What Should You Do? Approaching Ethics through Literature

Book Links: February/March 2001 (v.10 no.4)

by Laurie Miller Hornik

More and more, schools today are being called upon to help children learn to think ethically. In some schools, such as ours, the curriculum of ethics is both a formal and an informal one. Starting in second grade, children in our school attend ethics class, much the same way they attend music or physical education class.

With recent tragic events (such as school shootings) dominating the news, we realize more and more that it is an important subject to teach. Educators are looking for ways to include discussions of ethics in what they do every day in their classrooms.

What exactly is ethics? It is the process of making a decision whose outcome has moral consequences. Imagine this scenario: Your friend steals a pack of gum from a store. What would you do? And just as important, what do you think you should do, based on your own values? Can you articulate the beliefs that lead to your decision? When children form values based on careful thought, those values are quite deeply held. Far more meaningful than simply telling children what to think is helping them create their own value system through careful reasoning.

Books can be a natural starting place for teaching ethics. There is a growing subset of novels that are excellent for use in ethical discussions. These are novels in which the protagonist makes a difficult moral choice. But just because moral decisions are being made doesn't necessarily mean a book is appropriate for the teaching of ethics. Many books take a preachy, didactic tone, making it clear all along what the narrative voice thinks should be done. The characters make quick decisions, and reasonable consequences are quickly doled out, with good being rewarded and evil being punished. In such books, not much consideration is required of the reader.

How do you tell if a book's dilemma is worthy of ethical discussion? It helps if there is not one "right answer" as far as you, the adult, is concerned. More open-ended questions lead to better opportunities for children to improve their skills of reasoning, articulation, and listening to others.

What subject matter is best in books about ethics? Often the decision the protagonist faces is a realistic one. Then children might think, "That could happen to me," and their own lives will provide the context. But there is also a place for the extraordinary, as in Eve Bunting's Blackwater, or the supernatural, as in Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting. Such extreme scenarios are exciting and can stretch children's thinking.

For younger children, fairy tales and the ever-popular fractured fairy tales are another excellent vehicle for helping children think about ethical issues. Familiar stories work beautifully for discussion since children already understand the stories so deeply. Fractured fairy tales, in which the point of view is switched, can also provide good fodder for ethical discussions.

Also, for younger children, books about feelings and moods can be a good entree into ethical discussion. It is important, however, to help children understand the difference between feelings and ethics. One can be sad or happy for many reasons, but only some of these feelings are connected to ethics. If you scrape your knee, your sadness at being hurt is not ethical in nature. If your friend pushes you or says something hurtful, then the sadness or anger you feel may have an ethical basis. While ethics is not synonymous with emotions, understanding feelings is an important part of what goes into making ethical decisions. Young children may not be faced with complex ethical decisions, but learning basic communication skills, such as how to treat others with respect and kindness, provides the foundation for moral reasoning later in life.

Picture Books

Bang, Molly. When Sophie Gets Angry-Really, Really Angry. 1998. 40p. Scholastic, $15.95 (0-590-18979-4).
Preschool-Gr. 3. In this Caldecott Honor Book, Sophie's anger, presented with wonderful imagery, can be a springboard for discussion of what makes children angry, and how they can appropriately express and control their anger.

Brown, Laurene Krasny, and Marc Brown. How to Be a Friend: A Guide to Making Friends and Keeping Them. 1998. 32p. Little, Brown, $14.95 (0-316-10913-4).
Preschool-Gr. 3. This how-to book explores both how to be and how not to be a friend, as brightly colored dinosaurs interact as people would. Topics addressed include shyness, how to approach others, and mending damaged relationships.

Coles, Robert. The Story of Ruby Bridges. Illus. by George Ford. 1995. 32p. Scholastic, $13.95 (0-590-43967-7).
K- Gr. 4. In 1960 in New Orleans, Ruby Bridges was the first black six-year-old to attend an all-white school. This book lends itself to discussions of fairness and equality, as well as how to handle other people's anger (as Ruby had to handle the anger of the white parents at the school).

Fearnley, Jan. Mr. Wolf's Pancakes. 2000. 32p. Little Tiger, $14.95 (1-888444-76-2).
Preschool-Gr. 3. In this fractured fairy tale, the mild-mannered wolf just wants to make pancakes, but is treated less than nicely by some other classic fairy tale characters. The general behavior of the characters and the surprise ending lend themselves to ethical discussion.

Freyman, Saxton, and Joost Elffers. How Are You Peeling?: Foods with Moods. 1999. 48p. Scholastic, $15.95 (0-439-10431-9).
Preschool-Gr. 2. While the best part is certainly the photographs of sculpted foods, the photos, along with the accompanying rhyming text, are a good springboard for discussion of moods and the real-life events that cause them.

Hausman, Bonnie. A to Z Do You Ever Feel Like Me?: A Guessing Alphabet of Feelings, Words, and Other Cool Stuff. Photography by Sandi Fellman. 1999. 48p. Dutton, $15.99 (0-525-46216-3).
Preschool-Gr. 3. In this alphabet book, each letter stands for an emotion, and is accompanied by a short description of what might cause that emotion, as well as photographs of actual first-graders acting out the scenario.

Jack and the Beanstalk. Retold by Ann Keay Beneduce. Illus. by Gennady Spirin. 1999. 32p. Philomel, $15.99 (399-23118-8).
Preschool-Gr. 3. This classic tale, set here in Tudor England and brought to life by mystical, detailed watercolors, can be used to prompt readers to ponder the question of whether or not stealing can be ethical in certain circumstances.

McKissack, Patricia. The Honest-to-Goodness Truth. Illus. by Giselle Potter. 2000. 40p. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $16 (0-689-82668-0).
K- Gr. 3. After she is caught lying to her mother, Libby vows to be completely honest. But she carries her pledge to the extreme and ends up spreading embarrassing personal information about others, most of whom become angry and shun Libby. McKissack's book helps to convey the subtleties of being truthful to younger children who might not yet understand the difference between dishonesty and discretion.

Polacco, Patricia. The Butterfly. 2000. 48p. Philomel, $16.99 (0-399-23170-6).
Gr. 1-4. Set during the Holocaust, this is a story of friendship between a little Jewish girl and the girl of the family hiding her and her family during the Nazi occupation of their French village. Issues of friendship and compassion are set against a morally dire backdrop.

Polacco, Patricia. Pink and Say. 1994. 48p. Philomel, $15.95 (0-399-22671-0).
Gr. 1-4. This book is based on a true story of interracial friendship and compassion between two 15-year-old Union soldiers during the Civil War. Pink, who is black, rescues Say, a poor, white boy, and returns home with him. While Pink and his mother help Say recover, the boys form a bond that lasts forever, even after Pink is murdered.

Scieszka, Jon. T he True Story of the 3 Little Pigs. Illus. by Lane Smith. 1996. 32p. Puffin, paper, $6.99 (0-140-54451-8).
K- Gr. 4. Here the story of the Three Little Pigs is told from the point of view of the wolf, who insists that he did nothing wrong and was framed. Follow-up discussions can include how the same actions can be interpreted different ways.

Seuss, Dr. The Butter Battle Book. 1984. 48p. Random, $14 (0-394-86580-4).
Preschool-Gr. 3. In this classic antiwar book, a terrible, escalating fight breaks out between the Yooks, who eat their bread butter side up, and the Zooks, who eat their bread butter side down. The cliffhanger ending-impending doom for all-provides a dramatic springboard for discussion of differences and tolerance, as well as appropriate responses when fighting.

Novels

Avi. Nothing but the Truth: A Documentary Novel. 1991. 192p. Orchard, $16.95 (0-531-05959-6); Avon, paper, $4.99 (0-380-71907-X).
Gr. 4-6. A ninth-grader hums along with the daily playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" in homeroom, and gets in trouble for breaking the rule that requires students to stand at "respectful, silent attention." This seemingly small incident leads to extraordinary questions of motivation and rights, including issues of respect, freedom, and patriotism. As the incident spirals out of control, the reader is presented with many sides of the issue.

Babbitt, Natalie. Tuck Everlasting. 1975. 160p. Farrar, $15 (0-374-37848-7); paper, $4.95 (0-374-48012-5).
Gr. 4-6. Winnie must choose whether to drink from a spring that would allow her to stay her present age forever. The choice is not as easy as one might first think, and Winnie must grapple with important questions about what life-and death-really is. This novel also deals with issues of family and friendship.

Bauer, Marion Dane. On My Honor. 1986. 96p. Clarion, $15 (0-89919-439-7); Yearling, paper, $4.99 (0-440-46633-4).
Gr. 4-6. Joel and Tony had been warned never to go near the river. When Tony challenges Joel to swim, and Tony ends up disappearing, Joel is faced with the decision of whether to tell the truth. This novel also deals with the responsibility of moral decision-making transferring from the parent to the child, as the child matures.

Bunting, Eve. Blackwater. 1999. 160p. HarperCollins, $15.95 (0-06-027838-2); paper, $4.95 (0-06-440890-6).
Gr. 5-8. Brodie accidentally causes the deaths of Pauline and Otis, but before he can even confess, his cousin Alex makes up outrageous stories that paint Brodie as a hero. Along with Brodie, the reader grapples with the questions, Should I tell? Would I tell? What would it help if I did? The questions change slightly as different twists occur in the story. A good companion book to On My Honor (listed above), which deals with similar themes and circumstances.

Byars, Betsy. Cracker Jackson. 1985. 168p. Viking, $15.99 (0-670-80546-7); Puffin, paper, $4.99 (0-14-031881-X).
Gr. 4-6. An 11-year-old boy must decide what to do when he learns his babysitter is being abused by her husband. The reader is encouraged to consider the consequences of getting involved in weighty issues when one may not be able to have an effect on the outcome.

Clements, Andrew. The Landry News. Illus. by Salvatore Murdocca. 1999. 128p. Simon & Schuster, $15 (0-689-81817-3); Aladdin, paper, $4.99 (0-689-82868-3).
Gr. 3-7. Cara Landry, a budding journalist, is in the fifth-grade humanities class of Mr. Larson, the school's most burned-out teacher. When Cara writes her own newspaper, including a scathing editorial about her teacher, Mr. Larson is prodded into action. He leads his students in an inspired curriculum unit on newspapers and their moral responsibilities, which could possibly cost him his job.

Dadey, Debbie. King of the Kooties. Illus. by Kevin O'Malley. 1999. 84p. Walker, $15.95 (0-8027-8709-6).
Gr. 2-5. Two fourth-grade friends are targeted by the class bully, who calls one of them the Kootie King. The boys retaliate by establishing the Kingdom of the Kooties and naming the bully as princess. Being teased or picked on by someone happens to many elementary-school students at some time, and this book maintains a light tone while presenting a solution.

Estes, Eleanor. The Hundred Dresses. Illus. by Louis Slobodkin. 1944. 81p. Harcourt, $16 (0-15-237374-8); paper, $6 (0-15-642350-2).
Gr. 2-4. Reasonable, nice children engage in teasing without giving it much thought. When the teasing has severe consequences, the teasers must face their responsibility. This is a very positive book, in which the characters are not polarized into bad and good. It is quite subtle and nuanced for the age, and while a bit old-fashioned, is still very accessible.

Gaeddert, LouAnn Bigge. Friends and Enemies. Illus. by Amy Crehore. 2000. 176p. Atheneum, $15 (0-689-82822-5).
Gr. 5-9. William, a lonely newcomer to a small Kansas town, befriends a Mennonite boy named Jim. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, their friendship is tested when Jim refuses to participate in the war effort, something William believes should be supported. Readers see William struggle to understand Jim's beliefs, and how William must decide whether to join those who taunt and even threaten to harm Jim.

Lemieux, Anne C. All the Answers. 2000. 160p. Avon, $15 (0-380-97771-0).
Gr. 4-7. Eighth-grader Jason has a host of troubles-he is failing math, his dad is too critical, and he pines after a girl whose overprotective brother is determined to thwart him. He has alienated his family and friends by continually ignoring his problems and becoming even more self-absorbed. Getting caught cheating on a math test actually leads to a change for the better, as Jason is forced to address the important issues he has tried to ignore.

Lowry, Lois. Anastasia, Absolutely. 1995. 128p. Houghton, $16 (0-395-74521-7); Yearling, paper, $3.99 (0-440-41222-6).
Gr. 4-7. While taking a class on values, Anastasia realizes that when it comes to values, both she and her family are "wishy-washy." Or are they? Is it that the moral questions, or situations, that she is supposed to write about are not so clear-cut? Then Anastasia is faced with a real-life dilemma: whether to own up to a crime she may have committed that no one can trace to her if she doesn't come forward.

Naylor, Phyllis Reynolds. Shiloh. 1991. 144p. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $15 (0-689-31614-3); Aladdin, paper, $5.50 (0-689-83582-5).
Gr. 3-7. When a boy learns that the dog Shiloh is being abused by his owner, he must decide what to do. When should you mind your own business? When should you take action? What should you do when the law is wrong?

Neufeld, John. Edgar Allan. Illus. by Loren Dunlap. 1968. 128p. Phillips, $26.95 (0-87599-149-1); Puffin, paper, $4.99 (0-14-130432-4).
Gr. 5-8. A 12-year-old tells the story of what happens to his middle-class, suburban, white family when it adopts a black child. The great gap between societal pressures and prejudices, and basic human friendship, love, and family is plainly drawn.

Ritter, John. Choosing Up Sides. 1998. 163p. Philomel, $15.99 (0-399-23185-4); paper, $4.99 (0-698-11840-5).
Gr. 5-9. Thirteen-year-old Jake is blessed with an extraordinary left-handed fastball. But his fire-and-brimstone preacher father believes that the left side is the side of Satan and forbids Jake the use of his left hand. Kids will identify with Jake's struggle to understand and obey his father, even though his father's rule prevents Jake from expressing his talent and feeling accepted by his peers.

Sachar, Louis. Marvin Redpost: Alone in His Teacher's House. Illus. by Barbara Sullivan. 1994. 96p. Random, paper, $3.99 (0-679-81949-5).
Gr. 1-4. When Marvin's teacher asks him to dog-sit, he feels pretty lucky. But when the old dog passes away, Marvin is left in a difficult situation. Marvin must cope with his own feelings of guilt as well as with the lack of support of his friends at school.

Steig, William. The Real Thief. 1984. 64p. Farrar, paper, $3.95 (0-374-46208-9).
Gr. 3-6. When Gawain the goose is wrongly accused of a crime, he runs away. But the real thief, even though he was not caught, is left behind to deal with the misery his actions have caused. Issues include trust, forgiveness, mercy, suffering, and friendship.

Wittlinger, Ellen. What's in a Name? Illus. by John Mathias. 2000. 160p. Simon & Schuster, $16 (0-689-82551-X).
Gr. 7-12. Ten connected short stories are told by different teenagers at a suburban northeastern high school. Wittlinger presents many stereotypical teenage identities-jock, nerd, immigrant, prom queen-and then, through the voices of the kids themselves, reveals the complex issues they face in learning just who they are.

Nonfiction

Altman, Linda Jacobs. Death: An Introduction to Medical-Ethical Dilemmas. 2000. 112p. Enslow, $19.95 (0-7660-1246-8).
Gr. 6-up. Topics related to death, such as euthanasia, are discussed in terms of ethics.

Buehner, Caralyn. I Did It, I'm Sorry. Illus. by Mark Buehner. 1998. 32p. Dial, $15.99 (0-8037-2010-6); Puffin, paper, $5.99 (0-14-056722-4).
Preschool-Gr. 3. The author presents short scenarios in which an ethical decision must be made. For each, three choices are given, and the letter standing for the "right" choice is hidden in the accompanying picture. Gimmick aside, the scenarios can certainly lead to some good ethical discussion, and the pictures keep the discussion light and add humor. You may wish to use the scenarios provided without the emphasis on the "right" answer.

Meltzer, Milton. Who Cares? Millions Do . . . : A Book about Altruism. 1994. 144p. Walker, $15.95 (0-8027-8324-4).
Gr. 7-up. This rich volume contains reference information about and history of many community service organizations, movements, and people who have contributed by helping others.

Sheindlin, Judy. Win or Lose by How You Choose. Illus. by Bob Torre. 2000. 80p. HarperCollins, $14.95 (0-06-028780-2).
Gr. 4-7. Judge Judy's book of questions is more moral than legal in nature, and covers issues ranging from etiquette to safety. Four possible answers are given for each question, but the "right" answer is not identified (and in some cases there may be more than one that seem reasonable). The questions may be just as interesting to use with a class without supplying the multiple-choice answers.

Stock, Gregory. The Kids' Book of Questions. 1988. 208p. Workman, paper, $4.95 (0-89480-631-9).
Gr. 4-7. In this, the most open-ended of the question books, 260 questions are posed, with no choices or answers given. The questions are especially thought-provoking, and relate to such issues as social pressures, friendship, and trust. They do, however, cover a great range of ages, so you will want to choose questions appropriate for the age of your students.

Professional Resources

Creeden, Sharon. Fair Is Fair: World Folktales of Justice. 1994. 192p. August House, $19.95 (0-87483-400-7).
This anthology of folktales is perfect for introducing older elementary and middle-school children to the ideas of ethics, justice, and fairness. The author, a lawyer and professional storyteller, has collected thirty tales from all over the world, from ancient Greece to colonial America. Source notes, the author's comments, and related legal cases follow each selection.

Paley, Vivian Gussin. You Can't Say You Can't Play. 1992. 144p. Harvard, $19.95 (0-674-96589-2); paper, $10.95 (0-674-96590-6).
Paley, a kindergarten teacher, gives a detailed account of what happened when she introduced the rule "You can't say you can't play" to her class. She also shares interviews with some of her former students-now in the upper-elementary grades-about whether they think the rule is fair and whether they think it works.

Saenger, Elizabeth Baird. Exploring Ethics through Children's Literature: Book One. 1993. 210p. Council for Spiritual and Ethical Education, $21.50. (0-89455-485-9).
This is an extremely practical resource for teaching literature-based ethics lessons. Lesson plans, and even excerpts of the books themselves, are given for eight different novels that deal with ethical issues. In addition, there are many other related activities-games, writing topics-as well as advice on how to set up the classroom environment. An extensive bibliography is included. See also Book Two, which is intended for a slightly older age.

Coles, Robert. The Moral Life of Children. 1991. 324p. Houghton, $14 (0-395-59921-0).
Renowned psychiatrist Coles examines how children react to a wide variety of moral challenges, from the everyday to the extreme.

Questions to Consider in Choosing Novels that Focus on Ethics

  • Does the novel encourage the reader to think?
  • Are the dilemmas that are presented moral in nature?
  • Will the resolution have important consequences?
  • Can your students relate to the topic?
  • Is the pacing of the novel such that the reader can "sit" with the moral decision awhile? If it is presented on page 1 and settled by page 3, that's not much time to think.
  • Are variations on the moral dilemma incorporated into the novel in some way, or, alternatively, can you think of variations to bring up? For example, in Eve Bunting's Blackwater, Brodie must decide whether to confess to causing the death of two of his peers. His initial decision-making occurs when he believes that only he and his cousin know about his part in the deaths; later, he realizes someone else knows as well. Should that change the decision he makes? Adjusting various factors creates a deeper, more layered discussion.

Laurie Miller Hornik teaches kindergarten at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Manhattan. Her first book, The Secrets of Ms. Snickle's Class, will be published this year by Clarion.