Promoting Prosocial Behavior Through Literature

Sara MartinezBooks, Events, Volunteers

WITS held another installment of WITS Talks, a series of learning opportunities to help volunteers enhance their time mentoring students. Our focus this month was “Promoting Prosocial Behavior Through Literature,” facilitated by Courtney Jones, a Children’s Book Reviewer at Booklist, and Mickey Kudia, HEART Chicago program manager. Watch the video or continue reading to learn about books that promote prosocial behavior (a behavior that benefits other people or a society as a whole) and how to engage with them during program.

The Power of Messages

There are messages woven throughout books, and these messages can impact everyone who reads them. Though we may not realize what these messages are at first, they can be extremely powerful, especially for children who are still developing their own identities.

Explicit Messages versus Implicit Messages

Explicit messages are easily identifiable. For example, the book It’s Okay to be Different by Todd Parr is explicitly telling readers to embrace their differences. Implicit messages are subtle and can be found within the context of the story, forcing the reader to interpret the message themselves. For example, the book This is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids from Around the World by Matt Lamothe has a similar message of celebrating our differences, but readers have to dig deeper to find the meaning.

Good Prosocial Messages

Children’s literature that promotes prosocial behavior towards people, animals, and the environment create messages that helps readers be more mindful, problem solve, and encourages community engagement. These are divided into three different categories of books: windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors messages, informative messages, and aspirational messages.

Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors Messages

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop wrote an article titled, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” that sparked the culturally relevant book movement. Watch this video to learn why reading books with these messages are so important for students.

Listed below are examples of culturally relevant books:

One of a Kind, Just Like Me/Unico como yo by Laurin Mayeno

Girls Like Us by Gail Giles

Hey, Little Ant by Phillip M. Hoose

Buddy Unchained by Katherine Daisy Bix

The Great Kapok Tree by Lynne Cherry

Dear Children of the Earth by Schim Schimmel

Informative Messages

Books with informative messages provide readers with important information about topics they may not be familiar with. After reading, engaging in conversation about these topics can help create a positive behavior change.

Listed below are examples of books with informative messages:

May I Pet Your Dog by Stephanie Calmenson

Hope by Randy Houk

All the Way to the Ocean by Joel Harper

How we Know What We Know About Our Changing Climate by Lynne Cherry & Gary Braassch

Africa is My Home: A Child of Amistad by Monica Edinger

A Young People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

Aspirational Messages

Books with aspirational messages provide an opportunity for children to see themselves in an expansive light. For example, they help students see who they can become in the future, learn about causes they want to champion, and learn about people they want emulate. Talking about these messages with students can help them grow as readers as well as in their own identities.

Listed below are examples of these types of books:

Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson

Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe

Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness by Donna Janell Bowman

The Bravest Cat! The True Story of Scarlett by Laura Driscoll

Seeds of Change by Jen Cullerton Johnson

Native Defenders of the Environment by Vincent Schilling

Secret of the Troublemakers by Kristina Hulvershorn

The Problematic: Messages that Should Be Addressed

Problematic messages in children’s literature are categorized into three different types: stereotypes, misinformation, and bias. These books often show hurtful illustrations that perpetuate stereotypes. Also, these books have misinformation about people, cultures, history, animals, and the environment that can be portrayed through ‘rose-colored glasses’. Sometimes the messages are subtle, but if they are seen over and over again they can stick in your head and influence your thinking.

It is important to remember that few books are perfect and books should not be censored. Problematic messages in books should be discussed. It is part of the learning process to discover what makes the messages problematic and have a thoughtful conversation with students about it.

Tips for Discussing Problematic Messages with Students

Create dialogueDon’t do all the talking and tell the student “what to think.”

Use open-ended questionsFind how students feel about it, what they already know about the topic, and ask questions to help them think critically about it.

Correct misinformation After discussing with your student and learning their perspective and knowledge about the topic, try correcting any misinformation they’ve made.

Be open and honest It’s okay if you don’t know everything about a topic. Be honest with your students about how much understand about it and how you feel.