Zen Pencils: Cartoon Quotes From Inspirational Folks, by Gavin Aung Than

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As any teacher can attest, it is often infinitely easier to manage and “teach” our students than it is to teach our family and friends.  In my home, this is no exception. I have not-so-inconspicuously left books about mindfulness around my house so that my clan might pick them up and instantaneously become enlightened, and well,… no such luck.  This is until I brought home Zen Pencils.  With its graphic format, I successfully conned them into thinking this book was NOT a book of inspirational quotes and anecdotes like the ones that adorn every wall in our home, much to their chagrin. As the blurb on the back cover promises, this book will “inspire and motivate even the most cynical of readers.”  Truth.

The compilation of text here is impressive in and of itself.  We have an eclectic collection of words of wisdom from the likes of the enlightened Confucius, to historical phenoms like Theodore Roosevelt and Marie Curie, to literary geniuses like Neil Gaiman and Jack London.  The book even contains an awesome comic titled, “Who’s the Crazier Man” by controversial performer Henry Rollins which begs the reader to question what it means to BE “at all times.”

Gavin Aung Than’s illustrations, which vary in style from simplistic to realistic, and vibrant, contrasting color to analogous color pallets, serve a purpose greater than that of grabbing the attention of the reluctant reader.  They are designed to push your thinking about the text to another level. (Fans of Zen Pencils can browse through more of Than’s art on his site, zenpencils.com) My personal favorite comic in the book that illustrates this is The Most Astounding Fact, by Neil deGrasse Tyson for which Than artfully depicts the universe in the eye of a newborn child.

Question:  How do you engage cynics in timeless and universal lessons about mindfulness, perseverance, courage, confidence, sacrifice, and dignity?

Answer:  Give them Zen Pencils: Cartoon Quotes From Inspirational Folks.

Here is a book that this librarian will NOT hesitate to buy for my friends for Christmas.  They will actually read it!

Looking at Mindfulness: Twenty-five Paintings to Change the Way You Live, by Christophe Andre

Looking at Mindfulness: Twenty-five Paintings to Change the Way You Live

 I love art.  We can all appreciate some type of art as it is a reflection of the things that make us human.  For myself, as a person with a passion for sketching since I’ve been able to hold a pencil, I have always appreciated the incredible amount of skill required to create realism from splotches of pigment using brushes on a two-dimensional surface.  Now the artist who selects subject matter that evokes deep and profound feelings, is nothing short of a magician. I remember being in the Smithsonian Museum of Art and witnessing a woman moved to tears while looking at a painting on a wall. Whatever she saw, tapped into her soul the way certain literature and poetry does for me.

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And now for the book.  I confess I bought Looking at Mindfulness: Twenty-five Paintings to Change the Way You Live because the title implied content that would target art teachers in my school building; I didn’t imagine that this would be the impactful, mindfulness lesson it proved to be for me.  Like all truly wonderful books, this one has shifted my perception; of art slightly, and of life tremendously. Such a simple but profound analogy! Gaze upon the seemingly small, insignificant moments of life as you would stop and gaze at works of art with mindful appreciation.  

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How it this done?  Using paintings of a variety of styles and spanning historical and geographical time periods, the author teaches valuable mindfulness lessons.  With each painting, the author invites the reader to perceive the big picture first, then literally zooms in on details which bring a deeper meaning.  Quotes and actual instructions (lessons) also accompany each insightful analysis. My favorite of which is when the author invites the reader to literally halt before physically turning the page of the book in order to physically check in.

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Instructions and lessons include the importance of immersive awareness, during which you attempt to “feel without thinking,”  the importance of listening as a means of gaining presence, and allowing and acknowledging painful feelings like sorrow or anger.  A topic of particular interest to me is the author’s addressing of the quality of attention and how today’s society bombards us with fast-moving, flashy, irrelevant content.  This, which the author refers to as a “psychotoxic environment,” has the ability to not only rob us from fully experiencing the present, but can in fact significantly damage our well-being.

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The challenge, as I’ve been learning daily during my personal quest to live mindfully, is to remember to consciously employ these mindful living lessons.  In a gallery, art on the walls is motionless and the placement in the gallery invites undistracted contemplation. Real life moves by quickly and catching all of the beauty and nuance requires attention, attention which can only be achieved by mindful moment-to-moment awareness  characterized by freedom of distracting, biased thoughts.

I was delightfully surprised to find this book to be, for me, the most enjoyable series of lessons on mindful living yet.  Andre succeeds in conveying deep ideas both clearly and beautifully. Stay tuned for a review of his follow-up, Happiness: 25 Ways to Live Joyfully Through Art.

Purchase on Amazon:

Looking at Mindfulness: Twenty-five Paintings to Change the Way You Live

Golden Sparkles: An Introduction to Mindfulness, by Catarina R. Peterson. Illustrations by Mateya Arkova

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Golden Sparkles: An Introduction to Mindfulness

What ARE “golden sparkles?”  As the beautiful text by Catarina R. Peterson unfolds, accompanied by the whimsical illustrations of Mateya Arkova, the reader begins to understand that “golden sparkles” describes the sensation that fills our hearts during mindful interaction with the world around us. Golden Sparkles taps into the awe and wonder of a child’s experience and gently conveys the methods for maintaining this inherently mindful outlook throughout trials and tribulations of later life. It is a simple analogy used to describe a most profound experience.

Peterson’s book charmed me right from the start as it is dedicated to each member of her preschool class, (each addressed individually), who she thanks for being both teachers and fellow learners, NOT mere students.  In my experience the most mindful and reflective educators perceive their students in this way.

The language of Golden Sparkles is poetic with a gentle rhyme which flows quite like the breath, gently “in… and out…” making it a delight to read aloud.  Highlighted words throughout the text conjure peace and relaxation.  They are defined sequentially in a glossary at the end of the book and can serve as talking points between reader and child. Timeless universality is an important theme, as children are reminded that through mindfulness practice, golden sparkles are literally just “a breath away” no matter where, or who you are.

There is depth in the simplicity of the illustrations.  Arkova skillfully uses a soul-soothing, pastel palette to immerse the reader in Peterson’s story.  A delightfully depicted trio of friends, each with their unique charm, effectively capture the calm, serenity, and gratitude that can be achieved by applying mindful attention to everyday activities (a picnic, a bike ride, a meditation).  Golden sparkles literally emanate from their hearts!  

The foreword by Vicki Zakrrzewski, Ph.D., Education Director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, invites readers to ponder the long-term effects of mindfulness practice on children.  I think of the ways mindfulness has improved my life and it warms my heart to know that authors like Peterson may succeed in introducing mindful living practices to the children, as they will shape our future world.  During these turbulent times marked by devastating current events, this gem-of-a book is a “golden sparkle” in itself.

Order: Golden Sparkles: An Introduction to Mindfulness

Meditation Is an Open Sky: Mindfulness for Kids, by Whitney Stewart with pictures by Sally Rippin

This book is a complete gem.  Even though the intended audience is K through 3, I can see using this in my collection as an instruction manual for mindfulness for my middle schoolers (as well as their teachers!).  The strength of this book is the fact that it provides a variety of actual mindfulness practices for kids.  It can work as a daily guide.  Students can choose their methods based on their emotional needs at any given time.  The book describes activities such as, “Mind Drawing for Focus,” “Protection Circle for Security,” and “Friendship Meditation for Kindness.”  They are mostly visualization and breathing exercises.

Intrusive thoughts that “pop up” during meditation are likened to bubbles.  This instruction is to “pop” them when the mind wanders.  As a Reiki practitioner, energy work is a big part of my mindfulness practice and I love how this book alludes to chakras (energy centers in the body) and the importance of, and simple strategies for, sending and receiving energy.  For example, the “Wise Friend for Decision Making” exercise encourages one to envision a wise friend sending, “white light into your forehead to strengthen your body.”  The center of the eyes is the location of the Ajna Chakra, or “third eye chakra,” and it is the point for insight and intuition.  One instructed to then imagine receiving light over the throat for clear speech.  (This is the Vishuddha Chakra.)

The illustrations that accompany the text are simplistic and delightful.  The main subject is a cute elephant and his little friend (representative of the “wise friend” within) is a monkey.  The book concludes with “Questions about Meditation.”  Worded simply for a child, they are the same questions adults often have regarding the practice.  (“What do I do when I feel wriggly?” or “sore legs?”)  In short, this is a delightful little book, and a great addition to my mindful library.

The Lemonade Hurricane: A Story About Mindfulness and Meditation, by Licia Morelli

This adorable gem-of-a -picture-book is the perfect introduction to mindfulness and meditation for the littlest learners.  Beautiful, engaging artwork accompanies simple text in this book, providing for the perfect read aloud.  The book invites opportunities for valuable discussion through the experience of Emma and her little brother, Henry.  

Emma, a mindful little girl herself, often likes to stop and pause when the business of life becomes too much.  Her brother Henry, however, is what she describes as a “lemonade hurricane.”  Pictures in the book can be used to invite little listeners to discuss Henry’s positive, and sometimes negative behaviors (like knocking over Emma’s block castle).  She expresses her desire to be rid of the “hurricane” so she can enjoy her brother more.  By modeling simple mindfulness meditation techniques, Emma teaches Henry to be still.  In this state, he imagines himself seated peacefully on an elephant.  Here students could be asked where they would envision themselves to be peaceful.

A delightful author’s note at the end of the book provides a further discussion of the “lemonade hurricane” analogy. Thicht Naht Hahn, a Buddhist monk, had in his youth likened a clear glass of apple juice in which the pulp had settled, to the clarity of the mind when settling into meditation.  The glass of lemonade, when the pulp is stirred by a “hurricane,” would become clear when still.  The final page of the book introduces mindful meditation exercises that can easily be practiced with a class of little ones, followed by questions for reflection such as, “How did sitting feel?”

Any young one with a little “lemonade hurricane” sibling is sure to relate, as will the child who him or herself struggles with sitting down to “just be.”

Master of Mindfulness: How to Be Your Own Superhero in Times of Stress, by Laury Grossman, Angelina Alvarez, and the students of Mr. Musumeci’s 5th Grade Class

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Buy on Amazon:

Master of Mindfulness: How to Be Your Own Superhero in Times of Stress

Hats off to Mr. Musumeci’s 5th grade class of 2013 – 2014 (Reach Academy, Oakland, CA)!  I wish I could give a copy of this book to everyone I know, both children and adults.  This book, with a foreword by MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) founder, Jon Kabat-Zin, is written and illustrated by kids, for kids, and it is the most accessible and complete description of mindfulness for children I have read yet.  

The most powerful parts of the book are the students’ own illustrated accounts of instances when mindfulness could be helpful in dealing with difficult emotions and situations.  This could be infinitely helpful to students and teachers alike in defending the why of mindfulness in schools.  The students cover topics ranging from dealing with anger when hit in the face with a soccer ball or cut on the lunch line, to loneliness when family members go away, to nervousness when their ride is late to pick up from school, and how to effectively “shield” from bullying.

These kids have done their research too.  There are pages relating to the science behind mindfulness, specifically how it changes brain function.  Illustrations accompany information about brain chemistry, the brain on stress, the release of hormones cortisol and adrenaline when we enter fight or flight or flight, and how mindfulness practices can set things right.

The last portion of the book contains techniques for practicing mindfulness such as mindful breathing, body scan, mindful walking, mindful noticing of feelings, and mindful communication.  My favorite is a technique called “shark fin” which I intend to use with my own students.  There is even a bit on mindful eating.  The scripts are designed to be recorded by the reader and listened to for practice.

They close by reminding the reader to practice mindfulness every day and wishing the reader a happy life.  They liken mindfulness to a seed growing inside your body, and mindfulness practice being what helps it grow.  Such a powerful experience for the students involved in creating this, and a such a gift for all who read it!

Splendors and Glooms, by Laura Amy Schlitz

Brace yourself for a terrifying ride!  Schlitz’s 2013 Newbery Honor Book combines Gothic horror and Dickensian historical details to carry a dynamic cast of characters through a plot that will keep young readers biting their nails until the very last page.  The characters experience grief, fear, terror, and longing, all of which are ultimately overcome by courage, love, and determination.  The intermingling of magical elements such as curses and enchantments will appeal to the fan of high fantasy.

The tale is set in Victorian London, with characters struggling to make ends meet on the streets, as well as some swimming in wealth and material luxury.  We begin with the Venetian puppet-master, Grisini, with his magical cart-drawn show.  He travels and performs with two orphans he has taken on as his wards; Lizzie Rose, from a family of successful theater performers, and Parsefall, the tough yet fearful ragamuffin with a tortured past.  The troupe is discovered by Clara, the wealthy daughter of a doctor who is immediately taken by the performance and particularly, the talented, free-spirited children.  She convinces her parents to commission Grisini’s puppet show for her 12th birthday at their elaborate home in which the sorrow and despair of a past family tragedy looms heavily.  

An attempted murder, a missing body, trouble with the law, a kidnapping, and a most evil curse land Lizzie Rose, Parsefall, and Clara in the home of a rich, aging witch named Cassandra who has a maleficent agenda.  Grisini, the witch’s friend/foe from the past, informs her that the children hold the potential to release her from the torturous suffering caused by a magical fire opal worn.  His motives, of course, are selfish as he desires the opal for himself.  The children, though unrelated, overcome their obstacles due to the love and care they have for each other as siblings.

Even though the plot line is certainly suitable for the recommended grades 4 – 8, the only consideration for recommending this to young readers is the incorporation of British English which might prove difficult for some (particularly Parsefall’s dialogue).  

The Way of Mindful Education: Cultivating Well-Being in Teachers and Students, by Daniel Rechtschaffen

As a reader of professional materials for many years, I have come across sources that run the gamut from containing trite theory to practical, effective strategies.  The beauty of The Way of Mindful Education:Cultivating Well-Being in Teachers and Students, by Daniel Rechtschaffen, is that the book covers every aspect of mindfulness in education in a way that is both clear and accessible.  Following an insightful foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn (Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society at the University of Massachusetts), the book is divided into four sections which seamlessly blend into one another.  

Part one of The Way of Mindful Education focuses on the history and effectiveness of mindfulness in education and introduces the ways it can benefit both students and teachers alike in terms of “body,” “mind,” “heart,” and “interconnectedness,” all backed by research.  Part two raises the very important point that in order to teach mindfulness, one must practice mindfulness effectively.  As a “mindful librarian” I not only consider this a practice to enhance my work but also my everyday life, hence the breakup of my blog into “mindfulness in education” and “mindful living” categories. This section of the book personally appealed to me as a parent as well as a librarian.  Part three introduces practical strategies for creating a mindful climate in the classroom at all age levels, reinforcing the benefits for students in distress.  Part four presents actual curriculum samples.  In addition to dialogue to be used at each “stage and age” there are journaling prompts.  Sections titled “world discovery” explore how each lesson can enhance their lives outside of the classroom.

I can’t rave enough about this book.  In addition to clearly defining mindfulness, and explaining the multitude of benefits of mindfulness practices and mindful environments for both teachers and students, I uncovered a multitude of takeaways to help me in my personal mindfulness practice and in the creation of a mindful home environment beyond my mindful library.