Resilience, or the ability to overcome hardship… Something most of us want our children to develop. We hope they can grow into people who respond positively to adversity, who overcome negative situations, who not only tolerate but learn to embrace imperfection, and who approach challenges with a growth mindset and a willingness to risk multiple attempts, maybe even failing, in order to persevere, learn, and grow. To that end, resilience is our Family Focus Trait for August! Read on for a little insight into research on resilience and child development, and then check out our resilience booklist.
Raise your hand if you have a child who is hard on himself when something doesn’t come easily to him. A child who is reluctant to try new things for fear that she will mess up. A child who seem paralyzed by challenges and mistakes, letting these moments break him or her down, or even worse, never trying anything challenging to begin with.
Or maybe you know children (or adults) who faced significant adversity early in life, but have grown and thrived despite those circumstances. These are the people in our lives who demonstrate remarkable abilities to adapt resiliently to challenges and still do well.
Many of us want our children to grow to be like this second group of people. We hope they become adults who can overcome obstacles, who don’t let mistakes or failure hold them back, and who can rise above adversity. In short, we hope that our children can develop a strong sense of resilience.
Of course, as with just about any character trait, resilience isn’t fixed. Some people may show remarkably resilient behaviors in some situations yet not at all in others. Some people may have years where finding resilience comes harder, and years where they shock everyone around them with their ability to adapt and to overcome.
Interestingly, multiple researchers have found a few key elements to children’s development of resilience: supportive relationships with at least one adult (as that adult can show empathy in times of failure, as well as model their own resilience in challenges), their natural biology (such as the levels of the stress hormone cortisol), and opportunities to practice resilience and learn through targeted social-emotional lessons (children need chances to learn how to fail). As Beth Arky from the Child Mind Institute wrote:
Unfortunately, as the world puts increased pressure on kids to be winners, and parents feel compelled to enable them in every way possible, we’re seeing more and more kids who become distraught over even the smallest misstep… Clearly, distress or frustration tolerance is an important life skill to master.Beth Arky, “How to Help Kids Learn to Fail: Only Through Trial and Error Can Children Become Resilient Adults“
And this, of course, is where books come in! Literature allows children to “practice” resiliency in a safe, repetitive world, allowing them to build routines and skills that they might be able to apply to their own lives when the time is right. As I often say, books give children the opportunity to not only learn about the world, but also to practice who they want to be in the world. (And, fortunately for adults, as Harvard researchers remind us, the “capabilities that underlie resilience can be strengthened at any age.”) So, you just might built some resilience skills too through reading these books with your children!
*** Affiliate links used. Most age ranges listed are publishers’ recommendations.
The Rabbit Listened by Cori Coerrfeld — Have you ever worked really hard on a project only to have it crash down (literally or figuratively) around you? That’s exactly what happens to Taylor here. As a resilience book, I love that The Rabbit Listened celebrates the fact that we can indeed be extremely upset about our circumstances, but eventually we move on and rebuild. You can read my Instagram review here. Also included in our compassion and empathy booklist and our teamwork and cooperation booklist. Ages 3-5, but powerful for all ages.
The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires — This girl loves to make things, makes things all the time, and finds making things easy. One day, she decides she is going to make the “most MAGNIFICENT thing,” which she knows she can do, because “all she has to do is make it, and she makes things all the time. Easy peasy!” Easy peasy, that is, until her creation turns out all wrong. But, she’s determined and tries again. And again. And again and again and again… Until she gets mad! And this reaction is my favorite part of this book, because this is so real! Kids need to know it’s okay to get frustrated or mad when learning or trying something new… As long as they do what the girl does — release steam (in some productive ways and some very unproductive ways, but that’s real, too) until she can think clearly, and then try again! Also included in our growth mindset booklist. Ages 3-7.
Whistle for Willie by Ezra Jack Keats — You all likely know Peter from Keats’s The Snowy Day, but did you know Keats wrote a handful of books about Peter? In Whistle for Willie, first published in 1964, Peter desperately wants to whistle in order to call his dog to him. When he tries to whistle, time and time again, nothing happens (except that his cheeks get tired!). Peter refuses to give up, though, and instead continues to practice. Keats’s illustrations are, of course, simple yet beautifully relatable, and Peter’s cheering section inspiring. Also included in our growth mindset booklist. Ages 3-7.
Even Superheroes Have Bad Days by Shelly Becker, illustrated by Eda Kaban — Sometimes, we need to show resilience because something major has happened. At other times, we simply need to strengthen our resilience muscles in everyday situations, so that we can respond positively to the day-to-day bumps in the road. Rather than giving up or throwing fits, these superheroes show children positive ways to handle negative emotions. Ages 3-9.
Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae, illustrated by Guy Parker-Rees — Gerald is a very normal giraffe, with a long neck and tall, spindly legs. Unfortunately, Gerald’s normalcy makes it difficult for him to dance… So difficult, in fact, that he almost gives up after the latest jungle dance. *Almost*, that is, until he meets a wise cricket who encourages him to keep trying. In the end, Gerald realized, “We all can dance… when we find music that we love.” Simple — yes. Endearing — absolutely. And potentially powerful for the youngest listeners who are learning about resilience — definitely! Ages 4 and up, but delightful younger!
Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael López — You could fill a resilience booklist with picture book biographies, and Drum Dream Girl is a wonderful example of resiliency shown in a picture book biography! 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. Also included in my courage booklist. Ages 4-7.
The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch, illustrated by Michael Martchenko — The Paper Bag Princess just celebrated its 40th birthday, and there’s a good reason it’s had such lasting success over the years! Meet Princess Elizabeth, a princess with intelligence, confidence, and resilience, who is set to marry a prince until a dragon appears, kidnaps the prince, and burns Elizabeth’s castle and clothes. Rather than giving up or waiting to be rescued, Elizabeth forges her own path and rewrites her future, showing her resilience again and again. Ages 4-7.
Accident! by Andrea Tsurumi — Accident! has long been a favorite in our house. Our girls love it because it’s incredibly entertaining, and I love it because it importantly teaches a message of fixing accident and mistakes when they happen, and then moving on. These types of accidents and mistakes often hold both children and adults alike back from moving on or learning from them. However, being able to learn from and move on after mistakes is an important aspect of building resilient behaviors! You can read my Instagram review here. Also included in our growth mindset booklist. Ages 4-7, but great younger or older too.
Bike On, Bear by Cynthea Liu, illustrated by Kristyna Litten — Bear can do most things pretty easily… except ride a bike. With the help of his family and friends, he tries and tries to learn, but eventually he stops believing in himself and gives up. Turns out, when given an opportunity to ride without thinking about it, Bear discovers his abilities! This one is adorably illustrated, and I love Bear’s support system througout. Be sure to read the short dedication in this one, and share it with your children! Also included in our growth mindset booklist. Ages 4-7.
The Curious Garden by Peter Brown — Inspired by Manhattan’s Highline garden, The Curious Garden tells the story of a boy named Liam, who stumples on a surprising patch of nature when exploring his otherwise bleak, grey city. Despite all signs (and obstacles) pointing to his task being impossible, Liam learns to care for these plants, and before long, this tiny bit of nature is spreading around the city. Brown includes an Author’s Note in which he encourages readers to look closely to find nature “eagerly exploring the places we’ve forgotten” in cities around us. Be sure to note the changes in the endpapers! Also included in our list of Earth Day books to read year round. Ages 4-8.
Nothing Stopped Sophie: The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain by Cheryl Bardoe, illustrated by Barbara McClintock — Resilience is even built into the title of this picture book biography! Sophie Germain grew up in the late 18th century, when education was rare for women, especially women who wanted to become mathematicians. Undaunted, Germain doggedly and quietly persevered through her studies, despite obstacle after obstacle, to discover many mathematical breakthroughs and pave the way for future girls and women to be able to become mathematicians. Ages 4-8.
A Perfectly Messed-Up Story by Patrick McDonnell — Life can be unpredictably messy, and children who have practiced resiliency and can adapt to this messiness are going to be more prepared for success! Louie is trying to write a story, but it keeps getting messed up… And Louie becomes more and more frustrated, as he wants it to be absolutely perfect. McDonnell’s books are always delightful to read aloud, and in addition to being delightful, A Perfectly Messed-Up Story provides conversation starters about how we can respond when life doesn’t go the way we expected. Ages 4-8.
Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai, illustrated by Kerascoët — You probably know Malala’s story, how she grew up in Pakistan, dreamed of changing the world and helping others, knew education was part of the path to doing so, but was brutally attacked for standing up for what she believed in. As we know, Malala didn’t let any of those obstacles, even the attack, stop her from achieving her dreams. I love that this self-written picture book biography tells Malala’s scary story in a very accessible and child-friendly way, allowing our youngest readers to view her as a role model. Also included in our courage booklist. Ages 4-8.
Fifty Cents and a Dream: Young Booker T. Washington by Jabari Asim, illustrated by Bryan Collier — Many of us know Booker T. Washington as the founder of Tuskegee Institute, but until I read this picture book biography, I knew little about how childhood or the resilience he showed on his path to education. Born into slavery, learning to read despite risk of punishment, walking 500 miles for an education, working his way through school to pay for it… Talk about overcoming hardship! Collier’s illustrations are, as always, rich, detailed, and full of emotion, drawing us right into Washington’s life. Ages 4-8.
Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes — Pete the Cat and his white shoes has long been a favorite story in our house! And one of the most delightful aspects of this Pete story is that he’s teaching our youngest audiences all about responding to adversity with resilience without them even noticing what they’re learning! Out for a walk in his new white shoes, Pete keeps stepping in piles of things that ruin his shoes… But it’s all good, and rather than cry, he keeps walking along and singing his song. Ages 4-8, but perfect younger, too.
Jules vs. the Ocean by Jessie Sima — I admit that I bought this one based almost solely on the cover, because it’s just delightful. And then we read the story over and over (and over) again, and I’m so glad I blindly purchased this one! Jules is determined to build a sandcastle that her sister will be proud of, but the waves keep knocking down her attempts… She tries and tries again until she’s ready to give up. But, of course, she doesn’t (what kind of resilience story would that be?). This is a good companion read to The Rabbit Listened. Ages 4-8.
A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams — Usually read as a story of kindness and generosity, Williams’s story provides us with an endearing example of resilience, too. The main character’s family recently lost their house and all their belongings in a fire. Rather than focus on the toys and books she lost, the main character cares only about saving money to buy her mother a comfortable chair. With support from extended family and neighbors, this family learns all about resilience and begins to rebuild the life they lost. Ages 4-8.
Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev, illustrated by Taeeun Yoo — Y’all, this is one of my favorites for so many reasons, so if you’ve never read it, just do yourself a favor and get it right now. An endearing story of inclusivity, we follow the main character, who we learn in the very first page feels he never fits in because his pet is different— a tiny elephant. We see his love for his pet, we feel his sadness when he is turned away from Pet Club Day, and our hearts lift with hope when he decides to start his own club, where “all are welcome.” You can read my Instagram review here. Also featured in our compassion and empathy booklist and our teamwork and cooperation booklist. Ages 4-8, but wonderful younger and older, too.
Goin’ Someplace Special by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney — McKissack and Pinkney is a hard-to-beat author/illustrator combo, and Goin’ Someplace Special is indeed a special book. ‘Tricia Ann is thrilled when her grandmother decides she is ready to go “Someplace Special” on her own… but on her own, ‘Tricia Ann learns that the journey there is significantly harder than she had ever realized before. In addition to conversations about resilience, this autobiographical work is a great opener for learning about segregation and civil rights. Also included in our list of terrific books for Black History. Ages 4-8, but great older as well.
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, with a resilience more magnificent than you could imagine. Also featured in our growth mindset booklist and our courage booklist. Ages 4-8.
Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson, illustrated by Sean Qualls — Emmanuel’s story is both true and absolutely remarkable! When he was born with one deformed leg in Ghana, most people wrote him off, but not his mother, who encouraged him to dream big and work hard to make those dreams come true. School was more than 2 miles away, yet Emmanuel’s got there every day… by foot! He also learned to play soccer and eventually cycled across Ghana to raise awareness that disability is not inability. Have I sold you on his story yet??? Also included in our courage booklist and our growth mindset booklist. Ages 4-8.
The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Mark Pett and Gary Rubinstein, illustrated by Mark Pett — Beatrice Bottomwell has never, ever made a mistake. She is truly and absolutely perfect, and everyone in town knows it. She walks through her days with confidence, knowing that she will be perfectly successful at every endeavor. But then, one day, she makes a mistake… a huge mistake. How will she respond? You’ll have to read to find out! Ages 4-8.
Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts — Though every book in this series is wonderfully done, Rosie Revere, Engineer is my favorite! Little Rosie and her great-great-Aunt Rose teach us so much about creativity, dreams, failures, and resilience. Overcoming insecurity from a failed creation a few years before, Rosie learns from her great-great-aunt that “the only true failure can come if you quit.” Also included in our growth mindset booklist and our creativity booklist. Ages 5 and up, but great slightly younger too.
Sofia Valdez, Future Prez by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts — How many times are children told that they can’t do something simply because of their age? This happens to Sofia, too, who wants to make a change in her town, but rather than let others’ responses hold her back, she moves forward with a determination to create a better community. Doors are shut to her and people dismiss her, but she perseveres and reaches her goal (with the support of the loving community that is so important in resilience). Also included in our courage booklist. Ages 5-7, but great older, too.
Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler — Slightly different than most books on this list, Home in the Woods isn’t as much about overcoming specific obstacles as it is develop a general resilient nature to persevere, and in this case, even to survive. Beautifully illustrated, Wheeler tells the true story of her great-grandmother who moved to a shack in the woods (with her mother and 7 siblinds) to start a new life after her father died. Ages 5-8, but great for seasoned younger listeners, too.
For more information about child development and resilience, check out these links:
- “Resilience at an Early Age and Its Impact on Child Psychosocial Development“
- “How to Help Kids Learn to Fail: Only Through Trial and Error Can Children Become Resilient Adults“
- Harvard University Center on the Developing Child: “Resilience Key Concepts”
- “Maximizing Children’s Resilience“
If you liked this list, you might also like our other Family Focus trait booklists:
- Books to Foster Growth Mindsets in Children
- 50+ Books to Help Build Compassion and Empathy
- Fantastic Reads to Build Teamwork and Cooperation Skills
- Books that Model Authentic Apologies and Genuine Forgiveness
- Our Favorite Picture Books About Honesty
- Picture Books to Inspire Wild Creativity
- Books Featuring Courageous Role Models