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.