THERE'S probably never been a better time to talk to children about war - or about peace. As images from network camera crews in the Persian Gulf flood into homes across the country, children of all ages - from toddlers to teenagers - are naturally going to find themselves struggling to make sense of what they are seeing and hearing.
Conflict is no stranger to children, and whether the crisis is confined to a sandbox or played out on a global stage, whether the ``enemy'' is a playground bully or a strong-willed dictator, many of the roots of conflict - as well as its possible resolutions - are the same. And it's never too early to help children realize that.
``I just think it's got to start at a young age,'' says bookseller Sheila Wilensky-Lanford. ``Having taught high school, [I feel] it's too late to try and teach ninth-graders about world cultures.... We need to broaden their experiences of the world, and I think there's a real connection between that and learning about peace. And we need to start global awareness at a much younger age.''
Ms. Wilensky-Lanford, a former high school social-studies teacher who now runs Oz Children's Bookstore in Southwest Harbor, Maine, travels frequently throughout New England, giving workshops for teachers and librarians on how to integrate trade books into the classroom curriculum. She says she sees a growing interest among educators in books for children that deal specifically with peace.
``There's quite a bit of interest [in teaching peace],'' she says, ``as well as a lot more interest in doing units on other cultures, which of course is a way to start looking at communication between peoples.''
For parents, teachers, and others looking for avenues to help children make sense of the current world situation, the many children's books on the market are a marvelous resource. Last year saw a spate of new books - from a variety of publishers - that consider the issues of peace and war. Here are just a few:
Peace Begins With You, by Katherine Scholes, illustrated by Robert Ingpen (Sierra Club/Little, Brown, $10.95, ages 6 to 10), takes a thoughtful look at the broad concept of peace. Ideas are presented in a low-key, gentle way that avoids the saccharine. Specific suggestions are given for how children can become peacemakers themselves. The book is an ideal forum for promoting discussion either at home or in the classroom.
Last summer marked the 45th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, and Junko Morimoto's My Hiroshima (Viking, $12.95, ages 7 and up) offers young readers a powerful, moving, firsthand account of the horrors of war from a survivor. Although presented in picture-book format, the book contains strong material, with some graphic images that are not suitable for preschoolers.
The Big Book for Peace (Dutton, $15.95, ages 7 to 12) is a collection of stories, poems, and illustrations about peace by some of today's top writers and illustrators for children - among them Lloyd Alexander, Katherine Paterson, Barbara Cooney, and Maurice Sendak. Through fable and fairy tale, historical accounts and poetry, war is seen not necessarily as some far-off event, but as something that can just as easily crop up in rifts between families and friends.
Last year's Newbery Medal was given to Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry (Houghton Mifflin, $12.95, ages 9 and up), a gripping novel that distills the heroic efforts of the Danish resistance to save nearly the entire Jewish population of Denmark during World War II into the fictional experience of 10-year-old Annemarie Johansen. The characters are vital and well developed, Lowry's prose is lucid and compelling, and the book is a winner in every way.
Fans of the recent PBS series on the Civil War will be fascinated by The Boys' War: Confederate and Union Soldiers Talk about the Civil War, by Jim Murphy (Clarion, $15.95, ages 9 to 14). Murphy blends firsthand accounts from underage soldiers with historical information and numerous photographs, weaving a poignant account of the children who served in the Civil War.
Finally, a poetry anthology that deserves attention draws on the works of such luminaries as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Rupert Brooke, W.B. Yeats, and Emily Dickinson. Peace and War: A Collection of Poems, edited by Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark (Oxford University Press, $17.95, ages 12 and up), spans many cultures and most of recorded history, from ancient Greece through the Vietnam War. Readers will find that the common thread of emotion running through the poems is timely and fresh.