Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve
Gwendolyn Reed and Helen Siegl
Lothrop, Lee and Shephard, 1968

One of the pleasures of an afternoon library visit without my kids is the liberty to really peruse the shelves. Closely. Like sitting down in the aisle, and pulling volumes off one by one. Flipping through them, seeing what catches my eye, the way I did when I was a kid.

On my last visit, while looking for something else, I chanced across an older volume, simply titled Adam and Eve, with a fantastic woodcut print on the front. I had to pull it out: I love woodcuts. Something about woodcut prints puts me in mind of medieval altarpieces: the simple, almost primitive figures and lines are so charged with feeling and meaning. If you ever lose me in an art museum, just check the medieval rooms first, with all the stern Christ-babies and stiff Pietas; failing that, see if there’s a special woodcut exhibition happening. I’ll be in one of those rooms.

Anyhow, at first I was just going to glance through the illustrations and put it back. But as I read, I was charmed despite myself and decided I wanted to share it with all of you for inclusion in Aslan’s Library.

Why share it? Three things in particular, and they may be because this is an older book (published in 1968). In the first place, I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in Eden, with Adam and the animals. The Genesis story is one we’ve all heard a thousand times, close enough to know it by heart. Most of the time I hear it without seeing or sensing it at all. In fact, all of the creation books I’ve recommended in the past have grabbed me because they help me break through my familiarity and actually experience the story. Adam and Eve is no different. “Purple figs, golden apricots and peaches clustered under the green leaves” of the trees in Eden. A hawk circles; a flamingo balances; and “gazelles turned their great soft eyes toward Adam.”  It’s a fresh, attentive telling of paradise — Gwendolyn Reed is unabashed in using language that gives delight.

Secondly, the woodcuts. If woodcuts aren’t your thing — they’re kind of the antithesis of much children’s illustration today — give them a shot. They have a way of making a familiar story distant and strange, yet they are vibrant and full of life. Like I said: I can’t get enough of them. Helen Siegl’s are thoroughly compelling.

Lastly, the subtle expression of the story’s climax. This is one of the simplest but most nuanced retellings of Genesis 3 I’ve come across. There’s no attempt to explain it or place it in context; as in Scripture, the story is just told. Eve is overcome by the desire to be godlike. Adam joins her. They get their wish, and it ruins them: “Never could they walk in the shade of the great trees where Adam had talked with God. Always on their lips was the taste of the forbidden fruit. As well as joy they knew sorrow. In their lives they knew both good and evil.”

This isn’t a perfect book (I wasn’t nuts, for instance, about God blowing a soul into Adam, like he’s a water balloon) and it’s out of print, but it is absolutely worth tracking down. At last check, used copies were fairly inexpensive on Amazon, and major libraries ought to have copies available. You can also email the good folks at Hearts and Minds Books; they’re good at digging things up! If you do find it, let me know what you think. Especially about the woodcuts!

Best Books for Lent

Between the two of us, Sarah and I have reviewed nearly 80 books since we’ve been blogging.  We’re still discovering new ones all the time, but one of the things we’d also like to do this year is go through the archives and pull together some best-of lists on a series of different topics.  Today is Shrove Tuesday (pancakes for dinner, anyone?), so we thought we’d start with our favorite books for Lent.  Our hope is that the list will help us fully enter into the Lenten season with our families.

In making the selections we were looking for books with four different themes: (1) books placing Jesus’ life and death as the main subject,  (2) books that help children understand the dynamics of sin, judgment, and grace, (3) books that show us the way of humility, and (4) books to guide the daily living-out of our faith.  No matter how you do (or don’t) observe Lent, there’s something for everyone here!

You probably already know that Sarah and I both love Lent, and in previous years we’ve written a lot about this particular season of the church calendar.  After the booklist we’ve provided links to those posts in case you’re in need of fresh ideas for how to set aside the next 6 1/2 weeks in meaningful ways.

Books for Lent

Jesus at the Forefront!

Sin, Judgment, and Grace

Humility

Spiritual Disciplines and Holy Living

Food for Thought about Lent (and Easter)

Noah and the Ark

Noah and the Ark
Pauline Baynes
Holt, 1988

Really? Do we need another Noah’s Ark book? Maybe you don’t. But I’m always looking for books that tell the old stories faithfully – and while I love Peter Spiers’ version, sometimes I don’t really feel up to a wordless book. Pauline Baynes’ version, with its engrossing illustrations and text from the Revised Standard Version, fits those days perfectly.

The most remarkable thing about Noah and the Ark is, of course, the illustrations. You can just sit and pore over them – they’re that engrossing, full of fascinating little details. (Can you find the seasick person on the ark?) The animals are vivid, in motion, wild – and yet willing to be shepherded onto the ark. When they burst out at the end, you can feel the pent-up energy and sheer joy of encountering dry land again. Noah offers a burnt sacrifice, and as his family gives praise to God, it’s unclear which emotion dominates: thanksgiving for deliverance, or the creature’s awed beseeching of the Creator never to undo his work again. When the sign in the heavens comes on the last page, the grace is palpable.

And be warned: this book illustrates the true story. No Noah Problem here. As the waters rise, people cluster on hillocks, pleading with the sky. The animals left behind flee to the treetops in terror. And bodies are floating all around, while the Ark floats impassively nearby. It’s a sober and solemn vision, but it’s the Biblical one. This is a book of true pictures: on the days when I feel up to it, even with the Biblical text, I just might read it as a wordless book.

NB: This book is out of print as well, so the usual advice about buying used, emailing Hearts and Minds, and hitting up the library stands.

Jesus Loves Me

Jesus Loves MeJesus Loves Me
Tim Warnes
Little Simon, 2008

With a nearly 4-year-old and a 9-month old in the house, our family’s literary life consists of simultaneously re-visiting favorite board books and branching out into new territory: chapter books!  Although I thoroughly enjoy introducing my son to the books I shared with my daughter during her babyhood, it’s been harder to regularly set aside time specifically for board book reading.  He’s usually around when I’m reading picture books to my daughter, and it’s been easy to forget that the little guy deserves reading time just for him, too!

We already have lots of favorite board books, but of course there are many that have been recently published and we’re staring to explore those as well.  Back when my daughter was a baby I lamented the fact that there were so few theological board books.  (Ones that were well done, that is…)  Lately, though, I’ve found several really good ones that I’m eager to share!

Jesus Loves Me comes in hardback and board book formats (kindle too, actually) and is best suited to kids up to age 3.  The text is, as you might have guessed, simply the lyrics to the children’s hymn Jesus Loves Me.  Did you know that there are actually 12 verses to that song?!  There are 3 included in this book: the one that nearly everyone knows plus two more.

Jesus loves me this I know
As he loved so long ago
Taking children on his knee
Saying, “Let them come to me”

Jesus loves me still today
Walking with me on my way
Wanting as a friend to give
Light and love to all who live

I’ve sometimes been tempted to label this song as overly sentimental or flippant, but I’ve decided that those critical inclinations are completely wrong.  After all, what is the basic building block of what a very young child needs to know about God?  He needs to know that He loves him, welcomes him, and is with him each day – which is precisely the message of Jesus Loves Me.

Here is my simple test for artwork in books I’m considering reviewing here on the blog: If I put it on our display bookshelf with the rest of our library books, does it fit in?  Or does it look out of place because it’s done with less excellence?  Happily, Tim Warnes’ artwork in Jesus Loves Me fits in very well next to other books we love for their artistic beauty.  The book follows a bear family of three as they go about daily activities like reading, eating, gardening, fishing, hiking, and going to bed.  The images bring to mind Deuteronomy 6 and the commandment to talk about God with children wherever you go, whatever you do.  The bears are a warm and playful bunch, and I can pretty much guarantee that watching them in this book will make you want to give an extra snuggle to the little people you love.

Jesus Loves Me has made its way onto my list of favorite books to give for baby showers, and I’d encourage you to share it with to the babies and toddlers in your life as well!

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom

MosesMoses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom
Carole Boston Weatherford & Kadir Nelson
Hyperion, 2006

This review is a little late for Martin Luther King Jr. Day (which was yesterday), but that doesn’t mean you should wait another year before tracking this wonderful book down. I happened to stumble upon it in the MLK Jr. display at the San Francisco Central Library, and was so delighted that I sat down and read the whole thing right there. And took it home to share with my kids, as well.

Moses is a re-telling of Harriet Tubman’s first flight to freedom, and her eventual resolve to save as many fellow enslaved African Americans as possible. Her story is profoundly moving, and there are a number of good biographies (picture and otherwise) out there. Two things set this marvelous picture book apart, however.

In the first place, Harriet’s entire journey hangs on the frame of an ongoing conversation with God. Harriet speaks to God, and God speaks right back. He gives her His mandate for her freedom (“I set the North Star in the heavens, and I mean for you to be free”) and helps her minutely along the way. Her superhuman courage and conviction are revealed to be just that:

And Harriet heeds God’s call, goes south again and again, keeps her bands of runaways moving – come storms and rough country – clear to Canada: Canaanland. And when free souls sing her praises, she gives glory where it is due. It wasn’t me. It was the Lord. I always trust Him to lead me, and He always does.

My daughter is in kindergarten this year, and this month she is hearing about Dr Martin Luther King, Jr in school. She’s getting her first introduction to the tragic sin of racism that has festered at our nation’s heart since its inception. I’m so grateful to have happened upon a book that testifies to God’s heart at a real moment in history. In the middle of the evil system of human enslavement, God was resolutely on the side of justice and liberation, and his mighty work was channeled through a powerless slave woman. If this is the history of how God acts, what can we say about his heart today towards the millions who are enslaved and trafficked around the world?

The second thing that instantly won me to this book is the artwork by Kadir Nelson. We’ve reviewed another of his books, and the more time I spend with his work, the more I love it. There is so much soul and life and rich emotion in Harriet’s face, and always a soft light shining upon it – or more accurately, from within it. He may not be Rembrandt, but I can’t help thinking he’s learned a bit about the use of light from the Master. Nowhere in the book – except for her first day in Philadelphia – does Harriet look happy, but in every portrait she looks grimly, fiercely committed, alive, and beautiful.

I love that this book’s story is so deeply theological and Incarnational. God acted, and continues to act in history, and his pattern is uncomfortably plain: pouring himself into what is weak and broken in order to act mightily on its behalf. He did it for all of humanity in Jesus, and in a smaller way he did it for a group of cruelly enslaved human beings in the life of Harriet Tubman. As our children grow, and become increasingly able to understand this truth, I hope that books like this will ask them: how does God want to work in you?

Bethlehem

Bethlehem

Bethlehem
Fiona French
HarperCollins, 2001

Bethlehem is a classic nativity book in every sense.  Like several others we’ve reviewed, its text is taken straight from the Bible and its illustrations capture the story of Jesus’ birth in fairly traditional ways.  What makes this book unique is the way that Fiona French has managed to capture the beauty of classically designed stained glass.  Turning the pages is like glancing around a great cathedral to see a series of images that are all part of the Story we celebrate every December 25.

If you’re searching for Christmas books that are something other than a straightforward retelling of the birth of Christ, this book is probably not going to be a fast favorite for you.  (Check out The Christmas TrollThe Best Christmas Pageant Ever, or The Jesse Tree if originality  is what you desire.)  But if you’re like me and can’t have enough Nativity books scattered around your home at this time of year, please do track it down.  It would be a beautiful addition to any Christmas library!

One Night in Bethlehem

One Night in Bethlehem

One Night in Bethlehem
Jill Roman Lord & Paige Keiser
Ideals, 2011

Today’s book is a board book and a touch-and-feel book and a theologically meaningful Christmas story.  Triple whammy for the under-3 age group!

One Night in Bethlehem tells the story of a boy who imagines himself present at the first Christmas.  Here’s how the opening page reads:

Each time I see the manger scene
I try with all my might
to dream of what I might have done
if I’d been there that night.

The boy goes on to explore how he would have reacted to the birth of Christ if he was a lamb, cow, angel, shepherd, star, and wise man.  In each of these roles, he can barely contain his excitement!  He speaks of singing the loudest, running the fastest, and offering the most precious gift he can think of.  I absolutely love how the author makes clear the reality of the Christmas story by helping us imagine ourselves being present – the birth of Christ was a historical event, and we could have been there!  This imagining isn’t just an interesting thought exercise, though, because the boy in the story leads by example in creatively and jubilantly praising God.   This isn’t a sit back and relax kind of book, it’s a kind of book that is going to get you and your children truly excited about Jesus’ birth!

I never thought I’d say that a rhyming touch-and-feel book would lead me into worship, but there you have it.  Needless to say, One Night in Bethlehem is a wonderful choice for the youngest children in your life.  My own son might even find a copy in his stocking this year (shhh!).

Little One, We Knew You’d Come

Little One We Knew You'd Come

Little One, We Knew You’d Come
Sally Lloyd-Jones & Jackie Morris
Little, Brown and Company, 2006

It’s a rare thing to find a book about the birth of Christ that’s an Advent book instead of a Christmas book, by which I mean a book that focuses on the joyful expectancy surrounding the Messiah’s birth.   Most Christmas books for kids, even the majority of the theological ones I’ve seen, tend to skip over all of the waiting and land instead right in the middle of Jesus’ birthday party celebration.  There’s obviously nothing wrong with celebrating Christ’s birth!  But the way that we do so with barely a thought given to the centuries of longing endured by God’s people is perhaps not helpful to our spiritual lives.

Sally-Lloyd Jones to the rescue!  (She’s getting good at that!)  Everything about Little One, We Knew You’d Come makes it a perfect choice for Advent reading.  Its poetry makes clear that the world had been longing and praying for this special baby for quite some time.  The refrain “we knew you’d come” speaks volumes about the trust God’s people have in their ever-faithful God.  The evocative images of Mary and Joseph simultaneously capture feelings of somber yearning and deep peace; their eyes and faces are wrought with meaning.  The text on its own doesn’t actually speak of Jesus (on its own it’s pretty close to what every new parent whispers to their newborn), but the illustrations make perfectly clear which Baby we’re talking about: Christ the Savior has come into the world!

I’d love to find more books that capture the traditional themes of Advent – oh, how I would love to have a book about longing for the Second Advent!   While I wait for that (pun intended), I’m grateful that Sally Lloyd-Jones has ensured that there is at least one great Advent book available to us.  If your family distinguishes between Advent and the 12 Days of Christmas, you’re going to want to check this one out.

The Story of Christmas

scan5,6,7

The Story of Christmas
Jane Ray
Puffin, 1998

Lately my 3-year-old daughter and I have been reading everything our library has to offer by Jane Ray.  The Dollhouse Fairy and The Apple Pip Princess are more than delightful (they’re both on her current wish list) and several others that I haven’t seen yet look equally wonderful.  Her stories are incredibly captivating, and – lucky us! – she has also penned several theological books.  Sarah reviewed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden back in 2011, and today I want to share her version of the nativity story with you.

When you’re talking about Jane Ray, it’s hard to know whether to gush first about her storytelling or her artwork.  The Story of Christmas exclusively uses Scripture (KJV) as its text, though, so I’m afraid she doesn’t get the amazing storytelling credit for this one.  The artwork, however, is simply marvelous.  There’s a luminous quality about the images that somehow make this book (and all of her books, really) seem extra special.  There is so much to look at – and yet nothing detracts from the central storyline of the Messiah’s humble birth.  There is also a beautiful juxtaposition of holy and ordinary in many of the scenes.  Mary, for instance, is clearly someone special, but in nearly every scene after Jesus’ birth she is shown breastfeeding.  This depiction is particularly poignant for me as a nursing mama, and I often find myself wondering at the mystery of God incarnate: God was once a baby who needed his mother’s milk as often as my son needs mine.  Amazing.

One of the things I like best about this particular nativity book is that the story doesn’t stop at the birth of Jesus.  Jane Ray uses selected passages from the books of Matthew and Luke, starts at the Annunciation, and follows the biblical account all the way until Mary, Joseph, and Jesus return to Nazareth after their flight to Egypt.  Sometimes nativity stories have an almost fairy-tale like quality to them, but this book makes it clear that the story of Christ’s birth doesn’t start or stop with a baby in a manger.

The Story of Christmas may very well be my very favorite nativity picture book to date, and I hope you’ll be able to track down a copy to share with your family.  Sadly, it’s out of print and used copies aren’t cheap, so it might be a good one to hunt down at the library.  While you’re there, pick up some of Jane Ray’s other books and you’ll take home a treasure trove!

The Little Drummer Boy

Drummer Boy

The Little Drummer Boy
Ezra Jack Keats
Puffin, 2000

We’ve been a bit light on book reviews lately, I know, but I’m hoping to make it up to all of you faithful readers with five posts this week!   Yep, that’s right: come back every day through Friday for reviews of my newest favorite Christmas books.  Sound like a deal?  Advent has been busy this year, so it will be a small miracle if I can pull it off, but I’m very eager to share the stack of books sitting next to me right now so I’m going to give it my best shot.

The first book in line this week is Ezra Jack Keats’ The Little Drummer Boy, which became a favorite of mine over a year ago when I discovered it on our library’s shelves.  It fits perfectly alongside our other Advent and Christmas books because of its artwork as well as its thematic content.

If you’re familiar with Keats’ more famous books like The Snowy Day or Whistle for Willie you already know the appeal of his artwork and how his characters easily engage young children.  Paired with the Christ-honoring lyrics to “The Little Drummer Boy” it’s a winning combination!  In between lots of rum-pa-pum-pums there’s a powerful message awaiting young readers (and singers):

I have no gift to bring
That’s fit to give the King…
I played my drum for him
I played my best for him
Then he smiled at me, me and my drum

This carol really has it all:  Baby Jesus is the King and he deserves our worship.  We ought to joyfully offer him the very best of what we have, even if it seems like a small token, and he is greatly pleased when we do so.  When I read this book  to my daughter I find myself drawn into the little boy’s story.  I feel his momentary sadness when he thinks he has nothing to give and then I share his delight when he realizes he does have something to give the Christ child.  As I turn the last page I always find myself thinking about the nature of worship and about what I have that I can offer to Christ.  The Little Drummer Boy is definitely a book I want my children to know and love, and I bet you’ll feel the same way.

Don’t forget to drop by tomorrow for a review of another beautiful and theologically rich Christmas book!