One of life’s great pleasures is the experience of friendship. Friendship is built from components that are critical to living in the world — listening, trusting, finding similarities, accepting differences, sharing joy and frustration, learning how to resolve conflict and creating memories.
For instance, when my son was young, he never articulated a definition of friendship, but he sensed how his friendships enriched his life. Social contact with peers and trusted adults taught him about himself as a person — his fears, his strengths, his opinions — as well as provided him direction for navigating an ever more complicated world.
Learning how to be a friend doesn’t happen in a vacuum — as parents, the interactions we have with our friends are important models. But we also have tools, great books to read aloud to our children about the joys and challenges of friendship. From initiating the first “hello” to the experience of being a third wheel, the stories in these books encourage early readers ages 4–8 to develop critical social skills.
“Yo! Yes?” by Chris Raschka
What is the first step in making a friend? In this story, two boys meet in the street and the more assertive one calls out a friendly “Yo!” to the other. Thus begins an exchange between two very different personality types, both keen to continue a mostly one-word conversation. The shyer of the two is gradually drawn out by the more gregarious boy, and eventually the pair strides off together shouting the “Yo! Yes!” of the title, established as new pals.
The book shows how easily responsive other children are to an initial greeting, and also demonstrates to a more reticent child how he might respond.
“Fancy Nancy and the Boy from Paris” by Jane O’Connor, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser
“Fancy Nancy” is a series of early-reader books that feature different adventures of the whimsical and artsy namesake character Nancy. In this story, Nancy befriends the new boy in class who is reputed to be from Paris. Nancy projects her imagination of his French heritage onto the new boy and he patiently humors her as she invites him to play, with images of the Eiffel Tower dancing before her eyes.
When it turns out he is from Paris, Texas, they both must deal with the embarrassment of the misunderstanding ... but not for long. Along the way, they have established other things in common that happily override any disappointment stemming from her initial assumption.
“Zelda and Ivy: Keeping Secrets” by Laura McGee Kvasnosky
“Zelda and Ivy” is another early-reader series about two sisters and their neighbor friend Eugene. In the title story, elder sister Zelda tells both Ivy and Eugene separately the same innocuous “secret,” swearing each to keep it to themselves. When later Ivy and Eugene reveal the same secret to each other, some challenges and learning ensue.
The story ends happily with transparency among the three characters, but it introduces the complexity that can arise from multiple loyalties. It is both a gift and a burden to carry a secret, and this story introduces this concept without imposing judgment either way.
“Days With Frog and Toad” by Arnold Lobel
Of all the Frog and Toad books featuring this enduring pair of friends (the first book came out in 1970), this book, in particular, offers powerful lessons about friendship. The story “Alone,” for example, shows how two friends, accustomed to being together, each deal with Frog’s need for solitude one afternoon.
Toad eventually learns, after a disastrous misadventure to reach Frog on his day of solitude, that his worry is unfounded. The message imparted is one of respect for space and trusting in the benign intent within a friendship.
“Elmer and Snake” by David McKee
Elmer the patchwork elephant stands out among other elephants for his colorful checkerboard skin, and in this story he is teased because of it. The other elephants plot to play a trick on him, and Elmer is rescued by his friend Snake, who alerts Elmer to their ruse. Together, Snake and Elmer turn the tables on the others, in a playful and clever way that unifies everyone in the end in a game of tickling.
Elmer and Snake demonstrate loyalty and teamwork as friends to tackle a challenge together, without antagonizing anyone. Reliance on and commitment to each other in friendship are the foundation of trust.
“A Bargain for Frances” by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Lillian Hoban
In this story, Frances the badger’s urge for a one-upmanship over her neighbor friend Thelma teaches them both a lesson about telling the truth and forgiving each other. When Thelma tricks Frances into selling her china tea set, Frances is hurt that she was hoodwinked by her so-called friend. She tricks Thelma in turn, and the latter then feels the shame earlier felt by Frances.
However, the hurt of both is short-lived, as Frances quickly discovers that there is little victory in getting even — she’d rather have a friend and forget about settling scores. Thelma agrees to the truce and the story ends with their friendship restored.
“Let’s Be Enemies” by Janice May Udry, illustrated by Maurice Sendak
The title of this short book allows for the possibility of differences to enter a friendship. Friends one day, enemies the next; children can know that social dynamics change and that that is just fine. John and James are friends who decide to be enemies after John is fed up with James always wanting to be the boss. John ends the friendship ... for all of one minute.
That break is all that the two friends need to reset, and then they are back to being pals. Sometimes friends just need a break from one another!
“Flabbersmashed About You” by Rachel Vail, illustrated by Yumi Heo
The classic friendship is between two people. Very often, however, a third person can enter the perceived perfect union, and thereby create upset, whether intentional or not. In this story, Katie’s best friend Jennifer decides to play with another child during recess, leaving Katie alone and distraught. Katie is so preoccupied with her feelings of betrayal that she doesn’t notice the approach of another classmate, the shy Arabella, who is looking for a friend of her own to play with.
Katie learns that her abandonment by Jennifer — however painful — created an opportunity for a new friendship with Arabella to develop. Though Katie is disappointed by her loss, she welcomes Arabella’s comforting gesture and learns a lesson about the importance of being open to new friendships.
A special thank you to Mary Lynn Potter, retired Shoreline Public Schools librarian, and Mary Elliott, staff bookseller at Secret Garden Books in Ballard, for their book suggestions for this article. Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2015, and updated in June 2022.