By Carolyn Hecken
If you’re in a hurry and want to skip over my personal motivation for tackling this topic, just scroll on down to the next section.
In the run-up to this holiday season, I was overcome with a sense of homesickness. On the surface, it seemed like your typical, run-of-the-mill case of “homesick for the holidays”. Memories of exuberant, merry faces, a friendly demeanor and an overall air of warmth and generosity toward strangers contrasted starkly with the dull, gray hum-drum and near-total lack of holiday fanfare encountered here in Germany (oh, and I didn’t forget the Christmas markets). Still, an inescapable feeling that there was yet something even deeper missing pervaded – something more than just the superficial trimmings and trappings that brighten the whole holiday season.
Mulling it over, it dawned on me from whence this emptiness came. In part, it surely stemmed from the realization that a wide range of American holiday cultural traditions will likely remain strange, even foreign, to my German children (And, yes, they identify themselves as Germans, not Americans). Despite my unwavering commitment to share holiday traditions with my family, these efforts have essentially taken place in virtual isolation, far removed from the American culture and language. As it turns out, however, this feeling of homesickness was merely masking an even deeper and broader void.
It was a void that extended far beyond the bounds of holiday traditions to encompass the diminished presence and pervasiveness of my homeland’s cultural ideals and values.
(Now, please don’t misunderstand me! I am by no means implying that Germans don’t have any; it’s just a given set of values within the two cultures seems to be prioritized differently. While it’s clearly an enlightening experience to encounter and reflect on the values prioritized in a foreign culture, it’s simultaneously a great source of frustration as I’m sure many of you can attest to. It can feel as though one’s own culture is gradually slipping away just beyond the edge of perception.
You see, it turns out that I had severely underestimated this very dynamic of cultural immersion. I had become so well accustomed to the German way that I had unwittingly become negligent in emphasizing and preserving the values I hold most dear. And, as a consequence, I had failed to adequately account for these differences and imbue our children with the values and forms of social etiquette prioritized in my home culture.
What might these be, you wonder?
Traditional American values include a particular emphasis on manners – “please” and “thank you,” holding doors, offering seats, picking up trash; but also expressing gratitude, talking about integrity, honesty and honor, emphasizing acts of kindness, selflessness and generosity, an overall sense of being a part of community, and habitually contributing to the well-being of others. These constitute the set of values instilled in me by my family, my small town Alaskan upbringing and, quite honestly, my experience growing up in the Coast Guard community. Above all, these are the values I want my children to embrace and espouse as they navigate their way in an increasingly global community.
Don’t these values exist elsewhere, you might ask?
Yes, of course! I’m sure they do. Yet, in my personal experience, the constellation of these ideals exists in a perpetual state of fluctuation – with some shining, at times, more brightly and with a greater intensity than others. At this time, and this place – in the here and now – I cannot help but feel compelled to enhance the level of intensity with which we experience some of these values.
Today, it seems that what was once viewed as a public responsibility and priority – reinforced and perpetuated in a variety of social spaces: daily interactions, educational institutions, the workplace, religious gatherings – has now been largely relegated to family domain. And for us expats, living away from our extended family, the weight of this responsibility has only increased more dramatically and so, too, the importance of ensuring that we uphold and preserve our own deeply held values, no matter where our travels take us.
That left me with the question: what can be done? The answer is a lot – especially with respect to the level of vigor and intensity with which this topic is addressed. It may be a bit nerdy, but one of my immediate instincts is to turn to books. Reading has reliably served as a strong foundation for passing on to our children both the English language and various aspects of American culture.
So, in the end, this mini existential parenting crisis has inspired me to select children’s books that specifically address important social values in a positive, relatable, and sometimes even humorous light. Furthermore, they provide a wonderful opportunity to engage in a dialogue about values in a safe, concrete, non-confrontational and non-shaming way, by focusing on the cast of character and the context of the story.
8 Children’s Book Recommendations
You made it! Thanks for sticking with me this long!
Below is a list of books that introduces children to a variety of essential ideals and values. If you have book recommendations of your own, please leave a comment below so that we can all benefit from the wealth of knowledge shared in our own unique expat community.
FYI: I’ve written more detailed descriptions about these books and their usefulness since, when searching for books myself, I was a bit disappointed by the sparse descriptions that revealed relatively little about the story or how it could be used in the context of ideals and values.
And, PLEASE, excuse the photos of each of the books below. I wanted to avoid copyright infringement, so I took my own. Some of our books are new, others have been, let’s say, well loved.
Please and Thank Yous
Please, Mr. Panda by Steve Antony (Ages 2-5)
This book is simply written, yet brilliant. It’s part of a short series of easy-to-understand books on manners. The repetition and predictability of Please, Mr. Panda makes this book fun for young children and gives them plenty of opportunity to think about what might happen at the turn of each page. The illustrations are colorful and vibrant without detracting from the message of the book.
Mr. Panda, carrying a large box of doughnuts, offers the different animals he meets a doughnut, “Would you like a doughnut?” Each respond in a different way. Mr. Panda, however, dissatisfied with their responses, decides not to share his doughnuts until he encounters his friend, Lemur, who finally asks, “May I have a doughnut, PLEASE Mr. Panda?” In the end, Mr. Panda, not a fan of doughnuts, give Lemur all the doughnuts.
My almost two-year-old and four-year-old love listening to this short story over and over again. They especially enjoy the silly voices and the questions I ask, such as: “What do you think he is going to say?” or “Why don’t you think he wanted to share his doughnuts?” or “What do you think he is waiting to hear?” or “How do you think the whale feels?” and “How do you feel when someone ask you nicely to share one of your toys or some of your snack?”
The one thing I find may be missing from this book are the Panda’s somewhat muted facial expressions. The reason, I say “may be” is that I suppose this aspect could be intended to add to his character and the overall humor of the book.
If you are interested in this book, check it out on YouTube.
Other books in this series include: Thank you, Mr. Panda, I’ll wait, Mr. Panda, Mr. Panda’s Colours, and Mr. Panda’s Feelings.
Thank you, Mr. Panda by Steve Antony (Ages 2-5)
This book neatly complements Please, Mr. Panda. In this story, Mr. Panda, carrying a stack of presents, delivers to each of his friends a thoughtful, possibly even handmade gift. And, as is the case, with handmade gifts (and those given by children), they are not always, well, perfect. Comically, this is an issue with many of the presents Mr. Panda has prepared for his friends. Their varied and, at times, absurd responses give ample fodder for engaging in meaningful conversation about the intention behind gift-giving, its value and an overall attitude of appreciation and gratitude. This valuable lesson reminds even us adults how important it is to mindfully embrace and express gratitude for the many trinkets and crafts our little ones bring home from preschool or school. Despite busy days full of work and play, they spend at least some of it thinking of us.
Thank you, Mr. Panda is a great short read for all members of the family, both big and small. For older kids, this story naturally offers an opportunity for a more in-depth and nuanced exploration of gratitude.
Unfortunately, I have not been able to find an online reading of this book.
Sharing & Gratitude
Bear Says Thanks written by Karma Wilson, illustrated by Jane Chapman (Ages 2-5)
In this sweet story, Bear experiences the immense generosity of his forest friends. Alone in his cave, bored and missing his friends, Bear comes up with the idea of hosting a feast for all his friends. He sets out to prepare for the feast only to discover that his cupboard is bare. One after the other, his friends arrive bearing a delicious treat for Bear’s feast.
Overjoyed by the generosity of his friends and the fruition of his plan to host a delectable feast for his his friends, Bear expresses his gratitude to each. Quickly, he remembers with great disappointment that he is the only one who hasn’t contributed anything. Kindly, his friends remind him that he, too, has a valuable contribution – his wonderful storytelling. Bear and his friends enjoy plenty of food and stories together, with each of his friends thanking him at the end.
Preview Bear Says Thanks on YouTube.
The Giving Tree written and illustrated by Shel Silverstein (All Ages)
This timeless classic speaks for itself. If you haven’t found the opportunity to read this book, I highly recommend doing so. A tale of a boy and his relationship with a tree, this powerful allegory highlights the inequities that can emerge from profound love, devotion and sacrifice. As a child, the boy regularly visits the tree, swinging in her branches, plucking her fruit. As he grows older, his needs change, yet the tree succeeds in finding a way to accommodate them, even if the self-sacrificing fulfillment these needs result in her own gradual destruction.
The inequities in the relationship shared by the boy and the tree evoke powerful emotions and confront us with philosophical questions about why humans act as they do. Why does the boy only take from the tree? Why does the tree continue to be happy? What could he do for the tree? How could he show the tree his gratitude? What would it feel like to be the tree? And the boy?
One of the most rewarding experiences of reading this book, beyond the story itself, is the priceless insight into the development, thinking and perspective of our children that is to be gained.
Click the link for a reading of Shel Silverstein’s book, The Giving Tree.
The Way I Feel written and illustrated by Janan Cain (Ages 2-5)
The creative rhymes and fun illustrations in this book vividly bring to life the intensity and range of basic human emotions (silliness, happiness, disappointment, sadness, anger, excitement, pride) in a simple and concrete fashion. It’s parting message is perhaps the most important:
“Feelings come and feelings go,
I never know what they’ll be.
Silly or angry, happy or sad –
They’re all a part of me!”
Like Please, Mr. Panda, this book is versatile and “grows” with your little one. At a younger age, attention can be placed on the facial expressions and articulation of each emotion, incorporating baby signs for each. For preschool-aged children, the focus can be broadened to include situations during the day when the child looked or felt “happy” or “sad” and why. This is also a chance to ask questions like: “What makes you feel silly?” or “When do you feel scared?” or “Where in your body do you feel anger?” or “How do you know when someone else is happy?” and “Do you think it is okay to be angry (or sad or excited, etc.)?”
The Wolf Who Cried Boy written by Bob Hartman, illustrated by Tim Raglin (Ages 4-8)
A fun spin on the original Æsop’s Fable, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, this book offers a load of laughs and giggles while solidly delivering its core message about the importance of honesty. The animated, zesty illustrations by Tim Raglin are especially captivating and brilliantly complement Bob Hartman’s playful and humorous writing style. Notably, the emotionally expressive depictions of the main characters serve as a stepping stone for engaging in deeper discussion of feelings, frustrations as well as the intra- and interpersonal consequences of being less than honest.
As an expat, both the advantage and disadvantage of this book is its abundant and clever cultural culinary references (like Boys-n-Berry Pie or Sloppy Does) which may not be picked up on by the littles depending on the breadth and extent of their own cultural culinary knowledge. This means that they may miss out on some of these clever and comical twists on well-known dishes (Chipmunks and Dip or Granny Smith Pie).
For a reading of this delightful book, watch this YouTube video.
Helpfulness & Acts of Kindness
How Full is Your Bucket? For Kids (Ages 5-10)
written by Tom Rath and Mary Reckmeyer, illustrated by Marie J. Manning
This thought-provoking book helps children to develop an understanding of self-awareness and an awareness of others while providing parents the tools to discuss a complex topic in clear and tangible terms. The story follows a day in Felix’s life, examining how various experiences, setbacks and encounters either fill or empty his invisible bucket or the invisible buckets of those around him.
The lucid, nuanced illustrations and the carefully structured storyline allow for thoughtful contemplation and conversation about the various ways in which we are affected by actions of those around us and how our own actions, however small they may be, have the power to affect the well-being of others in positive and lasting ways. I can’t recommend this book more highly.
Listen to this book read aloud here.
The Snail and the Whale written by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler
One of Julia Donaldson’s many greats, this precious story introduces us to the tale of an unusual friendship forged by a most unexpected pair: a whale and snail. Their friendship takes them on adventure after adventure as they travel the world, in awe of the earth’s vast and treasured wonders. One day, the whale faces an unanticipated predicament. Despite his small size, the snail’s determination to his save his friend quashes any doubts about his how his size may affect his ability to help.
Through her clever and fun rhymes, Donaldson offers us a powerful reminder that no matter our size or how helpless we feel, we still have the ability to help others. This inspirational message resonates with young children and strengthens and reinforces their natural instinct to be helpers. One of the things I enjoy doing with my daughter when reading this book is asking about the ways she helps me, as well as pointing out the ways I see her helping me.
To discover more about this enjoyable and rewarding tale of the whale and snail, have a peek at a YouTube reading of the book.
Keep an eye out for more book recommendations in the February 2019 edition of the Über Moms Newsletter.
Carolyn Hecken is an avid learner of life, mother of four vibrant, spirited children, doula (D.A.M.E., June 2013), childbirth educator (HypnoBirthing®, June 2016) and breastfeeding counselor (EISL, September 2017). She holds a BA in Linguistics from the University of Washington and a MA in European Linguistics from the University of Freiburg. Home is wherever she’s surrounded by the laughter and shenanigans of her children, the zany humor of her husband and the company of compassionate friends. Admittedly, sunny weather and an exceptionally good cup of coffee don’t hurt either. In August 2017, this ÜberMoms writer’s nomadic family travels landed her for a two-year stint in Hamburg. Carolyn is passionate about supporting mothers, babies and their families during the one of the most memorable and momentous experiences in life – pregnancy, the birth of baby and familyhood.