Inside: Inspiring books that show kids that finding one’s passion is not a linear process. It takes a bit of self-discovery, a lot of learning, and a fair amount of hands-on experience.
Were you encouraged as a kid to find your passions, embark on a journey of self-discovery, and find what you love to do? One of the most nurturing and meaningful things we can do as parents and educators is to start kids thinking: What do they love to do? What are they passionate about? What is the greatest contribution they can make to the world?
As our children navigate a world filled with noise, too much social media, fake reality shows, and misleading messages, finding one’s authentic self might be harder than ever before. However, it’s still more than possible, and a good place to start is reading and talking about others who have done the same.
The following list turns to both fictional and non-fictional characters who have searched wide, worked hard, sometimes made mistakes, and ultimately found what made them happy. Everyone is different. Some of the heroes of these tales baked cupcakes, others looked for worms, but the common thread is the idea that when we find our passion, we come alive.
As you explore the list, please comment below what other books you think should be included here, and if there is a specific book that made a difference in your life.
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Princesses Are Not Perfect, Kate Lum
Each princess in this story has an area of expertise – baking, building, or gardening, but one day, they get an idea that since princesses are, naturally, good at everything, they should switch places and try each other’s jobs. The resulting hilarity and near disaster won’t distract your kids from learning the lesson that being good at something is usually the by-product of a lot of practice. It’s a good book to talk about the wisdom of the expression “practice makes perfect,” and why being good at something from the start is never a realistic expectation. The illustrations are extra fluffy and pink, but even my anti-princess daughter loves this book.
Karl, Get Out of the Garden!, Anita Sanchez
This is a wonderful, absolutely wonderful book about one of my favorite ideas: whatever you enjoy doing, you will do well. Luckily for Karl, his father understood this, and even though he wasn’t happy about it, he gave his son a blessing to go to medical school. You would be surprised to learn that this very Karl is the person responsible for dividing the world into two kingdoms: the plant kingdom and the animal kingdom, and classifying and giving names to tens of thousand species of plants and animals that we still use today (Homo sapiens (man) and Canis familiaris (dog) were so named by him). I’m surprised Karl Linne, who is now credited with creating a new language of science, is not more widely known. This book is full of amazing facts, beautiful illustrations, and yes, inspiration. If your kids love animals, study Latin, or are interested in science, like my kids, they would love this book.
Lighter Than Air: Sophie Blanchard the First Woman Pilot, Matthew Clark Smith
If you do a search on picture biographies about famous people, you’ll find lots of well-written and inspirational books. Lighter than Air caught my attention because it’s a shining example of not letting excuses get in the way of your passions.
So often, kids (and adults) say, it was easy for X or Y to succeed, they didn’t have my challenges or roadblocks. Well, Sophie Blanchard knew all about working against the odds. In 1783, when Sophie first heard about men floating in the sky in giant balloons, women didn’t have much freedom to do anything, especially fly. The sky was too rough for women, men said. But Sophie knew it wasn’t true, and she proved the nay-sayers wrong by becoming an incredible pilot. The elegant ink-and-watercolor illustrations go very well with this story.
Magic Ramen: the Story of Momofuku Ando, Andrea Wang
We all know that a bowl of ramen on a cold winter day (or after a long bout of flu) feels like magic, but what you might not know is that the instant ramen we see in stores today is the result of years of dedicated experimentation. Watching the long food lines, starving people eating tree bark, and orphans rummaging through garbage in post-WWII Japan, Momofuku Ando dreamed of inventing a type of noodle that was nutritious, affordable, and didn’t have to be cooked on a stove. He did, and millions of people benefited from it.
Do you find it amazing seeing how people came up with brilliant inventions? Don’t forget to keep in mind that success is only part of the story. You have to do the hard work and keep the fires of your passion burning through numerous failures and setbacks. The illustrations here pair beautifully with the story and present the inventor’s journey with humor and historical detail.
You Are My Friend, Aimee Reid
Fred Rogers is most famous for his children’s television series and his philosophy of “you’ve already won in this world, because you’re the only one who can be you.” But long before he was a famous writer, producer, and television personality, he was overweight and sickly kid, who had a difficult time dealing with loneliness and rejection. He learned from his life’s experiences that kindness goes a long way and that knowing how to control one’s emotions takes a while to learn. What if he could teach people what he has discovered? What if he could help people learn to like themselves? And that’s exactly what he ended up doing.
His show Mister Roger’s Neighborhood ran for 31 years and became the 10th all-time most popular TV show in America. Mr. Rogers did what he loved, and in the process, he taught thousands of children that we can make a difference in the world by being ourselves right where we are. The beautiful artwork by the award-winning illustrator Matt Phelan brings Mister Roger’s story alive.
A Gold Star for Zog, Julia Donaldson
What if you have a pretty good idea of what you want to do in life, but the people around you don’t approve? That’s exactly what happens to Princess Pearl. Her parents want her to be a proper princess. They expect her to “prance round the palace in a silly frilly dress” and do nothing strenuous all day. What Pearl wants is to be a doctor, travel the world, and be free to do what she feels most passionate about in life: helping people.
The support and encouragement of people we love are very important, but it’s ok if we don’t have them. Sometimes the people who love us don’t understand our unique talents. Or they don’t want us to go down the road less traveled because they want to keep us safe. But we can’t live our lives trying to please everyone around us. Only we can decide what is right for us and do it with passion and commitment. Julia Donaldson is an amazing author. Click here to check out her website.
This inspirational story teaches us that even “useless” talents can be put to good use. The Dragon King has nine sons who each live in a different region and are supposed to make a great contribution to their country as befitting the sons of a king. Unfortunately, the King keeps getting unsettling rumors that his sons are not acting as they should. One seems to make monstrous noises all day, and another one has trouble controlling his strong emotions.
So, disguised as a peasant, the Dragon King travels to each of his son’s houses to see for himself. At first glance, the informers seem to be right, but soon the Dragon King realizes that each son has a talent that can serve their country. For example, the son with big emotions becomes a great military commander. The story ends with each son happily doing a job that builds upon his interests and strengths. Striking ink and brush illustrations by Caldecott Medalist Ed Young are folksy and create the atmosphere of a time and place far away.
Thelma the Unicorn, Aaron Blabey
Thelma, a farm horse, has one passionate dream: she wants to be a unicorn. So when she gets a chance to be one, she goes for it with enthusiasm and commitment. Unfortunately, what she soon learns is that being a unicorn isn’t what she thought it would be. We like to celebrate persistence, vision, and drive, but sometimes giving up is actually a sign of wisdom. The sparkly illustrations by the author will make your smile. It’s one of my younger daughter’s favorite books, and I’ve been reading it at least once a day for about a month now.
Princess Hyacinth: The Surprising Tale of a Girl who Floated, Florence Parry Heide
Sometimes when we dare to pursue our passions and go down the road less traveled, there comes a moment when we have to take risks. What does a justifiable risk look like? What’s the happy balance between safety and adventure? Let’s have a look at Princess Hyacinth! Princess Hyacinth has an unusual talent. Unless she is weighted down or tied to something, she floats up into the air. She loves it, but the King and Queen want to keep their daughter safe, which means that Hyacinth is never allowed to do what makes her happy.
You will have to read the story to discover the details, but rest assured that there is a way to balance the thrill of floating with considerations of safety. We love the witty illustrations by one of our favorites, Lane Smith. This is a great book to talk with kids about risk-taking and making good judgment calls.
Seeds, George Shannon
Warren lives next door to a children’s book writer and illustrator with a passion for gardening. They spend a lot of time together at the drawing table and in the garden, but one day the unthinkable happens as Warren’s family moves to another town. What do you think helps Warren to find happiness in his new home? Gardening and drawing of course! Sometimes modeling our interests and behaviors on the people we love helps us discover our own passions. One person’s passion can have a profound effect on another person’s life. Steve Bjorkman’s delightful watercolors are a great compliment to the story.
Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles, Patricia Valdez
When Joan Procter was a little girl, she played tea parties with live lizards in place of dolls, and when other kids were getting their first puppies, Joan got a crocodile! Her passion for reptiles led her to become the world-renowned herpetologist (or expert in amphibians and reptiles), an international celebrity, and the first female curator at the London Zoo. Her special love was a 3-meter long Komodo dragon, which she liked to walk around on a leash. Despite being extremely ill for all of her adult life (she died of cancer at 34), she never let excuses to stand in her way and helped women pave a way into a field of science that was heavily dominated by men. Cartoony artwork is pleasant to look at but create a sense of modern times, and doesn’t reflect the fact that Joan Procter was a pioneering woman scientist who was born in the 19th century.
The main idea behind this true story is that everybody is good at something, even if at times it’s hard to believe. George Mendoza was planning to become a professional basketball player, but his plans were dashed when he started losing his sight. Instead of shooting baskets, he was tripping over things. Instead of opportunities, he was surrounded by limitations. Eventually, George took up running and painting. Through courage and persistence, he found his path in life. He is currently not only an acclaimed artist but a motivational speaker.
It’s easy to sit in a depressed funk and think that everybody else is better equipped to do something you want to do. But if an interest means something to you, you just have to start the journey, educate and develop your skills as you go, and see where the road can take you.
Do you have suggestions to keep this list growing?