While a nearly universal trait, it is one that is particularly well established in the US. Arguments might be made as to why that is: is it our cult of the individual, our system of checks and balances grounded in the 10th amendment, our pioneer heritage where everyone needed to pitch in together? All are reasonable claims. But whatever the source, there is still the fact that America is an incredibly generous nation, whether measured by per capita giving in money, giving in hours, giving to the local community or giving to distant causes helping people in need.
It is interesting to observe this. Evolution has equipped us with exquisitely fine talents of identifying the "other", those that don't belong to our family, our community, our tribe. By definition, every culture, in defining what it is and what are its core attributes, at the same time defines what it is not and separates itself from others. Despite 40,000 years of refinement for identifying and rejecting the "other", in just a few hundred years we have slowly widened our definition of whom is human and who is worthy of respect and accord. The slow eradication of slavery, the extension of voting rights to every adult, the slow expansion of government obligation to provide some minimum form of health and income to all members, are all evidence of our basic humanity.
The greater tribute is not our collective agreements and decisions though. It shows up most startlingly and most magnificently as individual decisions to make a difference regardless of risk, and reputation and absence of reward. When people choose to do the right thing for others regardless of the cost to themselves.
This can show up in the smallest of gestures. The young be-tattooed and body-pierced seeming-thug in the mall, who jumps up to offer his arm to steady an old lady wobbling on the escalator. The enthusiastic volunteers for a Habitat for Humanity building project. The members of a children's chorus performing for the residents of an assisted living community. The generosity and commitment to our fellow citizens is around us daily in a thousand small ways.
Our childhood stories are full of tales of people helping others without expectation of return or recompense. Sometimes it is very particular: Annie Sullivan devoting her life to bringing Helen Keller out of her cell of darkness into the wide world. Sometimes it is wider and more nebulous: King Christian X of Denmark marking himself with a yellow star, inspiring his subjects to do the same, when the occupying Nazis wanted to so mark the Danish Jews. Nebulous but inspiring none-the-less.
Sometimes the heroism and generosity is nominally related to the person's job but is still above and beyond what one might expect. Grace Darling, the lighthouse keeper's daughter comes to mind, as do stories beyond listing of fireman, policemen, smokejumpers, coast guard rescue pilots, etc.
War in all its tragedy creates the opportunity for man to display both his humanity along with his inhumanity. In Claire Huchet Bishop's Twenty and Ten, set in World War II occupied France, twenty young French school children take on the task of hiding ten refugee Jewish children at great risk to themselves.
For the very young there are such classics as The Little Engine That Could who makes the effort to help little children on the other side of the mountain when much more powerful and better prepared engines can't be bothered to do so. Also at the picture book level is one of my favorites, Cynthia Rylant's Silver Packages. A businessman has a car accident in the remote hills of the Appalachians in a snow storm and is rescued by individuals in the community. His thank-you is to return each year before Christmas to distribute silver packages to the children of the hills who have so little. The waves of that first rescue and his subsequent generosity ripple down the generations in this charming, quiet tale.
Then there are the biographies of people that went beyond a single act and made helping their fellow man their life mission. The stories of Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton of the Red Cross and Mary Breckinridge (of the Frontier Nursing service) in Rosemary Wells' Mary on Horseback, John Flynn of the Flying Doctor Service, etc.
We can tell our children what the rules are. We can lay out the commandments. We can teach them about right and wrong. We can talk about doing the right thing. But all that amounts to bringing the horse to the water. These tales are about people that take these basics and show what it can be like to be truly human, a mensch, a model.
Let us know your suggestions for stories about people selflessly helping people.
This book list is divided into three sections:
(1) Picture Books
(2) Books for Independent Readers
(3) Young Adults
The list begins below with Picture Books, but you can use the following link to skip directly to the Independent Readers or the Young Adults sections.
Go to books for Independent Readers
Go to books for Young Adults
The Little Ships by Louise Borden and illustrated by Michael Foreman Highly Recommended
The Yellow Star by Carmen Agra Deedy and illustrated by Henri Sorensen Highly Recommended
The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper and illustrated by George and Doris Hauman Highly Recommended
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski and illustrated by P. J. Lynch (CD narrated by James Earl Jones) Highly Recommended
Andy and the Lion by James Daugherty Recommended
America's White Table by Margot Theis Raven and illustrated by Mike Benny Recommended
Silver Packages by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet Recommended
Kate Shelley and the Midnight Express by Margaret K. Wetterer and illustrated by Karen Ritz Recommended
Alphabet Adventure by Audrey Wood and illustrated by Bruce Robert Wood Recommended
A Picture Book of Helen Keller by David A. Adler Suggested
Mayday! Mayday by Chris L. Demarest Suggested
Smokejumpers 1 to 10 by Chris L. Demarest Suggested
Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie by Peter and Connies Roop and illustrated by Peter E. Hanson Suggested
The Cat With the Yellow Star by Susan Goldman Rubin and Ela Weissberger Suggested
The Storm by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Preston McDaniels Suggested
Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss Suggested
Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss Suggested
Storm in the Night by Mary Stolz and illustrated by Pat Cummings Suggested
Beauty And the Beast by Max Eilenberg and illustrated by Angela Barrett Suggested
The Lion and the Mouse by Aesop and retold by Bernadette Watts Suggested
Twenty and Ten by Claire Huchet Bishop and illustrated by William Pene Du Bois Highly Recommended
Charlotte's Web by E. B. White and illustrated by Garth Williams Highly Recommended
Incident at Hawk's Hill by Allan W. Eckert and illustrated by John Schoenherr Recommended
Good Night, Mr. Tom by Michelle Magorian Recommended
Clara Barton by Wil Mara Recommended
Night of the Twisters by Ivy Ruckman Recommended
The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden and illustrated by Garth Williams Recommended
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein Recommended
Mary on Horseback by Rosemary Wells and illustrated by Peter McCarty Recommended
Knee Knock Rise by Natalie Babbitt Suggested
Fire in Their Eyes by Karen Magnuson Beil Suggested
Storm Warriors by Elisa Lynn Carbone Suggested
Dark Water Rising by Marian Hale Suggested
Darkness over Denmark by Ellen Levine Suggested
Rescue by Milton Meltzer Suggested
Blizzard by Jim Murphy Suggested
Anna, Grandpa, and the Big Storm by Carla Stevens and illustrated by Margot Tomes Suggested
Clara Barton, Founder of the American Red Cross by Augusta Stevenson and illustrated by Frank Giacoia Suggested
No Greater Glory by Dan Kurzman Recommended
Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson and Isaac Monroe Cline Recommended
Medal of Honor by Collier, Peter and Del Calzo, Nick Suggested
Trauma Junkie by Janice Hudson Suggested
The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger Suggested
Hiding to Survive by Maxine B. Rosenberg Suggested