February 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Who Am I? Why Am I Here?: Considering the Big Questions| Focus On

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Who am I? Why was I created? What is my purpose in life? These questions symbolize the universal cognitive, emotional, and physical journey that occurs throughout childhood, adolescence, and beyond. Spirituality, defined as beliefs, practices, and experiences that shape how we see life and our place in it, is increasingly accepted as an essential part of that developmental process. Questions about spirituality might be related to ideas about mindfulness, belief in god (or gods), and religious practices too numerous to list. And where do atheists and agnostics fit in? Teachers and librarians may feel inadequate at addressing this challenging topic and wonder about how to provide answers to such existential questions. The answer is surprisingly simple. We do what we have always done—encourage readers to experience and discover by opening their minds and imaginations. Books with contemporary and authentic characters provide the perfect medium to explore, celebrate, and debate spirituality with thoughtfulness, compassion, and joy. Bat mitzvahs go awry with hilarious consequences, gods and goddesses swoop down to offer divine intervention, and prayer offers solace to those seeking hope, as young people grapple with what can’t be seen or measured but what is, most often, simply a matter of faith.


Elementary Grades

CUNNANE, Kelly. Deep in the Sahara. illus. by Hoda Hadadi. Random. 2013. lib. ed. $20.99. ISBN 9780375970344; Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780375870347; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9780375988936.
K-Gr 4–Rhythmic verse and engaging dialogue tell the story of a young girl who longs for a malafa, the colorful cloth worn by her mother and other Muslim women in Mauritania. Lalla is awarded her own malafa when she expresses her faith through devotion and prayer. Collage illustrations showcase the loveliness of the clothing and the vastness of the Sahara.

DEMI. The Fantastic Adventures of Krishna. illus. by author. Wisdom Tales/World Wisdom. 2013. Tr $19.95. ISBN 9781937786052.
K-Gr 4–Ornate illustrations enliven the exciting story of how Lord Vishnu, “the greatest of all the gods,” returns to the earth in the form of the child Krishna to restore peace to the world. Tales of astounding escapes, frightening demons, and amazing powers offer a wonderful introduction to one of Hinduism’s most significant figures.

HARRIS, Annaka. I Wonder. illus. by John Rowe. Four Elephants Pr. 2013. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781940051048; ebk. $9.95. ISBN 9781940051024.
Gr 1 Up–The natural curiosity of children is celebrated in reflective prose as Eva and her mother discuss the mysteries of the universe that they encounter on one beautiful day. Gorgeously illustrated with paintings that capture the imagination, the book encourages children to wonder and ask questions about the world around them.

KHAN, Hena. Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors . illus. by Amini Mehrdokht. Chronicle. 2012. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780811879057; ebk. $13.99. ISBN 9781452122052.
K-Gr 3 –Vibrant colors are imaginatively illustrated and eloquently used to explore the artifacts and traditions of Muslim culture. As a young girl moves throughout her day, she describes simple but powerful everyday items, such as her father’s red prayer carpet and her mother’s blue hijab. Charming and informative.

MAIR, J. Samia. The Perfect Gift. illus. by Craigh Howarth. Kube. 2010. Tr $8.95. ISBN 9780860374381.
K-Gr 2–Beautiful watercolors showcase the splendor of the natural world in this delightful story of Eid-ul-Adha. Sarah desperately searches for the perfect gift for her mother when she finds the first flower of spring. Visiting the woodland site to celebrate the flower as a symbol of Allah’s gifts becomes an annual family tradition.

TUTU, Desmond. Let There Be Light. illus. by Nancy Tillman. Zonderkidz. 2014. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780310727859; board $7.99. ISBN 9780310733966.
K-Gr 3–Tutu’s retelling of the Bible’s creation tale, originally published in The Children of God Bible Storybook (2010), explains how God turned the world from darkness to the light with the force of his words during the seven days of creation. A lyrical text and glowing digital art underscore the power and glory of God’s love.


Middle Grades

CAROLL, Robin. Samantha Sanderson at the Movies. (FaithGirlz!/Samantha Sanderson Series). Zonderkidz. 2014. Tr $8.99. ISBN 9780310742456; ebk. $5.99. ISBN 9780310742463.
Gr 3-8–Samantha Sanderson is an energetic and curious young journalist whose Evangelical faith shapes her character and approach to life. In this series opener, the seventh-grader investigates a bombing attempt at a local movie theatre. Along the way, her faith grows and matures as she develops a more thorough view of the world.

DOUGLAS, Gabrielle with Michelle Bruford. Grace, Gold & Glory: My Leap of Faith. Zondervan. 2012. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9780310740612; pap. $14.99. ISBN 9780310740674; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9780310740681.
Gr 5-8–The voice of Gabby Douglas, 2011 Olympic gymnastic gold medalist, shines through in this inspirational biography showcasing the role that faith plays in her life as she recounts her struggles and successes. Each chapter begins with a Bible verse or motivational quote. Photographs, a poster, and discussion questions are included.

FREEDMAN, Paula J. My Basmati Bat Mitzvah. Abrams. 2013. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781419708060; pap. $7.95. ISBN 9781419713682; ebk. $16.95. ISBN 9781613125236.
Gr 5-8–Lighthearted and entertaining, this novel deftly explores cultural, religious, and adolescent issues. The story features Tara Feinstein, whose father is Jewish and whose mother is Hindu. Tara worries that her upcoming bat mitzvah means she’s being disloyal to her Indian heritage. On top of that, her friendships are changing and a boy just might like her.

HAMILITON, Bethany with Doris Rikkers. Ask Bethany. rev. ed. (Soul Surfer Series) Zonderkidz. 2014. pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780310745723.
Gr 3-8–Inspirational and extraordinary describe Bethany Hamilton and her courageous story of survival and determination after losing her arm to a 14-foot tiger shark in 2003. With humor and honesty, Bethany uses her Christian beliefs as a backdrop to answer questions posed by fans about school, surfing, and faith.

KURTZ, Jane. Anna Was Here. HarperCollins/Greenwillow. 2013. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780060564933; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9780062239143.
Gr 3-6–Anna’s impressible nature, her beloved cat, her trusty disaster-preparedness notebook, and her faith in God’s plan help her adapt when her father, a minister, decides to move his family from Colorado to his childhood town in rural Kansas. Anna is a plucky and likable heroine with whom children will identify.

LÓPEZ, Diana. Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel. Little, Brown. 2014. Tr $17. ISBN 9780316209960; pap. $7. ISBN 9780316209946; ebk. $6.99. ISBN 9780316209953.
Gr 4-8–The cuarto de milagros, a miracle room in a special church, is where 13-year-old Erica makes a promesa to God in exchange for her mother’s breast cancer recovery. However, chores and other responsibilities make keeping the promise difficult. Erica relies on her prophetic mood ring and faith in God for support in this moving and authentic story.

MAIR, Samia J. The Great Race to Sycamore Street. Kube. 2013. pap. $12.99. ISBN 9781847740571; ebk. $7.95. ISBN 9781847740632.
Gr 3-7– Moments that are both comical and sincere infuse this lovely story about how saving a beloved peach tree encourages siblings Hude and Amani to appreciate religion, family, and tradition. Islamic references, such as Alhamdulillah (Praise belongs to Allah) and Inshallah (If Allah wills), naturally reflect the characters’ Muslim heritage.

WATSON, Stephanie. Pope Francis: First Pope from the Americas. Lerner. 2014. lib. ed. $26.60. ISBN 9781467721769.
Gr 3-8–The story of Argentina’s Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the first Latin American pope, is captured through bright images and well-organized information. Fascinating facts and interesting personal details depicting his tenure as a Jesuit priest, training as a chemist, and love of soccer and dancing make for a wide-ranging portrait of the religious leader.


High School

ABDEL-FATTAH, Randa. Does My Head Look Big in This? Scholastic. 2008. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780439919470; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780439922333; ebk. $9.54. ISBN 9781407148120.
Gr 7 Up–Eleventh-grader Amal, an “Australian-Muslim-Palestinian,” finds that her life changes completely when she decides to express her religious commitment by wearing her hijab full-time. Her family is concerned for her emotional well-being and physical safety as she’s teased by classmates, and the head mistress of her school assumes her choice is forced. Touching, funny, and authentic. Audio version available from Bolinda Audio.

CLIPSTON, Amy. Destination Unknown. Zondervan. 2014. pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780310736691; ebk. $5.99. ISBN 9780310736714.
Gr 8 Up–Whitney Richards, a devout Christian, is captain of the cheerleading squad, drives a fancy car, and has been accepted to top colleges. However, her perfect life changes with a D in calculus. A surprising romance with her math tutor, a Christian boy from the “wrong side of the tracks,” leads Whitney to develop her own personal identity in faith.

GROSSMAN, Nancy. A World Away. Hyperion. 2012. pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781423158165; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781423178095.
Gr 8 Up–Imagine having never used a phone, worn jeans, or gone to the movies. Now imagine doing all those things for the first time. This is what 16-year-old Eliza, an Amish girl, experiences when she moves to Chicago to work as a nanny. Love, surprises, and temptations make Eliza’s ultimate choice to leave or stay a heart-wrenching decision. Audio version available from Random House Audio.

HOOLE, Elissa Janine. Sometimes Never, Sometimes Always. Flux/Llewellyn. 2013. pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780738737225; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9780738739489.
Gr 9 Up–Fundamentalist Christianity shapes Cassandra’s world. However, her secret uncertainty about her beliefs and her knowledge that her brother is gay fill her with anxiety. She complicates her already tension-filled life by using tarot cards to dispense anonymous advice in the school newspaper. The life-altering results teach her indispensable lessons about faith, bullying, honesty and the importance of self-knowledge.

KASHYAP, Keshni. Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary. illus. by Mari Araki. HMH. 2012. Tr $18.95. ISBN 9780618945191.
Gr 9 Up–Tina, a Southern California Indian-American teenager, is confused—her best friend has dropped her, and a boy she likes just might like her, too. An assignment to keep an existential diary introduces Tina to the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, whose words bring order and understanding to her life. A humorous and cleverly written graphic novel with finely drawn black-and-white illustrations.

ROSOFF, Meg. There Is No Dog. Putnam. 2012. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780399257643; pap. $8.99. ISBN 9780142423844; ebk. $7.99. ISBN 9781101550489.
Gr 8 Up–The simple yet inventive question “What if God were a teenage boy?” sets up this comical and original story that centers on 19-year-old Bob, an insolent teen whose creativity and energy created the Earth but whose obsession with a human girl threatens to destroy it. Smart, entertaining, and surprisingly endearing. Audio version available from Recorded Books.

SEIDMAN, David. What If I’m an Atheist?: A Teen’s Guide to Exploring a Life Without Religion . Simon Pulse/Beyond Words. Mar. 2015. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781582704074; pap. $12.99. ISBN 9781582704067; ebk. $9.46. ISBN 9781442475243.
Gr 7 Up–Thoughtful and smartly written chapters (e.g., “Life of an Atheist” and “What Is an Atheist?”) explore atheism through research and interviews with both atheist and religious teens. Open-minded discussions of religious holidays, personal experiences, and religious questions, among other topics, make for a must-have resource. Also includes helpful websites, scholarships for atheists, and lists of famous atheists.

SHARENOW, Robert. The Berlin Boxing Club. HarperCollins. 2011. lib. ed. $20.85. ISBN 9780606268714; Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780061579684; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780061579707; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9780062076922.
Gr 7 Up–Blond-haired Karl has never thought of himself as Jewish until the mistreatment of Jews in Nazi-era Berlin grows. To protect himself and his younger sister, Karl learns how to box from a family friend, the legendary Max Schmeling. As his family’s situation worsens, the teenager gains a sense of purpose and understanding of who he is.

SHARPLES, Diana L. Running Lean. Blink. 2013. pap. $12.99. ISBN 9780 310734970; ebk. $7.99. ISBN 9780 310734987.
Gr 8 Up–Calvin and Stacy are emotionally fragile, with Calvin recovering from a devastating loss while Stacy battles anorexia. However, Calvin’s faith and strong family provide sources of strength that he tries to share with Stacy. Alternating chapters explore their individual points of view and contribute to the understanding of the teens’ troubled relationship.


SMITH-READY, Jeri. This Side of Salvation. S. & S. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781442439481; pap. $11.99. ISBN 9781442439498; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9781442439504.
Gr 9 Up–Suspenseful writing successfully sets the tone for this intense and foreboding story of a family preparing for the Rush, the divine time when those who believe are called to Heaven. After attending a forbidden party on the date of the Rush, 16-year-old David finds his parents have disappeared, forcing him to examine his family’s beliefs and his own.

VENKATRAMAN, Padma. A Time to Dance. Putnam/Nancy Paulsen. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780399257100; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780147514400; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9780698158269.
Gr 6 Up–Lyrical free verse captures the mysticism of Bharatanatyam dance. Veda, a talented teenager living in contemporary India, feels the spirit of Shiva as she performs. However, when a tragic accident results in the loss of her leg, Veda questions her beliefs and eventually comes to realize that dancing is in her heart as well as her body.

WATSON, Renée. What Momma Left Me. Bloomsbury. 2010. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781599904467; pap. $7.99. ISBN 9781599907048; ebk. $7.99. ISBN 9781599905945.
Gr 6-9–After the violent death of their mother and their father’s subsequent abandonment, 14-year-old Serenity and her younger brother are sent to live with their maternal grandparents, who are devout Baptists. As Serenity struggles to understand the role, if any, that God has in her life, she learns more about the person she wants to be.

ZADOFF, Allen. Since You Left Me. Egmont. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781606842966; ebk. $16.99. ISBN 9781606842973.
Gr 7 Up–Sanskrit Aaron Zuckerman has more problems than his name. He’s an agnostic attending the Brentwood Jewish Academy, and he feels abandoned by his parents’ divorce. When his flaky mother misses a parent-teacher conference, Sanskrit’s fabrications about his parents’ whereabouts result in unintended hilarious consequences that alter his feelings about the role of religion in his life.

Auguste-Margare_Contrib_WebMargaret E. Auguste is a School Media Specialist at Franklin Middle School, Somerset, NJ.

Digital picks

Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. greatergood.berkeley.edu. The Greater Good Science Center, University of California, Berkeley. (Accessed 10/27/14)
Gr 7 Up–The Greater Good Science Center, founded in 2001, sponsors “scientific research into social and emotional well-being.” Articles, podcasts, videos, quizzes, and more explore mindfulness, compassion, altruism, and other values that comprise a kinder, more thoughtful society.

Religion & Ethics Newsweekly. www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics. WNET. (Accessed 10/27/14)
Gr 8 Up–This award-winning site offers news focused on ethics, faith, and religion as well as how these issues interact and impact national and international events. Topics include “Belief and Practice,” “Faith and Spirituality,” “Religious Leaders,” and more.

Spirituality for Kids: Tools to Win the Game of Life. spiritualityforkids.com. Spirituality for Kids. (Accessed 10/27/14)
Gr 3 Up–Designed to assist children in accessing, understanding, and enhancing their spiritual selves through the use of short videos and educational activities, this series of free online lessons draws on “the universal principles of Kabbalah.” While the site steers clear of specific religious beliefs, materials are best used with parental guidance.

This article was published in School Library Journal's December 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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