One of my favorite books to read to my son is The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. I love the simple illustration style, but mostly, I love the lesson it teaches. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story, Ferdinand is a Spanish Bull who prefers to sit under his favorite cork tree and smell flowers rather than wrestle around like the other bulls. I identify with the mother cow who worries that her son is feeling left out or lonely. But he assures her that he enjoys being alone, smelling the flowers. One day, five men come to choose the fiercest bull to fight in the famous bull fights of Madrid. Through a humorous accident involving a bee, the men choose Ferdinand. They called him “Ferdinand the Fierce”, but soon learn that he wants nothing more than to sit and smell flowers, much less fight. They have no choice but to return Ferdinand back to his home, where he continues sitting under his favorite cork tree.
This quirky bull marches to the beat of his own drum, even if it makes him different than the others. To be yourself no matter what environment you are in is a powerful lesson to learn from a little picture book. This is the power that stories have. They can teach children important values and lessons in a way that they can easily understand and internalize. Children observe how characters in these books behave and may identify with the feelings they are having or the things they are going through.
Books can also be a great launching pad for conversations about various emotions and behaviors. By not only reading a story, but following up with questions like, “why do you think Ferdinand enjoyed being alone?”, or “how do you think Charlie could have said that in a kinder way?”, your child can learn and practice how to handle real life situations in a safe space.
Now let’s add another dimension to children’s books. Say the story you are reading to your child is not about a Spanish bull, but about their own relative or ancestor. A person who is part of their history; someone they can identify with and feel connected to. This adds a whole other layer of impact to a story. Reading about how your grandmother was able to overcome trials such as war and persecution have the ability to empower you to overcome your own trials, whatever they may be.
Moral of the story, read to your children! Choose books that will help them learn important life lessons and don’t forget to include stories from within your own family history.