The Easter Story

The Easter StoryThe Easter Story
Brian Wildsmith
Eerdmans, 1993

We’ve recommended a couple of Brian Wildsmith’s other books already here at Aslan’s Library, and since each contains a pretty straightforward retelling of a biblical story, that tells you something about the beauty of his artwork. We have Exodus and Joseph in my Sunday school classroom, and they’re consistently the books the children who want to settle in with a quiet story gravitate towards. They’re simply gorgeous to sit with and pore over.

The Easter Story varies slightly, and tells the story of Jesus’ last week as seen through the eyes of the donkey who carries him into Jerusalem. Happily, the donkey is a reliable witness whose account mirrors the synoptic gospels; nothing is added, and the focus is squarely on the man who drew all eyes to himself as he gave himself over to Jerusalem, its leaders and its crowds.

As in all of Wildsmith’s books, the colors are rich and the illustrations detailed; although the words are sparse, there’s plenty to linger over on each page. An angelic observer follows Jesus through Jerusalem, and at the moment of his crucifixion an entire heavenly host looks on, perplexed and distressed. It’s both a thoughtful echo of the angels on hand at Jesus’ birth, and a moving witness to the cosmic significance of the moment. Jesus is abandoned, yet all of heaven and earth look on.

This would be a lovely addition to an Easter basket, and I especially like the idea of giving it as a gift to a child who isn’t familiar with the Easter story in all its magnitude and beauty. It’s also pretty widely available in public libraries, so you still have time to track it down to share on Easter morning!

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.

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!

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.

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.

Christmas Day in the Morning

Christmas Day

Christmas Day in the Morning
Pearl S. Buck & Mark Buehner
HarperCollins Children’s, 2002

I’ve seen Christmas Day in the Morning in the past couple of Chinaberry holiday catalogues, and marked it to track down and check out. Then a few weeks ago, I was browsing in Books Inc for some Christmas presents and saw it displayed alongside a few of my other favorites, Christmas in Noisy Village The Story of Holly and Ivy. I love Mark Buehner’s artwork (for some non-theological favorites, check out Fanny’s Dream and Snowmen at Night), and a quick glance through this lovely hardback landed it quickly in my pile. What I wasn’t expecting was to review it here.

Originally published in 1955, Christmas Day in the Morning is the tale of a boy’s discovery that his father loves him, and the desire that is immediately awakened by that discovery to give a gift of love of his own. Rob lives on a farm with his hardworking parents, and pitches in dutifully with the chores like early-morning milking. But one day, he overhears his father’s regret that he has to wake Rob so early for the work and “something in him woke: his father loved him!” It’s that sudden realization so many of us have in early adolescence: as we begin to emerge from childhood’s (necessary) self-centeredness, it dawns on us that our parents aren’t just a fixture of the universe. Their years of care come from choice, and dedication, and fidelity — from love.

What’s so beautiful about this story is Rob’s response. It’s the biblical response of the Beloved to the Lover: an immediate desire to sacrifice, to show an awareness of the gift that has been given and to reciprocate. illuminuated by Mark Buehner’s tender and feeling illustrations, this story absolutely deserves a spot under the Christmas tree or to be read aloud on Christmas Eve. After all, it echoes (in a simple, creaturely tale) the True Story of Christmas: the Son who so loves that Father that he responds by pouring himself out, straight into his own creation, and the Father’s echoing delight.

I’ve already read this story with my children, and am planning on reading it again with them and their cousins once more before Christmas. If you’re looking for a new Christmas tradition, or simply a good book to share as a family, this is one that I can heartily recommend.

B is for Bethlehem

B is for Bethlehem

B Is for Bethlehem
Isabel Wilner & Elisa Kleven
Puffin, 1995

Maybe it’s just that I suddenly find myself with an enthusiastic pre-reader in the house, but alphabet books are the order of the day around here right now. The four-year-old who was previously content to refuse all requests to sound out letters with an unruffled “but I can’t read!” is now walking around the house naming every letter he sees, and asking if “B-A-C-O-N” (on a magnet on the fridge) is how you spell his sister’s name.

Still, I don’t normally go in for thematic or holiday alphabet books. I pulled B is for Bethlehem off the library shelf almost as an afterthought last week, in what passes for recklessness in my life these days. (“A Christmas alphabet book? What the heck! Let’s give it a spin!” Clearly, friends, I live on the edge.) And in this case, my daredevil ways paid off. It’s a simple, lovely Advent read with my little guy over cider: just right for a four year old who loves rehearsing what he knows about the Nativity story, with enough depth and joy to enrich it for him even more.

Starting with “A’s for Augustus, Emperor of Rome/Who decreed, “To be counted, let each man go home,” the story of Jesus’ birth unfolds in short, bright couplets. It’s a familiar story, of course, but told in a way that reflects the wideness and richness of what happened that night: “L is for Lullaby Mary would sing/To her baby, her lamb, the Messiah, the King.” Her lamb: how many of us have used just that endearment for a small, downy newborn? And how perfect, and beautiful, and heartrending a diminutive for this particular baby?

I especially appreciate that the final third or so of the book moves from the story itself to our response: “V’s for Venite, the summons, O come./Come praise him with harp and with trumpet and drum.” And the collage illustrations are warm, lively, and inviting. If you happen across B is for Bethlehem at your own public library, you can pull it with confidence: you’ll have to take up skydiving, I suppose, if you’re looking for a risk.

**Note: B is for Bethlehem is currently only available for purchase on major bookseller sites via third-party sellers.

Advent Resources for Grownups

IMG_3227Every year, around Thanksgiving, Haley and I lament the fact that we don’t already have reviews written for ALL THE BOOKS, because sorting through and sharing the wealth of Advent and Christmas picture books is a daunting task that we should tackle in, say, July. (But really: who wants to read Christmas books in July? Probably the same people who have the self-discipline to make all those homemade decorations in the summer so that they can pull them out and pin/Instagram them the day after Thanksgiving. If you are one of those people, know that you simultaneously amaze and perplex me.)

It’s a good problem to have, though, because it just means there are so many good books for children to share this time of year. And we certainly will have some new reviews up in the coming days and weeks.

However: in the past two years or so, I’ve fallen into the same trap during Advent and Lent. I’ve gotten so focused on doing the season “well” with my children that I’ve barely inhabited the seasons myself, or let the days of preparation teach me. In the process, I’ve found that I become pretty untethered from what each season is all about — with the sorry result that my words about “getting ready” feel dry and disconnected. And my kids aren’t dumb. They can tell when Mom is trying to get them to eat something she won’t touch herself, rather sharing the source of her own nourishment.

So this year, I’m trying to spend part of each day (generally the early morning) sitting quietly with Scripture, reading poems and selections that someone else has chosen, and generally listening to see if and how God will speak. I’ve set aside, for now, the goal of a productive quiet time, of chasing after what I think I need to learn. So much of the Advent story is about having our own projects upended and waiting to see how God is going to fulfill his promises. Waiting to see how, and when, God will arrive.

Toward that end, then — to help us all in the waiting, and watching, and setting aside our agendas for God — here are a few Advent resources for grownups. I hope you’ll find something here to help you wait upon the Lord, and sharpen the bright hunger of hope.IMG_3225

7--portinari-triptych-detail_advent_thumbnailThe Advent Project, created by the Biola University Center for Christianity, Culture & the Arts
Our small group is using this online resource together this year, and (like the previous spring’s Lent project) it is a wonderful opportunity to reflect meditatively, through word, art, and music, on Scripture that helps us understand this season. Short daily meditations for Advent through Epiphany are accompanied by musical selections and visual art. And I promise you: this isn’t flat or sentimental work. Introducing the project, Biola president Barry Corey writes, “It [Advent] is merriment and melancholy together, beauty so sublime that, like the best art, it simultaneously comforts and rocks us to the core.” You can visit the site daily, or subscribe to it via email.

Light Upon LightLight Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas & Epiphany, Sarah Arthur
This is the book I’m sitting with in my early mornings. It’s a simple but ingenious idea: for each week of Advent, Christmastide, and Epiphany, daily Scripture readings and prayers are paired with complementary poems and excerpts from fiction. Authors like Dickens, Herbert, Donne and Eliot sit comfortably alongside newer voices, familiar and unfamiliar. It’s been an interesting and challenging book, one that has forced me out of my typical reading style (attempting to wring every bit of understanding out of every sentence) and into a more reflective, meditative approach. Which, as it happens, is perfect for Advent.

Sounding the SeasonsSounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian YearMalcolm Guite
Haley gave me this book a year ago, and it’s a lovely resource (or gift) for someone beginning to explore the church year, or who may not want an Advent devotional per se but still wants to approach the season mindfully. Or maybe you’d like to keep it on hand for bedside reading or preschool pick-up waiting?

Seeking God’s Face: PrayiSeeking God's Faceng with the Bible Through the Yeared. Philip Reinder

In a talk he gave at our church, Jamie Smith recommended this as a year-round daily devotional, and I ordered it right then and there. I’ve used it for about a year and a half now, and actually set it aside this Advent in favor of Light Upon Light, but it’s a wonderful book — and what better time than the beginning of the Christian year to start something new? For each day, there are Scripture readings as well as seasonally-appropriate prayers and suggested focus for free prayer. I love this book, and if I could, I’d stick it in all of your stockings.

Pray as You GoPray As You Go
Disclaimer: I haven’t used Pray As You Go myself, but I came across it awhile back while clicking through some of our church’s recommended Advent resources. I was particularly interested because it reminded me of Headspace, an app that some friends use and love. But, by my lights, Pray As You Go is much better: it offers a daily Scripture reading, music, and guided prayer in a short audio format. If you’re someone who has a daily commute, wishes for a personal spiritual director on call (why can’t I have my own church and curate on the property?) or is simply an auditory learner, this is a great site. In the tradition of Ignatian spirituality, they also offer a daily imaginative exercise and personal examen, both of which I have a very little experience with and would like to do more.

The Circle of Days

The Circle of DaysThe Circle of Days
Reeve Lindbergh & Cathie Felstead
Candlewick Press, 1998

One of my favorite questions to ask of kids’ books is: “what sort of world does this book help children imagine? Does it simply confirm the world they already experience, or does it offer a glimpse of a wider, more varied, more beautiful universe out there and invite them in?” After all, isn’t that one of the reasons we read? For that “enlargement of our being” that can only come in the encounter with the creations of other minds?

It’s a hard feeling to articulate, but my favorite books as a child did precisely that: they created worlds I wanted to live in, and helped me to look for (or imagine!) the same wonder and delight in my own little corner of existence. The Circle of Days, by Reeve Lindbergh and Cathie Felstead is just one such book.

Like Brother Sun, Sister MoonThe Circle of Days is an illustrated setting of St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun. The text is simple, sparse, and rich: perfect read-aloud fare with little ones, and good for a quiet, meditative read with elementary-aged children. St. Francis’ song is a litany of thanksgiving for the small miracles that order our days: sun, moon, water, wind, sleep, fruit, flower, fellow-creatures. The beauty of the prayer, to me, is the way it awakens wonder for the things I take most for granted. In addition to the words of the prayer, the bright watercolor collage on each full page spread invites us to gratefully notice all of the wondrous variety and beauty in the quotidian.

In other words, this book is a testament to the joy and renewal that happens in the circle of our days. The words of the Preacher may feel more true, alas, especially to us grownups: “All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. All things are wearisome, more than one can say…What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:7-9). But paging through this book with my four-year-old, recounting the mercies that are daily renewed, I find myself echoing the prayer of St Francis:

For all your gifts, of every kind,
We offer praise with quiet mind.
Be with us Lord, and guide our ways
Around the circle of our days.

**Note: this book is currently out of print — I ran across it at a used bookshop — but is available used, and inexpensively at that, on Amazon.