Books teach kids manners, compromise, self-esteem

Even the most whimsical bedtime stories can teach a useful lesson or two.

Using a motley group of characters that include a grumpy duck, a nervous rabbit and the obligatory wise owl, several new children's books isolate behaviors kids will need to learn as they grow: empathy, patience, cooperation and compromise. But they still manage to have some fun at the same time.

—"Do Unto Otters: A Book About Manners" by Laurie Keller (Henry Holt, September)

Mr. Rabbit panics upon discovering that his new neighbors, a family of otters, are animals he knows nothing about. What should he say to them and how should he act? A helpful owl teaches Rabbit to follow the Golden Rule. By imagining how he'd like his new neighbors to treat him, Rabbit realizes how to behave. "Otters" is slyly funny, with quirky illustrations and a wonderfully arch tone. Even if kids pick up only a few of the courteous behaviors mentioned in the book, parents will be glad they added it to the family library.

—"Jack's Talent" by Maryann Cocca-Leffler (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July)

On the first day of school, Jack discovers that everyone in his new class has a talent: Kristin can sing, Alex builds things and Olivia's a whiz at catching bugs. The list goes on and on. As the last class member to introduce himself and his talent, Jack explains to the group that he's not really good at anything. But then he recites the names of all eight of his classmates and correctly lists their particular talents. This brightly illustrated book might be especially helpful to kids who are enrolling at a new school this fall.

—"Together" by Jane Simmons (Knopf, May)

Simmons' gentle, lovely drawings set the mood for this sweet, occasionally melancholy story of friendship between a pair of playful dogs. Mousse and Nut are the best of friends, but they don't always agree on how to spend their days. Large, lumbering Mousse loves paddling in the water, but tiny Nut can't swim. Meanwhile, Nut likes to hang out on top of a stone wall, but Mousse can't jump high enough to go there. Convinced that these differences must mean the end of their friendship, Mousse and Nut say goodbye. But being apart makes them terribly sad, so the friends decide to compromise.

—"Scribble" by Deborah Freedman (Knopf, May)

This wonderfully inventive book follows the adventures of Emma (who draws a lovely princess) and Lucie (who scrawls a barely recognizable kitten), as their drawings escape the page and teach them to appreciate each other's work. The book's message may go over the heads of younger audience members (one 4-year-old reader described it simply as a book about a princess and a cat who get married). But the book's unique mix of artistic styles and its color-saturated pages make this a fun choice for children at nearly any stage of development.

—"My Friend Is Sad: An Elephant and Piggie Book" by Mo Willems (Hyperion, April)

Thoughtful Piggie tries impersonating a cowboy, juggling in a clown suit and even dressing up as a robot, all for the sake of cheering up his good friend Elephant. But the sight of a cowboy (and clown, and robot) only cheers Elephant up for a moment. He sinks back into sadness each time, mourning the fact that his pal Piggie isn't with him to enjoy these strange visitors. Little does Elephant know that each visitor was actually Piggie in disguise. Even tiny listeners may enjoy this simple story of friendship. But the uncluttered pages and minimalist drawings done by veteran children's book author Willems (of "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus" fame) make it a particularly good choice for those just learning to read.

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