MOTHER TERESA by Demi. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2005. Hardcover. 40 pages. $19.95
THE DALAI LAMA by Demi. Henry Holt and Company, 1998. Hardcover 32 pages. $19.95
Charlotte Demi Hunt Huang (Demi) is one of the most outstanding writers of children’s stories; she has written and illustrated more than 130 books that offer graceful stories with exquisite miniatures. Most of her works have Asian themes, influenced by her years spent in the continent and the fact that she is a practicing Buddhist. A recipient of many awards and honors, Demi is best known for retelling folktales, but she has also written biographies. Among her tales about leaders, the trio of picture books, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and The Dalai Lama, will help any child understand the contributions of these South Asian spiritual giants.
Demi wisely refrains from overwhelming the child reader with too many facts in her biographies. Instead, she narrates the important events of the individuals’ lives. Still, these three biographies, aimed at children ages 8 to 12, are best shared with an adult. In this age of self-gratification, selfishness, and indulgence, the lives of Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and the Dalai Lama will inspire young minds to think of underprivileged and suffering people.
Gandhi, (winner of the New York Times Best Illustrated Award and Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Award) is a sumptuous feast for the eyes with its meticulously executed details. The pictures tell the story better than the luminous prose, which does justice in painting Gandhi as a Mahatma, but gets a few important facts wrong. Nevertheless, this book serves as a wonderful introduction to his life, the injustices of India’s colonial past, and the civil disobedience movement that led to the country’s freedom.
The book tells us about his birth in Porbandar on October 2, 1869, his parents, and his marriage at age 13 to Kasturbai. The writer’s narrative hooks the reader with simple sentences depicting his personality at various stages: “Gandhi was a small, shy boy, afraid of many things, including ghosts, serpents, and the dark. His wife laughed lovingly at her husband, who had to sleep with the lights on.”
The pictures carry us forward with portraits of the Mahatma with his family, alone in a formal pose, with his bride during their wedding ceremony, as a gentleman in England, practicing law, being flung from a train, as the leader of a mass civil disobedience movement in South Africa, nursing a sick old man, meditating outside in the midst of nature, and so on, ending with a serene illustration of a plane scattering his ashes, mixed with rose petals, at the junction of three sacred rivers. The painting of a life-altering moment in the great man’s life, when he is thrown out of a South African train, is a masterpiece. Not only does it carry immense visual appeal with the beautiful reproduction of the train and steward, the contrasting rich white smoke, and the deep blue background, but it also conveys Gandhi’s state of mind by showing him being flung into a void. Another powerful image shows him bending down to pick up a pinch of sea salt during the Salt March. The sea, a pastel blue, is reminiscent of the sky with wispy clouds, and the mainly white background in the picture comes from the clothes of his teeming followers.
Demi concludes with Einstein’s famous quote, “Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon the earth.” The writer’s last words in the book are, “It is my own great hope that we will all try to live our lives in Gandhi’s honor—in truth, peace, and love.”
Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa both possessed the traits of humility, selflessness, and moral courage that transformed them into great leaders. Mother Teresa reveals the story of a person who, like Gandhi, did good deeds and moved others to dedicate their lives to do similar acts of virtue.
Mother Teresa was given the name Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu at birth. While she was in a state secondary school in Croatia, she heard about the work of Catholic missionaries in West Bengal through the letters of a Jesuit Father. She was inspired to become a missionary. At the chapel of Madonna, 12-year-old Agnes felt a calling for the religious life. She joined the Loreto Abbey in Ireland because their Sisters worked in Calcutta. She had a gift for languages and easily picked up English, Hindi, and Bengali. Agnes renamed herself after Teresa of Lisieux, a French saint. In Calcutta, she taught in a Loreto convent and called herself “the happiest nun in the world.” Even when she became the principal, she was interested in helping the people in Moti Jheel, the worst slum in Calcutta, which was just beyond the walls of the school. It was only the beginning of her services to the poorest of the poor. We learn much about her impressive work, including giving the dying a place to live with dignity, founding a home for unwanted children and a leper colony, aiding the survivors of the 1977 Andhra Pradesh cyclone, and opening missions in 80 nations. Money miraculously poured in from around the world when it seemed there wouldn’t be enough funds for her charitable work.
The pictures on every page will make young readers pause and help them imagine the events in Mother Teresa’s life as well as her personality. We see her teaching the children of Moti Jheel by writing in the soil with a stick, praying with the other sisters, writing at her desk, comforting an abandoned baby, jumping rope with a child, teaching lepers practical skills, and much more.
Young readers will savor and feel uplifted by the quotes, prayers, and poems of Mother Teresa’s. “Never let anyone come to you without coming away better and happier,” she advised. “Everyone should see goodness in your face, in your eyes, in your smile.” The back jacket has a picture of John Paul II and bears the image of his seal. It also reprints his blessing to Demi.
Similarly, The Dalai Lama, which tells the story of the 14th and current Dalai Lama, has the Tibetan leader’s blessings for the endeavor in the form of a foreword bearing his official letterhead: “I appreciate her effort because my story will also tell you something about the Tibetan people and their unique way of life.”
Like Mother Teresa, who knew early on her calling in life was for God, the Dalai Lama manifested his spiritual inclination by claiming to be an incarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama. What was astounding was that he was a mere two-year-old at the time! His very birth brought auspicious signs, such as the improved health of his sickly father and a plentiful harvest. He was given the name Lhamo Dhondup. The lamas conducted a search to find a replacement for the 13th Dalai Lama, and a rainbow led them to the Tibetan village of Takster, where Lhamo lived. They tested the toddler to make sure he truly was the reincarnation of their spiritual leader. They showed him various objects and asked him to pick out his belongings. He cried out, “Here is my old walking stick! Here is my ceremonial drum! Here are my prayer beads!” He became the 14th Dalai Lama in a grand ceremony.
Demi’s description of the little boy’s personality and her tidbits about how he was brought up by the high lamas in the Potala Palace are interesting. The rest of the biography deals with the intertwined fate of the Dalai Lama and Tibet, his visit to Mao Tse-tung, the Communist Cultural Revolution, his efforts to bring peace to his country, his escape to India, and his continuing attempts to bring worldwide attention to his cause. The last picture, done with a modest touch compared to the preceding playfully colored pages, shows a smiling Dalai Lama winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
These three biographies will enlighten readers about the people behind the birth of different movements, people who have had profound impacts on the world. Children will understand that exceptional leaders, no matter what religion they belong to, motivate the masses to accomplish their goals, and die leaving an enduring legacy. And we can all ruminate on the Dalai Lama’s words: “Because we all share this small planet earth, we have to learn to live in harmony and peace with each other and with nature.”
Tara Menon is a freelance writer based in Lexington, Massachusetts.