As someone who believes in peace, deeply believes humans are capable of working through problems without resorting to violence, I will confess that raising children is a humbling experience. My boys are 11, 8 and 4. I try very hard not to yell, and to honor their feelings and to support our finding ways to resolve conflicts that create a process, a pathway if you will, for them to be capable of problem solving when I’m not around. My being the grown-up and so you-do-it-because-I say-so only goes so far (not that far, it turns out). Respecting that peace is hard work is a first step.
Books that talk about friendships and the struggles sometimes experienced between friends offer tangible situations and recognizable feelings for children. Lisa Jahn-Clough’s simple tale My Friend and I casts a gentle light on how hard it can be to share. When two friends tussle over a toy, not only does the stuffed bunny rip, one friend—the bunny’s owner—sits down in tears grasping his broken bunny’s arm. “’You’re not my friend anymore,’ my friend said. ‘Go away.’” Finding solo play lonely, eventually, his friend returns and watches him try to fix his bunny. “’I think I can help,’ I said.” Aptly, band-aids, those great plastic healers, save the bunny. With a sincere but brief apology, the friendship is repaired as well. Jahn-Clough’s cheery and bright figures provide a reassuring simplicity to this story. Without fanfare, all sorts of conflicts can be discussed, and the power of making up is a clearly presented talking point.
Sometimes, feeling different is the root of feeling lonely. Ezra Jack Keats’ whimsical Regards To The Man In The Moon chronicles Louie’s having to tell his new stepfather, Barney, that he’s being teased because Barney is a junk man. Barney responds by equipping Louie for a trip to the moon and Louie benefits from Susie’s stepping forward and volunteering to accompany him to the moon. Eventually, other kids join in and their eventful space adventure via bathtub—plenty of imagination required—dissipates the difference and the distance Louie was experiencing: “Soon all the kids were ready to take off.” Keats’ urban neighborhood where this book and others about Louie and more famously Peter and Archie—The Snowy Day, Whistle for Willie, and Goggles as examples—were groundbreaking because they were in the early 1960’s the first to have African American characters. Simple and universal tales of childhood—Peter’s delight in the snow, Peter learning to whistle to his dog, and Peter and Archie finding a pair of discarded goggles and rushing away from the bigger boys in the neighborhood—all resonate enduringly.
Finding the strength in difference is a theme that crops up repeatedly because it’s so important for children to recognize. Leo Lionni’s Swimmy tells the story of a small black fish who wonders how to find its way amongst the small red fishes. Swimmy “swam away in the deep wet world. He was scared, lonely, and very sad.” Without fanfare, difficult feelings are offered up as an inevitable part of life. Swimmy helps his fellow red fish swim together in the shape of a giant red fish, after which “he said, ‘I’ll be the eye.’” The story ends with the triumph of teamwork: “And so they swam in the cool morning water and the midday sun and chased the big fish away.” In Lionni’s A Color of His Own about a chameleon finding another chameleon to share its ever-changing palate with is another example of Lionni’s magical gift for using animals to tell rich human stories.
Kevin Henkes tells stories about friendship and family and getting along that illuminate how we work things through. Wemberly Worried tells of an extremely fretful mouse. She worried about noises in the house and how her birthday party would turn out, and: “At the playground, Wemberly worried about the chains on the swings, and the bolts on the slide, and the bars on the jungle gym. And always, she worried about her doll, Petal.” Her mother, father and grandmother urged her not to worry (and her grandmother’s sweatshirt read: Go with the flow.) Starting school scares Wemberly most of all, the list of anxieties in bold, large text followed by a perfect illustration of Wemberly clutching her mother’s skirt as the adults—mother, father and her new teacher, Mrs. Peachum—chat for a moment, in which we see all of Wemberly but the adults are cut off at waist level, towering above her and our views. The world looms so much larger than Wemberly, allowing us to appreciate her anxieties. Mrs. Peachum introduces Wemberly to Jewel. “She was standing by herself. She was wearing stripes. She was holding a doll.” After peeking at each other, Wemberly and Jewel introduce Petal and Nibblet. “Petal waved. Nibblet waved back.” Wemberly and Jewel have so much fun she even worries a little less and looks forward to coming back to school.
Jennifer Bryan’s The Different Dragon employs the device of a boy and one of his mothers collaborating on the bedtime tale of a dragon tired of being fierce all the time to make space for the dragon to be friendly. First Noah asks his Go-Ma whether the dragon will be mean and fire breathing. Go-Ma helps him put on his protective gear when the time is right. Noah offers: “’A shield and goggles.’” But when Noah returns to the ship’s deck he discovers the dragon beginning to… “’Cry,’ said Noah, quite certainly.” He leaves the explanation for this to his Go-Ma. “’I just can’t be fierce anymore,’ the dragon said.” Believing that “nobody ever wants a dragon to be funny or sad or just regular” his new friend, Noah, disagrees. “’You can be however you want. If you want to crush up my sailboat and set it on fire and then eat me up, you can. Or we could play badminton and then have some ice cream instead.’” A subtle and lovely layer to the book is the fact that Noah and his sister Claire, have two moms, but that this story isn’t about having two moms. Only when all differences are simply accepted can we learn this is a possibility.
In Michael Rosen’s This is Our House a bunch of children work through a problem together. The problem is that George claims “everybody’s” house, a cardboard box in a concrete yard between many apartment buildings, as his. Lindy puts it to him straight: “’It belongs to everybody.’” Then, she and the others walk away. On the swings, Lindy checks her position with Marly, asking, “’It’s not George’s house, is it?’” Marly replies, “’Of course it isn’t.’” They march up to George and declare they’re coming in. He stops them, saying the house isn’t for girls. He rejects Freddie, the house not for “small people like you.” Charlene and Marlene say they’re going to fix the house’s fridge and George refuses entrance, the house not for “twins.” Nor is the house for “people with glasses” or “people who like tunnels.” George says he has to go to the bathroom and leaves the house declaring that no one can come in. Of course, “Lindy, Marly, Freddie, Rabbity, Marlene, Charlene, Luther, Sophie, and Rasheda went straight into the house.” There was, inevitably, no room for George, a person with “red hair.” First he stomped and cried and kicked before realizing his errors and listing the litany of people the house “IS” for, from red hair, to girls, to people with glasses. The entire group choruses exuberantly with the great revelation that “THIS HOUSE IS FOR EVERYONE!” At that same moment, the box bursts open under the strain of too many children filling it. The book would not be as pitch perfect without Bob Graham’s illustrations. He renders a rainbow of children and a bright, colorful playground and keeps the cityscape around it black and white, letting us know these kids live in a less than pastoral urban setting. As Bob Graham does seamlessly in many of his books, his images assert differences without requiring any comment. Another example that his world isn’t a suburban white existence with picket fences is illustrated to perfection in his book “Let’s Get a Pup!” Said Kate, where mom and dad have tattoos and mom has a nose ring and dad’s trying to quit smoking.
Daniel Pinkwater’s The Big Orange Splot is a great tale of individuality and creativity, as one man on a street where all the houses are exactly the same discovers joy in making his house unique. At first, the neighbors are perturbed. Eventually, every single house on the block becomes its own unique expression of its owner and everyone agrees it’s much more satisfying to live on a creative and rainbow-colored street than a cookie cutter one.
What each of these books offers, to my mind, is a lesson without overtly trumpeting the offering as a LESSON. These are not cautionary tales or “issue” books, and they are not trying to jam adult ideas into a simplified or child-sized context. Megan Lambert, Instructor of Children’s Literature Programs for the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts (picturebookart.org), spends a great deal of time bringing stories to children at the museum and in classroom settings and training teachers in how she approaches books with children. She remarks, “It’s important not to put big burdens on small shoulders. The books that work are ones that very certainly have a child audience in mind.” She notes that books about big themes, like war, demand context and adults often choose to read them to children for context, like an instructional unit on a subject. Those books aren’t necessarily the ones we’d pick up for pleasure. “So many books that address friendship and conflict resolution or difference, which is such a big part of bridging our way to one another, are books we can read for pleasure. They provide a nice remove from real life. We don’t feel vulnerable reading them, and they can open conversations about friendship or getting along or how people look different.” She also says of books like Anthony Browne’s Voices in the Park, which shows four different experiences in the park, that being able to talk through our different perspectives is a key to understanding one another. Indeed, we have a lot to discover about one another, including ways we experience things differently and ways we share the same experiences, and through it all finding that different and same all can lead us to appreciating ourselves and each another. It’s only from there that peace can begin.
Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a writer living in Massachusetts. She has written for many publications including “USA Today” “Newsday” and the “Philadelphia Inquirer.”