent can ask their child if they know of any classmate who might be a little different and is teased because of this. Some kids like to wear bright hair ribbons every day, some wear nothing but Angry Birds T-shirts, and others wear mismatched outfits. These are all expressions of individuality and should be embraced, not abandoned. Any discussion a parent has with their child will let them know that not only are their unique qualities important, but so are those of others, and this should be celebrated.

The importance of tolerance in your child’s future

As noted in the article “Teaching Your Child Tolerance,” the lessons parents and caregivers provide to their children serve them well the rest of their lives: “Teaching tolerance is important not just because it is part of our American heritage, but because the person who learns to be open to differences will have more opportunities in education, business, and many other aspects of life.” In order to grow and thrive in today’s world, children and adults alike need to understand and accept others in their society.

Book recommendationsfor toddlers and elementary school children

The Skin You Live In (Michael Tyler and David Csicsko). This sweet book celebrates all the different colors of the human skin with rhyming text and bright, vivid illustrations. The message is that what really matters is what is underneath our skin, not its color.

Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes (Mem Fox, Helen Oxenbury). This story shows how all babies have the same body parts, but yet they are different. Illustrations highlight a variety of babies from around the world.

Snug (Carol Thompson). This is a wonderful book for the very young child to show a variety of different children, and includes glasses and wheelchair use.

Jump! (Carol Thompson). This colorfully illustrated books features a variety of children doing what they love best — being fully active. The illustrations feature children with leg splints, cochlear implants, a head scarf, and a safety helmet.

Everywhere Babies (Susan Meyers, Marla Frazee). This is a sweet book about the love babies receive from their families — all kinds of families. The book features same-sex couples, biracial couples, and many other unique families all showing love for their little ones. It is a great way to introduce young children to the many different kinds of families in the world.

The Brand New Kid (Katie Couric, Marjorie Princeman). A new boy arrives at school and does not fit in because he looks and talks a little different. Events go from bad to worse until a little girl decides to change the situation. A great lesson on how kids can reach out to the new student at school.

Odd Bods (Steven Butler, Jarvis). Bright graphics and whimsical rhyme make this book a treat for young children. The story runs through an alphabetical list of children and their wonderful quirks, such as “Hermione howls at the moon.”

Eggbert: The Slightly Cracked Egg (Tom Ross, Rex Barron). A cracked egg is banished from the refrigerator and sets out on a journey of self-discovery. He soon learns that the world is full of wonderful cracks (The Liberty Bell, a crack in a volcanic mountain) and he learns the important lesson of embracing his flaws.

It’s Okay to be Different (Todd Parr). This is an excellent book for teaching young readers that being different is okay — even eating macaroni and cheese in the bathtub. One picture features a blind person walking with a seeing-eye dog with the caption, “It’s okay to need some help.”

Sam and Pam Can and You Can Too! Series: We Can Help Our Mom, We Can Ride Our Bikes, and We Can Count (Amanda Litz). Sam and Pam are twins and do many things the same — but they are also very different. The books in this series help children to be accepting of differences and embrace their own unique selves.

The Cow That Went OINK (Bernard Most). On this farm, a cow opts to say “oink” instead of “moo,” and this sets the stage for a lesson in tolerance and teaching children that it is OK to be different. 

Two Eggs, Please (Sarah Weeks, Betsy Lewin). In a diner late in the evening, customers all place orders for two eggs — however, they are all different. Some want fried, others poached, others want sunny side up. It is a simple lesson on the similarities and differences of others around us.

And Tango Makes Three (Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell, Henry Cole). This is a delightful story of two Central Park Zoo penguins, Roy and Silo, who create a non-traditional family with the help of a kind zookeeper.

Introducing Teddy (Jessica Walton, Dougal MacPherson). This story deals with a group of friends and one friend confiding his desire to be a girl. The themes of acceptance and friendship are displayed, as well as that of encouraging children to confide in their friends.

Everyone Matters (Pat Thomas, Lesley Harker). This is a non-fiction picture book that explains the importance of being respectful, polite, and honest. The story also outlines how bullies try to force respect as opposed to earning it.

My Princess Boy (Cheryl Kilodavis, Suzanne DeSimone). This nonfiction picture book is based on the author’s son. The story centers around Dyson, a little boy who loves pink, wears dresses, and enjoys wearing his princess tiara. This is a heart-warming story of tolerance, acceptance, and unconditional love.

Invisible Isabelle (Wendy Sefcik). Isabelle becomes invisible after she sheds her creative clothing and blends in with her other classmates. A caring art teacher encourages her to be proud of her creativity and show the world just who she is.

Tyrannosaurus Drip (Julia Donaldson, David Roberts). The underlying themes of bullying, prejudice, and acceptance are covered in this story of a vegetarian T. rex.

Freckleface Strawberry (Julianne Moore, Lelyan Plum). Freckles and red hair make a little girl unhappy — until she learns to embrace her unique features and be proud of who she is.

I Don’t Care!: Learning About Respect (Brian Moses, Mike Gordon). This book is loaded with messages and examples of respect in all kinds of situations.

Not Your Typical Dragon (Dan Bar-el, Tim Bowers). This story centers around Crispin, a 7-year-old dragon who breathes just about everything but fire. This upsets Crispin until the moment comes when his unique ability saves the day. A great lesson for learning to accept who you are — even if it is not what is expected of you.

The Animal Boogie (Debbie Harter). This trip through the Indian Jungle is a lesson in differences and acceptance. There is an accompanying CD with a lively tune of the story.

The Sunflower Sword (Mark Sperring, Mariam Latimer). A young boy and a fire-breathing dragon have an unusual meeting all because of a sunflower. The message is that enemies can truly be friends.

Elmer (David McKee). This story has been around for a long time: Elmer is a patchwork elephant who learns the value of being different.

This Book Belongs to Aye-Aye (Richard Byrne). Aye-Aye is a very unusual looking character who demonstrates that his kindness and intelligence are more important than his looks. There is also an anti-bullying message within the book.

I Can’t Hear Like You (Althea, Bridget Dowty). A young deaf boy shares his experiences with other children. There is quite a bit of information about hearing aids, sign language, and how life is different because of his hearing loss. However, this could help make kids aware of others with physical disabilities with similar situations.

The Sneetches and Other Stories (Dr. Seuss). This collection of silly stories subtly teaches children the lessons of tolerance, diversity, and understanding of other’s differences.

Monsters Not Allowed (Tracey Hammett, Jan McCafferty). This book teaches children that if you give someone a chance, you just might like them.

Giraffes Can’t Dance (Giles Andreae, Guy Parker-Rees). This book contains a great lesson on self-esteem and embracing individual differences. Filled with humorous, rhyming text.

The Great Big Book of Families (Mary Hoffman, Ros Asquith). The book shows all the different kinds of families around the world — using examples of adoption, same-sex parents, children raised by grandparents, and children raised by a mother and father. Children are exposed to how families go to work, do their cooking, run errands, and just go about their normal daily routine.

Shaun the Shy Shark (Neil Griffiths, Peggy Collins). This sweet story features Shaun, a shark who is extremelyshy as opposed to being scary. He meets other sea creatures with the same feelings and learns that it is OK to be who he is. 

Chrysanthemum (Kevin Henkes). This popular picture book shares a story of teasing, self-esteem, and acceptance. Little Chrysanthemum is teased because her name is a flower. This makes her very upset — until she learns the first name of a beloved teacher.

Rabbityness (Jo Empson). Rabbit does typical rabbit activities like cleaning his whiskers and hiding in his burrow, but he also enjoys “non-rabbit” activities.” His friends love his non-rabbit activities and ultimately find their own unique, non-rabbit qualities as well.

Our Stripy Baby (Gillian Shields, Paula Metcalf). A new addition to the family has stripes instead of spots — setting the tone for a story about having a sibling with special needs. Through patience and understanding, a sibling realizes just how truly special their new little addition really is.

Looking After Louis (Lesley Ely, Polly Dunbar). This is a story about a young boy with autisum trying to assimilate into his new classroom. His classmates learn more about Louis and show compassion and understanding. This story helps children learn to accept others who may be different from them.

How Willy Got His Wheels (Deborah Turner). This inspirational book is based on the true story of a disabled Chihuahua and the woman who helps him to walk again. This is an early lesson on teaching young children to show concern and care for others.

Dad David, Baba Chris and Me (Ed Merchant, Rachel Fuller). This is the story of 7-year-old Ben and his two fathers. It introduces children to concepts of adoption, gay parents, bullying, and understanding of different families.

William’s Doll (Charlotte Zolotow, William Pene du Bois). William receives several taunts when he announces that he really wants a doll. William’s understanding grandmother makes him feel accepted and teaches others about acceptance as well.

Elliot Jones Midnight Superhero (Anne Cottringer, Alex T. Smith). Alex has curly red hair and large dark glasses. He is a quiet boy by day and a superhero during the wee hours of the night. This book teaches children to look beyond physical appearance and see that it’s what is inside a person that really counts.

The Sissy Duckling (Harvey Fierstein, Henry Cole). This story deals with Elmer, a duck who does not enjoy doing traditional “boy” things. He would rather bake or create puppet shows instead of playing sports. He ends up saving his father — changing his views and those around him.

Woolbur (Leslie Helakoski, Lee Harper). Woolbur is not like other sheep. He actually wants to play with dogs and he refuses to cut his long hair. This is a delightful story of a young sheep trying to hold onto his individuality.

Amazing Grace (Mary Hoffman, Caroline Binch). Grace faces obstacles when she decides to try out for the part of Peter Pan in the school musical — and is told Peter Pan is not a girl or African-American. This story of hope, support, and determination leads to a memorable performance.

I Wish I Had Glasses Like Rosa (Kathryn Heling, Deborah Hembrook). This story shares the bond between two young girls that goes beyond their difference in skin color. This is a great lesson for what is important in a friendship.

Children Just Like Me (Anabela and Barnabas Kindersley). This book is packed with beautiful and detailed illustrations of children all around the world. Their homes, pets, schools, clothes, food, and families are displayed so children can learn a little bit more about children just like them — but clear across the world.

Goblinheart (Brett Axel, Terra Bidlespacher). A fairy named Julep feels she is a goblin at heart. Julep’s tribe learns to accept and support her decision to be her true self — a goblin.

The Hundred Dresses (Eleanor Estes, Louis Slobodkin). This story deals with the ridicule a young Polish girl faces at school every day because she wears the same dress. Ultimately she leaves the school, which prompts a classmate to declare that she will never stand by and let something like this happen ever again. This is a Newbery Honor winner and features artwork from Caldecott artist Louis Slobodkin.

Don’t Laugh at Me (Steve Seskin, Allen Shamblin, Glin Dibley). “Don’t laugh at me. Don’t call me names. Don’t get your pleasure from my pain.” These are some of the lyrics in this song/story that provide encouragement and inspiration to stop the cycle of bullying.

Be Who You Are (Jennifer Car, Ben Rumback). Nick is a young boy — but feels he should be a girl. Nick finds the support he needs from his family to be the person he was meant to be.

The Story of Ferdinand (Munro Leaf). This is a special story of a big, strong bull that wants nothing more than to sit all day in a peaceful field. This is a wonderful story to discuss what is expected of you versus what you really want.

Smoky Night (Eve Bunting, David Diaz). Seeking shelter from a dangerous riot, city residents are forced to address their prejudices and learn about others in their neighborhood. This Caldecott Medal winner is illustrated with mixed media collages, making the important message visually pleasing as well.

Same, Same But Different (Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw). This story shares the lives of two pen pals, one from the United States and the other from India. The two boys learn about their differences but also their similarities by looking at their homes, how they get to school, and animals in their lives.

Little Blue and Little Yellow (Leo Lionni). This is a simple story of two best friends, Little Blue and Little Yellow. By chance, they discover that when they hug, they make the color green. This is a great lesson for children on the power of friendship and how what they have together is greater than being individual.

The Sandwich Swap (Queen Rania of Jordan Al Abdullah and Kelly DiPucchio). A fight between two friends at a lunchroom table escalates into a battle of intolerance between the “jelly head” vs. the “chickpea brains.” Ultimately, this story is a lesson in accepting differences and creating a more tolerant world.

Whoever You Are (Mem Fox, Leslie Staub). This book is a delightful collection of all the similarities and differences between cultures around the world. Colorful folk art-style illustrations fill the book.