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Carolyn Marsden and Thay Phap Niem,
The Buddha’s Diamonds
Candlewick Press, 2008.

Ages 9-12

Award-winning author Carolyn Marsden collaborated with Buddhist monk Thay Phap Niem to create a treasure in The Buddha’s Diamonds, a chapter book based on Niem’s early life in Vietnam in the years after the Vietnam war. The high-quality small hardback format and serene cover illustration are perfectly suited for this deeply moving coming-of-age story, which Marsden first heard as part of a talk Niem gave to children visiting his California monastery.

Tinh is a good-hearted child with serious responsibilities. His family ekes out a subsistence living by fishing, farming, and sharing as needed with their close village community. He fishes with his father in their new bamboo boat while his sister works at home with their mother. When a big storm comes up, Tinh is supposed to tie up their boat as his father has instructed, but he is distracted by the sight of a friend’s new remote-controlled red car, tossed and almost hidden in sand by a heavy wave, and he fails to secure the boat. His inattention may cost his family their livelihood. Heartsick, Tinh hides the car, waits out the storm, and then proceeds with the hard, slow work of making things right. As he helps to salvage the boat, he gradually regains his father’s trust and his own self-respect.

In the process, Tinh explores the Buddhist teachings of patience and compassion. He recalls a monk’s words about the “diamonds of true happiness”: the sun, the moon (“the source of all poetry”), the sea and its fish, one’s parents, even one’s own breath. His memory of his grandparents’ loving faith sustains him on a long lonely trek across the sand dunes to have the boat’s propeller repaired. At last, he regains the freedom to play, “like the birds, full of the happiness of the moment.”

Marsden provides a glossary and pronunciation guide for Vietnamese words, a brief sketch of the Buddha’s life, and a few explanatory words about the Vietnam war. The Buddha’s Diamonds, a Junior Library Guild Selection, is refreshingly free of preachy piety. Young readers from any culture who are asking serious questions about life will be nourished by this respectful account of a child who embodies spiritual teachings through personal experience and reflection.

Charlotte Richardson
October 2009

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