Peace Education and Children’s Literature: Books That Inspire Compassion and Empathy for Ages 3-9
Written by Leslie Gossett, Desert Studio Teacher (ages 3-6)
“Preventing war is the work of politicians, establishing peace is the work of educationists.” - Maria Montessori
As Montessori teachers, an underlying focus as we guide children each day is peace education. Maria Montessori believed that peace education was as integral to a child’s development as a human of this world, if not more so, than any lessons on language, math, history, or science. In our 3-9 Montessori classrooms, we strive to model peace, tolerance, compassion, empathy, and kindness from the earliest ages. Great importance is placed upon facilitating and teaching understanding and communication of the child’s own emotions, especially at the 3-6 level (inner peace), as well as then moving toward more advanced conflict resolution at the 6-9 level (peace with others). We want our children to be peaceseekers as well as peacemakers.
This can seem like a daunting task, especially in today’s turbulent world. How do we instill in our children a sincere desire to look for the best in people, to find opportunities to offer kindness, to truly look through a lens of compassion and understanding when encountering others on life’s path?
In the words of Maria Montessori, “Do not tell them how to do it. Show them how to do it and do not say a word. If you tell them, they will watch your lips move. If you show them, they will want to do it themselves.”
Here is where children’s literature can play a vital role in the development of empathy, kindness, and compassion in our young people. Research suggests that reading can create a sort of mental simulation of reality that allows us to experience the thoughts and feelings of others, as if you were living the situation yourself. It seems that reading about an interaction between people and actually navigating through the same types of interactions in real life stimulate the same regions of the brain. If this is the case, then surrounding learners with literature that is rich in promoting, modeling, and exploring attributes such as kindness, compassion, generosity, tolerance, sense of community, and understanding can be an important piece of instilling those valued qualities in our beloved tiny humans.
I happen to love a quote on this subject from R.L. Palacio, author of the hugely popular children’s novel, Wonder (subsequently made into a feature film). She has this to say about teaching empathy, which echoes not only Montessori, but the research mentioned above:
“The tricky part about teaching empathy to children is that you can’t really teach it. . . With very young children it’s best to tickle it awake, but it takes a very light touch. That’s where a good picture book comes in handy. If a child can relate to a character or become immersed in a story, she begins to have feelings outside the realm of her own experience. The spark of empathy, delivered gently, can then grow.”
So without further ado, here are some titles from children’s literature (with 3-9 age level recommendations) that you may want to consider adding to your child’s library that promote compassion, empathy, and kindness.
Whoever You Are
by Mem Fox; illustrated by Leslie Staub (Ages 3-8)
Mem Fox speaks directly to her young readers in this book that seeks to emphasize just how united we all are, no matter where we live, what language we speak, what clothes we wear, what foods we eat, or what religion we practice. The illustrations are saturated with color, and bear the image of a bronze frame embedded with jewels around each one. The artistic style is interesting, and some find them, especially the depictions of the faces, to be a little strange. There is an almost dreamlike quality to some of them. Nevertheless, the message of the value of diversity and the understanding and appreciation of cultural differences is loud and clear. This book is obviously meant for the very young, and the prose is simple and direct. “Their smiles are like yours, and they laugh just like you. Their hurts are like yours, and they cry like you, too, whoever they are, wherever they are, all over the world.”
Peace Is An Offering
by Annette LeBox; illustrated by Stephanie Graegin (Ages 3-8)
Rhyming text and sweet, colorful illustrations are used in this gentle book that depicts a neighborhood of diverse children finding peace in simple, everyday objects and experiences around them. “Peace is an offering. A muffin or a peach. A birthday invitation. A trip to the beach.” Its rhythm is comforting and soft, and feels like a book that could be read again and again as a reassurance or reminder of the beauty we want our children to find in -- and bring to -- the world around them. “Peace is holding on to one another. Peace is the words you say to a brother. Will you stay with me? Will you be my friend? Will you listen to my story till the very end?” It is not only a reminder to feel gratitude for those little things we might take for granted, but also an encouragement to act in ways, no matter how small, that bring peace, kindness, and compassion to others.
How to Be a Lion
written and illustrated by Ed Vere (Ages 4-8)
“The world is full of ideas. . . Some think this. . . others think that. Some say there’s only one way to be a lion.” And so we meet Leonard, a gentle lion who enjoys daydreams, walks in the warm sun, and writing poetry. He soon meets Marianne the duck, who enjoys many of the same things Leonard does, and they become fast friends, writing poetry, taking walks, wishing on shooting stars, and thinking deep thoughts together. “ ‘Do you think the universe has edges?’ quacked Marianne. ‘If it doesn’t,’ said Leonard, ‘will we fall out?’ Together, they are happy. They wish nothing more than this.” When a pack of bullying lions encounter them, they are disbelieving and critical of the friendship, and wonder why Leonard hasn’t eaten Marianne by now. They insist that there is only one way to be a lion, and that he must be fierce. Marianne helps a nervous Leonard find a way to address the situation peacefully and quietly using his gift of words. This is exactly what we support children with each day in our Montessori classrooms -- communicating our feelings and needs to others clearly and peacefully in order to resolve our conflicts. It’s not hard to see the parallels between this timely story and current issues our society still struggles with, and I like that the power of peaceful words is highlighted: “Some say words can’t change the world. Leonard says, if they make you think, then maybe they can.”
Why Am I Me?
By Paige Britt; illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko (Ages 4-8)
Two children ride home on a train with their respective adults. The children are of different races, by appearances seem to be from different backgrounds, and are surrounded by an equally diverse crowd of people around them, all heading to different homes, different lives. The words are few in this story, but basically follow the wonderings of the two children: “Who in the world are we. . . if we are aren’t you and me?” What if you had been born into another family entirely? Would you still be you? And how important are the differences between us anyway? Paige Britt leads young readers through a contemplation on this admittedly heady topic. Her book prompts an examination of our differences, but also a recognition of our similarities, and promotes the concepts of community, compassion, and appreciation for our diversity.
I Walk With Vanessa
by Kerascoet (Ages 4-8)
Entirely without words, this book shows how one person’s act of kindness can spread. This is pure picture book, with no text, and it tells the story of Vanessa, who is new at school. She is a bit lost and lonely on that first day, knowing no one, and is treated in an aggressively unkind way by a boy on her way home from school. This is witnessed by our other nameless protagonist, a girl who decides to do something very simple, and yet very powerful for Vanessa -- she walks to school with her the next morning. Even more, she invites her friends to walk with them. The layout and flow of the illustrations make this a perfect book to “read” side-by-side with your child, where you can both examine all the details in the pictures. You can talk through it together, or let your child take the lead. There are ample opportunities for wondering, predicting, and reflection. But the take-away is lovely, simple, and empowering: sometimes all you have to do to support someone is to just be with them. There is no confrontation with the bully in this story, no element of the story where he learns his lesson. Just basic kindness, and extending friendship toward someone new -- something all children can do. In the process, they may just inspire others to do the same.
by Kathryn Otoshi (Ages 4-9)
Blue is a quiet, introverted color who likes to gaze at the sky, float on waves, and splash in puddles (when he’s feeling daring). But he is picked on by Red, a bully who ridicules Blue and all the other colors. Green, Yellow, Purple, and Orange don’t like how Red acts, but feel intimidated by Red’s aggression. Then comes along One, who stands up to Red, and allows the other colors to feel empowered to say “No!” when they are targets of Red’s unkindness. What is lovely about this book is that the story doesn’t end there. Instead of leaving Red out, One invites him to be a part of their group. Otoshi’s story is one of compassion, courage, and standing up for what is right, but also of reaching out in support and understanding to those who have not been so kind. So hard to do, and we see so little of it, but this may be the very skill that could most change our children’s world.
The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade
by Justin Roberts; illustrated by Christian Robinson (Ages 4-9)
For a book that is written in sing-songy rhyme with simplistic illustrations, this story may surprise you with its depth. “Hardly anyone noticed young Sally McCabe. . . And they certainly didn’t know, or at least didn’t mention, that Sally was paying super extra special attention.” Sally pays attention to kites tangled in trees, leaves changing in the fall, a classmate being tripped, another being pushed off the slide and hiding his tears, even a small child abruptly being dragged away from a parent-teacher conference by his much larger father (that’s when I realized that despite all the basic, round smiley faces in his book, Justin Roberts was pulling no punches). Sally finally speaks up about all the unkindness she sees in a scene that works in a book, but isn’t a tool a child could utilize in real life. However, the theme of noticing injustice around you and saying or doing something about it is worthwhile, as is the idea that anyone can make a difference. I particularly liked the implication the author makes toward the end of the story that bad things will continue to happen around us, but that what matters are the small but persistent actions we can keep taking to bring compassion to others.
How to Heal a Broken Wing
written and illustrated by Bob Graham (Ages 4-9)
Before an act of kindness can be performed, someone must be attentive enough to the need for that act. In this tender picture story, with spare text and told primarily through its illustrations, a young boy is the only one to notice an injured bird in the busy streets of a city. He and his family take the bird home to nurse it back to health. The pictures are arranged like comic book panels. Most of the story features soft, muted, blue and gray pastel colors, some of which represent the rest of the world rushing by too quickly to care about the plight of one small creature. In contrast, our young protagonist’s care and kindness stand out in the bright red of his jacket and the sunny yellow of the curtains in his home. He and his parents gently and patiently care for the bird: “With rest. . . and time. . . and a little hope. . . a bird may fly again.” I think this author’s hope is for his young readers to be a generation that will take the time to notice and care, and provide those acts of kindness to a world that increasingly needs them.
A Hat For Mrs. Goldman
by Michelle Edwards; illustrated by G. Brian Karas (Ages 5-9)
Sophia’s next-door neighbor, Mrs. Goldman, knits hats for everyone in the neighborhood, including an infant’s cap when Sophia was born. Sophia has learned to knit from Mrs. Goldman, but prefers sewing because she finds knitting too difficult and time-consuming. One day, while walking Mrs. Goldman’s little dog, Fifi, (who also wears a sweater knitted by her titular owner), Sophia notices that Mrs. Goldman herself has no hat, that her ears are pink and must be very cold. When she asks Mrs. Goldman where her hat is, she says she had given it to another neighbor in need of one. Worried that her friend spends so much time knitting for others that she doesn’t have time to make a hat for herself, Sophia sets out to make a warm hat for Mrs. Goldman. Her knitting skills, however, leave a lot to be desired. Nevertheless, Sophia finds a way to use what she does know how to do to create “the most special hat in the world.” With soft-edged, subdued illustrations and tender warmth from its central characters, this is a story about noticing and repaying generosity, giving sincerely what you have to give, and the intrinsic reward of extending genuine love and thoughtfulness to others.
Written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes (Ages 5-9)
I’ve been reading Chrysanthemum to my class on the first day of school for quite a few years. It deals with the disappointment and pain of exclusion, and the experience of having others be downright mean to you. However, I come back to this book again and again because it handles these issues with such sweetness, cleverness, and even humor. Kevin Henkes excels at this, and introduces us to little Chrysanthemum, who is supported and loved by her adoring parents, and greets her first day of school with optimism, excitement, and hope. Unfortunately, she is unexpectedly teased by a handful of “mean girls” because her name is so long. Each day, she comes home to her parents who try their best to love her through it, but the meanness continues. Day after day, Chrysanthemum gradually loses her bright, cheery demeanor -- until the class meets the new music teacher, who captures the admiration of all and happens to share something in common with Chrysanthemum. Though the ending may be a bit too tidily happy for some, this book is absolutely charming. Most importantly, it provides opportunities to discuss acceptance and appreciation of differences, kindness and inclusion, and resilience in the wake of exclusion.
Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse
by Marcy Campbell; illustrated by Corinna Luyken (Ages 5-9)
Young children value the truth. And when a peer is not telling the truth, they can have an uncanny ability to zero in on that evasion. They tend to see things in black and white, and there can be very little room for shades of gray. That’s one of the qualities I love so much about this particular book -- its authentic voice as it is told in the first-person by narrator Chloe. The opening illustration shows a long lunch table of children, all of them interacting and socializing but one -- a lone boy on the end of the table whose gaze is averted upward, thoughtfully. “Adrian Simcox sits all by himself, probably daydreaming again,” begins the text. Right from the start, adult readers can feel our concern and compassion for Adrian Simcox, as we know right away that this is a child who has been excluded for some reason. But Chloe’s statement bears no sympathy, only stubborn impatience with him. She tells us how he will tell anyone who will listen that he has the most beautiful horse at home. But Chloe insistently shares all the logical reasons that can’t possibly be true. When their teacher encourages them to be understanding and patient, Chloe expresses the familiar exasperation of a young peer: “But I was tired of being patient with Adrian Simcox and tired of trying to understand why he kept telling everybody he had a horse when HE DID NOT!” Luckily, Chloe’s mom intercedes in a way we wish all parents would support their children. She gives her the opportunity to glimpse Adrian’s less-than-privileged life, which is so very different from her own. As a result, Chloe’s stubborn dislike of Adrian’s “lies” fades, and her understanding, compassion, empathy, and even admiration for him blossoms.
Under the Lemon Moon
by Edith Hope Fine; illustrated by René King Moreno (Ages 5-9)
Young children can often have very strong feelings about what is fair or just -- so much so that seeing situations from more than one point of view may be a challenge. This book invites readers to put themselves in the position of Rosalinda, who witnesses a man taking lemons from her beloved lemon tree in the middle of the night. Shortly thereafter, the tree begins to die. Worried and sad, Rosalinda seeks help from others in her community, and eventually summons La Anciana, “The Old One”, who helps things grow. Magical elements play a role before the end, but the supernatural aspects are inconsequential. The heart of the story lies in what Rosalinda discovers about why her lemons were taken, which makes this first and foremost a tale of compassion, understanding, and forgiveness.
The Invisible Boy
by Trudy Ludwig; illustrated by Patrice Barton (Ages 6-9)
As a mother of two quiet children, this book can break my heart. Brian is the boy who seems to recede into the background in his classroom. He doesn’t demand attention like some children; he prefers to quietly draw and wait to be called upon or talked to. Except that he never seems to be noticed or included by the others. But when a new boy joins the class and is ridiculed by the other classmates, Brian is the one who reaches out to him in his own quiet way. The two boys are able to work on a school project together with a third boy. As they collaborate, Brian is able to finally share his gifts and feel seen by others. This sweet story might just make you cry, but it powerfully illustrates the importance of acts of compassion, inclusion, and kindness.
Last Stop on Market Street
by Matt de la Pena (Ages 6-9)
This book is a rarity. It won the coveted Newbery Award for most distinguished contribution to American literature for children in its year of publication, and it won as a children’s picture book, not as a chapter book, which is usually the case. For the same year, it also was a Caldecott Honor Book, meaning it was a runner-up for most distinguished illustrations in American children’s literature. It lives up to both honors with its simple, brief, but poignant prose and uncomplicated, vibrant geometric illustrations. The story follows CJ and his Nana as they leave church and ride a city bus to a soup kitchen where they volunteer each Sunday afternoon. Along the way, CJ feels envious of other boys who have iPods, or whose families have cars, or who get to go straight home after church. His grandmother good-naturedly counters each of his complaints with drawing his attention to the diversity of the people around him. She draws him into warm interactions with them, and helps him see the worth of their experience. When our main characters step off the bus in the battered soup kitchen neighborhood, Nana observes, “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.” Emphasizing community, diversity, and compassion, this book shows children that there is value in all we -- and others -- experience, if only we will look for and embrace it.
by Jacqueline Woodson; illustrated by E. B. Lewis (Ages 6-10)
Not all children’s books have happy endings, nor should they. Jacqueline Woodson’s Each Kindness is one of those books; it is heartbreaking, yet powerful. The story is told from the point of view of Chloe, who is not sure how she feels about new student Maya. Maya’s clothes are old and secondhand, she brings strange food for lunch, and the toys she brings to school to share are simple, used, or inexpensive. When Maya sits down next to Chloe on that first day and smiles at her, Chloe turns away and moves farther from her. Though Maya tries to befriend the other learners, they whisper about her behind her back, laugh at her clothes, and turn down her offers to play. One day, Maya is not at school. Chloe’s teacher gives a lesson on kindness, dropping a stone into water: “Each little thing we do goes out, like a ripple into the world.” Chloe begins to reflect on her treatment of Maya, and of the kindnesses she had never shown. She tells herself that when Maya returns to school, she will have a second chance to smile back at her. Most stories would give Chloe that second chance, but Each Kindness chooses instead to depict what is perhaps a more realistic ending. And though it is a sad ending, it is the ending that gives young readers the chance to consider the everyday choices we do and don’t make, and the kindnesses we offer or withhold. A meditation on compassion, empathy, and inclusion, this book allows children to feel the regret of lost opportunities through Chloe, and gives them the chance to make different choices in their own lives.
Fly Away Home
by Eve Bunting; illustrated by Ronald Himler (Ages 6-12)
Andrew and his father are homeless. They live in an airport because they cannot afford to be anywhere else. They spend their days following careful routines that are designed not to bring them any notice. The story is told from the point of view of young Andrew, a young boy just about the age to enter school. He tells, in a rather matter of fact way, about their daily activities and how they interact with other homeless families and individuals also trying to find their way at the airport. The writing does not dwell on the boy’s feelings of sadness or self-pity for him or his father, who works on the weekends as a janitor in an office building. He seems accustomed to their situation, though he hopes for a brighter future. This is alluded to when he finds a small bird trapped inside the terminal, and exults at its eventual escape outside to freedom. The subject matter is serious, to be sure, but celebrated author Eve Bunting provides excellent opportunities to discuss compassion, empathy, and understanding for lives that are very different from our own. Though this is a picture book, it could easily be used for children in upper elementary grades as well.