Picture Books for Peace
Twelve of Our Favourite Picture Books
Book 12: The Way to Start a Day
This is a bittersweet post for me, dear friends. This is the last blog posting in our Picture Books for Peace series, for now … thank you all for traveling alongside us every week and to all who have responded so generously to these posts with your thoughts and stories. We will make plans to continue this series in future months, so watch for them.
I absolutely love Byrd Baylor’s work, especially The Way to Start a Day and The Other Way to Listen (it was so hard to choose which of these two books to profile!). Both stories unfold as poems beautifully illustrated by Peter Parnall, and both underscore the importance of peaceful and loving relationships with ourselves, each other, and our environment. But the opening line in The Way to Start a Day may have tilted the scales a bit in its favour:
"The way to start a day is this ---
and face the east
and greet the sun
with some kind of blessing
that you made yourself
and keep for
And so the enchanting intermingling of Baylor’s poetry and Parnall’s illustrations continues, explaining, “a morning needs to be sung to. A new day needs to be honored” and how people – from all over the globe, in times past and present – have honoured the blessings of a new day. I end this post with an invocation: May we all honour the blessings of every new day, may we embody peace in all of our interactions, and may we be included among those in this beautiful group:
“and you’ll be
one more person
in one more place
at one more time
in the world
hello to the sun,
letting it know you are there.”
Wishing everyone peace for now and always,
Baylor, B. (1978). The way to start a day. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
Book 11: Four Feet, Two Sandals
Inspired by a girl who asked the authors why there were no books about refugees like her, Four Feet, Two Sandals is a story of love and friendship in the face of sacrifice and separation. Co-authored by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed, the story unfolds alongside Doug Chayka’s lovely acrylic-based illustrations.
We first meet ten-year-old Lina, an Afghan girl living in the Peshawar refugee camp in Pakistan, as she races to secure something she could use from the most recent relief agency delivery. After the initial rush to claim clothing, Lina discovers one lone sandal amidst the clearing dust. Having walked around the camp barefoot for the past two years, Lina looks around for the sandal’s mate and finds it adorning the foot of another young girl standing nearby. Lina tries to engage the girl by greeting her with an invocation of peace (“As-salaam alaykum”), but the young girl’s only response was to stare and then turn away from Lina.
The next morning, as Lina was in the midst of completing some of her chores, the young girl with the matching sandal approaches her and offers to give Lina her sandal. Lina tells the girl, whose name is Feroza, that they can share the sandals. Feroza asks, “What good is one sandal for two feet?” To which Lina responds, “You can wear them today and I will wear them tomorrow … four feet, two sandals.”
The rest of the book narrates the tale of their growing friendship …until there is an unexpected interruption that changes the course of their lives and friendship forever. While I can’t ruin the ending, I can tell you the interruption is a mostly positive one, with a somewhat bittersweet repercussion. I will leave you with this thought-provoking line from the Authors’ Note at the back: “Though this story is based on a camp in Peshawar, the experiences of children like Lina and Feroza are shared by refugees around the world.”
Wishing everyone peace,
Williams, K. L., & Mohammed, K. (2007). Four feet, two sandals. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Books.
Book 10: The Composition
“Am I against the dictatorship?” is the tension-filled question nine-year old Pedro grapples with in this thought-provoking story by Antonio Skármeta. Alongside candid, yet elegantly understated, illustrations by Alfonso Ruano, The Composition narrates the tale of young Pedro’s awakening to an uncomfortable truth.
The story begins with our young friend’s disappointment in receiving a plastic soccer ball for his birthday, rather than the leather one with white and black patches (“like the ones real soccer players used”) he had been hoping for. In these first few pages, we appreciate just how much Pedro loves playing soccer with his friends (some of the dialogue is pretty humorous). We also, however, get the immediate sense that something is somehow off in this unnamed landscape, as we learn that soldiers are a constant presence in the streets and that Pedro’s parents huddle together over the radio every evening to listen to voices from “a long way away.”
The first major disruption for Pedro is the day he witnesses his friend Daniel’s father “being dragged down the street” by two soldiers. Pedro asks why this happened, and Daniel replies it is because his father is “against the dictatorship.” Pedro is unsure what this means, and Daniel explains, “They want the country to be free. For the army not to be the government.” Deeply troubled, Pedro decides to wait for his father’s return from work here:
For me, this wall is strikingly symbolic, representing so many of the walls – both past and present, real and metaphoric – that have been constructed out of arrogance, hatred, and fear.
We accompany Pedro and his father home and experience an extremely tense evening in which the earlier events of the day hang as a heavy spectre over the family. Pedro, confused and anxious, questions whether his parents are “against the dictatorship” and – if so – whether he should be as well. His mother’s touching response highlights what children across the globe should rightfully be able to expect from a humane world.
All of these tensions seem to converge the next day when a military man, Captain Romo, invites/orders the children in Pedro’s class to write a composition entitled “What my family does at night.” He, quite disturbingly, offers the child “who writes the very best” a gold medal, a sash, and flag-bearing honours. Reflecting upon the events and discussions of the previous day, Pedro writes … (I will stop there since that’s the best part!)
Ok, friends, here is a little hint: This is another wall, featured towards the end of the story, tattooed with the Spanish word for “resistance.” This image inspires me and compels me to believe that we can live a story of resistance to all the walls that separate us.
Wishing everyone peace,
Skármeta, A. (2000). The composition. Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books.
Book 9: The Arrival
The Arrival by Shaun Tan is one of those books that you cannot help but live again and again … I purposely write the word live, for I can’t shake the feeling that I travel to so many worlds every time I turn the pages of this wordless picture book/graphic novel*.
Tan’s surreal, intricate, and incredibly creative illustrations less tell a story than invite readers to travel alongside the main character as he embarks upon a journey to a new land. Inspired by his father’s story of migrating from Malaysia to Australia, other stories of migration by family and friends, and by historical images from many places – including Australia, New York, and post-war Europe – Tan artfully weaves these diverse inspirations to create a heart-tuggingly unforgettable story.
My children and I travelled with Tan’s protagonist as he leaves his family (the emotion-filled good-bye scenes stay with me long after I lay the book down) and his homeland to board a train, and then a ship, headed for a new land. The illustrations ingeniously guided us in gaining a sense of the passage of time, the confusion, and the loneliness felt by many newcomers to lands all around the world as they journey away from the familiar toward the – at least momentarily – strange. We met other newcomers along the way who, in quite striking ways, share the stories of their journey to this unfamiliar terrain.
The Arrival is sometimes sad, sometimes funny, and sometimes downright haunting, but always meaningful as you are required – perhaps more than you would in other works because of the absence of words – to lay your stories alongside those of the characters. I found myself thinking of my father (the first person in our extended family to immigrate to Canada) as I turned the pages, wondering if he felt the nerves and profound confusion I felt as Tan’s character stepped off the boat and into the dizzying mixture of confining vastness. I wondered if he experienced that initial heady sense of strangeness, and when and how that sense waned for him enough to call Canada (as I know he now does) home.
Belonging, as you can imagine, is a major theme of the story, a theme Shaun Tan discussed in detail on his website: “We might do well to think of ourselves as possible strangers in our own strange land. What conclusions we draw from this are unlikely to be easily summarised, all the more reason to think further on the connections between people and places, and what we might mean when we talk about ‘belonging’.”
The images below are only a sampling of the illustrations that I resonated with, the rest of The Arrival (including the heartwarmingly hopeful ending/beginning) contains many more illustrations that will undoubtedly take your breath away as you live this amazing story …
Wishing everyone peace,
*Shaun Tan describes The Arrival as more of a graphic novel (and other contextual details) here.
Tan, S. (2006). The arrival. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books.
ISBN 10 0-439-89529-4
Book 8: Wangari's Trees of Peace
Written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter, Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa is an inspirational story brimming with determination, community, and possibility. The story is based upon events in the life of Wangari Maathai (1940-2011), founder of the Green Belt Movement and winner of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize*.
Delighting in stories based upon actual events (“Is this a true story, Mama??”), we eagerly read about Wangari, a girl who “lives under an umbrella of green trees in the shadow of Mount Kenya in Africa.” Joining Wangari in her day to day activities, we gain a sense of her deep love for – and connection to – her family, community, and beautiful Kenyan landscape.
Winning a scholarship, Wangari travels to America to pursue post-secondary education. Upon her return, however, Wangari is distressed to find her once-green Kenyan community barren. We are pained alongside her as she wonders, “What has happened? … Where are the trees?”
Wangari learns that the trees had been cleared to make space for construction, a process that neglected planting trees to replace those that had been cut down. Starting individually, and then joined by the women of her community and other communities in Kenya, Wangari plants tree after tree to in an attempt to reverse the devastating effects of deforestation. Her resolve is tested when she is imprisoned following ongoing acts of defiance, yet Wangari knows that “right is right, even if you’re alone.”
Wangari, however, is far from alone. Even during her imprisonment more and more Kenyan women continue to plant seedlings until … (a truly inspirational ending!). The Author’s Note highlighted an excerpt from Wangari’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech that, for me, really speaks to building peaceful communities:
"We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds an din the process heal our own - indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder."
~ Wangari Maathai
Wishing everyone peace,
*For more information on the Green Belt Moveent and Wangari Maathai, click here.
Winter, J. (2008). Wangari's trees of peace: A true story from Africa. Orlando, FL: Harcourt.
Book 7: When Stories Fell Like Shooting Stars
The title of Valiska Gregory’s book alongside Stefano Vitale’s striking oil-on-wood paintings compelled me to read When Stories Fell Like Shooting Stars. And I am so glad that I did. I was awed (I am still awed) by Gregory’s enchanting prose and by the puzzle she sets for readers on the very first page*:
“Long ago, when Earth was new
and sky was black as printer’s ink,
two stories fell like shooting stars–
one told of Fox, one told of Bear,
and only you can say which story is true.”
The book is actually comprised of two fables. Fox’s story is told first. We learn how Fox looked up one day to see Sun fall “from its cradle of clouds” only to become entangled in a tree like “a glittering coin, caught in a many-fingered net.” Momentarily in shock and disbelief, Fox quickly recovered his senses and “sewed a cloth big enough to cover the tree.” He gathered all the animals together and proclaimed that from that day forward, using his cloth to cover and uncover Sun, he would control day and night. That initial selfish, power-seeking act begets many others and soon the animals were at war, mired in violence, fear, and destruction … and “no one remembered Sun, still caught like a beating heart in the hands of the tree.”
Bear’s (counter)story is told next. Bear was awakened one night to see Moon “slip through a buttonhole of sky and fall to his feet as if it were a ball no bigger than your hand.” Some of the animals thought that they should divide the moon for everyone to own, or that they should try to see what they would find inside of Moon. However, Bear, being the one who “knew the old stories best,” reminded the animals that they needed to care for Moon, not claim ownership. The rest of the fable tells how the animals work together with care, concern, and patience to make sure that Moon returned home to “hang like an opal in an ebony sky, shining.”
So, my friends, I ask myself and I ask you … Which story is true?
Wishing everyone peace,
* Read more about "the story behind the story" here.
Gregory, V. (1996). When stories fell like shooting stars. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Book 6: Gleam and Glow
Looking at the cover of the book Gleam and Glow by Eve Bunting, one might understandably assume that the story revolves around two fish in some way. And to some extent it does … but in a roundabout, tear-jerkingly beautiful way. With his oil-based illustrations, Peter Sylvada’s evocative artwork poignantly accompanies Bunting’s prose to tell a story that resonates long after it is read.
“When Papa left to join the underground, Marina cried. To be truthful, Mama and I cried, too.” With these words, Bunting invited me and my children to come alongside 8-year-old Victor, his mother, father, and five-year-old sister Marina. We quickly learned that joining the underground meant “fighting secretly … on top of the ground” and that Victor’s father was on his way to join the Liberation Army. We were very saddened to see Victor’s father leaving (one of Sylvada’s truly haunting illustrations) and then were frightened to hear of the impending arrival of enemy soldiers that meant Victor, Marina, and their mother would need to leave their home and escape to a neighbouring country.
While all of this was happening, a number of people stopped to rest at Victor’s house on their way to the border. One of these strangers left a bowl with two fish off at Victor’s house because it was becoming too difficult to carry. Marina and Victor became attached to the fish during the few days they were able to care for it (“It seemed to me that all the light of the world was trapped inside that glass bowl”) and Marina named the fish Gleam and Glow.
Sadly, the children were forced to leave their home soon after and Victor decided to release Gleam and Glow into the family’s pond, quietly wishing them “one or two extra days of life.” After walking to the border and then spending time in a refugee camp, Victor’s family is finally reunited and then return home to find … (it was a beautiful, simultaneously painful and hopeful, ending).
Gleam and Glow portrays the life-wrenching experience of being forced to flee one’s home and country in a vivid, yet not overly graphic, way. It was only after reading Bunting’s note on the very last page that we learned that Gleam and Glow was inspired by a “true and magical story” of similar events during the Bosnian war. Bunting emphasizes, however, “My version is not only a story for a particular country or people – it’s for people everywhere who have been forced from the lives they have known, and who find hope in the most unexpected places.”
Wishing everyone peace,
Bunting, E. (2001). Gleam and glow. San Diego, CA: Harcourt.
Book 5: Unspoken
The stunning graphite illustrations in Henry Cole’s wordless picture book, Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad, tell an amazing story of courage, compassion, and friendship. Set in Virginia during America’s Civil War era, the story begins with illustrations of a star-patterned quilt atop a barnyard fence (symbolic of the North Star and freedom) and the lingering gaze of a young girl.
The young girl had been leading a cow through the fields of her family’s farm when soldiers (carrying a Confederate flag) trot by on their horses. Her lingering gaze, directed at the passing group of soldiers, suggests that she suspects something is amiss.
As she continues her chores, the girl seems to sense another presence with her in the barn somehow. She turns around to see an eye gazing at her from within a pile of cornstalks:
The young girl rushes away, obviously frightened. As the story unfolds, however, we witness her courageously stealing away from her (seemingly?) unsuspecting family to offer the escapee nourishment. She continues helping her/him even as search parties come by offering a reward for his/her capture. In the final few illustrations, the girl travels to see her secret friend, only to find …. (Now, you didn’t think I would give away the ending did you??)
While the Author’s Note at the back contextualizes many of the book’s details, even the youngest readers will be able to connect with the hauntingly stunning illustrations because, as the author makes clear, the two main characters “speak without words.”
Wishing everyone peace,
Cole, H. (2012). Unspoken: A story from the underground railroad. New York: Scholastic.
Book 4: Whoever You Are
With wonderful picture books like Wilfrid Gordon Mcdonald Partridge (1984) and Harriet, You’ll Drive Me Wild (2000), it’s no wonder that we’re fans of Mem Fox. Always on the lookout for books that we can highlight in this blog, I recently came across Whoever You Are by Mem Fox and fell in love. Leslie Staub’s extremely vivid and unique illustrations, along with a surprisingly lyrical text, contribute to the simple, yet extremely poignant, story of the book.
Accompanied by Mem’s poetic prose, Leslie Staub’s narrator (a cowboy clad in a cloud-patterned suit) travels to different places around the world to assure children that – while we may come from different places, with different types of homes, families, schools, skin colours, languages, and lives – we share so much:
Joys are the same, and love is the same. Pain is the same, and blood is the same. Smiles are the same, and hearts are just the same – wherever they are, wherever you are, wherever we are, all over the world.
I think the reason why I really appreciated this picture book, and why I see so many ways that it could resonate with children (and adults!) in our classrooms, is that our commonalities are emphasized without disregarding the very real differences that contribute to how we story ourselves. Through her narrator, Mem shares her belief that it is possible to honour the myriad ways, not always visible, that we are different while continuing to honour our shared humanity.
Reading this book with my children was especially enjoyable. They asked me to read the book a second time (“more slow”) so they could have time to delight in, and savour, the artwork. My eldest was even inspired to compose this illustration in response to the story:
Wishing everyone (wherever you are!) peace,
Fox, M. (1997). Whoever you are. New York: Harcourt
Book 3: Dreaming of Roses
There are some books that sit with you long after you close the cover. The Roses in My Carpets by Rukhsana Khan is, for me, definitely that kind of a book. Narrated amidst Ronald Himler’s haunting illustrations, the book is a heart-wrenching rendition of the effects of loss, trauma, poverty, and displacement in the wake of war from the perspective of a young Afghan boy living in a refugee camp in Pakistan.
My children and I have read this story together several times, but the first few lines of the book always draw us into the young narrator’s plight: “It’s always the same. The jets scream overhead. They’ve seen me.” Waking up to find himself next to his mother and sister in their mud home, the young boy is haunted not only by the recurring nightmare, but by feelings of shame for accepting the help of an anonymous sponsor. He feels that his late father would not have approved since “he would never have taken aid from a sponsor.”
Our young friend is determined to cast this assistance off by becoming a “master craftsman” with his skill in carpet-weaving. Carpet weaving, however, means a lot more to him than just financial independence. Much like the striking roses in the carpets he weaves, the practice of weaving is the main source of beauty and peace in his life: “When I am weaving I can escape the jets, the nightmares – everything. As if with my fingers I create a world the war cannot touch. A paradise like the one where my father is.”
We all seemed to experience a visceral sense of life within the story as we read about the early morning “eerie cry of the muezzin;” the way the plastic handle of the heavy water bucket cuts into the flesh; the seeming futility of washing up amidst of mud walls, floors, and surroundings; sitting on classroom mats that chafe the skin; cars whizzing by recklessly on narrow streets … it is always so hard to awake from the world that Khan has so vividly depicted.
The story ends on a hopeful note after a heart-stopping event disrupts the boy’s world yet again. My children always ask, after every single reading, “Is this a true story?” Each time they ask, I tell them that it is based on a true story*, and that it really feels true to me. My son said that he wishes the boy will be able to make a lot of beautiful roses and dream only good dreams in the future. I think this is a wish we all share …
Wishing everyone peace and only good dreams until next time,
Khan, R. (1998). The roses in my carpets. Toronto, ON: Stoddart.
*Rukhsana Khan explains her inspiration for the story here.
Book 2: Planting (Lotus) Seeds of Peace
“My grandmother saw the emperor cry the day he lost his golden dragon throne.” With these words, my children and I were drawn into The Lotus Seed, a touching book by Sherry Garland. Illustrated by Tatsuro Kiuchi, the artwork, like the prose, is lovely in its quiet elegance.
With the lyrical narration of her future granddaughter guiding us, we travelled alongside Ba as a young girl as she moves from the palace grounds of Vietnam to the Imperial garden next to the River of Perfumes. There, Ba plucks a lotus seed from the garden to remember the young and final Vietnamese emperor and hides it under her family’s altar for safekeeping. This seed is Ba’s constant companion, with her even on her wedding day, as a talisman “for good luck, long life, and many children.”
Our hearts constricted when we learned of the myriad ways that war irrevocably shifted the life Ba was composing with her loved ones. We could almost feel the lotus seed in our grasp as Ba chose to save it amidst other valuables she could have saved the day “bombs fell all around,” and as Ba and her family were forced to flee their beloved home. The seed was safely hidden under the altar in her American home as Ba and her family worked hard to imagine and compose new lives on a foreign landscape. Without giving away too much of the book’s beautiful final pages, I will only say that our hearts were warmed by the way that Ba’s stories were honoured and woven within hope, love, remembrance, and – of course – peace.
After we sat in silence for a few moments, always reluctant to part with a good story, we read the “Author’s Note” at the very back of the book and learned about some of the ways in which Ba’s experiences were rooted in historical events. My oldest child surprised me a little when she said that the book reminded her of her great-grandmother and how she was forced to leave her home … I was not aware that my grandmother had shared the story of becoming a refugee with her. We talked about the ways that Ba’s experiences may have been similar to my grandmother’s and to others who have been forced to leave their homes. We talked about how, like Ba and her family, we could be in affinity with, and honour, them by planting seeds of peace whenever, wherever, and however we can.
As I reflect about the book and the rich conversation my children and I shared, I think about how very fortunate we are to be in this peaceful and warm home on a windy Edmonton night.
Wishing everyone peace until next time,
Garland, S. (1993). The lotus seed. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace & Co.
Book 1: The Silent Music of Salam...
It is late on a chilly Edmonton night and I am sipping coffee (I am tempted to lie and say that it is decaffeinated … but it is not. Scarily, I can drink a gallon of the stuff and still fall to sleep quite quickly) as I begin to write this, the very first blog post in what we at the CRTED (Centre for Research for Teacher Education and Development) hope will be a recurring piece.
How did the idea of blogging about picture books related to peace building come about? In our teaching of graduate and undergraduate classes here at the University of Alberta, we often start and end classes with picture books that pick up a thread or a theme related to the topic of each class. We have done this in the courses and activities during the Mahatma Gandhi Summer Institute on Building Peaceful Communities. Often, students ask for the names of books and wonder where we find the books. We find them in lots of places, including our homes, schools, and public libraries, bookstores - and sometimes the books seem to find us! Colleagues, students, and friends often give us books that remind them of our shared commitment to building peaceful communities. One of the latter types of books is Silent Music by James Rumford, a gift to Jean from Lynne Dreidger-Enns who teaches in a school in Saskatchewan.
I read Silent Music to my children earlier this evening – an evening where, for different reasons, we all seemed to need to find an inner place of peace. Alongside stunning illustrations, we were introduced to Ali, a young child of Iraqi descent. Ali loves soccer, music, and dancing, but his passion lies in practicing the art of Arabic calligraphy where he imagines the flowing words “stopping and starting, gliding and sweeping, leaping, dancing to the silent music in my head.” Halfway through the book, we were sad to learn that Ali lives in the midst of a violent war and, like his hero calligrapher Yakut, Ali “shut out the horror and wrote glistening letters of rhythm and grace.” Rumford ended this beautiful story with Ali resolving to practice writing the word salam (peace) "until this word flows freely from my pen."
As we discussed the story following a day that was tension-filled for each one of us in some way, the children and I were left marvelling at how, similar to Ali’s calligraphy, reading stories about peace can help bring peace. We wondered at Ali’s ability to live salam amidst the brutality around him, and we made connections to the types of things we can do, or can continue to do, to add a touch of silent, but beautiful, music to everyday life ….
Wishing everyone salam until next time,
Rumford, J. (2008). Silent music: A story of Baghdad. New York: Roaring Book Press.