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.

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

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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!

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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)

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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!

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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!

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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!

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:

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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.  :)

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In Praise of Audio Books

At my house, we are very big fans of children’s audio books. It started, I think, when my daughter was not even two. I took a stack of her favorite board books to my family’s house for Christmas and had each of my siblings and parents record themselves reading one. Her eyes would light up whenever she heard a beloved relative reading a beloved book – it was audio perfection!

Later, when she was closer to 2 1/2, I bought Blueberries for Sal on a whim at Audible. We had read the book many times by that point, so the words were already very familiar to her and she was able to listen and follow along.  After that success we started exploring the collection of book+cd packs at our library. In the beginning I would simply look for picture books that we had already read aloud at home (like those by Kevin Henkes, read by Laura Hamilton), because I found at her age that if the stories were familiar she could listen to them independently. As she got more and more hooked on audio books we branched out and found new favorites, such as All Pigs Are Beautiful and Dogger.

Fast forward a few years and audio books remain an important part of our family culture. They’re great for road trips, rest time, dinner prep, and sick days. And plain old regular days, too! Sometimes I get my daughter the audio version after we’ve particularly loved a chapter book read aloud so she can enjoy it again on her own, but other times she listens to a book without any intro.

I try to add to our owned collection from time to time (they make great gifts!) but we also make use of our library’s offerings. There are some great resources in this post  if you’re interested in figuring out how to find good deals.

Here are some of our favorites:

I’ve gotten more into audio listening in recent years, too.  Here are some books and podcasts that I enjoy:
I’d love to hear what your family’s favorite podcasts and audio books are, so if you have some I haven’t listed above please comment and share them!

Be Blest

Be BlestBe Blest
Mary Beth Owens
Simon & Schuster, 1999

There are several times during the year that naturally lend themselves to reflection on the past and wondering about the future: the start of a new school year, the beginning of Advent and a new church year, the turning of seasons, January 1st. As you may have gathered, a big part of moving through the church year for my family has to do with the books we read, and the same is true of the seasonal year. We have books that are read all year round, of course, but others only get pulled out at certain times. Today’s book is unique in that it’s a thoroughly seasonal book, yet it’s appropriate for sharing at any time, no matter what month or season we’re in.

I picked up Be Blest at that used book sale I mentioned back in October. I’d never heard of it before, but the illustrations were so striking that I was immediately drawn to it. Each of the twelve spreads features a short seasonal poem on the left surrounded by a circular illustration done in a matching seasonal theme. The righthand side of each spread is a full page illustration with a caption listing one of the months of the year. So, for instance, January’s spread shows various winter animals in a snowy landscape, while August’s depicts blackberries and foraging bears.

Owens’ work is beautiful, which makes this a book to move through slowly, noticing artistic details and thinking about the poems that whisper praises to the Creator. Each one starts with a word or phrase that is repeated for three months in a row. Be Blest is for winter, Sing Praise is for spring, Rejoice is for summer, and Give Thanks is for autumn. To whet your appetite, here’s the complete verse for January:

Be Blest / when wind and ice / shake seeds / from lifeless plants / and tattered weeds.

On barren branches / leaf buds bear  / the promise of  / another year.

The author’s note tells how the book’s inspiration was Saint Francis’ “Canticle of Brother Sun.” She also notes that she drew from other traditions and, indeed, I am sure that many outside of the Christian faith would find much to like about this book. However, just because there’s not Trinitarian theology clearly coming through on each page doesn’t mean that we Trinitiarians should steer clear of this lovely book. While you won’t find a complete Nicene Creed here there’s nothing in the text that I find contradictory to it. It is, truly, a wonderful book, and I hope that you’ll check it out – especially those of you who share a fondness for the turning of seasons and are attuned to how God’s faithfulness can be seen in nature.

Great Joy

Great JoyGreat Joy
Kate DiCamillo & Bagram Ibatoulline
Candlewick, 2007

If you’re at all familiar with the world of children’s literature, you probably know some of Kate DiCamillo’s books. The Mercy Watson series is a favorite around here, both in book and audiobook formats, and I’m eager for the day when my daughter is ready to be introduced to The Tale of Despereaux. DiCamillo is a truly gifted storyteller, one who has been recognized by the Newbery folks on a number of occasions. (She’s also a local to the Twin Cities. I might daydream about running into her at my favorite independent children’s bookstore…)

Lucky for us, a handful of years ago DiCamillo joined the club of children’s authors who write Christmas books. And even luckier for us, it’s a really good one! To start with, Bagram Ibatoulline’s illustrations are perfect. Evocative, warm, and wintery, they make for a quintessential Christmas book. And as all great illustrations do, they help the reader enter into the story and make the author’s words live.

Great Joy is a sort of parable, as so many of DiCamillo’s books are, about how Christmas is really for everyone. In the Bible, the good news is shared first with the shepherds, the societal outcasts of their day. In Great Joy the news goes to someone in a similar circumstance, all because a little girl named Frances notices his presence in the world and desires to draw him in. In some ways there are some thematic parallels to The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, though DiCamillo’s approach is more quiet, more meditative, less hilarious. Both books are wonderful additions to any Christmas home library, and I’m really enjoying sharing both of them with my kids this year.

Good King Wenceslas

Wenceslas jacket.inddGood King Wenceslas
John M. Neal & Tim Ladwig
Eerdmans, 2005

I’ve come a long way from being someone who used to dislike picture books that use song lyrics are their only text. I can’t even remember, exactly, what I found unappealing about them back then. Whatever it was, I’m glad to have seen the light because there are a number of excellent books in this subgenre. Earlier this week I wrote about one and today I’ve got another one to share: Good King Wenceslas, an old Christmas carol that’s been illustrated by Tim Ladwig.

Ladwig has illustrated quite a few theological picture books, but my favorite of his is Peter’s First Easter, that gem of gems that was one of the initial inspirations for creating Aslan’s Library. Ladwig’s art is always vibrant and warm, but I find his work in this book to be especially endearing. The carol requires a variety of settings to be pictured and I love seeing them all, from the castle to the nature scenes to the peasant’s cottage. The people are just as varied (page, peasant, servant, king) and all do their part to tell the true story of King Wenceslas’ journey through harsh winter weather to give aid to one of his subjects. It’s a great story, one that I’m eager to tell my children at this time of year that can too easily become too much just about receiving and not enough about showing compassion and care.

If you enjoy connecting books with the liturgical calendar as I do, Good King Wenceslas is an obvious choice for December 26, St. Stephen’s Day (which is also Boxing Day to the English among us).

I Saw Three Ships

I Saw Three ShipsI Saw Three Ships
Elizabeth Goudge & Margot Tomes
David R. Godine, 1969

I have recently been introduced to the works of Elizabeth Goudge and suffice it to say that I have quickly become a loyal fan. My book group adored The Bird in the Tree this fall and if you have not yet read that masterful book, let me have the privilege of being the first to tell you to run out and get yourself a copy as soon as you can. Much to my delight, I discovered that Goudge wrote for children as well as adults, and when I saw earlier this month that one of them was Christmas themed I bought it on the spot.

I Saw Three Ships is a mere 60 pages long, but oh my, what a perfect tale to share with an older-elementary aged child at this time of year. (Stocking stuffer, perhaps?) In it we meet Polly, a young girl who lives in England with her two spinster aunts and whose spunk and determination keeps them on their toes. We meet the threesome just before Christmas, and in the opening pages Polly is trying to convince her aunts to leave the doors unlocked on Christmas Eve. She has always heard that if you do so, the three wise men might come in and visit. Being an adventuresome lass, she is eager for that to happen. Her aunts protest, saying that leaving the doors unlocked is simply not safe. And besides, that old tradition is just a legend. Here’s a snippet of conversations from page 10:

“The wise men might come,” said Polly. “Why not? Susan at the sweetshop told me that Christ Himself came to the West Country when He was a little boy.”

“That’s only a legend, dear,” said Dorcas.

“What’s a legend, Aunt?” asked Polly.

“A story whose truth cannot be proved,” said Dorcas.

“You can’t prove God,” said Polly.

As I’ve mulled over I Saw Three Ships during the past few days, I think that passage is at the crux of what Goudge is sharing with us through this story. We may not be able to prove God, it is true. But do you know what happens when we open ourselves up to childlike faith? Our eyes are opened. Opened to reality, opened to seeing people for who they really are, opened to joy. I’m not going to tell you much more about the plot because you’ll enjoy discovering it for yourself. This book is full of warmth and charm (and, yes, a bit of old-fashioned quirk) and wonderful for anyone age 8 and up.