Children’s Literature and Philosophy by Claudia Mills
A Nerdy Book Club deserves a nerdy blog post, so I’m going to do my best to oblige!
For the past two decades of my professional life, I have engaged in two careers: I have been a children’s book author, and I have been a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder, specializing in ethics and political philosophy. At first I kept the two domains of my life separate from each other, but as the years went on, they became more and more interpenetrated. Philosophy is a subject that inspires a childlike sense of wonder; philosophers are the grownups who continue to ask the same kind of questions children ask, those endless “why” and “what if” questions. And children’s literature is a wonderful vehicle for exploring philosophical questions.
Now when I teach my Intro to Ethics course, Philosophy 1100, on the first day I read aloud from the chapter from Stuart Little where Stuart is a substitute teacher leading his students in a discussion of “what’s important.” He calls on Henry Rackmeyer to answer the question, “What’s important?” and commends Henry for his answer: “A shaft of sunlight at the end of a dark afternoon, a note in music, and the way a baby’s neck smells if its mother keeps it tidy.” “Correct,” Stuart tells him, then calling on Mary Bendix to supply the one thing that Henry forgot: “ice cream with chocolate sauce on it.” My students then share their own (less fanciful) lists of what they think it is important (family, friends, health, nature, justice, integrity, success), and we spend the rest of the semester reading some of the greatest thinkers in the history of philosophy—Aristotle, Epictetus, Kant, Mill, Nietzsche, Sartre—to see how they try to answer Stuart Little’s question.
I close the semester with another children’s text: Shiloh, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, an extraordinarily rich story of a boy who decides to do whatever is needed to save a dog who has escaped from his abusive owner. In order to rescue Shiloh, Marty has to steal and lie even to his own loving parents in a way that threatens to unravel the close-knit fabric of his Appalachian community. Worse, by leaving Shiloh confined in a pen, he exposes him to an attack by another dog that leaves Shiloh worse injured than he was at the hands of Judd Travers. I have my students write their final exam essay, using the thoughts of the great philosophers we’ve read together, to analyze whether Marty did the right thing in trying to save Shiloh: why or why not?
I have also found myself gravitating toward exploring philosophical themes in the children’s books I choose to write. My book Standing Up to Mr. O. is about a seventh grader who refuses to dissect animals for her biology class labs. My book Dinah Forever is about a seventh grader who has an existential crisis upon discovering that the sun is going to burn out in another five billion years. And my newest book, Zero Tolerance, is about a seventh grader (I must think there is something especially philosophical about seventh grade!) who finds all her expectations about justice and injustice upended when she faces expulsion from middle school for the innocent error of bringing the wrong lunch—containing a knife for cutting her mother’s apple—to school by mistake.
What rules do we need to have in order to live together? Do these rules have exceptions? How should these rules be enforced? And most of all, how should we react when these rules are enforced wrongly? How can we respond to injustice without becoming unjust ourselves in the process? These are all intensely philosophical questions that I tried to explore in the book. Are they too tough to pose to young readers? Of course not. For as Madeleine L’Engle said, “You have to write the book that wants to be written…if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”
Claudia Mills is the author of many chapter and middle-grade books, including 7 x 9=Trouble!; How Oliver Olson Changed the World; and, most recently, Kelsey Green, Reading Queen. She also teaches philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She lives in Boulder, Colorado. To learn more, visit her website: claudiamillsauthor.com