School Library Journal Book Picks: Problem Solving

Children are wired to be problem-solvers. From birth, figuring out the world and how to get what they need — from getting fed to getting hugged — is the number one way they learn. Some puzzles are harder, and too big to solve alone. Sometimes problems need community! These wonderful titles remind kids that almost everything can be taken apart and more importantly, put back together for the benefit of all.

This list of books that highlight empathy was curated by Kimberly Olson Fakih, Senior Editor, Picture Books at School Library Journal.

The Good Stranger's Sancocho Surprise

The Good Stranger’s Sancocho Surprise/El sancocho sorpresa del buen desconocido

This Stone Soup retelling — in which a stone boiled in water plus food contributions from the rest of the community adds up to nourishment for all — is set in the Dominican Republic following an earthquake. A hungry man who has lost his wife and his children resorts to begging and comes up empty-handed. A small girl helps him make sanchocho, a traditional stew, and everyone learns a lesson about unity and helping others. A sancocho-themed song in Spanish and English is also provided.
Age Groups: Little Kids, Toddlers
Skills: Problem Solving
Author: Written by John J. McLaughlin and illustrated by Ruddy Nuñez

Discussion Questions

  • What problem does the community face in the story?
  • How do they work together to solve the problem?
  • Can you think of problems members of OUR community could solve by working together?
  • If you lived in the neighborhood where the book took place, what would YOU have added to the soup?
Something’s Wrong! A Bear, a Hare, and Some Underwear

Something’s Wrong! A Bear, a Hare, and Some Underwear

The dreaded “I’m out in public only wearing my underwear!” dream comes true for a bear one day and he just doesn’t realize why all the other animals in the forest are giving him such strange looks. It’s not just a lesson on problem-solving, but a glimpse of allyship when the bear’s puzzled friend Anders struggles openly with his reaction and then comes to boldly support his friend. Hilarity will ensue wherever underwear stories — and the very mention of them — are welcome.
Age Groups: Big Kids, Little Kids, Toddlers
Skills: friendship, Problem Solving
Author: Written by Jory John and illustrated by Erin Kraan Farrar

Discussion Questions

  • Why are the other animals giving Bear funny looks? How do you think this makes him feel?
  • How does Anders help Bear to solve his problem?
  • Do you have any other ideas to share with Bear and his friend? How would YOU solve this problem?

Bunny Will Not Jump!

This purple bunny drawn in a cartoon style has foot-stompin’ attitude. The problem is introduced by a big blue bear who addresses readers directly: “Oh, hi, friend! It is your pal Big. I have a problem. Bunny will not jump.“ Emerging readers will be thrilled when they’re invited to help Bunny jump and dance. This is ideal material for those needing the same push of confidence that Big supplies Bunny. Simple concepts, flowing word choices, and the discovery that Bunny loves to jump will have children realizing they love to read.
Age Groups: Little Kids
Skills: friendship, Problem Solving
Author: Written and illustrated by Jason Tharp

Discussion Questions

  • Big tells us what Bunny's problem is. What is it?
  • Have you ever had a problem like Bunny's? Tell me about it!
  • How does Bunny learn to jump?
  • How did YOU solve the problem YOU faced? Are there other strategies you should have tried?
Ten Steps to Flying Like a Superhero

Ten Steps to Flying Like a Superhero

An endearing take on the superhero story. When a white child, Lava Boy, meets up with a Black child, Star Girl, readers get an adventure of creativity, teamwork, and perseverance. Pilutti’s weaving of a story of friendship and loyalty with one of new horizons and problem-solving is a great lesson in collaboration and out-of-the-box thinking. Adorable drawn illustrations in a dynamic cartoon style show all the action — so much action — and a genuinely sweet resolution.
Age Groups: Big Kids, Little Kids
Skills: friendship, Problem Solving
Author: Written and illustrated by Deb Pilutti

Discussion Questions

  • What challenge does Lava Boy face?
  • What would YOU do if you were him?
  • Describe how his friend Star Girl helps solve the problem. What can we learn from the story?
  • Let's think of a few ways that friends, working together, can do big things in real life!

One Is a Piñata: A Book of Numbers

Every problem is easier if you know how to count! This book gives readers the basics in both Spanish and English and the result is a fiesta for year-round celebrations. It offers opportunities for vocabulary development but also incorporates recognizable symbols of Latinx cultural heritage.
Age Groups: Big Kids, Little Kids
Skills: Math, Problem Solving
Author: Written by Roseanne Greenfield and illustrated by John Parra

Discussion Questions

  • Sometimes people can use numbers to solve problems — this is math! Sometimes people can use their words — this is usually when there are problems between two people. What kind of "problems" are in this book?
  • Have you ever tried to solve a problem with numbers? Let's practice together, using what we learned in the book.
Isobel Adds It Up

Isobel Adds It Up

Literal problem-solving is part of every school day, and in this charmer, Isobel, a young Black girl, is eager to add, subtract, multiply, and divide her way to completing her homework. Clouds of numbers, symbols, graphs, and equations billow from her busy brain and dance across the page. Then Isobel is distracted by the ruckus coming from her new neighbors. The equations in her head are abruptly replaced with theories of what is happening next door. Acrobats? Marching band? Conga line? Engaging her problem-solving skills, Isobel whips up a batch of cookies and a note for the neighbors. The results surprise even her.
Age Groups: Big Kids, Little Kids, Toddlers
Skills: communication, Problem Solving
Author: Written by Kristy Everington and illustrated by A.G. Ford

Discussion Questions

  • What problems does Isobel love to solve (with numbers)?
  • What non-math problem does Isobel try to solve in the story?
  • What DID YOU think was causing all the noise?
  • Does the answer surprise you?
  • What did you learn about problem solving from "Isobel Adds it Up"?

It Began with Lemonade

What's the problem here? A young entrepreneur, her skin brown and her heart wide open, is not discouraged when she cannot find a location for her lemonade stand. Though she feels as “terrible as a turnip,” she pushes on and finds the ideal place to pitch her business. For young fans of all modes of transportation, steamboats, tugboats, skiffs, and submarines line up for miles, and like every good proprietor, the child stays open as long as she can, then rumbles home to dream of the next day’s business. An exhilarating lesson on problem-solving and perseverance.
Age Groups: Big Kids, Little Kids
Skills: Problem Solving
Author: Written by Gideon Sterer and illustrated by Lian Cho

Discussion Questions

  • Have you ever had an idea for a business? Tell me about it!
  • What problems does the entrepreneur in the story try to solve? What challenges does she face along the way?
  • Did anything surprise you about the story?
  • What lessons can we learn from her story?
School Library Journal

School Library Journal is the premiere publication for librarians and information specialists who work with children and teens. A source of quality journalism and reviews for more than 60 years, SLJ produces award-winning features and news coverage on literacy, technology, education policy, and other issues of interest to the school library and greater educator community. SLJ evaluates a broad range of resources, from books and digital content to databases, in 6000-plus reviews published annually. This list was curated by Kimberly Olson Fakih, Senior Editor, Picture Books.