7 Amazing Books that Convey the Importance and Value of Names

Collage of book covers

When the school year begins, reviewing the class list is usually at the top of the to-do list for elementary classrooms. Teachers often take time to learn each child’s full name and spend time in the early days of school helping children get to know each other and their names. 

Names are a core part of identity. Names often reflect a person’s cultural, religious, ethnic or racial identity and can connect to traditions of family, community, ancestry and history. A name may originate from a language other than the ones spoken at school or home. A name can have a special meaning or be a source of pride. Family names are sometimes handed down from one generation to the next. Last names can reveal and affirm family history, a merging of several names or a new and meaningful name.  

Because names express our identity—who we are—it is essential that those caring for and teaching children get those names right.  

Therefore, whether it’s at the beginning of the school year, welcoming new students to class mid-way through the year, or at year-end ceremonies and graduations, prioritize knowing and pronouncing students' names correctly. 

For some students, the topic of names can be complicated, fraught or distressing—due to aspects of their identity. For example, if a student is an adoptee, they may have two names—their birth name and another name—or they may not know or never know their birth name. A non-binary or transgender student may have a different name than the one they were given at birth, but people in their lives who do not know this may inadvertently “deadname” them. In the past and present, students have twisted and changed names to tease, ridicule or bully others. 

Some students may have a name that others find challenging to pronounce. What’s “challenging” for some to pronounce may be easy or come naturally to others, depending on the linguistic and cultural background of the person. With that in mind, others (including adults who voice carries great weight in the classroom) should never shorten students’ names, use a “nickname,” (not agreed to by the student) or continue to use the wrong pronunciation. To that student, the wrong name can feel like a sting or a microaggression every single time. To the rest of the class, mispronouncing or changing a student’s name, sends a message that the student’s name does not belong to them. When names are mispronounced, educators will sometimes explain that the name is “difficult to pronounce,” which is not a helpful or respectful response. It implies that there’s something wrong with that student’s name, rather than offering a teachable moment that one should practicing saying others’ names correctly.  

When children enter our schools, they should not have to face an educator who mispronounces, disregards, or changes their name. When that happens, children can feel that their identity, family, culture or community is being disregarded, excluded or erased. When students’ names are used correctly and they are invited to explore and explain the origins and meaning of their names, they feel respected and included.  

Here are ideas for getting to know students’ names:  

  • When reviewing the class list before seeing students, practice saying each name aloud. If you get to a student’s name you're unsure about, ask other adults in the school who might know that student or search for pronunciation guides or recordings of that name. You can also ask all students (or their parents) to record and share the pronunciation of their names. 

  • When getting to know students, let them know that you're doing your best to learn and remember everyone's name because it is important to get it right. Tell students that it's okay to correct you if you make a mistake, and when it happens, thank the student for correct you and try again. In order to not repeat the mistake, jot down notes or whatever might help you get the name and pronunciation right. 

  • Avoid describing names as "difficult" or "unique," even if it's your own. If you want to share a personal story about your name, be sure to personalize it and describe your feelings rather than making universal declarations about what is normal or abnormal about names.  

As you welcome students to school, use these books to open conversations about the importance of names, the seriousness of pronouncing names correctly and why we should not shorten names or give students nicknames. All are picture books but can be used for grades K-12 to discuss names. Most of these books include discussion guides for educators and parents/families.