To most young children, a story is compelling only if they can see themselves in it. The purest gems of children’s literature—even those in which the characters find themselves in fantastic circumstances—contain elements that resonate with kids’ ordinary lives. In E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, we learn what Fern, a girl who talks to animals, eats for breakfast and what her bullying brother carries in his pockets. InThe Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner, four orphaned siblings who move into an abandoned train set up a familiar-looking home from which to launch extraordinary adventures. These books also happen to offer wonderful moral teachings about selflessness, ethical behavior, compassion, and mortality—and the lessons stick, mainly because they are embodied by everyday children, with lots of everyday detail.
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These are the same values that, as Buddhist parents, we try to model for our kids. Few of us have access to family-friendly practice centers, let alone cultural aids to help us show our children what we believe. With that in mind, several publishers have been making valiant efforts to publish children’s books with dharma content. Recently, I read a selection of them with my six-year-old daughter, Willa. Most illustrate the Buddha’s teachings or document the history and culture of Tibet through its folktales, but only a handful succeed in presenting Buddhist principles with characters that pique a child’s imagination without sounding preachy.

Much as I enjoyed Tenzin’s Deer: A Tibetan Tale (Barefoot Books, 2003, $16.99 cloth, ages 5 to 10)—exquisitely told by Barbara Soros and illustrated by Danuta Mayer—about a boy and the deer whose life he saves, Tenzin didn’t seem “real” to Willa. A full-blown bodhisattva, he receives all his information from visionary dreams—a difficult idea for some young children to relate to.

Buddha in the Garden (Raincoast Books, $19.95 cloth, ages 6 and up) by David Bouchard, with gorgeous illustrations by Zhong-Yang Huang, tells the story of an orphan boy who tends a temple garden. After encountering signs of sickness, old age, and death, he becomes enlightened and is transformed into a stone Buddha. Sweet and poetic, Buddha in the Garden requires a child to penetrate abstract metaphors that might be more accessible to an older reader.

Good stories prompt children’s questions, and these books had me explaining a lot of cultural as well as religious concepts. Artist Jon J. Muth’s superb retelling of Stone Soup (Scholastic, 2003, $16.95 cloth, ages 5 and up) substitutes three Buddhist monks for the three soldiers in the traditional Eurocentric version. Willa wanted to know why the monks had no hair, and the Chinese scholar (in flowing red robes) didn’t look like “a regular teacher.” At the end, I asked her what, apart from how to make soup from stones, the monks had shown the stingy, fearful villagers. “That they should do more fun things together,” Willa replied. “It makes them feel like giving their food away. It’s the same as my old Stone Soup book.” Much as we adults appreciate seeing Ch’an monks in our children’s books, if a story is well told, mercenaries may be as good a vehicle as monastics for ethical teachings.

Willa, like most kids, judges a book by its cover, and if the illustrations don’t appeal to her, it’s hard to persuade her that the story might be interesting. Some art, intriguing to my eyes, was too far out or sophisticated for her, such as the drawings in Wonder Talk: A Tibetan Folk Tale (Sanctuary Books, $19.95 cloth), illustrated and retold by artist Rima Fujita, with a foreword by the Dalai Lama and text in English, Tibetan, and Japanese. This hard-to-find book (you can order it online from www.snowlionpub.com) is a funny, short morality tale about how a man gets his brother to stop boasting. A good message for any age, though the images might speak better to teens and adults.

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