There is a topic here for a different essay, fear versus fear mongering and how to teach our children constructive skepticism that allows them to judge information in balance and arrive at their own conclusions about the danger of some thing rather than simply being swayed by the loudest and most panicky voice.
But what of courage, what is it? Courage - The mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear or difficulty. A more parochial definition, but one perhaps more pertinent to children, might be to do the right thing when it needs to be done despite how difficult it might be. Regardless of the exact definition one chooses to use, all times call for courage and the celebration of courage. We need individuals to exercise courage themselves and as a community we need to celebrate those acts of courage which set a standard of value for all of us.
Children's literature is rich in tales of courage but it tends to fall into two categories. One, and by far the more ancient, is a celebration of courage through tales of heroes which goes back to Beowulf and beyond to Homer's Odyssey and Iliad, which, old as they are, are whipper-snappers to the oldest epic on the block, Gilgamesh.
I love these tales of derring-do, struggles against titanic forces, the testing of one's mettle against worthy adversaries whether they be man, nature, beast or the supernatural. The only draw-back to these tales is that they do sort of involve a lot of violence. While the effort, and often sacrifice, so prevalent in these stories are important things for children to see and hear, that issue of violence is one that needs to be handled with some consideration. Both a positive and a negative is that these stories are fortunately distant from the circumstances of most children's lives. This is beneficial in that the distance makes them somewhat unreal but that, of course, is also the drawback.
The second category of courage tales are more personal and internal and build in frequency in children's literature from the 1900's onwards. Those much maligned believers in progress and improvement, the Victorians, were in part responsible for this infusion of personal, internal courage into children's stories. Their bedrock belief in the potential for man (and child) to improve drove the Victorian writers first to hero-lite stories such as Tom Brown's Schooldays, Treasure Island, David Copperfield, or Peter Pan where the child protagonist is still battling some villain or evil circumstances and triumphs but on a smaller stage. However it did not stop there and the object lessons of courage continued to evolve and you began getting stories like The Secret Garden, The Would-Be-Goods and The Railway Children, where children are wrestling not so much with an external evil but with their own consciences and very local circumstances.
For those of us who like unambiguous morals, this was a heyday of clarity. While there are still many wonderful tales of child courage being newly written, it is hard not feel like it is a dwindling portion of output that seems to have more and more tales of self-indulgence and cultivated victimhood rather than self-reliant courage.
"Courage is the thing. All goes if courage goes."
Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1860-1937. 'Courage", Rectorial Address, St. Andrews, 3 May, 1922
Fortunately for us, there is a vast reservoir of books that help children consider the nature of courage, how to build it, and how to use it. These stories give children not only examples of courage on the part of others but by making it more pertinent to them, allow them to see through the eyes of others that courage is not an instinctive thing you just do but is the result of deliberate intention. You choose to do the right thing. You choose to be courageous.
We will be doing a later essay on courage and heroism. While there are a few such stories thrown into the mix below, the primary focus of this list of books emphasizing courage are stories wherein the protagonist confronts decisions and actions they need to take that are more in the ken of children of today. For those hungering for a little bit of more traditional, rousing tales of courage, see some of the Thing-Finder entries. Lots of good ballads here -
The Ballad of the Alamo
The Birkenhead Drill
He Fell Among Thieves
Grandmother's Story of Bunker Hill Battle
The Charge of the Light Brigade
Lou Gehrig by David A. Adler and illustrated by Terry Widener Suggested
The Berenstain Bears Get Stage Fright by Stan Berenstain Suggested
The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles and illustrated by George Ford Recommended
The Yellow Star by Carmen Agra Deedy and illustrated by Henri Sorensen Highly Recommended
When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest and illustrated by P. J. Lynch Recommended
The Leaf Men by William Joyce Recommended
I Have a Dream by Martin Luther King and illustrated by a variety of artists Recommended
Hansel and Gretel by Rika Lesser and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky Recommended
Jack And the Beanstalk by Edith Nesbit and illustrated by Matt Tavares Suggested
Little Red Caboose by Marian Potter and illustrated by Tibor Gergely Recommended
Kate Shelley Bound for Legend by Robert D. San Souci and illustrated by Max Ginsburg Suggested
Pappy's Handkerchief by Devin Scillian and illustrated by Chris Ellison Highly Recommended
The Gardener by Sarah Stewart and illustrated by David Small Recommended
The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins by Dr. Seuss Recommended
The Biggest Bear by Lynd Ward Recommended
Turn Homeward, Hannalee by Patricia Beatty Suggested
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett and illustrated by Tasha Tudor Highly Recommended
The Courage of Sarah Noble by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Leonard Weisgard Recommended
The Matchlock Gun by Walter D. Edmonds and illustrated by Paul Lantz Suggested
Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes and illustrated by Lynd Ward Recommended
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George Highly Recommended
Belles on Their Toes by Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey Recommended
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis and illustrated by Pauline Baynes Highly Recommended
Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan Recommended
The Kite Rider by Geraldine McCaughrean Suggested
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Michael Morpurgo and illustrated by Michael Foreman Suggested
A Family Apart by Joan Lowery Nixon Suggested
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell and illustrated by Ted Lewin Recommended
A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park Suggested
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen Recommended
Night of the Twisters by Ivy Ruckman Recommended
Five Little Peppers and How They Grew by Margaret Sidney Suggested
The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare Recommended
Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry Recommended
The Cay by Theodore Taylor Recommended
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien and illustrated by Alan Lee Highly Recommended
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain and illustrated by Barry Moser Highly Recommended
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and illustrated by Steven Kellogg Highly Recommended
Mary on Horseback by Rosemary Wells Highly Recommended
Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder and illustrated by Garth Williams Highly Recommended
Watership Down by Richard Adams Recommended
Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley Suggested
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane Recommended
Lord of the Flies by William Golding and illustrated by Ben Gibson Recommended
The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James D. Hornfischer Highly Recommended
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee Highly Recommended