Wondering Aloud: Philosophy With Young People

“Shivers”

Arnold Lobel is probably my favorite children’s book author, and a master at generating philosophically suggestive narratives. The Frog and Toad books, in particular, are full of stories that raise many puzzles about life and experience. One of my favorites is the story “Shivers,” in Days With Frog and Toad. Frog tells Toad a ghost […]

A Shelter in Our Car

In A Shelter in Our Car, Monica Gunning depicts the experiences of eight-year-old Zettie and her mother, who have come to the United States after Zettie’s father’s death. They are temporarily homeless, due to the struggle Zettie’s mother has been having to find reliable work. After they have spent some time in a shelter, which, Zettie […]

A Wrinkle in Time

I love this book. A science fiction young adult novel by Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time was first published in 1962 and has won all kinds of awards. In the engrossing story, packed with philosophical questions, three children travel through the universe by means of “tesseract,” a fifth-dimensional phenomenon explained as being the square […]

Amazing Grace

Mary Hoffman’s 1991 picture book Amazing Grace tells the story of Grace, who loves stories and especially loves acting them out. Filled with imagination and dramatic flair, Grace decides that she will play the part of Peter Pan when her teacher tells the class that they are going to perform the play. One student tells her, […]

An Extraordinary Egg

Leo Lionni’s picture books are wonderful for thinking with children about philosophical questions. I’m working on a paper about Lionni and philosophy for children, and last night I read his An Extraordinary Egg. In the story, Jessica. a frog, lives with two other frogs. Jessica is “full of wonder,” and frequently ventures out on long […]

Being a Friend

Last week I was in a fourth grade classroom and we read the story The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig, a picture book I’ve written about previously in this blog. We started our discussion with a question asked by one of the students about why Brian thought he was invisible. This students wondered whether Brian should […]

Benjamin’s Dreadful Dream

Dreaming is a source of fascination for most children, and the topic can lead to examinations of questions about knowledge, and the relationship between reality and experience. Benjamin’s Dreadful Dream is Alan Baker’s picture book about the hamster Benjamin, who one night decides to get up and have a snack when he can’t sleep. Quickly, all kinds […]

Boodil My Dog

Boodil My Dog by Pija Lindenbaum tells the story of a child’s relationship with the family dog, Boodil, a bull terrier. The child describes Boodil as “brilliant,” “fierce, strong and brave,” with “nerves of steel.” The drawings in the story, however, paint a different picture, as Boodil is shown, among other things, moving very slowly, […]

Children Make Terrible Pets

Children Make Terrible Pets, Peter Brown’s picture book about a young bear, Lucy, who one day notices a small boy hiding in the bushes and watching her. Lucy thinks the boy is adorable, calling him “Squeaker” because he “makes funny sounds.” She asks her mother, who reluctantly acquiesces, if she can keep Squeaker as a […]

Children’s rights

The book For Every Child, published in 2001 in association with Unicef, with text by Caroline Castle and a forward by Archbiship Desmond Tutu, lists some of the rights enumerated in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, in accessible language and with magnificent illustrations by 14 different artists. For example, the rights […]

Click, Clack, Moo Cows That Type

My colleague Karen Emmerman, the Center for Philosophy for Children’s Education Director, has contributed this guest post: Doreen Cronin’s book Click, Clack, Moo Cows That Type is one of my favorite books to use in philosophy for children sessions. It lends itself to many different sorts of wondering.   In the book, animals on a farm acquire […]

Death and Philosophy

If we did not die, if our existence did not unravel in the endless darkness of death, would life be quite so precious, so extraordinary, so moving? Andre Comte-Sponville,Professor of Philosophy at the Sorbonne Whenever I ask students what they think are the most fundamental questions of human life, always on the list is some […]

Does everything have a right to live?

In a fourth grade class at Whittier Elementary School yesterday, we read chapter 3 of Standing Up to Mr. O by Claudia Mills, and the children asked the question, “Does everything have a right to live?” Most of the children responded initially that they thought that everything did have a right to life. Here is an excerpt […]

Elections and Normality

On Wednesday morning after Tuesday’s election, I led my weekly philosophy session with a group of 5th grade students at John Muir Elementary School. The students are primarily immigrants and children of color. I knew that they would want to talk about the presidential election, and so I brought the book, The Araboolies of Liberty […]

Fish On A Walk

Fish on A Walk by Eva Muggenthaler is a new picture book that illustrates each picture with only two adjectives — “Happy-Sad,” “Jealous-Accepting,” “Wild-Polite,” etc. — and each picture contains a wealth of activities and behaviors that invite exploration of what these words mean. Can you be jealous and accepting at the same time? If you’re happy can you […]

Four Feet, Two Sandals

Four Feet, Two Sandals, by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed, tells the story of two ten-year-old girls, Lina and Feroza, and their families, who are living in a refugee camp in Pakistan, having fled the war in Afghanistan. The girls become friends when each finds one sandal from a matching pair, after relief workers throw used clothing […]

Fractions = Trouble!

Claudia Mills’ latest book Fractions = Trouble! is about Wilson, who is having trouble with math in his third grade classroom, and so his parents hire a math tutor to help him. Embarrassed by this, Wilson is determined to keep it a secret from everyone at school. Wilson’s interactions with his tutor, his brother Kipper, his […]

Freedom Summer

Written by Deborah Wiles and illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue, Freedom Summer tells the story of a friendship between two boys in the early 1960s in Mississippi: Joe, who is white, and John Henry, who is African American. John Henry’s mother works for Joe’s family. The boys love to swim and they swim together in the creek, because […]

Gardening and Some Philosophical Questions

“The Garden” in Frog and Toad Together is another of Arnold Lobel’s delightful stories about the friends Frog and Toad, and one that is perfect for the early spring, which we’re experiencing in Seattle this month, with the cherry trees in full blossom.When Toad sees Frog’s beautiful garden, Toad decides that he too would like to […]

Happy

Mies Van Hout’s Happy explores feelings by illustrating one word – brave, surprised, proud, angry – with lively pastels of unusual-looking fish. The book is engaging and the simple structure makes it easy to discuss with children some interesting questions about feelings and emotions. What is an emotion? Are emotions and feelings the same? Do the […]

Harold and the Purple Crayon

What can we know about the nature of reality? A wonderful story for motivating conversations about this question is Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson. First published in 1955, the story begins with Harold deciding, “after thinking it over for some time,” to take a walk in the moonlight. No moon is out, so Harold takes […]

I’m a Frog!

I’m a Frog is another gem of a picture book by Mo Willems, published this year. It’s one of a series of books about best friends Piggie and Elephant Gerald. Willems’ books are clever and thoughtful, and frequently philosophically provocative. In I’m a Frog, Piggie tells Gerald that she is a frog. Gerald perplexed, responds, “I […]

Just Pretend

Benny and Penny in Just Pretend, by Geoffrey Hayes, is an early-reader graphic novel about two siblings and the efforts of the younger child, Penny, to join her brother in “playing pretend.” Constructing pretend worlds is part of many children’s childhoods – I remember when my children wouldn’t answer me unless I addressed them as […]

Michael Rosen’s Sad Book

The nature of sadness. Michael Rosen’s Sad Book describes how sadness feels and tries to understand it. “Sometimes sad is very big. It’s everywhere. All over me.” Michael Rosen’s son, Eddie, died, and that, he tells us, is what makes him most sad. “Sometimes I’m sad and I don’t know why. It’s just a cloud […]

My Friend the Monster

The short novel My Friend the Monster by Clyde Roberta Bulla is about the young Prince Hal, whose parents, the king and queen, think he is “ordinary” and have no time for him. They will not let him spend time with the children he sees playing in the courtyard because these children are the children […]

Pezzettino

Leo Lionni’s Pezzettino is the story of the small Pezzettino (which means “little piece” in Italian), who is a small orange square surrounded by other beings who are all made up of many different-colored squares. Pezzettino observes that everyone around him is “big and [does] daring and wonderful things.” He concludes that he must be […]

Picture Books and Aesthetics

I write a lot about picture books and the role they can play in encouraging children to develop their philosophical thinking. I’ve been thinking about the special role of picture books for inspiring inquiry about aesthetics. Picture books are a unique mixture of literature and visual art, and generate the discovery of meaning through a […]

Really, Really BIG Questions

The picture book Really, Really BIG Questions by British philosophy professor Stephen Law is an engaging introduction to philosophy for anyone from elementary school age through middle school. With drawings and information about science, history, literature and the history of philosophy, the book explores questions such as: How can something come from nothing? What is […]

Rumpelstiltskin

I’ve been re-reading fairy tales and exploring their philosophical potential. So many questions, especially about ethics, are raised by these stories! I just read a version of the Brothers Grimm story Rumpelstiltskin, as retold and illustrated by Paul Zelinsky. The story can be read, of course, as a morality tale about the greed of Rumpelstiltskin […]

Stormy Night

I have used Michele Lemieux’s book Stormy Night in elementary school philosophy classes. It’s a great resource for an introductory session to help the students start to recognize philosophical questions and to think about the questions they have. Stormy Night is wonderfully illustrated with black and white line drawings. It starts off with a young […]

The Book Thief and Psychological Egoism

On Friday I had a marvelous discussion with a group of students in an eighth grade English class about The Book Thief, a novel by Markus Zusak. The story is told from the perspective of Death, who describes his experiences during the Holocaust, and in particular the story of a young girl living near Munich. […]

The Cricket in Times Square

One of my favorite works of children’s literature, The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden, first published in 1960, is moving, funny and philosophically suggestive. In particular, the book can inspire discussion about a variety of ethical questions. The story involves Chester, a cricket, who arrives in Times Square in an accidental way from […]

The Dragon who liked to spit Fire

This delightful picture book by Judy Varga, written in 1961, tells the story of Darius, a little dragon, and the friendship he develops with young prince Frederic. Can Darius be himself, a dragon who likes nothing more than to spit fire (in many colors), and still be friends with Frederic? Darius decides to move to Frederic’s […]

The experience of childhood

Last week I had a conversation with fourth grade students at John Muir Elementary about the story Albert’s Toothache by Barbara Williams, one of my favorite picture books. In the story, Albert, a turtle, complains that he has a toothache. His family points out that he has no teeth, and so he cannot have a […]

The Great Blueness and Other Predicaments

“Long ago there were no colors in the world at all. Almost everything was grey, and what was not grey was black or white. It was a time that was called The Great Greyness.” The Great Blueness and Other Predicaments is a story by Arnold Lobel about a wizard who introduces color into the world, […]

The Hundred Dresses

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes (1944) is a great book to inspire discussions about the nature of friendship, the ethics of being a bystander, and questions about what moral duties we owe to others. I have used this book with students from ages 8-18, usually taking three or four classes to read it together […]

The Invisible Boy

The Invisible Boy, a 2013 picture book written by Trudy Ludwig and illustrated by Patricia Barton, was recommended to me recently by a colleague. The “invisible boy” of the story is Brian, who, unlike some of his classmates, doesn’t “take up a lot of space” and isn’t noticed by either his teacher or the other […]

The One Who Walk Away from Omelas

The Ursula LeGuin short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is a powerful story for discussing with high school students utilitarian ethics and the question of whether the suffering of one person is permissible if it brings about the greater good. The story is set in a joyful and seemingly perfect city, where […]

The Other Side

Jacqueline Woodson’s picture book The Other Side begins as follows: “That summer the fence that stretched through our town seemed bigger.” The story is narrated by Clover, who lives in a house on the side of the fence that separates the black townspeople from the whites in the town. Clover’s mother tells her not to climb […]

The Other Way to Listen

The Other Way to Listen, written by Byrd Baylor and illustrated by Peter Parnall, tells the story of a boy who wants to learn to listen. He knows an old man who can “walk by any cornfield and hear the corn singing,” who has heard “wildflower seeds burst open, beginning to grow underground,”and many other sounds that […]

The Sleeping Beauty

We all know the story of The Sleeping Beauty, on whom a curse is placed at birth. In the story, the 13th of thirteen wise women, angry because she is not invited to the celebration of Sleeping Beauty’s birth, announces a curse upon Sleeping Beauty: she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel on her […]

The Story of Ferdinand

The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf (illustrator Robert Lawson) is the story of a young bull, Ferdinand, growing up in Spain. Ferdinand, unlike all the other little bulls around him, does not spend his time running and jumping and butting heads with other bulls. Ferdinand likes “to sit just quietly and smell the flowers.” Ferdinand […]

The Three Questions

“There once was a boy named Nikolai who sometimes felt uncertain about the right way to act. ‘I want to be a good person,’ he told his friends. ‘But I don’t always know the best way to do that.’” From The Three Questionsby Jon J. Muth Muth takes Leo Tolstoy’s short story, The Three Questions, […]

Tuck Everlasting

Recently I read a chapter (Chaper 12) from the young adult novel Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbit, to a class of fifth grade students at John Muir Elementary School in Seattle. I was surprised that almost none of the students had heard of this classic work.Tuck Everlasting is the story of the Tuck family, a […]

When Lions Roar

Can we control our feelings? Our perceptions? Does how we feel affect what happens in the world?When Lions Roar, a simple picture book by Robie Harris, depicts how scary the world can feel when “lions roar,” “thunder booms,” “big dogs bark,” “mommies holler,” and so on. The child in the story responds, “I sit right […]

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge

Mem Fox’s picture book Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge is the story of a young boy, Wilfrid Gordon, whose “house was next door to an old people’s home and [who] knew all the people who lived there.” His favorite person at the home is Miss Nancy, and Wilfrid Gordon’s father tells him that, at 96, she […]