Humanist Books And Films
Where Can I Find Humanist Books and Films for Children and Teens?
by Fred Edwords
In the world of mainstream American culture and the large corporate publishing houses that serve it, there is no shortage of reading material suitable for humanist children and teens. One only has to look, since the entire field is largely secular. However, as with anything else, it is best to exercise reasonable care.
The key is to be open for titles that present values with which humanists can agree. Fortunately, the best of today's mass market books for children and teens are all quite humanistic and almost never bring religious ideas into the picture. Therefore, if the American Library Association recommends it, then one can feel confident that the book is likely to be suitable for humanists. The next step is to read a few online reviews of a potential book in order to get a better idea. Such reviews can readily be found at http://www.amazon.com and other online book services.
Another help is to simply be aware of well-known humanist or humanistic fiction creators. These are writers who have either avowed their humanism or have been identified as humanistic by a number of humanist readers--whether or not they wrote clearly identifiable humanist books. Here is a short list:
- Louisa May Alcott
- Isaac Asimov
- L. Frank Baum
- Ambrose Bierce
- Stephen Crane
- Charles Dickens
- Alexander Dumas
- Nathaniel Hawthorne
- Robert Heinlein
- Aldous Huxley
- Washington Irving
- Jack London
- H.P. Lovecraft
- Herman Melville
- James A. Michener
- A.A. Milne
- George Orwell
- Edgar Allen Poe
- Beatrix Potter
- Philip Pullman
- Gene Roddenberry
- Dr. Seuss
- Robert Louis Stevenson
- Mark Twain
- Kurt Vonnegut
- H.G. Wells
What is true for books is also true for many of the most critically acclaimed Hollywood movies available on video. For children and preteens there is Disney's live-action Huckleberry Finn and cartoon features Beauty and the Beast, Toy Story, and Toy Story 2. More recently there is the overtly humanist cartoon film from Warner Brothers, Happy Feet. For teens there are Contact and Pleasantville, particularly recommended because the values offered in both are completely humanist. On television, Sesame Street is a highly-rated humanistic program for preschoolers and Star Trek, both in television reruns and as films, has always had a large teen following and always been strongly humanist.
Ironically, one good place to look for general book and film titles is through the religious right. By finding out what books and films have been negatively reviewed in evangelical Christian publications and websites, particularly those titles condemned as "secular humanist," one can often be led to excellent choices for humanist kids. (For example, Phyllis Schlafly once criticized The Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss because of its not-so-subtle critique of the Cold War arms race. And, indeed, the book provides an excellent parable against the nuclear war doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. Moreover, most of the books that Dr. Seuss wrote later in his career are particularly suitable for humanist children. They cover issues like pollution, racism, and many other social concerns. The Lorax, for example, is an environmentalist title.)
Humanist Publishers and Sellers
To get more specialized or specific humanist youth materials, one may turn to the following organizations and businesses.
Humanist Press is the publishing house of the American Humanist Association, providing material for the humanist/freethought/atheist market since 1995. While continuing to publish some print books, in 2012 the Humanist Press was re-launched as an e-publishing house, selling ebooks through its online store and through the various ebook portal sites.
With the largest print book seller in the United States now selling more ebooks than paper books, it was time the freethought movement invested in the future of publishing so that we can remain relevant and accessible to readers in the U.S. and around the globe. With new ebooks becoming available on a bi-monthly basis, Humanist Press will have a regularly expanding catalog of interest to atheist and agnostic humanists everywhere. http://www.humanistpress.com
Albert Ellis Institute
This organization in New York City was founded by the late psychologist Albert Ellis, the 1971 Humanist of the Year of the American Humanist Association and an outspoken nontheistic rational thinker. In carrying out its mission to promote psychological health in children and adults, the Albert Ellis Institute publishes various books for children and teens, including one called Rational Stories for Children and some others about how to overcome anger and other destructive emotions. For the relevant portion of the online book catalog, go to http://www.rebtinstitute.org/store/products.php?cat=31.
American Ethical Union
The American Ethical Union (AEU) in New York City once published a book on teaching ethics to children. Perhaps it's still available though, since then, mainstream publishers have released other credible books for children and teens on basic human values. Associated with the AEU in New York City is the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. This private institution covers elementary through high school. So it should be worthwhile to inquire about their curriculum. The school's website is at http://www.ecfs.org/ and the bookstore is at http://bookstore.mbsdirect.net/ecfs.htm, but it may take some effort to determine which books belong to what parts of the curriculum.
If you're looking for books that specifically advance atheism or secular humanist ethics, Prometheus Books publishes a number of titles on these subjects specifically for kids. These tend to be nonfiction about being skeptical about God, religion, and paranormal claims. A review of their book catalog will speak for itself. It can be found at http://www.prometheusbooks.com/. Click on the "Quick Search" option and select "Young Readers," the last item on the list.
Unitarian Universalist Association
Skinner House and Beacon Press publish books for the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). Unitarian Universalists are notoriously tolerant and interested in teaching nondogmatic values to their kids. Roughly half the members of this liberal religious denomination identify as humanists. So a look at the UUA bookstore catalog will undoubtedly reveal a number of useful titles. Go to https://secure.uua.org/bookstore/.
Another place to look is among the special titles sold by environmentalist and peace organizations. Many single-issue groups with which humanists agree have developed young people's titles that advance specific ideals. (The EarthWorks Group publishes 50 Simple Things Children Can Do to Save the Earth. For a short bibliography of environmental books for young people, go here.)
Bible Stories for Humanists?
Many might wonder if stories from the Bible could possibly have any value for humanist children. The answer is yes, and for two reasons.
First, if Bible stories are read in the same way that one might read ancient Greek myths or the mythologies of other cultures, it's possible to understand them for what they are: Hebrew and Christian myth and legend. And then they can be appreciated and enjoyed without being believed.
Second, Bible stories in particular are part of Western culture. A person can't be considered culturally literate without knowing them as well as one might know Aesop's Fables. Just think of all the familiar English metaphors and references that come from the Bible: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Sampson and Delilah, reading the handwriting on the wall, Daniel in the lion's den, David and Goliath, "Let my people go," the golden calf, the Ten Commandments, the battle of Jericho, "Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone," the good Samaritan, the widow's mite, original sin, "I wash my hands of it," the antichrist, and so on. Such references come up often enough in conversation, written materials, film, and elsewhere that children who are reared without any knowledge of the Bible will find they don't understand many things people are talking about.
So, if one goes to a Christian bookstore (or ordinary children's book section of a secular store) and picks out something innocuous that tells Bible stories, this should do much of the job of educating children in the traditional Sunday school curriculum. And an excellent way to introduce humanist kids to the Moses story is to rent or buy the Dreamworks video Prince of Egypt, which treats the material as a story rather than as religious doctrine.
There's nothing to worry about in all this. No humanist child has been known to have "gotten religion" just from reading a children's book or viewing a video that tells Bible stories. Still, it always helps if a parent discusses any material with a child. And, as noted above, it puts the stories in perspective if the child can be given this material together with books and videos on Greek mythology and the mythology of other cultures. The larger context is always of great benefit.
Compiling Your List
Once one starts looking broadly for humanist books and videos for children and teens, the problem won't be how to draw up a list but how to prune it down to manageable size. Still, the effort to locate humanistic books for young people is a wonderful research project for someone. A comprehensive list needs to be compiled of the material that's already available so the American Humanist Association can share it with everyone. So let us know if you'd like to contribute to this effort or share your own list with us.
Fred Edwords, a father of two, is a past executive director of the American Humanist Association and past president of Camp Quest, the summer camp for freethinking children and teens. (Go to http://www.camp-quest.org for more information.) He currently heads up the United Coalition of Reason and serves on the faculty of the Humanist Institute.
This article is Copyright © 2007 and 2009 by the American Humanist Association.