Bookish Gifts for Kids

Last year in the weeks leading up to Advent we shared a variety of non-theological books that would make great Christmas gifts.  We covered quite a bit: board books, picture books, family read-alouds, and great books for adults.  More recently I posted my list of favorite picture books for 2-year-olds.  This year we thought we’d tackle gift lists from slightly different angles.  Today I’m talking about gifts for kids who love books; check back next week for a list specifically for grown-up readers.


Book Related Stuff 

And now, because we can’t pass up an opportunity to share books, here are some additional (non-theological) titles we haven’t mentioned elsewhere to consider giving to the children in your life.  There’s something for just about everyone on this list!


Books for Kids



The Christmas Troll

The Christmas Troll
Eugene Peterson & Will Terry
NavPress, 2004

Christmas is about the Incarnation; we all know that.  But I’m going to venture a guess that gift-giving is part of how your family celebrates Christmas Day.  My family does, at least, and I think it’s a perfectly fine tradition.  As we reflect in gratitude on the Father’s extravagant love in sending his Son for us, it seems right to express our own love for family, friends, and neighbors in tangible ways.

Of course, gifts can become the exclusive focus of Christmas Day (or even the entire month), and we would do well to avoid that pitfall.  With the right perspective, though, giving and receiving gifts can be a very meaningful part of a Christ-centered celebration.  Lucky for us, several years ago Eugene Peterson wrote a book that creatively articulates for children a sort of theology of gift-receiving.  Even luckier for us, the book is masterfully illustrated by artist Will Terry.

The Christmas Troll tells the story of a brother and sister duo who run away from home because their parents won’t let them open any of their presents before Christmas morning.  They escape to a nearby forest and end up meeting, to their surprise, a troll. First, they’re scared out of their wits (well, at least the big brother is).  Then they notice how very ugly the troll is .  In the end, though, he turns out to be quite a nice chap who shows them a good time and in the process turns their attitudes upside down.

As they enjoy the troll’s company the siblings realize the truth of their parents insistence that gifts are not for “grabbing and getting,” but that the best gifts are surprises that are freely given and joyfully accepted.  Here’s my favorite line in the book:

It’s wise to live life expectantly, alert to the surprises of God.

It’s a message that’s clearly ripe for Advent and Christmas.  We need to know how to think rightly about how receiving gifts, not just from one another but also from God.  It’s right to expect that God will give us good gifts, but our posture toward him should never be demanding.  Our attitudes should reflect deep gratitude for his grace, not self-entitlement.

In addition, Peterson wants to help us realize that sometimes God’s gifts don’t look quite like we expect them to.  If we have a very particular definition of what constitutes a good gift, we are going to miss out on many of God’s gifts because we might not recognize them as a gift at all.  Each of us could tell of things in our lives that, like the troll, we almost failed to recognize because our eyes weren’t open to the surprises of God.  Essentially, that’s what this story is about: opening our eyes to God’s surprising gifts.   The beauty of it is the way it can equally teach us about God’s way of working in our lives, Jesus (who was and is unrecognized by many), and how to graciously receive a funky gift from a relative.  I warmly commend it to your family.

On Reading the Hard Parts

So, Haley’s post from two weeks back – on telling our children Bible stories in our own words – has really been on my mind lately. A lot of reasons why, really, but two in particular:

  • I’m teaching the Godly Play curriculum to the three-year-olds at church, which involves retelling Bible stories and asking lots of wondering questions at the end.
  • I’ve been reading through Genesis with my almost-5-year old. If you’ve never tried this with a small child, well, it’s not for the faint of heart. Those nephilim! And oh, gracious goodness, Noah in his vineyard. Let alone trying to explain Hagar and Sarah, or the smoking pot and the halved animals.

It’s amazing to witness a child hearing – really hearing – some of these stories for the first time. Especially the hard ones. And as I’ve read and told some of these hard stories, I’ve become increasingly aware of how my own theological education actually gets in the way. I find myself wanting to put myself between my child and the story – to give her a filter, quick! – before the sheer strangeness and scariness of the story hits her. To make the Bible stories safer, I suppose – or, to make her experience of them more safe, so that she is sure to draw the right conclusions from them. Except that I am becoming increasingly convinced that this is not my job.

Last night, my daughter and I read the Abraham and Isaac sacrifice story from Genesis 22. And it was harrowing. She didn’t know how it was going to end! She didn’t have a neat theological filter for the story, and she hasn’t been taught to read the Bible as a series of moral examples or instructions. It was just a story where God shows up and tells Abraham to do something really, really awful. The same God she talks to every night.

As I read, I could sense her responding to the story: tension, a little confusion, sadness, and at last, relief tinged with perplexity. I asked her at the end if she had any wonderings, and of course she did. “But why did God tell Abraham to do that?”

All I could think about was how to make coherent theological sense of the story for her: could I somehow translate and condense Fear and Trembling for the five year old brain? (Answer: No. Really. Don’t even try.) And I did give some simple answers. We talked about how Abraham trusted God; that Abraham obeyed because he knew God’s commands are always good, even if they don’t seem like it to us; how true obedience means you trust the person you obey. And I’m glad I didn’t just leave her alone with the story. But I still feel like I talked too much.

I mean, if we really believe that the Bible is God’s story, and that it’s a story that sweeps us up, takes us in, so that we become a part of it — well, then, there’s a lot to be said for just letting the Bible happen to us. And to our kids. Let them be awed by it, amazed by it, sometimes scared by it. Let them experience the goodness that always lies on the other side. I keep running into my tendency to pre-digest Scripture for my kids, to tell them what to think about it, to give them my understanding rather than enabling their own experience.

And I can dress it up all I want in the language of good theology, but (and here I’m speaking only for myself) it’s rooted in a profound fear of error and a lack of trust that God is present when my children hear his word. And a fear of their own freedom to hear and respond to God. I’d like to do it for them, so I can make sure they do it right.

So, a question, I guess: what’s your experience of reading the hard parts of Scripture with kids? How do you strike a balance between offering appropriate explanation and letting children experience the story freely and react to it for themselves? How do you give theological explanation without shutting down wonder or perplexity?

Voices of Christmas

Voices of Christmas
Nikki Grimes & Eric Velasquez
Zonderkidz, 2009

Sarah and I have been reviewing theological kidlit for nearly 1 1/2 years now, and we’ve gotten to the point where we have to search a bit harder to find new titles to share with you all.  That is, except for during this time of year!  But while there may be no shortage of children’s Christmas books, it can be tricky to uncover the truly excellent ones. Voices of Christmas is, in my opinion, one worth owning.

There are only a handful of authors who have more than one book we’ve reviewed, and included in that list is today’s author, Nikki Grimes.  I love the way she writes: her words are carefully chosen, truthful, and artful.  As we pointed out in our reviews of When Daddy Prays and At Jerusalem’s Gate, she captures reality beautifully without sugar-coating or sentimentalizing it.  Her contribution to Christmas kidlit is no different.

Voices of Christmas is unique among Christmas books in several ways.  First, it’s more of a series of connected episodes than a seamless narrative.  Every spread features a different character from the early chapters of Matthew and Luke speaking in first person about the events that are transpiring.  A corresponding line from Scripture runs across the top of the page.  The first person perspective is one of my favorite things about the book, actually, because of the way it draws me in and invites me to wonder what it really would have been like to be someone who was there when Christ was born.

This book is also unique in that it includes more characters than the typical Nativity retelling.  The central characters are there, of course, but so are Gabriel, Elizabeth and Zechariah, a neighbor, the innkeeper, Anna, Simeon, and Herod.  Including more characters in the book somehow makes it seem more real than a book that just zooms in on the manger scene and then backs away just as quickly.  Matthew and Luke’s accounts give us more context than that, and I appreciate Grimes’ decision to do the same.

Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention Eric Velasquez’s outstanding illustrations.  His paintings of the biblical characters allow the complexities of their emotions come through and make them seem real (as they are).

If your family is looking for a unique Advent devotional this year, Voices of Christmas might be just the book to consider.  There are 15 episodes, so if you read one every 2-3 days starting the first Sunday of Advent you’d finish right in time for Christmas.  It’s not technically a devotional, but I think it would shine if used in that way.

In Their Own Words

Our church has just begun using the Godly Play curriculum in Sunday School. It’s a wonderful program that invites children each week to encounter God’s story, to find themselves within that story, and to respond in worship. There’s a huge emphasis on allowing the children to wonder about and explore the stories; rather than telling the children how they ought to respond, they are given the freedom to encounter God in worship and be changed.

Each week, parents receive a handout with suggestions for following up on the week’s lesson. As I read Haley’s post last Wednesday on telling our children about Jesus in our own words, this exhortation from a recent parent page (excerpted from this GP volume) immediately popped into my mind:

Just listen. This is not a time to quiz children on what they may or may not recall about the lesson, but to be quietly present as they share their own experience. This will be different for each child – one may retell much of the presentation, another may recall a single moment that had meaning, and yet another will talk about his or her creative response. Again, your role is not to correct or supplement what your child tells you, but simply to listen in a supportive way. You are supporting the formation of young – sometimes very young – theologians.

This is really hard for me to do. I am an instructor by nature. Everything my daughter tells me, I want to add to, enrich, deepen, or correct. But like Haley pointed out: I’m not going to theologically educate my daughter into the Kingdom. Sometimes what she needs most is the space to experience God; to meet him and learn to express that experience in her own words; to be a free child of God, my sister in some important ways, who can also build me up on my own pilgrimage.

I can, of course, give her words to make sense of that experience; and it’s my responsibility to guide her, inform her, give her a solid Scriptural education, and so make it possible for her to build a sound theological understanding. But if that’s all I’m doing, I think I’m misunderstanding my God-given role in her life. Because it’s not, finally, to teach her. It’s not to give her all the right information. All of my “theological education” activities ultimately have to serve the one important thing: to usher her into the presence of her King and help her to know his saving love.

And sometimes that requires that I just quiet down. Listen. Try to understand how God is present to her. Try to believe that he is faithful. Trust that her experiences are authentic. That her language may not be sufficient to capture them, and that’s okay. Because honestly? Neither is mine.

Dangerous Journey

Dangerous JourneyDangerous Journey

arranged by Oliver Hunkin, illus. Alan Parry
Eerdmans, 1985

It’s almost upon us, friends. Advent begins in less than two weeks, and here at Aslan’s Library we’ve been thinking about books and resources your family might want to use during the upcoming season of waiting and preparation. And let’s face it, most of us are thinking about what we might want to present our children with during our Christmas celebrations, too.

For each of those purposes, let me heartily recommend Dangerous Journey, a version of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress that has been illustrated and abridged for children. Some of you may remember it from your own childhoods: my father-in-law used to read it to my husband and his siblings at bedtime. It has stood the test of time, and is simply wonderful for reading aloud as a family or for older, more advanced readers to explore on their own.

The text itself is Bunyan’s, selected and abridged into short episodes. It retains, then, all of Bunyan’s wit, earnestness, and the careful crafting of phrase that have made the original book such a landmark in English literature. It is the allegory (or “dream,” as Bunyan described it) of the pilgrim Christian and his journey to the Celestial City, and all of the perils that attend him along the way.

For those of you who have never read Pilgrim’s Progress, it is first and foremost an adventure story. Christian’s passage to blessedness leads through the Slough of Despond, the Doubting Castle, Vanity Fair, the Palace Beautiful, and the Valley of the Shadow of Death. There is mortal combat, great beasts, unreliable guides, giants, escapes from captivity, unlooked-for friends, and narrow escapes. And my favorite allegorical character ever, Mr. Worldly-Wiseman. It’s a wonderful presentation of the Christian life as one of danger, excitement, watchfulness, and providential care. And the scene in which Christian passes through the River of Death – over which there is no bridge – is so immensely moving and theologically rich. This is one book that will bear many re-readings in your family.

The text is accompanied by wonderfully witty illustrations. Bunyan himself was a nonconformist who served in the Parliamentary army during the English Civil War; my inner history nerd took great glee in the portrayal of Christian and Hopeful in austere Puritan dress, while the unsavory characters are all corrupt and decaying Cavaliers. In addition the illustrations manage to convey the mood and spirit of each episode: Vanity Fair is bustling and distracting, and the Palace Beautiful exudes peace and repose. The images of the fight with Apollyon and the Valley of the Shadow of Death may be too scary for small or sensitive children.

This is a large-format, sturdy picture book that would make a handsome Advent gift for your family: just as we journey through the darkening days towards the light that dawns at Christmas, we can journey along with Christian towards the Celestial City. Or, if you have an older child, this would make wonderful devotional reading.

Did you read Dangerous Journey as a child? Have you read Pilgrim’s Progress? Any other abridged or illustrated versions that you would recommend?

In Your Own Words

A couple of weeks ago I had a wonderful conversation with a friend about what kinds of theological books work well with 2 1/2 year olds.  I mentioned that we weren’t having luck yet with The Big Picture Story Bible and I was wondering if she had any suggestions for Bible story books that resonated with her three children when they were my daughter’s current age.

She reminded me of Read Aloud Bible Stories (which, for some odd reason, I hadn’t yet introduced), but then the conversation turned from the topic of books to the topic of storytelling.  My friend suggested, especially at this young age, not relying exclusively on books to teach children the stories of the Bible.  Instead, she encouraged me to tell my daughter Bible stories in my own words.

My first reaction was theological anxiety: what if I got it wrong?!  I wouldn’t want to mess up my daughter’s understanding of God just because my own biblical literacy isn’t quite up to par with that of a professional scholar.  From my perspective, one of the beauties of books is that I can pre-read them and give them some thought before sharing them.  If the book is a winner, I can just sit down and (without worry) enjoy the reading experience with my daughter.  Telling Bible stories in my own words seems like it would require accuracy in and depth of biblical knowledge – not to mention quite a bit of skill in the art of storytelling.

Or does it?

When I related my worries to my friend, she said I had misunderstood her suggestion.   She didn’t want me to think about telling Bible stories in my own words as formal theological education at all.  Instead, she was encouraging me to share my love of God to my daughter directly from my heart to hers.  She was encouraging me to tell her in my own words what it is about Jesus that moves me and makes me want to follow him.  “What do you love about Jesus?” she asked me.  “What do you think of when you think of  him?”  Those are the kinds of storytelling prompts that she thinks are most helpful.

The more that I think about this conversation, the more I’m convinced that my friend is right.  After all, we can’t theologically educate anyone into the Kingdom.  Following Christ isn’t just about believing all the right things in your mind.  Your heart has to be inclined to the beauty of the Trinity, too, and letting children catch a glimpse of what that looks like in your life has got to be one of the best ways to inspire that trait in them.   (Well, that and a lot of prayer!)  It’s not that right theology doesn’t matter; not at all.  It’s just that if we start to think about Christian education just in terms of a transfer of theological facts, we’re probably veering off course just a bit.

If any of you have experience in storytelling with your kids (particularly in reference to spiritual things), please comment and share your wisdom with us!  Once I’ve gotten more practice in it I’ll be sure to report back, but I’d love to learn from you all.  I’m particularly curious about any differences in children’s responses or follow-up discussions to reading Bible storybooks than to hearing you speak in your own words from your heart.

All Things Bright and Beautiful

All Things Bright and Beautiful
Ashley Bryan (and Cecil Francis Alexander)
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010

For some strange reason, it took me a long time to warm up to the idea of songs-as-picture-books.  Earlier this year, though, I found one that I loved, which made me think that maybe there might just be a few others out there that are worth checking out.  And I was right!   Last week Sarah reviewed a song-book and today I’ve got another one to share.

All Things Bright and Beautiful, unsurprisingly, is a book illustrated to the text of the hymn by the same name.  (Note that two verses of the verses are left out.  One of them is left out for good reason: check out the complete lyrics to see what I mean.)  It’s a lovely hymn, and one that is very appropriate for young children who are beginning to notice and be enthralled by nature.

The artwork in this book is done entirely in paper collage, and the pages are great fun to pore over.  Bright colors, attention to detail, and a variety of textures will surely make this book a favorite of many children.  In addition, if you or your children are inclined to creating your own artwork, I’m guessing that it will make you want to pull out some scissors and colored paper to try paper cutting and collage for yourself.  (If you do, send me a picture!)

My favorite line in the book is the last stanza of the hymn: “He gave us eyes to see them, and lips that we might tell, how great is God Almighty, who has made all things well.”   What great fodder for discussion – and what a beautiful way to pray for our children.  May we all see creation as the handiwork of God and have mouths that would freely praise him for his creativity and grandeur!

Church Colors at Home

    About a month ago I wrote about the various ways that my husband and I have tried to bring church home, so to speak, so that when we’re at church our daughter feels like she knows what’s going on.  I mentioned having a plan to create some small banners representing the different colors of the church year… and since it always takes me five times as long to complete a project as it does to plan one, I just recently hung up the first banner (which is green, the color of ordinary time).

I’m pleased with the way it turned out, though it’s nothing particularly fancy.  In case any of you are interested in doing something similar, here are the supplies you’ll need.  I managed to get everything for about $10 at my local fabric shop.  Check the scrap bins first – I found almost all of my fabric there!

  • Background fabric (2 layers each) in green, purple, red, black, and white
  • Contrasting fabric to make 1 cross in gold and 4 crosses in white
  • 1/4 yard of fusible interfacing
  • Thin wooden dowel and a drill for making holes on the ends
  • White ribbon for hanging
  • A hook for hanging up the finished banners
Once you have all of your supplies, here’s what to do.  Note that the gold cross will go on the white background fabric for Easter.  All of the other backgrounds have a white cross.
  1. Cut out all of the background pieces and crosses according to the size you want to make your banners.  Mine are about the same size as a standard sheet of paper, but you can obviously make them any size you like.
  2. Cut the interfacing into crosses that are only slightly smaller than your fabric crosses, then iron them together according to directions (this just make the next step a bit easier).
  3. Pin a cross onto one background piece of each color, then attach with a satin stitch (zigzag stitches very close together – I should have made mine closer).
  4. Pin both pieces of background fabric right sides together.  Stitch around the edge, leaving a hole at the top for tuning.  Turn it right side out, iron, and top stitch all the way around for a more finished look.
  5. Fold down about an inch at the top to form a pocket for the dowel to slide through, then stitch across.
  6. Cut the dowel down to size and drill small holes at either end.  Slide the dowel through the pocket, loop the ribbon through the holes on the dowel, and hang!  Green is for ordinary time, purple is for Advent and Lent, red is for Passion Week and Pentecost, black is for Good Friday, and white is for Easter.
If you’re not into sewing, there are plenty of other ways you could display the colors of the church year in your home.  A few of the ideas I’ve thought of are framing colored scrapbook paper or stretching fabric across a blank canvas, but I’m sure there are dozens of other ways to do it!  What about getting a single cloth napkin in each color and placing it under your dining room table’s centerpiece or buying thick ribbons in each color to drape over a cross you already have displayed somewhere?  Do let us know if you try one of these ideas or come up with something else!