Books for children in dark times

As the world’s largest human rights organisation, Amnesty deals with issues of epic proportions as well as individual cases. We also set great store by the power of children’s fiction. This sometimes surprises people. But children have a primal love of stories and a deep appreciation of what is fair (and what isn’t!). The best children’s books help develop an understanding of freedom, equality, truth and justice, universal values that provide a moral framework for life.

Dark times

Today, with extensive media coverage of the terror attacks in France and with the UK on high alert, some children are frightened. They need comfort and reassurance. Some schools are running assemblies and class discussion on terrorism and freedom of expression. They need all the help they can get. Amnesty provides many free human rights education materials, (including wonderful resources on using fiction to teach human rights) but the publishing industry has a vital role to play.

How can fiction reassure children?

Books can offer a safe space in times of stress, unhappiness and fear. Children love to return to their favourites time and again. We have a responsibility to create good ‘sanctuary’ books that help children grow in strength and confidence. So how do we do it? As author Sita Brahmachari says, we need books that embrace our humanity in all its rich diversity. Stories and pictures where children can recognise themselves as human among others, that aren’t just about white, affluent, straight, well-cared-for children with a home. We should be publishing books that inspire empathy (and so counteract hatred), encourage tolerance, widen horizons and raise awareness of the world. Books that give children the strength to stand up for themselves and each other.

Dreams of Freedom

The literary charity CLPE provides teacher training on the power of pictures to explore difficult themes, and in the same spirit Amnesty endorses picture books for young children, such as Birgitta Sif’s Oliver and Bob Graham’s Silver Buttons, as well as Sarah Garland’s grittier Azzi in Between about a refugee child. Our new book Dreams of Freedom combines inspiring words by human rights heroes with a wealth of rich and fascinating illustrations. We hope it will help children understand the importance of our hard-won liberties, including freedom of expression (so violently attacked in the Charlie Hebdo killings).

Books that help kids stand up and make a difference

Books that engage with freedom, justice and truth don’t have to be earnest or serious. It’s simply a matter of engaging with the real world. We need to move beyond the status quo. As Michael Morpurgo says about Dreams of Freedom, it contains ‘brave words and beautiful pictures, woven together to inspire young readers to stand up for others and to make a difference’.

And that is exactly what the best children’s books can achieve: sanctuary and confidence during dark times and the shaping of strong moral foundations for the future.

This piece was first published in The Bookseller on 30 January 2015.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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