Today’s courage book review offers two illustrated books for children of Jataka tales, tales the Buddha told, but to begin with, here’s a beautiful picture book biography to put the Jataka tales into context: Becoming Buddha: The Story of Siddhartha, written by Whitney Stewart, with really really beautiful art by Sally Rippin, and with a foreword by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. In simple prose, the story describes the journey of Siddhartha from wealth and privilege to enlightenment. The Jataka tales were the stories the Buddha told to his followers to help them on their own journeys. Siddhartha’s journey was obviously one of spiritual courage, which we define as the courage which fortifies us as we ask questions about meaning and purpose. His purpose was nothing less than to find the cause of human suffering.
Buddha Stories is a quietly beautiful book written and illustrated by Demi. The illustrations are gold on deep indigo, giving the stories the dazzle of illumination. The stories themselves are full of illumination, being short and accessible and with clear purpose. Compassion, faithfulness, self-control, modesty, honesty and humility are virtues activated by emotional courage, moral courage and social courage in these traditional stories. They are all animal stories, and the pictures show monkeys and bulls and lions and parrots gleaming like constellations on the deep blue pages. The first story, “The Lion King,” will be familiar to some readers as “Chicken Little.” It is worth pointing this out to children, encouraging them to engage their intellectual courage to make bold observations about the connections between tales (for example, the Judgment of Solomon and the very similar Birbal story from India about a disputed mango tree which I offered last month). This sort of comparative literature study can inspire conversation with kids on the deep lessons about courage that dwell within all these stories.
Next we have I Once Was a Monkey: Stories Buddha Told written and illustrated by Jeanne M. Lee. A monkey, a tortoise, a jackal, a lion and a dove take refuge from a storm inside a ruined temple. Also inside the temple is a statue of the seated Buddha, which speaks to them to calm their fears, telling stories of his past lives. Six Jataka tales are framed by this device, each one flowing seamlessly into the next. Again, these stories illustrate the virtues of compassion, wisdom, cooperation and loyalty that the six types of courage can activate in us all. Great teachers, such as the Buddha, know that animals make great metaphors and stand-ins for communicating concepts to students, especially to children. Aesop knew it too, of course. All of these Jataka tales are easy to learn and retell in your own words. Take the Buddha on a walk with you and your child some day soon, and let the Jataka tales guide you on your path.