History in Review
A Sneetch is a Sneetch and other Philosophical Discoveries
Finding Wisdom in Children's Literature. By Thomas E. Wartenberg. (Wiley-Blackwell: A John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., Publication: 2013. Pg. x, 164. Illustrations.) ISBN: 978-0-470-65683-9.
A History in Review Book of the Week Selection
Reviewed by Simone Bonim - June 3, 2013
A Sneetch is a Sneetch and other Philosophical Discoveries is a fascinating, and dare I say, a life altering book. You would not think that a book on children's literature could be life altering, but to my amazement, this one is! In this thoughtful book, Thomas E. Wartenberg, a Professor of Philosophy at Mount Holyoke College, examines the often deep philosophical insights that can be garnered from reading - and pondering - such works as Dr. Seuss's Sneetches and Harry Allard's Miss Nelson Is Missing!. Along the way he also provides a detailed, yet very amusing discourse on philosophy in general, and some of the great philosophers from throughout history.
Over the course of this short study, Wartenberg examines sixteen children's books. (I've included a list of the books covered in this text, at the end of the review.) There is one chapter devoted to each book, and each chapter includes a brief overview of the book's plot and major philosophical issues. He then goes on to describe philosophical quandaries addressed in each book, such as "Can you get wet swimming in an imaginary ocean?" and "Is there anything wrong with conformity?" He details how major philosophical figures have answered these same questions, and how issues such a gender bias have been traditionally addressed in philosophical discourse in western society. Most important, he looks at how children relate to these ideas, and at the end of each chapter Wartenberg also offers suggestions on how to discuss these issues with children.
Throughout the book you'll find 'boxes' that offer detailed definitions of key philosophical terms and concepts such as Existentialism, Logic, Ordinary Language Philosophy, and Friendship. A Who's Who of key philosophers is included toward the end of the text. This who's who contains brief biographical sketches of renowned philosophers ranging from Aristotle to Ludwig Wittgenstein, and just about every key figure in-between. The Who's Who is followed by a What's What that offers brief definitions of key philosophical terms. This book also includes a list of 'philosophical picture books' with which to continue your philosophical study of children's literature. If there are not enough books in this list to satisfy, Wartenberg also includes the address of his website (www.teachingchildrenphilosophy.org), where you can find an annotated list of more than 100 children's books that includes information on the philosophical issues contained within each book. This website also contains a wealth of additional information on discussing philosophical issues with children. Throughout, Wartenberg points out that children are natural philosophers who are constantly exploring, and striving to understand, the world around them.
At the beginning of this review I stated that I found this book to be life altering. "How?" You may well ask. The reason is simply that I've never before really taken children's books seriously. To me they were something to read to a child, something to entertain them and to help them learn to read. And, once they had begun to read, they were simply something with which they could practice their reading skills. I never really considered that a thirty-two-page picture book could teach life lessons, or that they could be used as a jumping off point for serious discussions on topics ranging from the nature of existence to will power. In hindsight, I can see how these books have indeed jump-started such conversations, but they were very ad hoc affairs and never well thought out or directed discussions. I could have had much more profitable discussions with my young acquaintances had I realized just how important these books really were. To say the least, I'll never treat a picture book with such little respect again - and I might just start reading them for pleasure and to discover what philosophical gems I've overlooked! Now, if I can just corner a kid or two so that I can have an intelligent conversation on that nagging philosophical question that has always bedeviled me.
In addition to teaching you how to discover the deep philosophical insights to be found in children's books and how to introduce philosophical concepts to young children, A Sneetch is a Sneetch and other Philosophical Discoveries does one thing further. It serves as a basic introductory course on philosophy, explaining what the field of philosophy is, how and why philosophers philosophize, and what it's practical applications are. Filled with humor and keen insights, A Sneetch is a Sneetch and other Philosophical Discoveries is essential reading for anyone with an interest in philosophy or children's literature - and by anyone, I mean anyone - from the mom or dad looking for something interesting to read to their toddler, to writers of every ilk, and yes, even full fledge, academically inclined philosophers. Happy pondering!!
The sixteen books discussed in this text are:
- Harold and the Purple Crayon
- The Important Book
- Let's Do Nothing!
- Knuffle Bunny
- Many Moons
- Yellow and Pink
- Morris the Moose
- Emily's Art
- Miss Nelson is Missing!
- The Giving Tree
- The Sneetches
- The Paper Bag Princess
- The Big Orange Spot
Nielsen's Fairy Tale Illustrations in Full Color, by Kay Nielsen.
Danish-American artist Kay Nielsen is famed for his versions of stories by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen as well as the Nordic fables recounted in East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon. This enchanting compilation draws upon Nielsen's images from these and other beloved books.
My Travels With Clara, by Mary Tavener Holmes.
An unforgettable children's book about the real-life adventure of Clara, an Indian rhinoceros who toured extensively throughout eighteenth century Europe with her Dutch owner.
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