Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Little Bird

The picture book Little Bird by Germano Zullo, published this year, has few words and many colorful, vibrant illustrations. It tells the story of a truck driver who, coming to the edge of a cliff and unable to go any further, opens the truck's back door and out fly a flock of birds. As the man watches them fly off, the text tells us, "One could almost believe that one day is just like another." But then the man observes that left in the truck is one little bird. Tiny, the text notes.

"Most of the time we don't notice these things.
Because little things are not made to be noticed."

The man and the little bird spend the day together. Eventually all the other birds return as well.

"When we take the time to look for them . . .
the small things appear."

By the end of the book the man is flying, carried by the birds.

"There are no greater treasures than the little things.
One is enough to enrich the moment.
Just one is enough to change the world."

What does it mean for something to be little? Is anything ever truly insignificant? Are our realities made up of only the things we notice? How does the way we see affect what there is to be seen?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Infinity and Me

Infinity and Me is a new book, written by Kate Hosford with illustrations by Gabi Swiatkowska, that explores the nature of infinity. Uma, an eight-year-old girl, begins wondering, as she looks up at the sky one night:

How many stars were in the sky?
A million? A billion?
Maybe the number was as
big as infinity.

I started to feel very,
very small. How
could I even think
about something as
big as infinity?

Uma tries to understand the concept of infinity by asking people - friends, her grandmother, and other adults - how they imagine infinity. Along the way she considers the concept of "forever" and thinks about what she would want to do forever, if anything. She imagines having recess forever, for example - and then reflects, "But if there's no school before recess, and no school after recess, it it really recess anymore?"

The story is captivating and can provoke, in addition to discussions of infinity, conversations about time and space, numbers, imagination, friendship and love, and, I expect, many other topics!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Horton Hears A Who

Horton Hears A Who! by Dr. Suess tells the story of Horton the Elephant who, while splashing “in the cool of the pool,” hears a small noise, like a very small yelp, but sees nothing except a “small speck of dust blowing past through the air.” Horton speculates that a very small creature must be on top of the dust speck and imagines that the small creature is afraid that the dust will blow into the pool. Concerned, “because a person’s a person, no matter how small,” Horton gently lifts the speck with his trunk, places it on a clover, and tries to protect it.

The other animals in the jungle make fun of Horton, conjecturing that he is “out of his head.” Eventually the voice on the clover confides to Horton that he is the Mayor of a town called Who-ville, and that Horton has saved all the Whos and their buildings. As the other animals chase him and ultimately threaten to imprison Horton and boil the dust speck, all the small Whos make enough noise to finally be heard by the other animals, who finally recognize that there are indeed very small persons in the clover.

Readers of all ages can appreciate Horton’s story, which inspires questions like: Did Horton know there was a person on the dust speck when he heard the sound? How did he know it? Why didn't the other animals didn’t believe him? Do you have to see, hear, or touch something yourself in order to believe it’s there? Can you think of something you know exists even though you can’t see, hear or touch it?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Out of My Mind

Sharon Draper's Out of My Mind is the story of eleven-year-old Melody, born with cerebral palsy and unable to walk, talk, feed herself, or take care of any of her basic needs. Doctors, many teachers, and a host of other adults assume she is incapable of learning, but Melody is highly intelligent and thoughtful, with a mind is full of thoughts she is unable to express and a photographic memory. The book begins:

I’m surrounded by thousands of words. Maybe millions.
Cathedral. Mayonnaise. Pomegranate.
Mississippi. Neapolitan. Hippopotamus.
Silky. Terrifying. Iridescent.
Tickle. Sneeze. Wish. Worry.

Words have always swirled around me like snowflakes—each one delicate and different, each one melting untouched in my hands.
Deep within me, words pile up in huge drifts. Mountains of phrases and sentences and connected ideas. Clever expressions. Jokes. Love songs.
From the time I was really little—maybe just a few months old—words were like sweet, liquid gifts, and I drank them like lemonade. I could almost taste them. They made my jumbled thoughts and feelings have substance. My parents have always blanketed me with conversation. They chattered and babbled. They verbalized and vocalized. My father sang to me. My mother whispered her strength into my ear.
Every word my parents spoke to me or about me I absorbed and kept and remembered. All of them.
I have no idea how I untangled the complicated process of words and thought, but it happened quickly and naturally. By the time I was two, all my memories had words, and all my words had meanings.
But only in my head.
I have never spoken one single word. I am almost eleven years old.

Compelling and believable, the novel made me think about the nature of intelligence, the relationship between communication and identity, the assumptions we make about people based on limited information, the meaning of the concept "disabled," the experience of living with diverse impairments and whether it is possible for someone without that experience to understand it, how we know what we know, and the moral dimension of the category "disabled." A great book to read with upper elementary or middle school students.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Long Walk to Water

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park, based on true events, tells the dual story of Nya, living in southern Sudan in 2008 and traveling miles every day to bring home water for her family, and Salva, growing up in southern Sudan in the 1980s and, at 11, leaving his village and family to escape the civil war. The story is written simply and the dual narrative structure creates a gripping picture of life in a difficult country and the strengths and skills necessary for survival.

The story raises interesting philosophical questions about the nature of hope and perseverance, allegiance to family and community, and the relationship between a place and the individuals who inhabit it. It's a beautifully told story and will be especially compelling to upper elementary school age students.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Bear That Wasn't

The Bear That Wasn't, written in written in 1946 by Frank Tashlin, explores identity and what we can know about ourselves and others. The bear in the story wakes up after winter hibernation and a factory has been built over the cave where he had slept. He is in the middle of a busy factory, and everyone he meets tells him that he is not a bear, but a "silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat." At first the bear is sure of his own identity, but eventually begins to question whether he is in fact a bear.

How do we know who and what we are? Are there things that only we know about ourselves? Are there things we don't know about ourselves? If everyone tells us something they believe about us, does that make it true?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Is hatred important?

I had a marvelous philosophy session with a fourth grade class at Whittier Elementary School yesterday, in which we read the chapter of E.B. White's Stuart Little in which Stuart becomes an elementary school substitute teacher for a day. In the chapter, Stuart asks the class to reflect on what the "important things" are. After we read the chapter, I asked the students to take a little time to think about what they think are the important things. Some of what they suggested are as follows:

Trees, plants and wildlife
The economy
A good book
The afterlife

We then launched into a 40-minute conversation (I wish I'd taped it) about the suggestion that "everything is important." The student who made the suggestion said that the world is structured so that everything in it matters, even the bad things like hatred. Why is hatred important? Many students commented that hatred serves important purposes - like releasing energy, causing wars which then keep down population and stimulate the economy, and allowing for love - several students claimed that without hatred love is impossible, that you can only know an experience if its opposite is also possible. We explored the nature of hatred - what is it exactly? How is it different from dislike? Is it the same, only stronger? Can you dislike someone you've never met? Can you hate someone you've never met?

One student remarked that love and hate are almost the same thing, that if you hate someone they play an important role in your life and you direct great energy toward them, in the same way you do toward people you love. This is why everything is important, some students suggested, because without all of the emotions, ideas, objects and beings in the world, the world would fail to have balance. We ended the session with the students writing reflections on the question, "Is everything important?"

Children are so inspiring!

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Magic Half

My colleague Sara Goering recommended this book to me and I loved it. Annie Barrows' The Magic Half tells the story of Miri, a middle child with two older twin brothers and two younger twin sisters. The family has just moved to a new home, an old farmhouse, and Miri feels alone in her role as middle child surrounded by twins. In the house Miri discovers magic that takes her back in time to meet a girl her age who lived in the house about seventy years earlier, and who needs her help.

A page-turner, the book provokes questions about time travel and the nature of time, family relationships and identity, and freedom and destiny. A great novel to read with children from ages 7 or 8 and on.

Friday, October 5, 2012


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 illustrations represent the feelings corresponding to them on the page? Do our expressions always indicate our feelings? Can we have more than one of these feelings simultaneously? If we're brave, can we also be shocked? If we're angry, can we also be delighted? How do we know the fish are feeling the emotions represented?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Bad Case of Stripes

A Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon tells the story of Camilla Cream, who loves lima beans but never eats them because she wants to fit in with her friends, who all hate lima beans. On the first day of school, Camilla finally decides what to wear and gets dressed, looks in the mirror, and realizes that she is covered in stripes of all colors.

Kids laugh at Camilla, the media follows her, and all kinds of cures are tried and fail, until one woman visits her and tells her to eat lima beans. Camilla admits that she loves them, eats them, and is cured. "I knew the real you was in there somewhere," the woman tells Camilla.

Raising questions about identity, conformity, authenticity and friendship, as well as about causation and knowledge, the book's vivid illustrations and story are captivating.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

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 also be sad? What is usual and what is unusual?

The vibrant illustrations inspire imaginative and critical thinking and the recognition that what seems simple or ordinary often is not. The book celebrates curiosity and encourages children to think for themselves about the meaning of everyday concepts.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization

The 2012-13 school year is off to an energetic start! For teachers and others interested in learning about doing philosophy with children, the new national organization I've been involved in founding, PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization), is now accepting members. Click here more more information on the organization and membership:

We are holding a second (the first was at Columbia in 2011) PLATO conference, February 19-20 at Loyola University in New Orleans. The conference theme is PLATO and Pedagogy: The Evolving Field of Pre-College Philosophy. Sessions will include invited speakers as well as submitted papers and presentations/workshop sessions. Topics include: How can philosophy reach a wider pre-college audience? How might pre-college philosophy contribute to improving K-12 education generally? Can philosophy fit into the framework of established K-12 educational institutions? How can we ensure that pre-college philosophy curricula have integrity? What do teachers need in order to teach philosophy well at the high school, middle school, and/or elementary school levels? What is needed to ensure that teachers have access to the training, resources and collaboration necessary for pre-college philosophy to grow and thrive?

The talks given at the first PLATO Conference have been edited and compiled into Philosophy and Education: Introducing Philosophy to Young People, just published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing. The book seeks to illuminate the ways in which philosophy can strengthen and deepen pre-college education, examining various issues involved in teaching philosophy to young people at different grade levels, including assessing what teachers need in order to teach philosophy and describing several models for introducing philosophy into schools. Ways to explore specific branches of philosophy—ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, and logic—through literature, thought experiments, and games and activities, as well as traditional philosophy texts, are described. The book’s final section considers student assessment and program evaluation, and analyzes the contributions pre-college philosophy can make to education in general.

And my book, The Philosophical Child, should be out next week. Happy fall!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Philosophical Child

This will be my last blog post for the school year - I'll start again in September. I wanted to let everyone know that my book, The Philosophical Child, is currently at press and will be available in September, published by Rowman & Littlefield. Here is the short summary of the book:
Do children ask philosophical questions? How can you tell? What does it mean to think philosophically? The Philosophical Child considers children’s philosophical potential, pointing out that frequently children’s questions and musings raise philosophical issues but adult preconceptions about children's limitations discourage exploration of these subjects. When children ask questions, in many ways it is the responses to the questions that determine whether they lead to a philosophical exchange. The book explores ways that parents and other adults can recognize and stimulate philosophical conversations about children's questions, describing a wide variety of resources for generating philosophical inquiry with children.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Obstinate Pen

The Obstinate Pen by Frank Dormer is a new picture book about a pen with a mind of its own. Each adult who ends up with the pen finds that it won't write what the adult intends, but instead writes what seem to be the pen's own thoughts and observations, which are often insulting and consistently hilarious.

For example, Uncle Flood wants to write his first sentence with his new pen: The following story is all true. The pen instead writes: You have a big nose!

The book inspires thinking about where thoughts come from, whether we always do what we intend and the relationship between intentions and actions, and the nature of artistic inspiration.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The If Machine

The If Machine, by Peter Worley, was published in 2011 and is full of ideas for motivating philosophical conversations with children. The first quarter of the book is an introduction to doing philosophy with young people and contains many useful general suggestions for introducing philosophy in elementary school classrooms. The rest of the book is made up of 25 units that each include a very short story, a description of the philosophical topic involved (justice, fairness, identity, etc.), and a list of questions and various strategies for facilitating a discussion on the topic. The book is well-written, very practical and accessible, and many of the stories raise philosophical issues in appealing and thoughtful ways. I'm going to try out one of the units with a class of fourth grade students next week.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Who is More Trustworthy: Children or Adults?

Earlier this month at Whittier Elementary School in Seattle, a group of fourth grade students and I had a long conversation after reading Barbara Williams' Albert's Toothache. We talked about the relationship between telling a lie, telling the truth and making a mistake, and that led to a discussion about why the things children say are often less likely to be believed than what adults say. In the course of that exchange, a student commented that adults are seen as more trustworthy than children, and we talked about whether that perception reflects a truth. At the end of the discussion, I suggested the following reflection question:
Are children more or less trustworthy than adults?

Here is a sampling of what the children wrote in response:

"I think that kids, for the most part, are more trustworthy than adults. Adults can lie to kids and we still believe them and so do other adults. Kids can't lie at all or adults won't believe them ever again."

"I think that children are less trustworthy than adults because kids are more immature. Kids like to snoop, while adults are more responsible. Adults are responsible because while kids play and have fun, adults work, do bills and other things for their families."

"I think that kids are more trustworthy than adults are. I think that because kids will lie to protect a secret. This quality of kids is one that adults don't notice."

 "In the end I think that adults would be more likely to not tell a lie. I think this because they have more experience with what can go wrong. I also think it is more likely for adults to think about it before telling someone something confidential. Therefore, I think children are less trustworthy than adults."

"I think children are more trustworthy than adults because lying does not come easy for children."

"When you first think about it, you think, 'Oh, grown-ups are mature, so they are most trustworthy.' But then you realize that being trustworthy also means telling your true opinion and being able to keep secrets. Grown-ups are terrible at that! Then after thinking about it for an extremely long time until your head feels like it's going to explode, you realize that it's not really about your age or if you're a grown-up or child, it's about who you are."

Monday, April 9, 2012


Exploring the nature of artistic inspiration and the relationship between art and life, the picture book Emma by Wendy Kesselman tells the story of Emma, who is seventy-two years old, lives alone with her cat and sometimes is “very lonely.” For her birthday, Emma’s family gives her a painting of her childhood village, and Emma thinks to herself that the painting really doesn’t resemble her memories of her village. She begins painting her village as she remembers it, and goes on to paint many other paintings, which surround Emma with the “friends and places she loved.”

Emma’s artistic inspiration seems to come from inside, from the way she remembers her life. What role does memory play in art? Is the way each of us sees the world unique? Are we then all artists, or does being an artist require some expression of our perspective? 

The book’s illustrations illuminate the changes in Emma as she begins painting. Smiling instead of frowning, she seems to come alive as the story progresses. Can expressing ourselves through art change the way we feel about ourselves? What is the relationship between our feelings and our aesthetic experiences?

Monday, March 26, 2012

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 best friend Josh, and his hamster Pip help Wilson to figure out what really matters to him.

Like all Claudia Mills' books (she is a philosophy professor at University of Colorado who has written dozens of children's books), the story is philosophically rich, generating questions about friendship, knowledge of other minds, learning and education, and the nature of happiness. And it's a great story for figuring out that everyone learns in different ways and that the fact that you don't understand something right away doesn't mean that you can't become good at it!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

little blue and little yellow

Another Leo Lionni book, little blue and little yellow tells the story of two friends, both blobs of color, who love playing together, and one day hug each other so much that they both become green. Their parents declare that they are no longer who they were.

Like all the Lionni books I've been reading, this story has great philosophical energy. It makes me think about identity and what it is that makes us who we are - once little blue and little yellow are green, are they no longer blue and yellow? They still feel inside like blue and yellow. Can something change and still remain the same? If you change, are you still the same person? The story also raises questions about knowledge and belief: the parents are sure that little blue and little yellow are no longer themselves, but they base this belief solely on the way the children appear to them. Is that a good basis for believing something? Often things aren't the way they look to us - and yet we persist in thinking we know things because we have seen them. When is appearance a reasonable basis for believing or knowing something?

Monday, March 5, 2012

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, avoiding puddles, quivering under the couch, and crashing into the narrator's baby brother. 

The inconsistencies between the text and pictures raise many questions - including questions related to how we know what we know, the relationship between perception and truth, and whether we can understand other minds, including the minds of animals. And both the text and drawings are clever and funny. I've found that children love this book and it inspires interesting questions for them.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

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 15th birthday, and fall down dead. The curse is mitigated by one of the other wise women, who states that, instead of dying, the princess will fall into a deep sleep for 100 years.

The King commands that all spinning wheels in the kingdom be destroyed. After some years, the King and Queen forget about the curse so that on her 15th birthday, Sleeping Beauty is left alone at the place. Exploring the palace, the princess finds a room in which there is an old woman spinning at a spinning wheel. Sleeping Beauty tries it and pricks her finger, falling into the foretold hundred-years sleep.

Sleeping Beauty's philosophical themes include destiny, promises, loss, betrayal, sleep, beauty, awakening, and the nature of time. Why doesn't the King invite the 13th wise woman - does he have a good reason? Why do they royal couple leave their daughter alone when they are aware of the danger to her? Is this a betrayal? Was Sleeping Beauty aware of the curse upon her? Can we escape our destiny? When Sleeping Beauty wakes up after 100 years, is it possible that her kingdom still exists? Can time stop? Where is Sleeping Beauty during the long period of her sleep? Is she the same person when she wakes up that she was when she went to sleep? What does it mean to be "awakened?"

Friday, February 10, 2012


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 and his willingness to take advantage of the desperation of the miller's daughter, who must spin straw into gold or the king will have her killed.

But the story is more complex than that. It raises many ethical, as well as social and political issues. For example, the absolute power of the king. Is his demand that the miller's daughter spin straw into gold, or die, any worse than Rumpelstiltskin's insistence that she keep her promise to give him her first-born child? And once the miller's daughter (who is never given a name) manages (with the help of Rumpelstiltskin) this feat, the king marries her - again, the miller's daughter clearly has no choice about this either. Who is the real villain in the story - Rumpelstiltskin or the king?

Rumpelstiltskin asks the miller's daughter to promise him her necklace, her ring, and then (when she has no material things left) her first child - are the first two requests morally permissible? Should Rumpelstiltskin help her without asking for anything in return? Is it just the final request that is over the moral line? Should the miller's daughter have made this promise? Why isn't she obligated to keep it?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

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 walks and returns shouting with excitement about what she's found, even if it's "nothing but an ordinary little pebble." One day, she finds what she thinks is a perfect white stone, almost as big as she is. She brings it home, and the other frogs point out that it is not a pebble, but a chicken egg. "How do you know that?" Jessica asks. "There are some things you just know," one of the frogs replies.

Pretty soon, the egg cracks open and a "long, scaly creature that walked on four legs" emerges. The three frogs all shout, "A chicken!" They spend days playing with the "chicken," and the chicken and Jessica become great friends. One day a bird tells the chicken that her mother has been searching for her, and Jessica and the chicken follow the bird to find the enormous alligator that is the chicken's mother. When Jessica returns home, she tells the other frogs that the mother chicken called her baby, "My sweet little alligator." "What a silly thing to say," one of the frogs comments, and they all can't stop laughing.

Like all Lionni's books, the illustrations are marvelous and can themselves raise many aesthetic questions: How do the words and drawings together tell the story? What feelings do the drawings create? How do drawings create feelings? Would the story be the same without the drawings? The words? Etc.

But the story also provokes questions about knowledge and how we know what we know. Why does Jessica believe her fellow frog when told the alligator is a chicken? Why does she continue to believe it even when she meets the mother alligator? Often we believe we have knowledge because of testimony from other people - can such information be knowledge? Do the words of other people give us a basis for believing something? How do we determine which testimony to trust? Does it depend on how the people speaking to us know what they think they know? How often do we hold onto our beliefs even in the face of evidence that they are not true?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Duck, Death and the Tulip

My friend Deb Tollefsen at University of Memphis recommended Duck, Death and the Tulip, by Wolf Erlbruch, which tells the story of Duck and her meeting with Death, who informs Duck that "I've been close by all your life." The two spend some time together, and they talk about death. In many of the frames, Death is carrying a tulip. At the end of the story, Duck dies and Death carries her to a river and lays her in the water, placing the tulip on her body. "When she was lost to sight, he was almost a little moved. But that's life, thought Death."

I used the story this fall in discussions with undergraduate students. I also read it with my fourteen-year-old son and it led to a conversation about whether we would live forever if we could choose to do so. He said that he thought if we didn't have death we'd have "no incentive to do anything" and that it would be hard to get older and weaker and never die. I asked him what he would do if he could choose to live forever at a certain age and stay that age always. We agreed that without change life would seem lifeless. We then talked about what happens when you die, whether the body's death means the end of all consciousness and whether it's possible that there are planes of existence beyond our ability to imagine.

I've also used the book in philosophy sessions with fourth and fifth grade students, and it's led to some thoughtful exchanges about life and death, what it means to be mortal, and whether anything ever really dies.

All this from a 30-page picture book!