Can we talk about religious picture books for a minute?
I’m assuming most of you didn’t read your kid a religious bedtime story last night. And that it rarely occurs to you to wonder what new Islamic, Hindu or Christian children’s books came out this year. I’m also willing to bet you don’t spend a lot of time in the religious section at your public library.
But it might be time to start.
For the last month or so I’ve been obsessed with religion-books for kids — mostly because my own knowledge of religious stories is limited, and I’m always looking for language to use when talking through certain religious concepts with my daughter. At any given time, I might have 15 of these things stacked in my office, and another dozen on hold at the library.
As you can imagine, kids’ religious titles run the gamut. Many focus on religious holidays — Rosh Hashanah, Diwali, Christmas, Eid. Others contain more over-arching material — stories about Buddha or Muhammad or the parables of Jesus. Some are meant to “educate” and are much too comprehensive, dated or dry for most little ones to enjoy; others are beautifully illustrated and clearly written with children’s interests in mind.
Because a good number are written for religious children, not all of them are a good match for secular families. The worst of the bunch are indoctrination materials, which — in my opinion at least — pose far more questions than answers. But the best can be quite good. They offer fun stories, interesting settings and clever text — and they do it so well that they don’t feel like “learning experiences” — even though that’s exactly what they are.
Of course, it’s sometimes hard to tell the good from the bad and the bad from the ugly. Which is why I’m endeavoring to sort through the lot in search of the best and most helpful reads to pass on to you guys. (How nice am I?) In the meantime, though, I thought I’d offer some advice on choosing titles that won’t confuse your child, offend you, or bore either of you to tears.
1. Choose a book that will appeal to your kid
You know your kid and his taste more than anyone else. You know when a book (or toy or game) has a good chance of holding his interest, or no chance at all. If your 7-year-old is a real boy’s boy who’s going to roll his eyes at an Easter story about a little girl and her lamb, put it back. If your daughter is only interested in princesses, maybe choose a book about the Jewish Princess Esther over a book about the Hindu God Shiva. Religious literacy isn’t about cramming shit down kids’ throats; in fact, it’s quite the opposite.
2. Go for age-appropriate
Like No. 1, this is usually pretty easy to judge by a quick glance. The cover art and the amount of text on the first couple of pages are good guides. And, of course, if you’re at all worried about violence or other adult situations, be sure to flip through the book before handing it on to your little one; lots of religious stories depict people — not to mention God — doing some pretty gnarly things.
3. Make it relevant
If you want this stuff to be at all meaningful, it’s probably best not to introduce reading material completely randomly. Read her a Ramadan story during the month of Ramadan, a Good Friday story around Easter. You don’t have to have some big master plan, of course, but do try to introduce each book with a sentence about why you’re reading it — why this book, why now. As a side note: Many books out there are what I would call “secondary” books — books that are great to read AFTER your kid has been introduced to certain concepts. Hoppy Passover, for instance, is a sweet book about a bunny family that holds a Seder. But because it assumes some basic knowledge of Passover, it might be better as an accompaniment to another book — rather than standing on its own.
4. Check for historical accuracy
This is a biggie. As secular parents, the point of reading religious books is to teach our kids about religion. When authors take poetic license or manipulate religious history to the point where the stories are no longer accurate, the value for us is gone. Religious people might believe that their kids will get the “full story” eventually, and may not be worried about these deviations. Hell, they might even prefer revisionist history from time to time, especially when the revision creates a more believable, desirable or compelling story. But we as secular parents are looking for the truth. And, just as often, the inaccuracies insult both believers and nonbelievers.
5. Watch out for white-washing
That a story is “accurate” doesn’t mean it’s complete. Bible stories (especially the ones you find in the Religion sections at major bookstores) often are abbreviated to sound kinder, gentler, and more understandable. (The story of Noah’s Ark is not nearly so charming when you consider that God went on to exterminate every living creature on earth, for example.) I do understand the desire to make stories age-appropriate. I’ve found myself struggling to explain certain religious violence to my daughter in a way that won’t give her nightmares. But if a story needs to be white-washed in order to share it, maybe it’s not time to share that particular story. I’d love for my kid to see Chinatown someday; that doesn’t mean I need to watch it with her tonight. That said, if you find yourself sharing a cleaned-up Bible story with your child, no sweat. Just explain that there’s a bit more to the story than that, and you’ll tell her the rest when she gets older.
6. Be aware of slants and bias
Although it may surprise you, this is not necessarily a deal-breaker for me. Even books written from a religious perspective can be really well-done and educational. It all depends on the nature and degree of the slant. With some titles, the only slant is the point of view. An author might use “we,” for instance, instead of “they” when talking about the religious group featured in the book. But as long as you are comfortable addressing these slants as they pop up — “The author uses ‘we’ in this story because he, himself, is Muslim,” for example — then this shouldn’t be a problem. Some books, though, are more overt, and secular parents would do right to leave those behind. Sermonizing books will do nothing but confuse your child and annoy the hell of you. If you think you might be looking at such a book, but aren’t sure, here’s a hint: Flip to the back, and find the story’s denouement, summary or wrap-up. That’s where most authors put their “morals” — and if the book has a preachy element, you’ll find it at the end.