Whitney Stewart (The 14th Dalai Lama: Spiritual Leader of Tibet; Becoming Buddha: The Story of Siddhartha) once wrote an article for the since discontinued literary journal Five Owls, called Understanding Cultures, Fostering Peace. The piece was essentially a profile of author Suzanne Fisher Staples (Shabanu; Haveli; Under the Persimmon Tree) and of her work, which often tells the tales of the Muslim people she got to know and admire while doing research on literacy for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
In her article, Stewart has much praise for Staples’ work and its power to promote peace and understanding. She talks about how her novels show us “that the worlds of Islam and Hinduism are as diverse as the worlds of Christianity and Judaism”; how she knows and respects the worlds she uncover; how “she finds her own humanness in the humanness of her characters.”
As it turns out, Stewart’s words say a lot about the humanity of both of them and confirm the idea that in order to encourage children to embrace, not fear, the diversity that makes up our world, we must help them understand the richness and interconnectedness of our peoples and cultures. “Until we stop judging people who are different from us as inferior,” cautions Staples, as quoted in the article, “our prospects for peace look very dim. What we need are empathy and compassion—not judgment and stereotyping.” Stewart concurs: “Children look to adults for confirmation of their reaction to differences. When children see someone ‘odd,’ they ask adults why it is so. If the adult confirms the strangeness, discrimination is born in the child. However, if the adult confirms the beauty of many ways of being, of living, then the child accepts the beauty and is perhaps drawn to that which once seemed different. In her novels, Staples confirms such beauty.”
Through their writing, both authors, in fact, convey a belief in young people’s ability to understand and embrace the complex beauty of our world. And perhaps because they appeal to children’s higher sentiments, their work always meets with a response.
I hope 2010 and years to come will bring us more children’s books by courageous and compassionate writers like them.
For more on Whitney Stewart’s work, check out this blog post, Inspiration for Books on Inspiration, where she talks about her desire to help children learn “to listen to their inner wisdom.”