Updated: Feb 28, 2019
I am currently taking a course on Spiritual Direction with Children: Meaning and Method led by Lacy Finn Borgo. Not many (if any?) training programs for Spiritual Directors consider the practice of listening to the soul of a child. Perhaps the simple reason for this is that there aren’t many people who practice Spiritual Direction with children (yet!).
I was thrilled to learn about Lacy and her pioneering work in the field. Her program has been wonderful so far. It is changing me to tell you the truth.
Lacy's course has inspired me to further explore picture books that nurture children’s spirituality. In fact, I believe that they can nurture anyone’s spirituality if we open ourselves to this possibility.
By the term “spirituality” I don’t mean rational religious knowledge, but rather a more mystical, intimate, and relational knowing of God, and a “felt-sense” of his holy love. Spirituality is a complicated concept to give words to, and I appreciate Rebecca Nye’s simple definition of children’s spirituality,
“God’s ways of being with children, and children’s ways of being with God.”
The books listed below include themes and images that will awaken and invite children to be with God through experiencing wonder, mystery, beauty, strong emotions, empathy, relational connection, and truth. These books make space for children's significant spiritual questions about belonging, identity, safety, loss, desire, and what God is like. Not all the books talk about God or prayer explicitly, yet they all have God’s fingerprints all over them.
Finally, it is the intimate, warm, welcoming presence of the person children are reading the book with that will have the most impact on their spiritual lives. Children's, as well as adults’ spirituality is largely formed by the close relationships we have, as we all are wired for connection in the core of our being.
1. The Memory Box, A Book about Grief by Joanna Rowland, Illustrated by Thea Baker
This gentle book explores two questions that grieving children ask, “Will I forget my loved one?” and, “What do I do with my feelings?”. I love the spaciousness and hope it communicates to anyone who is dealing with any kind of loss.
2. Today I Feel… An Alphabet of Feelings by Madalena Moniz
I am completely captivated by the illustrations of this book, and the clever messages they communicate. I feel like this is one of those books that you just want to have in your bookshelf, and that can be picked up again and again when wanting to explore experiences and emotions. I will be definitely using this in my work with children in spiritual direction and beyond.
3. The World Is Awake, A Celebration of Everyday Blessings by Linsey David and Joseph Bottum. Illustrated by Lucy Fleming
What a sweet, joyfully illustrated story that helps children to notice the good and beautiful in the details of their lives. This book makes you smile and grows your capacity for gratitude.
4. Forever Or a Day by Sarah Jacoby
I love the way this books invites the reader to wonder what time is like and how forever feels. It is a very contemplative, reflective book with awe-inspiring images and poetic text. I am certain that the riddle presented in this book about what time really is and what it does to different people is as intriguing to adults as it is to children.
5. Grandad’s Prayers of the Earth by Douglas Wood. Illustrated by P.J. Lynch
This is a story of a boy and his grandad talking about prayer on a forest walk. Their intimate relationship, and the grandad’s wise, creation-embracing and slightly mystical reflections on prayer are wonderful ways to open up a conversation what prayer is like with children. Both adults' and children's God-image, and their ideas about prayer will be expanded.
6. My Name Is Yoon by Helen Recorvits. Illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska
A tender story of a little girl’s sense of identity, belonging and homesickness in a new country. Anyone, an adult or a child, who has ever lived in another culture can relate to the soul-life of this girl. These universal desires for being known, wanted, and to belong touch the core of every human experience.
7. The Journey by Francesca Sanna
An honest telling of the story of a refugee family and their journey to the unknown, an escape from the life of terror and fear. A story that too many children have experienced and can relate to, or whose friends and neighbors carry a witness to. The reader cannot finish the book without being moved by compassion and desire for justice. If you are considering to read this with a very young child, I would recommend to read it by yourself first and then evaluate whether it is fitting to your child.
8. Making Heart-Bread by Matthew Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn and Dennis Linn. Illustrations by Francisco Miranda.
I love this book and how it introduces families to the Daily Examen Prayer through the use of a bread metaphor. It is a memorable way to talk about this beautiful prayer practice, which not only deepens our relationships with God but also with each other, and helps us to grow in gratitude.
9. You Belong Here by M.H. Clark. Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault.
Gorgeous text and illustrations that simply allure you into the book! On every page different parts of the creation are introduced and illustrated how they belong right where they are most at home. This repetitive message is also addressed to the readers, who are affirmed that they are meant to be right there where they most love to be, and that they will always belong with "me"( the pronoun "me" can be a parent, pet, friend, or God to the reader.)
10. Images of God for Young Children by Marie-Helene Delval. Illustrated by Barbara Nascimbeni.
Stunning illustrations and descriptions of what God is like. Beautiful book for a reflection, prayer, and dialogue of who God is, and how we can see the invisible God all around us.
11. When God Made You by Matthew Paul Turner. Illustrated by David Catrow.
I laughed and cried reading this book. And then smiled with a bursting joy when my students read it in unison sounding like a rap song! Such a great book to celebrate how each of us are desired and treasured by God. The funky illustrations add to the fun of appreciating each human as a unique creation.
12. Because Nothing Looks Like God by Lawrence Kushner, Karen Kushner. Illustrations by Dawn Majewski.
I so appreciate how this book presents the real, honest questions that every spiritually curious child (and adult) asks themselves. It creates space for doubt, wonder, and mystery about what we can know about God and how we can know him. The illustrations from ordinary life bring the reality of “God-with-us” close to the reader.
13. I'm Not a Scaredy Cat: A Prayer for When You Wish You Were Brave by Max Lucado. Illustrated by Shirley Ng-Benitez.
This is a simple story of a cat who is afraid. A repetitive, short prayer is introduced almost like a “Breath Prayer” that can be said whenever you feel afraid. I would use this when asking children about their fears and showing them how they can talk to God using this simple prayer practice to remind themselves that God is with them.
14. If Jesus Came to Visit Me (board book) by Jill Roman Lord. Illustrated by Renee Graef.
A lovely invitation to imagine what it would be like if Jesus came come to visit you. What would you do together? What would you say or give to Jesus? The simple, concrete examples of the book encourage the readers to picture their lives with Jesus and carry these images with them to everyday situations and prayers.
15. Dear Pope Francis: The Pope Answers Letters from Children Around the World by Pope Francis.
These real letters that children have sent to Pope Francis reveal the questions of their souls. The way the Pope addresses the children’s questions is respectful and acknowledges the spiritual depth and desires of the children. I also appreciate how he not only reads the words but also the drawings that the children included in their letters.
I must admit that I have come across a lot more amazing books that I want to introduce to you! Maybe I’ll do a part two one day.
What are some of your favorite picture books that have touched your child, you, or the childhood you?
Here are a few questions to ask yourself and the child while/after reading:
Have you ever felt a little bit like… too? When?
How does (name a character)… look like here? What do you think she/he/it is feeling or thinking? How would you feel if you were them?
What would you like to say to the characters of the book if you could meet them?
Which image did you like the most? Why?
What (part) did you like about the story? Did something upset you?
Where did you see fingerprints of God in the story? Was there something that reminded you of what God is like? Or who he is for you?
What was strange or unexpected?
Would you like to draw or make something with the story? Draw a cartoon? Play it? Read it with your friends? Look at the pictures again?
What do you think this story tells you about God?
What feelings, memories or thoughts did the story bring to you? Would you like to say something to God about that?
Further resources on children’s spirituality and the role of imagination in spiritual life.
Children's Spirituality: What It Is and Why It Matters by Rebecca Nye
Imaginative Prayer: A Yearlong Guide for Your Child's Spiritual Formation by Jared Patrick Boyd
My previous blog post "The Spiritual Child"