Books that Teach Toddlers Life Lessons

My daughter has a lot of great books, but very few of them contain clear lessons about, well, take your pick — morals, ethics, values or social conduct. The bulk of our books could be boiled down to pushing imagination, school-type education or humor.

This is important because toddlerhood is perhaps the most malleable period in a kid’s life for teaching values in an overt manner, such as with books. As they say, these are the formative years. From time to time when our daughter does something wrong or right we will even draw a parallel to an event in one of her books.

So, I’d like to share some of our lesson books and hear about books from your child’s library.

Photo of the book cover of The Little Engine that Could.

1. All the Engines that Wouldn’t by Watty Piper — Also known as The Little Engine That Could. This classic story follows the plight of a train full of toys that breaks down, leaving a mountain between the toys and their destination town where anxious boys and girls are waiting.

From my childhood, I remember this story being about the brave little engine that made it over the mountain pass, reciting the mantra, "I think I can; I think I can."

As a parent, this story is more about all of the engines who encountered the toys and chose not to help. Not only that, but they were rude in their refusals.

Honey, would you have helped those toys? Why? If you couldn’t help, what would you say to them?

Photo of the book cover of The Doorbell Rang.

2. The Doorbell Rang by Path Hutchins — This is such a simple story it doesn’t require explicit discussion.

Sam and Victoria are preparing to share a plate full of cookies that their mom baked. Given 12 cookies, they deduce they can each eat six, but then the doorbell rings and in walk two neighborhood kids.

"You can share the cookies," their mother says. Now they figure everyone gets three cookies… but then the doorbell rings. And so on.

By the end of the story there are 12 kids each planning to have one cookie when the doorbell rings. "Perhaps you’d better eat them before we open the door," the mother said. "We’ll wait," said Sam. And in walks Grandma with an enormous tray of cookies.

Photo of the book cover of A Friend for Growl Bear.

3. A Friend for Growl Bear (out of print) by Margo Austin — This is a story about a misunderstood baby bear.

He growls at everyone, and the woodland creatures won’t play with him because they don’t want to get bitten.

When an owl encounters the bear, the owl decides he is no threat because he has no teeth, and so the owl informs all the other animals.

Good news? No. This leads to a huge backlash, with the forest animals insulting, pushing and pelting the bear.

Later, the owl learns Growl Bear growls because he hasn’t learned to talk, and from then on the bear has lots of friends. In other words, don’t judge a book by its cover.

Honey, when Rabbit pushed Growl Bear in the water, was that a good thing to do? What could he have done instead?

Photo of the book cover of Rainbow Fish and the Big Blue Whale.

4A. The Rainbow Fish by Marucs Pfister is the first in a series. It’s also the worst one. Our pompous main character is too beautiful to play with the other fish, but is bothered when he learns no one likes him. A wise octopus advises him, "Give away your shining scales. You won’t be as beautiful, but you will have friends."

At first, it sounded like a story about sharing. Then I realized this jerk fish needed an attitude adjustment, but instead he bought friends.

4B. Rainbow Fish to the Rescue is a little better. When a dull, ordinary fish wants to play with Rainbow and his friends, he gets excluded. As Rainbow starts to question being a jerk to the new fish, a shark swims by. Rainbow and his friends hide, then save the dull fish from the shark and later choose to play with the oddball. Umm, okay.

4C. Rainbow Fish and the Big Blue Whale finally nails proper social conduct. Rainbow and his friends are afraid of a whale lingering in the area, so they treat the whale poorly. Accordingly, the whale is mean in return. The fighting ends up scaring away the krill—the food source for everyone involved. Rainbow then talks to the whale, realizes everyone misunderstood each other, and they swim off as friends looking for a new home where there will be plenty of krill to eat.

Honey, what should Rainbow have done when he saw the whale for the first time? What do you do when you see a new kid at the playground or at school?

Photo of the book cover of Joseph Had a Little Overcoat.

5. Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback — Based on a Yiddish song, this story follows Joseph’s inventive reuse of an overcoat.

As the overcoat wears over time, he turns it into a jacket, vest, scarf, necktie, handkerchief and finally a button. When the button is gone, he writes a book about it…. "which shows… you can always make something out of nothing."

Honey, can you think of something you reuse? How about the craft projects you do using toilet paper tubes? And aren’t you saving some of your old clothes for the new baby? Hey, and mom is resewing (repairing blown elastic on) your diapers so they can be used by the new baby.

6A. Winnie the Pooh – Lessons from the Hundred-Acre Wood (out of print, Advance Publishers, 2000) — I’m on record despising licensed characters, but I came across two great series of discontinued Pooh books and I relented. The first is 19 volumes with titles such as, "Make the Best of It," "Giving is the Best Gift," "Hooray for Teamwork," and "Fun is Where You Find It."

6B. Disney’s Out and About with Pooh – A Grow and Learn Library (out of print, Advance Publishers, 1996) — This 19 volume set teaches lessons a bit more indirectly, but includes a Parent’s Guide volume filled with ideas for discussing and using the stories after the reading is done.

I’m disappointed that newer Pooh books are on educational topics such as "Why Don’t Things Fall Up?" and "Does it Float?" Huh? That sounds like a David Letterman segment.

7. Banned: Berenstain Bears — Virtually all of the books in this classic series are about teaching lessons, but after buying four of the books I saw a trend. The mother is wise while the father is portrayed as an inept and dumb. No thank you.

Agree? Disagree? Do any good books in your library come to mind?


12 Responses to “Books that Teach Toddlers Life Lessons”

  1. KC says:

    Aesop’s fables!

    November 14th, 2007 at 5:12 am

  2. redheadedhowler says:

    Love, love, love the Little Engine that Could — we have the original that you have posted here and we also just checked out the version with new illustrations by Loren Long (same text by Watty Piper) from the library. We love the new illustrations and may have to get that version for our own library too!

    Also, (still a bit long for our two year old) we love Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss. “A persons a person no matter how small.”

    November 14th, 2007 at 6:28 am

  3. Patti says:

    I’ve noticed the same point about “The Rainbow Fish” and his buy off plan. I don’t really like that either. I don’t often choose to read that to my son, but for some reason the neighbor kid likes to come over and ask me to read it. When that happens I just try to emphasize sharing as the good point and hope that they’re still too unsophisticated to pick up on the subtext.

    November 14th, 2007 at 7:02 am

  4. trifles says:

    Something we’ve considered in the past is going back to some of the older children’s literature, particularly Maria Edgeworth’s _Early Lessons._ The stories could use a tiny bit of revision (since at times, the parents can come off as unsympathetic/robotic — and also, young children no longer need to have their own needleholders), but otherwise they weather very well. The book can be found online here:

    In looking up her info for this comment (hi, I’m delurking, by the by), I found this quote on Wikipedia regarding her style, and I think it’s spot on:

    The preacher Robert Hall said, “I should class her books as among the most irreligious I have ever read … she does not attack religion, nor inveigh against it, but makes it appear unnecessary by exhibiting perfect virtue without it … No works ever produced so bad an effect on my mind as hers.”

    November 14th, 2007 at 7:15 am

  5. Eric Crampton says:

    The economist’s pick has to be Little Red Hen. If you work hard and folks don’t help you, you don’t have to share with them. Very nice!

    Rainbow Fish I’ve despised. That ruining yourself for others is a source of joy isn’t the kind of lesson I plan on giving.

    November 14th, 2007 at 8:17 am

  6. Eric Crampton says:

    I didn’t think it was available online, but there’s a recent NZ kid’s book that’s rather good. You might remember about four years ago they found a sheep that had escaped shearing for about 5 years — they called him Shrek. His shearing was done live on national television here, and he was visited by the Prime Minister. I’m not lying. The shearing was officiated by Paul Holmes, who was the host of the main news magazine show at the time.

    I was lucky enough to meet Shrek and bask in his royal presence: he made the tour of a few country fairs and such.

    The kids at Tarras elementary school, near Bendigo Station where Shrek was found, put out a book about Shrek. Great fun, and available online at

    I quite like. The kids came up with the story, and sales of the book help fund the school. Warning for city folks — this is country kids’ take on a sheep’s life. Standard practice here has the docking of a sheep’s tail when it’s young, so Shrek does get his tail cut off, but he’s not traumatized by it so neither should be your youngsters.

    November 14th, 2007 at 8:45 am

  7. Kate says:

    Most children’s books have males as the main character. I am a big fan of the “Paper Bag Princess” by Robert Munsch. There is a good list of books for girls here.

    November 14th, 2007 at 8:47 am

  8. Diana says:

    Well, you can’t leave out “Green Eggs and Ham”– great for reinforcing the “try it, you’ll like it” refrain at dinnertime!

    Two of our 4-year old’s favorites would have to be “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” by Judith Viorst (which teaches him that it’s OK to have a bad day and that you can’t really run away from your problems) and new one called “Chowder” by Peter Brown. Chowder is a “quirky” dog who is thought of as “weird” by the other dogs but finally finds some animals in a petting zoo who cherish his unique gifts!

    November 14th, 2007 at 11:05 am

  9. Erin says:

    My toddlers are big fans of the Boynton Books, and I love the message in “But Not the Hippopotamus.” In a little reversal of the “invite odd-ball friends to play with you” theme, the Hippo feels that she is overlooked and ignored, then is finally invited to join the others. She takes a bit of time to realize that she really can be part of the group if she is willing and probably could have been so earlier if she had just asked. It’s basically a toddler book about low self esteem.


    November 14th, 2007 at 1:12 pm

  10. lisa says:

    Swimmy is a classic. A beautiful book with a good message about what we can achieve when we work together.

    November 15th, 2007 at 9:35 pm

  11. Nicki M says:

    LOL! I remember reading a Bernstein Bears book to a little girl i babysat when i was 12. I was even thinking ” i wonder why Papa Bear is so dumb?” One of my favorite books is “Puppies for Sale” about accepting people(and puppies) as they are and not how we think they should be.

    November 16th, 2007 at 11:08 pm

  12. anjii says:

    We love all things Seuss here! The Early Reader collection is great for a condensed bedtime storytime, due to a late night, and the rest are HIGHLY appreciated by our 2 1/2 year old. Even our 3 month old seems to appreciate the rhyme and rhythym when he sits on my lap for reading times with toddler.

    August 28th, 2008 at 3:29 pm

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