by Marsha Rakestraw
Some children have known war their entire lives.
As journalist and peace teacher, Colman McCarthy says, “Why are we violent, but not illiterate? Because we are taught to read.”
We teach children science, math and competition, but not peace. We offer them lessons on good character and anti-bullying, but often don’t model those traits ourselves. If we truly want a peaceful world, then it’s important that we actively work toward one; that includes involving our youth in exploring issues of war and peace in thoughtful, age-appropriate ways.
Here are a few suggested picture book titles to help humane educators, parents, and concerned citizens begin those essential conversations.
1. “Good Night, Commander” by Ahmad Akbarpour
2010. Grades 3-7.
A young boy who has lost his leg — and his mother — in the war, acts out imaginary battles against his enemies, seeking revenge, until he “sees” that the “enemy” is young, too, and also has experienced loss.
2. “Playing War” by Kathy Beckwith
2005. Grades 2-5.
War is a favorite game with Luke and his friends, but when Sameer doesn’t want to play, the kids learn about his real-life experiences with war.
3. “The Wall” by Eve Bunting
1990. Grades 1-4.
A boy and his father visit the Vietnam War Memorial to find his grandfather’s name on the wall.
4. “The Enemy: A Book About Peace” by Davide Cali & Serge Bloch
2009. Grades 2-6.
After watching an enemy for a long time throughout a long war, a soldier finally sneaks into his enemy’s hole and is surprised by what he finds.
5. “The General” by Janet Charters
1961. Grades 2-5.
A general is set on becoming famous until he falls off his horse and discovers the beauty of the natural world. He then vows to change the world by embracing peace and kindness.
6. “The Cello of Mr. O” by Jane Cutler
1999. Grades 1-4.
“I can see the white trails of tracer fire and the orange flash of mortars in the sky. I pretend I am watching shooting starts and meteors.” A girl and her family endure the horrors and deprivation of war, hoping her father will return. The best day is Wednesday, when the relief truck comes with supplies. But when a rocket destroys the truck, everyone is surprised when crotchety old Mr. O, who has largely been unsociable, and someone to ignore or taunt, brings his cello to the middle of the square each Wednesday and plays.
7. “The Sky of Afghanistan” by Ana A de Eulate
2012. Grades K-3.
Her country plagued by war and violence, a young girl dreams of peace. She imagines her country like a kite struggling against the wind and envisions flying “the bright kite of peace” into “people’s houses, their homes, their families, their hearts.”
8. “A Child’s Garden: A Story of Hope” by Michael Foreman
2009. Grades 1-4.
When a young boy discovers a tiny green shoot amidst the rubble and ruin that has become his home after a violent conflict, he nurtures the plant until it grows so large that it covers the fence that separates him from the soldiers and people on the other side, becoming an oasis for people and animals.
9. “Sami and the Time of the Troubles” by Florence Perry Heide
1992. Grades 3-7.
Sami has known war his whole life. He and his family live in Beirut during the time of the troubles, when they must hide in his uncle’s basement because of all the bombs and shooting. Sometimes there are quiet days, and they can go to the market or the beach. But mostly they must stay in the basement, surrounded by things that remind them of the way things used to be … and give them hope for a more peaceful future.
10. “Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War” by Jessica Dee Humphreys and Michel Chikwanine
2015. Grades 3-7.
“Every day was hard and terrible, filled with fear, torture and death.” Kidnapped at age five by rebels in the Congo, Michel tells of his happy life before, his traumatic time as a child soldier, and his struggles to become “normal” after his escape. Information about child soldiers and about Michel’s work as a speaker and activist are included. Told in graphic novel form.
11. “Gandhi: A March to the Sea” by Alice McGinty
2013. Grades 1-5.
Simple text and beautiful illustrations share the story of Gandhi’s famous 24-day March to the Sea to protest unjust laws and taxes by claiming salt from the Arabian sea. Gandhi’s “salt march” campaign captured international attention and inspired India’s people to work for independence through nonviolence.
12. “The Conquerors” by David McKee
2004. Grades 2-5.
A general who believes that his country’s ways are best goes around conquering nearby nations. Finally, there’s only one small nation left. But when he and his troops arrive, instead of resistance, they are welcomed. They all begin to learn the songs, games, and other ways of the little country. When fresh forces are sent in, they too, are acculturated. And when the general returns home, in his mind victorious, he notices many changes in his own country. And when he sings his child a song that night, the only song that comes to mind is one from the little country.
13. “The Peace Book” by Todd Parr
2004. Grades K-2.
Shares many ideas for what peace is.
14. “World War Won” by Dav Pilkey
1987. Grades 2-6.
Two kings race to build the biggest stockpile of weapons, until a strong wind threatens to topple the piles.
15. “Paulie Pastrami Achieves World Peace” by James Proimos
2009. Grades K-5.
Paulie plans to achieve world peace before he turns eight!
16. “Silent Music: A Story of Baghdad” by James Rumford
2008. Grades 2-6.
A young boy uses his calligraphy to help him cope with the war outside.
17. “The Butter Battle Book” by Dr. Seuss
1984. Grades 1-5.
The Yooks & Zooks battle over which way is the “right” one for eating buttered bread, with the feud escalating to the possible annihilation of both communities.
18. “The Forgiveness Garden” by Lauren Thompson
2012. Grades K-4.
Two villages, living on opposite sides of a river, have been engaged in a long-standing feud. When a young man from one village injures a young woman from the other village, hatred and calls for revenge grow. But when the young woman is given her chance for retribution, she instead chooses to build a forgiveness garden, with the young man who had hurt her, to help bridge the divide between the two peoples and begin the journey of healing and forgiveness.
19. “The War” by Anais Vaugelade
2007. Grades 3-6.
An anti-war allegory in which two kingdoms are locked in endless war, until one prince uses a trick to end the war without using violence.
20. “The Librarian of Basra” by Jeanette Winter
2005. Grades 2-6.
When war comes, the chief librarian does all she can to help save the library collection, which contains the history & culture of her country.