Take a Book, Leave a Book

For most of my life Saturdays were spent in service.  It was part of my family’s values to give our time to our church whenever we could.  As kids, this meant that Saturday mornings weren’t for sleeping in and watching cartoons.  They were for the volunteer ministry.

It seems that old habits find a way.  My religious beliefs have changed, but I still value service, volunteering, and generosity.  Without noticing I was doing it, I started a new Saturday morning routine that involves a walk or bike ride with my daughter down to one or more Little Free Libraries to leave a book or two.  Sometimes we take a book, but we always leave at least one.

It’s a simple way of giving back that suits our current values and situation.  Not to mention, it speaks to the librarian in me. :)

I love Ladybug’s excitement about sharing her own books even though there are rarely children’s books for her to take home.

How do you engage your kids in service/volunteering?

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 Amazon.com links on this site benefit Proper Noun Blog.  Thanks for your support!

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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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: 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.

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.

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: 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.

In anticipation of Mother’s Day

A couple of Mother’s Days ago, I wrote my story as part of a writing class for moms.

We were supposed to explore what motherhood has meant to us and how we have changed since becoming mothers.  What started in that class eventually became a zine, Will There Be Smoking? (and other questions), that covered the usual mom stuff along with what was personal to me–the creative block that plagued early motherhood for me and my step away from the religion of my youth.

This Mother’s Day, I am particularly grateful.  The past four years have meant many changes for my family, and we are happier for them.

Do you know a mom interested in exploring doubt?  Why not buy my zine?  It makes a great gift. :)

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

Reading Bible Stories (Books for Secular Families)

If you were reading closely to my last post, you might have noticed something that seemed odd.

Namely, We’re All in the Same Boat by Zachary Shapiro.  This is a religious story (Noah’s Ark) written by a religious person (a Jewish rabbi).  Why would I, a non-religious person who blogs about books for non-religious families, bother with it?

The main reason I included it in that post was that it was fun to share the new vocabulary with my daughter.  We actually had a great conversation about he word “hysterical” and how it can be positive or negative depending on context.  Yeah, it might be a bit much for a four-year-old, but she seemed fascinated.  There’s more than just the Bible story there, and that’s true for many Bible-stories-turned-picture-books.

Noah’s Bark, for example, is another cute adaptation of the flood story that combines humor (animals making the wrong sounds = hilarious to kids) with a pourquoi tale (how animals got their sounds).  It’s fun, educational, and an opportunity to introduce a story that is part of our culture–arguably, a story of which they should be aware.

Win, win.  :)

Of course, you might need to provide some context with both of these books if you are specifically trying to teach your child about religious literacy.  They aren’t necessarily by-the-book stories.  There is no mention of God, rainbows, or the reason for the flood.  But, hey–it’s a starting place.

Wendy Thomas Russell’s blog Relax, It’s Just God has some great suggestions to help secular families choose religious picture books–including her own ideas about addressing some of the more “mature” parts of the story that the children’s books leave out.

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!

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

Evolution for Everyone

Earth Day is just around the corner (April 22nd), and I can’t think of a better way to spend it than learning about the “how” behind the natural world.  Here are a few good choices for appreciating evolution this Earth Day:

  • For All Ages –  Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors by Joyce Sidman – Yes, this is a picture book published for kids, but it is well worth perusing for just about anyone. It is really quite beautiful.
  • For Kids –  Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution by Steve Jenkins – Eye-catching and informative look at Earth’s history from its very beginning to the present.
  • For Pre-teens –  Billions of Years, Amazing Changes: The Story of Evolution by Laurence Pringle – A lively and straight-forward introduction to evolution illustrated by Steve Jenkins.  Here is a great blog post praising Pringle’s organization of the book, noting that he does not get side-tracked by unsupported doubts of evolution.
  • For Teens and Adults: Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth by Jay Hosler – This 
    Evolution by Jay Hosler on display at the Twin Cities Book Festivalgraphic novel (illustrated by Twin Cities natives from Big Time Attic) looks at life on earth through blob-like aliens learning about human genetics.  It isn’t as silly as it sounds.  Hosler (a professor of biology who has published a few science related graphic novels) keeps it fun, but informative.

If you don’t have plans for your weekend yet, you might want to join an Earth Day clean up crew. Check out your local parks department for details.  Here’s the Minneapolis Earth Day Clean Up page for you locals.

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!

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

The Teenage Quest for Meaning

My Teenage Quest for Meaning was prescribed by my family’s religion.  One by one my friends and I got baptized–symbolized our dedication to the faith–as teens (or some left the faith, as I eventually did).  That was only the beginning of my Quest.  From there we did hours of service and study.  I took it all very seriously.  I eagerly sought answers through my church, and I was very active in the ministry.

I’ve read enough teen fiction to know that this is a pretty typical experience.  Religion has always had a strong place in teen fiction.  Remember Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret?  Girls might remember it as the book that de-mystified puberty, but Margaret’s search for spiritual answers was a strong sub-plot that often gets forgotten.

I was thinking of this now-classic titles as I read Marc Aronson’s post on his School Library Journal blog in which he wonders about the epiphany (religious or otherwise) in teen fiction among the recent popularity of genre fiction (fantasy and dystopian, in particular).  He wonders,

“What happened to that sense of adolescence as a time of spiritual yearning, seeking big answers, asking big questions, seeing the universe in a grain of sand, feeling that there were deep truths in a smile, in a tree, a sunset, a touch, a force beyond us?”

It’s there.  The teens who are searching for a religious epiphany (or those looking to experience it vicariously via fiction) can read The Glory Wind by Valerie Sherrard or Irises by Fransisco X. Stork.

You can find epiphany through science like Mina in Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature, travel like Colby in The Disenchantments, or music like Troy in Fat Kid Rules the World.

Perhaps I am biased to Troy’s version of transcendence since live music has become my own version of church these days, but I list Troy’s first show in Fat Kid Rules the World as one of my favorite moments in all of teen fiction.

 “I thrash forward, staking my ground, letting the body heat soak into my skin. For once I enjoy sweating. I lap it up.  My sweat is the salt water left over from the tidal wave.  I’m short of breath from yelling so loud.  Each song builds on the first, never letting the energy subside.  The second song is about sex and I can feel my head ready to explode. A woman in black leather winks at me across the room and suddenly I’m a fucking sex god.  My body swells until I fill the room.  I’m not fat.  I’m  enormous.  I look out over the crowd and think for the first time, I could be bigger.  I could be even bigger…”

Sounds like transcendence to me.  :)

It’s been a long time since I was a teenager, but my Quest for Meaning continues even now.  I’m no longer religious, which just means that my path has opened up to include more possibilities for big questions, big answers, and whatever else might come my way.

I am grateful for all that I’ve experienced along the way.  I hope my daughter has many of the same opportunities as I have had.  As for books, I’ll have plenty of coming-of-age novels for her to choose from in our home library.  The Teenage Quest for Meaning lives on.


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!

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

Vicki Cobb wins lifetime achievement award

Have I mentioned lately how much I love Vicki Cobb?  Well, her books, anyway. She is pretty much the queen of science writing for kids, and her royal status has been confirmed with her recent lifetime achievement award for excellence in children’s books from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Subaru Science Books & Film.  They call her the “Julia Child of hands-on science.”

My Vicki Cobb picks?  The Science Play series.  I mentioned one of the titles in Kite Day (Picture Book Preschool), but the whole series is spot-on for 3 to 5 year-olds to explore science.  I can’t recommend them highly enough.  Children’s literature professor, Betty Carter says this in an essay about preschool science books in A Family of Readers (love this book, btw!):

“Look carefully at a four-volume series named Science Play written by Vicki Cobb. Both together and individually, these books get right at the process of discovery by asking youngsters to participate in a number of experiments in order to understand scientific principles.”

Start with Science Play.  Move on to one of Vicki Cobb’s 80-odd other science books for kids.  As Carter says, “Cobb knows her science, and she knows children and their abilities.”


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!

For more about science for kids, see my Secular Thursday page.