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.
Tomie dePaola has some strange ideas even for Catholics. Petook is wonderful with his illustrations, though. You can also read the story itself (with an illustration by Renee George) in More Catholic Tales for Boys and Girls.
I requested it from the library — thanks for the recommendation!