The past 30 years have seen a tremendous outpouring of books aimed at children and adolescents. Never before in human history have so many good juvenile books been so widely available. Many of these books address spiritual questions relevant to young people: Is there a supernatural world? If so, what is it like? Does God exist? What happens when we die? How can I live a good life? How should humans relate to God and each other? Why is there so much suffering and evil in the world? In addressing enduring human questions, such books prepare children to make formative decisions about their futures. They can also foster imagination, a sense of roots, understanding of other cultures, and the ability to overcome obstacles. As such, literary works can often serve as a both a subtle and very significant trigger of religious and/or spiritual growth. All the books mentioned below are as valuable for adults as they are for children.
The vast quantity of spiritual literature can be divided into two overarching types: religious and what can be called "secular spiritual." Both types can stimulate thought and discussion about religious questions. This entry provides an overview of the types (and subcategories within each), suggest ways to locate such books, and provide examples of each-at least one suitable for reading aloud to younger children (age 10 and younger) and one for children over age 10 to read themselves. All the books mentioned for younger children have enough depth to appeal also to older children and adults. (A to Zoo is an invaluable reference tool that indexes children's books by theme.) While many of the literary works described are written in English, the categorization system applies as well to books written in all languages and from all cultures.
Religious books are explicitly concerned with religious beliefs and practices. This category includes at least four subcategories: (1) Bibles and other sacred texts geared to children; (2) stories based on the Bible but with an interpretive spin; (3) hero tales about various exemplary religious figures; and (4) nonfiction books about religious beliefs, traditions, and practices.
Bibles and Other Sacred Texts
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Biblical stories include creation stories, accounts of the early Israelites, and events in the life of Jesus and the first Christians. Other major religions also have sacred texts, such as the Vedas and Bhagavad-Gita (for Hindus) and the Koran or Qur'an (for Muslims). Under the Dewey decimal classification system, all these are grouped with myth and folklore and are included in the genre of "traditional literature."
Suitable for very young children is The Pilgrim Book of Bible Stories (2003), which includes lively stories, accompanied by historical background information and realistic illustrations. An example suited to older children is When the Beginning Began: Stories about God and the Creatures and Us (Lester, 1999).
Midrash is a Jewish term for retelling of biblical stories with an interpretive spin. Midrash takes an interesting character or detail from the original story and spins a provocative tale about it to emphasize an important idea. Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso has written But God Remembered: Stories of Women from Creation to the Promised Land, all from the Hebrew Bible. (Sasso has written several picture books of interest to both Jews and Christians. These can be used with adults as well as children to spur reflection.) A collection of midrashim suited for older children is Does God Have a Big Toe? (Gellman, 1989). Midrashim stimulate children's imaginations, helping them see the relevance of biblical texts.
Hero tales are true stories of exemplary individuals with religious motivations. These include both short narratives and longer biographies of biblical figures, saints, and other figures. Examples for young children are Queen Esther Saves Her People (Gelman) and The True Tale of Johnny Appleseed (Hodges, 1997). Hero tales for older children include The Diary of Anne Frank (1952), Buddha (Demi, 1996), and Martin Luther King (Bray, 1995). Most such books can be found with other biographies (Dewey Number 921). Collections of hero stories have been published, such as The Hero's Trail (aimed at teenagers; Barron, 1998) and The Children's Book of America (Bennett, 1998).
Books in this category shed light on religious beliefs, customs, and personal practices. This category also includes cookbooks, books about religious holidays, and prayer books. One example for young children is Gerstein's The Mountains of Tibet, a picture book about reincarnation in Tibetan Buddhism told from the point of view of a child about to be reborn (1987). A book of prayers from many different world traditions is In Every Tiny Grain of Sand (Lindbergh, 2000). Its illustrations show humans doing everyday things in a way that emphasizes their commonalities. An example aimed at an older child is The Remembering Box (Clifford, 1985). This short novel tells of a Jewish boy's many Sabbath visits alone with his grandmother during which she reminisces about traditions from her earlier years. This category also includes books that introduce children to unfamiliar religious traditions, such as My Friends' Beliefs: A Young Reader's Guide to World Religions (Ward, 1988). It provides a respectful overview of all major world religions and many different Christian sects, as well as a profile of a young believer from each group. The Koran for Dummies written by a young adult (Sultan) is a good introduction to Islam.
"SECULAR SPIRITUAL" BOOKS
The second large category is so-called secular literature, and it includes a wide range of genres, ranging from picture books to nonfiction, realistic fiction, fantasy, and more. This category encompasses books from several different genres (mostly fictional) that address spiritual questions. For the sake of brevity, this entry will be limited to five important themes: (1) unseen worlds, (2) death and the afterlife, (3) solitude and the inner journey, (4) evil and the issue of forgiveness, and (5) appreciating religious difference.
Many different kinds of books address questions such as: "Does God exist? Are there supernatural realms? Are we alone in the universe? Can we communicate with other beings?" One such book directed toward younger children is Somewhere in the World Right Now (Schuett, 1995). This picture book takes the reader around the world, touching down in many different places at the same moment in time. In Africa elephants sleep standing up, in India dawn is breaking, and in Siberia people are preparing their mid-day meal, even as a child in America is settling into bed. This book helps a child to realize that no human is at the center of the universe, and that each person is a part of a much greater whole, mostly unseen by us.