A Life Skills Round Up

October 21, 2021 § Leave a comment

On this blog, I have often stressed the importance of intentionality when it comes to sharing books with children. I’ve talked about the value of stocking our bookshelves with stories whose characters and settings and challenges reflect the greater world, not just the tiny slice taking place under our own roof. I’ve discussed the importance of reading stories that push against gender, racial, or religious stereotypes. I’ve hailed the way reading aloud can showcase the richness of language and the nuance of character, encouraging children to see the value of storytelling and expand their own reading choices. I’ve talked about how choosing a book we’ll enjoy reading goes a long way towards making read-aloud time special for our children and sustainable for us.

Children’s books can also be invaluable tools for imparting life skills to our children. The best of these do so by providing us with language for initiating important conversations. How often do we avoid talking to our children about uncomfortable topics because we’re afraid we’ll mess them up? Maybe we don’t realize we should be having these conversations in the first place. I continue to be grateful for the books that are by my side when parenting gets hard and messy.

Today, I discuss three fantastic new picture books that each tackle a different life skill, from taking accountability when we hurt someone, to setting boundaries around our bodies, to recognizing and calling out racism. There was a time when topics like these were relegated to the fringe of the publishing world, so it’s refreshing to see them taken up by innovative, even award-winning creators and supported by mainstream publishers. The result is books that are a joy to read: warm, cheerful, fun, and funny. They aren’t shaming or preachy or even a little bit boring.

I promise you: sharing books like these with our children makes our job as parents a little bit easier.

How to Apologize
by David LaRochelle; illus. Mike Wohnoutka
Ages 3-7

Does anyone else wish they’d learned how to apologize at a much earlier age? Just me? I find apologizing to be one of the hardest—albeit most valuable—life skills to master. To this day, apologizing to those I love makes me uncomfortable. The temptation to explain myself, to justify myself, to sweep it all under the rug, threatens to eclipse my sincerity. I see this when my own kids make mistakes, too, in how frequently they retort, “I’m sorry, BUT…” Still, the more we exercise this muscle, the stronger it becomes.

How to Apologize is a primer on the art of apologizing that never feels didactic. David LaRochelle and Mike Wohnoutka, the same award-winning team behind the clever early reader, See the Cat: Three Stories About a Dog, are no strangers to comedy, and here they balance practical guidance with funny, over-the-top scenarios involving cartoon-like animals. (The book reminds me of this gem, only with more direct language around apologizing.)

“Everyone makes mistakes,” the book begins, as a parachuting penguin crashes through the roof of a bathing alligator. “And when you’ve made a mistake that has hurt someone or something, the right thing to do is apologize.” Mistakes both accidental—a cat gets his kite tangled around his menacing bulldog neighbor—and intentional—a giraffe borrows socks without permission—are covered, as is the fact that apologizing can be especially daunting when the other person is steaming mad. Apologizing might even feel unnecessary if we’ve been equally wronged by the other person. Spoiler alert: it’s not.

What I love most about this book are the spreads devoted to the language of apologies, in how to acknowledge hurt and graciously accept responsibility. Examples of insincere apologies, wildly exaggerated for read-aloud flair, are presented alongside sincere ones. If it’s too stressful to apologize in person, readers are encouraged to write a note (something my own kids are big fans of). Even if a transgression occurred a long time ago, an apology today still counts.

As a wise therapist once told me, it isn’t the mistakes we make that matter the most—but the work we do to repair them.


Don’t Hug Doug
by Carrie Finison; illus. Daniel Wiseman
Ages 3-7

If we want to raise adults who are well versed at setting and respecting boundaries, consent education needs to start at birth. But that’s a relatively modern concept. When my kids were toddlers, I was surprised at the urge I felt to thrust their little bodies at other people. Go on, give your grandmother a kiss, because offending her is worse than any infringement on your personal space! But that’s how I was raised; how many of us were raised.

Carrie Finison and Daniel Wiseman’s Don’t Hug Doug (He Doesn’t Like It) offers an example of boundary setting that feels like the most natural thing in the world. (Like, why haven’t we been doing this all along?) Through word play, speech bubbles, and funny asides, we are introduced to Doug: a regular, curious, fun-loving kid, who happens to think hugs are “too squeezy, too squashy, too squooshy, too smooshy.” Is this a reflection of how Doug feels about his friends and family? Nope! Doug loves his friends and family. He just doesn’t like hugs. Is this a reflection of Doug not liking anything? Nope! Doug likes lots of things other kids do, including rocks, chalk, and harmonicas.

You know what the world likes? GIVING HUGS. So, throughout the book, Doug gets lots and lots of practice advocating for himself and turning down hugs. How about a goodbye hug or a “game-winning home run hug?” “I’m just not a hugger,” Doug responds, hands in pocket, a confident smile on his face.  It turns out many kids aren’t huggers. Or they’re somewhere in the middle. (As my teen recently said to me, “It feels awkward to hug people I don’t know very well, but I love hugging you.”)

Eventually, Doug’s example becomes a way for us to rethink the way we approach all kids and adults. There’s only one way to find out if you can hug someone (or their potbellied pig): ask them! If they don’t want a hug, consider asking if they’d like a high five. You’ll get a resounding “yes” from Doug. (Shout out to another terrific 2021 picture book about consent: Katey Howes & Jess Engle’s Rissy No Kissies.)


Our Skin: A First Conversation About Race
by Megan Madison, Jessica Ralli, & Isabel Roxas
Ages 2-6

Since last year’s murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many more, there has been a growing, if long overdue, awareness—particularly among white parents—that we ought to be talking about race and racism with our kids at a younger age than we realized. Because toddlers are innately programmed to notice difference, and because racism is so deeply rooted in every aspect of our society, no age is too young to begin these conversations. Still—and I speak from personal experience—these conversations can feel daunting. We don’t know the right language to use. We’re afraid of making things worse, of “introducing” a problem, of transferring shame. And yet, this reluctance only impedes justice, enabling the toxic system to thrive. (In an earlier post, I shared the fallout in our own house from “colorblindness.”)

Our Skin: A First Conversation About Race is exactly what I wish I had had when my kids were toddlers and preschoolers. Developed by two experts in the fields of early childhood and activism against injustice, the book offers digestible, concrete language about skin tone and racial bias, alongside vibrant pictures celebrating expression, acceptance, and inclusivity.

The role of melanin is introduced, as children are asked to observe their own unique skin tone and those around them. Identifiers like Black, Asian, white, Latinx, biracial, and more are mentioned. We’re told that people try to figure out what “people are like” based on the color of their skin, when, in fact, skin color doesn’t tell us “what foods they think are yummy, what their favorite books are, or even where they were born.” Racism is likened to a “story” made up a long time ago—one that isn’t true or fair but continues to be told.

Perhaps the most valuable part of the book are the everyday, child-centric examples of racism: “rules” about who can play with whom on the playground; “ideas” about princesses only having blond hair; or the disproportionate number of children’s picture books written by and about people of color. Whether racism is done “on purpose” or “by mistake,” children are empowered to call it out when they see it. (The newest title in this excellent series just released: Being You: A First Conversation About Gender.)


Have you enjoyed this post? Make sure you don’t miss others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I’m most active these days, posting reviews and updates on what my kids are reading, or Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy).

Books published by Candlewick (gifted), G.P. Putnam’s Sons (gifted), and Rise, a division of Penguin (gifted). All opinions are my own. As an Amazon Associate I earn a small kickback from qualifying purchases through the links above, although I prefer we shop local and support our communities when we can. If you’re in the Alexandria area, please consider shopping at the beautiful Old Town Books, where I assist with the kids’ buying!

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