Books Featuring Courageous Role Models

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a post rounding up our favorite books to read to help children overcome fear and anxiety. Then, when my husband and I drafted out our year of Family Focus Traits, we knew that we wanted to include courage (by the way, courage is our July Family Focus Trait!), and in my head I thought, “Ooh, I’ve already got a great list written for that trait!” But, the more I thought about it, I knew this list needed to be slightly different. While my list of books to help overcome fear and anxiety focused on specific fears with explicit strategies to help overcome that fear (which often took courage, for sure!), our list of books featuring fiercely courageous role models shows characters demonstrating courage in other situations, too. Yes, there is some overlap between the two lists, but the books you’ll find on the list below tend to focus more strongly on the courage rather than on the fear or worry itself. So, read on to see which books we love for featuring fabulously courageous role models!

Books Featuring Courageous Role Models

All links for purchase are affiliate links, and most age ranges listed are publishers’ recommendations. Always remember that you know your child best, and thank you for considering making a purchase through my links!

Now, I could have easily filled this list with picture book biographies. After all, many people featured in picture book biographies have shown tremendous courage in their lives. But, for the purposes of making this list a more manageable size, I tried to select a few of my favorite, but maybe lesser-known, picture book biographies. Instead, I filled this with more general stories that depict courageous and extremely relatable characters.

Brave by Stacy McAnulty, illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff

An ode to ways that children show courage and bravery in their everyday lives, McAnulty’s text, combined with Lew-Vriethoff’s diverse illustrations, help children to find their inner superpower of courage. Ages 3-6.

Hannah and Sugar by Kate Berube

While this is specifically about overcoming a fear of dogs, I think Berube’s strategy for coping with that fear is one that can help children find courage in any situation. Hannah and Sugar is a long-time favorite in our house! Also featured on our fear and worry booklist. Ages 3-6, but great older, too.

Tomorrow I’ll Be Brave by Jessica Hische

Hische’s spreads would make wonderful posters for a bedroom or classroom! Tomorrow I’ll Be Brave shows children all of the ways they might be brave in a given day, from being adventurous and learning or trying something new to confident, proud of themselves and how they’ve grown. She also reminds us that if we fall short somewhere along the way, it’s okay! Ages 3-7.

The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn, illustrated by Ruth E. Harper and Nancy M. Leak

A wonderful book for any child worried about leaving his mother and how she reassures him. Though this book is written about school, it’s sweet reassurance is perfect for any time children need a boost of courage, such as new situations, camps, or even babysitters. Also featured on our back to school list. Ages 3-7.

Orion and the Dark by Emma Yarlett

Though Orion is scared of a lot of things, he’s most scared of the dark, and nothing so far has helped him overcome this fear. Nothing, that is, until Dark itself came right into his room, introduced himself, and took Orion on an adventure. Yarlett’s strategy of facing our fears, getting to know them, and understanding what makes them may work for a wide variety of fear-inducing situations! Ages 3-7.

When You Are Brave by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler

This book has been very well-read in our house! In fact, we pull it out almost any time either girl is facing something new and feeling scared. Miller’s message transcends many scary situations: “Once you find your courage, it’s easy to use again and again. The next time life seems scary or you start something new, you can remember when you were brave. And then, you can stand straight and walk tall. Knowing you are as brave as… you.” Ages 3-8.

One by Kathryn Otoshi

If you don’t know Kathryn Otoshi’s “number/color” series, check it out. While Zero and Two are also phenomenal, this is my favorite. Otoshi uses emotional associations we have of colors (purple is regal, and red is “a hot head”) to effectively deliver a story about being an upstander when someone is treating someone poorly. It’s simple and fun and highly effective, so definitely read this one if you haven’t read it before! Also featured on our rainbow and color booklist. Ages 4-6, but terrific older as well.

Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael López — What if you had a passion, a dream to follow, and were told you couldn’t do so because of something completely arbitrary? Would you let it stop you, or would you continue to follow that dream, hiding your practice and keeping it a secret? You can guess which option the drum dream girl chooses! Inspired by a true story of a Chinese-African-Cuban girl who become the first female drummer in Cuba. Ages 4-7.

The Empty Pot by Demi — The Empty Pot is the story of Ping, a young Chinese boy who loves flowers. In fact, everyone in the kingdom loves flowers, but no one more than the Emperor himself. In fact, the Emperor loves flowers so much that when it comes time to choose his successor to the throne, he decides “to let the flowers choose” and have a flower-growing contest! The child who can “show their best in a year’s time” will be the successor! Of course, this is right up Ping’s alley — he knows he can win! But, try as he might, he just cannot get his flower to grow. After a year, Ping has only an empty pot to show for his efforts, which his father reassures him is good enough since he did his best. I won’t give away the ending, but let’s just say that courage and honesty win out!Also featured on our honesty booklist. You can also read my full review here. Ages 4-8.

Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully — Published more than 20 years ago, this one has long been a favorite of mine! When the Great Bellini arrives at Madame Gateau’s boardinghouse, he’s struggling to overcome the fear that is keeping him from his love, walking tightropes. He finds his courage in a most unexpected place, through Mirette, a young girl who admires his feats and wants to learn to walk the high wire herself. Ages 4-8.

Hunter’s Best Friend at School by Laura Malone Elliott, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger

Okay, so this one’s not explicitly about courage, but… it can take significant amounts of courage to stand up to your best friend when he’s doing something wrong, sometimes even more than it takes to stand up to those who aren’t friends. And, it’s hard to find books about these scenarios! Hunter’s Best Friend at School is a must-read for anyone helping children understand how to be an upstander when it comes to their truest friendships. Ages 4-8.

What Do You Do With a Chance? by Kobi Yamada, illustrated by Mae Besom

In What Do You Do With a Chance?, a chance approaches the same protagonist, but feeling scared, he doesn’t take the chance. In fact, he passes on many chances, until he realizes that taking chances doesn’t mean being brave all the time. Rather, he just needs to be brave at the right moment to grab onto the chance and see where it takes him, now realizing that it might take him somewhere incredible.You can read my full review here. Also featured on our growth mindset booklist. Ages 4-8, but great older, too.

After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again by Dan Santat — Oh man, I could go on and on and on about how much we love this book in our house. Santat cleverly extends the nursery rhyme about Humpty Dumpty to share what happens to Humpty after that fall, after he gets put back together again. Though told and illustrated with touches of humor, Santat gently introduces children to the fear that can come after a fall, or a failure. We watch Humpty avoid things that used to make him happy because of that fear, and we see him make accomodations to try to enjoy his past passions. In the end, he does get back up again, in a way more magnificent than you could imagine. We read After the Fall for fun, but we also pull it out when the girls are preparing to do something that scares them. We’ve had so many delightful conversations about our “Humpty moments” and what happens when we overcome those fears to try something new, or something that has previously gone wrong and scared us. Definitely read this one if you haven’t read it yet! Also featured on our growth mindset booklist. Ages 4-8, but terrific for all ages.

Truman by Jean Reidy, illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins

This is a story about the first day of school told from a different perspective… That of Sarah’s pet turtle! Truman and Sarah have a sweet life together in a big city, playing, coloring, and watching the world go by. Until, one day, Sarah eats a special breakfast, puts on new clothes, straps on a big backpack, and tells Truman to be brave. This story is funny, endearing, and full of courage. Also featured on our back to school booklist. Ages 4-8.

Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall

It can take a lot of courage to try something new! This endearing story of overcoming fear to try something new is made even more wonderful by the loving father who patiently understands Jabari’s hesitations. Also featured on our fear and worry booklist and our growth mindset booklist. Ages 4-8.

Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson, illustrated by Sean Qualls

When Emmanuel was born in Ghana, he appeared very healthy, except that he only had one strong leg. Many people believed he was cursed or would be useless in life, but his mother believed in him. More importantly, she didn’t pity him because of his one weak leg; rather, she taught him to get things for himself and to work hard. Essentially, she taught him to live like any other boy in Ghana would. He even learned how to play soccer and ride a bike, so that he could play with his friends! When his beloved mother did, he wanted to honor her “by showing everyone that being disabled does not mean being unable.” So, at age 24, he biked AROUND GHANA, to spread his message! Be sure to check out the Author’s Note about the influence that Emmanuel continues to have, in Ghana and around the world. Also featured on our growth mindset booklist. Ages 4-8.

Nightsong by Ari Berk, illustrated by Loren Long — Written specifically about the fear of dark, fear of leaving parents/separation anxiety, and fear of getting lost, Long provides readers with a strategy to overcome these fears: sing a song (I actually really love the way this connects bats use of echolocation to the concept of singing a song to combat fear and worry– so clever!). He also gives us the usable mantra: “Sense is the song you sing out into the world, and the song the world sings back to you. Sing, and the world will answer. That is how you’ll see.” Also featured on our fear and worry booklist. Ages 4-8.

Courage by Bernard Waber

Sometimes, we think that the word “courage” only encompasses awesome feats of courage, such as a trapeze artist flying through the air or a firefighter saving someone from a burning building. In this poignant, yet still entertaining, ode to courage, Waber reminds us that we all have courage inside of us! You can read my full review here. Ages 4-8.

The Buddy Bench by Patty Brozo, illustrated by Mike Deas

It takes courage to stand up and help others, but it also takes courage to admit when you need someone’e helping hand. Inspired by the true story of a first grader from Pennsylvania who came up with the idea for his school to create a “buddy bench” for recess, a place for kids who feel left out or have trouble joining play at recess. Did you know that on any given school day, 80% of children ages 8-10 years old report feeling lonely at some point during the day? Also featured on our compassion and empathy booklist. Ages 5-7, but great younger and older, too.

A Girl Like You by Frank and Carla Murphy, illustrated by Kayla Harren

Written by husband-wife-and-daughter-raising team of Frank (seasoned children’s book author, teacher, and coach) and Carla (pediatric nurse and debut writer), A Girl Like You celebrates all that makes every individual girl in the world beautiful, brilliant, and uniquely special. This text reminds readers that not only are they strong, daring, brave, and bold, but they’re also hard-working, resilient, kind, thoughtful, empathetic, and more! While A Girl Like You embodies powerful lessons for young girls to internalize, it’s compelling for women, too, including lessons that even with age and maturity, we may still forget. Harren’s illustrations are delightfully joyous, diverse, and inclusive. You’re likely to spend hours rereading this one just to take in the stories the illustrations are telling you, but please make sure to also spend time with the Author’s Note and Writing Activity in the end, as both provide starting points for conversations around kindness, strength, boldness, and courage with the girls in your life. Ages 5-7, but terrific for all ages!

Thunder Cake by Patricia Polacco

This one has been on repeat in our house this summer! Drawing from her own childhood experiences, Polacco addresses fear of thunder, but also helps children understand how brave they likely are, even when they don’t feel quite so brave. It’s a must-read, in my opinion! Ages 5-8.

Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai, illustrated by Kerascoët

You likely know Malala and her story, but have you taught your children about Malala and her courage? I love that Yousafzai and Kerascoët bring us a very accessible, age-appropriate story of this amazingly courageous role model and her experiences! Ages 5-8.

Brave Molly by Brooke Boynton-Hughes

The only wordless book on this list, Brave Molly‘s fears are personified as monsters. Unfortunately for Molly, they grow and multiply as time passes and she is too afraid to address them. Finally, though, she gets the courage to face her fears directly, and she is able to move on without being crippled by their presence behind her. Ages 5-8.

The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Rafael López

At one point or another, and for some children more often than not, we all feel like outsiders. As adults, we need to help our children understand these feelings and work through them, while also celebrating our individuality and unique characteristics that make us special. Just as importantly, we need to help raise our children’s awareness of when others may be feeling like outsiders. Reading books like The Day You Begin can help us to do all of the above. Also featured on our back to school booklist. Ages 5-8.

Sofia Valdez, Future Prez by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts

The newest picture book in Beaty’s and Roberts’s series, young Sofia sees something in her community that she wants to change. After talking to adults about it, she realizes that they expect her to make the change! Not sure she can do it, Sofia gathers her courage and moves mountains! Ages 5-8, but great slightly younger, too.

Little Tree by Loren Long

I always love a seasonal book that can be read year-round, and much like SweepLittle Tree is a wonderful fall book that isn’t so fall-themed it can only be read in September and October. A story of change, growing up, and letting go, a story of encouraging friends through words, presence, and patience, Little Tree will please children and adults alike! Also featured on our list of books about fall. Ages 5-8, but great younger, too.

The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

You know a book is extraordinary when the Caldecott, Newbery, and Coretta Scott King award committees all see it worthy of recognition in a given year. I have to admit, this one strikes me as one of those picture books that adults appreciate much more than children love, but it’s worth reading through every now and then with your kids. Take time, take in the illustrations, and think through the questions your children ask. They’re bound to ask questions with this one, and even if the only question they ask is “Why did he forget to draw an illustration on that page?” then you’ve got a great door open for deep conversation!Also featured on our list of terrific books for Black history. Ages 6-9, but powerful older, too.

The Cats in Krasinski Square by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Wendy Watson — A fictional account of a true story of cats who outwitted the Gestapo in World War II, this eye-opening story will spark conversations about teh courage that it takes to risk your own life to potentially save a friend. Ages 6-10, could be a good picture book tie-in for older children studying the Holocaust.

If you liked this booklist, then be sure to check out our similar list featuring books to help children cope with fear and worry. Then, check out our other family focus trait booklists:

What children’s book characters do you love for their showing of courage?

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