Interview By: Tra’Lisha Renteria, WITS Program Coordinator
Mickey Kudia, Chicago Program Manager at HEART (Humane Education Advocates Reaching Teachers), led a WITS Talks on understanding humane books. Mickey holds a Master of Education in Humane Education from Valparaiso University and a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Communication and Education from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. As a humane educator, Mickey travels to schools throughout Chicago educating young people about animal protection, human rights, and environmental ethics. He has presented workshops on humane education and service learning at conferences across the United States. Below, Mickey explains the concept of humane literature and shares some best practices on how to have these impactful conversations with students.
The programs at HEART aim to promote people’s best qualities with a focus on compassion, empathy, and respect. Humane literature consists of books that promote those best qualities in human beings, animals, and the environment. Humane literature involves analyzing the ideas explored in stories and breaking them down into the messages that they promote.
There is no clear cut definition to what humane literature is, there is more to the concept than just being aware of a book’s message. When we look at any media, not just children’s books, we often don’t realize what messages are being promoted. When reading literature, it is important to have an analytical lens. What does this text say about people? What does it say about how you should treat animals?
When engaging in conversations with students, volunteers should try to use critical thinking questions. If there is a message that you think is problematic, ask the students questions about it. I’ve read books to students where they see one of the female characters wearing pink and say, “yeah because all girls wear pink.” In response, an adult can ask, “well, do all girls wear pink? Is that true?” Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wearing pink. However, without critical thinking questions, a student may just reinforce the stereotypes they could already be developing. When you see problematic concepts while reading, try asking a quick critical thinking question. If they don’t understand the potential issue themselves, sometimes it’s best to explicitly explain things to them. I might say, “Well you know my sister doesn’t wear pink. Actually, her favorite color is black, but there is nothing wrong with wearing pink.” Ask these questions to encourage students to question stereotypes they might have or their preconceived notions of our world.
Sometimes we assume that students know how to discern which messages to take away on their own. However, sometimes you need to explicitly teach lessons, such as how to recycle, how to interact with an animal, or how to talk to other people. Humane literature gives them important skills that they might not otherwise learn. Humane literature also gives students role models or examples of people that have taken action to help people, animals, and the environment. Often, these role models could even be people who are the student’s age. Heroes are inspiring and model behavior for students. When students see people who are similar to themselves taking action towards things that they also care about, students are inspired to help.
I remember when I was young, I read a book about people poaching elephants for their tusks. I was a big animal lover and reading about this made me upset that people were harming animals. But the book also made me more passionate about animals’ well-being and taught me about what other people are doing to help solve the problem.
There are many books that children don’t know about that discuss issues that are affecting the environment, people, or animals. Having books that open their eyes to these concepts, these problems that they might not know about yet, help students reflect on these questions.
If you’re interested in learning more, check out the HEART website for recommended humane literature that the staff has suggested. Also, there are various cultural organizations that have put out book lists you can search for on the site to find books they recommend for humane cultural representations in literature.