written by Uma Krishnaswami
Should We Teach Peace—or Justice?
One Lesson from the Lives of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
I will confess to being a slow and plodding learner. It took me nine years (from contract to publication) to write my middle grade nonfiction book, Threads of Peace: How Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Changed the World. I learned about history, about truth, about sticking to principles, about building community, forgiveness. I learned about not giving up. Most of all, I thought at length about the word “peace.”
I think we’re sometimes careless in how we use the word. If you study Gandhi and King, you’ll see that peace isn’t the objective. If we appease a tyrant, we’re being peaceful, but what are we gaining? For both men, justice was the big goal.
So how do we teach peace then? We teach it by asking young people to engage with the lives of all who struggled for civil rights and grappled with these dilemmas, to find the power in their stories. I think we also need to ask where injustice lies today and how peace is best able to gain power—in resistance and also in organizing. Didn’t John Lewis talk about the vote as the most powerful nonviolent change agent there is?
I think we teach peace as a deliberate choice, rather than an end in itself. A creative choice. A choice we’re all capable of making and one that can help build what Dr. King called the “blessed community.”
Five Fiction and Nonfiction Books that Shed New Light on the Past
Fault Lines in the Constitution: The Framers, Their Fights, and the Flaws that Affect Us Today by Cynthia Levinson and Sanford Levinson. Peachtree, 2019.
Information-packed, thought-provoking nonfiction middle grade title; provides a pithy introduction to the chaotic origins, shifting interpretations, oversights, and ambiguities of the United States Constitution, establishing it from the beginning as an eminently human, if loftily ambitious, document. The authors’ blog, www.faultlinesintheconstitution.com, features updates. Middle Grade nonfiction.
The Vast Wonder of the World: Biologist Ernest Everett Just by Mélina Mangal, illustrated by Luisa Uribe, Millbrook/Lerner, 2018.
Begins in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in 1911, with a man on a dock luring marine worms with a lantern, then links back to family and childhood. An engaging look at the work, struggles, and accomplishments of a pioneering African American scientist. Beautiful artwork and simple, cleanly linked text. Picture Book, nonfiction.
A Sitting in St. James by Rita Williams-Garcia. HarperCollins, 2021.
A sugar plantation in the Deep South is the setting for this astonishing novel with a clear eye on history, possessing epic qualities of whimsy, depth and artistry. Each character casts the shadow of their own story, while each conveys both yearning and calculation that epitomize the human condition. The savagery of slavery and the calculated reach of Empire are equally served. YA, fiction.
Indian No More by Charlene Willing McManis and Traci Sorell. Tu Books/Lee & Low, 2019.
It’s 1957, and ten-year-old Regina’s childhood is rudely interrupted when the federal government passes a law that takes away her Umpqua people’s sovereignty and tribal status. This story shines a much-needed light upon indigenous history and its impact on the lives of children. Conflict and trouble through a child’s perspective. Middle grade, fiction.
Finding Home: The Journey of Immigrants and Refugees by Jen Sookfong Lee, illustrated by Drew Shannon. Orca Books, 2021.
Part of the Orca Think series, a look at how human migration has changed the world. Profiles, sidebars, chapters on the history of human migration (includes a little on prehistory and evolution and a discussion of colonialism), migration today, racism and hardship, life in a new country. Glossary, resources, index. Middle grade nonfiction.
About Uma Krishnaswami
Uma Krishnaswami is the author of several books for children including Book Uncle and Me (International Literacy Association Social Justice Literature Award, USBBY Outstanding International Book) and Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh (Asian Pacific American Librarians Award, FOCAL Award). She was born in New Delhi, India, and now lives in British Columbia, Canada. To learn more, visit her website: umakrishnaswami.org.
Praise for Threads of Peace: How Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Changed the World
★“The book’s attractive design, lucid text, and carefully chosen details combine to create an inviting and original treatment of its subjects. History has been carefully intertwined with the present in this engaging and reflective book.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)