Stories of Strength

Use time-honored books and classic characters to teach kids about courage.

By Charles Smith, PhD



Stories of Strength

It was early in the morning, on an isolated rural road in Colorado. A furious storm raged, with heavy rain and wind. A 9-year-old boy was in the car with his mother, who was driving him to school. Treacherous road conditions sent the car into a skid. The vehicle spun out of control, went off the road, rolled several times, and came to rest upside down in a ditch filled with water.

Fortunately, both the mother and son were wearing seatbelts. The mother suffered a blow to her head. She was conscious, but temporarily unable to move a muscle. The boy was stunned but unhurt. As water poured through broken windows in the car, he unbuckled himself, crawled out of the passenger window, made his way around to the driver's side, and reached inside the car to undo his trapped mother's seatbelt. With great effort, he managed to free her, pull her through the window, and drag her through the water and up the embankment to the road, where they were soon rescued.

His mother later recounted her experience of the accident. Frustrated at being unable to move or even speak to offer instructions or encouragement to her son, she was amazed by his resourcefulness. She recalled hearing her boy saying out loud as he dragged her through the water, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can!"

It seemed clear that this little boy's act of courage was bolstered by one of his favorite books: The Little Engine That Could. In that story, when everyone else had given up hope, the Little Engine carried the heavy load of toys and good things to eat over the hill to the children waiting on the other side. He had courage and took action.

Obviously this one story, though compelling to this little boy, could not be fully responsible for his dramatic response to a frightening situation. But the book had left a deep impression, likely inspiring him to respond positively in an exceptionally difficult circumstance. The power of the story captured the young boy's imagination long before the accident that morning and motivated him to take action in the terrifying moments after the crash.

The Heart of Courage
Great dramas like this are exceptional, but children reveal courage every day in small victories over fear and disappointment. A toddler falls down and struggles back up, then falls down again. Determined to achieve success, she'll get up repeatedly. A preschool child climbs to the top of a slide and rockets down into the safe arms of his father. Another soothes herself after waking up to a strange sound in the middle of the night. A kindergartner leaves the safety of home to attend school for the first time. Though these victories over fear and the unknown are small and rarely celebrated, they lay the foundation for courage and even heroism later in life.

If you think having courage can be described as having heart, you're right on the mark: The word "courage" derives from the French word for "the heart in action." Courage is about having hope and putting it into action. This is the power of enduring stories: They show children what is noble, and invite them to be smart with their hearts. The best stories are celebrations of our potential for magnificence. From stories told by firelight in prehistoric caves to a mother reading Where the Wild Things Are as her son snuggles next to her at bedtime, stories reveal the heart in action. Tales with noble themes provide children with a template for heroism. They offer a path of courage when honor beckons us to take a risk on behalf of others.

Tales of Power and Possibilities
Telling or reading stories enables us to put the emotional current of our hearts into words, to illuminate the true north of our inner compass. Stories have more power than lectures. And if you look around at new and classic books for children, it becomes clear how many of them deal with themes of courage, heart, perseverance, and heroism. Here are five key principles that foster these traits and the books that best bring them to life.

  1. Keep trying despite obstacles. Every child faces roadblocks to her goals. An infant can't quite reach the mobile suspended over her crib. A preschooler struggles to get the playground swing moving under his own steam, while another grapples with her shoelaces. Will they persevere or give up? The determination to overcome adversity to achieve success is a common theme in stories for children. In The Little Engine That Could, by Watty Piper, the little engine succeeds where others never tried to bring toys to children on the other side of the mountain. A young boy overcomes his blindness with the love of his grandfather in Knots on a Counting Rope, by Bill Martin Jr.
  2. Respond to fear with composure. Keeping fear at bay can be critical in scary situations. Panic is dangerous because intense emotional arousal can hinder thinking and good sense. In stories that revolve around an adverse event, children can see characters controlling their fear to overcome adversity. In the face of a furious winter storm, a girl conquers her own hopelessness in Brave Irene by William Steig. In Harald and the Great Stag by Donald Carrick, a boy subverts his fear to protect a stag that he put in danger. 
  3. Stand up to intimidation. Sometimes, we have to stand firm to face a threat to others or ourselves. Finding personal strength is a challenge when confronted by someone who uses fear and intimidation as weapons. As parents we all hope our children can stand up to bullies — like Max does when he refuses to be intimidated by the scary creatures in Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. When the coldhearted Snow Queen abducts a young boy, his sister begins a dangerous quest to find and free him from a treacherous spell. Dorothy and her friends continue their journey despite the threats of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Ozby L. Frank Baum.
  4. Act with integrity and honor. Honor means doing the right thing even when afraid. Children can learn at an early age that they make choices, and that these choices often have unanticipated consequences. In the Little Red Hen (retold by Diane Muldrow) a mother hen refuses to give her chicks bread after they refused to help her cook. King Midas and the Golden Touch (retold by Charlotte Kraft) and Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi, both illustrate the unpleasant consequences of greed and dishonesty. Some stories show characters who take responsibility for their misdeeds. In The Mightiest Heart, by Lynn Cullen, a young man redeems himself from the tragic impact of a cruel mistake.
  5. Protect or rescue someone in danger. We can see the first sign of a heroic spirit when our children protect someone else who is at risk. A boy faces the dangers of a mysterious maze when rescuing a lamb in The Changing Maze by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. A young girl sets out to rescue her brother in East of the Sun & West of the Moon by Mercer Mayer. A prince battles a forest of thorns to find and release Sleeping Beauty (retold and illustrated by Mercer Mayer).

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