In the Garden of Our Minds and Other Buddhist Stories* is a fresh and wonderful new children's book for introducing children to Buddhism, or for deepening their understanding. Written by Michelle L. Johnson-Weider and illustrated by Brian Chen, this book features seven stories from the daily life of a modern, Western Buddhist family. In each chapter, the parents weave a Buddhist lesson into the family's discussion, helping the children to see its' relevance to their own lives.
For example, in the first story, the children, Alex and Brianna, both elementary-aged, are playing outside and do not want to come into the house to do their homework. "I wish we could play all day long and all night too!" they cry. 'Mama' lures them in by promising that once they have done their homework, she will tell them a story "about a father who forced his son to play all the time."
The son in this case is Buddha, and Mama tells the children the first part of the Buddha's life story, in which his father the king tries to shield him from all pain and knowledge of sickness, old age, or death. The king prohibits any sign of suffering within the palace grounds, and fills the young prince's life with play and pleasure. Eventually, of course, the prince learns the truth and is moved to seek the true end of suffering for himself and all beings.
Other stories are more practice oriented, such as the title story 'In the Garden of Our Minds.' Alex and Brianna have both had a rough day, and are grumpy and out of sorts. Mama invites them to sit down with her and do a simple 'Breathe In, Breathe Out' practice to quiet their minds. She then talks to them about the 'seeds of the mind', and how to make choices that cultivate the seeds of calmness, compassion, and peace, rather than the seeds of anger, ignorance, or fear.
The stories and lessons are definitely Mahayana Buddhist in content and style, but because they are dealing with introductory teachings, I feel this book is appropriate for anyone of any Buddhist lineage, or for anyone who is interested in introducing children to Buddhism. For example, in the final story, 'A Visit with Rinpoche', the family attends a dharma talk with a Tibetan Rinpoche, and he explains bodhisattvahood. While the bodhisattva path is a Mahayana one, and not as prominent in Theravada Buddhism, the focus here is on mindfulness and compassion as a way of developing bodhisattva attributes. These themes are such that any Buddhist could adapt them for their children, and any spiritual seeker of any faith could use them as the foundation for a meaningful discussion with their children.
As for age range, this book is geared towards elementary-aged children, I would say 6-10 or so, although children older or younger may enjoy it too. In the Buddhist tradition of facing truth directly, some of the stories do discuss death, and in one case violence - the story of the finger-hacking villain Angulimala, who is transformed by the Buddha's compassion. I felt these themes were handled appropriately for my own children, ages 7 and 8 (who loved the book overall), but parents should decide for themselves whether their children are ready for these themes.
The Appendices to the book include a glossary, as well as suggestions for discussing the stories and introducing children to practice.
Part of the profits from all sales will go to the Tibetan Nuns Project and 84000 - Translating the Words of the Buddha. The book is available directly through 50PercentDakini.com or for wholesale distribution (including a retailer discount) through New Leaf Publishing. It will also soon be available at Amazon, and can already be pre-ordered there:
* This book was sent to me free for review by the publisher. I am disclosing this per BellaOnline's Ethical Review policy.)