Let’s Talk About Sameness Children’s Books #ReadSameReadDifferent

After our latest new books reading session one of my children and I chatted about making friends. He told me he wants to make friends with children from his faith and other faiths.

Several hours later I am still smiling. Yes, this is a post on a smile.

The previous week the same boy expressed active disinterest in stories he could not believe in. He is happy with magic in stories and out-of-this-world impossibilities. But he doesn’t want to be confused with religious stories from other faiths that he cannot accept as histories while adhering to his own faith.

Talk About Universal Books 3 booksI had wanted to delve into stories, seeing them as a safe space within which to explore similarities in human values across different people’s beliefs and cultures. I was wrong, however. I needed to give my children space to talk about themselves in relation to other people. To make space for them to develop interest and begin their own quests for knowledge and friendship in the diversity of the world. Not ask them to join me where I am on that quest.

As babies and toddlers my young children began building their religious knowledge, beliefs, and positive identity by talking with and observing their family, and this was extended via fun interactive books and bright board books. My current conversations with them about wanting to be friendly with people of different faiths are very new. Perhaps they are best supported with fresh visual and kinaesthetic materials?

So I ordered two board books and a lift-the-flap/pop-up book.

Enticed by the front cover, we started with All Kind of Beliefs: A Lift-the-Flap Book. There are nine faces displayed and I asked my Muslim children if they could spot a Muslim. Perhaps children really don’t see difference as much as adults – until adults influence their types of sensitivity. I soon felt the need to cut in with, “Let’s find out,” and opened the book, to prevent all nine faces being labelled Muslim.

Talk About Universal Books Different BeliefsThe opening pages announce a beautiful celebration of unifying diversity that ‘All people have different beliefs’ on a lovely outdoor scene inviting children to enjoy spotting people of faith in a park. It is therefore a shame that (understandably simplistic) examples given in subsequent pages, of details inside places of worship and of frequent activities for practising beliefs, are conveyed as core to every worship place/worshipper of those faiths. I would recommend that adults relate the pictures to actual local and personal people of faith, if possible, rather than reading these examples ‘will’ be generally true. I gently probed my children about what the book said about Muslims so I could guide them to acknowledgement that the other faith-based activities mentioned would also involve more accuracy and context for other families.

Talk About Universal Books One LoveNext we read One Love (Based On The Song By Bob Marley). This book introduced the concept of love as a never ending entity flowing between creation. We all loved it. It reads ‘One love, like the river runs to the sea’ and repeats ‘Let’s get together and feel all right’. Even before completing the short book, my children were gushing with the love they feel for all the people and creatures they know about – and in a bedtime reading session later that day (of Peter Rabbit) I noticed increased thoughtfulness for the feelings/comfort of plants.

The book also illustrates a community and environmental transition. The girl protagonist takes her awareness of family love into a communal park and invites people to come together to clean up the rubbish … and beauty grows from then on.

Whoever You Are provided our closing book, iterating that people may be different from you but they are certainly the same in many ways. The book’s text has many strengths: it opens and closes with similarities; it speaks directly to the reader and examples several things that ‘may be different from yours’; it examples emotional similarities; it asks the reader to think ahead to when they become older and reveals ‘you may be different’; it modifies a refrain related to similarity and asks the reader to remember, so that the message of sameness and empathy between ‘you’ and ‘they’ is strong, and finally climaxes with an expression of ‘we’.

Talk About Universal Books SameThe illustrations are also excellent for facilitating human compassion, for example: on the difference-focussed spreads many people simply look concentrated in the way strangers who are getting on with life often do, and this expression is also shown on the ‘you may be different’ page so that children can appreciate that we all can be more busy than smiley; the similarities pages are mainly focussed upon love, laughter, and joy, but tears of emotional and physical pain are also depicted so that the reader can question what may have caused the pain and is invited to relate to ‘others’ as deeply feeling people; the concept of a shared world is illustrated via the popular type of picture depicting children around a blue and green globe but this is strengthened by the children being flown around the globe to see similarities, by the use of lots of semi-circles/rounded hill shapes on almost every page, and by dressing people in clothing designed with pictures of similar homes upon blue and green backgrounds.

I am not sure about the blue-sky-clouds storyteller character, however, who takes the reader and illustrated children on the book’s journey. Also I am saddened to see that the pages depicting Muslims shows children holding angular shapes and in the background, instead of rounded hills, it shows angular shapes – a subtle but influential way single Muslims out as alien to the commonly shared round world and the angular graphics also give an evil impression (angular versus round designs are widely used by illustrators and animators to depict evil and good). I am saddened, and again reminded, that deep rooted prejudices can seep into the best of intentions.

Talk About Universal Books What Do You Believe InSomeone has to go first in a book that attempts to value more than one faith, true, and there is sense in defining simplifications by majorities within faiths, according to your available knowledge. However, during this reading session I experienced a second occasion of using a six-faith book that gave less space to the Buddhist faith than the others, and Christianity was given precedence. Are attempts to convey an objective, universal voice set up to fail in ways that hurt all included or only those behind the primary focus? I am grateful to be discussing children’s faith literature in my own voice as the Muslim I am. How can I earnestly make space for others’ beliefs if I do not openly use space for my own?

I trust that it was the positives in these books, and especially the vibrant, love-centric, eco-friendly, universal, simple, and inspiring rhythm and story of One Love that provoked my Muslim child to want to make friends with children of other faiths.

That thought makes me smile.

I lost my smile for a few moments. But it’s back, full of hope in our human ability to connect with each other. I hope it is flowing to you too. But if you aren’t able to feel it yet, I highly recommend One Love.

I am the author of Religious Rhyme Time, an Abrahamic children’s interfaith book, as well as Islamic Nursery Rhymes. I love eating chocolate while I write, and, with strictly chocolate-free fingers, I also create Muslim and interfaith children’s gifts for book people at my Etsy shop, BarakahBedtimesUK.

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