Finding Lessons in Compassion in Children’s Books

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Monica Friedman

Staff Writer

Monica Friedman has a Dewey Decimal tattoo, a master's degree in creative writing, and 270° of floor to ceiling bookshelves in her home office. She left a lucrative career crafting web content for search engine optimization to throw her life away on starving artistry and has never been happier. Her passions include childhood literacy, dark chocolate, and macro photography, and she has been known to lecture strangers about race/class/gender/sexuality until her audience's eyes glaze over and they wander away. Monica lives with 1 husband, 2 stepkids, and a terrible cat in the dry heat of Tucson, Arizona. You can read short reviews of every book she's read since December 2006 at Dragon's Library and check out her original words and pictures on Twitter: @QWERTYvsDvorak

When the world seems to reward greed and selfishness, maintaining a sense of compassion can feel costly. Compassion is a commitment I  have to keep reminding myself to make, over and over. Sometimes all it takes is a fresh perspective.

Day No Pigs Would Die coverReading Aloud

We decided to drive home for Thanksgiving, a round trip of over three thousand miles, and I took the opportunity to reread a book that’s stayed with me since childhood: A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck. It’s a somewhat fictionalized, but, it appears, mostly true account of the author’s childhood and coming of age on a Vermont farm. My husband likes it when I read aloud, and I’d long wanted to share this story with him, because he also grew up on a farm. He’s come a long way from that farm, though, as we’re reminded every time we visit.

Given the length of the trip, I pulled a second book from my collection, one I hadn’t read in a few years: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. Written forty years apart, both these novels for young readers kindle a sense of compassion for others by showing a dawning understanding of others’ needs through the eyes of their first person narrators.

Learning to Care

In A Day No Pigs Would Die, Rob’s prize pig, Pinky, is the only thing that’s ever truly been his. He loves this pig with a ferocity not often seen in human-porcine matches, but it is in his father, Haven Peck, an uneducated farmer, that Rob has the perfect model of love and forgiveness. Rob questions his parents’ religious proscriptions and wishes for an easier life than that of a poor Shaker. His father accepts every burden, and teaches his son not to judge others, but to simply do what must be done.

One and Only Ivan coverFor Ivan, the silverback gorilla protagonist of The One and Only Ivan, morality is a little more murky. Raised by humans and having blocked out the violence that brought him from the jungle to a circus-themed shopping mall off I-95, Ivan has no compass to follow. He retains only the recollection that it is the job of the silverback to protect his family. When he is tasked with protecting a baby elephant, he, like Rob, must learn that doing what is right is not simple.

Giving of Yourself

The central moment in Rob’s understanding comes on the day he must help his father slaughter and butcher Pinky, lest the family starve during a long winter. Rob loves Pinky—almost every chapter of the story provides further evidence of the boy’s consuming passion for his pig—but finds he loves his father more, and respects him beyond measure for his ability to do what must be done. Tears streaming down his face, Rob takes his father’s hand, still dripping with the blood of the creature that loved him so well, and kisses it.

For Rob, the lesson of compassion is learned as he sees his father with a clear heart. He learns that growing up means sometimes doing what is hateful, because it is necessary. Even that which is hateful can be done with love.

Ivan, comfortable in his cement domain, where he can watch TV and eat yoghurt raisins, has his heart turned by the plight of a newcomer. Having promised to protect baby Ruby, Ivan must see through the eyes of another. He must understand what someone else needs. While he is resigned and more or less happy with his small world, he comes to understand life from the perspective of a more social, and less comfortable animal. In order to save Julia, he must give up everything he finds pleasant. But, having learned compassion, he does so with hope and integrity.

Choose to Be Kind

Killing a pig and saving an elephant: both can be done with kindness. In Peck’s story, this knowledge is an expected part of growing up, one of the keys that turns a child into an adult. In Applegate’s story, the unlikely great ape protagonist’s job is to remind humans of the basic quality of decency.

It’s good to remind yourself, from time to time, the importance of feeling compassion for everyone in your world.