Twenty-five years ago my passion for children’s literature led me to initiate discussions with two overlapping groups of friends about children’s literature, art, and picture books. I thought that maybe, just maybe, Bahá’ís like us could contribute to the development of this genre, in the world of Bahá’í publishing and also in the trade publishing world.
I met with long time friend Leona Hosack, a musician and artist, to discuss how we might promote children’s literature in the Bahá’í community. Within a year, another friend, Patti Rae Tomarelli, joined us. She had just her first children’s book published — ‘Are You Happy?’. Patti Rae had been engaged in discussions about publishing and promotion with another children’s author who then also joined us, Ronnie Tomanio, who as far as any of us can tell is a deep thinking writer-angel.
In 1997, we decided to bring the two groups together, and at Patti Rae and Ronnie’s suggestion, we approached Green Acre Bahá’í School in Eliot, Maine about holding a weekend program for writers and artists who produce materials for children. Much to our surprise and joy, the director, Jim Sacco, agreed, and the weekend was on. We named ourselves “Spirit of Children”. Our hope was to bring together others who were as passionate as we were about creating materials for children. We wanted our deliberations and creative attention to focus on supporting the developing spirits of children.
That year Memorial Day weekend was packed with prayer, the study of the Writings, consultation, and the sharing of art. Our consultations about how to pursue our shared vision generated enormous enthusiasm, and we felt galvanized to explore further our creative impulses as artists and to express these in a Bahá’í context. And so began what has become a lively 20 year long discussion about producing art, books, music, and theatre for children. By our third year of meeting, we were ready for a full five-day summer program at Green Acre and the school has invited us back every year since. This year we will celebrate our 20th year of meeting at Green Acre.
Over the years, we have examined and re-examined our mandate and mission, but we always look back on the Ridvan Message of the Universal House of Justice, addressed to the Bahá’ís of the world in April 2000, as a turning point for Spirit of Children. These words served and continue to serve as our guiding star:
Children are the most precious treasure a community can possess, for in them are the promise and guarantee of the future. They bear the seeds of the character of future society which is largely shaped by what the adults constituting the community do or fail to do with respect to children. They are a trust no community can neglect with impunity. An all-embracing love of children, the manner of treating them, the quality of the attention shown them, the spirit of adult behavior toward them — these are all among the vital aspects of the requisite attitude. Love demands discipline, the courage to accustom children to hardship, not to indulge their whims or leave them entirely to their own devices. An atmosphere needs to be maintained in which children feel that they belong to the community and share in its purpose. They must lovingly but insistently be guided to live up to Bahá’í standards, to study and teach the Cause in ways that are suited to their circumstances.
On reading this message in the spring of 2000, we felt validated in our hopes and vision, in our art and our work for the annual conference. With renewed enthusiasm, we made efforts to conform the goals of our week-long program at Green Acre to the guidance of the Universal House of Justice. Over the years, our mission statement, which we developed after studying the 2000 message of the Universal House of Justice, has remained the same:
The Spirit of Children upholds the standard of the Oneness of Humankind, and recognizes the spiritual nature of children. Our mission is to nurture the creative process in those who produce spiritually meaningful, globally educational and engaging children's materials, and to stimulate and inspire the production of those materials. The ultimate aim of all of these endeavors is to support the core activities of the initiatives emphasized by the Universal House of Justice in the current plan, and to highlight the use of the arts in the development of study circles, devotional gatherings, and classes for the spiritual education of children and youth.
Today, the Spirit of Children Board is comprised of the original four members of Spirit of Children: Patti Tomarelli, Leona Hosack, Ronnie Tomanio and me, together with two other members who have joined us over the years: Jeannie Hunt and Rose-Marie Peterson. When Jeannie, a visual artist and bookmaker from Western Massachusetts, attended our second conference in the spring of 1998, it was obvious to all of us in the original Spirit of Children group that we could all greatly benefit from Jeannie’s artistic maturity and spiritual insight. A couple of years later, the deliberations of our board were further enhanced by the gentle approach to the melody of life and service brought by singer and composer Rose-Marie Peterson.
When I asked Jeannie why she keeps coming back to our Spirit of Children conference each summer and why she remains active on the board, she said:
I keep returning because I can’t imagine life without Spirit of Children. It’s the recharge for my spiritual battery, it brings together my two main passions — art and community-building — and it’s a chance to reflect on my creative process over the previous years. I love the way the board collaborates, consults, and reflects each year on how to improve our program. It has become a ‘learning team’ of sorts, where we experiment with a ‘graceful integration of the arts’. I have enjoyed watching us all grow, as individual artists, as planners, teachers and mentors for other participants who are coming for the first time.
And for Leona Hosack, the annual meeting of Spirit of Children fills a need for artistic community and generates the excitement that comes from seeing work grow and reach fruition:
I am excited to be part of a program that gathers together creative people, writers, artists, and dancers to study the current messages of the House of Justice, as well as the Bahá’í writings on the arts. I enjoy seeing the participants share their art projects and benefit from the critique sessions. I return each year because I'm inspired by seeing how some of the participants' works have become a reality. And I love the camaraderie as well as the deepening that comes from the study of the writings, especially on the arts. Another deeply gratifying component of Spirit of Children is the way that the Spirit of Children board works together over the course of each year. The unity, creativity, and commitment to the Bahá’í Faith, to art, to children, to transformation that each person brings to the consultation to plan the summer program is unlike anything I experience anywhere else.
When I asked Patti Rae to describe why she remains committed to the year-long consultations required to plan the program for the Spirit of Children conference, she said:
Our consultation planning process is crazily nonlinear and it works. Regardless of the fact that we live in different parts of North America, we have unity of thought and immense trust in each other’s spiritual insights. So when someone says, ‘I have a crazy idea,’ we all get excited and often go for it. For the first few years, the board planned the conference schedule around many shorter 1-hour workshops on topics ranging from technical writing and editing tips to how to submit art or a manuscript, but over time, the board realized we needed longer workshops to allow deeper study and contemplation as well as time for sharing art. Now, we typically have a picture book workshop, a spiritual development workshop, a hands-on arts workshop, and an artist sharing — an essential component to the annual conference.
Some participants in our annual conference attend regularly, but for the most part, every summer brings a new group of people to Green Acre for the Spirit of Children conference. Over the years, artists, writers, musicians, actors, and puppeteers have shared their work. Some publishing deals have come out of the conference, which has been exciting. New ideas have been developed and tested at the conference, especially during the artist sharing time. Hearing back from participants during of the year, or the following summer about successes in publishing is always an inspiring outcome, some with publishers connected to Spirit of Children. Members of the board have continued to create and publish more work, too. The spiritual camaraderie of the Spirit of Children group has helped foster the production of many books and much art and music.
As we turn our minds to our 20th year program in the summer of 2017, we begin to contemplate our next steps. What is our vision of our future? We would like to expand and diversify the membership on our board and would also like to share our program at other Bahá’í Schools. And in all our endeavors, we remain committed to supporting artists in the creation of artistic work and in their plans to inspire children and their families within their local communities.