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Finding the Right Humane Education Book

The beauty of literature is that it allows the reader to see the world through the perspective of another person or animal, which connects perfectly with humane education’s goals of teaching empathy and critical thinking. Learning about a topic through a narrative also allows us to better remember information because our brains are hardwired to learn through stories. Thus, literature is an excellent way to teach content related to animal protection, human rights, and environmental ethics.

So, how can we use the power of literature to educate young people on how to be more compassionate and responsible? The first step is finding the right book.

Where to Find Them

There are many resources for finding books with humane education themes. The one that I would most strongly recommend is the Humane Books list on HEART’s website. A HEART staff member vetted all of the books on our list, and we use many of them regularly in classrooms.

There are also excellent book lists from the Institute for Humane Education, Red Rover, Gryphon Press, Kids Like Us, Teaching for Change, and Project Wild.

What to Look for

The first thing that I look for in a good humane education book is whether it is fun or interesting. I put myself in my students’ shoes and think, “If I was their age, would I enjoy reading this book?”. There are a lot of factors that affect whether or not a book is engaging – how interesting or relatable the characters are, whether the illustrations capture the imagination, if the imagery is descriptive enough, and how well the tone sets the stage for the story are all examples. I personally enjoy books that are funny, and in my experience, humor is especially appealing to younger students.

Next, I decide whether there is a positive message about people, animals, the environment, or all three and whether the message is something that students will understand. Some stories offer an explicit lesson such as the book, Why Should I Recycle? by Jen Green, which, as you may guess, has a clear message about the benefits of recycling. Alternatively, some books might have a more implicit moral, such as Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, a story that promotes empathy for all animals, including farm animals, a bit more subtly.

It is important to think carefully about messages, both explicit and implicit, and decide if any of these messages can be detrimental to people, animals, or the environment. For example, there are certain books I would not use for teaching about animal protection because they do not portray animals in what we consider to be appropriate ways. In some books, companion animals are wandering around the neighborhood unsupervised or people are handling wildlife as though it is perfectly safe and acceptable. When authors portray animals this way, it can be confusing for children and spreads a message that it is okay to treat animals this way. [1]

Another important element I look for in a book is diversity. I think diversity within the characters is essential. Diverse characters allow students to see into the life of someone different from themselves and, even if just for a brief moment, to understand the world from another’s point of view. It is also important to introduce our students to diverse authors. People who are white, male, and/or heterosexual write the majority of books published in the United States; this means that unless we make an effort to find literature by authors who come from diverse backgrounds, our youth might only read books from a very narrow perspective. If you’re interested in learning more about the importance of diverse books, one of my colleagues wrote more extensively on this topic in a previous blog post.

Now that we’ve given you resources for finding books with humane education themes and what to look for in a good book, we’d love to hear about some of your favorite books for teaching about animal protection, human rights, or environmental ethics. Please share them in the comment section!

[1] ASPCA.ASPCA Resource Guide for Teachers. New York: 2008.

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