The Longest Night

The Longest NightThe Longest Night: A Passover Story
Laurel Snyder and Catia Chien
Schwartz & Wade, 2013

Easter is coming soon – my children may or may not be counting down the days until our fasting from sweets ends! – but the momentous journey through Holy Week still stands between us and the resurrection. And the major dramatic background to the events that we’ll relive together next week is the ancient Jewish celebration of Passover. As Christians, we often treat Passover as a nice decorative backdrop; we nod at it on Maundy Thursday because, after all, it’s so convenient that Jesus had a ritual meal so he could institute the Last Supper.

But spend any time at all in the Old Testament, and it’s obvious how theologically rich this setting is. When Paul writes that God sent his Son “in the fullness of time” (kairos), he means that this was the cosmically opportune moment. And the story of the people of God and their passover from slavery into freedom is woven into the fabric of that moment’s consummation. Which is all a long and unwieldy way of saying: I’ve got a great Passover book for you, and now’s a great time to read it with any small children in your vicinity.

The Longest Night is an account of the Exodus story told in rhyme, and from a child’s perspective. What might it have been like to know forced slavery as your only reality, to witness the descent of the plagues, to suddenly have the opportunity to rush out and away to freedom? This story’s strength is that it doesn’t offer a theological explanation for what’s going on, but rather invites us into experiencing it as a child. The grownups know that something is up – they bake the bread and slaughter the lamb – but the children watch, and wait, and receive the new life of freedom.

And that’s what is about to happen to us. Going into Holy Week, it’s good to be reminded that something is about to happen that is not of our own doing. Like children, we will watch this sacrifice unfold, we’ll crouch beneath the blood of a lamb, and we’ll wait to see what happens: to hear the news that we are free.

Petook

PetookPetook
Caryll Houselander & Tomie DePaola
Holiday House, 1988

Over the years, as I’ve thought about theological children’s literature and written about it on this blog, my tastes have widened in some ways and narrowed in others. Once upon a time, for instance, stories that blend fictional tales with Scriptural accounts were not my cup of tea. It’s just so easy to get them wrong and end up distracting from (or even obscuring) the Biblical narrative. Unfortunately, I would often dismiss them categorically because I’d rarely seen one done well. More recently, though, I’ve grown to appreciate them because I’ve seen how books of their kind can illustrate truth in fresh ways. Caryll Houselander and Tomie dePaola’s Petook is one of the books that has convinced me of this.

Petook is the tale of a rooster who lives just outside of Jerusalem. His rather simple life intersects with the child Jesus (presumably when he is on the way to the Temple at age 12) and then with the fully grown Jesus during Holy Week. There is a great deal of biblical imagery in this book, in both text and illustration, that might sneak right by someone who isn’t biblically astute or just isn’t paying very close attention. Even though the story of Petook’s life isn’t flashy or dramatic in itself, the biblical references transform it into something quite profound.

Petook’s initial encounter with Jesus is when the boy steps on grapes while walking through the farm’s vineyard (I googled that one, actually, to learn more about that image in historical art). Jesus watches and draws near to Petook’s wife as she gathers her chicks under her wings. There are other images as well, rich with meaning yet not heavy-handed, along the way. Then in the second half of the book we see, in the background, Jesus and his disciples enacting all of the most important scenes of Holy Week. Petook plays an critical role in one particular scene (think about Peter’s denial…) but otherwise he plays a more general role of one who, with all creation, cries out in acknowledgement of the Passion and then the Resurrection of Christ.

I do feel like I need to point out one thing that gives me pause about this book. At the very end, Tomie dePaola writes a page about the author, Caryll Houselander, and suffice it to say that there were aspects of her life that don’t fit neatly into evangelical categories (he mentions mysticism and extra-sensory perception). Quite frankly, I don’t know what to do with that description. Having said that, the story about Petook is one that I still think you will come to love as an extraordinary book that is faithful to Scripture and abounding in beauty.

I hope that you and your family will have the chance to read Petook sometime soon, as it’s a perfect choice for enjoying during the weeks leading up to Easter. It’s out of print and expensive to buy used, but if your library owns a copy place a hold on it today! However you manage to track down a copy, I hope that you’ll give yourself a chance to spend some unhurried time with this book. Its beauty shines brighter with repeated readings.

Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland

PatrickPatrick: Patron Saint of Ireland
Tomie de Paola
Holiday House, 1992

We were driving out of the city on Saturday, and had to pick up my husband on the way. He texted me to get him at the corner of Octavia and Page, then sent a series of texts with revised pickup points because he kept running into the St Patrick’s Day Parade which was apparently impossible to maneuver around. On our way back into town at the end of the day, passing a car full of noisy green-bedecked revelers, he said, ruefully, “Be careful: the streets of San Francisco are full of drunk twenty-somethings right now.”

After feeling enormously old for a few seconds (I am no longer close to being considered a twenty-something, and was mostly annoyed at the people blocking traffic between me and my pajamas), I thought about how disconnected most celebrations of St Patrick’s Day are from the actual life of the saint. In fact, I kind of doubt most people at that parade even knew why we celebrate St Patrick’s Day, except as an excuse to drink revoltingly green beer in public. Which is why I have taken it on myself to make sure my kids know about this marvelous man and why we bother to set aside a day in his remembrance.

In fact, as I pulled out Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland at snack time today, both of my kids protested “Mom! You’ve read this to us before!” (They were hoping for the next chapter of On the Banks of Plum Creek. Sorry, guys. Mom’s theological agenda prevails.) But, in our family at least, there’s something magical about Tomie dePaola’s illustrations: they never cease to captivate. And everyone settled in for the read.

I love this book. I love the illustrations, and I love the story. Patrick is kidnapped as a young man, enslaved in Ireland, and spends his cold and desolate days as a shepherd in prayer. He escapes with God’s help (and the help of some loud dogs), and then returns to Ireland – to bring the gospel to his oppressors – in obedience to God’s call. It’s a beautiful story, told simply and with heart, and it firmly, patiently reminds us that all of our cultural celebration of Ireland on March 17 has to go back to the man who loved God so dearly that he gave his whole life to that island and its people.

And a bonus (for us Protestants, at least): dePaola has separated the historically chronicled events of Patrick’s life from the legends that grew up around him later, and presents those clearly AS legends. Which are interesting, and illuminating, and helpful in understanding why people would love Patrick so much…but which are, for all that, simply legends. I’m grateful for the separation, and for this book. Happy Saint Patrick’s Day to you all!

Easter

Easter Fiona FrenchEaster
Fiona French
HarperCollins, 2002

Every year about this time I start moaning and groaning about how few Easter books there are out there. Not Easter bunny books, obviously, or spring-themed cheerful books that point generally to new life, but ones that do justice to the central point of all Christian belief: the resurrection of Jesus. Whatever the reason for this literary dearth, it always feels so strange that in November Sarah and I are practically buried in lovely books about the birth of Christ yet in March we find ourselves hunting for good books about his death and resurrection and coming up with… not much.

We do have a handful of Easter books in our archives (scroll down to find the Easter ones), and I commend them all to you. One of them in particular is a personal favorite of mine, but all are worth sharing with the children in your life. While we’re still in Lent, we also have a list of books that fit well with traditional Lenten themes, so check those out as well if you’ve not already. In addition, I’m pleased to report that this year Sarah and I will be reviewing a couple of new books appropriate for Lent and Easter! We’re excited to share them with you, and first up is a companion to Bethlehem, a Christmas book that I wrote about couple of years ago.

Fiona French is the creator of a number of children’s books, at least three of which pair illustrations inspired by stained glass in English cathedrals with text from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Her Easter book opens with a scene from Palm Sunday and from there takes the reader through the events of Holy Week and all the way up to the Ascension. The illustrations of Jesus’ torture and death are more graphic than most other Easter children’s books, but because of the style they aren’t scary and don’t feel excessive. This is perhaps one of the only books that directly depicts the crucifixion that I’d feel perfectly fine sharing with even a very sensitive child.

The combination of the stained glass effect and the familiar-yet-transcendent RSV cause me to feel like I’m in church. Which is a good thing! When I read through this book I find myself slowing down, and with each page I am drawn more and more into meditation upon the events that are at the core of my faith. It’s the same contemplative feeling I have when I settle into a pew on a Sunday (you know, if I’m not completely distracted by a baby or toddler…). Easter a kind of book that asks you to quiet your heart and listen with ears and eyes and soul. It’s just the kind of book I love having around the house during the weeks leading up to Easter Sunday, and it’s worth tracking down if you’re looking for the same.

The Lent Shelf

DSC_0875-001

The last few years, as I’ve continued to settle into liturgical traditions, I’ve tried to make Lent a meaningful and memorable time. There are so many ways that we can make this season of preparation come alive for children and adults alike, and it’s been fun to figure out what is most helpful to my family. I’ve written before about engaging the senses during Lent, and the ideas in that post continue to be a helpful framework for me.

This year, though, I added something new: Montessori inspired Lenten baskets. The idea with these is that after being introduced to them, my kids can work with them on their own. They know they can do so whenever they want, but I also occasionally set aside time during Lent for all of us to individually spend some time thinking about Jesus. I didn’t have a space to use exclusively for this purpose, so I just set them on some of our already-filled bookshelves. And it’s working just fine!

DSC_0906

Some of the materials were things I already had, but I did buy a few couple of new items and baskets from Goodwill for storage. Here’s what I currently have set up, going from left to right and top to bottom in the photo above:

  • DIY felt cross puzzle from the Godly Play story The Mystery of Easter
  • Artwork depicting scenes from the life of Jesus via Ann Voskamp’s Trail to the Tree
  • Holding cross and (electric) candle
  • Small basket of items to remind us of stories in the Bible: fruit, salt shaker, bread, chalice, dove, sparrow, and Good Shepherd card
  • Cross and Christ figures from Worship Woodworks
  • DIY version of the Godly Play story of the Good Shepherd, made of felt and Holztiger figures
  • Small purple baby quilt to spread out for work space
  • Lacing crosses and small skeins of colorful yarn (I added this after I took the photo above, but you can see it in the photo directly below)

DSC_0997

DSC_0902

DSC_0879

DSC_0908

Also new this year to my home are some wonderful resources from the Etsy shop Jesse Tree Treasures. I’m especially looking forward to using their Holy Week Easter Ornaments with my kids starting on Palm Sunday. The artwork is beautiful, and the ornaments themselves are sturdy and seem like they will last well. I love that the cross has two sides: one for Good Friday and one for Resurrection Day.

Even though this will be our first year displaying these ornaments (you put up one per day starting on Palm Sunday and there’s a short devotional for each), I’m certain it will become one of our favorite Lenten traditions. Holy Week is an incredibly special time, and I think these ornaments will help my kids deepen their understanding of its importance. If you’re new to Lent, Holy Week ornaments might be a perfect first tradition for your family – but they’re great for Lenten veterans, too!

DSC_0975

Holy Week Cross

The Jesse Tree Treasures folks have lots of other sets available in their shop, but the only other one I have is the Jesus Tree. It’s a similar idea to the Jesse Tree, but instead of following the story of redemption from creation to Christ’s birth, it goes through the life of Jesus from birth to resurrection one story at a time throughout Lent. The set comes with a total of 64 wooden discs (it includes a few extra holidays and 10 discs from Ascension to Pentecost), and they’re color coded according to their chronology. I love that the set comes with a list of where every story is found in each of the the Gospels; it has already proven to be a handy reference for me on more than one occasion.

Because of the number of discs in the set, figuring out a way to display them all proved to be a bit of a challenge for me. What I ended up doing with them this year is only using the ones that match up with the Lenten family devotional our church hands out. When we sit down for devotional time, we take out the discs from the stories we’ve read thus far and put them in order before moving on to the new story of the day. It’s not exactly the way the discs were designed to be used (we’re not even close to using all of them), but it’s a been a helpful way for my kids and me to remember what we’ve been reading from week to week. And I can imagine lots of uses for them outside of Lent, too!

DSC_0984

When I think about all the ways that we naturally make Advent a special time, I’m motivated to do the same for Lent. I want my kids to grow up knowing in their bones that Easter is the high point of the year – and more than that, that it was the high point of history. There are so many ways to bring the themes of Lent into focus in our hearts and minds and homes, so please comment if you have ideas to share!

The Story of Esther

The Story of EstherThe Story of Esther: A Purim Tale
Eric A. Kimmel and Jill Weber
Holiday House, 2011

So, Purim begins tomorrow evening. As might be expected from my typically evangelical childhood and young adulthood, this is not a holiday I’ve ever celebrated. In fact (embarrassingly enough) I don’t think I even knew about Hamantaschen or wooden groggers or stamping out Haman until I saw For Your Consideration. And to be honest, as a Gentile Christian and an outsider to traditional Purim observance, I’ve had a mixed reaction to it: celebrate Esther? Yes! Gleefully celebrate a public execution? Um…not so much? Then again: making noise whenever we say Haman’s name? Love it.

But like I said, this is coming from a Gentile Christian. The history of threat, oppression, exile and diaspora doesn’t really belong to me, and whatever your political take on Israel as a modern nation state, there’s no question that being Jewish in the western world has never been an entirely safe, uncomplicated matter. And Purim is a holiday that reminds us of that history. Also, it’s part of our Christian canon too: the story of Esther sits there squarely between Nehemiah and Job, reminding us of God’s faithfulness in the oddest places, like the court of a Persian king.

Esther’s tale is dramatic, almost theatrical, with its lavish setting and almost comically exaggerated turns of fortune. It feels almost modern, with the seeming element of chance: Mordecai happens to overhear the plot against the kings’s life, and Haman rolls the dice to decide on the day of destruction for the Hebrews. The Story of Esther captures those moments well and brings the story, in all its twists, vividly to life. While the picture book, like the canonical text, never mentions the name of God, Esther’s story has always been told within the providential tradition of a saving God, who will not abandon his people. I’m always excited to find picture book tellings of Biblical stories, because they often go into more depth than the shortened story-Bible versions, but remain accessible to small children. The Story of Esther is a well-told, exuberantly drawn introduction to this fascinating story and its age-old celebration by the Jewish people.

The Big Picture Family Devotional

Big Picture DevotionalThe Big Picture Family Devotional
David R. Helm, ed.
Crossway, 2014

It’s no secret how I feel about The Big Picture Story Bible. It remains my four-year-old’s favorite bedtime read, and it’s often one of the first gifts I give to new parents. So obviously I was interested when the good folks at Crossway let us know they were publishing a related devotional last summer, and grateful to them for sending me a copy to peruse.

The Big Picture Family Devotional grew out of the work by members of Holy Trinity Church in Chicago, who wanted to develop family devotional material that traced the storyline of the Bible – the “big picture” of salvation history. (Editor and founding pastor of Holy Trinity David Helm notes in the introduction that this was the genesis of the story Bible as well.)

The book itself is organized around “forty-five big picture verses that function as windows through which we gaze at God’s unfolding promise”: in the old tradition of catechesis, the book is divided into forty-five “questions,” each of which is answered by a memory verse. Each question is spread over three days. On each day you ask the question (i.e., “How did Abraham respond to the Lord’s word?”), respond by practicing the memory verse (“Abraham believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness,” Gen 15:6), and then read a related passage of Scripture and a short devotional paragraph. By the end of the three days, the verse should be memorized AND the question will have been considered in some Scriptural depth — so the question about Abraham includes devotional readings from Romans 4 and Galatians 3. It’s a wonderful structure for children ages 6 to 10, as they begin to encounter Scripture itself, as it provides an overarching structure to organize their experience of the Bible as God’s story for us.

If you’re familiar with The Big Picture Story Bible, you’ll quickly recognize the major themes: God creates a place and a people; God’s people reject him and are sent out from his place; God creates a new people and gives them a new place in his promises to Israel; these people too reject God as King; Jesus arrives as God’s promised king AND place who makes it possible for us to live as God’s people. As an introduction to the grand sweep of Scripture, the devotional is a wonderful teaching tool. Whether you work through it over the course of a year (as the editor suggests) or more quickly, say from Lent through Pentecost, children will see Scripture as a grand, rich, and interconnected story that is the beautiful work of a loving God.

However, I have a confession to make. While I love the structure, I find the overall quality of the written reflections, well, uneven. It’s entirely possible that I am being a theological perfectionist, but some of the reflections and response questions frankly give me serious pause. Question 33, for instance:

Q: Who is the only way to God?

A: Jesus said, “…I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

All well and good. This is cornerstone, Christianity-101 stuff. And it makes sense to point out that this is one of Jesus’ harder sayings, that it’s especially challenging in our time and place, and to observe “that is tough for people to swallow.” However, I would just skip the reflection question that follows: “There is a phrase that says ‘You gotta take the good with the bad.’ Do you understand what it means? How does that relate to our big picture verse for this week?”

Wait, WHAT? I don’t think the question is suggesting that Jesus’ words about being the way are the “bad” we have to take with the “good” of the gospel, only that that’s how some people experience it. But already the verse is being framed as controversial, confrontational, and something people have to just swallow if they want to follow Jesus, rather than the very good Christological news that it actually is: of course Jesus is the only way to God, because he is the God-man, the Son of God incarnate. I would much rather my kids understand that verse in light of the old twin poles of atonement: only God can save, and what has not been assumed (broken human nature) cannot be healed. And only Jesus is both God and man, so only Jesus can save. Rather than a barrier to evangelism (or worse, yet, a bludgeon), this verse should make us urgently want to introduce people to Jesus as the only one powerful enough to save their lives!

Theologically picky? Maybe. But I wouldn’t write about theological kidlit if I didn’t think the words we choose to talk about theology with our children really matter, and that it’s important to pay close attention to how the words we choose shade our gospel presentation.

There are other sentences, and in once case even entire reflections, in The Big Picture Family Devotional that, to be perfectly honest, I will probably edit or flat out skip/re-write when going through it with my children. For example: instead of reading to them (from question 11, about Abraham’s response to God’s call) that “Abraham’s faith pleased God. God will be very pleased with you too if you trust that his words are true,” I will say something like “Because he had faith, God named Abraham righteous. And remember: when God names things, he makes them into what he has named! His words are powerful! If you have faith and trust that he is good, in Jesus, he will call you righteous too – give you his very Spirit and bring you into communion with him.” Faith isn’t about making God happy with us (“pleasing” God), it’s about accepting his gift of a new, righteous identity in Christ. It’s nothing we do; it’s accepting something being done to us. Daily my children have teachers, coaches, and friends to please. God’s pleasure is of another sort altogether, and we need to remember that when we tell our kids how to “please” God. Words matter, and in such essentials I don’t want to muddy my children’s understanding with language about making God happy with them.

So: given these kinds of reservations, why am I reviewing and recommending this book? Well, because despite my hesitations about some of the reflections, I absolutely love the structure and organization of this book. It’s unparalleled in the scope of what it’s trying to do: take children through the big picture of Scripture, help them to see its interconnected themes, memorize in a way that puts the grand narrative of God’s story at their fingertips, and to see this whole, giant, ancient compilation as a living word that breathes life and hope. I’m more than willing to ad lib, edit, and rephrase some devotional sentences in exchange for such a gift.

In California

Once upon a time, Sarah and I both lived in the same place. For the first year of this blog we were both in Minnesota, and oh, those were good times. She hosted our book club at her house, we enjoyed Easter dinner celebrations together, and we were always present for each other’s children’s birthday parties. Nearly four years ago, though, life took her to the California coast. She gets back to Minnesota on a fairly regular basis but (shame on me!) until this past weekend I’d never been to visit her in her new hometown.

Last week, though, I flew with my 8-month old and another dear friend for three blissful days of basking in the sun and friendship. I kept exclaiming (even on the crowded city bus, when I’m pretty sure Sarah thought I was being sarcastic – I was not), “This is so fun!” And it was. Here’s some proof:

DSC_0865 DSC_0719 DSC_0723 DSC_0784 DSC_0712 DSC_0780

Pretty sure I’m going back as soon as I possibly can.

Podcast!

Read Aloud RevivalToday we’re over at the Read Aloud Revival podcast chatting with Sarah Mackenzie about reading with toddlers! Hop on over to hear what we sound like in real life, and if you’re not already familiar with that podcast you’re in for a real treat. Sarah has interviewed some great folks (Jim Weiss, Melissa Wiley, Sarah Clarkson…) about reading aloud with kids and I’ve loved listening to each episode.

If you’ve found us via the podcast, welcome! Our links at the top of the page are the best way to get to know us, so feel free to poke around a bit. We have over 100 reviews of theological kidlit in the archives as well as lots of “food for thought” posts. We mostly write about the dual importance of truth and beauty in books about God for children, but our second favorite topic is celebrating the church year at home. (Speaking of which, Lent starts soon and we have some great resources for that season here if you scroll down.) We’d love to have you join the ongoing conversation here, so please make yourselves at home.

On the podcast we didn’t talk much about reading distinctly theological books with toddlers, but if you’re curious about our favorites here’s a list to get you started.

One more thing! During the podcast I neglected to mention one of my favorite read aloud strategies for toddlers: tantrum intervention. We read aloud when everyone’s happy, of course, but I’ve also found that when I have a young child melting down, one of the best ways to encourage calming down is to simply pick up a book and start reading. If you ask if they want to read a book they’ll scream “Noooo!” but if you just do it… Magic.  :)

RAR 19

Saint Francis

saint francisSt Francis
Brian Wildsmith
Eerdmans, 1995

It’s still Epiphany for two more weeks, and amidst this busy season of imperceptibly lengthening days, resuming schoolwork and activities, and planning for the coming year, I like to pull out books that remind us all of the light that has dawned and that we bear into our mundane, messy, daily lives. My daughter’s second grade class is reading biographies right now, and I shamelessly used her weekly homework assignment as an excuse to pass her a library copy of St. Francis, because he was one of the great light-bearers of our Christian family.

We’ve reviewed no less than three books based on Saint Francis’ Canticle of Brother Sun, so no surprise that Haley and I are attracted to his theology of radical gratitude and his intense experience of God’s rich presence in his creation. But the fact remains: the man is a medieval saint, and with that comes some territory that most Protestants shy away from — miracle stories, stigmata, and the like. This is the first picture biography of St Francis that I’ve come across that tells those episodes (the taming of the wolf of Gubbio and the reception of the stigmata) in a matter-of-fact way, of a piece with the life of a man who so identified with Christ that he is no longer at war with creation and is able to receive the scars that come as a result.

In fact, the real joy of this book is in the simplicity of its telling, accompanied by Wildsmith’s lavish, light-soaked illustrations. (Those of you who have read Exodus and Joseph know what I mean.) The sentences are short, declarative, straightforward. But the light and joy that shines through is unmistakeable. It’s the most appropriate possible telling for a man who chose simplicity, spoke and lived without elegance, and whose life still shines with holy glory.