Teaching Religious Diversity Through Children’s Literature

Green, Connie

It is the first day of school for 10-year-old Tariffa, a new student from Iran. He seems to adapt well to the morning routine; as the class prepares for lunch, however, he retreats to the back of the room and assumes ruku (the bowing position). Many of the children stare at Tariffa as they join the lunch line, leaving their new classmate behind.

In a 1st-grade classroom, Videk, a child who is Hindu, tells the other children at his snack table that his dog died the night before. He describes the family ritual after the pet’s death and shares that he is sure his dog will return to earth as another animal or maybe even as a person. Ricky, a child who is Christian, says that the dog is surely in heaven with God and Jesus.

Each week, the kindergarten children in Susan’s class set aside one day when they share something special from home. When it is Mara’s turn, she proudly brings a book to show the class. She tells Susan it is her favorite story about the Buddha and asks Susan to read it.

As the United States becomes an increasingly diverse nation, scenarios such as the above are more and more common in our public school classrooms, thereby necessitating that teachers and students learn about religious differences. Nevertheless, teachers who honor the multiplicity of cultural backgrounds within schools and communities may be perplexed about the appropriateness of addressing religious differences. The initial impetus for this article came from teachers’ questions, university class discussions, a desire to bring more substantive content into the curriculum, and the authors’ observations of and interest in religion in the schools.

The purposes of this article are to:

* Give a historical perspective on religious diversity in the United States

* Develop a rationale for teachers and children to learn about religious pluralism

* Provide basic information, resources for teachers, and appropriate children’s literature about major religious groups

* Explore developmentally appropriate and unobjectionable ways of introducing children to traditions and practices of various faiths through children’s literature

* Provide a selected bibliography of children’s books on religious diversity.


A good first step when thinking about teaching religious diversity is examining one’s own beliefs and level of acceptance, asking, “Do I accept values that are different from my own?” and “How do I feel about having children and families in my classroom who practice a variety of religions?” (Myers & Martin, 1993). Although many teachers will agree that they should respect their students’ diverse religious traditions, they are unsure about what they can and cannot teach regarding religion. Most teachers in the United States accept the principle of separation of church and state and, therefore, find it confusing when they try to determine the content for a curriculum on religious diversity. As a result, some teachers choose not to bring up religion at all. According to Nel Noddings, “Educators are afraid to address religion in the schools and cite the First Amendment, which is really silly because the First Amendment doesn’t prevent teaching about religion” (Halford, 1998/1999, p. 28).

Children bring to school not only their cognitive, physical, and emotional differences, but also their cultural traditions, including religious practices. When teachers have children in their classrooms who are Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Jehovah’s Witness, they have a vested interest in learning about their religious beliefs and practices. If we want children to feel safe and cared for at school and if we want to respect their families’ hopes and beliefs, it is important that we know about their deepest convictions and values. Teachers and students need to move beyond the idea of tolerance toward an “active attempt to understand the other” (Eck, 2001, p. 70).

Classrooms where religious diversity is honored help children develop and preserve their cultural identity. As Esther Home, a Shoshone Indian who struggled against a dominant white culture, states, “An individual without identity is like a plant devoid of nourishment. It withers and dies. Possessing identity, we feel a sense of freedom from within” (Home, 2003, p. 32).

Teaching about religion is also vital for understanding history, literature, art, and music. According to a coalition of 17 major religious and educational organizations, “Omission of facts about religion can give students the false impression that the religious life of humankind is insignificant or unimportant” (cited in Haynes & Thomas, 2001, p. 73). Social studies educators are especially adamant about including religion in the study of culture and history. According to the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), “Knowledge about religions is not only characteristic of an educated person, but also is absolutely necessary for understanding and living in a world of diversity” (NCSS, 1998).

Another goal of social studies education is to develop globally minded citizens who will develop interest in people and cultures different from their own (Merryfield, 2004). To support children in developing global dispositions, Merryfield calls for “substantive culture learning” in which students become more aware of the complexities of world cultures. Substantive culture learning also applies to learning about religious diversity within the United States. For example, simply knowing that most people in the United States are Christian ignores the rich variations within Christianity, such as Quakers, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Amish, Pentecostals, and Seventh-day Adventists.


The religious tapestry of the United States has changed dramatically over time. Before the Europeans arrived, Native American culture was shaped by spiritual forces based on visions and a connection to the natural world that transcended time through oral traditions. The large majority of the first European settlers were Protestant Christian, having emigrated from the northwest region of Europe. The forced immigration of African slaves in 1619 brought a variety of African religious traditions grounded in multiple divinities and connections between states of being (living and dead, natural and supernatural) (Williams, 2002). Many Irish emigrated in the early 1800s to avoid persecution and famine. As a result, by 1850 the Roman Catholic Church was the largest group of Christians in the United States and remains so today, partially because of the growing Latino population. Later in the 19th century, the immigrants who came from Eastern and Southern Europe were primarily Roman Catholic, Jewish, or Eastern Orthodox. The Japanese brought Buddhism to Hawaii in 1868, and Chinese laborers introduced Buddhism to the West when they came to work on the railroads and in the mines in the mid-19th century. Islam came to the United States from the Middle East in the early 17th century with Muslim slaves, with Middle East immigrants seeking freedom from oppression in 1870s, and with immigrants seeking economic opportunities within the automobile industry in the 1920s. Hindus, primarily people of the professional classes from India and Southeast Asia, began to arrive in greater numbers with the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. In more recent years, immigrants from Vietnam and Laos have brought folk religions such as animism into some U.S. communities (Prewitt, 2002; Williams, 2002).

Consequently, the United States is not only a nation of Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, but also a nation of seekers, Deists, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, pagans, Baha’is, Muslims, agnostics, atheists, and followers of Native American spiritual traditions. One can find 300 Buddhist temples in Los Angeles, and there was a 25 percent increase in the number of mosques built in the United States between 1995 and 2000. In fact, American Muslims now outnumber Episcopalians (Prewitt, 2002). The White House celebrates Eid al-Filr at the end of Ramadan; in small New Jersey towns, Hindus sing, dance, and color their bodies and clothes with bright powders for Holi. According to Diana Eck, “The United States has become the most religiously diverse nation on earth” (2001, p. 4). This gradual, yet massive, change to our religious tapestry has had an enormous impact on our communities and our schools (Eck, 2001; Pipher, 2002).


One of the best ways to help children and teachers understand religious diversity is through children’s literature. Children can strengthen their understanding of their own belief systems as well as their understanding of others’ beliefs by hearing stories about people from a variety of religions. Biographies and first-person accounts are an especially valid way to learn about the culture of other people. This article will address Native American spirituality, plus the five largest religious traditions introduced to the United States from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Native American Spirituality

No one set of beliefs can be called the Native American religion; each tribe or group has a unique cultural history. In fact, Native American spirituality is not considered a religion in the same sense as other world religions are. Instead, Native American “beliefs and practices form an integral and seamless part of their very being” (“Native American Spirituality,” 2002, p. 1). The spirituality that was central to the lives of Indians before the arrival of Europeans in the late 15th and early 16th centuries is evidenced through such oral traditions as the story of the Peacemaker, a spiritual leader who united the Iroquois peoples of New York, and through such physical evidence as burial sites in the lower Mississippi Valley and the Aztec temples in Mexico. Most Indians believe in a deity, either a supreme being or a dual divinity. The dual divinity is a Creator and a mythical individual, such as a hero or trickster. In addition, there are spirits that control the natural world and may be perceived as one force with the Creator (“Native American Spirituality,” 2002). Therefore, to many Native peoples, most natural structures (celestial bodies and mountains), life forms (plants and animals), and forces of nature (thunderstorms and volcanoes) have meaning. Sometimes, masks are worn to represent these spirits. Most Native Americans practice a blend of traditional beliefs combined with Christianity, which was introduced by the Spanish in the 16th century and later by missionaries from Spain and other European countries in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries (Maestro, 1996; Martin, 1999). The Inuit and many Indians of the Southwest, however, practice traditional beliefs that have remained essentially unaffected by outside religious influence (“Native American Spirituality,” 2002).

The Path of Quiet Elk: A Native American Alphabet Book (Stroud, 1996) illustrates myriad connections between people and the Earth. The author, who is Cherokee-Creek, introduces us to Looks Within, a Plains Indian girl in the late 1800s, who joins The Wisdom Keeper to learn the spiritual meaning of life forms they encounter on the “path of the quiet elk,” which is a “way of looking at life.” According to The Wisdom Keeper, D is for Dragonflies, whose “wings shine in the sun’s light . . . that comes from the great Creator” (Stroud, 1996, unpaged).

James Whetung, who is Anishinaabeg and Celtic, wrote The Vision Seeker (1996), about a young Anishinaabeg boy who goes on a vision quest. His quest takes him to the top of a mountain, where he fasts and dreams. The vision he receives in the dream reveals the origins and meaning of the Sweat Lodge, a ritual important to many Native Americans. According to Whetung, “The body holds the cultural memory” and “through the practice of the Sweat Lodge . . . we come back into contact with ourselves” (author’s note), The book is colorfully and dramatically illustrated by Paul Morin, who authentically illustrates the rituals he observed while living in many indigenous cultures.


Originating in India, Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest and most-practiced religions. Adherents of Hinduism refer to their beliefs as “eternal teaching” or “eternal law.” Although the Hindus believe in many gods and goddesses, three predominate: Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the preserver; and Shiva, who destroys, then regenerates. Hindu gods and goddesses can take on many different forms, including human and animal. Goddesses have the same or more importance than gods, because gods can receive power (Shakti) from goddesses.

According to Hindu traditions, people want four things in life: pleasure, worldly success, community, and enlightenment or union with God. Hindus follow different paths to knowing God through different types of yoga, which frequently involves complex physical and mental exercises. Some types of yoga include: Jnana yoga (knowledge), Bhakti yoga (devotion or love toward a deity), Karma yoga (working to help others), and Dhyanyoga (meditation).

Three important concepts within Hinduism are dharma, karma, and reincarnation. Dharma means practicing a life of virtue, truthfulness, nonviolence, and patience. The quality of one’s work and interactions with others is emphasized over external reward. The Law of Karma is the belief that thoughts, words, and actions in this life should be completed without the expectation of a worldly reward. Adherents believe that each decision is a free act that will eventually have a consequence. The concept of reincarnation, based on the Law of Karma, means that following death, the soul is reborn into a new body. Positive actions in one’s current life can lead to a better life, whereas negative behavior may result in reincarnation as a lower life form. The ultimate goal for Hindus is to reach such enlightenment as to become one with God, thus liberating them from the cycle of birth and death. Within Hinduism, all humans and other living things are considered sacred and deserving of reverence and care.

Stories are a traditional way of conveying Hindu wisdom. The tale of Ganesh, the little boy devoted to protecting his mother, Parvati, the beautiful goddess, is a good example. In How Ganesh Got His Elephant Head (2003), authors Harish Johari and Vatsala Sperling introduce an unusual saga with a cast of Hindu gods and goddesses who transform themselves, battle one another, and teach valuable life truths through their actions. Readers will not only find out how a boy ended up with the head of an elephant, but also learn about strength of character, commitment, and parental love.

Savitri (Shepard, 1992) is a well-known Indian tale of love, devotion, and will. Savitri cares so much for her husband that when he dies, she tries to follow Yama, the god of death, to his domain. Seeing her love for her husband, Yama gives Savitri three wishes, the final of which only can be granted by returning her husband to life. Beautifully illustrated by Vera Rosenberry, the tale evokes images of ancient India while conveying values still relevant today.

Bhagavad-Gita for Children: Our Most Dear Friend (Vishaka, 1996) is the story about the origins of the most sacred Hindu text, the Bhagavad-Gita-the song of God. The author uses clear language to provide an introduction to Hinduism for any age. Captivating paintings and photo-collage help explain such Hindu concepts as the difference between the soul and the body, reincarnation, and the material and spiritual worlds.


The name “Buddha” means the Awakened One, or someone who has become enlightened. Buddhism was begun in India by a Hindu prince named Siddhartha Gautama, who left the confines of his palace to seek out the meaning of suffering, illness, old age, and death. After many years of searching, Siddhartha adopted the Middle Way, a place between the excesses of luxury and a life of poverty. Buddhism does not include belief in a god; followers believe the teachings of Siddhartha, who became the Buddha, provide guidance for their lives.

Buddhism, practiced mainly in Asian countries, now has many followers within the United States and Canada, in part because of increased immigration from Asian countries since the 1960s and Westerners’ interest in Zen, a type of Buddhist meditation. Through meditation and compassion for others, Buddhists strive to realize that their individual selves are not the focus of attention. They believe in simplicity, abstaining from gossip or lying, striving to end unhealthy states of mind, and making a living in a way that harms no one. Buddhism is based on four noble truths: 1) life inevitably involves suffering, is imperfect, and is unsatisfactory; 2) suffering originates in desire; 3) when desire ends, suffering ends; and 4) humans can end desire and suffering by following the eightfold path. The eightfold path, often depicted as a circle with eight spokes, offers guidance for daily living:

* Right understanding-awareness of Buddha’s teachings

* Right thoughts or intentions-uncovering and uprooting unhealthy emotions

* Right speech-abstaining from gossip, lying, and harsh language

* Right action-avoiding destruction of life, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxicants

* Right livelihood-making an honest living that hurts no living thing

* Right endeavor-striving to end unwholesome states of mind

* Right mindfulness-awareness of bodily processes, feelings, states of mind, and thoughts

* Right concentration-practicing meditation that leads to enlightenment.

Noted children’s book author/artist Demi became curious about Buddhism at the age of 3, when she bought a statue of Buddha at a five-and-dime store. As an adult, she pursued her interest by studying art in India and collecting books on Buddhism from many countries; eventually, she became a practicing Buddhist. Her portrayal of the life of Siddnartha Gautama in Buddha (1996) reflects her deep understanding of and respect for the religion, the culture in which it developed, and the artistic traditions of China and Tibet. Buddha Stories (Demi, 1997) is a collection of animal fables that teach the moral principles of Buddhism. The striking illustrations, painted in gold on indigo paper, were inspired by ancient Buddhist texts. In combination, these stunning books convey to young readers the history, stories, and beliefs of Buddhism.

Learning From the Dalai Lama: secrets of the Wheel of Time (Pandell & Bryant, 1995) provides a brief biography of the Dalai Lama, a great leader in the Buddhist faith. In the second half of the book, the Dalai Lama and the monks who accompanied him to the United States are depicted creating a sand mandala and participating in the rituals surrounding this spiritual and artistic endeavor. Through detailed photographs and descriptions of each stage of the mandala formation, the reader comes to understand the sacred place of this experience in Buddhist tradition.

Buddha Boy (Koja, 2003) is the story of the growing friendship between Justin, a reserved student whose goal is to complete school without being noticed, and Jinsen, a devout Buddhist. As the boys work together on a school project, Justin learns of Jinsen’s previous acting-out behaviors, his devotion to Buddhism, and the death of Jinsen’s parents. Jinsen renounces most material objects (including a coat), but uses his inherited money to purchase paints and drawing materials that support his artistic talents. The values of Buddhism are illuminated through Jinsen’s choices, demeanor, and relationships with other students.


The ancient religion of Judaism originated among the nomadic Hebrew people in the land of Ur, now Iraq. Abraham, a Hebrew, is considered the father of Judaism. Abraham promoted the idea of a belief in one God who created all that exists, a concept that distinguished the Jews from the polytheistic belief systems of the time. Jews believe that God made a covenant (promise) with Abraham through which the Jews became “God’s chosen people” and agreed to keep the Ten Commandments. Abraham brought his family to Canaan, where his son Isaac remained. Isaac’s son, Jacob, moved his family to Egypt, where the Israelites, as they were then known, eventually became enslaved by the Egyptians. Around 1250 BCE, Moses pled with the Egyptian pharaoh to free the Israelites. When the Pharaoh refused, God inflicted a series of 10 plagvies on the Egyptians. After the final plague, when Egyptian firstborn males were killed, Moses led the Israelites out of slavery. This event, called the Exodus, is commemorated by the Jewish holiday of Passover. Jews have been persecuted throughout history, with the Holocaust being the most tragic contemporary event, in which six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis. For Jews, history is of supreme significance (Smith, 1994).

There are hundreds of Jewish laws, but the Ten Commandments, given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai, form the core of Jewish values:

* Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

* Thou shalt not make thyself a graven image.

* Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

* Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

* Honor thy father and thy mother.

* Thou shalt not murder.

* Thou shalt not commit adultery.

* Thou shalt not steal.

* Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

* Thou shalt not covet.

Prayers, both formal and informal, are an important part of Jewish life. There are specific prayers for different times of day, for the Sabbath, and for holy days, as well as individual prayers communicated directly to God. Jews worship in synagogues, generally on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings (during the Sabbath), and follow a lunar calendar for religious holidays (Rogers & Hickman, 2001). Rabbis are the teachers within the Jewish community who, with others, study Jewish law.

All Jews affirm the foundations of Judaism-God, Torah, and eretz Yisrael (“land of Israel,” the land that Jews believe God set aside for them). However, the three main branches of Judaism-Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative-differ in their beliefs and practices. Orthodox Jews believe that God gave the Torah directly to Moses and that it has come to them unchanged. They uphold certain traditional practices, such as dietary (kosher) laws, separation of men and women in synagogue, and reciting prayers in Hebrew. Reform Jews, like Orthodox Jews, believe the Torah is the foundation of Jewish life; however, they believe the Torah was written by different people. They also worship in the native language of their countries and do not as often follow strict dietary laws. They strive to bring justice, freedom, and peace to the world through good works. Conservative Jews, who primarily live in the United States, believe Jewish writings came from God, but were transmitted by people and contain human elements. Conservative Judaism combines elements of Orthodox and Reform Judaism. For example, Conservative Jews include Hebrew in their services, believe that laws and traditions may change with the times, and are committed to Jewish observances. Today, the largest Jewish populations are in the United States, France, Russia, and Great Britain.

Berger (1998) explains the meaning behind eight of the Jewish holy days in Celebrate! Stories of Jewish Holidays. Each short story is followed by a time line of its origin within Jewish history, as well as sections titled “What we celebrate” and “How we celebrate.” The authors provide several recipes for holiday foods and craft ideas, such as Purim puppet heads and matzah covers for Pesach (Passover).

Through poetry, songs, plays, and art, Wonders and Miracles (Kimmel, 2004) provides a wealth of information about Passover. Dramatic illustrations represent work from four continents spanning 3,000 years. Stories from the Torah and midrash (rabbinical legends that explain Torah stories) are interspersed with modern accounts of Soviet and American families celebrating Passover. Clear explanations about ritual prayers and foods included in the Seder celebration make this book appropriate for both Jewish and non-Jewish students. Told from the perspective of 9-year-old Micah, Celebrating Passover (Hoyt-Goldsmith, 2000) provides a photographic glimpse into the way one American family commemorates the holiday.

Ceremonies marking life transitions are very important to Jewish families. Blessings: Our Jewish Ceremonies, by Melanie Hope Greenberg (1995), offers brief descriptions of 13 ceremonies, including Brit Milah (welcome for a baby boy), Simhat Bat (welcome for a baby girl), marriage, divorce, and burial. The author’s bright, cheerful illustrations and short descriptions make this a good introduction to Judaism for primary-age children. Two companion books for middle-grade readers, Bat Mitzvah: A Jewish Girl’s Coming of Age (Goldin, 1995) and Bar Mitzvah: A Jewish Boy’s Coming of Age (Kimmel, 1995), present detailed information about adolescents preparing for these ceremonies and the structure and meaning behind the rituals. Bat Mitzvah is divided into two parts: Jewish women’s place in history and the events leading up to the ceremony, in which a young woman’s talents and interests are highlighted. Bar Mitzvah addresses study of the Torah and the Talmud, the role of prayer, and ways that an ancient ritual is modernized for today’s youth.


Christianity originated in the Middle East and was originally a sect of Judaism. Christians adopted the monotheism of Judaism, but also believed that God sent his Son Jesus to earth as savior. Jesus was born to Mary in Bethlehem of Judea and his birth is now celebrated as Christmas. As an adult, Jesus delivered sermons through the use of parables (stories) to groups of people who gathered to hear him. Some Roman politicians thought Jesus was a threat to their power and they had him crucified (nailed to a cross). Christians believe Jesus was resurrected after death and ascended to heaven. The teachings of Jesus and his 12 apostles, or followers, are written in the books of the New Testament of the Christian Bible.

The two greatest of God’s commandments for Christians are to love God and love one’s neighbor. They advocate forgiveness, even of one’s enemies. The doctrine of the Trinity is the belief in three aspects of the divine: God, the Father and creator of the world; Jesus Christ, his Son; and the Holy Spirit. Jesus is viewed as an incarnation of God, or God in human flesh. Christians believe that humans are created in God’s image, but have a separate existence from Him.

Today, one-third of people worldwide and 76.5 percent of the adult population in the United States practices Christianity (Maestro, 1996). The three main branches of Christianity are Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant, with Catholic being the largest. The early Christian church was Catholic, but geography and linguistics soon led to western and eastern divisions. In the west (centered in Rome), the Pope is considered infallible. The eastern group (led by Constantinople) rejected papal supremacy, as do Greek and Russian Orthodox followers today. Protestantism began when Martin Luther protested the power of the Pope and the Catholic hierarchy in Germany in 1517 (Williams, 2002). Within Protestantism, there are many denominations, including Baptist, Presbyterian, Society of Friends (Quaker), Mennonite, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (Mormon), Methodist, and Episcopalian. Beliefs and practices vary greatly among these branches and denominations, as well as across countries and cultures.

The Baptist tradition, widely practiced in the South by both black and white Americans, includes over 50 recognized types of Baptists. One famous African American Baptist, Mahalia Jackson, is featured in Mahalia: A Life in Gospel Music (Orgill, 2002). Blackand-white photographs feature Mahalia’s early life in poverty in New Orleans, her life in Chicago as a young girl, and her battles with discrimination. The story focuses on the power of faith in shaping her life and her singing, which she dedicated to praising God. She sang for royalty in Europe, for workers boycotting the buses in Montgomery, and for mourners at Martin Luther King’s funeral. The biography helps readers understand the inscription on Mahalia’s tombstone: “The world’s greatest gospel singer.”

In various parts of the United States, members of Anabaptist religious communities, Hutterites, Amish, Dunkards, Apostolic Christian, and Old Order Mennonites believe in the simple life and reject some or most of the modern world. One of these groups, the Old Order Mennonites, is featured in A People Apart, by Kathleen Kenna (1995). According to the story, Old Order Mennonites try “to be in the world but not of the world” (p. 35) by raising their own food, making their own clothes, using horse-drawn carriages and wagons, avoiding the use of electricity, and shunning military service, which they believe corrupts true Christian values. Their life is documented in the book with black-and-white photographs of farmwork, schools, a barn raising, and activities of children and young people. Andrew Stawicki, the photographer, received special permission to take the photographs, as Old Order Mennonites consider pictures of themselves to be prideful.

The story of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (Mormon) offers another important perspective on Christianity. Charnan Simon (1998), in Brigham Young: Mormon and Pioneer, tells about the beginning of the church in 1830 and its founder, Joseph Smith. Mormons were heavily persecuted due to their closed society and belief in marriage to more than one spouse (polygamy). After Smith was killed for his beliefs, Brigham Young led the Mormons from Nauvoo, Illinois, to the Great Basin in Utah. Simon chronicles Young’s trek across the country with 72 wagons of families, and describes their arrival at what is now Salt Lake City. In order for Utah to become a state in 1896, Mormons gave up the practice of polygamy. According to this biography, Brigham Young led the Mormons by advocating hard work, planning for the future, and stressing the importance of family and tradition. Today, Utah remains rich in Mormon culture and tradition.

A book that explores the Catholic faith and Mexican culture is The Lady of Guadalupe (dePaola, 1980), the legend of the patron saint of Mexico. Through beautiful watercolors depicting 16th-century Mexican art and architecture, dePaola tells the story of Juan Diego, an Aztec who was converted to Catholicism by Spanish priests. Diego sees a vision of Mary, who Catholics revere as the Mother of God, on Tepeyac, a hilltop, and she tells him to build a church in her name on that site. After several setbacks, Diego convinces the Bishop of Mexico to build a chapel in her honor. The chapel is now a cathedral where the cloth worn by Juan Diego, containing an image of Mary, is prominently displayed.


Islam, the youngest of the world’s great religions, was founded approximately 1,400 years ago by the prophet Muhammad in the city of Mecca, in what is now Saudi Arabia. Muhammad, an honest herder and businessman, was disturbed by people’s beliefs in many gods. Islamic writings relate the story of a day when Muhammad, who was praying on Mount Hira, was visited by God’s angel, Gabriel, who called upon him to become a messenger of God. The angel instructed him to “recite,” and he began speaking the poetic words of the Koran. For the next 23 years, Muhammad received messages from God, which he memorized and later recited to scribes. These writings became the Koran, the sacred Islamic guide to moral and social behavior. The word “Islam” is translated as meaning “full submission”; those who practice Islam are known as Muslims, which means “obedient ones.” Two major sects were formed shortly after Muhammad’s death, divided by a disagreement about his successor and the way Islam is practiced. The two major sects are Sunni, who make up about 90 percent of all Muslims, and Shi’ah (Rogers & Hickman, 2001).

Muslims believe in Allah, the all-powerful, and only God, and his prophet Muhammad. When Muslims speak the name of Muhammad, they always add, “Blessings and peace be upon him and his followers.” Their faith is structured by the five pillars of Islam:

* The Shahada: The declaration of faith-“There is no God but Allah.”

* Salat: The ritual prayer said at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and before bed, while facing the holy city of Mecca.

* Zakat: Almsgiving to the poor and support for Islamic institutions.

* Sawm: Fasting throughout the month of Ramadan during the daylight hours for adults and older children, who are supposed to concentrate on self-discipline, love, and the need for Allah.

* Hajj: A pilgrimage to the holy site of Mecca during one’s lifetime for those who are financially able.

On Fridays, Muslims gather at mosques for midday prayer, then return to work or other activities. No distinction is made between the sacred and the everyday in the Muslim way of life. Muslims believe that everyone is equal in the eyes of Allah, and that widows, orphans, and animals should be treated with kindness. Muslims believe in treating themselves with respect; therefore, many object to such aspects of Western culture as popular music, drinking, gambling, and sexually explicit images.

There are over one billion Muslims worldwide, with the largest concentrations in the Middle East and in northern and western Africa. Within the United States, the highest Muslim populations are in the Detroit, Michigan, area. Islam long has been an important part of the African American religious tradition, beginning when approximately 10 percent of slaves brought their Muslim faith from west Africa to the United States. The Black Muslim movement began more formally in 1913 in New Jersey when Timothy Drew attracted urban blacks with a call for pride and belonging (Eck, 2001; Williams, 2002).

Muhammad, by Demi (2003), is the first Western language children’s biography of the founder of Islam. Within Islam, Muhammad is never pictured; therefore, Demi depicts him as a profile figure of solid gold. Elegantly illustrated in the Persian two-dimensional style, the book evokes a Middle Eastern setting. By experiencing this exquisite masterpiece, children can learn not only the history of Islam, but also about the beliefs and traditions important to modern-day Muslims.

Muslim Child: Understanding Islam Through Stories and Poems (Khan, 1999) is an excellent resource for both historical and modern stories and poems. The author describes the history of Islam, and offers fictional accounts of Muslim life set in several different countries. Recipes and craft activities are provided to expand children’s understanding of Islam. Sidebars offer additional information on historical figures, holy places, and celebrations.

Two other excellent books that provide insight into Muslim worship are Celebrating Ramadan (Hoyt-Goldsmith, 2001) and What You Will See Inside a Mosque (Khan, 2003). The former describes daily prayers, fasting, meals, reading of the Koran, and schooling of a Muslim family during the month of Ramadan. Through photographs and clearly written text, the reader learns, for example, about the steps of prayer and the Iftar meal (eaten to end the daily fast). The latter book shows photographs from inside a mosque, such as the sinks for doing wudu (cleansing of hands and feet before prayer), clothing to be worn on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and a library where Muslims can study their religion. Both books make the point that Muslims in the United States originate from all parts of the world, with different traditions.


Teaching about religion can be a confusing topic for many teachers. Four excellent sources that give teachers guidelines for including content about religion are: The First Amendment in Schools (Haynes, Chaltain, Ferguson, Hudson, & Thomas, 2003); Finding Common Ground (Haynes & Thomas, 2001); the “Teaching About Religion” Web site (Objectivity, Accuracy, and Balance in Teaching About Religion, 2002); and America’s Religions: An Educator’s Guide to Beliefs and Practices (Hubbard, Hatfield, & Santucci, 1997). These publications recommend that teachers: 1) introduce children to content about religion, rather than about the practice of a particular religion; 2) include a wide variety of religions in their study; 3) refrain from promoting or denigrating any religion; and 4) facilitate children’s awareness of religious differences, without advocating acceptance of one over another.

Teachers should consider the following suggestions in seeking high-quality children’s literature for teaching about different religions:

* Select books that are written by someone who is a member of that religion or who has studied it in depth

* Read books before sharing them with students

* Choose books with clear, vigorous writing, compelling details, an interesting format, and appealing illustrations

* Check for currency and accuracy of facts in nonfiction books

* Include a variety of genres-folktales, realistic fiction, historical fiction, biography, poetry, and nonfiction. (Mitchell, 2003)

Using children’s literature is a wonderful way to validate the religious beliefs within one’s classroom and explore the diversity of religions practiced around the world. Teachers and students can develop other creative ways to explore books and incorporate them across the curriculum, such as literature circle discussions; reader’s theater; reflecting on the “universal significance of the text” (Mitchell, 2003, p. 114); aesthetic response through art, music, or drama; and connecting one’s own ideas and experiences to the words or art in the book.

As teachers and children learn more about religions, they will find that many faith traditions have core values in common. One of those is “The Golden Rule” (Maestro, 1996) or “Ethic of Reciprocity,” a concept found in the writings of almost all religions:

* Native American spirituality (Iroquois): “All things are our relatives; what we do to everything, we do to ourselves” (The Great Law of Peace).

* Hinduism: “This is the sum of Dharma [duty]: Do naught unto others which would cause pain if done to you” (Mahabharata 5:1517).

* Buddhism: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful” (Udana-Varga 5:18).

* Judaism: “…thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18).

* Christianity: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31).

* Islam: “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself” (Number 13 of Imam “Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths”).

When children from diverse backgrounds bring their fears, concerns, wonderings, and delights into our classrooms, it is up to us, as educators, to assure them that they are completely valued (Myers & Martin, 1993). When a teacher acknowledges a child’s religious traditions, the teacher helps that child develop a sense of identity. When teachers and children learn about different religions in valid and substantive ways, the curriculum is enhanced to include all aspects of the human experience. And finally, when teachers and children learn about different spiritual traditions, they develop empathy for others and become global citizens with interests and understandings beyond their own experiences.


Dear Families,

In our social studies program, your children have been learning that the United States is becoming an increasingly diverse nation. One important part of this diversity is the variety of religious faiths. As the children study their country’s heritage, and the variety of cultures represented within our nation, they will also learn about the religious diversity. The religious diversity curriculum will focus on the religions with the largest number of adherents in the United States: Native American spirituality, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

An important way for children to develop and preserve their own cultural identity and belief system is through learning about other cultures and their religions. The focus of our religious diversity study will be on learning about different religions. We will not participate in any faithbased rituals or practices, nor will we promote one religion over another.

We will read children’s literature about each major religion in our study. The teachers have selected high-quality fiction and nonfiction books that convey the essence of each religious tradition. Information from the books will be supplemented by guest speakers, videotapes, music, and art from each tradition. You are welcome to stop by the classroom to review the books and other materials. Please let us know if you have any questions.


P=primary (K-3), I=intermediate (Grades 4-6), M=middle school (Grades 7-9)

Berger, G. (1998). Celebrate! Stories of the Jewish holidays. New York: Scholastic. (I)

Demi. (1996). Buddha. New York: Henry Holt. (P, I)

Demi. (1997). Buddha stories. New York: Henry Holt. (P, I)

Demi. (2003). Muhammad. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books. (I)

dePaola, T. (1980). The Lady of Guadalupe. New York: Holiday House. (P)

Eck, D. (2001). A new religious America. San Francisco: HarperCollins.

Goldin, B. D. (1995). Bat Mitzvah: A Jewish girl’s coming of age. New York: Viking. (M)

Greenberg, M. H. (1995). Blessings: Our Jewish ceremonies. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society. (I)

Halford, J. M. (1998/1999). Longing for the sacred in schools: A conversation with Nel Noddings. Educational Leadership, 56(4), 28-32.

Haynes, C. C., Chaltain, S., Ferguson, J. E., Hudson, D. L., & Thomas, O. (2003). The First Amendment in schools. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Haynes, C. C.,& Thomas, O. (Eds.). (2001). Finding common ground: A guide to religious liberty in public schools. Nashville, TN: First Amendment Center.

Horne, E. B. (2003, Summer). The development of identity and pride in the Indian child. Multicultural Education, 10(4), 32-38.

Hoyt-Goldsmith,D. (2000). Celebrating Passover. New York: Holiday House. (P, I)

Hoyt-Goldsmith, D. (2001). Celebrating Ramadan. New York: Holiday House. (P, I)

Hubbard, B., Hatfield, J., & Santucci, J. (1997). America’s religions: An educator’s guide to beliefs and practices. Englewood, CO: Teacher Ideas Press.

Johari, H., & Sperling, V. (2003). How Ganesh got his elephant head. Rochester, VT: Bear Cub Books. (I)

Khan, R. (1999). Muslim child: Understanding Islam through stories and poems. Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman. (P, I)

Khan, A. K. (2003). What you will see inside a mosque. Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing. (P, I)

Kenna, K. (1995). A people apart. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. (I)

Kimmel, E. A. (1995). Bar Mitzvah: A Jewish boy’s coming of age. New York: Viking. (M)

Kimmel, E. A. (2004). Wonders and miracles: A Passover companion. New York: Scholastic. (I)

Koja, K. (2003). Buddha boy. New York: Frances Foster Books. (M)

Maestro, B. (1996). The story of religion. New York: Clarion.

Martin, J. W. (1999). Native American religion. New York: Oxford University Press. (M)

Merryfield, M. M. (2004). Elementary students in substantive culture learning. Social Education, 68(4), 270-273.

Mitchell, D. (2003). Children’s literature: An invitation to the world. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Myers, B., & Martin, M. (1993). Faith foundations for all our children. Young Children, 48(2), 49-55.

Native American spirituality. (2002). Retrieved June 29, 2004, from www.religioustolerance.org

Objectivity, Accuracy, and Balance In Teaching About Religion. (2002). Teaching about religion. Retrieved June 27, 2004, from www.teachingaboutreligion.org

Orgill, R. (2002). Mahalia: A life in gospel music. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press. (M)

Pandell, K. (with B. Bryant). (1995). Learning from the Dalai Lama. New York: Dutton. (I)

Pipher, M. (2002). The middle of everywhere. New York: Harcourt.

Prewitt, K. (2002). Demography, diversity, and democracy: The 2000 census story. Brookings Review, 20(1), 6-9.

Rogers, K., & Hickman, C. (2001). The Usborne Internet-linked encyclopedia of world religions. New York: Scholastic. www.usborne-quicklinks.com (I, M)

Shepard, A. (1992). Savitri: A tale of ancient India. Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman. (P, I)

Simon, C. (1998). Brigham Young: Mormon and pioneer. New York: Children’s Press. (M)

Smith, H. (1994). The illustrated world’s religions. New York: HarperCollins.

Stroud, V. A. (1996). The path of the quiet elk: A Native American alphabet book. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers. (P)

National Council for the Social Studies. (1998). Study about religions in the social studies curriculum. Retrieved on July 12, 2004, from www.socialstudies.org/positions/religion/

Vishaka. (1996). Bhagavad-gita for children: Our most dear friend. Badger, CA: Torchlight Publishers. (P, I)

Whetung, J. (1996). The vision seeker. Toronto, Canada: Stoddart Publishing Co. Limited. (I)

Williams, P. W. (2002). America’s religions: from their origins to the twenty-first century. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Children’s Books About Religions of the World

Breuilly, E., O’Brien, J., & Palmer, M. (1997). Religions of the world. New York: Fernleigh Books. (I)

Brown, A., & Langley, A. (1999). What I believe. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press. (P, I)

Glossop, J. (2003). World religions. New York: Kids Can Press, (I, M)

McFarlane, M. (1996). Sacred myths. Portland, OR: Sibyl. (P, I, M)

Osborne, M. P. (1996). One world, many religions. New York: Random House. (I, M)

Stewart, M. (1988). Creation stories. Toronto, Canada: Stoddart Publishing. (M)

Additional Children’s Books About Native American Spirituality

Bruchac, J. (1996). Between earth and sky: Legends of Native American sacred places. San Diego: Harcourt Brace. (I)

Bruchac, J. (2000). Crazy Horse’s vision. New York: Lee and Low Books. (P, I)

Grutman, J. H. (1994). The ledgerbook of Thomas Blue Eagle. West Palm Beach, FL: Lickle Publishing. (I, M)

Kusugak, M. A. (1993). Northern lights: The soccer trails. Toronto, Ontario: Annick Press. (P)

Ortiz, S. (1988). The people shall continue. San Francisco: Children’s Book Press. (I)

Additional Children’s Books About Hinduism

Ganeri, A. (2003). Hindu festivals throughout the year. North Mankato, MN: Smart Apple Media. (I)

Ganeri, A. (2003). The Ramayana and Hinduism. North Mankato, MN: Smart Apple Media. (I)

Kadodwala, D. (1995). Hinduism. New York: Thompson Learning. (P)

MacMillan,D. (1997). Diwali: Hindu festival of lights. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers. (P)

Additional Children’s Books About Buddhism

Brown, D. (2002). Far beyond the garden gate. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. (I)

Hewitt, T. (1995). Buddhism. New York: Thomas Learning. (I, M)

Lee, M. J. (1999). I once was a monkey. New York: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd. (P, I)

Raimondo, L. (1994). The little llama of Tibet. New York: Scholastic. (P, I)

Rockwell, A. (2001). The prince who ran away. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. (P, I)

Additional Children’s Books About Judaism

Cooper, I. (2002). Jewish holidays all year round. New York: Harry N. Abrams. (I)

Kimmel, E. A. (1998). A Hanukkah treasury. New York: Henry Holt. (I)

Kimmelman, L. (2000). Dance, sing, remember: A celebration of Jewish holidays. New York: HarperCollins. (I)

Morrison, M., & Brown, S. (1991). Judaism: World religions. New York: Brown Publishing. (M)

Musleah, R. (2000). Why on this night? A Passover Haggadah for family celebration. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. (P, I)

Additional Children’s Books About Christianity

Beckett, W. (1998). Sister Wendy’s book of saints. New York: DK Publishing. (I, M)

Dillon, D., & L. (1998). To every thing there is a season. New York: Blue Sky Press. (P, I)

Halperin, W. (2001). Love is… New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. (P, I)

Hogrogian, N. (1995). first Christmas. New York: Greenwillow Books. (P)

Ladwig, T. (Illus.). (2000). The Lord’s prayer. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Books. (P, I)

Mayer, M. (1999). Young Jesus of Nazareth. New York: Morrow Junior Books. (P, I)

Raschka, C. (1998). Simple gifts. New York: Henry Holt. (P, I)

Additional Children’s Books About Islam

Ganeri, A. (2003). The Qur’an and Islam, North Mankaro, MN: Smart Apple Media. (I)

Ghazi, S. H. (1996). Ramadan. New York: Holiday House. (P, I)

Husain, S. (1993). Mecca. New York: Dillon Press. (I)

Kyuchukov, H. (2004). My name was Hussein. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press. (I)

Stanley, D. (2002). Saladin: Noble Prince of Islam. New York: HarperCollins. (I, M)

Willkinson, P. (2002). Islam. London: DK Books. I, M)

Wolf, B. (2003). Coming to America: A Muslim story. New York: Lee & Low. (I, M)

Connie Green and Sandra B. Oldendorf

Connie Green is Professor, Department of Language, Reading and Exceptionalities, and Sandra B. Oldendorf is Associate Professor, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina.

Copyright Association for Childhood Education International Summer 2005

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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