Book Reviews secular values

Teaching morality and values in a secular way

Teaching morality and values without religion, in a secular way, is something I’ve had to really search for, and finding quality resources can be tricky.  So I’m here to introduce you to two awesome books that my family loves:  The Buddha at Bedtime Tales of Love and Wisdom for You to Read with Your Child to Enchant, Enlighten and Inspire and the Buddha’s Apprentice at Bedtime Tales of Compassion and Kindness for You to Read with Your Child to Delight and Inspire. While, yes, the Buddha is mentioned, Buddhism is secular and the books can be read without focusing on this. You can omit the introduction and appendices where most of the Buddhist information is located.

These are great books for teaching morality and values in shorter stories that are perfect bedtime story length.  Each story begins with a version of ‘relax, be still and listen…’ setting the mood for nap or bedtime. (It’s easy enough to leave that part off, if you want to read them as part of class.)

In these rich, diverse stories are lessons on morality, principles and ethics. Children, nature and animals play valuable roles in each story.  The author describes the stories as “based in principles as a code of conduct in life–acting with kindness and compassion, speaking thoughtfully, earning our livelihoods in an ethical way, and using the power of the mind (mindfulness) to manage our thoughts and emotions.”  This empowers kids at a young age to begin to build mental immunity and health.
At the end of each short story, a picture of the  Buddha appears next to a cloud holding the ‘moral of the story’.  Here are two examples:  “Whoever we are, even if we feel very small and unimportant, we have gifts that we can share with others.  And sharing helps not just us, but also our friends and family.”           “When we tell lies, we cause both ourselves and others to suffer, whereas when we tell the truth, we make the world a happier and richer place.  A wise person knows that honesty is always the best policy.”  For those who’ve read Aesop’s Fables, this is a familiar pattern.

What I also find valuable in these books is DIVERSITY.  Because there IS a lack of diversity in children’s literature, and these books offer refreshingly varied characters who come from different places and cultures with a spectrum of skin tone, hair color, eye color and features.  I like that they have illustrations where my son sees kids who look like him more than in many other books.

In addition to diverse characters, with these two books you travel the world.  From European settings with characters like Hamish and Dougal in the Scottish Highlands to other familiar names like Claire, Michael and Antonio, you travel further to encounter Keisho, Charini and Amrita in Thailand, India and other parts of Asia, through tropical jungles and deserts. The author gives a global experience, and this takes both of these books from being ‘just’ bedtime story collections to books you can incorporate into geography, history and social studies.

The illustrations are inviting, fun and colorful: the Buddha at Bedtime is covered in vibrant orange and green, while Buddha’s Apprentice is twilight blue and rich plum.  Stories start with a full-page color scene, with details and character illustrations following into the rest of the story.  And not every page is white- entire pages are soft pastel backgrounds to give variety.  I think I enjoy the illustrations as much as my kiddo!  🙂

The author, Nagaraja, also embraces mindfulness, meditation and relaxation for kids.  In both books, he includes meditation information at the beginning.  In the Buddha’s Apprentice, he also includes three guided meditations and a guided relaxation at the end.  Just the titles of the guided meditations can entice you to try them–Beautiful White Horse Meditation (what young horse-crazy kid wouldn’t be tempted by that?), Crossing the River Meditation, Magic Moonlight Tree Meditation (this one introduces loving kindness and compassion) and a Rainbow Meditation.  My son isn’t quite ready for these, but I plan to incorporate them over the next year.


The historical basis for the books are the Jataka Tales, legends and animal fables, dating to the 4th century.  “In each one, a dharma unfolds wherein the character of animals and people is put to the test.  Certain creatures emerge as examples of kindness, justice and wisdom.  Through their noble intentions they are able to change the course of events for the good of all concerned.” (Twenty Jataka Tales, Retold by Noor Inayat Khan, 1985  is older edition I stumbled upon at a book sale, but I don’t feel it is as able to pull younger kids in, especially those for whom these tales will be quite different than what they normally read.  The newer versions are much more accessible, keeping the essence of the original legends with updated language and, of course, all that colorful illustrating I love.  There could definitely be value, as kids age out of bedtime reading, to bring in more traditional renderings of the Jataka Tales as part of world literature.

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