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For older children, fantasy and science fiction are especially rich resources for considering questions about the supernatural. The best known of these is the Harry Potter series by British author J. K. Rowling (six books to date, beginning with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone). This series is the most widely read in the history of publishing and has enticed children to read other fantasy books. Harry has been living with callous relatives, when, on his 11th birthday, he learns that he is in fact a wizard and is being summoned to another world to battle the diabolical Lord Voldemort. The series chronicles Harry's gradual transformation from a lonely self-doubting orphan to a mature leader who is capable of fulfilling his noble vocation.
Other fantasy authors also write of quests into formerly unseen worlds: C. S. Lewis (Chronicles of Narnia), Madeleine L'Engle ("The Time Quartet," beginning with A Wrinkle in Time), and A. K. Applegate (the Animorph series of 60-plus novels). Such series have in common a child's invitation to an unseen world, followed by heroic action in a cosmic battle between good and evil. Along the way, the child characters learn courage, compassion, loyalty, and other virtues.
Death and the Afterlife
By school age most children have had been touched by death, eliciting questions such as "Why do people die? Where do they go?" Badger's Parting Gifts (Varley, 1984) is a picture book that tells of old Badger, beloved by all the animals. When he dies, he finds himself running down a very long tunnel, "as if he had fallen out of his body." His friends gradually come to terms with their grief by reflecting on the gifts that Badger gave each during life (he helped one learn to skate, gave another his favorite gingerbread recipe, and so on). Charlotte's Web (White, 1952) addresses the issue of how to live and die well.
A realistic chapter book aimed at older children is Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia (1977), which tells of an 11-year-old mountain boy's "best friendship" with an imaginative new girl in his class. When she dies in a flash flood, he gradually lets his grief open him to "the shining world."
Solitude and the Inner Journey
By ages 9 to 11, most children begin to wrestle with concerns over loneliness, belonging, and peer pressure. They may sometimes struggle to find a sense of value and identity as friendships change. A book suitable for young children is the classic, The Velveteen Rabbit by Williams, which tells of a stuffed rabbit who feels a rivalry with fancier toys. Freedom comes as the rabbit gradually "becomes real" by loving, being loved, and living well with the boy.
Also addressing solitude is L'Engle's A Ring of Endless Light (1970), a realistic novel about 16-yearold Vicky Austin. She wrestles with feelings of loss as she assists her mother in providing home hospice care for her beloved grandfather. The same summer she deals with her first boyfriends, and also discovers an uncanny ability to communicate by telepathy with dolphins. Vicky digs deep (often praying or meditating) to find her own spiritual center in the midst of these changing relationships. "Who am I? Can I stand alone? Will God help me?" are questions Vicky faces as she searches for her own path as a "light bearer."
Sin and Forgiveness
Early in childhood children start to become aware of the existence of hurt, pain, suffering, and sin. Preschoolers often experience this in the form of sibling rivalry. The picture book When Sophie Gets Angry-Really, Really Angry (Bang, 1999) helps young children deal with antisocial impulses; it tells of little Sophie who is vexed beyond endurance by a sister who grabs her toys. After a tantrum, she bolts outdoors, runs as far as she can, then climbs a tree. Aloft, "the world comforts her," and Sophie can release her anger and return home with a peaceful spirit. A more complex book about sin and forgiveness is aimed at older children: Words by Heart (Sebestyen, 1979). Set in 1910, this novel tells of a family who courageously survives as the only black family in their Texas community. When the father is murdered by racial bigots, daughter Lena must come to terms with the atrocity and with her father's legacy of forgiveness and love of God.
Appreciating Religious Difference
There is also a growing body of literature that helps children to learn about religious traditions beside their own, and the dark side of religious belief. One such book geared to young children is Old Turtle (Wood, 1992). This is a fable about the various creatures of the Earth who bitterly argue about all manner of things, especially about God. Eventually an ancient turtle rises from the depths of the sea and helps them find God in each other and the beauty of the Earth. (See also its sequel, Old Turtle and the Broken Truth.) For older children a book that addresses religious differences is Yolen's Armageddon Summer, which tells of teenagers caught up in an apocalyptic Christian cult that predicts the exact date of the world's end. The two protagonists eventually reject the cult's extremism even as they recognize their own spiritual needs.
Rebels in the Heavenly Kingdom (Paterson), set in China, also shows the tension between authentic faith and religion gone awry.
In addition to these five themes, many contemporary books address social issues with spiritual dimensions, including environmental damage, war, and poverty. Moreover, a huge body of traditional fables, folk tales, proverbs, and fairy tales also touch on moral and spiritual concerns. Poetry for children is often filled with wonder, whimsy, humor, and fantasy, which are often spiritual expressions. Teachers may be more willing to use "secular spiritual" books than those that are explicitly religious. The literary themes and works described often serve as triggers of religious and spiritual reflection and development to the reader.