Part II. Forms and genres
23. Contemporary religious writing
From its inception, children’s literature has been closely linked with religion. Several literary historians (SommerviUe 1992; Cunningham 1995) have pointed out the contributions of Protestant parents in the development of a specific literature for children. Since the responsibility for education could no longer be entrusted to the Church as an institution, parents and educators discovered the power of stories. A Token for Children: Being the Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children (1671) by James Janeway exemplifies the adult manner of addressing children in the seventeenth century. Roman Catholics too invested in children’s literature. In the course of the following centuries religious orders would assume this task, forming the basis of thriving publishing houses. The Assumptionists founded Bayard-Presse - now called Maison de la Bonne Presse - in 1873; the Salesians in Turin laid the foundation of the publishing firm Societa della Buona Stampa (1859), the present-day SEI; the Flemish Norbertines in Averbode (Belgium) founded a bilingual publishing house specialising in periodicals; while the Fraters of Tilburg (the Netherlands) formed the basis of the successful firm Zwijsen.
Because children’s literature always mirrors the society in which it exists, the relationship between children’s literature and religion is obviously subject to change. Specific changes in society create a climate allowing the religious children’s book to prosper. Missionary work in the wake of colonisation exported Christianity to Africa, where Islam also spread along the major trade routes. In the postcolonial period religion often reinforced a sense of identity. In Brunei Darussalam, a vigorous Islamic children’s literature developed. After the fall of the Soviet regime, the new culture of glasnost led to a flourishing orthodox children’s literature.
The secularisation of Western society raises the question of whether juvenile fiction and religion still enjoy a priviliged relationship. Traditional models such as the saint’s life, the missionary story or the vocational tale, which still enjoyed an enormous popularity in the first half of the twentieth century because of their affinity with the religious revival of the first decades, have been relegated to the periphery since 1970.
On the other hand, an increasing multiformity and multiculturality increase the need for a private (also religious) identity. Religious children’s books therefore satisfy a real need by encouraging the process of socialisation. The innovation and emancipation of juvenile fiction - specifically the recent philosophical trend - have heightened a sensitivity to existential themes. Religion still often leads a modest, almost hidden existence in juvenile fiction - as in society as a whole.
This chapter investigates the links between children’s literature and religion to the present day. Its scope is not limited to Western society: the subject is placed within a broader, global perspective. The focus, however, mainly lies with the great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Other religions are mentioned where possible.
Before we discuss the actual literary works, we must establish working definitions of religion and religiosity. We can then give an overview the extensive range of books dealing explicitly with aspects of religion. Third, we can look at a broad spectrum of texts and models that treat religious themes and motifs — in the broadest sense of the term — in very different ways.
The term religiosity and the related terms religion and religious form a complex network of meanings. In this jumble, two semantic nuclei can be distinguished. On the one hand religion and religiosity function within an explicitly theist context; they acquire a limited, exclusive meaning. On the other hand these same terms are also used implicitly, almost in a secularised way. In the first case we can also refer to verticality; in the second case to horizontality.
According to sociologists of religion, explicit religiosity refers to the awareness and the believing acknowledgment of a supernatural reality of gods and spirits into which man will be admitted after death. Etymologically this sense of the term relates to the Latin word re-ligare, meaning re-bind. Religion expresses the deep intimacy of man with the cosmos, with life, with humankind and with God. The pietas, the pious remembrance of the dead who in a sense are part of deity, is an essential aspect of every religion.
The Jewish-Christian religion added a new dimension to existing cultural religions; in them the meaning of religion was narrowed by the theist perspective. In the monotheistic religions God reveals himself as the absolute ‘Other’: ‘He who is’. He calls on the worshipper to practise justice and love. In Christian religions, God invites the worshipper to a personal relationship through the person of Christ. The response of the worshipper is also personal. We find traces of it in ethical choices inspired by the Bible, including the Gospels, and the Quran. Ethics is where God, man and the world meet. If we look for religion/religiosity in this exclusive sense in contemporary juvenile fiction, we find texts dealing with belief and religiosity in the context of the Church. The emphasis may lie on institutionalisation or on the socio-ethical dimension.
Religion lacking the theist dimension and existing outside an established Church can be taken to refer to the fundamental questions about existence (ultimate concerns, letztes Anliegen), to the vague ultimateness, the fundamentals that give life its meaning. There are values to which one wants to dedicate oneself unconditionally, and that are unaffected by any suffering one may experience. In this broad sense religion is found in books containing a deeper dimension without explicit reference to religion or traditional religiousness.
Theist religiosity in children’s literature
In this first part we discuss children’s books and juvenile fiction in which religion is treated as the believing acknowledgment of a supernatural reality or in which ethical behaviour implies more than horizontal involvement with the world. The last decades have shown a remarkable growth in this area, probably caused by a number of specific circumstances. In a secularised society, parents and educators who take the religious education of their children seriously need to consciously coach them during the process of religious socialisation. Furthermore, in a multicultural environment religion often helps to define one’s identity.
Every major religion has books that familiarise children from an early age with the basic elements of their own religion: the doctrine, holy texts or books, holy places, feasts and rituals. In the UK, institutions such as the Islamic Foundation, the Muslim Educational Trust, Taha Publications and IQRA’ Trust publish Islamic children’s books.
Non-fiction series such as Religions of the World (published by the Rosen Publishing Group) or Eyewitness Books cover such diverse religions as Judaism, Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Buddhism and Shintoism. Books like these have a double role to play: they familiarise the child with its own religion, and fulfil an informational function for followers of other religions. In All Kinds of Beliefs (2000) British author Emma Damon clearly chooses the multicultural approach. In this pop-up book young children get to know different external symbols of religiosity, different ways of praying, and different places of worship. Mutual respect for differences is also the leitmotif in How Do You Spell God? Answers to the Big Questions from Around the World (1995), a book for teens tackling the difficult questions of life. It was written by two Americans: Marc Gellman, a rabbi, and Thomas Hartman, a Catholic priest. The Dalai Lama wrote the preface. Katherine Paterson, an American writer for children, together with her husband wrote Images of God (1998), in which she narrates the different images of God in the Bible in readable stories.
Special mention ought to be made of Le Voyage de Theo (1997) [Theo’s Odyssey (1999)], a book for adolescents by French author Catherine Clement. The premise of this book is similar to Jostein Gaarder’s Sofies verden (1991) [Sophie’s World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy (1994)]. Clement deals with the different great religions of the world, but the information is embedded in a story. Fourteen-year-old Theo is ill and travels around the globe with his eccentric aunt. Their voyage leads to the birthplace of the different religions, allowing information about the origin, doctrine and views of God and major rituals to be introduced into the story.
Books for young children often focus on a religious feast such as Christmas, Easter, Pascha (Passover), Chanukah, Id-ul-Fitr (the feast at the end of the Ramadan) or Hari Raya (Islamic new year). At these moments religious experience in the family and in society becomes visible and can be discussed. Books have an important role to play in this. By means of colourful images and/or sensitive texts they familiarise children with the message and rituals. Series such as Celebrate or Celebration Stories (both by Hodder Wayland Publishers, UK) present information about major feasts in a straightforward manner. The first series Celebrate with, for example, Celebrate Passover (2002) by Mike Hurst, is purely informative; the second series presents the information through stories: A Present For Salina (2002) by Kerena Marchant is set in Morocco at the time of Id-ul-Fitr.
In Jewish children’s literature especially, Chanukah remains a popular subject. Norma Simon writes about Chanukah in The Story of Hanukkah (1997), Maida Silverman in Festival of Lights: The Story of Hanukkah (1999), Michael J. Rosen in Our Eight Nights of Hanukkah (2000), Jonny Zucker in Eight Candles to Light: A Chanukah Story (2002). Light also plays a major role in other religions. In Here Comes Diwali: The Festival of Lights (2000) by Meenal Pandya the importance of the Buddhist feast of the light is explained to children.
In Islamic children’s literature the main topics are Id-ul-Fitr and especially the time of fasting. Magid Fasts for Ramadan (1996) by Mary Matthews and Ramadam (1996) by Suhaib Hamid Ghazi are two books about the time of fasting in an Islamic family. Jamal’s Prayer Rug (1993) by Kathy Fanoun highlights the importance of prayer and the ritual of praying for Islamic children. Joelle Stolz in Les Ombres de Ghadames (2000) [The Shadows of Ghadames] writes about the role of women in the transfer of Islam to the next generation. L’Afrique de mes peres (1987) by Gondia Cisse [Africa of My Fathers] describes Islamic piety in a West African setting, while Nigeria-born author Cyprian Ekwensi in Gone To Mecca (1991) stresses the importance of the hajj, the pilgrimage to the holy place of Mecca. In Next Year in Jerusalem: 3000 Years of Jewish Stories (1996) Howard Schwartz collects a number of Jewish stories centred around Jerusalem, the most holy place for Jews.
The degree of religiousness differs substantially in these books. Picture books about Christmas can closely follow the biblical Christmas story (Dick Bruna, Kerstmis (1976)), or take another legend as a starting point, or provide a fanciful or contemporary version of the Christmas idea of ‘peace’. German authors Sigrid Heuck in Frohe Weihnachten, liebes Christkind (1999) [Merry Christmas, Dear Infant Jesus] and Brigitte Weninger in Engel, Hase, Bommelmutze und 24 Adventsgeschichte (2002) [Angel, Hare, Bobble Hat and 24 Advent Stories] but also Norwegian writer Jostein Gaarder in Julemysteriet (1992) [The Christmas Mystery (1996)] try to provide young readers with appropriate stories for the time of Advent before Christmas. Many important authors have written Christmas stories. Dickens wrote his A Christmas Carol (1844), Andersen the sad fairytale ‘Lille pige med svovlstikkerne’ [‘The Little Match Girl’], Selma Lagerlof Julklappsboken und andra berdt-telser (1954) [The Christmas Present and Other Stories] and Astrid Lindgren Jul i stallet (2001) [The Crib]. Christmas stories are found in all countries: Desert December (1991) by Dorian Haarhoff hails from South Africa. The Miracle Tree (1985) by Australian writer Christobel Mattingley describes how three desperate characters find comfort with each other at Christmas after the atomic catastrophe at Nagasaki. In other Christmas stories fancy gains the upper hand. In Sarah’s Bead (2000) by Caroline S. Garrett we watch Christmas through the eyes of a rat, Sarah. She gives her most prized possession, a glass bead, to the Christ Child.
A second group of children’s books adapts the major religious or mythical texts for a young audience. The French publisher Gallimard collects texts from different religions in the series ‘Contes du ciel et de la terre’. Gallimard explains the concept of the series as follows:
Cette collection reunit des contes, des refits, des paraboles, des fables ou des legendes issus de toutes les traditions religieuses. En voyageant d travers ces contes, les enfants rencon- trent une humanite multiculturelle, multiethnique et multiconfessionelle.
[This series collects stories, tales, parables, fables or legends from all religious traditions. Travelling through these stories, children encounter a humanity that is multicultural, multiracial and multiconfessional.]
Almost all religions pay attention to creation, and children’s literature follows this example. There are a great many creation stories, with an individual accent and character according to each religion. This theme is also present in Eastern, African and Latin American children’s literature through ancient mythical stories or ‘pourquoi stories’. Ivonne Rivas in El dueno de la luz (1995) narrates myths of the Warao Indians about the birth of light, the sun and the moon. The Children of the Omumborombonga Tree (1990) by Meshack Asare is a creation myth from Namibia. Afsaneh (1990) [Legends] by Mohdokht Kashuli contains seven pre-Islamic creation stories. Steven Zeitlin in The Four Corners of the Sky. Creation Stories from Around the World (2000) collects creation stories from different cultures. When the Beginning Began: Stories about God, the Creatures and Us (1999) is a collection of Jewish creation stories edited by Julius Lester. The Creation (1994) by James Weldon Johnson dates from 1927 and is a poetic rendering of the creation story in the tradition of the Southern black country sermons, illustrated by James Ransome. It demonstrates how old texts can be revitalised and adapted for children. Other important religious texts such as the Bhagavad-gita also exist in children’s versions. Jean Vishaka Griesser adapted this sacred book in Our Most Dear Friend: An Illustrated Bhagavad-gita for Children (1996). The Wisdom of the Crows and Other Buddhist Tales (1997) is a collection of stories from Tibet, China and Japan narrated by Sherab Chodzin and Alexandra Kohn. The book contains fables, stories and the life of Buddha.
A biblical character with an enduring popularity in children’s fiction is Noah, the subject of many illustrated books — often by famous authors. Isaac Bashev Singer wrote Why Noah Chose the Dove (1987), Peter Spier Noah’s Ark (1992) and Lucy Cousins Noah’s Ark (1997). Papa Ob Long: The Animals’ Great Journey by Leroy Blankenship (1998) narrates the Flood as seen through the eyes of the giraffe; in A Prayer for the Earth: The Story of Naamah, Noah’s Wife (1996) by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, Noah’s wife tells her story. Noah can also be found as Nuh in Islamic children’s books: for example, Nuh [Noah: Peace Be upon Him (Stories of the Prophets from the Qur’An) (1999)] by Siddiqa Juma. The same series contains the stories of Adam, Musa (Moses) and Isa (Jesus).
Explicit religiosity is also found in books upholding a religious figure as an exemplary character. A well-known model is the lives of saints; because of their links with traditional Catholic religious experience, they were mainly used in Catholic juvenile fiction. Some saints stir the imagination more than others, with St Francis ending in first place in the popularity poll. Famous authors such as Max Bolliger in Euer Bruder Franz (1982) [Your Brother Francis], Tomie de Paola in Francis: The Poor Man of Assisi (1990), Margaret Hodges in Brother Francis and the Friendly Beasts (1991) and Margaret Mayo in Brother Sun, Sister Moon: The Story of St Francis (1999) write and illustrate his story. St Nicholas owes his popularity to the folk rituals connected with his name-day. He is the exemplary saint of the children. Very few children’s books refer explicitly to the religious importance of the figure of Nicholas. Ann Tompert adapts a number of Nicholas legends in Saint Nicolas (2000) whereas German author Josef Quadflieg in Nikolaus von Myra (1994) established the link between present-day folklore and the original legends. In Martin von Tours (1993) Quadflieg uses the same procedure for the similar figure of St Martin.
Some saints are more exclusively embedded in a certain culture. Joan of Arc is the main character in numerous French children’s books, while St Patrick, St Ciaran and Columcille form part of the Irish cultural heritage. The fascinating stories of their lives, full of adventure and suspense, have made their way into juvenile fiction. Margaret Hodges in Saint Patrick and the Peddler (1997) and Colman O Raghallaigh in An Scldbhai (2002) consider St Patrick; Gary D. Smith makes the case for Saint Ciaran: The Tale of a Saint of Ireland (2000) while Don Brown in Across a Dark and Wild Sea (2002) tells the story of the monk Columcille. In Spanish children’s literature Marcelino Pan y vino (1952) [The Miracle of Marcelino (1963)], an old legend recorded by Jose Maria Sanchez Silva, has become very popular. The Italian Don Bosco, founder of the Salesian order, has found a place in juvenile fiction through the youth work of this order. The lives of saints also form the subject of comic strips.
Although some religions do not worship saints, the children’s literature associated with them may yet propose exemplary figures. In Islam, the prophet is one such exemplary character. In Haft Hekayat as Bacheha Va Payambar (1373/1994) [Seven Anecdotes about Children and the Prophet] Mostafa Rahmandust introduces Muhammed as a true children’s friend. In Buddhism, Siddharta Gautama, the first enlightened person or Buddha, is the stock example, but the Dalai Lama can also fill that role. In The Prince Who Ran Away: The Story of Gautama Buddha (2001) Anne Rockwell narrates the life of Buddha for young readers. I Once Was a Monkey: Stories Buddha Told (1999) is a collection of jatakas or birth stories by Jeanne Lee. Tradition has it that Buddha told these fables in order to teach his pupils fundamental attitudes such as attention, respect and tolerance. For many Chinese, Confucius is still an inspirational figure. Russell Freedman narrates his life for children in Confucius: The Golden Rule (2002). Gandhi too fits the role of exemplary character: for example, in Gandhi: The Man of Peace (1995) by Indian writer Manorama Jafa. Many traditional Hindu stories confront children with appropriate ethical behaviour. In Madhur Jaffrey’s Seasons of Splendour. Tales, Myths and Legends of India (1985) the story of ‘Savitri and Satyavan’ from the Indian epic Mahabharata is told. This exemplary tale demonstrates how a young woman finds spiritual strength by selflessly helping others. This allows her to confront Yama, the Lord of Death.
In Jewish juvenile fiction, stories by survivors of the ghettos and camps are passed on in order to preserve the memory of their experiences. Hope and freedom are the recurring motives in My Bridges of Hope: Searching for Life and Love After Auschwitz (1999) by Livia Bitton-Jackson and Escape: Teens Who Escaped from Holocaust to Freedom (1998) by Sandra Giddens. In A Hero and the Holocaust: The Story of Janusz and His Children (2002), Polish doctor and children’s writer Janus Korczak is the main figure. He dedicated himself unconditionally to the cause of Jewish orphans, and died with them in Treblinka.
Many stories highlight important episodes from the history of a religion. They consider both moments of grandeur, such as the spread of religion by missionary work, and the tragic events happening when different religious convictions clash or try to impose their views forcefully (religious wars, inquisition). Traditional Christian historical tales in the first half of the twentieth century often had a triumphalist tone. Missionary tales often linked religious zelotism and adventure. The series ‘Aus fernen Landen’ from the German publisher Herder is a good example, as is the American series from Benzinger Brothers. The contribution of Jesuit authors to this genre of ‘new Catholic fiction’ is remarkable. The Swiss Jesuit Joseph Spillmann and German Jesuits Alexander Baumgartner and Huonder rank among the most prolific authors in the series ‘Aus fernen Landen’. The American Jesuits Henri Spalding, R. A. Welffle and Neil Boyton also acquired great popularity as children’s writers. The missionary tale has all but disappeared, but the South African book Joseph Zulu (1991) tells the story of the first black missionary in Zululand from a proper ‘black perspective’.
Since the 1970s historical stories about religious subjects show signs of a new approach. The ‘new historicism’ does not assume the superiority of one’s own position. Tales about the crusades trade the triumphalism of the past for a reflection on the sense of the immense bloodshed. Whereas the adventurous character predominates in The Children’s Crusade (1958) by Henry Treece, the crusader’s story La espada y la rosa (1993) [The Sword and the Rose] by Spanish author Martinez Menchen Antonio interweaves mystery, religiosity and brutality, presenting the Middle Ages in a much more realistic way. Such authors point out human weaknesses: greed, ambition and abuse of power are the grim face of idealism. Juvenile fiction also discovers the dark pages of history. In descriptions of witch trials or religious wars the intolerance of church authorities, the sensationalism of the crowds and the human dignity of the oppressed are recurring motifs. In Geier uber dem Montsegur (1973) [The Siege of Montsegur (1982)] German author Inge Ott describes the fall of the last stronghold of the Cathars. After a siege that lasts many years, the church authorities together with the worldly lords finally capture Montsegur. Hundreds of simple and ‘pure’ heretics are sent to the stake. Death by burning is also the fate of the anabaptist Johan Klopreis, the main character in the novel Ubergebt sie den Flammen! (1988) [Deliver Them To the Flames] by German author Tilman Rohrig.
New historical novels narrating the suffering caused by religious conflicts are also found outside of Western literature. Japanese author Sukeyuki Imanishi in Uragami no Tabibitotachi (1969) [Exiles of Uragami] describes the persecution of Christians in Nagasaki during the early Meiji period.
On the other hand, the non-Christian religions also use the model of the historical novel to show their own religious heroes in the best possible light. Khurram Murad in The Longing Heart (1985) tells about the journey to Mecca by Abu Dhar, who went looking for the prophet at a time when this choice was not without risks. Iranian writer Ebrahim Hassanbeigui in Amujan Abbas (1995) [Dear Uncle Abbas] narrates the death on the battlefield of Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammed. Martin Ballard in Uthman dan Folio: Commander of the Faithful (1977) describes the victories of Islam in Africa. In Travellers and Explorers (1992), a publication of IQRA’ Trust, the Muslim contributions to the development of science, law and economy in the past centuries are highlighted.
A last group of stories shows the impact of religion on the everyday life of the characters. These here-and-now stories explicitly relate the confrontation with faith. In the first part of the twentieth century, most of these are Bildungsromans in which an individual vocation, conversion or moral choice are the central issue. DasLichtder Berge (1931) [The Light on the Mountains (1960)] is a character novel by the Austrian Jesuit F. X. Weiser describing how Hein Moll, a boy from Tirol, is confronted in the capital Vienna with a number of fundamental issues. By trial and error he finds the strength to remain faithful to his Christian ideals. In this type of traditional novel a priest often acts as an adviser. In more recent juvenile fiction religion no longer forms the familiar setting in which the young characters grow up. A number of novels describe the search following the confrontation with religion. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970) by Judy Blume may well be the most famous book about this subject. Margaret is born into a mixed Jewish-Christian family and grows up without religion. She gets to choose later, but she does not want to remain ‘nothing’; she wants to belong and spends a school year searching. In Now I Know (1987) by British author Aidan Chambers the adolescent Nik gets an assignment on the historical Jesus. He too looks for answers to his many questions and, at the end of his stimulating quest, presents an individual interpretation of the figure of Jesus. In Katarina Mazetti’s Det ar slut Mellan Gud och mig (1995) [It’s Over between God and Me] Linnea is confronted with fundamental questions about God after her friend Pia commits suicide. God is also written about for young children. In the work of the Polish priest, poet and children’s writer Jan Twardowski, the Catholic religion with its familiar rituals and self-evident articles of faith plays an important role. His stories and poems are playful and humorous, but religion is seldom problematic. In Robin en God (1996) [Robin and God] by Dutch author Sjoerd Kuyper, on the other hand, six-year-old Robin quizzes his grandfather about God at Christmas - his unreligious parents being unable to answer his questions. In Grandad’s Prayers of the Earth (1999) by Doug Wood, a little boy whose grandfather has died finds comfort in what he told him - that everything in nature is connected with God. Authors often give their imagination free play, as in the picture book God (1999) by Flemish author Paul Verrept. A little boy discovers God through his grandfather’s telescope. In this story God is a kind, gentle father of rabbits, unconditionally taking sides for his children.
In many of these stories the title acts as a roadsign, alerting the reader to the religious content of the book. Certain characters can also function as an explicit religious sign for the reader. In the last decades of the twentieth century the angel again appeared in children’s fiction. Ariel in I et Speil i engate (1993) [Through a Glass Darkly (1999)] by Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder is a perfect example of an angel with a sound philosophical schooling. He keeps watch at the sickbed of the girl Cecilie and has profound discussions with her about God, man, life and death. Angels are often linked with the theme of death, as in Min syster ar an angel (1995) [My Little Sister is an Angel], a picture book by Ulf Stark and Anna Hoglund, in Bedstemor i Himlen (1996) [Grandma in Heaven] by Thomas Winding or in Painting Sunsets with the Angels (1996) by Vann Wesson. Angels also play the role of helpers in everyday life. They offer support during difficult decisions, like Pontifex the guardian angel from Andrew Matthews’ From Above with Love or Hanniel in Hanniel kommt in die Stadt (1989) [Hanniel is Coming to Town] by Austrian Lene Mayer-Skumanz. Sometimes the guardian angels point out a specific problem to the children in the story: for example, bullying in the novel The Angel of Nitshill Road (1992) by Anne Fine. In the tragic Hanna, Gottes kleinster Engel (1995) [Hannah, God’s Smallest Angel] by Angela Sommer-Bodenburg, little Hannah is a shining example, but she cannot survive the violence in the family that takes her in. In The Angel with a Mouth-Organ (1984) by Australian Christobel Mattingley the angel is just a sign, a symbol of hope of a better future. The children in this story about the Second World War keep a piece of stained glass depicting an angel as a talisman that will allow them to survive.
In most stories religion is shown to have positive effects. The stories demonstrate how characters find answers to the questions of life in their faith, which allows them to tackle life with more confidence. Other stories opt for an open ending or are more ‘neutral’. On the basis of the information that is presented, the reader has to reach her own conclusion. Occasionally religion or the Church as an institution are put in a bad light or hamper the development of the main character. In The Chocolate War (1974) by Robert Cormier, the main character Jerry Renault becomes the victim of intimidation and violence tolerated and even stimulated by the friars in high school. In Deliver Us from Evie (1994) another American author, M. E. Kerr, describes how a small traditional church community condemns the homosexuality of Evie.