Tips for Teachers is a monthly column in which experienced teacher and children’s librarian Emmie Stuart shares book recommendations and a corresponding teaching guide for fellow elementary school teachers.
Every year, I read Peter Spier’s People with my second graders. I have a class set of this classic picture book, which means each child can hold their own copy as I read aloud. They follow along with me and study each detailed page. Spier organized his book so that the similarities and differences between countries and cultures are highlighted. He touches on topics including clothing and hairstyles, holidays and celebrations, and diets and delicacies, revealing what makes every person unique and special.
Each time we come to the spread about world religions, I’m reminded how ahead of his time Spier was in how he presentated faith and spirituality to children. “We practice nine main religions—and there are thousands of others as well,” he writes. “Many people believe in one God . . . and millions of others believe in many gods. And millions more do not believe in anything at all.” It’s an informative, inclusive perspective without a trace of didacticism.
I believe it’s important to discuss religion and spirituality with children. Students need a space where they can share their families' beliefs, traditions and celebrations with each other. As they share, they’ll begin to understand the beautiful variety of religious and spiritual beliefs that many people hold.
I wish the four picture books in this column had existed when I was in elementary school. They all convey important information in the context of beautifully illustrated stories. As spring unfolds and we make our way through all the religious observances and holidays it brings, these are wonderful books to share with students to equip them with knowledge they’ll carry far beyond your classroom walls.
In My Mosque
By M.O. Yuksel
Illustrated by Hatem Aly
A little boy welcomes readers to his mosque. “In my mosque, we are a rainbow of colors and speak in different accents. As-salaamu alaykum—I greet my friends and newcomers too. Everyone is welcome here,” he explains. In straightforward prose, author M.O. Yuksel conveys how the mosque serves as a place for prayer, worship, study and play. It’s also a center for community, where people gather to hear “stories of living in harmony together as one,” snack on “naan, samsa, and sweet melon slices after prayers” and “learn to help others whenever we can.”
Hatem Aly’s cheerful jewel-toned illustrations incorporate intricate calligraphic patterns as they depict an ordinary day at a mosque. The book’s extensive back matter contains information about well-know and historically significant mosques around the world and a glossary for the Arabic words that are included throughout the text. Informative and joyful, In My Mosque is a strong introductory source that will provide vital context for further exploration of Islamic traditions and holidays.
- Mosques around the world
Aly’s illustrations depict a variety of geographically and architecturally diverse mosques. Use Google Earth to create a tour of locations or Google Images to create a slideshow of photographs of the historic mosques that are listed in the book’s back matter. As a class, compare the photos with the book’s illustrations to identify which mosques Aly depicts.
With older students, photocopy the pages in the back matter and hand them out to each student. Again using Google Earth or a photographic slideshow, show students one mosque at a time and see if they can identify it using the descriptions from the back matter.
- Same, same, but different
Explore the similarities and differences between the little boy’s mosque experiences and your students’ experiences in their mosques, churches, synagogues, cathedrals or other community gathering places. My second graders filled up a large sheet of chart paper with similarities and then recognized just as many differences. It’s rewarding for students to realize how different faith traditions can be and yet how many common features they can also share.
By Chris Raschka
Author-illustrator Chris Raschka draws on his childhood memories to create a picture book that pays tribute to the “light, not scary, and even kind of floaty” way he and his mother liked to visit new churches. By visiting and identifying each saint in the church, then telling their story, Raschka’s mother transformed a weighty, unknown place into a space of familiar faces and stories. As the pair begins in the back of a cathedral and works their way forward, they encounter a host of saints, from kind Saint Anthony to generous Saint Nicholas. When they reach the altar, they pause to gaze at Jesus, “the reason for churches being around at all.”
Raschka uses warm, bright colors in his watercolor illustrations to evoke the transcendent ways saints are usually depicted, but his pictures have a simplicity that brings his divine subjects a little closer to earth. Sincere, warmhearted and accessible, this story of stories is an excellent introduction to the concept of saints.
- Sharing saint stories
Begin with a simple explanation of the concept of saints, then read a few stories aloud. In my class we read Tomie dePaola’s Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland, then we read a few stories from Carey Wallace and Nick Thornborrow’s excellent Stories of the Saints. We read about Saint Francis in Katherine Paterson and Pamela Dalton’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon and about Saint Nicholas in Demi’s The Legend of Saint Nicholas, and we ended by taking a few class periods to relish Margaret Hodges and Trina Schart Hyman’s Caldecott Medal-winning Saint George and the Dragon.
- Personal symbol portraits
Raschka’s mother teaches him to use the saints’ icons and symbols to identify them. A saint’s icon often represents an aspect of their life. Encourage children to choose a symbol or an object that reflects their personal interests or life. Use artistic depictions of saints as inspiration and invite students to draw, paint or collage a self-portrait that incorporates their chosen symbol and uses colors and other design elements intentionally to reflect their personality and identity.
- Reading buildings
Once Raschka learned to “read” churches, they became less intimidating to him. Use his experience as a springboard to learn about other buildings. If possible, invite an architect from your community to come and speak to your class. Read sections from Speck Lee Tailfeather’s Architecture According to Pigeons and David Macaulay’s Built to Last, then show students photographs that illustrate some of the concepts they encountered in those books.
By Baptiste Paul
Illustrated by Jana Glatt
On the island of Saint Lucia, Melba is excited for Carnival, a multiday celebration that takes place before Lent, the 40 days of sacrifice and penance leading up to Easter Sunday. On her journey into town, Melba meets Misyé Francois the steel pan drummer and a host of friends who are all headed joyfully down the mountain to join the Carnival festivities.
Illustrator Jana Glatt’s bold primary colors convey the celebratory atmosphere, and the book’s Caribbean setting is full of tropical foliage and island animals, including two bright green jacquots, the national bird of Saint Lucia. The book’s back matter includes personal notes from the author and illustrator, a glossary of Saint Lucien Creole words used in the story and further information about Saint Lucia and Carnival celebrations around the world. To Carnival! captures the spirit and cheer of an exciting holiday.
- Travel itinerary
Download and print copies of this Saint Lucia travel brochure created by the Saint Lucia Tourism Authority. In pairs or small groups, students can use the brochure to plan a hypothetical three- or four-day trip to the island. Instruct students to include details such as where they will stay, what they will eat and how they will explore the island.
- Creative kites
Melba’s friend Kenwin flies a colorful kite on his way to Carnival, and Melba helps him untangle it from a tree branch. The book’s back matter explains that a kite-flying festival is held in Saint Lucia every year on Easter Monday.
Cut large, kite-shaped diamonds out of pieces of 11-inch by 17-inch poster board. Provide colorful construction paper and tissue paper shapes so that students can design their own kites. Use rolls of crepe paper for the tails. Hang the kites from your classroom ceiling or along a classroom clothesline.
The Passover Guest
By Susan Kusel
Illustrated by Sean Rubin
Muriel, who lives in Washington, D.C., during the Great Depression, loves springtime, when she can “feel Passover in the air.” But Passover will be different this year because Muriel’s father, “like so many others,” is unemployed, and there isn't enough money to buy food for their Passover seder. During her walk home on the first night of Passover, a man juggling in front of the Lincoln Memorial catches Muriel’s eye. After she puts her only penny in his hat, the man encourages Muriel to hurry home because Passover is about to start. “You don’t want to miss your seder,” he says.
Confused, Muriel rushes home to find her parents sitting sadly at an empty table. As they get up to go find another home where they can celebrate, the mysterious stranger appears at their door. Suddenly their home is transformed, filled with candles and mountains of food, enough to provide a feast for their entire neighborhood. The rabbi declares the abundant meal a true Passover miracle. When Muriel realizes they forgot to leave the door open for the prophet Elijah, she discovers that his cup of wine is completely empty.
Inspired by Uri Shulevitz’s 1973 picture book, The Magician (which itself is an adaptation of Polish writer Isaac Leib Peretz’s 1904 Yiddish short story of the same name), this atmospheric and hopeful retelling is filled with warmth and rooted in the specificity of Washington, D.C.’s historic Jewish community.
- Passover perspectives
I read my students a few informational books about Passover history, customs and traditions before we read The Passover Guest together. Click here for a selection of the titles we explored. We also looked at historical Passover objects and photographs from the Jewish Museum’s online collection and watched a short video. We recorded Passover vocabulary and traditions on two pieces of chart paper so we could refer to them while we read The Passover Guest. Building a solid foundation of information enabled students to grasp the story with deeper meaning and insight.
- Tell it again
The Passover Guest was adapted from a short story that has inspired several picture books. Listen to Renée Brachfeld’s retelling of the short story and show students illustrations created by Uri Shulevitz and Marc Chagall. Compare Brachfeld’s recording to The Passover Guest. Ask students to articulate how they can identify the place and time of its setting. List similarities and differences between the two versions of the tale.
Next, guide your students through writing a new retelling of the original story. Older students can do this exercise individually or in pairs. My students chose 1960s Nashville for the setting of our retelling and enjoyed deciding which familiar landmark our magician would be spotted at. Our cowboy boot-clad magician was playing a guitar on the steps of the Parthenon in Nashville’s Centennial Park when the protagonist noticed him.