"One of the kids at school asked today whether we believe in God," our 12-year-old announced at dinner one evening.

"And what did you tell her?" I asked.

"I told her we do...sort of." Most Buddhist practitioners will recognize the expediency of the reply.

"Good answer."

"But I thought you said gods were spirits, like invisible friends," our 6-year-old challenged.

For the thousandth time, I thought, "If only there were a book."

Questions that have pretty simple answers in a Judeo-Christian household become a little more complicated when Mom and Dad are Buddhists.

These days, the shelves of American bookstores are crammed with works by Buddhist teachers of all stripes, offering everything from entry-level primers like "Buddhism for Beginners" to advanced commentaries on tantric practices. But for the kids of the many thousands of Western Buddhist parents, it's slim pickins.

Who created the earth? Where do we go when we die? Is there a God? Questions that have pretty simple answers in a Judeo-Christian household become a little more complicated when Mom and Dad are Buddhists who reject the idea of a Supreme Being and, essentially, view existence as a creation of our own minds. Yet it's virtually impossible to find books that teach those lessons or help them understand why they ended up with this particular Mom and this particular Dad.

Mountains of Tibet
By Mordicai Gerstein

One glowing exception is a slim volume entitled "The Mountains of Tibet" (Harper Trophy, 1987). It would be difficult to portray the concepts of reincarnation and karma in a more elegant and child-like manner than in this lovely little book. Author Mordicai Gerstein introduces children to the cycle of rebirth through the tale of a Tibetan boy who lives in a beautiful valley and loves to fly kites. After a long life, the boy dies and is faced with the choice of becoming "part of the endless universe some call heaven" or being reborn somewhere among "the hundreds of millions of worlds."

Through the force of karma, or unfinished business, he finds himself inexorably drawn back to that same valley, where, this time, he is born as a girl, reminding us of the Buddhist notion that we have all filled many roles in our countless rebirths. But, Buddhists teach, we take with us from lifetime to lifetime certain habits, which is why, on the final page, we see the little girl standing on a hillside once again flying a kite.

A must-have on the list of any parent interested in exposing a child to the basics of Buddhism is "Prince Siddhartha: The Story of Buddha" (Wisdom 1987). This recently republished work is a movingly simple retelling of the story of the Buddha's birth and enlightenment. Written by Buddhist scholar Jonathan Landaw, with vivid watercolors by artist Janet Brooke, the book is written in language preschoolers can easily absorb, laid out in short chapters perfect for bedtime reading. A companion coloring book includes line drawings of each of the images.

Kindness: A Treasury of Buddhist Wisdom for Children and Parents
By Sarah Conover & Valerie Wahl

A number of books convey the broad Buddhist themes of compassion, patience, and tolerance. "Kindness: A Treasury of Buddhist Wisdom for Children and Parents" (Eastern Washington University Press, 2001) is, indeed, a treasure. This collection contains more than 30 stories drawn from across Buddhist Asia, accompanied by sepia-toned illustrations. Many chapters in the book are based on the Jataka Tales, stories that the Buddha is said to have related to children. These classics contain lessons on compassion and selflessness and, intrinsically, teach kids about the concept of rebirth in forms other than human, since the tales tell of the Buddha's past lives in the animal and spirit realms. Unfortunately, the language and length of the stories mean this is really a book for older children.

Versions of the Jataka tales, in fact, dominate much of the Buddhist literature for children. The little ones will be entranced by the captivatingly illustrated "Golden Goose King" (Parvardigar Press, 1995).
This hardcover volume recounts the story of one of several past lives in which the Buddha's closest disciple, Ananda, offered to sacrifice himself to protect his master. Ananda also features in "The Gift" (Wisdom, 1996), a story by author/illustrator Isia Osuchowska that teaches the importance of sharing and wisely using the earth's resources.