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.