Perhaps one has to live north of the Mason-Dixon line in order to fully appreciate why January demands a close look at courage. In northern New Hampshire, where this program originated, we are often grappling with twenty below zero weather, cars and buses that won’t start, and canceled outdoor recess simply because it is too cold to let the children out. Sickness dogs us. Snow days close our doors. Will we make it through January? January is a great month to focus on courage.
Courage is a big virtue—with physical, moral, intellectual, and civic dimensions. At each grade level we address different dimensions of courage, and teachers should take special note of those indicated in the Core Virtues book. But at all levels we stress that courage is not being “unafraid”; it is moving beyond fear in order to accomplish a higher good. Or, as Plato had it, courage “is knowing what things are truly to be feared.”
January offers the opportunity for splendid discussions on the difference between courage and recklessness. The same action (jumping off a bridge, for example) could be courageous or foolhardy depending on one’s motivation. Is the jumper trying to save a child who is floundering in the river and cannot swim? Or is she responding to a dare? Our goal in January is not to make students oblivious to danger and foolhardy, but to showcase lives and stories that speak to the human will to act when necessary—despite pain, pleasure, or pressure to the contrary.
Martin Luther King’s Day in January always provides an excellent opportunity to showcase moral and civic courage in action.
The following books are recommended for the grade levels indicated in parentheses.
Martin Luther King Day Recommendations can be found in the January Heroes section.
The Story Of Ruby Bridges: Special Anniversary Edition.
Robert Coles. Illustrated by George Ford. Scholastic, 2010.
(Courage, Justice, Forgiveness, K-3)
In 1960 courts ordered the desegregation of New Orleans schools. Imagine the courage it took for a six year-old girl to withstand taunts and jeers, and be the first (and only) African-American child to attend a New Orleans elementary school. Little Ruby Bridges faced this dilemma with courage, love, and determination. The true story is told in compelling detail, and is not merely about courage, but about the ability to forgive as well.
Brave Irene. William Steig.
Square Fish, Reprint, 2011. (K-3)
When mom falls sick, devoted Irene volunteers to deliver the dress her mother has made for the Duchess. She is met by hazards of nature at every turn. Only her courage and love for her mother keep her going. Steig’s humor and Irene’s irrepressible nature combine to make this a delightful read-aloud.
Snowflake Bentley. Jacqueline Briggs Martin.
Illustrated by Maary Azarian. Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
(Intellectual courage, K-3)
A beautifully illustrated, true story of intellectual courage. Vermont farm boy, Wilson Bentley, never lost his life-long fascination with snowflakes. As a young boy, he was captivated by their beauty, puzzled over them, and at age 17 (in 1882) began photographing the six-pointed flakes, finding no one flake identical to another. His passion for this wonder of nature and patience in mastering its photography, rewarded each of us with a fuller understanding of snowflake structure. But Bentley himself received little reward along the way. His parents spent the cost of a herd of cattle buying him a camera. Bentley’s costs dramatically outstripped his revenues, and the scientific community took no interest in his results until he was in his sixties. Ultimately, this is a book about intellectual courage and the perseverance needed to pursue one’s ideas.
Kate Shelley. Bound for Legend. Robert D. San Souci.
Illustrated by Max Ginsburg. Houghton Mifflin, 2001. (2-5)
The true story of thirteen year old Kate Shelley, an Iowa farm girl who in 1881 braved torrential rain, a heroic climb over a raging river, and gale-force winds to warn a train crew of a washed out bridge. She helps avert a major train disaster. Hauntingly realistic oil paintings bring to life twin themes of physical courage and responsibility.
Captain John Smith's Big and Beautiful Bay. Rebecca Jones.
Illustrated by Linda Shute. Schiffer Publishing, 2011.
(Courage, Wonder 1-5)
Rebecca Jones ploughs new ground, when telling children this true but little-known story of John Smith exploring the Chesapeake Bay. Smith, leader of the beleaguered Jamestown colony (1607), is known for shepherding (and haranguing) early colonists through a rough first winter. But that first spring brought the chance to explore the uncharted Chesapeake Bay. Smith and his crew braved hurricane-force winds, Indian attacks, hunger and disease, to better understand the new world they inhabited. With whimsical drawings, fully substantiated text, humor, and a deft touch, Jones and Shute bring Smith’s courage and curiosity to life. Adaptable for a wide range of ages.
David and Goliath. Beatrice Schenk de Regniers.
Illustrated by Scott Cameron. Orchard Books, 1996. (2-6)
A stunningly illustrated and fast-paced retelling of the Old Testament classic, in which young David, the weakest and least respected of eight brothers, agrees to do battle against the Philistine giant, Goliath. David has some experience using his sling shot as a shepherd against a menacing bear and lion. Now, with slingshot in hand and courage from above, David takes on the giant Goliath and triumphs. Out of print at present but easy to track down and worth the effort.
The Cats in Krasinski Square.
Karen Hesse. Illustrated by Wendy Watson.
Scholastic, 2004. (Courage, Justice, 3 -6)
Based on a true story of the Warsaw ghetto, this World War II-era tale is appropriate for older children (third graders and up). A young Jewish girl (ten or twelve) helps her older sister smuggle food to fellow Jews trapped behind the wall of Poland’s Warsaw ghetto. The two come up with an ingenious plan to outwit the Gestapo and its dogs (which sniff out food) by using the superabundance of stray cats in Krasinski Square. The clever rouse was the courageous work of a young girl, and it worked. Sparse, lyrical text and uncluttered watercolor illustrations make this a powerful and quick read-aloud for 3-6.
The Greatest Skating Race: A World War II Story from the Netherlands. Louise Borden. Illustrated by Niki Daly.
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2004. (Moral courage, 3-6)
Ten year-old Piet, a strong skater, dreams of taking first place in his nation’s famous two hundred kilometer ice-skating race. But in the winter of 1941, he realizes the most important race in his life may be a mere twelve kilometers long. His grandfather asks him to skate two children (whose lives are in danger in German-occupied Holland) to the safety of the Belgian border. They plot a route and strategy to outwit German guards posted along the frozen canal. Piet must rely not only on his own skating abilities, but on his ability to support and inspire his younger charges to push on with him. A touching and breathtaking work of historical fiction showing that courage starts young.
Saint George and the Dragon. Margaret Hodges.
Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman.
(Physical and Moral Courage, 4-6)
This is an outstanding retelling of a classic medieval tale. Courageous knight (St. George) accepts the challenge of slaying the dragon who imperils the British people. Illustrated in vivid, medieval manuscript fashion, the extraordinary artwork conveys the seriousness of the battle – foes locked in combat, struggling desperately for life and victory. Again and again a wearied, wounded George returns to the battlefield. But the book presents no trivialization of violence. There is no smile on the face of St. George when he defeats the foe. Instead “he trembled to see that creature fall.” A moving reflection on good, evil, and the strength of heart, mind, and body needed to endure.
Earthquake! A Story of the San Francisco Earthquake.
Kathleen V. Kudlinski.
Puffin, 1995. (4-6)
On April 19, 1906 San Francisco shuddered, then burst into flames. Twelve year-old Philip and his father stand to lose everything – their horses, their livery, their bicycle repair shop. Philip is in his family’s stables when the heaving earth knocks the horses to the ground. This slender chapter book brings the quake of ’06 to life, but also chronicles the courage and heroism of a young man determined to save his family’s livelihood.