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 (1939) 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.)

Maughn Gregory’s review of How War Changed Rondo (2021) raises some important questions about our list, and the limits of this project. This book presents a powerful myth of war, and it recommends responses and ways of thinking. How War Changed Rondo may be most helpful just as myth, as a way of making sense of intolerable events. It can alsobe used as a text to promote thinking, if one questions the assumptions that underlie the myth and the images. Gregory’s review shows how a teacher might lead such a discussion – at what points the author’s and illustrator’s model is open to question. But a teacher might also choose not to use the book in this way, responding to the needs of a particular group of children. Philosophical investigation is one important way of working with children, and it seems appropriate even in terrible situations to think things through, but no sane person would insist on this as the only way of helping traumatized children. Sometimes, myths may need to be left simply as myths – as stories that give some meaning to a difficult sequence of events. The teacher must decide which approach a particular group children need, what they are ready for.

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) (Review forthcoming)

Thinking in Stories welcomes other reviews relevant to this theme (submit to Dr. Peter Shea at