There are times when that oasis of time before sleep provides the perfect space for gentle reflection on what might have gone slightly differently during the day: for example, a moment of selfishness or irrationality. Stories which pinpoint these emotions for young children are found in the series of Zen Tails by Peter Whitfield and illustrated by Nancy Bevington (New Frontier Publishing). I was fortunate enough to meet Peter at the Bologna Book Fair, when he introduced me to the books: and I have to say, I was captivated by them then and continue to be so. Each story is a beautifully tuned fable which gets its message across without preaching – but the moral is made clear at the end, alongside the traditional Zen story it is based on. This format allows the stories to resonate deeper, providing further food for reflection. Indeed, I would say that Peter, himself a lecturer in philosophy, has recognised that children can take the pill of the spelt out message along with the sugar of the parable.
At present there are four stories in the series, Bruno Dreams of Ice Cream, Up and Down, No Presents Please and Are You Sure? The books have their own website, where you can find e-versions of the books and meet the characters – who all have witty names like Shelly the Tortoise and Grizzel, a (grumpy) bear. Wise characters come in such guises as Guru Walter Wombat (this is an Australian series, after all) and Saint Bernard (a dog). You can watch Peter introducing the characters and the rationale behind them here. Children will identify with them and with the situations in the stories; and the illustrations are also engaging, with unobtrusive but again witty details. There’s something in there for the grownups too, like the titles of Gilbert B. Beaver’s books.
These stories are very much grounded in the Zen tradition and follow Buddhist principles – so, for example, Grizzel comes to his senses when he realises that he has stomped on a daisy (and I have discovered that, as in the illustration, Australian daisies are yellow…). However, these stories are relevant to all children, no matter what their religious background. They would work well in school (and there are resources on the website), as well as being just right for a special bedtime story.