Is it too late to teach religious tolerance?

Flags of the United Nations

I hope it isn’t too late! But, how can we think about teaching religious tolerance when we don’t teach it in schools. There is a way to do so without any agendas and without passing any judgements. And, it all happens in early learning. We are so scared to bring up the topic of religion that we’re missing the obvious. It is when we bring up all religions and teach them that tolerance of all beliefs and even a love of that diversity is possible. Is tolerance teachable? I happen to think so. And, that’s why I wrote, The Boy Who Spoke To God. Having worked at the United Nations and as an international journalist enabled me to experience many cultures and religions. Why can’t public schools be and function like mini United Nations?

I wish for every child to experience exotic cultures and beliefs, as nothing expands a young mind, better. But, tackling religious tolerance is a tall order. As a journalist I was taught to shy away from a religious topic and therefore I was certain that a mainstream children’s book that dealt with religion will encounter lots of resistance. Hey, I knew that many will be judging my book by its TITLE, but, I went for it anyway because so much of today’s unrest seems to be caused by religion.

The Boy Who Spoke to God, is a folk tale about four civilizations, Mayan, Greek, Zulu and Chinese, that lived together in a far-away kingdom. They seem to get along and thrive except during the holidays with the focus being the New Year celebration. I thought that would be the most neutral non-religious ground to highlight diversity of celebrations and beliefs. A young Greek boy decides to pray to his God for answers and the village’s tribes end up interpreting his dreams differently. BTW, I made a point not to illustrate God! I must admit that wasn’t an easy task in a picture book.

cover of Boy Who Spoke To God

Glance at a calendar and you’ll find religious holidays and festivals for many beliefs throughout the year. Believe it or not, New Year isn’t always celebrated on the First of January. The Greek Orthodox Christians and the Coptic Christians celebrate their New Year in September as do Ethiopians and some Egyptians. The Chinese follow a totally different calendar with their major celebrations (Qingming and Zhonghe) and their New Year is set for the 19th of February. On the other hand, the Mayans like to celebrate theirs in July. The Zulu honor their ancestors and look to them for guidance while in India Hindus consider a cow sacred and is revered. God or Allah is honored differently throughout the globe. His image alone is seen differently. Christians have always portrayed God while Muslims think it’s a sacrilege to portray Mohammad. Many Greeks still celebrate New Year on the first of September and take plates of seeds to church for the priest to bless. Many special dishes are prepared to celebrate the New Year in September including Vassilopitta or St Basil’s cake where a silver or gold coin is placed.

Who cares what culture or beliefs are right? None of that mattered when we were kids. I’m not looking to teach a certain belief nor take sides. I’m basically showing children the many colors of the rainbow, to open the conversation about differences in beliefs and societies that exist out there. I am astonished that in certain countries, parents tell their kids to avoid those who are different or have a different religion. Why do that? Wouldn’t that foster hate?

I went to a French Catholic parochial school but I had a friend who was Muslim and another one who was Jewish. I remember how intrigued I was by their different traditions. I couldn’t understand why my Jewish friend couldn’t turn the lights on Saturday! I found that so fascinating.

Even though my childhood friends and I were so different, we were a close active group and our games were many. We played together and enjoyed learning from each other about our many differences and accepted them as simple facts. No judgments or preconceived notions. Obviously, I now do understand their backgrounds more clearly and appreciate all these differences. Interestingly, when I worked at the UN, the two people who helped me the most career-wise happened to have been Jewish and Muslim from two different continents, an American and an Arab.

Is tolerance of diversity teachable? I strongly believe it is. I leaped and wrote and illustrated four other children’s books also with a targeted audience of girls and boys between the ages of 4 and 9. Obviously, parents can read them to a younger child, but I really wanted to reach early readers. I even decided to test out picture books with a higher word count without them being chapter books. I remember at that age liking to look at pictures while learning how to read. If I Were King is an animal tale of unlikely friends who differ in habits, sizes and aspirations and it sets a few simple rules. The Thanksgiving Dinner Platter explains the holiday with an international twist as it is about a Japanese-American little girl and a Native American boy. While the Cubbie Blue series, Cubbie Blue & His Dog Dot, Book One and Book Two, (What’s Up With Mike?), is a series with fantastical storylines about multi-racial kids who befriend a tiny wise character and his even tinier dog. They learn about the world through fun adventures while embracing each other’s differences. Book Two is about their new BLIND friend Mike!

Why did I get into children’s books? I saw a dire need for diversity in mainstream children’s books; it’s a real gap that few are attempting to fill. I tried to populate my books with fun characters and ideas that are representative of different cultures. I strongly believe that if you instill early on an appreciation of differences, it makes for a better society. A recent #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag went viral and was retweeted by the major media, from The Washington Post, to the NYT to CNN to NBC to PBS.

#WeNeedDiverseBooks

Will accepting each other’s differences make for a more peaceful existence? I happen to think so! Is religious tolerance a key factor in early education? I strongly believe it is. Many educators and parents have been blogging and posting reviews agreeing with me and I thank them for that! One final note, the tribes decide in, Boy Who Spoke To God, to celebrate each of their Gods on God’s Day on the Third of May and New Year four times a year! Hopefully, I’m not taking any sides and none of the world’s major religions celebrate their God on that date. So far so good! Wouldn’t be cool if one day such a day really existed and such a day became a universal holiday? One can dream, right?

I’m thankful to everyone who posted especially on Amazon that they actually see value in what I’m saying! I do appreciate the educators who shared their opinions as that does take courage!

“This is a book that for me has its major value in opening up the conversation about God and belief systems in general.” ~Carol Smaldino, Psychotherapist and Parenting Columnist.

“This is a really good book because it teaches that despite differences in religions, beliefs, ceremonies, and traditions, God is the God of everyone.”~Dr. Israel Drazin, Rabbi, & Author.

“When different religious beliefs are causing conflict, this is the book to give to either children or adults.” ~Jessica Warne, CA Teacher.

“This well-told tale, beautifully illustrated, will appeal to all children and will at least introduce the concept of interrelatedness of all peoples. Highly recommended.” ~Grady Harp, Top 50 Amazon Reviewer.

“A parent will be hard-pressed to find a fun book that can introduce differences in beliefs without being preachy! This clever non-partisan book achieves that!”~Rights Advocate and Bestselling Author, Calvin Helin