After six years and over one million copies sold, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s The Book of Joy is getting a picture book adaptation that offers children lessons on finding joy in a world often bereft of it. For readers ages 3-7, The Little Book of Joy (Crown Books for Young Readers, Sept. 27) was written in collaboration with literary agents Douglas Abrams and Rachel Neumann of Idea Architects, who share a history of working with the Dalai Lama —Abrams worked with both the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama on The Book of Joy as a co-writer, while Neumann, a former journalist, met the Dalai Lama when she was interviewing world leaders in the aftermath of 9/11. She spoke with him about alternatives to violence and how to heal after the tragic event. Neumann then went on to work at Buddhist publishing houses, where she wrote and edited with His Holiness.
Artist Rafael López, multiple winner of the Pura Belpré Award and recipient of 2017’s Tomás Rivera Children’s Book Award, serves as illustrator of The Little Book of Joy, which has a 100,000-copy initial print run.
The Little Book of Joy brings the Nobel Peace Prize winners together again in their first book for children, and what turned out to be Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s last book following his death in 2021. PW spoke with Abrams, Neumann, and López about the process of collaborating with the luminaries, and creating a message they hope to share with young readers and their parents.
What inspired a children’s version of The Book of Joy?
DA: The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu love communicating with children. It is one of the things that brings them the greatest joy. From the very creation of The Book of Joy there was discussion of how to adapt it into a children’s version. We received interest from people all over the world and finally, just before Archbishop Tutu left us, we were able to come up with a story that encapsulated the heart of The Book of Joy. And the brilliance of Rafael’s illustrations complements it so well.
How did Rafael’s illustrative style speak to you?
RN: There is joyfulness to the way he works. There’s a sense of surprise, like in the flower that shows up in the tire or in the way he draws the earth. He not only captured the giddiness and deep appreciation between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu, but also the natural world, which is so important to these holy men. So many people are excited to learn about the friendship between these men, but unless you've read through the book you might not know how different their lives were. Rafael was able to capture both of those worlds and show that their coming together was made bigger by their differences.
In what capacity did you collaborate with the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu on The Little Book of Joy?
DA: We began with their words from The Book of Joy and the story of their friendship. We then shared the text with them for their revisions, and each of the iterations of the illustrations that Rafael had done for their feedback. I was with Archbishop Tutu before he died and I showed him the pages. He was just delighted by the book and felt like it was exactly what he wanted it to be for the world as the last book that he was able to give us.
RN: They were extraordinarily involved. Rafael can attest to this, sometimes to the point that it drove us crazy. They were involved at every level, from saying “There’s no telescope there, the telescope has to move here” to “No my sister’s hair wasn’t like that, it was this shape.” There was so much that was true to life.
RL: We needed to get as close as we could to reality, so I was happy that the families were involved and they were trying to capture as much of the true past. It was always a thrill, even though it was extra work, that at the end we’re going to show something truer to how it really was.
How do you believe children can relate to the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu’s childhood stories?
RN: Kids can relate to the different pillars of joy. One we focused on was perspective, that sense you have as a kid that fleeting things, like a door slamming or thunder, are all you can feel at that moment. As we say in the book, when you look up, joy is always there. I visited children in refugee camps and war-torn zones and I noticed that children always find joy wherever they are. That doesn't make it OK, but that's one of the magics—you always have that capacity to find joy. Another clear message of the book is there’s nothing better than laughing with your friends. I think every kid knows that. They were really clear to kids: this is your richness, your inheritance, and you have the power to share it and change people's lives. I think sometimes as a kid you can feel powerless, and remembering that your joy is something you can share is a quite powerful and exciting message for kids.
Why do you feel this book’s message is particularly important for children today?
RN: This collaboration happened during the pandemic so that was very much at the forefront of our lives. One of the things that felt particularly important to us was the idea that you can reach out to people far away, that even when you’re alone you can share joy in all the different ways that we connect. The value of connection is one of the things that was hardest for kids during the pandemic. This is a reminder that the most important thing we can do is reach out to people. Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama stayed connected even though they were incredibly far away from each other. One of the joys of The Book of Joy was their connection. They got to meet in person, but their incredible letters show how they stayed in touch. Reminding people that they have that ability to feel connected even when they’re alone is particularly important.
DA: People have never been more challenged than at this moment in time, whether it’s from the pandemic, our environment, the mental health crisis, or war. Children pick up on this reality. I think it's important to give children the ability to face adversity and challenges in a way that allows them to deal with their own pain and suffering. This book is a window into a way of seeing the world that we hope can strengthen and support children throughout their lives.
Rafael, you’re known for bringing diverse characters to children’s books, which you’ve done here as well. What inspired you to spread a message on the importance of diversity?
RL: A diverse society brings not only wealth, but richness culturally, spiritually, and in so many other ways. Every time you have a welcoming of new immigrants, the diversity is better for the region or country. But we can also see that there are still issues with diversity. People are afraid of it. There are people that see it as a threat in certain areas. To create a book about diversity, and the benefits of that diversity, and explain that to young minds that are fresh and ready to receive this very positive message is a huge priority. This is our little effort to say it's wonderful to be different; it's great to be different.