Great books for building character in kids

Great Books for Building Character in Kids

We’ve been talking a lot about influence here at LitWits lately, and the ways we’ve been shaped for life by our favorite books. More specifically, by the characters in those stories who taught us invaluable things about the world and ourselves.

We have these conversations all the time, of course, but especially at this time of year, when we’re picking books for new workshops and considering the protagonists we want to introduce to kids, and why.

This morning, we decided to make a short list of some of our favorite “influencers” from books:

First, there are the real troopers.

James Herriot, our favorite vet

LitWits - James Herriot books-that-build-character

In All Creatures Great and Small and the books that followed, Dr. Herriot was constantly being called out of his warm, cozy bed and into a freezing, dirty Yorkshire barn to help some poor farm animal in distress. He did this EVEN THOUGH his wife was so warm and cuddly next to him and the farmer was grumpy and unappreciative, and the animal sometimes died. He just did what needed to be done.

Black Beauty, our favorite animal-rights activist


Black Beauty’s mother taught him (and us) to always do what’s right, even when you’re tired and mistreated. Even when some well-meaning person does you harm, or a mean-spirited or selfish person causes you pain. Black Beauty also made it clear that ignorance is no excuse for hurting others. He taught us to treat ourselves and animals with respect.

Laura and Mary Ingalls, our favorite frenemies


Frenemies? We love these young heroines of the Little House series, we really do. It’s just that our mom had a way of saying “If Laura and Mary could ___________ then you can certainly __________,” and no one likes to be measured against the fortitude of a gutsy pioneer schoolgirl and her gentle, blind sister when it’s time to do the dishes.

But Mom was right. We were absolutely shaped for the better by these two, in spite of our peevish resistance. Who could forget the image of the sisters twisting hay into sticks with blue and blistering fingers all throughout The Long Winter, with nary a complaint? Or entertaining themselves with common things like stumps, buttons, rag dolls, and the occasional pig’s bladder? They worked hard, obeyed their parents (for the most part) and kept a cheerful attitude. As we were often reminded. 😉

Second, there are mentors of mindset. 

Meg Murry, our favorite geek


In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg was was shy and “different,” but also heroic and smart and cool. Identifying with her helped us not feel so nerdy and alone in our bookish, from-a-farm-and-not-suburbia awkwardness. She made us realize the value of not being like everyone else. She also made us want to learn more about science. And how to tesser.

Anne Shirley, our favorite dreamer.


This may be as obvious as pointing out that puffed sleeves are prettier than plain sleeves, but Anne of Green Gables was able to make everything better by using her imagination. She inspired us with her choice to see the world around us, and in us, through a magical mist of beauty and wonder and, occasionally, a dose of denial.

What a gift.

Tom Sawyer, our favorite entrepreneur.


Tom Sawyer taught us how to make any job seem more enjoyable, and not just so you can lure someone else into doing it. His sales pitches really did make whitewashing sound fun, which proved that “it’s all how you look at it!”  Since then we’ve painted plenty of fences–and barns and bathrooms and bedrooms, and performed a thousand other chores with a little more zest and finesse. People rarely come begging to do it for us, but there’s always hope. Hey, want to watch us clean up after three days of workshops?

And finally, there are the cautionary characters

Pinocchio, our favorite anti-hero


Pinocchio made poor choices in friends and it very nearly turned him into an ass! His ingratitude and thoughtlessness frustrated us, and we’ve never forgotten how it felt to watch him flounder and almost come to ruin–and to watch the ever-sacrificing Gepetto suffer for it. Pinocchio mentored us in “what not to do,” and probably saved us from dining on hay ourselves.

Toad of Toad Hall, our favorite rascal


Toad, in The Wind in the Willows, was incorrigible and narcissistic, a terror in a Harris tweed suit. Sometimes he’d seem to be headed for reform, but then, just when we thought he’d learned his lesson, he’d slip right back into his old ways, bellowing about his pride and his good looks and his insatiable need for speed. We loved him and loved to hate him and, through all his dramatic mayhem, we learned the meaning of “fool” and show not to be one. (For the most part).

We could go on, but this is the short list. You get the idea. The point is, the characters in books mentored us by their example. They showed us how to make decisions, choose friends, press on, take the high road, dig deep, and survive. They showed us the steps they took, so we could learn from their mistakes and turn out the better for it.

We might even, someday, be as awesome as Laura and Mary.

Okay, so who are some of your favorite book mentors, and what did they teach you?

Becky Kimball

  • Gracie Foust

    June 21, 2019 at 4:23 pm Reply

    Oh my lord! So true! These books rock!

    • Becky

      June 21, 2019 at 6:14 pm Reply

      Wowee, thanks for your enthusiasm, Gracie! You made our day 🙂

  • Tricia Hinely

    June 22, 2019 at 3:13 am Reply

    Great article! I am dreaming of opening a children’s bookstore (Longwood,Florida) and my husband said I need to know why. You have just written my answer!
    Watching our favorite characters overcome challenges can change and inspire! How about Nicholas in the Education of Nicholas Benedict and how he coped with bullies? Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    • Jenny

      June 22, 2019 at 1:17 pm Reply

      Wow that is SO true, Tricia — we all need inspiration for overcoming challenges, including the challenge of opening a children’s bookstore! We hope you GO FOR IT and stock those shelves with our mutual favorites. Thanks for commenting, and please keep us posted on your dream!

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