children’s books

“Loving Kindness,” by Deborah Underwood

loving kindness by deborah underwood

Rather than purchasing from Amazon, please buy from the publisher (MacMillan),  Indiebound (US), or Bookshop.org (US and UK).

Deborah Underwood kindly sent me a copy of “Loving Kindness” in late 2021. As a fan of books on lovingkindness for children, and as a fan of Deborah’s work in particular, I fully intended to write a review in the new year — of 2022. That was more than a year ago!

The delay has nothing to do with the quality of the book. The book is excellent. It’s just that 2022 was intensely busy for me, and I set the book aside. And then (literally) set another book on top of it. And then another. And another. It was only after I’d published a review of Sumi Loundon Kim’s “Goodnight Love: A Bedtime Meditation Story” that I remembered Deborah’s book and dug it out from the pile on my coffee table.

So here’s my belated review.

First, the author. Deborah Underwood has been a firm favorite in my household for years. My daughter was addicted to the Sugar Plum Ballerinas series of books, which have Whoopi Goldberg’s name on the cover but which Deborah wrote. I read these to my daughter at bedtime for months, and we both loved them. It was only later that I discovered that Ms. Underwood had written books for younger children as well. Her “Quiet Book” and “Christmas Quiet Book” were absolutely lovely, but came out a little too late for my own children to appreciate.

“Loving Kindness” is another of her books for younger children.

It’s a beautifully affirming book, with charming illustrations by Tim Hopgood. The text, Deborah told me in an email, was “inspired by the lovingkindness meditation, which I’m pretty sure I first learned from you.” It’s lovely to hear that I (might have) had a hand in inspiring this book. I’m not particularly good at teaching meditation to children, and so it’s wonderful to have others take up that task.

The text is designed to be read to a child by an adult. “You are a blessing,” it tells the child. “You are beautiful just as you are. You are, loved and you love.”

What a lovely message for children to receive!

Title: “Loving Kindness”
Author: Deborah Underwood, Tim Hopgood (illustrator)
Publisher: Henry Holt
ISBN: 978-1-250-21720-2
Available from: MacMillanIndiebound (US), or Bookshop.org (US and UK).

Children are also reminded that it’s okay to make mistakes, and that mistakes are how we learn.

They’re reminded that they dream and dance, and feel the sun’s warmth, and that they touch the earth that connects us all. The book teaches them empathy by reminding them that others too dream and dance, and feel the sun’s warmth, and touch the earth that connects us all: This little girl does. And animals. Everyone does.

We’re all connected by the fact that we all do these things. And above all (or below all, supporting everything) is the earth, connecting us. That universal connection to the earth is a vital part of this song of connection.

Just reading through this book on my own helps evoke kindness in me. It even helps me be more forgiving of myself for the long delay in writing this review.

My kids are in their teens now, and too old (or think they are) for a book of this kind. But I will be treasuring my copy of “Loving Kindness” as I await the opportunity to read it to a younger child.

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“Goodnight Love: A Bedtime Meditation Story”

goodnight love, by sumi loudon kim

Please order books locally, rather than from Amazon, through, Shambhala, Indiebound (US), or Bookshop.org (US and UK)

A little while ago I received an email from Sumi Loundon Kim, telling me about a new bedtime book for children that she’d just had published. The book is an adaptation of a traditional Buddhist loving-kindness meditation, which helps us to develop warmth and kindness, and to take our own and others’ well-being into account.

Sumi’s family practiced this meditation every night for five years as they snuggled in bed. She went on to teach it to other families. and discovered it was a popular approach that many parents and children ended up doing together.

When my review copy arrived, my heart melted! The warmth and love embodied in the cover image by Laura Watkins is simply stunning. In fact, the illustrations are gorgeous throughout: full of life and love.

Sumi Kim’s text gives a lovely, child-friendly guide to bedtime loving-kindness practice. There are a few pages that describe a series of brief practices that prepare the ground for kindness to arise: arriving by acknowledging that snuggling we’re in bed; grounding ourselves with deep in and out breaths; relaxing (“soft and heavy, melting into our resting spot”); and connecting with kindness by placing our hands on our hearts and picturing a warm glow radiating outward.

Title: “Goodnight Love: A Bedtime Meditation Story”
Author: Sumi Loundon Kim, Laura Watkins (illustrator)
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-61180-944-2
Available from: ShambhalaIndiebound (US), or Bookshop.org (US and UK).

As is traditional, the loving-kindness instructions begin with adopting a kind and loving attitude toward ourselves: “May I be healthy. May I be safe and protected. May I be happy and peaceful.” They then widen into cultivating kindness and love for our families and loved ones, our friends, including friends who are hurting, and then out yet further, into forests, mountains, oceans, and the whole world.

In case you think it’s odd to wish a mountain well, the illustrations make it clear that we’re considering not just a hunk of rock, but all the living creatures that live on and around it. The same is true for forests and oceans.

Finally — and this was a really lovely transition — we come back to the intensely personal, as the adult reader wishes their snuggling child well: “And now, little one, it is my turn to share my love for you: May you be healthy. May you be safe and protected. May you be happy and peaceful, always and forever.”

The return from the universal to the intimate was very effectively done. This must be so pleasing to any child, reminding them that out of all the billions of being in our world  they have a very special place in their family.

My children are about the same age as Sumi’s — they’re both teenagers – and beyond the target age for this book. I really wish something like this had been available when they were younger, because I’d love to have had the experience of sharing it with them.

I wholeheartedly recommend Sumi Loundon Kim and Laura Watkin’s book to all parents of young children. Books like this are rare. They are important tools for bringing more love and kindness into the world.

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“When the Anger Ogre Visits,” by Andrée Salom

When the Anger Ogre Visits

Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Some weeks ago I read this book with my kids (a six-year-old boy and an almost-eight-year-old girl) several times now, and they enjoyed both the story and the images. But the book became especially relevant recently when my son developed the habit of kicking and punching his sister. That’s a phase a lot of kids go through, but it’s especially worrisome because he’s taking karate classes, and at some point he’s going to be able to do some serious harm.

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So last night, when my son was getting mad, we picked up the book again, and read through it. he wanted to read the book out loud himself, and he was able to do so with only a little help. Daddy was proud!

After he’d finished with the reading we talked about some of the things we can do to calm down our anger when it pays a visit.

  • We can breathe slowly and deeply.
  • We can use our imaginations to picture ourselves floating and relaxing on the sea.
  • We can relax the body.
  • We can listen to the sound of our breathing.

Salom reminds the child that “As you pay attention, the Ogre will change form,” and in fact we see the red, swollen ogre deflating like a balloon and his contorted face dissolving into a smile as he becomes “friendly, gentle, and warm.”

“Next time it comes a-knocking, you’ll know just what to do. Invite the Anger Ogre to relax and breathe with you.

By the time we’d finished reading the book, my son was calm again. Success!

Title: “When the Anger Ogre Visits”
Author: Andrée Salom
Publisher: Wisdom Publications
ISBN: 9781614291664
Publication date: April 2015
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

I’d highly recommend “When the Anger Ogre Visits.” The content is generally very practical, and the illustrations (by Ivette Salom) are colorful and entertaining. The one piece of advice for relating to the Anger Ogre that I think could have been clearer is this:

“If the Anger Ogre is still swollen, tense, and hot,
Offer it some honey of the sweetest kind you’ve got.”

This is a nice image, but we’re left guessing what it actually means. My own guess would be that the child thinks of something positive (perhaps a calm scene or a friendly face) but I’m sure other people will interpret this differently, that some will take the metaphor literally, and that yet others will be confused about what’s being suggested. The rest of the book, though, is crystal clear.

“When the Anger Ogre Visits” was pitched perfectly for my two kids. I’d imagine it would work with children from about three to eight or nine years old.

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“The Christmas Quiet Book” by Deborah Underwood & Renata Liwska

The Christmas Quiet Book is available from Amazon and Amazon.co.uk.

The Christmas Quiet Book is available from Amazon and Amazon.co.uk.

Shhhhh!! Let’s be very quiet while we review author Deborah Underwood and illustrator Renata Liwska’s The Christmas Quiet Book.

Are you sitting comfortably? Have you silenced all the alarms on your computer and phone? Have you closed all other windows or switched your browser to full screen mode? Have you taken three full breaths, closed your eyes, and spent a few minutes quietly listening to the world around you? No? OK, go do that now…

I adore Ms. Underwood’s books. So does my six-year-old daughter and, to a lesser extent, my four-year-old son. My wife’s a big fan, too. Underwood writes a lot of different kinds of children’s book, but those that I suspect are most popular are those she’s least known for: The Sugar Plum Ballerinas books, which are nominally by Whoopi Goldberg, but which in fact are written by Deborah Underwood. These books are so well-written that dad is always pushing the kids so that he can go back and catch up on the two chapters he missed when it was mom’s turn to put them to bed.

This isn’t a review of the Sugar Plum Ballerinas books, but I’d just like to note that I found myself wondering if Underwood was a meditator, given how good she is at describing the physical sensations of emotion (and if you don’t get the connection, read this article). The reflective nature of The Christmas Quiet book, and its predecessor, The Quiet Book, reinforces Underwood’s meditative aura (actually, she is not only a meditator, but is a fan of Wilmdind — I asked her).

As I wrote of her earlier “Quiet” children’s book, Underwood “creates a space of stillness in which children’s imagination and attention can grow.” That’s true of the new book as well, especially given the snowy Christmas settings of many of the vignettes that illustrate the many kinds of quiet that normally slip by us unnoticed. There’s an old Buddhist saying that what we repeatedly turn our attention to becomes the inclination of the mind, and by focusing children’s attention on quiet, they will learn to appreciate silence and stillness. This is a kind of contemplative children’s picture book.

Thus we have Searching for Presents Quiet, Getting Caught Quiet, Hoping for a Snow Day Quiet, and Bundled Up Quiet — in all, 29 forms of quiet. As you’ll have picked up from the few examples given, there are storylines connecting some of the vignettes, and the illustrations reinforce those storylines, helping us to see how one kind of quiet can flow into another.

The illustrations themselves are charming, with a dramatis personae of various fluffy and not so fluffy animals, from bunnies to iguanas (but even the iguana seems cuddly, somehow). The drawings are varied, evocative, and emotionally expressive. The crouching bunny in “Shattered Ornament Quiet” is a study in shame and anxiety, while the skating owl in “Skating Quiet” exudes quiet confidence. The varying emotional tone of the images will surely help children to slow down and empathetically enter the world of the characters.

This is an adorable book. If you have children up to the age of six, and you’d like to encourage them to pause more, be more introspective, to empathize more, and to be quiet, I’d highly recommend The Christmas Quiet Book.

PS. The Sugar Plum Ballerinas rock!

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“The Buddha’s Apprentice at Bedtime,” By Dharmachari Nagaraja

Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Three years ago I walked into a bookstore in Vancouver, where I was doing a book launch, and literally the first book spine that caught my eye in the Buddhist book section was called Buddha at Bedtime. As the father of two young children I pulled it from the shelf with excitement, and was astonished to discover it had been written by an old friend of mine from my days in Glasgow.

Of course I got a copy of the book, and it’s been a bedtime fixture in our household ever since. Now comes a much-welcomed sequel, The Buddha’s Apprentice at Bedtime.

As with the first volume, The Buddha’s Apprentice contains adaptations of traditional “Jataka” tales, which are Indian fairy tales that tell of the previous lives of the Buddha. Each tale illustrates a particular virtue, in a similar way to the Fables of Aesop, which draw on the same body of folk tales (Indian and Greek cultures have a historical connection).

The stories have been updated in order to make them more accessible, and are no longer presented as the past lives of the Buddha. In a way that’s actually more accurate, since these would have originally been non-Buddhist tales. In fact the Buddha isn’t mentioned in the stories, nor are they all set in India. Although some of the settings are (from a Western point of view) exotic, they quite are multicultural, taking place in locales as disparate as jungles, deserts, the Scottish Highlands, Thailand, and, of course, India.

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The names, unless the stories are explicitly set in a foreign land, are westernized. For example, one story features Rosie (a tough girl, who injures a rabbit), Hazel (who nurses the rabbit), and their teacher Miss Poppy. This makes the experience for both the reader and the average child much easier than struggling though Sanskrit names such as Siddhartha and Devadata. Additionally, in the tale of Rosie and Hazel the genders of the characters have been changed as well, so that we end up with more female protagonists than there are in the traditional tales. Since moral truths are universal, and not dependent on gender, this tweak to the originals is a valuable way of making the stories, and the lessons they contain, accessible to all children.

And as with the first volume, this is a delightful read. The stories are exceptionally well-written and a delight to read out loud. Nagaraja is a skilled storyteller.

The illustrations, by the very talented Sharon Tancredi, are luminously colorful, and the characters exude abundant personality. At first I thought I preferred the illustrations in the original book, but actually these are every bit as good, and in many ways the facial expressions are more “alive” than in the original Buddha At Bedtime. Some of the elements — mainly the monkeys’ faces, and those of some of the other animals — seem a bit child-like for my taste, but on the whole the images are delightful.

My seven-year-old daughter certainly doesn’t find this book too childish, nor did my son, at age four, find it too grown up. I’d guess that a good age-range for The Buddha’s Apprentice would be three to eight.

One thing I was pleased about is that the Buddha, who is illustrated at the end of every tale delivering a brief moral punchline, is now actually the Buddha. In the first book the illustrations were of Budai, who is the fat Chinese monk (often called the “Laughing Buddha”) who you’ll have seen in many a Chinese restaurant. It’s a common thing for westerners to assume that Budai is “the” Buddha (i.e. the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni) even though this is rather like confusing Christ and Santa Claus! As well as being more culturally accurate, the use of the serene and dignified figure of Buddha Shakyamuni seems more proper, and many Buddhist parents will be inclined to take the book just a little more seriously.

The book contains some meditation instructions for children, which I confess I haven’t tried with my own kids. The inclusion of meditation instruction for children gives another good reason for buying this book. There’s just not enough of that kind of material in circulation.

The ultimate reviewers of a book such as this, though, are the children. Mine love it! And I’m sure yours will too. Remember, Christmas is coming!

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“No Ordinary Apple,” by Sara Marlowe and Philip Pascuzzo

no ordinary apple

Title: No Ordinary Apple: A Story About Eating Mindfully
Author: Sara Marlowe, Philip Pascuzzo (illus.)
Publisher: Wisdom Publications
ISBN: 1-61429-076-8
Available from: Wisdom Publications, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

No Ordinary Apple is a variation on the famous “raisin exercise” that’s so popular in meditation classes. (If you’re not familiar with the raisin exercise it’s where we mindfully eat a single raisin, thoroughly exploring it with our senses.) But No Ordinary Apple is, of course, a children’s book — and a very welcome addition to the growing body of meditation resources for children.

The fruit is question is an apple rather than a raisin and the mindful eater of this apple is a young boy called Elliot, who is waiting at his adult neighbor Carmen’s house between school and his parents getting home.

Elliot is hungry and asks for a snack. Carmen counters with an offer of an apple: a suggestion that is none too popular with Elliot, who wants candy.

Carmen is a good saleswoman, though. Or perhaps she teaches meditation. At any rate, she persuades Elliot that this is no ordinary apple, but tells him that he’ll have to find out for himself why this is the case.

Carmen guides an excited Elliot through an exploration of the apple using all of his senses. He moves from having a stereotypical view of an apple as “red” to recognizing the many colors that it contains. He touches the apple and explores its textures. He smells it. He even listens to the “thwap” it makes as he tosses it from hand to hand. And of course he eventually bites into it, chews it, and swallows it — all the time exploring the apple mindfully.

Of course Elliot realizes that this is indeed no ordinary apple, but it has to be pointed out to him that it’s not the apple that’s special — it’s the attention that he gave to it that created a special experience. And Carmen helps him to see that anything he eats — even candy! and perhaps even food he doesn’t like — will be extra-special when eaten with mindfulness.

No Ordinary Apple is a lovely book. The illustrations are larger-thank life and they do in fact make the experience of eating an apple look special. The story is fun, and children will feel like they’re learning something rather than being preached at.

My daughter, who’s six, was very excited about the prospect of us doing this exercise together, and she even set aside some apples on top of the refrigerator, awaiting the perfect moment (the kids had to be in need of a snack, and we needed some uninterrupted time). When the right time arrived, both my kids (I also have a five-year-old son) enjoyed the exercise, although the youngest had some trouble restraining himself from eating the apple during the looking-feeling-smelling-listening stage, and once we were tasting our apples he couldn’t stop himself from swallowing it. But he had fun. My daughter, who’s almost two years older, really enjoyed the exercise and was old enough to restrain herself. Actually, when I’ve done the raisin exercise with adults there have been a few who’ve had no more discipline than my son!

The principles outlined in the story can very easily be translated into practice, both for encouraging children to eat mindfully, and for encouraging parents to do likewise! Trying to teach a child to eat mindfully is going to be more successful if the parents exemplify mindful eating.

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The power of appreciative words: “Mishan’s Garden,” by James Vollbracht & Janet Brooke

mishan's garden

“The greatest gift you can ever give another is to see what is best and unique about them.”

This morning I stumbled downstairs, bleary-eyed, having got home late after teaching a class the night before. My six-year-old daughter gave me a running hug and a huge smile. She’s naturally affectionate, but I suspect there was an ulterior motive, because a few seconds later she came running back to me with Mishan’s Garden in her hands, asking that I read it to her. And so, I did.

Mishan is the titular heroine, a young girl who lives in The Village Above the White Clouds, where her father is the innkeeper. Misha is a special girl, whose birth was accompanied by the song of a white bird — a song so sweet it seemed to unite heaven and earth.

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The land around The Village Above the White Clouds is too cold and barren for anything to grow. The barrenness is metaphorical, since people there say it is not a place where people belong. But Mishan’s father predicts that she will cultivate a beautiful garden of hopes and dreams.

Mishan dutifully plants seeds in the cold, infertile soil, but those are not the seeds that are to grow. Instead, it is the seeds of goodness in the villagers’ hearts that Mishan is to cultivate, watering them with her kind and appreciative words.

When an argument breaks out in the inn, Mishan asks a worn-out old soldier to intervene and prevent violence. He says he’s too old and weak, but Mishan convinces him that he still has strength, like an old tree whose boughs offer shelter. And so the old soldier asserts himself and puts a stop to the fight.

She tells an arrogant and rich merchant that he is like the village stream, bringing life to all who are in need. Her kind words inspire him to be generous, and we see him giving alms to a beggar.

She offers kind words to the village children, whom she compares to wild flowers, and to the young girls, whose talk about the beauty of others perfumes the air like the scent of lilac flowers.

Title: Mishan’s Garden
Author: James Vollbracht (Illus. Janet Brooke)
Publisher: Wisdom Publications
ISBN: 978-1-61429-112-1
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Lastly, she tells a white lie to an angry woodcutter who has come to the inn looking for his son, whom he regards as a lazy good-for-nothing. She praises the woodcutter’s wisdom in coming to the inn, saying that it is wise to know that there is a time to work and a time to rest and dream, like the vine that grows by day and bathes in the moonlight by night. The woodcutter not only accepts his son’s need to rest, but asks him what his dreams are.

But Mishan is still waiting for her garden to grow. And distraught that her seeds have not germinated, she becomes seriously ill. But although her literal garden has failed to blossom, around her kindness is blooming in every heart, and the villagers run to help her. The birdsong so beautiful that it seemed to unite heaven and earth is heard once again, and the villagers see Mishan’s garden, filled with beautiful flowers, vines, bushes, and trees.

When people think of the village now, they think of it as a special place where everyone not only belongs, but where every person has a “special place and their own special dreams.” And those who come to the village in search of their dreams hear the song of the white bird, and feel encouraged to keep on with their searches.

My daughter loved the book, and I enjoyed reading it to her. The story is charming, and open to many interpretations. Does Mishan die toward the end? Is the flourishing garden we see her vision of heaven? Why does she really become ill? Is it because she lied to the woodcutter? Does the white bird’s appearance at Mishan’s birth and possible death suggest that Mishan is some kind of bodhisattva — a being reborn in order to help others? I rather like all the ambiguity, which allows for much discussion and exploration with children.

Janet Brookes’ watercolor (?) illustrations are very beautiful, simple, and give a good sense of a non-specific Himalayan culture and landscape, with bare craggy mountains and fluttering prayer flags. I especially enjoyed the sensitivity and love expressed in the faces of Mishan and her father.

James Vollbracht’s storytelling is poetic, evocative, and beautifully illustrates the power of appreciative speech.

Mishan’s Garden is 30 pages long, and is the perfect length for a story at bedtime — or for reading before breakfast!

As well as being a regular book review, this post is one of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness series. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

100 Days of Lovingkindness

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“Now I Know That Silly Hopes and Fears Will Just Make Wrinkles on My Face” by Sally Devorsine

This lovely children’s book has been test-driven by my five-year-old daughter, and found to be engaging and illuminating. In my amateur estimation it would be suitable for children considerably older — at least up to the age of eight or nine.

Now I Know (the full title is “Now I Know That Silly Hopes and Fears Will Just Make Wrinkles on My Face”) is the first of a series, also called Now I Know, described as a “Collection of Retro Cool Wisdom for Kids.” This series of children’s books is written and illustrated by Sally Devorsine, who lives in Bhutan, where she teaches a western school curriculum to young monks.

Title: Now I Know That Silly Hopes and Fears Will Just Make Wrinkles on My Face
Author: Sally Devorsine
Publisher: Chocolate Sauce Books
ISBN:
Available from: Chocolate Sauce Books as a e-book or hardback, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

The series and endorsed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and the first book includes a brief commentary by the French-born Tibetan Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard, who is a well known author in his own right, and a friend of the Dalai Lama and of neuroscience researcher Richie Davidson.

The Now I Know Collection intends to apply ancient wisdom “to help kids young and old solve real-life issues in today’s complicated world.”

We follow the adventures of Megan, a young girl who loves meeting new people and who has a strong streak of kindness and consideration toward others. When a new girl, Hazel, arrives in class, Megan is quick to befriend her and to show her around, but unfortunately she neglects her existing friends.

As part of her “induction tour,” Megan introduces Hazel to the “Testing Tree,” which the local children use in competitions in order to see who can climb the highest. When Hazel succeeds in climbing higher than anyone before her, she suddenly becomes the “popular girl,” and Megan feels isolated and resentful.

Fortunately Megan has a kind and wise advisor in the form of her teacher, Ms. Sage, who helps her to understand that she has built up a “storyline” in her head, in which Hazel is her “best friend” who has abandoned her. But Hazel has made no such promise, and is unaware of Megan’s hopes. Ms. Sage helps Megan to see that her thoughts about the situation, rather than the situation itself, is what’s causing her suffering, that her old friends are missing her, and that in fact she did a good think by helping Hazel adjust to her new school.

Once she lets go of her resentment, Megan actually talks to Hazel and finds that their friendship still exists (it always has, except in Megan’s head!).

Now I Know is well-written, lively, and beautifully illustrated. There are some questions at the end to help children reflect a little more deeply on the lessons of the story, and also a quote from the 12th century teacher, Langri Thangpa, on seeing those who hurt us as our teachers (although of course in this case it was Hazel who hurt herself.

The book manages to convey a message without seeming preachy. The tale effectively illustrates how we can create our own suffering through the storylines we spin for ourselves. Of course in this particular tale, no one did anything harmful to another person. Hazel never purposely abandoned her friendship with Megan, and so no betrayal was involved. Some readers may play the “yes, but…” game, where they wonder how this teaching would apply if Megan really had been deserted by her new friend, or if her old friends had shunned her permanently. And indeed such things are a daily reality for many children. But one children’s book can’t address every painful situation that can arise in young people’s lives, and it would be unfair to do so here. The basic principle that our thoughts can create suffering from nothing, or magnify a genuine suffering, can be applied by parents as they help their children to navigate life’s emotional challenges.

The fact that one children’s book can’t address every painful situation that can arise in young people’s lives is a good reason for having a series like Now I Know, and I look forward to reading other books in the series to my children.

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“Buddha at Bedtime,” by Dharmachari Nagaraja

Buddha at Bedtime

Recently I walked into a bookstore and saw a spine bearing the title “Buddha at Bedtime.” As the father of two young children who always want a good story at bedtime, I was delighted to know that this book existed. I was even more delighted — and surprised — when I pulled the book from the shelf and realized that I knew the author, Nagaraja.

So for full disclosure, I first met Nagaraja at the Glasgow Buddhist Center over 20 years ago, and although we’ve never been close friends, we were ordained together and I’ve sometimes asked him to review books for me. But our connection is weak enough that his book could be out for almost two years before I stumbled upon it.

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Nagaraja is a regular guest presenter on BBC Radio 2, where he used traditional Buddhist tales to communicate the Buddha’s teachings to a UK audience of 7.7 million people. He has been a practicing Buddhist since 1988, was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order in 1993, and went on to teach at and manage the Covent Garden Meditation Centre, London. He has now returned to his native Scotland, where he is now involved with the Glasgow Buddhist Centre and works as a psychotherapist.

Title: Buddha at Bedtime
Author: Dharmachari Nagaraja
Publisher: Duncan Baird
ISBN: 978-1-84483-596-6
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Buddha at Bedtime is a collection of jataka stories, which are traditional folk-tales that have been incorporated into the Buddhist tradition. In the jatakas, the hero, who is often an animal, is said to be the Buddha in a previous life. The stories are similar to many of Aesop’s fables, and both traditions may well have been drawn from a common pool of tales that circulated among many cultures from Europe, across the Middle East, to India. Each tale illustrates a particular virtue, such as courage, thinking before speaking, or responding with intelligence rather than violence.

Buddha at Bedtime contains adaptations of twenty such jatakas. The stories are westernized to some extent, so that the characters names tend to be recognizable rather than foreign-sounding. Whereas a young girl in the original Indian version might be called Nandavati or Sundari, the corresponding character in Nagaraja’s version might be Rosalina or Polly. Additionally, the protagonist of the story is never explicitly named as being “the bodhisatta” (the Buddha before his enlightenment). These changes help to make the stories more contemporary and accessible. Additionally, Nagaraja has chosen not to stick slavishly to the original plot, which I think is wise, and in keeping with the original tradition of storytelling, where each teller of the tale would add his or her own embellishments while respecting the essence of the narrative. A couple of times I wished that Nagaraja had gone a bit further and changed the few references to “the gods,” although that’s just my taste.

Nagaraja is an effective storyteller. Each story has a short introductory teaser that gives a preview of the forthcoming attractions. Every time I got to the line “Would you like to know what happened?” I was surprised to hear my children yell “yes!” It’s a clever technique, using questions as a way to generate engagement. The language is simple and vivid, and yet the book doesn’t condescend. Here’s a randomly chosen sentence from “Two Ducks and a Turtle”:

For many years, he was quite content swimming lazily around the large pond, or basking in the sun on top of one of the big, rubbery, green lily pads that covered its surface. Sometimes, he would snap at a passing dragonfly, or try to catch a fat, juicy water beetle to eat.

The stories end with a moral, expressed in two or three sentences. For example, at the conclusion of “The Grateful Bull” we read:

It’s all too easy to lose our patience with people and act unkindly. A wise person knows that showing kindness and compassion is the most effective way to bring out the best in others.

These morals are as appropriate for adult readers as they are for young listeners, and perhaps even more so. I had the impression that my children’s attention had been lost the moment the story ended and that the explicitly stated moral was lost on them, but after a sometimes hassle-packed bedtime routine I sometimes found myself reflecting on how my own behavior could be more ethically skillful and kind.

The book is intended to be meditative as well: a natural meditative absorption that trains young minds in vitakka or continuous attention. Each tale begins with the words, “Relax, be very still, and listen — listen carefully to this tale…” There’s also a section at the end with child-friendly guided meditations, which I successfully tried out on my four-year-old daughter.

Buddha at Bedtime looks gorgeous. Each story is preceded by a detailed full-page illustration, and the following pages are decorated with elements extracted from the main image. The colors are rich and vibrant, and both the human and the animal characters are expressive and dynamic.

My only quibble with Buddha at Bedtime is a small one. The image of “the Buddha” accompanying the moral at the end of each tale is not the Buddha at all, but is the fat, jolly character that one sees referred to as “the laughing Buddha.” This personage is actually Po-Tei (Chinese) or Ho-Tei (Japanese) and he was a folkloric monk who has been granted the status of a household deity representing prosperity. He is a character who smiles despite having little, and who is portrayed as being generous. He carries a sack (his name means cloth sack) and in the Zen tradition he’s said to give gifts to children. Confusing Potei with the Buddha is rather like confusing Santa Claus with Christ. Rather than being portrayed as fat, the Buddha is always depicted as being slender, and he’s never portrayed as laughing, but as smiling serenely. If there’s a second edition of Buddha at Bedtime, I hope that the illustrations can be corrected. A Chinese book called “Jesus at Bedtime” where Jesus had been replaced with Santa would properly evoke wry laughter. Its time to lose the cultural confusion over Hotei and the Buddha.

That aside, this is a wonderful book. Ultimately in a book such as this the reviewer is the child. I’d expected that it would take close to three weeks to read the entire book — one story a night for twenty nights but due to demands placed on me by my two tiny tyrants we ended up reading Buddha at Bedtime in just over a week. My daughter still asks specifically for the book, and had two stories read to her just last night. There are some suggested meditation exercises that I haven’t yet tried out with my kids.

I would highly recommend Nagaraja’s book to all parents of young children, whether Buddhist or not. I’m expecting to be reading this book over, and over, and over — for many months to come.

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“Still Quiet Place: Mindfulness for Young Children,” by Dr. Amy Salzman

Still Quiet Place, Amy Salzman

If you’ve ever wondered how you could introduce the life skill of meditation to your children, here’s a delightful CD that will help you do just that. Still Quiet Place is a series of guided meditations for children (ages three or older) that gently leads them to find and appreciate the ‘treasure’ within themselves. With each track, Dr. Amy Saltzman helps children to explore a different aspect their inner world, including an awareness of their physical bodies and emotions, and begin to trust their own inner wisdom.

And it’s not all about stillness and quiet. One track, called “wilds”, begins with a driving drumbeat and asks, “Do you sometimes feel wild, or crazy, or silly? Like a volcano about to erupt or a hurricane twirling around?” Dr. Saltzman honors the whole child, including the giggly, high-energy side, and encourages young people to fully experience all of their emotions and inner world.

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For older children, there are a couple longer tracks on simple yoga poses and a full body scan. And there’s even something for parents, too. Dr. Saltzman says in her ‘adult intro’ that the greatest source of children’s stress is not school, peer pressure or over-scheduling, but parental stress. So the last track is for you, the grown-ups — a brief mindfulness meditation of about 13 minutes, to help you slow down and bring your awareness to the present moment.

Overall, this is a wonderful CD that can give your children a solid start toward becoming happier and healthier adults in the future.

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