Believing Differently: Exploring Religious Diversity in Teen Fiction

I grew up knowing I was different because of what my family believed.  We were Christian, but we were outside of the mainstream enough that even as a kid, I stuck out.  As an adult, I’ve chosen another minority belief:  non-belief.  The number of non-religious people is growing, but many people (myself included) still perceive a stigma to the point that we are careful to avoid the topic altogether or avoid using certain labels–like atheist, for example.

I watch my daughter play with her young friends, and I wonder what her experience will be like–how much it will match my own.  She won’t have to go to the library during class holiday celebrations as I did, but she will at some point be set apart by what we have chosen.  For as much as I am trying to create a safe space of exploration of science, religion, and philosophy for her, she will eventually encounter people who want to push her out of that safe space into one label or another.  That thought makes me nervous.

That thought is part of what the Books for Secular Families series is all about.  I believe that education and stories are the first step to confidence and compassion. I grew up with stories, and I am grateful every day for my mom’s willingness to let me explore the world through stories so freely.  It was in a story that I first encountered the idea of a non-religious family and the idea that a child’s spiritual identity could be separate from the family’s.  Now, this is one of my core values.  Everyone is on their own journey–even our children.  Beliefs are not hereditary.

As I read Sarah Dooley’s Body of Water, which is a novel aimed at middle schoolers, I wondered if my daughter would ever lie about our family’s beliefs to fit in, if she would be embarrassed to be outside the mainstream.

In the book, twelve-year-old Ember has a lot she would like to keep secret.  Her family is homeless as a result of a fire, and they are living at a campground for the summer.  She lets the other kids at the campground think her name is Amber because that’s more normal than the nature-derived name her Wiccan parents gave her.  Ember knows from experience that not everyone will be friends with someone whose family worship nature.  My heart just about broke for the girl as I read her thoughts that if she wants any friends, she has to keep the spiritual part of her life to herself.

I think that any child in a family whose beliefs–religious, political, or whatever–are outside of the mainstream will be able to relate to Ember’s reluctance to share her family’s religion.  Ember’s unsent letters to her former friend throughout the book offer an intro to Paganism as Ember gets her chance to say what she’s always wanted to say to the friend who shunned her because of her religion.  It’s very informative.  Paganism and Christianity have more in common than one might think, and Ember lets loose with the facts she usually keeps to herself.

I just wanted to take Ember and all the other children who feel pressured to be the same label as their friends or who have been shunned by anyone because of their or their family’s beliefs and keep them safe until we have created a world in which children don’t have labels and they don’t automatically get the one’s their parents have.

Let’s work on that one, okay?

Also pictured above: Girls Don’t Fly by Kristen Chandler (which I blogged about here) and Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah (which is about a Muslim teen who decides to start wearing a head scarf)

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The Golden Rule, Kindness, & Empathy

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

You don’t have to be particularly religious to know and value those words.  In fact, David Koespell writes in Parenting Beyond Belief,

“Recent studies indicate that the Golden Rule is naturalistically based.  Studies of ape culture, and other animals, have shown that reciprocal altruism abounds in the natural world.”

Parents looking to introduce the universality of the Golden Rule may want to use The Golden Rule by Ilene Cooper as a way of opening a discussion with their kids.  The picture book talks about the meaning of the words and shares various versions of the Golden Rule from religions around the world.  It is an opportunity to build religious literacy and talk about behavior, both of which are good things.  But for those who want to skip the “religious literacy” part of it this time, Do Unto Otters: A Book About Manners by Laurie Keller is a fun take on the topic with lots of kid-friendly humor and a relatable situation (new neighbors).

Koespell goes on to write,

“This general rule, simply stated, makes good sense, although there are also certain common-sense exceptions.  Teaching it may not only make good sense, but it is already acceptable to most children once they develop the psychological capacity for empathy and can envision themselves in the shoes of another. ‘Now how would you feel, Rayna, if Jordan did X to you?’”

Empathy.  Researcher Christine Carter talk about empathy a lot in her book Raising Happiness.  I know I’ve mentioned this book on this blog before (more than once actually), but I can’t help but recommend it again.  Raising Happiness is about emotional intelligence for parents and kids.  It is full of practical ideas for creating an emotionally healthy family life.  In particular, you can start  building empathy in young children just by teaching them to label their feelings.  In our family, we like to use “I feel” statements, and Ladybug has picked up on it too.  Carter suggests role-playing with kids and teach them the tools of mindfulness meditation at a young age.

How do you encourage empathy in your family?  Please share your ideas!

For more about religion and science, see my Secular Thursday page.

Disclosure: Amazon.com links are affiliate links.   A portion of purchases made via these links earns a commission for this blog.  Thanks for your support!  Books reviewed from library copies.

Introducing Darwin to kids (Books for Secular Families)

“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”

So begins the final paragraph of Darwin’s The Origin of the Species. It hardly seems like the stuff of children’s literature, and yet those words are the text of a picture book called The Riverbank.  The author is listed as Charles Darwin since the only text in the book is his, and the illustrator is a Brit named Fabian Negrin.  As you might imagine, the illustrations take center stage in this interpretation of Darwin’s words.  They follow a young boy exploring the natural world around a river.  I appreciate the review of the book in Children’s Literature:

“It is hard to imagine a youngster snuggled up with a loving adult and listening attentively to the words the pictures illustrate. But the illustrations are so lovely that they will certainly lead to conversations in the spirit of the text about the wonder of life on a riverbank where so many species live in a common environment, dependent on each other for survival, descended from a simpler form of life and evolving with each generation.”

Pair it with one of the many great biographies of Darwin for kids–my favorites are by Peter Sis and Kathleen Krull–to introduce Darwin and his groundbreaking theory to kids in upper elementary or middle school.

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More book recommendations about science on the For Secular Families page.

Exploring Evolution

While the status of evolution in public schools remains a pretty fierce debate, we do have plenty of great children’s books on the subject.  Here are a few of my favorites:

My personal favorite is Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors by Joyce Sidman.  This beautiful blend of poetry, science, and art is not just for kids.  I encourage anyone interested in science or nature to browse this book for its unique perspective.  The timeline on the end pages is of particular interest as it attempts to show evolutionarily just how briefly humans (life, really) have been on earth.

Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story by Lisa Westberg Peters seems like a good followup to On the Day You Were Born since the structure is pretty similar.  Each spread is dominated by a large painting with poetic text explaining scientific  ideas.  Each illustration is further explained in the end notes, and a time line incorporates the illustrations to tie it all together.  This book may require adult guidance since it does simplify the ideas quite a bit, but it is a good choice for exploring our connection with the natural world.

Steve Jenkins has written and illustrated many award winning picture books about animals, and his book about evolution, Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution, is one of his best efforts.   Jenkins is strong supporter of science education.  He writes on his web site about the wonder of science,

“My own belief is that the more we understand about what the universe is and how it works, the greater our appreciation of the beauty and wonder of the world, of each other, and of being here to think about it all.”

His unique illustration style mixed with his appreciation for science creates books that are really quite outstanding.  The time line compares geologic time to a 24 hour day, which may be helpful to put it into perspective for kids.

Robert Winston’s Evolution Revolution is a good choice for slightly older kids than the above.  While the layout makes the book easy to browse and eye-catching, the book is dense with information about history, genetics, Darwin, and more.  There are suggested activities throughout, and an animal guessing game creates a fun, interactive tone to the book.   This a a great choice for sharing the excitement of science.

Evolving Planet is not as densely packed with information as Evolution Revolution, but the thickness of this book may be intimidating to some kids.  Dinosaur lovers are bound to love it though because it spends more time on dinosaurs than any of the other books mentioned in this post.  The book is a companion to the exhibit of the same name at the Field Museum in Chicago, which presents the four billion year history of life on Earth.

These are just a few of the books that I recommend to families looking to explain evolution to young kids.  It can be hard to talk about with kids because it’s complicated and it isn’t kind or pretty.  But they may be more ready than you think.


More book recommendations about religion and science on the For Secular Families page.

Exploring Religion from a Secular Perspective

Jan Devor writes in Raising Freethinkers,

“By being a nonreligious parent in the United States, you have chosen the road less traveled. With this position comes the responsibility to educate your children about both religion and your nonreligious stance. It is never enough to tell our children ‘We don’t believe,’ and leave it at that.”

No matter what we believe, we want to empower our children to make a truly informed decision about their own beliefs, which means they must have access to information about religion along with whatever secular viewpoints we, as parents, may have. For me, this means finding children’s books that are informational and accurate without promoting one religious view over another and adding them to our home libraries.

My favorite overview of religion for young kids is The Story of Religion by Betsy and Giulio Maestro. This, rather lengthy, picture book begins with why religion began (“People began to create stories about the events that mystified them.”) and follows as various religions (Confucianism, Hinduism, Judaism, Chistianity, Islam) developed. It provides plenty of information about the beliefs of each of these religions, but the primary focus seems to be putting religion into historical context. I especially like that it is carefully phrased so as to not present any one religion as true. Every disputable reference to beliefs is softened–e.g. “His followers believe that on the third day after his execution, Jesus was resurrected, or rose from the dead.”

For similar coverage, in a different format, try One World, Many Religions by Mary Pope Osborne. This book is for the same age group (grades K-4) but is broken up into chapters and illustrated with photographs in a way more typical to nonfiction. Both books are good overviews that present a positive, if distant, view of religion for nonreligious families.

Perhaps my favorite book for exploring religion is a new title from DK. What Do You Believe?, which came out earlier this year, is a great book for comparing and contrasting worldviews with the goal of opening a discussion as to what young people themselves believe.  I found it to be balanced in its coverage of world religions, and I was pleased that it included atheism as an option.  It brings up some controversial topics (religion & science, ethical dilemmas, etc) without providing one definite answer. Instead it outlines the opinions of various people–Richard Dawkins, for example, is quoted regarding evolution–are included to illustrate the possibilities.  Kids are invited to make their own decisions about what they believe.  This book is a great opportunity to explore big questions with upper elementary and middle school students that is designed to get kids thinking critically about their own beliefs.

This chart in What Do You Believe? will be particularly useful to kids who want to compare various religions.

This is just the beginning. If you are familiar with the books Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers, you know that there is a lot to consider when raising children without religion in a religious world. Giving your kids a context of the beliefs and history with these books is just one of many steps involved (probably not even the first step) in empowering them to become freethinkers in their own right.

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More book recommendations on the For Secular Families page.

On the Day You Were Born’s Lasting Connections

On the Day You Were BornMy heart is poetry, but my world is explained by science. I want my daughter to know that both are important in our family. There is no better book to show her how science and poetry can co-exist than Debra Frasier’s On the Day You Were Born.

OTDYWB is twenty years old this year, and it remains a favorite of many families and a popular baby shower gift. The text imagines a world in which the animals and the earth all celebrate the birth of a child, and along the way it introduces scientific ideas gently to even the youngest of readers/listeners.

My family owns the board book version, which ends with the birth of the baby, but the hardcover includes several pages of back matter that gives more information on the natural phenomena covered in the story/poem from gravity and tides to photosynthesis and more. There are so many possibilities with this book. It could be a poetic look at a baby’s birth or a jumping off point for a larger discussion about nature.

The poem really came alive for my preschooler as we watched it performed by the Heart of the Beast Pupper Theater at a local library recently. She was delighted at the baby spinning on the earth and the interactive elements of the show (water and confetti were splashed on the audience). I appreciated that the performers introduced the various unusual intruments they used (harmonica, zyls, slide whistle, etc) to the young audience at the end of the performance. They also talked about how they made the puppets with simple materials–cardboard, paper mache–so that kids could try to make similar creations themselves.

If you have the opportunity to see the performance, I highly recommend it. Or put on your own performance with these stage directions from the author’s web site. I also really like the idea of creating your own version of the book. What was happening in nature on the day your child was born? Was it day or night? What season was it? Look for opportunities to connect books (not to mention science, nature, and poetry) to your child’s personal experience.


More book recommendations about religion and science on the For Secular Families page.

Behind the scenes of Atheist Talk

A few months ago, a friend asked me for book recommendations for her son.  She was looking for a way to explain various religions to her young son from a secular perspective.  I have to admit, I love helping people find the right books, but I was less than enthusiastic about her request.  Books about religion for kids that aren’t religious?  I wasn’t expecting much.  I did a search and sent a list of books, each one with a caveat.  Most books that touch on religions have mixed reviews from professional audiences and let’s not even get into the customer reviews on Amazon and other booksellers’ sites.  It’s hard to sort the good from the bad, and I was wondering if there even were any good to choose.  But even after I sent the list, I kept up my search.  There had to be something out there, right?

I’m glad I kept searching because it came in handy when I was invited to discuss books for secular families on Atheist Talk, a public access television program produced by Minnesota Atheists.  We discussed books about religion and books about science that would have particular appeal to families raising children without religion.  It was a bit last minute, so I wasn’t able to share everything I wanted to share because I couldn’t get my hands on a copy of the book that quickly.  But I’m happy with the discussion.  Here is a shot of me with my friend James Zimmerman, who invited me on the show:


I’d never been on TV before, and I must say that I was really nervous. It didn’t help that the crew informed me that there was no editing.  Any mistake I made, big or small, would be included in the final version of the show.  James was a great host, though.  He kept the conversation rolling with questions about the books and stories of his own family’s reading.  We got great feedback from the crew after we finished taping.  My family cheered me on from the control room.  My three year old actually managed to stay and watch for the whole taping, which was two thirty minute episodes.

I’ll post the link to the video when it’s available online.  Those in the Twin Cities area can watch for me on their public access stations.  Information about channels and showtimes is available here.  Stay tuned here, though, because I’ll be blogging about the books we talked about on the show and the ones we didn’t have time to include.

I also feel compelled to mention that the television program and the organization behind it are not about denigrating religion.  The Minnesota Atheists as an organization are committed to positive atheism:

“Minnesota Atheists is Minnesota’s oldest and largest atheist organization. We are a 501(c)(3) non-profit, educational organization that seeks to promote the positive contributions of atheism to society and to maintain separation of state and church.”

The atheist community in Minnesota is a diverse group of secular individuals and families.  I’m happy that I was able to work with them, and I hope that they enjoy the books!