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Conscious Living: Children's Books

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If you're committed to the pursuit of a conscious life, you'll surely be among those who love to sit with their children or their grandchildren and read stories. It is one of the richest of pleasures life can afford, and one that rewards the reader quite as much as the child who sits -- sometimes squirming! -- in her lap and listens to the words. There is something magical about stories, something we humans deeply yearn for and learn from. I have often said that my greatest reservation about dying has to do with not being able to know the end of the story. Well, stories, plural, because there are so many of them that run concurrently in our lives, from the big ones -- will human beings one day land on Mars? and when? -- to the little ones that start anew every day of our lives.

Children's stories and children's poems hold a special delight. I, for one, have never grown out of them. I can listen with as much rapt attention to a fairy tale as I ever did. It's partly about the sensual pleasure of the spoken word, partly about the images created in our minds -- and in part of course about the "message" they convey. They help us to make sense of our experience of the world with the understanding that we share so much with others, and often serve to heal the wounds the world can easily inflict. They can evoke the dark side of that experience (the Brothers Grimm, the late Maurice Sendak) in such a way that it becomes less scary, more easily manageable: We discover, even as children, that ogres can turn into friendlier beasts and giants can be slain. Rhymes and rhythms are magical. Words give us power, as do stories; we "spell" them out. Watching my now 6-month old grandson observe the world through his fresh eyes, I conclude that there's not much I can teach him about awareness. When he's not sleeping (or crying!) he is constantly looking out into the world and absorbing what he sees. With one so young, it's a joy to actually see the learning process taking place. What I have begun to ask myself is whether -- and what -- we can teach young children about the dharma without clumsy, heavy-handed preaching.

The answer, if you take a look at some of the items produced by Barefoot Books, is quite a lot. I was writing, last week, about their Indian Tales. Since then, I have been reading some of their other books for children of a variety of ages, and continue to be impressed by their quality, both as skillfully told stories and as picture books. Even the simplest of their books is a rich verbal and visual experience. And they are committed to a healthy, environmentally conscious world view and to the kind of skills and values we learn from the teachings of the Buddha.

Take, for example, Listen, Listen -- a board-page book intended for the very youngest children. Written by Phillis Gershator and illustrated by Alison Jay, it a visual delight, and one that immediately grabbed the eye and held the attention of my little grandson -- who already loves to join in turning those sturdy pages. Painted with sophisticated simplicity against a crackle-glaze background, the images of the natural world are colorful and sweet, but without being sentimental. The story is about the cycle of the seasons. The text is beautifully written in simple rhyming couplets, quite as appealing to the ear as the pictures are to the eye; their repetitive, onomatopoeic evocation of the sounds of animals and birds, the wind in the leaves and even of plants blossoming in the spring provides the kind of sound-sequence that holds the youngster's attention and stimulates the brain's important memorizing process. What it teaches ("listen, listen") is the value of paying close attention to the here and now.

Tenzin's Deer by Barbara Soros and illustrated by Danuta Mayer, is aimed toward the slightly older child. It is the story of a Tibetan boy and his rescue of, devotion to and eventual release of a wounded fawn. Again, beautifully illustrated with an informed sensitivity to the artistic traditions and conventions of Tibetan art. With its combined stylistic patterning and attention to realistic detail, the book extols the healing power of compassion. Along the way, but subtly, we learn a valuable lessons about karma, the way in which skillful action leads to greater happiness; about non-attachment and the importance of being able to let go; about the release from suffering and about the respect we owe to every living being. For a similar age group, I think, is The Gift by Carol Ann Duffy and illustrated by Rob Ryan, the life-cycle story -- childhood to old age -- of a girl who discovers her own burial plot at an early age and "gifts" it to herself and her family as a place of natural beauty where the cycle of her life will be very naturally and beautifully completed. We are born, we do our share of suffering, we experience illness and old age, and die...

And finally -- this for somewhat older children -- there is the Barefoot Book of Buddhist Tales, retold by Sherab Chodzin and Alexandra Kohn and illustrated by Marie Cameron. Even the exquisitely painted margins of this book are done with an eye for the varied traditions of Buddhist art as well as for each story's themes and motifs. The illustrations recall the conventions of Mogul painting as we read the countless children's versions of The Arabian Nights. They evoke the exoticism, the mystery -- and the humor -- of the stories, which range from Zen anecdotes to mythic tales from India, China and Japan. Each of them celebrates the range and influence of Buddhist teachings in Southeast Asian countries, and makes a point of clarifying some aspect of those teachings. A useful "Foreward" is helpful to adults in understanding the context of the stories with briefly told historical information about the origin and spread of Buddhism and its mythical and archetypal extensions. As it concludes, "These stories reflect many profound truths of the Buddha's teaching, but no matter how profound, the truth is always simple and can be grasped by young children at least as easily as adults."