Picture Books with Characters Who Stand Up to Others

Have you been following along with us as we move through the year with a Family Focus Trait each month? We have been loving the intentionality and focus that it brings to conversations we’re having with the girls, and I have to say I may be more excited about October’s trait than I have been about any all year. And what makes this even better for us is that when we created our family’s school mantra for this school year, one of the girls named this trait! I was thrilled that it was on her mind before we had even focused on it, and even more thrilled by the timing, since I knew this was coming next. So…

In October, we’ll be reading picture books with upstanding role models, books with characters who stand up to and for others, facing down both friends and foes. Because being able to stand up for what’s right and respectfully but strongly tell others what’s right is absolutely a skill we want our children to carry with them through life.

Now, it’s relatively easy to find books with characters who stand up to people who aren’t their friends, those who have the courage to tell people they don’t know well how what they’re doing is wrong. But, it’s a lot harder to find good examples of characters who dig deep and find what it takes to stand up to a close friend and let them know they need to change their behavior. However, as wise Albus Dumbledore once said, “There are all kinds of courage. It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”

But, most children seem much more comfortable standing up to people they don’t know well than they are standing up to their close friends, and when standing up for their friends than when standing up for themselves. So, I looked long and hard for books about all of the above, knowing that representing all was going to be very important. After all, we want them to be able to stand up for what’s right in both big moments in their communities, states, or countries, but we also want them to be able to change their friends’ paths if necessary. We want our children to be brave in telling a stranger at the playground to use gentle hands, but we also want them to be able to tell a friend at school to use kind words. These skills will grow with them through adolescents and into adulthood, as they face larger injustices or fight wrongs that have significant impacts to the recipients.

As the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” Our hope is that these books help kids to develop the ability to stand up to both their enemies and their friends, and to fight for what’s right in inspiring ways, truly impacting those enemies and friends.

So, here’s what you’ve been waiting for… More than fifteen picture books to inspire your young people to be stand up to both friends and strangers, reminding them of what’s right and fighting for it in a way that will impact lasting change. While I’m not sure yet what our monthly Family Focus Trait meetings will look like, I envision lots of role-play. Stay tuned for how we approach practicing being an upstander!

Picture Books with Characters Who Stand Up to Others

*** Affiliate links used. 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!

The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade by Justin Roberts, illustrated by Christian Robinson — In a school full of big people, the smallest girl in the smallest grade notices everything… the good AND the bad. And this girl, the smallest one in the school, decides to stand up and take a stand to make her school a kinder place. I love the message that all children can make a difference, as long as they take time to notice what needs to be changed. Ages 3-5, but great slightly older, too. Also featured in our list of books to help build compassion and empathy.

Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Jen Hill — Okay, so only one small part of this book is about being an upstander, but that page is amazing, as is the rest of this book. One of the things that makes this book stand out among kindness books is how Miller addresses how hard it can be to be kind. The page about standing up to others does just this: “And sticking up for someone when others aren’t kind is really hard. (And really scary.)” Ages 3-6, but great for all ages. This has been featured on many of my booklists; you can read my Instagram review here.

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 and our list of books featuring courageous role models. Ages 4-6, but great younger and older, too.

The Recess Queen by Alexis O’Neill, illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beth — Not only is this a terrifically fun book to read aloud to kids, but O’Neill gives us a wonderful role model of someone unexpected standing up to the Recess Queen. Not only does Katie Sue stand up to the Queen, but she then goes on to invite the Queen to play with her, reaching out in friendship. There’s so much we can learn from Katie Sue! Ages 4-7. Also featured on our list of favorite school stories for social-emotional growth and list of picture books that model including others.

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. In fact, she uses her written word to stand up to her oppressors and tell the world the truth of her life and of those around her. 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. Ages 4-8, but a great introduction to Malala for older students, too. Also included in our courage booklist and our list of picture books to promote resilience.

Super Manny Stands Up! by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by Stephanie Graegin — Super Manny Stands Up! is the story of Manny, a little raccoon with a big imagination! Each day after school, Manny dons a different cape and fights off various enemies. He smoothly and easily conquers these imaginary foes while wearing his colorful capes, but he saves his most important, invisible cape for school. Most of his opponents at school are also imaginary, until one day, Tall One starts to push Small One around in the lunchroom. At first, Manny isn’t sure what to do, but then he remembers his invisible cape and the courage it gives him to stand up… Ages 4-8. You can read my full review here.

Say Something! by Peter H. Reynolds — This one’s an important read for all parents and children, as it can help children find their voice and express themselves in a wide variety of ways. But, Reynolds does touch explicitly on using your voice to stand up for others on what is honestly a very emotional spread. Be sure to pay attention to the end pages here, as they’re bound to start wonderful conversations! Ages 4-8.

Speak Up by Miranda Paul, illustrated by Ebony Glenn — Opening with “There are times when we should be quiet. There are days for letting go. But when matters seem important — SPEAK UP! Let others know,” you know this one’s going to be a winner for teaching about standing up to others. Paul talks about standing up for what’s right in many ways, from telling a friend she’s about to step in a mud puddle to stopping a rumor before it spreads, and everything in between. The illustrations here are also delightfully diverse. Ages 4-8.

Hunter’s Best Friend at School by Laura Malone Elliott, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger — Oh Hunter’s Best Friend at School… If you have a young elementary schooler, you need to read this book. At some point in their school careers, children are bound to have times when their best friends make poor choices, and they have to find the courage to stand up to that friend and do the right thing. This is a must-read for anyone helping children understand how to be an upstander when it comes to their truest friendships. Ages 4-8, but perfect for the younger end of this age range. Also featured on our list of books featuring courageous role models.

Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E. B. Lewis — Okay, so the main character in this book actually doesn’t stand up for what’s right, but the lesson that she learns as a result of her mistakes is truly impactful. Woodson does not wrap this story up in a pretty bow at the end, allowing readers to contemplate the message and their own lives. Each Kindness is bound to change you just a little bit every time you read it. Ages 5-8. Also featured on our list of picture books that model including others, our list of favorite school stories for social-emotional growth, and our list of books to help build compassion and empathy.

Spaghetti in a Hot Dog Bun: Having the Courage to Be Who You Are by Maria Dismondy, illustrated by Kim Shaw — While usually thought of as a book about individuality, self-confidence, and embracing differences, Spaghetti in a Hot Dog Bun also provides a wonderful example of standing up to those who are mean. As with The Recess Queen, after standing up to Ralph, Lucy realizes that he, too, has “a heart with feelings.” Rather than hold his mistakes against him forever, Lucy decides to forgive him and extend her hand in friendship. Ages 5-10.

Get Up, Stand Up adapted by Cedella Marley, illustrated by John Jay Cabuay — Based on the song by Bob Marley, Get Up, Stand Up follows a girl through her normal activities and shows all the opportunities she has to stand up for what’s right. Though there is a repeated refrain (“Get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights. Get up, stand up. Don’t give up the fight.”), other lines read more powerfully to me. For example, accompanying an illustration of watching a girl get picked on on the bus, Marley writes, “Don’t just sit tight. Be a bright light.” So many wonderful reminders here that being an upstander takes true action! Ages 6-8.

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin — Please, just buy this one and reread it often with your children. Though Maddie never finds the courage to stand up to her best friend, Maddie, and help Wanda, the lesson about the importance of doing just so is incredibly powerful. This book has made its way to many of my lists, because it’s just that good. Ages 6-9, and great older, too. Also featured on our list of picture books that model including others, our favorite school stories for social-emotional growth, books to build compassion and empathy, and books about authentic apologies and genuine forgiveness; you can read my full review here.

My Name is Bilal by Asma Mobin-Uddin, illustrated by Barbara Kiwak — Unlike many books on this list, the main character here, Bilal, fails to stand up for his sister and his faith a few times before finding the courage to do both. Not only will My Name is Bilal open doors for conversations about how difficult it can be to do the right thing, but be prepared for conversations about self-confidence and self-esteem as well as religious prejudice. Ages 6 and up, but is fairly lengthy, so is probably best for slightly older.

Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney — Sometimes, being an upstander means using actions rather than words to stand up for what’s right. And that’s just what happened in Greensboro in 1960, when four friends sat down peacefully at a segregated lunch counter and waited to be served. This book was always a favorite with my third graders, and I’m excited to dig deeper into it with my own girls now that they’re a little bit older. Ages 6 and up.

Say Something by Peggy Moss, illustrated by Lea Lyon — Oh, y’all, this one was new to me when I made this list, and it’s so good. This Say Something, not to be confused with Peter Reynolds’ above, follows the protagonist’s life at school, where she witnesses many wrongdoings without taking a stand against them. But then, one day, she is on the receiving end of this behavior and wonders why no one around her is doing anything to help. If you only buy one book on this list, I’d strongly suggest you consider this one! Ages 7 and up.

Stand in My Shoes: Kids Learning About Empathy by Bob Sornson, illustrated by Shelley Johannes — I was unable to find an age range for this one, but I think it’s great for all ages. This book is about Emily, a younger sister who learns an important lesson about empathy from her older sister. Emily takes this lesson to heart, working to see how she can help other in need, and taking the time to ask questions when she feels people in her community need help. At the end, Emily tells her sister, “People really like it when you recognize how they feel. Just noticing seem to touch their hearts.” While most of this book is about gaining insight into how others feel, one powerful spread does show Emily speaking up for a smaller girl who gets knocked down on the way to the bus.

If you liked this list, check out our other Family Focus Trait booklists from 2020!

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