Baha’is see the young as the most precious treasure a community can possess. In them are the promise and guarantee of the future. Yet, in order for this promise to be realised, children need to receive spiritual nourishment, such as can be found in the children’s classes happening all around the world.
Written by Munib Rezaie, an educator and school counselor living in the United States, Meet Coach Ben is the first instalment in a brand new series of children’s books that feature a diverse cast, positive models of masculinity, and practical parenting advice, all rendered in beautiful hand-drawn comic book style illustrations.
I got in touch with Munib to find out more about the book and the initiative as a whole. Here’s what he shared:
Baha’i Blog: Can you tell us a little bit about ‘Meet Coach Ben’ and what it’s all about?
For sure. In Meet Coach Ben, a young boy named Lucas gets to spend all week with his cousin, Hasan. Hasan is really excited to take his cousin to school with him and introduce him to his favorite teacher ever: Coach Ben! Hasan says Coach Ben is so strong that he can do anything, but that makes Lucas really nervous. So nervous that he starts to imagine Coach Ben as a towering, imposing figure. As they go through their day, Lucas gets hurt, misses his parents, and isn’t sure he wants to meet Coach Ben after all. By the time they finally get to PE, Lucas can’t help but wonder if Coach Ben ever cries. It’s a book aimed to help kids fully honor their feelings, even when society seems to tell them they shouldn’t. It was also really important to me to make the book more practically useful, which is why the book (which I really hope is just the first in a series!) ends with a page from “Coach Ben’s Parenting Playbook,” with practical advice for parents when it comes to guiding their children through more intense emotions.
Meet Coach Ben came about because of a number of things that kind of came together at the same time for me. First, I’ve wanted to write a children’s book for really a long time. I’ve drafted a few here and there over the years but never took the next step with any of them, or even felt like I knew how to if I wanted to! Second, I’ve been drawn to the subject of masculinity for a number of years. As an educator and school counselor, I’ve lead a number of groups over the years with kids from elementary through high school on the subject of gender and masculinity. I’m always interested in finding ways to get students, especially boys, to really analyze, question, and even push back against what they’ve learned over the years about how to “be a man.” With this book, it’s about saying, “Hey, not only is it ok to cry, but let’s also recognize what a beautiful sign of emotional strength that actually is.”
It’s also inspired by a real-life PE coach named Ben Szymanski who’s a colleague and good friend of mine. Many of the things Hasan says in the book about “Coach Ben,” are things that my own son and other children have said about the real Coach Ben. They absolutely love him, and it’s so clear that he loves them right back and cares so deeply about their physical and emotional well-being. Just one of the sweetest people I know. So that was really cool to be able to do this for him on a more personal level. I think he was pretty touched.
Baha’i Blog: What age group is the book for, and how is this book different to other books out there?
The primary age group for this book is kids 10 and under, and I think there are a couple of things that make it different to other books. I mean I have to give a shoutout here to my incredible illustrator, Ron Lapitan, because I think on one level his beautiful hand-drawn illustrations are like nothing else I’ve ever seen! Another way that I think the book stands out is in how Ron and I kind of merged the picture book and comic book formats. It’s definitely a picture book, but it’s also definitely a comic book. Ron’s incredible manga-inspired illustrations really speak volumes for themselves without the help of my text, and we wanted to encourage a certain amount of visual literacy in children as well, regardless of their current reading abilities.
Baha’i Blog: Why was this initiative important for you to do personally?
That’s a great question. I think first and foremost, I feel a sense of responsibility as a man to help dismantle these really harmful notions and expectations that are out there for boys and men around the world. And that feeling is only compounded by the fact that I’m the father of two men-in-the-making. Whenever I run sessions about gender and gender norms with students, I usually ask the boys to raise their hands if they’ve ever been told some version of “man up” or “be a man.” Without fail, regardless of the age of the group, every single boy in the room raises their hand. So there are all these things going on at the same time where I’m trying to unlearn things that I’ve internalized about “being a man,” while trying to make sure I’m not passing any negative ideas about that to my boys, while also acknowledging that to a certain extent my boys are on their own journeys with their sense of masculinity, and there’s only so much I can do about it. On one level, this book is my contribution towards that journey for kids around the world.
It was also really important to me that the book be intentional about representation. You know, my background is in media studies and school counseling, so I’ve always circled the question of representation in media, and there are so many studies out there talking about how crucial it is for kids to see themselves represented in the media landscape. So it was important to me that my main character be a brown boy named Hasan, and that he be surrounded by joyful children of all backgrounds. Hasan was also the name of my grandfather. He was one of the caretakers of the National Baha’i Center in Tehran, and I believe the only one who was allowed to remain at first when it came under military occupation. From what I understand, he suffered a great deal of abuse during that time and died in 1955 under circumstances that, to be honest, I still don’t fully understand. Hasan is also the middle name of my youngest son, who was the main inspiration for the character in the book. That kind of blows my mind, you know? How over just a handful of generations, we go from my grandfather being persecuted, to his son escaping Iran, to his grandson – me – living in enough comfort and ease to create a children’s book inspired by my own son that somehow calls back to my grandfather. I’d like to think it’s kind of a second chance for my grandfather to have this carefree childhood through the world of the book that he never got to experience in real life.
Baha’i Blog: What do you hope readers will walk away with after reading the book?
I hope readers walk away with an understanding that it’s ok to have big feelings, it’s human to have big feelings, and the best thing we can do with big feelings is to honor them and let them work through us. It’s a message I’m still trying to fully learn myself, but I think it’s an important one. Not just for boys, but for all kids. When Lucas finally gathers the courage to ask Coach Ben if he ever cries, one of the things Coach Ben tells him is that, “Tears mean your heart is strong enough to get full in the first place,” and I think that’s ultimately the biggest take away. You know I think I’ve actually seen Justin Baldoni – who I hope to meet one day and talk through some of these things with! – say it best as he’s been discussing his own book on masculinity: that your heart is the strongest muscle. And kids need to know that there is absolutely nothing wrong with them if they cry. It doesn’t mean they are any less. It doesn’t mean they aren’t enough. It so often means they care deeply. And what more could we ask from our children than to care?
Baha’i Blog: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I’m currently working on the second book in the series, which I hope to be able to share more about soon! In the meantime, people can also check out Meet Coach Ben‘s illustrator’s other work over at Ron’s Baha’i Comics.
Baha’i Blog: Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview, Munib, and congratulations on the new initiative!
Naysan is passionate about using the arts and media to explore the teachings of the Baha’i Faith. Back in 2011, Naysan started up the Baha’i Blog project, channeling his experiences in both media and technology companies to help create a hub for Baha’i-inspired content online.