September Book Pick: Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

floraKate DiCamillo has won a Newbery Honor for Because of Winn-Dixie, the Newbery Medal for The Tale of Despereaux, the Geisel Honor for Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride, and more.  So when she publishes a new book, the kidlit world pays attention.  Flora & Ulysses has only been on shelves for about a week, and it already has four starred reviews  and a spot of the National Book Award long list.  That’s a good start, I must say.

I’d heard some of the buzz about the book, but I hadn’t yet had a chance to read it until I happened to catch Cathy Wurzer’s interview with Kate DiCamillo on MPR.  The author read the first several chapters of Flora & Ulysses.  I listened as the story began with a vacuum cleaner, then we were introduced to Flora Belle Buckman–a natural-born cynic–and the squirrel who may or may not be a superhero.  I found myself laughing out loud while listening to the program at my desk via headphones, and as soon as it ended, I went in search of a copy of the book.

It was, indeed, quite funny.  But it was also pretty serious, in a way.  Philosophical too.  I mean, how many children’s books talk about Pascal’s Wager?  No matter where one falls on the believer/nonbeliever spectrum as far as Pascal is concerned, this book sets out to remind readers that it is worth it to believe in love, to be open to wonder, hope, and poetry.  I was quite charmed.  I hope you will be too.

Find this book at your local library or at an independent bookstore.

Did you miss last month’s Book Pick: Hello, My Name is Ruby by Philip Stead

Looking beyond labels


Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns by Hena Khan is a beautiful book that provides a child’s eye view of Muslim culture.  The book has received several positive reviews and honors, but it still managed to spark a social media controversy when children’s book author and former educator Kate Messner recommended it to her Twitter followers.

The School Library Journal article about the incident quotes Messner as saying that the Twitter user who took issue with her recommendation, then using the handle “atheistactuary,” seemed to have “set up a search for  Islam, and made it their mission to seek out anyone that had something positive to say about the religion.”  Messner, for her part, maintained a diplomatic tone throughout the exchange.  She promoted diversity and openness in her original post, and she didn’t back down from that in a multi-day back and forth with this Twitter user who seemed intent on painting all Muslims as terrorists, misogynists, or otherwise dangerous.

I can’t be alone in thinking that this controversy shows why books like Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns are important.  We need to humanize people who are different if we want to raise kids who are willing to see beyond their own experiences to make the world a better place.  To see people as individuals rather than as a label full of our preconceived notions.

While I have made no secret of my non-belief–thus making me an atheist or agnostic depending on your definitions of the words–I do believe in people.  I prefer to wear “Humanist” over “atheist” most of the time since that puts people first.  It emphasizes values over beliefs, and that’s important to me.  The specifics of my beliefs about the universe are less important than my values of openness and diversity.

I suppose I am still glowing with a cooperative spirit after reading Chris Stedman’s Faitheist, which encourages non-religious people to get involved in interfaith activism.  It was hugely inspiring, and it has motivated to me to share this specific message: not all atheists are like the Twitter user in this incident.  Please don’t use this as a reason to add to the already strong prejudice against the non-religious.   We are people beyond our label just like Muslims, Christians, and others.  We are as committed to the common good as anyone else.

No matter what your religious affiliation (or none at all), do check out Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns as a way to open a conversation about another culture with young children.  The lush illustrations portray every day life in a Muslim family.  It builds understanding without preaching, and I recommend it highly.  Teen readers might find Growing Up Muslim by Sumbul Ali-Karamali or Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah provide a similar glimpse into Muslim culture.

Check out my For Secular Families page for more posts about children’s books related to religion to promote a people-first perspective in your family no matter what you believe.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.  A portion of purchases made from these links may benefit Proper Noun Blog.  Thanks for your support! :)

The Spirit of Christmas in Picture Books

What does Christmas mean to you?  For me, it is a cultural holiday centered on family and generosity.  Here are a few books that I think capture the spirit of Christmas that will appeal to families who also celebrate culturally.


christmasquietThe Christmas Quiet Book is Deborah Underwood’s follow-up to The Quiet Book and The Loud Book, and it is perfect for sharing with kids during the holiday season.  Each page shows one quiet moment.  There is “hoping for a snowy day quiet” and “trying to stay awake quiet.”  All the familiar sights of Christmas are there, including the tree, presents, and a Christmas play.  The play’s quiet moments are “forgotten line quiet” and “helpful whisper quiet,” and only observant readers will likely notice the three kings bearing presents on the stage.  Other than that, the book is quite universal in it’s celebration of the quieter side of Christmas.

christmasevegoodnightI think The Christmas Quiet Book would make a great bedtime book during the holiday season, but in case you need another sleepy story in your Christmas bedtime repertoire, try Christmas Eve Good Night by Doug Cushman.  In cute rhyming verse, readers are asked how various Christmas or winter related animals and others say good night.  We see a polar bear mother and cub who “grrr” good night, a nutcracker father and son who “crack!” good night, and many others.  We end with Santa calling good night to all as he flies over the earth with a giant bag of presents.

justrightJust Right for Christmas by Birdie Black is a great book for sharing the spirit of generosity that many of us associate with the holiday season.  It has a similar story as Mr. Willoughby’s Christmas Tree, in which one giant tree makes several smaller trees.  In this book, a beautiful piece of cloth makes several gifts when the scraps are shared.  At the end, we see everyone skating together, from the king and his daughter who started the book to the little mouse who made a scarf from a small scrap and everyone in between.  This is a great opportunity to talk about how we can give from our surplus to help others.  I also like that most of the characters make their gifts since my family is going to be giving some handmade gifts this season.

merrylittlechristmasA Merry Little Christmas: Celebrate from A to Z by Mary Engelbreit is an alphabetical look at one little mouse family’s celebration from the angel that tops their tree to the “zillion ways Christmas brings cheer.”  We also get occasional looks at Santa’s workshop for E (elves) and N (North Pole), but the focus of the book is really on the family.  They do everything together and exude happiness in almost every spread.  Other than the angel tree topper and the Yule log, which I was only vaguely familiar with, their Christmas was pretty universal.

pynThe last book is my favorite.  A Christmas Tree for Pyn by Olivier Dunrea is a lovely book about a father and daughter living in a wintry home.  The gruff father tells his daughter “My name is Oother” when she calls him Papa, and he says “We’ll see” to little Pyn’s wish for a Christmas tree.  Pyn is persistent, however, and the two end up bonding over a tree they cut down together after saying a prayer to thank the tree (the only religious aspect to the story). I love the depth of emotion in this book from Oother and Pyn.  It beautifully captures the way that holidays can bring families together.  I highly recommend this book.

What are some of your favorite Christmas picture books?

For more about secular family life, see my Secular Thursday page or check out the Books for Secular Families Amazon Book Shop.  A portion of purchases made from links on this site benefit Proper Noun Blog.  Thanks for your support!

You Are Stardust

I read the first line of You Are Stardust: “Every tiny atom in your body came from a star that exploded long before you were born.”  My 4 year-old interrupted, “Is that true?”  She is the child of skeptics, and I could hear the disbelief in her voice.  I had to smile as I assured her it is, indeed, true.

I mentioned You Are Stardust in a recent post I contributed to Parents Beyond Belief about gift books for secular families, and I’ll probably bring it up again because it is easily my favorite picture book of 2012.  I could go on and on about science and wonder, but you read this blog so you know how I feel about that already. ;)

I really want you to see inside this book.  The illustrations are rather extraordinary. Take a look:



Here’s a video that shows the making of the book and there’s more cool stuff, including a teacher’s guide, here.

More about the book:

  • Julie Danielson said on the Kirkus blog, “Don’t miss this one, which begs to be shared intimately with children. Gather together, be still, and learn how we are stardust.”
  • Illustrator Soyeon Kim talks about her work in this “extraordinary debut” at Shelf Awareness.
  • More from inside the book in this Scientific American blog post.


A portion of purchases made from links on this site benefit Proper Noun Blog.  Thanks for your support!

Teens, Grief, and God in Fiction

Teens, Grief, and God in Fiction

Most of the time, I avoid books with the potential to make me cry.  Frankly, I do most of my reading these days on my commute, and I hate to cry on the bus.  It has happened more times than I care to admit despite my attempts to screen  out tearjerker titles from my to-read pile.

The Theory of EverythingRecently, though, I found myself reading J.J. Johnson’s new teen novel The Theory of Everything on my bus ride home from work.  It was clearly about grief and loss, which would usually be screened, but it managed to intrigue me anyway.  I’m glad it did.  It was a nice contrast to the many, many novels about grief that invoke faith. (Not to knock those that do invoke faith when characters are grieving; See You At Harry’s, for example, is excellent.)  In TToE, Sarah isn’t particularly religious, and when her best friend dies in a freak accident, people  offer religious ideas to comfort her.  Sarah finds it more alienating than comforting, especially when it comes from her boyfriend who turns out to be more religious than she thought.  The book isn’t all sad, though.  Sarah is a snarky narrator, and each chapter begins with a humorous chart or diagram.  I appreciated these attempts to off-set the grief, and Sarah’s growth throughout the novel made this a book I would recommend to readers who enjoy the tragicomic.

37 Things I LoveThis is somewhat similar to another book I read recently that addressed loss.  In 37 Things I Love by Kekla Magoon, Ellis narrates her feelings as she and her mother make the decision to take her father off life support:

“We’re not religious, but when I think about what’ll happen when Dad goes away, I have to wonder.  I don’t know if I like the idea of an afterlife.  It feels like a huge gamble.  I mean, it’s pretty much fifty-fifty that there’s life after death.  But on top of that, it’s fifty-fifty that life after death is going to be something worth hoping for.  You just don’t know what you’re casting your lot toward.  It could be awesome, a euphoric heaven where you never feel worried or hurt.  Or it could totally blow, and then you’re really stuck.  What if heaven/eternity/forever is this horrible trap that’s way worse than life as we know it?

Maybe it’s better if the end is just the end.”

It’s good for teens to read that there are many ways to find comfort when you lose someone you love.  These books introduce the idea that one person’s answer isn’t necessarily going to be your answer.  I think that’s an important thing for teens to know.

I’ll add these books to the very short list of teen fiction with secular main characters, and I’ll go back to reading books that won’t make me cry.

However, if you do like to read books that make you cry, here is a list of Contemporary YA Fiction about Grief and Loss from Stacked.

Also pictured: After Eli by Rebecca Rupp, which has a young teen dealing with the death of his older brother.  It is for a slightly younger audience (middle school) than the TToE and 37 Things, which are for teens.

For more about secular family life, see my Secular Thursday page or check out the Books for Secular Families Amazon Book Shop.  A portion of purchases made from links on this site benefit Proper Noun Blog.  Thanks for your support!

Everything You Need to Survive the Tightrope Walk of Parenting

Parenting can be a tightrope walk.

We’re always in search of a middle ground. We want our kids to eat healthy, but we don’t want to deny them sweets.  We want to guide them to good decisions, but we don’t want to make decisions for them.  It isn’t always clear at first where the middle is, so we are always readjusting our sense of balance.  At least, I am.

I think that the most delicate and debated issue that requires nearly constant readjustment is that of religion–or in my case, lack thereof.  I’ve written of my desire to let my daughter make her own choices about her beliefs as she gets older.  But that’s easy to type.  In practice, it gets a bit murky.  How do you answer your child’s questions about the world without indoctrinating them?  Is that even possible?!  Sometimes I wonder.  Writer Wendy Thomas Russell delves into the murkiness of the non-religious parenting on her blog Relax, It’s Just God.

All that never far from my mind, I was eager to read the teen novel Everything You Need to Survive the Apocalypse by Lucas Klauss.  Yes, it’s a novel published for teens.  But I am recommending it to parents.  Non-religious parents, in particular, may relate to the father, described as an “enthusiastic atheist,” as they read the teen’s story of exploring religion.

I couldn’t help but wonder if my daughter would feel like she needed to hide her interest in beliefs that differ from mine like Phillip does.  Or if I would forbid her from it like Phillip’s dad does.  I don’t think that I would, but sometimes we act more emotionally than rationally, especially when it is about the people we love the most. The book isn’t about religion being true or not true or good or bad.  It’s about the way religion affects people and the choices we make as we decide how we will let it affect us.  It’s about family.

Recommended to parents of all sorts, but especially those wondering how to approach the balancing act that is allowing our kids to explore beliefs that are different from our own.


For more about secular family life, see my Secular Thursday page or check out the Books for Secular Families Amazon Book Shop.  A portion of purchases made from links on this site benefit Proper Noun Blog.  Thanks for your support! (Book was reviewed from a library copy.)

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)

Disclosure: links are affiliate links.   A portion of purchases made via these links earns a commission for this blog.  Thanks for your support!

On the Value of Dissent

I am embarrassed to admit that I only recently got around to reading Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman. This biography, published in 2009 for teen readers, focuses on the Darwins as a couple.  It begins with Charles’ famous pro/con list of reasons to marry or not marry, and it follows their sweet courtship and admirable marriage in a way that humanizes the famous scientist as few other books have been able yo do.

As I read, I couldn’t help but think of the polarization in our current culture.  We self-segregate based on what we believe to the point that interfaith marriages like the Darwin’s are the exception.

I’m guilty here too.  I’m a progressive, liberal skeptic, and most of the people I call friends are the same.  The subject is personal to the author, who is herself in an interfaith marriage, and her book certainly testifies to the value of dissent in our lives as she makes it plain her belief that Charles and Emma’s disagreements made their arguments stronger, and, perhaps, each of them better people than they might have been.

I highly recommend this book to all readers interested in exploring the idea of tolerance and thinking about what we might gain from learning to live and love those who fundamentally disagree with us.

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

Other books pictured above: Charles Darwin by Kathleen Krull, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin by David Quammen, Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life by Niles Eldredge, The Sandwalk Adventures by Jay Hosler, The Riverbank by Charles Darwin (on the blog here), The Tree of Life by Peter Sis

Disclosure: 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.

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: 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.

When myths become stories

Comparing the two editions

In 1996 Sacred Myths: Stories of World Religions was published to mostly positive reviews.  None of the professional reviews that I was able to find seemed to take issue with the inclusion of Judeo-Christian stories next to those associated with Paganism, Native Traditions, or other religions.  A couple of reviews mentioned the reteller’s introduction in which she defines the way she is using the word “myth” but none seemed upset by its use.

Fast forward to the present.  Sacred Myths has been out of print for a few years, and people have been debating the use of the word “myth” to refer to religious stories thanks to Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality.  So I guess it makes sense that when a new publisher decided to bring McFarlane’s book back in print, they didn’t just update the design.  They changed the title to Sacred Stories: Wisdom from World Religions.

The message of tolerance and understanding between faiths remains the same, and the introductory remarks contain the same wording regarding myths vs. stories.

“To say a story is a myth does not mean it is a lie.  It may not be literal fact, but it tells a story that is deeper than fact because it holds an important truth about life.  We put the truth into story form because humans use stories and pictures to understand what cannot be seen and touched.”

No matter what one believes about their historicity, these stories have value.  For children, they can be a way of talking about big topics that can be hard to bring up, or they can be a lesson on other cultures–there is a  teaching guide, after all.  Story–true and false–is more than escape.  It can provide meaning, cultivate empathy, and encourage creativity.  I have yet to read more than the excerpt available on the author’s web site, but The Storytelling Animal looks to be a fascinating examination of the ways that stories shape our lives. He writes:

“Tens of thousands of years ago, when the human mind was young and our numbers were few, we were telling one another stories. And now, tens of thousands of years later, when our species teems across the globe, most of us still hew strongly to myths about the origins of things, and we still thrill to an astonishing multitude of fictions on pages, on stages, and on screens—murder stories, sex stories, war stories, conspiracy stories, true stories and false. We are, as a species, addicted to story.”

Here are those words in animated form:

I obviously value stories of all sorts, and I hope to encourage my daughter to do the same.  We’ll save Sacred Stories for when she’s older, but we’ll keep  Bible stories, folk tales, and fairy tales in picture book form for all that they have to offer.

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

Disclosure: 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.