MUCH of Robert Coles's life has been spent talking with children in an effort to understand their thinking and feelings. ``The Spiritual Life of Children,'' like his many earlier volumes, demonstrates his skill at this work. The conversations that fill these pages are almost invariably intriguing, often startling. They exhibit a clarity of faith, and sometimes an honesty of inquiry and doubt, that challenges the adult world's pieties and recalls the words of Isaiah, ``and a little child shall lead them.''
Eleven-year-old Haroon, a Pakistani boy growing up in London, ends a talk with Coles by assuring him, ``I will pray to Allah that you and I find the right answers.'' The questions Coles asks his young friends are zingers - probing the nature of the God they worship, how He can be watching over everyone at once, how they pray, and what it means to them.
Anne, another 11-year-old, reared in a conservative Roman Catholic family in a inner suburb of Boston, describes how her favorite Biblical text, ``I am the light of the world,'' helped her during a bout with poison ivy. ``I felt warm inside. I felt at peace with myself. I was waiting for the poison ivy to start up again, but I just didn't care. I smiled at the thought of it; I almost dared it to get the better of me. I guess God's words had taught me - for a while! - what's important and what isn't.''
Most of the children in Coles's book seem to have an extraordinary sense of the importance of their faith in a power, a Being, that transcends the everyday and tangible. They have an equally strong sense of the need to connect that power to everyday life.