While here at the Parliament for the World’s Religions, I have heard discussed the many, many problems that currently plague our world, from climate change to social injustice; from economic inequities to violence against women. While the will to fix these problems is certainly sincere and needed, the solutions are often just out of reach. Or, the problems are too complex and intertwined to allow for a single utopian answer.
But we keep striving and hoping, moving forward in pieces and making change in our own ways, with our own talents, within our own communities and circles. One of the methods that I personally practice and advocate for is the concept of “Teaching the Change.” In other words, teach the children. They are the future movers and shakers.
I recognize this is a slow process, but it works.Recently, I witnessed three 8-year-old girls walking along the sidewalk in their stereotypical conservative American suburban neighborhood. They were chattering away and planning their playtime. One said, “Let’s play house.” The others agreed enthusiastically. A second girl said, “I’ll be the mommy. You can be the daughter.” The first girl responded, “I want to be the mommy.” The second girl said, “OK, we can both the mommies. That way we can all play together.” A third girl chimed in, “We can do that now. Because they changed the rules and it’s OK for two mommies to get married.” Then, the three happily skipped off to play house.
Childhood is an incredible time of learning, growing and absorbing all that is offered up by the world. Every day is filled with the endless potential of a thousand tomorrows with new adventures, some good and some bad, waiting in the wings. There are many ways to capitalize, for lack of a better word, on this fragile and glorious time, in order to bring about a better world – not only for us and them, but for their children and beyond.
One very effective method of teaching is through children’s literature. Books play an essential role in this growth process, keeping the mind open and providing windows into worlds outside the limits of reality. Books explore the trials and tribulations of childhood while providing the needed inspiration for self-identity. Books give permission to ask “what if” and the freedom to explore our inner and outer lives. For both children and adults alike, books can be as comforting as a friend, as exciting as a vacation and informative as a teacher.
Unfortunately, there is not a plethora of Pagan and Heathen – specific works for children. They do certainly exist, such as Kyja Whithers’ Rupert’s Tale, Starhawk’s The Last Wild Witch, Jennifer Lohr’s The Basics of Heathenry or W. Lyon Martin’s Aidan’s First Film Circle. These are four examples which focus specifically on religious experience. Generally speaking, however, Pagan and Heathen parents must use mainstream books to not only enrich their child’s spiritual understanding but also to teach the change.Luckily that isn’t difficult. Mainstream books incorporate some of the fundamental ideas found within the spectrum of Pagan, Heathen and Polytheist religions and certainly employ themes that can help teach some basic values, like compassion, acceptance, earth-reverence – all of which can lead to a better future.
Over the years I have developed quite an extensive library of children’s literature. I am collector and near addict. All the recommended books below are well-written, well-illustrated and have been read to my own children and others many times over. They are all Pagan and Heathen -friendly, in terms of their language, and can serve to expand, support and inspire any child’s worldview. They can and they do teach the change.
One of the top concerns of our age is climate change and the destruction of our eco-system. Earth stewardship is also at the heart of many Pagan, Heathen and Polytheist religions. Fortunately the environmental movement has inspired an abundance of eco-friendly children’s literature – some good and some bad. Here are six favorites: Dear Children of the Earth by Schim Schimmel; Mother Earth by Nancy Luenn; Out of the Ocean by Debra Fraiser; Curious Garden by Peter Brown; Where Once There was a Wood by Denise Fleming; and the Dr. Suess classic The Lorax.
The first two specifically use the term “Mother Earth” and, thereby, create a true Gaia persona to which children naturally connect. The second two celebrate the gifts given to us by nature, if only we’d look closer. The latter two books demonstrate the devastating effects of overindustrialization and commercialism, while offering a hope for a greener future. These books can be enjoyed as inspirational tales with or without further discussions.
The air is her breath. Sunlight and fire the warmth of her body. We are her eyes and we are her children. From Mother Earth by Nancy Luenn (Aladdin Publishing, 1995)
Habitat Conservation and Animal Protection
Children are naturally intrigued by animals. There is absolutely nothing more exciting than finding a worm wriggling through the dark moist soil or a hawk perched in low tree branch. Such discoveries can provide hours of entertainment for a young child.
Animal-themed storybooks open up doors to these secret worlds when life can’t. They generate curiosity, compassion, understanding and respect. In her books Tall Tall Grass and Small Small Pond, Denise Fleming whimsically explores two different eco-systems. In A Stranger in the Woods, Carl Sams and Jean Stoick use striking images to share an encounter between forest wildlife and a snowman.
Storybooks can also directly teach the need for animal protection and wildlife advocacy. Craig Hatkoff has documented and published for children a number of nonfiction rescue stories. These include: Owen and Mzee, Knut, Looking for Miza,and Leo the Snow Leopard.
While Hatkoff’s books are for older children, author Bill Martin, with illustrator Eric Carle, wrote several books dedicated to endangered species such as Panda Bear, Panda Bear. This particular book provides an excellent first opportunity to explore the subject of habitat conservation.While those books directly teach about nature and various problems, most animal-based books are focused on engaging a social problem and providing a moral lesson. As such modern storybooks accomplish what ancient oral storytellers once did. They guide children’s upbringing through the observation of nature. Jannell Cannon does just this in her books: Pinduli, Crickwing, Stellaluna and, my personal favorite, Verdi. Each book offers a specific social lesson (e.g., growing up, being brave, accepting yourself) through the observed characteristics of the main animal.
Award-winning author and illustrator Eric Carle has published a number of his own books highlighting animal behavior while exploring interpersonal and social issues. Mr. Seahorse, for example, is the tale of a daddy seahorse who journeys through the ocean carrying his young. Within this simple story, there is embedded message about fatherhood. Other similar authors include Lois Ehlert (Waiting for Wings) and Leo Lionni (e.g., Inch by Inch, Fish is Fish, It’s Mine!).
“Dreaming child, dreaming child what do you see? I see animals all wild and free.” From Panda Bear, Panda Bear (a tribute to endangered species) by Bill Martin (Henry Holt and Co., 2006)
Our Multicultural world
We live in an increasingly diverse society. One of the biggest gifts that we can give to our children is to teach them to see the beauty of difference and to celebrate it – whether it be religious, cultural, ethnic, racial or otherwise. Lessons like this are best learned from experience. However, we don’t always have the luxury of exposure. This is where books come into play. They demonstrate to children that their way is one in many and not the only; that their appearance is one in many and not the only; that their choices are one in many and not the only. Books can normalize diversity and inspire a healthy curiosity about different cultures and peoples.
One of my favorite authors in this category is Patricia Polacco. Most of her books showcase moving stories in which difference is directly confronted. Despite challenges and conflict, Polacco’s characters always overcome adversity through their connection to deep humanity. In her vast collection of books, she tackles religion (Just Plain Fancy, Mrs.Katz and Tush), sexuality (Our Mothers’ House), race (Mrs. Katz and Tush, Pink and Say) and more (Babushka, Baba Yaga, Thank You, Mr Falkner.) It is difficult to read many of her stories without being profoundly moved – adults and children alike. Have a tissue box nearby!
Outside of Polacco’s work, there are many others that tackle socio-political issues with regards to diversity. Two notable books are Debra da Costa’s Snow in Jeruselum and Dr. Seuss’ Sneetches. The former deals with the current socio-political problems in Israel through the tale of a Jewish boy, an Muslim boy and a single white cat. In the latter, Dr. Seuss demonstrates how a Sneetch is still a Sneetch no matter how many stars on its belly. This allegory is one of Seuss’ commentaries on social and economic inequities.Another way to teach the very important appreciation for multiculturalism is to read stories written by someone of that culture, originating from that culture or respectfully-inspired by that culture. In many cases the characters’ names and places may seem foreign to a child, but the lessons and spirit are all very relatable.
Gerald McDermott, for example, enjoys bringing to life the folk tales and mythology from indigenous cultures. His books include Anansi (Ashanti People of Africa), Arrow to the Sun (Pueblo) and Raven (Pacific-Northwest Native Americans). Author and illustrator Tomie de Paola reconstructs old folk tales (e.g., The Legend of the Bluebonnet, The Quilt Story) and also incorporates cultural mythology into his own original works (e.g., Jamie O’Rourke and the Pooka, Strega Nona.)
Other authors in this category include: Verna Aardema (e.g., Bringing Rain to Kapiti Plain, Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ear), Jan Brett (e.g., The Mitten, The Trouble With Trolls), Caitlin Matthews (Celtic Memories), John Steptoe (Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters), and Rachel Isadora (At the Crossroads).
Learning about world cultures through folklore is important. However, it is equally critical to understand the diversity within our own backyards. For decades children’s stories were set primarily on farms or within idyllic upper-middle class communities. Most of these stories were dominated by white characters of a nondescript ethnic descent, all of whom celebrated Christmas.
Ezra Jacks Keats (e.g., A Letter to Amy, Peter’s Chair, Whistle For Willie) is largely considered to be the first American children’s author to introduce multiracial, multi-ethnic main characters within a wholly urban “real life” setting. His first book featured Juanito, a child immigrant from Puerto Rico. However, his most famous character is the curious and lovable little boy named Peter. Other authors in this category include Vera Williams (A Chair for My Mother), Linda Heller (Castle on Hester Street) and John Dorros (Abuela).
Finally, this section would not be complete without mentioning artist, author, storyteller Faith Ringgold. She takes children’s literature to an entirely new level of cultural experience and artistry. Her inspiring stories shed light on the African-American experience in ways that only she can do. Her award-winning book, Tar Beach, was originally created to accompany her story quilt of the same name which is on display at the Guggenheim museum. The story works on many levels, both as education and as inspiration. I strongly recommend tissues here too.
“All you need is somewhere to go that you can’t get to any other way. The next thing you know, you’re flying among the stars.” From Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold (Dragonfly Books, 1996)
On Being Diferent
Our collective religious communities are incredibly diverse in practice and belief. However, there is one unifying element – we are all members of minority religions. At some point in life, if only as a result of being Pagan, Heathen or Polytheist, every child will be faced with the hard reality of being different.
Storybooks provide a healthy way of thinking through the pain, offering ways of handling the issues and moving forward. Kevin Henkes celebrates the beauty of unusual names with his clever book Chrysathemum. In Olivia and the Fairy Princesses, Ian Falconer takes his famous little diva through an existential identity-crisis after she decides she doesn’t want dress like all the other children. Leo Lionni discusses the importance of appreciating one’s own color in A Color of His Own. Similar stories include, Dr. Seuss’ Gertrude McFuzz, Mo Williams Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed and Debbie Allen’s Dancing in the Wings.
“Why is it always a pink princess? Why not an Indian princess or a princess from Thailand or a princess from China? There are alternatives.” From Olivia and the Fairy Princesses by Ian Falconer. (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2012)
Women and Girls
Another central issue to the discussions on global concerns is the treatment of women and girls. As with the other subjects, storybooks provide a way to demonstrate empowerment to girls starting at an early age. Not only do they provide literacy, one problem for women in some regions, but they also offer stories that simply celebrate the essence and power in being a girl. I would argue that children’s literature is or should be an essential component to the women’s movement worldwide.
Stories with positive crone characters and strong mothers teach girls the importance and beauty of their role within society as they age. For example, Patricia Polacco retells the Slavic/Russian folktale of the feared forest witch in Babushka, Baba Yaga. At the end of the story, the townswomen learn that the magical Baba Yaga is actually a kind, loving crone who only wants to be in community and love of a child. Tomie de Paolo’s Strega Nona series is a similar tool.
Burleigh Muten authored a book on world goddesses to specifically empower girls through this type of mythology. And, there are a number of books that share this concept.However, if a parent wants a more modern approach, look no further than the characters of Olivia and Grace. Olivia is Ian Falconer’s little feminist pig who will have you laughing, and your little daughter expanding her dreams and discovering the will to challenge the world.
Grace is a school-age child who asks the simple question, “Why aren’t there any women presidents?” Written by Kelly DiPucchio, Grace for President is a dynamic modern tale that teaches girls to question societal norms. Through reading this story, a girl will learn that she can be “the right person for the job.”
“The strength and power of goddesses continue to inspire women and girls all over the world… I wrote this book with the hope that you will discover how adventurous and powerful women deities have been for thousands of years.” From Goddesses: A World of Myth and Magic by Burleigh Muten (Barefoot Books, 2003)
Fostering Love and Compassion
I’d like to end this walk through children’s literature with a final section on love and compassion. This concept, often lost is adulthood, is present readily in the hearts of young children. They want to connect, but often time and experience can erode it away. When compassion is nurtured regularly, the ideal of love and trust can be accessible for a lifetime, and can be the foundation of real global change.
There are many books that reinforce our instinctive understanding of unconditional love. Some of my favorites include Guess How Much I Love You and You Are All My Favorites by Sam McBratney; Love You Forever by Robert Munsch; I Love You the Purplest by Barbara Joosse. In addition to unconditional love, Munsch book demonstrates the cycle of life from birth to death to birth again. And, let me give you another tissue warning!
There are two final books that no child should be without. Both demonstrate our deep connection to the world through our humanity in compassion and love. First, Debra Fraiser’s On the Day You Were Born lyrically describes our universal connection to all life. Birds fly; the moon rises; the rains fall, and a circle of people gather to sing, “Welcome to the Spinning World… We are so glad that you’ve come.”
The second book is The Giving Tree, written by Shel Silverstein. It is the story of unconditional love that takes a lifetime to appreciate. A tree gives up everything, even its own life for the love of one boy. When the boy becomes an old man, he has nothing left but the stump which is, in the end, all he needs. Throughout the story no matter what the boy sought in outside world, he never attained it. It isn’t until the end that he recognizes that all he ever really needed was that tree. Tissues!
“I love you to the moon and back.” From Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney. (Walker Books Ltd, 2007)
This is only a small sampling of books out there, and this list doesn’t even touch on other important categories (e.g., mythology, art, science) There are many books available that can help us, as Pagan and Heathen parents, to both teach the important values and ethics of our religions and teach the change we want to see!But most importantly, never stop reading to your children. No matter what books you do own, read to them from the earliest moments of infancy until forever. Doing so will foster a love of reading in your child – a priceless gift that will last a lifetime. It will also nurture their natural need to explore, to question, to understand, to love and to challenge what they see so that their future is always laced with hope.