What is the best way to introduce a reader to a new subject? Throw bits of information at him? Give a sweeping overview? Or concentrate on a few facts? Three new books on world faiths find different solutions to this perennial question.
It's all the Web's fault. Or it's TV's fault. Or maybe we should blame it on comic books. For decades, writers and publishers have been coming up with new excuses for publishing children's books with flashy illustrations and fragmented texts. With the success of Dorling Kindersley's handsome volumes, it seems likely that this frenetic format is here to stay. If such books must exist, though, one would hope that future volumes will show more unity of purpose than Anita Ganeri's Religions Explained: A Beginner's Guide to World Faiths.
The one redeeming feature of this book for middle readers is that it takes its subtitle seriously. Rather than confine itself to the Big Five – Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism – the author attempts to describe all of the major religions of the world, including spirit religions and recent religions such the New Age Movement.
Many of the illustrations are attractive and informative; the cutaway views of various houses of worship are worth lingering over. The trouble is that there are so many illustrations of so many sorts, and they are all crammed together. A splendid photograph of a blazing Viking longship deserves a page to itself; instead, it must share space with a rune-covered stone and the Viking alphabet.
The text is similarly crammed with bits of information, some of no obvious importance and others full of small factual errors ("Christian brides traditionally wear white"). The book has no particular theme, and it appears that the text was designed to fit with the illustrations, which themselves have no discernable theme. In short, this is a book that has sadly failed in its task.
THE STORY OF RELIGION
The cluttered design of Ganeri's book is in striking contrast to the design of Betsy and Giulio Meastro's The Story of Religion. The Maestros, who have collaborated on several nonfiction books for younger and middle readers, have again produced a volume that is beautiful and unified – this despite the fact that they have deliberately chosen to illustrate it in a variety of styles.
It is clear from the first paragraph that the Maestros firmly believe that the world's variety of religions is a wonderful gift. Giulio Maestro demonstrated this variety by imitating the artistic traditions of each religion, from cave paintings to Aborigine art. Along the way, readers are treated to illustrations of Mesopotamian clay reliefs, carved animal spirits from China, an elegant statue of the Hindu god Shiva, and a depiction of Jesus' crucifixion that imitates stained glass art.
It would be nice to report that this attractive book had a text of the same high quality. Certainly, Betsy Maestro has achieved the unity that was lacking in Ganeri's book. The back cover of the book makes clear the theme from its quotations:
"It is never too late to give up your prejudices." – Henry David Thoreau
"All religions must be tolerated . . . for in this way must every one be saved in his own way." – Frederick the Great
"It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God." – Thomas Jefferson
Religious tolerance is the central message of the book, but tolerance of a particular sort: tolerance based on the conviction that religious beliefs are purely determined by cultural and family traditions. In the eyes of the author, to hold to a religion because you believe that it is more true than other religions is a particularly egregious sin. "The fact that in this world there are so many people following so many different paths to God shows that there is no one right way," the book concludes. "What is right for one person may not be right for another." Unfortunately, this statement is itself a religious dogma that could not be held by some members of the world's faiths – even those who believe strongly in religious tolerance.
WHAT I BELIEVE
It is, of course, difficult for any author to write a book that tries to be fair to all of the world's faiths without erasing the fact that these faiths disagree with each other at times. A broad overview of religious beliefs, such as the Maestros attempt, is perhaps not the best place to make sweeping judgments about the nature of religion, since this is not the perspective from which the greatest disagreements between faiths manifest themselves. Instead, disagreements are likely to show themselves when the author starts asking particular questions: What is God? Does God answer all prayers? What sort of sins does God forgive?
These are the sort of questions that Debbie Holsclaw Birdseye and Tom Birdseye set out to answer, and they were intelligent enough to address their questions, not to religious leaders, but to children.
What I Believe: Kids Talk about Faith recreates the answers of six American children of different faiths. Because the Birdseyes concentrate on a few questions, the reader is able to get a much better sense of religious beliefs than he would in most introductions to world faiths.
Perhaps what is most revealing is the depth of the children's theological beliefs. Many children's books deal with world faiths at a superficial level, focussing on religious practices and giving little space to religious beliefs. The Birdseyes's book, though, shows that the children who are thus being condescended to actually have strong beliefs about the nature of God and God's relationship with humans.
"God has a male half and an equally powerful female half," says a Hindu girl. "Neither one can survive without the other. I think It when I'm talking about God, instead of He or She."
A Jewish girl agrees in part. "I don't think of God as a person, you know, with facial features or whatever," she says. "In Hebrew there's a masculine and feminine for each word, and God is written in the Torah in the masculine form. But you are taught, and I believe, that really God is not a male or female."
A Christian boy, while he does not venture into the question of God's gender, describes succinctly the variety of Christian ways of perceiving God: "Some people would say that God is this bearded old man leaning on his cane. Some people think that God is inside them, like a feeling. I've never seen God. I can't really say where He is, like up on a mountain. It's possible that I've heard Him, but that might just be my own thoughts."
Robert Crum's rich, color photographs add the right touch to this simple and satisfying book for middle readers. By concentrating on detailed, concrete examples of religious faith, the Birdseyes have provided a better overview of world religions than most children's books published until now.
Ganeri, Anita. Religions Explained: A Beginner's Guide to World Faiths. New York: Henry Holt, 1997. 70 pp. 8-8050-4874-X.
Maestro, Betsy. The Story of Religion. Ill. Giulio Maestro. New York: Clarion, 1996. 48 pp. 0-395-62364-2.
Birdseye, Debbie Holsclaw, and Tom Birdseye. What I Believe: Kids Talk about Faith. Ill. Robert Crum. New York: Holiday House, 1996. 32 pp. 0-8234-1268-7.
©1997 Heather Elizabeth Peterson