Big news! I finished my book!
Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious is slated for release March 31, 2015 — just in time to not be given out as Christmas gifts. What timing! I'm super excited, and grateful to all of you who have stuck with me all this time. How did four years go by? Jesus Christ. My kid is old now.
I'll be updating you as regularly as I can, but in the meantime, let this serve as last call: If you'd like something specifically to be covered in the book — or have a particularly nagging question or concern — let me know that now! It's not too late, but will be soon.
If you've ever perused the religion books within the children's section of your local library, you're probably aware that it can be a bit underwhelming. Whether you're going for a book about the life of Buddha, the history of Confucianism, or the holiday of Easter, so many of the books are old and outdated, clearly written for religious children, or without much literary merit. It sticks out particularly because there are so many great secular children's books — brilliant, award-winning books that will stick with our kids for the rest of our lives. Sometimes it's hard to skip over those and land on what may turn out to be infinitely forgettable ones. That's why it's fun (for me, at least) to come across religiously themed books that are also (or were once) considered great literature. Which is what happened when my daughter brought home a brochure from school the other day listing all 75 Caldecott Medal winners, dating back to 1938. This year's winner is an outstanding book called This is Not My Hat. And in 2011, the pick was A Sick Day for Amon McGee. And in 1970, it was Sylvester and the Magic Pebble; and in 1964, it was Where the Wild Things Are; and in 1942, it was Make Way for Ducklings.
The point is, those Caldecott people are no dummies.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, very few "religious" books have appeared on the Caldecott list in the last 50 years. Other than Peter Spier's Noah's Ark in 1978 — which I can affirm is a pretty straight telling of the Christian tale and not overtly religious — the books have been almost exclusively secular. Not so, though, before 1963 — when four of the first 25 winners had religious themes, including the very first Caldecott. The first three picks appear to be overtly religious (particularly the second!) but Nine Days to Christmas — about the Mexican holiday of Posada — might be worth checking out. All five, incidentally, are Christian.
1945: Prayer for a Child
I do think it's important that nonreligious parents set aside their usual standards for literature once in a while in favor of injecting some religious literacy into their kids' lives. But within reason, of course. And this is not to suggest that there aren't some GREAT books out there for those who take the time to look. For some tips on choosing religious picture books appropriate for nonreligious families, click here.
Evolution, or the process by which living organisms change over time, was not discovered by Charles Darwin. But he certainly gave the theory its street cred.
By introducing natural selection — the idea that organisms best suited to survive in their particular circumstances have a greater chance of passing their traits on to the next generation — Darwin gave us a plausible mechanism by which evolution could take place. And that made all the difference. Darwin's 1859 book On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was the most groundbreaking biological theory the world had ever seen. And it remains an idea so powerful that it's still banned today in some schools.
Tomorrow — Feb. 12 — would be Charles Darwin's 204th birthday. And it's practically the only secular holiday we've got. So let's celebrate!
1. Watch this seven-minute video of cool-as-hell Carl Sagan explaining Natural Selection in a delightful and simply way.
2. Make a toast. Darwin's name is one we want our kids to know and respect, so even if they're too young to grasp the process of natural selection, at least get his name out there. At dinner tomorrow, raise a glass of something bubbly to Charles Darwin, a famous and important scientist whose life we celebrate.
3. Drop the "theory." As Sagan says in the video above, evolution is a fact. The reason we hear the phrase "theory of evolution" so often is because, during Darwin's day, evolution was a theory. But DNA has since proven what Darwin had theorized. Calling evolution a theory today is both confusing and misleading.
4. Check out this little guy. The LA Times had a great little story that ran yesterday on a creature known as the "hypothetical placental mammal ancestor." It's a small, furry-tailed creature believed to be the common ancestor of more than 5,000 living species — including whales, elephants, bats, rodents and humans. Check it out. They even have a full-color rendering of the darn thing.
5. Watch this six-minute clip of Richard Attenborough explaining the Tree of Life. It's a quick but extremely effective snapshot of how humans and every other life form on Earth evolved from the same pool of bacteria some 300 million years ago. And note how the rodent they feature, as the first mammal, looks pretty much exactly like the one in the LA Times article above. The clip was taken from "Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life," a BBC Production made to mark Darwin's 200th birthday.
6. Check out Leonard Eisenberg's website evogeneao.com — a shortened version of evolutionary genealogy. It's a great site for parents and teachers, and has a link to this amazing Tree of Life graphic that is awfully fun to contemplate. (Click on the site to get a bigger version.)
7. Visit a natural history museum.
8. Find a Darwin Day event going on in your region.
9. Go on a nature hike. Everything you see, whether it's a slug, cat or a bird, do what Eisenberg would do and talk about how that creature is literally, our cousin — 275th million cousin, perhaps, but a cousin nonetheless.
10. Read one of these books:
Charles Darwin by Diane Cook
One Beetle Too Many: The Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin by Kathryn Lasky
Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution by Steven Jenkins
Bang! How We Came to Be by Michael Rubino
Billions of Years, Amazing Changes: The Story of Evolution by Lawrence Pringle
Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth by Jay Hosler
Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story by Lisa Westberg Peters and Lauren Stringer
Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be by Daniel Loxton
Not since 9/11 has a tragedy so deeply affected our nation as the massacre of 20 first-graders and six school administrators in Connecticut on Friday. It seems to me, words were not meant to communicate this level of horror. Our capacity for emotional pain is so much deeper than our capacity to verbalize what has happened. Sometimes silence and tears are our only option.
But when it comes to children, we have a duty to discuss death and dying. It is an important part of parenting, and we mustn't shy away from it. Yes, it's hard. Our children might fear our deaths more than anything else, just as we fear their deaths more than anything else. That's only natural. But there are things our children must hear, and they deserve to hear them from us.
Here's a bit of advice, should you need or want it.
As for nonreligious children's books about death, these are the best I've found so far:
When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown. I can't say enough great things about this book, which is why I dedicated an entire post to it.
The Tenth good Thing about Barney, written by Judith Viorst and illustrated by Erik Blegvad. This adorable classic is about a boy losing his cat. Such smart writing. "Barney is in the ground, and he’s helping to grow flowers," the boy's father says at one point. "You know," the boys responds, "that's a pretty nice job for a cat.”
About Dying by Sara Bonnet Stein. I'm crazy about this oldie, which is a book for kids and parents to read together, but also has some great information in smaller print off to the side.
When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers. Did Mr. Rogers ever do anything that wasn’t awesome? No. No, he didn't. This is no exception.
The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages by Leo Buscaglia. The main character in this book is a leaf who is coming to terms with the fact that he will fall (die) at some point. It's quite gentle and calming and would be great introduction to death, particularly for sensitive kids who may be prone to anxiety over the subject.
Now One Foot, Now the Other by Tomie dePaola. Okay, this one is not about death, but about the reality of growing old and getting sick. It is one of my favorite children's books of all time — so sweet and poignant, it is guaranteed to make you cry. And it has a happy ending. My daughter loves it as much as I do. (DePaola's Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs is really nice, too.)
Are you looking to introduce religion to your child in a neutral and decidedly non-devotional way, but don't know where to start? Do you lack the knowledge you think you should have? Do your eyes sort of glaze over when you hear the words "religious literacy?" Then this shopping guide is for you! In honor of the Judeo-Christian month of giving, I've amassed some of my favorite resources in hopes that you'll encourage your child to learn a bit more about the religious world around them — and have some fun while they're at it. This is the second of two parts; the first is here. 11. DK Children’s Illustrated Bible. You just can't do religious literacy without a Bible in the house, folks, and not all of them are created equal. The DK, with stories retold by Selina Hastings and pictures by Eric Thomas, is the best I've seen on a number of levels. Small, compact, accurate, and readable, it's also packed with excellent illustrations and photographs. In second place: The Kingfisher Children's Illustrated Bible. Available on Amazon for $9.35
12. Plush Krishna: As a kid in the '70s, "Krishna" was a word I heard only when "Hare" was in front of it. I have vivid memories of bald-headed Hare Krishnas dressed in robes and handing out flowers at the airport. (They rarely do that anymore, I'm told.) I didn't know until I was well into adulthood that Krishna was actually a flute-playing, blue-tinged Hindu deity, an avatar of the god Vishnu. Krishna is hugely important in Hinduism, and ubiquitous in artwork all over the world, which makes him a natural choice for a stuffed friend. Plus, he's cute as all get-out. Available from Gopal Soft Toys: $41.95
13. Alphabet Kaba. This is such a cool toy! The Alphabet Kaba is a rendition of the classic alphabet blocks, this time depicting both English and Arabic letters and numbers, and stored inside a wooded Kaaba — which, if you remember from this post, is the name of the black-shrouded building in the center of Mecca. It is toward the Kaaba that all Muslims throughout the world pray five times a day. A great little piece of knowledge for kids to grasp. Available from Islamic Goods Direct for about 8 pounds (or $12.85)
14. Between Earth and Sky: Legends of Native American Sacred Places. Native American traditions deserve as much attention as any other system of religious belief, especially considering their role in the history of the Americas. Written by Joseph Bruchac and illustrated by Thomas Locker, this book depicts a conversation between Little Turtle and his uncle, Old Bear. It also includes a neat map of North America back when it was just tribal territories, as well as a pronunciation guide. There are a lot of beautiful books about the tales and legends of native American religion, but this one will get you started. (Amazon, $7)
15. Yoga mat: In the course of only a couple of decades, yoga has gone from a relatively unknown activity to completely mainstream. Some yoga studios regularly schedule kids' classes, and even schools have begun offering yoga as physical education (with mixed results, unfortunately). There is absolutely no "religion" in any of the yoga classes I've attended over the years — it's all about deep breathing, deep stretching, and clearing the mind — but yoga did start out as a religious practice and still is used that way by millions of people. Let's not forget to make that connection for our children! Available on Amazon: $15 and up.
16. Bang! How We Came to Be. Religious beliefs are fascinating, and understanding them bring us closer as human beings. But science is equally fascinating and equally likely to bring us closer together as human beings. The science of evolution is incredibly important for kids to understand, and the sooner the better. This one breaks down evolution in language even little ones can enjoy. I haven't read the whole thing yet, but can't wait. Available on Amazon: $11.56
17. Muhammad by Demi. The famed illustrator created this breathtaking book a couple of years ago — managing to do what few others have done: Illustrate Muhammad without suffering a major backlash from the Muslim community, which strictly forbids depictions of the prophet. Demi treads the line beautifully and respectfully by putting Muhammad in a golden shadow throughout the book. Very imaginative. The story, also, is accurate and well-told. Great for kids 9-ish and up. Available on Amazon: $14.96
18. Jewish Holiday Calendar Magnets. One of the best ways to teach kids about Judaism is to honor some of the many Jewish holidays. There are plenty to choose from — and this 14-piece magnet set can attest to that. Most Jewish holidays center on significant events and legends from Hebrew history. I adore these magnets, which can be used as space holders on magnetic calendars or as conversation starters for little ones. Available on Etsy: $16 for the set.
19. The Golden Rule by Ilene Cooper. This is a must read, in my opinion. Gorgeously illustrated by Gabi Swiatowska, The Golden Rule tells the story of a little boy who sees a billboard while walking with his grandfather. The billboard says, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." What follows is a sweet, poignant discussion about "the Golden Rule," where it comes from (it predates Jesus by a lot) and why it's so important. It also goes through each religion's iteration of the Golden Rule. I love this book. For children ages 4 to 10. Available on Amazon for $11.53.
20. Pocket Buddhas.Because they're small, cute, and — well, do you really need a third reason? Available from Amazon: $8.95 apiece.
In honor of the Judeo-Christian month of giving, I'm offering a few recommendations to add to your shopping lists. These are items I have bought myself, or will buy, or might buy, or probably won't buy but that doesn't mean you shouldn't. Seriously, if you want some assistance in "introducing" world religion and religious concepts to your kids, these are excellent tools. I'll be publishing this in two parts: The first today, the second on Monday. Don't look for this list to be repeated next year, by the way. In 2013, I'll be recommending you buy only one book: Mine.
1. People by Peter Spier. Touted as "a picture book for all ages," People is the best celebration of diversity I've ever seen in book form. Spier is a spectacular illustrator, and offers the sweetest introduction to religion and culture. His little figures are charming, and for children who may never run into Arabs or Africans on the street, it's all the more important. You'd never know the book was written in 1980, but for one single page devoted to different kinds of "communication." Records and cassettes and walkie-talkies are among the most "modern" communication methods pictured. Available on Amazon: $10.36
2. "What Do You Believe?" This book, published just last year by DK Publishing, is a stellar example of how to talk about world religions in neutral terms. The design is excellent and very modern, and the book is full of great information — but not too full. That is, it's not exhausting to look at, as so many of these types of books can be. It includes pages on world religions, as well as atheism and agnosticism — all of which are handled with a high degree of respect. This is likely to appeal most to slightly older children, 9 and above, but I'd get it early and make it a book shelf staple. Available on Amazon: $11.55
3. DYI Paper Buddha. These things are just plain cool. They come in kits and would be great for kids who like to build things. I love the idea of having my daughter make this little guy — or one of the other Hindu gods offered in kit form — and reading a little bit about Buddhism or Hinduism out loud to her while she does it. The kits are made in New Delhi by cartoonist and animator Kshiraj Telang. They are all limited edition and sold in Indian rupees. Hurry while supplies last! Available on Toonoholic for 99 rupees (roughly $1)
4. Dreidel. I wrote about how to play the game of Dreidel last year as part of my Hanukkah post. It's such a fun game for kids — and cheap! I highly recommend it as and entry into talking about Judaism and the origins of Hanukkah. Plus, it's got a fun song that goes with it. (South Park's version is here.) Simple wooden dreidel available on Amazon: $1.89
5. Fulla Doll. I referenced this doll in a recent post. It's a line of Barbie-like fashion dolls for Muslim girls, and I'm TOTALLY buying one for my daughter. The abaya and hijab that Muslims wear is really interesting to kids. Getting little ones used to different styles of religious dress (so they can see it as something normal, rather than something weird) could go a long way in building an understanding of Islamic customs. (By the way, check out these pictures published on Slate today — it's a photo series on documenting the Arab woman's experience of being veiled!) Fulla dolls available at Muslim Toys and Dolls: $34.99
6. Little Book of Hindu Deities: From the Goddess of Wealth to the Sacred Cow. When it comes to giving kids and parents an overview of Hinduism, this book by Sanjay Patel is the best. It's small and cute and bright and to the point, and a fantastic resource for getting a handle on the deal with Hindu gods. Just having on my bookshelf has been wonderful for me. When I need a quick reminder of who Krishna is or why Ganesh is important, I know exactly where to go. Available at Amazon: $8.82
7. Voodoo dolls. To heck with major religions, right? Let's get into some of those fun-filled folk religions! In Africa and Haiti, as well as in New Orleans, voodoo dolls are used to focus energy and blessings to those they represent. They are commonly made with items that are easily found in those regions. The instructions with this cute set advises kids to send good blessing to your friends or turn them into mean people to relieve stress and have some fun. They really are just fun little toys, but it would be a great excuse to explain a bit about the "magic" believed by some folk religions. Set of 11 available on Amazon: $6.74
8. Sikh Play Set. It was ridiculously hard to choose between all the Sikh play sets on the market! My gosh! There are just so many to — oh, wait. No. That was nativity sets. Sorry. When it came to Sikh play sets, there was the one. This one. And it seems only to be available in England. And it's expensive. So I'm doubting a lot of you will buy it, but I still think it's terribly neat. I love the book about the gurus that comes with it, and kids would have a great time inspecting the "artifacts" in the bag. Available at TTS: 74.95 pounds (roughly $120)
9. Meet Jesus: the Life and Teachings for a Beloved Teacher by Lynn Tuttle Gunney. This book came highly recommended by reader Kimberly B. The book is described as emphasizing the "humanity rather than the divitity of Jesus, giving the story broad appeal for liberal or progressive Christians and non-Christians alike." Kimberly said her kids loved it. I'm definitely buying it. Available on Amazon: $10.26
10. The Tao of Pooh Audiobook. (You cand find it free on youtube, too.) I read this book in college, and loved it so much I also read the Te of Piglet, which was good but not as good. Author Benjamin Hoff shows that "Pooh's Way" is amazingly consistent with the principles of living envisioned by the Chinese founders of Taoism. It's very fun and cute. The audiobook would be great for a road trip with a slightly older child — 11ish maybe. Available on Amazon: $14.59
If we want our children to be religiously literate — and who among us doesn't, honestly? — then it behooves us to talk about the Bible in respectful terms, even if we don't think much of it is true. When parents call the Bible "a book of fairy tales" (direct quote from my survey for nonreligious parents), it makes the whole thing seem silly and unimportant. And not just unimportant in a religious way, but unimportant in a universal way. I grew up with parents who talked about William Shakespeare like he was THE MAN (with Mark Twain and Louis Armstrong placed only slightly lower on the totem pole of MAN-NESS.) From a pretty early age, I just knew that culturally well-rounded human beings had devoted some serious time to William Shakespeare. As a result, it never crossed my mind not to read him or be interested in him. How different it would have been, though, had all I heard about Shakespeare was that he was really hard to read, really hard to understand, very outdated, not at all realistic and completely irrelevant to modern times.
Religious literacy comes down to 60 percent Bible literacy and 40 percent* other stuff. So talking about it like it's an annoying book that makes people do irrational things REALLY, REALLY, REALLY defeats the purpose here. Plain and simple: If you don't find the Bible interesting, your kid won't either. You are their model in this.
And it's not just the stories — The Garden of Eden, Noah's Ark, David and Goliath — that are worth knowing. It's the context to all the idioms and expressions we hear and use on a daily basis. (You'd be surprised how many there are — and how many people use wrong!) In fact, each one of these expressions is a very good reason to encourage your child to get to know the Bible** in some form or another.
Here are a mere 75 of them!
1. Forbidden fruit
2. Good Samaritan
3. No room at the inn
4. Raising Cain
5. Old as the hills
6. Throw the first stone
7. Salt of the earth
8. Eye for an eye
9. Rise and shine!
10. Am I my brother's keeper?
11. Out of the mouths of babes
12. At my wit's end
13. Babble (as in baby babble)
14. Be that as it may
15. Bear with me
16. Beside myself
17. Blind leading the blind
18. Crystal clear
19. Nothing new under the sun
20. Eat drink and be merry
21. Face to face
22. Head and shoulders above the rest
23. How the mighty have fallen
24. Kiss of death
25. Lambs to the slaughter
26. Left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing
27. Man cannot live on bread alone
28. Many are called, but few are chosen
29. No rest for the wicked
30. So to speak
31. Such and such
32. The truth shall set you free
33. Two heads are better than one
34. Who do you think you are?
35. Wolf in sheep's clothing
36. Woe is me
37. Written in stone
38. You reap what you sow
39. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
40. A broken heart
41. Cross to bear
42. Drop in the bucket
43. Fly in the ointment
44. Labor of love
45. Man after his own heart
46. Peace offering
47. Sign of the times
48. Two-edged sword
49. As old as Methuselah
50. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust
51. White as snow
52. Spare the rod, spoil the child
53. Bite the dust
54. By the skin of your teeth
55. Can a leopard change its spots?
56. Cast the first stone
57. Coat of many colors
58. Fall from grace
59. Forgive them for they know not what they do
60. Get thee behind me Satan! (Not to be confused with "Get the too a nunnery!")
61. Harden your heart
62. Alpha and Omega
63. It's better to give than to receive
64. Land of Nod
65. Twinkling of an eye
66. Oh ye of little faith
67. Den of thieves
68. Patience of Job
69. Pearls before swine
70. Put your house in order
71. Wisdom of Solomon
72. Ends of the Earth
73. Powers that be
74. Straight and narrow
75. Sour grapes
* I made up those percentages. They are utterly meaningless.
** My very favorite so far is the DK Children's Illustrated Bible. Do check it out if you're in the market.