Image of children sitting on the floor in a classroom, raising their arms.

Thinking in Stories: Children, War, and Displacement

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is only the most recent event that makes young people experience, witness, and otherwise learn about war and displacement (including for reasons other than war). Philosophy for children has traditionally emphasized raising questions within a framework of safety: the classroom and the world of children’s stories are usually secure places within which disturbing questions can arise. However, in recent decades, a number of initiatives have been developed to provide young people living in situations of war and displacement opportunities to use philosophical inquiry as a means of understanding and coping with these situations. Thinking in Stories invites reviews of children’s and young adult books that can be used in either or both of those contexts (see initial bibliography below).

Many of the books profiled in the reviews published here suggest a way of talking about war and displacement without showing them. One reflects on the oddity of the idea of an enemy, and how ordinary people can suddenly become enemies. Another notices the change in the kinds of friendship we value in different circumstances. Yet another asks how people can keep on with the basic progress of life under hostile circumstances. Another book reflects on how the concept of “here” becomes a problem for people who are always moving, who must establish a new base each day. The reviews point to a rich literature; there are likely other promising books to add to this collection.

These reviews might suggest new uses for old books. In the classic picture book, The Noisy Book by Margaret Wise Brown, a dog who is being shipped in a crate learns to distinguish sounds, partly putting aside his frustration at not being able to see. This story, with echoes of stoic philosophers, is designed to talk children through hard times, to provide a way out for them, and could be helpful with the many frustrations of refugee life. (It’s available, like many good older books, on The Open Library.)

Matthew Lipman’s words from the interview in Socrates for Six-Year-Olds express the kind of support these materials can provide. Lipman is not solving children’s problems or telling them how to feel. He reminds them of the power they always already have:

Children don’t have much private property. Perhaps they own their clothes and a few toys. It’s hard to say that they own even their bed or the furniture in their rooms that belong to the family or the parents. And so, the kind of security that comes with the ownership of property is usually not permitted to children. On the other hand, they do have their thoughts and they cherish these. They are proud of these. These are very consoling. They are what [children] can be secretive about and no one else can invade this privacy. And they have the use of language, which gives them a great deal of power; because with words they can talk to one another and communicate with one another, but also they can defend themselves. I think words mean power to children, and having thoughts is a source of richness—perhaps the only source of richness. (BBC 1990)

Philosophy may have only a small part to play in comforting and strengthening children in extreme distress. Other kinds of engagement may be more needed. We just can’t know, in advance, what conversations will be helpful. If there is a way that the community of inquiry approach can be of service here, we should explore that.

Bibliography of Children’s / Young Adult Books on War and Displacement

Ольвия Агаркова [Olvia Agarkova]: Review of Mii Tato Stav Zirkoiu [My Father Became a Star] by Halyna Kyrpa (2015)

Lena Greene: Review of I am David by Anne Holme (2004)

Alona Kharina: Review of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1947/1997)

Hanna Klymenko-Synook: Review of Vovchyk Who Rode a Bomb by Yurii Nikitinskyi (2019)

Maria Papathanasiou: Review of Silan’s Box by Alkistis Chalikia (2017)

Samantha Piede: Review of Story Boat by Kyo Maclear (2020)

Farzaneh Shahrtash: Review of You Are an Explorer by Shahrzad Shahrjerdi (2019)

Mariia Zbroi: Review of The Enemy: A Book About Peace by Davide Cali (2007)

Thinking in Stories welcomes other reviews relevant to this theme (submit to Dr. Peter Shea at shea0017@umn.edu).