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.
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 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.

The same is true for A Dog’s Tooth (Snow Lion, $12.95 cloth, ages 5 to 13), W. W. Rowe’s version of a classic Tibetan tale about a mischievous boy who gives his devout mother a dog’s tooth and tells her it’s the Buddha’s. Chris Banigan’s photomontages, while hip and dynamic, were confusing to my six-year-old.

Another folktale retold to make Tibetan Buddhist teachings accessible to the young is The Three Silver Coins: A Story from Tibet (Snow Lion, $12.95 paper, ages 4 and up) by Tashi Daknewa and Veronica Leo. This is a lesson in compassion, centered on a boy who works hard to earn three pieces of silver, then trades them—foolishly, it seems—to save suffering animals. The book has a wonderful fairy-tale quality, and enticing illustrations by Leo. Happily, the boy’s generosity is rewarded when the animals turn out to be deities who grant him wishes and help guide him home.

Amy and Gully in Rainbowland by W. W. Rowe (Snow Lion, $5.95 paper, ages 5 to 10), traces the odyssey of a brother and sister trying to find their way out of a magical kingdom. Here, the Buddhism is denatured: Though the kingdom resembles some Tibetan bardo where the children’s compassion and sincerity are tested by a monk and a terrifying witch, Buddhism per se isn’t mentioned, and the children handle their adventures much as any ten-year-old would. Some of the tests seem scary for the very young (in one, the children are engulfed in flames; in another, stalked by snakes), but the story drew Willa in nonetheless.

In the end, universal dharma may be what appeals most. Of the books we read, Willa’s favorite was Jon Muth’s The Three Questions (Scholastic, $16.95 cloth, ages 6 to 9), based on a Leo Tolstoy short story that Muth had read about in a book by Thich Nhat Hanh. A boy who yearns to be a good person searches for answers to three questions: When is the best time to do things? Who is the most important person? What is the right thing to do? He rescues an injured panda, triggering a series of events. Finally, an old turtle (a Mahayanist, perhaps?) points out that the boy has already found his answers: What’s most important is to help whoever is by your side at the moment. “That’s true,” my daughter pronounced. “Mostly you help the people in your family, because that’s who’s by your side, but it could be everybody.” The next day, Willa took The Three Questions to school to read to her class. Previously, only The Little Mermaid had received that, her highest, honor.

Mary Talbot, a contributing editor to Tricycle, is a parent organizer for the NYC Education Department.

More Kiddie Dharma

Prince Siddhartha: The Story of Buddha (Wisdom, 2003, $18.95 paper, ages 7 and up) is a reissue of Jonathan Landaw’s 1984 classic, illustrated by Janet Brooke.

Prince Siddhartha Coloring Book
(Wisdom, $6.95, ages 5 and up), eases preschoolers into the dharma.

The Rabbit and the Tigerdile (Snow Lion, $8.95 paper, ages 4 to 10) by W. W. Rowe, with illustrations by Christopher Banigan, is based on the Jataka Tales, legends of the Buddha’s past lives.

The Robber Chief: A Tale of Vengeance and Compassion (Snow Lion, $12.95 cloth, ages 6 and up), also by W. W. Rowe, with illustrations by Christopher Banigan, is a lesson on karma based on a Paul Carus novel retold by Leo Tolstoy.

The Gift: A Magical Story About Caring for the Earth (Wisdom, $14.95 cloth, ages 5 and up), by Isia Osuchowski, demonstrates interdependence.

Where is Tibet? (Snow Lion, $12.95 paper, ages 3 to 10), by artist Gina Halpern, teaches basic Tibetan phrases in a tale of two refugee children.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Buddhism in Action (Skylight Paths, December 2003, $12.95 cloth, ages 6 and up), by Maura D. Shaw, includes practices like letting go of anger.