Books that Inspire Fresh Beginnings, Positive Habits, and Start the New Year off Right!

Nearly thirty years ago, at the Presidential Inauguration Ceremony, poet Maya Angelou read her composition On the Pulse of Morning, a poem that encouraged fresh beginnings and positive habits even while lamenting the failings of our past, notably those related to the environment. On the Pulse of Morning is about Nature, but like all fine poems, it speaks to larger themes, imparting wisdom between the lines and new insights with each re-read. Among this poem’s broad messages are that humans, by virtue of their intellects, do have the capacity to change, and that Hope is a motivator. Hope for a better future can be the basis for fresh beginnings and new habits.

The sentence that I love most is, “The horizon leans forward, offering you space to place new steps of change.” I love it because the “horizon leaning forward” is figurative language that could represent the mission of any good school. We want our schools to be places where all our students have the space and the resources to reach their potential as scholars and problem-solvers, where they are free to stumble and then start over, where they develop positive and lasting habits of mind, among them empathy and remaining open to continuous learning.

It is in this spirit – and at the onset of the new horizon of 2022 – we recommend some stories that speak to fresh beginnings and feature personal growth themes, and amplify ideas we promote in our schools.

Because Amelia Smiled Written and Illustrated by David Ezra Stein

Amelia’s smile and her general happiness go on to cause a chain reaction of goodwill and inspiration that continues across several other countries and eventually back to Amelia. The message here is strong: one person’s action can make a difference, like ripples in the ocean. When we do kind things for other people, they are more likely to do kind things themselves. Stein’s bright pencil, crayon, and watercolor illustrations make this book a treasure.

The Longest Storm by Dan Yaccarino

A beautifully illustrated picture book about the importance of having coping skills. This author/illustrator places a metaphor moment where the storm forces the family into total darkness and isolation. “There was nothing to do, and too much time to do it.” Once the family realizes that they can work together, they find forgiveness and comfort in each other. The importance of saying sorry, as well as healing and moving on as a family are clearly portrayed on the pages of this book. A great conversation starter for some tough topics.

Grades One and Two
Manjhi Moves a Mountain by Nancy Churnin, Illustrated by Danny Popovici

This incredible true story is about a man so determined, he spent 22 years chiseling through a mountain. The breathtaking double-page watercolor illustrations capture the decades-long timeline and determination of Manjhi. In a small village deep in India the townspeople at first ridiculed him. He was eventually joined by his community, transforming him to a legend. The book includes a way for readers to share their own experiences and celebrates kids who do acts of kindness, good deeds, and encouraging kindness to spread.

The Bad Mood and the Stick Written by Lemony Snicket and Illustrated by Matthew Forsythe

This brilliant and unique story tells the tale of a bad mood and a stick, and ponders the cause and effect of each of them. They travel around the town, poking brothers, falling in mud puddles, and missing out on ice cream. When the stick has a cocoon on it, the ice cream store owner displays it for all to see. What becomes of the bad mood? The striking gouache, ink, and pencil illustrations, show us where the bad mood travels, and how a bad mood can be cured. This personification of a bad mood gives children a tool through which they can gain understanding about the way moods work and impact our lives.

Grades Three to Five

One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia Written by Miranda Paul, Illustrated by Elizabeth Zunan

This inspiring true story is about Isatou Ceesay, who began a movement to do something about the plastic bags that were polluting her community. The bags were being discarded everywhere, which led to dirty water, mosquitoes, and eventually sickening the goats who began eating them. With unique art and native words interspersed throughout, the story follows persistent Isatou who thinks outside the box, and ignores the laughter to solve this town’s problem.

Middle School
Stuntboy, In the Meantime by Jason Reynolds, illustrated by Raul the Third

Newbery Medal honoree and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jason Reynolds and graphic novel artist Raul the Third collaborated on this hilarious, hopeful, and action-packed illustrated chapter book about the greatest young superhero you’ve never heard of. The main character, Portico Reeves, creates a superhero persona to help himself deal with bullies, his family issues, and his own anxiety. Stuntboy is a hero with determination and a true heart of gold, even when his problems make life hard. This book is full of comics, but has a deep and meaningful story that many middle schoolers will appreciate.

Pony written by RJ Palacio

The Author of Wonder brings us this historical fiction story which takes place in 1860 Ohio. Twelve-year old Silas witnesses his Scottish immigrant father’s abduction, and must push himself past all his fears while on a mission to rescue him. It becomes a hero’s journey, on which Silas feels like Telemachus from Greek mythology. The other star of the book is the Arabian pony with a white skull on his face that seemingly understands how to help his travel partner. This is a story about resilience and bravery, companionship, and family bonds. Included as illustrations are daguerreotype portraits, which are fun and help to visualize the characters in their era.

We hope these books will help inspire you as you embark on starting this New Year off right! And if you are interested in learning more about Stratford School Altadena, or scheduling a personalized tour, visit us online at


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