- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 29, 2008

Can virtue be presented in children’s picture books? Kids have more time to read during the summer so I am on the lookout for books that nourish the spirit. I’m talking about stories like Margaret Wise Brown‘s “The Runaway Bunny” and Robert Munsch‘s “Love You Forever,” both about indomitable love.

I was recently in a Christian bookstore and while there were plenty of children’s Bibles and holiday-themed books, there was not a whole lot of great literature on the shelves. In Jewish bookstores, I can find material on keeping the Sabbath and the holidays - my favorite is Isaac Bashevis Singer’s classic “The Power of Light” - but it’s not as easy to find inspirational books for all seasons.

Former Education Secretary Bill Bennett’s “The Children’s Book of Faith” comes close with stories from the Bible, saints’ legends, poems, prayers and inspirational tales about folks like Louis Braille. It is out of print, unfortunately.

I’m talking about books that are structured the way fairy tales used to be, with a clear message of justice and good winning out.

I should mention that I am a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI). In 1998, I published a collection of Victorian fairy tales called “Knights, Maidens and Dragons.” Each tale showcased a virtue: courage, chastity, patience, perseverance, humility.

I have an unpublished young-adult detective story set in Iraq. But picture books for the 2- to 4-year-old crowd were completely outside my territory until I adopted a 22-month-old last year. I realized quickly I had to read her something before saying night-night.

I wanted to implant some good thoughts into that curly little head but quickly learned it’s not easy to find books that can express profound ideas in simple, sparse prose. Fortunately, several friends and relatives gave her their favorite reads, such “Donkey-Donkey,” the 1933 classic by Caldecott medalist Roger Duvoisin. This is about a donkey who learns to accept himself and his long, pointy ears. I liked its different take on what constitutes beauty.

My daughter’s favorite was Byron Barton’s 1995 story “The Wee Little Woman” about a kitty who runs away from his scolding mistress. Like the prodigal son, the feline returns to find a repentant owner who greets him with a bowl of milk.

We are now just starting to read “The Swan’s Gift,” a 1995 book by Brenda Seabrooke about a farmer whose family is starving. When he spots a beautiful swan, his first instinct is to shoot the creature and give his family a much-needed meal. When he refuses, on the grounds that it is a sin to destroy so much beauty, the swan leaves him a priceless gift.

My latest find: Jeff Brumbeau and Gail de Marcken’s 2005 book, “The Quiltmaker’s Journey,” about an heiress who left her privileged childhood to make quilts for the poor. You can’t miss the message of happiness consisting of giving away one’s talents instead of hoarding them.

Other favorites:

Barbara Helen Berger’s 1985 book “The Donkey’s Dream” about the Nativity. My little one adores her gorgeously illustrated 1997 book “When the Sun Rose” about a little girl with a dress of fiery roses and a pet lion.

Peter Yarrow and Lenny Lipton’s 2007 book “Puff the Magic Dragon” that illustrates the popular 1960s song made famous by the pop trio Peter, Paul & Mary. It’s a book you can sing to your child.

Cressida Cowell’s 1999 “Little Bo Peep’s Library Book,” which turns the popular nursery rhyme on its head and gives a deserved comeuppance to the Big Bad Wolf.

Know of other profound picture books? Let me know.

Julia Duin’s column runs on Thursdays and Sundays. She can be reached at jduin@ washingtontimes.com.

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