Americans hear the word "globalization" bandied about with ease these days. It seems as if the world is getting smaller with exponentially advancing communication technologies. If media technologies are rapidly bringing the world into our homes, our children need the tools to understand what they see in images from around the world—and on the most fundamental of levels. The motivators behind many, though certainly not all, cultural traditions are religion and faith. DK Publishing's What Do You Believe? explores these faiths and philosophies in an extensive, coherent and accessible way for children.

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Underlying this exploration, the throbbing heart of the book, is the notion that if we understand others' ways of believing, we can live with tolerance. For this reason, books like What Do You Believe? seem more important than ever before. We live in a world in which religious conflict seems to be omnipresent—both in the States and overseas—not to mention that busy parents (myself included) don’t always stop to explain the philosophical reasoning behind many of the cultural traditions children see and don’t understand. (Perhaps we grown-ups don’t always understand it ourselves.) American children today, for one, see the Middle East so often in the news—given many factors, including the upcoming 10th anniversary of 9/11 and the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians—and they may wonder about the beliefs, cultural traditions and ethnic conflicts of the people on the other side of the world.

The book opens, no less, with the complicated question of why people have belief systems at all and then delves into what the editors call "the beginning." From cave art (approximately 15,000 BCE) to the ancient Greeks, then on to India and the Middle East, they take a look at the ancient world and how people used art and artifacts to express their philosophies. The Christian church's split into the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1054 all the way up to Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species in 1859 gets one spread, but if anyone can condense over 800 years into two pages in a way that makes sense to young minds, the editors at DK can. 

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The book's next section covers what they call "the big ideas," or the main religions/worldviews on our planet today: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, what they call native religions (such as, the spiritual beliefs of African tribes or Native Americans), East Asian religions (think Taoism), new religious movements (think Scientology or Jehovah's Witnesses), modern spirituality (described as a "middle way between traditional religion and empty non-belief") and atheism. (Did you know someone can be an agnostic atheist? Who knew? I didn't.) And it's all kicked off with a handy "Religion Round-Up" chart, as well as a map showing where some of today's most popular religions started and a spread on what constitutes a religion to begin with. Religion, the book states, answers "life's big questions": Why are we here? What is our purpose in life? What happens after we die? 

(No, really. I wasn’t making that up about agnostic atheists. There are also Strong Agnostics and Weak Agnostics, which has nothing to do with lifting weights. Fascinating.)

Next up is the section of the book showing religion in action, the part of the book making the greatest effort to impart respect and tolerance on the most practical of levels. A child in the United States may wonder, for instance: Why is that Muslim woman covering her body, why does she pray five times a day, and what is this thing called Ramadan I keep hearing in the news? What does that red dot between the eyebrows of that Hindu woman mean? Why are the Jewish people down the road speaking in Hebrew and not English? This portion of the book is about how religion is more than just what people think. It also determines what they say, wear and eat.  Called simply, “WHY do you…?”, it covers scriptures, prayer, buildings of worship, rituals, festivals, feasts, fasts, rites of passages and much more.

The final section, “The Search for Answers,” wraps it all up by asking: What is life all about anyway? How does science play into this? And morals? Who or what exactly is God?

I know, whoa. Heavy stuff.

But if any children’s nonfiction book is going to address spirituality and religious tolerance—“if religions preach peace, why is everyone fighting?” one of the final spreads asks—I’m good with it being the folks at DK. As a librarian and parent, I’ve trusted their visually engaging, well-researched, extensively covered point-of-view on many nonfiction topics. This one is no different.

And best of all? They know better than to provide any answers. They trust children enough to give them the information and let that be that.

Amen.

Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books. When forced to count, she thinks it's more like between 400 to 500 features of book creators over the past five years. Julie received her Master's in Information Sciences at UT, with a focus on children's librarianship. She is currently writing about the untold tales of children's literature, along with Elizabeth Bird and Peter D. Sieruta. Tentatively titled Wild Things!: The True, Untold Stories Behind the Most Beloved Children’s Books and Their Creators, it will be published by Candlewick Press in 2012.