Children’s Literature as a Vehicle for Peace

Illustrations by Kadir Nelson from Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya by Donna Jo Napoli

his week, people all over the world are taking a stand for peace in recognition of the United Nations International Day of Peace next Wednesday, September 21st. Today, my heart is heavy at the spate of recent events creating turmoil in our world even as I draw inspiration and strength from all the calls and demonstrations for peace taking place around the globe.

A few years ago, a friend gifted me a copy of the book Teaching Young Children in Violent Times: Building a Peaceable Classroom by Diane E. Levin, Ph.D. At the time, there had been a series of mass shootings in the USA and I was thinking a lot about how to empower children to be peaceworkers. Levin’s book was just what I needed. If you are a fellow educator working with children in a classroom setting or otherwise, I recommend this book. Sadly, these kinds of resources are needed more today than ever.

As Alivn F. Poussaint, professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and at the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston, has stated, “children cannot be sheltered from the realities of violence in the community or through the media.” How do we help children cope in a world where images of the children killed and injured in the Syrian conflict can easily reach them through the Internet or television? How do we help children fight off the hopelessness engendered by events such as the recent shooting of Tyre King, the 13-year-old African-American boy who was gunned down by police in Columbus, Ohio?

As someone who has roots in the island of Trinidad in the Caribbean, I know that violence is a Caribbean reality too. Currently in Haiti, more than 300,000 children are victims of the domestic child slavery restavek system, suffering violence and abuse at the hands of their so-called “hosts”. In Jamaica, scores of LGBTQ youth are facing violent backlashes as activists battle discriminatory laws and seek to effect societal change.

Sometimes we feel helpless when it comes to working for peace. I know I’ve often felt that way. But the thing to understand is that half of the heaviness we feel is the heaviness of our own apathy. Prayer can help bring about peace, but prayer alone cannot engender change. As the Dalai Lama has noted, “peace does not come through prayer, we human beings must create peace.”

I belong to the community of educators and people working in children’s publishing. Ours is a community powerfully positioned to create peace by shaping the minds and strengthening the resilience of the future generation. Children’s literature, far from being a frivolous societal diversion, can be a cornerstone for creating a peaceful world, but only if we can manage to succeed in re-envisioning the children’s publishing industry to harness this great potential.

What does re-envisioning the children’s publishing industry as a vehicle for peace mean?

It means that the #WeNeedDiverseBooks initiative and other campaigns for diversity and equity in children’s literature are worth taking very seriously. Even as African-American youth are being killed by cops 4.5 times more often than people of other races and ages, a form of physical annihilation, they are being symbolically annihilated just as brutally by a children’s publishing industry that year after year manages to ensure that children’s books written by and about people from “minority” communities, are given short shrift in every way possible, from the often careless packaging and book design, to narrow narratives, to the abysmally low quantity of such books published yearly. Diverse children’s books which reflect the humanity of ALL racial, ethnic and thought communities will go a long way in healing our vision of what is means to live emphatically and cooperatively in a truly equal world.

Children’s book publishing statistics gathered by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC). Illustration by David Huyck in consultation with Sarah Park Dahlen and Molly Beth Griffin.

Re-envisioning the children’s publishing industry as a vehicle for peace means that each and every person claiming membership in the children’s publishing industry must search their souls for a sense of purpose. How is what I am doing as a children’s editor, children’s author, picturebook illustrator, children’s literary agent, children’s book reviewer, or as a children’s librarian contributing to creating a peaceful world?

Someone might read that and say, well, peace activism is not the reason I got into children’s publishing, or social justice literature is not what I do as a children’s writer. Yet is there anything more important than creating a peaceful world for our children? If we are not here on earth to be vehicles for peace, to add our voice, our energy and our talents to the task of creating a better world, then what are we here for? Is social justice an elite tool to be wielded in the hands of a few acclaimed activists or is it a human imperative to which each individual is called? These are serious questions for each and every human being.

Hanna Holborn Gray, the influential and pioneering Yale University educator once said that “education is not meant to be comfortable; it is meant to provoke, to stretch, to enrich while complicating, in short, it is meant to lift trouble to a higher plane of regard.” Re-envisioning children’s literature for peace means lifting children’s literature and the role it plays in society to a “higher plane of regard” to borrow Gray’s turn of phrase.

And that does not mean children’s literature suddenly becomes this didactic thing that is too heavy for children. What it means is that we start to accept that children are not safe and how can we expect them to be in the type of violent world we live in? If you don’t believe me when I say children are deeply discomfited by the state of the world, then you might believe the late great Maurice Sendak, the prolific and beloved American children’s author, who two decades ago offered these wise words in the 1994 UNICEF publication I Dream of Peace: Images of War by Children of Former Yugoslavia:

“The children know. They have always known. But we choose to think otherwise: it hurts to know the children know. If we obfuscate, they will not see. Thus we conspire to keep them from knowing and seeing. And if we insist, then the children, to please us, will make believe they do not know, they do not see. They are remarkable–patient, loving, and all-forgiving. It is a sad comedy: the children knowing and pretending they don’t know to protect us from knowing they know.”

Rather than ignoring or denying what children already know, children’s literature must help children engage with the darker realities of life and discover ways to work through them. We must create this kind of children’s literature as a sign of respect and love for children, for ALL children, not just the privileged few. My challenge to the children’s publishing industry is please, let us get real, with ourselves and with the children we’re creating books for. Life isn’t all sunshine and meadows and talking bears. Children feel this, they experience this, and they know this. So let us refrain from burdening children with the type of desperate adult denial that serves only ourselves, not them.

One simple but powerful way to start creating peace through children’s literature is to share and use resources that help us work for peace and solve problems peacefully. I’ve already shared Levin’s book. Here are some other helpful resources:


Started by a mentor of mine, Maya Gonzalez, and children’s book author and diversity advocate Zetta Elliott, the Kid Lit EQUALITY movement asks children’s book authors and artists, publishers, editors, educators and activists to stand up and speak out about the ways our community serves, or could better serve, marginalized youth who are under- and/or misrepresented in children’s literature with the intention of creating a world of equality.

Teaching For Change

The comprehensive Teaching for Change website provides educators and caregivers with the tools to create schools where students learn to read, write and change the world. By drawing direct connections to real world issues, Teaching for Change encourages teachers and students to question and re-think the world inside and outside their classrooms, build a more equitable, multicultural society, and become active global citizens.

Children’s Books About Peace and Social Justice

Lists of children’s books addressing themes of peace, conflict and social justice can be found on the Teach Peace Now blog and on the websites of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, the Jane Addams Peace Association, Teaching and Learning for Peace and Kidsbooks bookstore.

We need peace and peaceworkers everywhere, in every community, in every field, confronting and challenging every manifestation of violence, whether it is physical or symbolic violence. In the children’s publishing world, this means we need books that help children cope with the WIDE variety of troubling issues and conflicts that plague our world, books that give children the kaleidoscopic view of peace, not just peace for certain people and communities, but peace as a right and an imperative for everyone, for all humanity. And we need people in children’s publishing committed to seeing and harnessing the potential of children’s literature for peace.

So many of us wonder why we feel dissatisfied in our daily lives, why we feel sad for no reason sometimes, why our work, possessions, accomplishments and diversions don’t fulfill us. The mass of humanity leads “lives of quiet desperation,” the poet Henry Thoreau accurately observed. The paradigm shift happens when we understand that the mental and spiritual inanition, and the creative stasis we all experience, comes from succumbing to apathy about our unique role in contributing to the human endeavor, i.e., the endeavor of creating the kind of reality we all long for, the kind of world which reflects the way things should be.

Each person has within them a unique gift or creative force which can be harnessed for good and for positive change, and the force for good longs to be expressed through each and every one of us. I know this is true for the storytellers, artists, dreamers and literary minds that make up the children’s book community. It is up to each of us to take our gift and lift it to a higher plane so that what we do through our work in the children’s literature field makes life worth living, both for ourselves and for our human family.

I hope you will share these resources. Pray for peace yes, talk about peace, but also work for peace.


Last month the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) put out a call-to-action urging all professionals working in the field of children’s literature to join them in taking action and finding solutions to help children and young people who are caught up in conflicts and crisis. Read the call-to-action here:

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Trinidadian-American writer, editor-in-chief of @anansesemlitmag, former judge of the @GoldenBaobab and Scholastic @artandwriting awards, proud #UPennQuaker

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Summer Edward

Trinidadian-American writer, editor-in-chief of @anansesemlitmag, former judge of the @GoldenBaobab and Scholastic @artandwriting awards, proud #UPennQuaker