First things first: I still have two giveaways running with time to enter both, so read on over here and enter! Please share with your friends and family and let’s get good books into eager little hands: Bird contest + book giveaway reminders
Now for today’s book. I’m going to acknowledge right up front here that this is a very unusual book for me to write about. Let’s count the ways: a) I normally do picture books my daughter enjoys; b) I don’t normally do books aimed at specific audiences; c) I’m, well, not to put too fine a point on it, but I am Jewish. But there you have it: I did write about Esther’s Story at Purim, right? So why not write about Dear Pope Francis when I admire it quite as much, as a book of its own kind?
The premise of the book is very simple: Pope Francis welcomes letters from children all over the world. (Well, he welcomes messages from everyone worldwide, but we’re focusing on children, here.) Children write to him, and he wants to respond. This book is a collection of messages from children, each with a question and a picture, accompanied by his responses. Yes, some are very Catholic: one child asks about bearing witness and bringing others to Christ. (Fair enough, too, that is a Catholic teaching!) But others are much more universal, such as the child who asks about what to do if your parents argue. Others are sweet and even a little funny: one asks the Pope about dancing (the Pope strongly supports dancing). The Pope takes each question seriously and warmly and responds carefully and precisely. The whole ensemble is a little gem: a blend of the child and the mentor, and a true witness to the value of dialogue between the two.
The question is this, though: I bought the book even though I’m a Jew and don’t really need Catholic teaching for my child. Do I think this is a book other non-Catholics can use, and, if so, why? The answer is this: I think anyone can find value in this book, although whether you want it in your home is really up to you and your own value system. That said, I’m going to write here to people who are open to the concept of an overall moral system in the world, because those are the people who are most likely to see something special here. In other words: Yes, absolutely, there is a lot in this book which is for everyone, but there is also the absolute assumption that if you care enough to be looking at the book, you believe in God. (If you truly are an atheist this probably isn’t for you– probably, but not 100% certainly… oh, you’re the best judge of what’s right for you.) Read on for more specifics.
What makes this book so special, regardless of whether or not you are Catholic, is the voice that it gives to the children. They occupy half the book. They lay out the overall premise. The Pope is merely responding to them. What makes it more special, and more about the child is this: the Pope’s responses give yet more voice to the child by virtue of the attention he pays to each voice. It’s a lesson in attentiveness, in good childcare, and reminds me of my favourite parenting book, How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk. The premise of that book is that it’s important not to shut down children, but to give them room and attention so that they’ll be able to express themselves. Pope Francis listens and attends so carefully that each voice is heard and each child will surely feel like continuing the conversation.
Take João: he tells the Pope that he felt great joy when he saw the Pope, and asks him what he feels when he sees children. First of all, can we pause to say: “Wow, what a great question!” I wouldn’t have thought to ask that, yet it’s simple, sincere, and important. Second, the Pope’s response: he tells João that he feels great tenderness when he sees children, but also great hope, as he knows that children are the future. (He says it better than I paraphrase, so read him, not me.) In other words, he reads, pays attention, thinks, and responds carefully and precisely. More than that, he responds with words that show equal faith and affection to João’s own: he says, in effect, “You love me– and I love you, too, and I have faith and trust in you to do wonderful things in this world.” I’m guessing that João’s answer is something like this: “Thank you! This is what I want to do…” And I find myself wondering: what is it that João is going to do next? What’s the next step in this story?
And that’s the way for each page. Each page is a little snippet of a story. The child who wonders how Jesus walked on water. The child who wants to know where the Pope likes to pray. The child who asks whether our deceased relatives can continue to see us. All of these are beginnings of stories. If you take them seriously– as the Pope does– then you want to know more: Where did that question come from? Who is this child? What does he or she think of the Pope’s answer? And that– look, that’s why this book is so wonderful. Because it makes sure we care. We care about these children and these questions and these snippets of their stories. The book isn’t called “Love, Pope Francis,” it’s called “Dear Pope Francis.” Questions to Pope Francis from children around the world. And Pope Francis is showing us how to take them seriously, listen to them, encourage them to talk.
And that’s why I think that this is a book that has value for anyone who cares about children. Because this is a book of their voices, and a book which shows how to care for the small people who ask such wonderful questions. They deserve our care and attention, and the Pope shows us how to offer it.
And, with that, uh… Shabbat Shalom! I’ll be back to non-faith-specific programming next week, but I hope that you enjoyed this little trip into an interesting side-area as much as I did.