My children love to read. From a young age, they knew that I would rarely deny their request to buy a book that caught their eye. They spent hours in the children’s section of our local library selecting their stack of 10 books permitted each week. Part of this time involved reading the books they had to cull to stay under the library limit. Books were their window into worlds beyond their own, as well as comfortable companions that affirmed their experiences.
Introducing children to books about spirituality and religious traditions can contribute to both exploration and affirmation. Hearing about how a trio of children meet a giant Panda who lives by Buddhist principles (John Muth’s Zen Shorts, Zen Ghosts, and Zen Socks) offers insight into how contemplation works and why some children find it helpful. Reading the story of how a girl learned to tame her temper with meditation (Tamara Levitt’s The Secret to Clara’s Calm) helps children see how others deal with common experiences like anger and frustration.
Different kinds of stories assist in different kinds of ways. In my research, I have identified at least four types of spiritual story books. All four kinds contribute to children’s development of spiritual identity.
Stories that embody spiritual principles. These stories make no explicit mention of spirituality or religion but the characters and plot affirm general spiritual principles. Many award-winning books (such as Caldecott and Newbery winners) fall into this category. For example, Dan Santat’s After the Fall imagines the courage it takes for Humpty Dumpty to get up again post-tumble. Sharing such stories helps children vicariously try out different attitudes and actions that contribute to a strong spiritual identity.
Stories that explicitly link children’s experiences to others’ experiences. These stories often address common social or cultural issues and share how others have responded to them. Kwame Alexander’s 2020 Caldecott medal book The Undefeated is an illustrated version of his poem that walks children through black history in a relatable way. Reading such stories with children affirms the value of their sociocultural realities and offers ideas for how to manage life’s ups and downs without becoming spiritually overwhelmed.
Stories from religious texts told in child-friendly language. Sometimes called faith stories, these books rework passages from sacred texts so they are more understandable for young minds. Amy-Jill Levine and Sandy Eisenberg Sasso’s Who Counts? retells three Christian parables for preschool children, emphasizing the numbers in the stories as a way to help children make sense of the intended teachings. These stories introduce actual religious texts to children so they can form their own opinions about the usefulness of such stories for their lives.
Stories that imaginatively play with a religious story. In these stories, the author picks a fun or interesting detail in a religious story and then creates a new story with that detail at the center. Sasso’s Adam and Eve’s First Sunset highlights the anxiety the mythical first couple experienced as darkness descended for the first time and the relief they felt when the sun rose again and all was well. Reading such stories with children helps them see religious stories as ongoing, interactive experiences that they can build on and explore for themselves without judgment.
Think about your favorite spiritual story books for children. Which categories do they represent? Some books may fall in more than one category, which is fine. The goal is not primarily to sort books precisely, but to notice which categories are lacking and look for new books to address any deficits.
Consider building a children’s library or providing parents with a curated list that includes books of each type. That way, children and their adult caregivers can hear spiritual stories through a broad spectrum of approaches, characters, and contexts.