The Children's Book Garden

Reading and weeding through the best and worst of children's literature

Rumi: A Book I Want to Love February 2, 2010

Rumi book coverA gorgeously illustrated book, Rumi: Whirling Dervish by Demi is one of those books I want for myself, if only to hold the pages up to the lamp so I can watch the intricate gold designs flare up in the light. I was recently at an exhibition featuring pages from an Islamic mystical book with lettering and designs of the same style, and I just find them delightful to the eye. It’s nice to have a children’s book with this much beauty and detail and authenticity to its subject.

But the text itself? Way too much for young children. Not the concepts of Rumi’s spiritual awakening – but the biographical depth. I found the same problem with Peter Sis’ book on Galileo. Also beautiful – but also too granular in the story of a person’s life, not enough emphasis on the main themes and importance of their discoveries.

An example of a passage that doesn’t work:

Then on NOvember 29, 1244, he met Shamsuddin, “Sun of the Faith,” who was from the city of Tabriz in northwestern Iran.

Dates and terms and locations that even I – hate to admit it – have to really think about – locate in terms of my historical and geographical knowledge – I’d like a little more context, myself. Certainly my four-year-old daughter is getting to know the globe, but her sense of the past is still very shaky…

A passage that absolutely does work, however:

Rumi circled and circled… rumi had felt so close to God wile turning that he began teaching the circling dance to his students. They sang:

We come whirling

out of nothingness

scattering stars

like dust.

The stars made a circle

and in the middle

we dance

Those who performed the dance became known as whirling dervishes.

I’m not saying that dates and places need to be nixed from stories for younger children – but I think the story would be more powerful if honed down to its core more – and one thing I do like about Sis in his books is he often includes more details in smaller font, so that the older child or the adult can glean the extra information that a smaller child will find obstructive to the flow of the storyline.

I do give this book an A for effort. Introducing children to stories of people from other cultures and spiritual paths and times widens their world. And a beautiful book gives them the beginnings of appreciation for art. But finding that balance between visual attraction and readability can be a challenge – for any history or biography!


God & Candy: A Match Made in A Really Goofy Book December 2, 2009

Cover for Coco's Candy ShopIf I were giving out awards, this book would clinch several categories, including:

– Book You Most Want to Share With Another Adult (Because you need a witness to the weirdness)

– Strangest Religious Book for Children

– Most Hated Children’s Book by Health Providers (especially dentists and diabetes counselors)

– Book Most Likely to Turn Your Kid into an Addict

Yes, it’s true: Candy’s Coco Shop serves up a whole store full of strangeness to entice and entertain you – though you may think twice before exposing your children to it.

I have two copies myself, because I found it at a yard sale and snatched it up in a giddy whirl, remembering how I’d loved it as a kid. Then my mom sent me my childhood copy. Then I read it to my daughter; just the first page gave me a sugar rush and some kind of religious fever that may or may not have involved hives…

The funniest part of this book is that it doesn’t take much to guess the thinking process behind its inception. The author obviously thought, Okay, I’m going to get kids to love God with a children’s book, and how am I going to do it? Oh yes – By using the tried and true methods of every successful child-snatcher around: Give them candy. Throw in some cute animals. And give them lots and lots of candy.

The strategy is obvious because that’s pretty much the plot of every page.

1. Coco the bear gives everyone some candy, packing some for their trip.

2. The pals buy some balloons that spell out “God made you,” while the pig eats more candy. The text explains that this “puzzle” “will tell you something about the way you are made.” Oh. How scientific.

3. They hop on a train that follows a track that spells out “God goes with you everywhere” (called a “train puzzle” in the book, though how it is a puzzle, I am not sure).

4. Then on a hayride, Coca passes out some bon bons, lollipops, and gumdrops.

5. Some farm animals offer milk and wool (not sure why, because no one drinks the milk or takes the wool, kind of a pointless moment), while the pals play on tractors with religious ideas scrawled on the wheels – another “puzzle.”

6. They hop on a boat and experience a storm, during which they are supposed to “Talk to God,” as suggested by the boat puzzle.

7.  Back on shore, they get some ice cream from the ice cream man; the pig named Pudge thinks putting everyone in a sugar-induced coma is ” a good way to show all the love in your heart.” Great message!

The ice cream puzzle asks readers to figure out who it is that God wants to “love him very much.” Yep – it’s “YOU,” as spelled out by “Yummy Orange Upsicle.” Cool idea, huh?

8. The candy fiends return to the candy shop and eat more candy, while the turtle character passes out, obviously suffering from some kind of glycemic shock.

Okay, so maybe there’s a few parts where they aren’t actually eating candy. But when you’re reading the darn thing, it feels like that’s all they do. And while I tend to leave out the “puzzles” when I read it to my kids, there’s not really any way to avoid the candy.

Which makes me wonder, why do I have this book and read it to my kids at all?

I can only guess that, despite my logical, adult mind’s abhorrence for the thinly veiled religion peddling and the negative nutritional values expressed, Coco’s Candy Shop got to me early. I’m hooked. Those swirly lollipop trees just look good enough to eat. I can’t put it down!

Anyone know a detox program for this kind of thing?

Any nominations for other weird religious books for kids?