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.

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.

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).

Go Tell It On the Mountain

Go Tell ItGo Tell It on the Mountain
Debbie Trafton O’Neal & Fiona King
Augsburg Books, 2003

Most of the year Sarah and I have to do some serious sleuthing to find books that we feel good about reviewing here on the blog. That accounts for at least some of our irregular posting (the rest is due to those darling small people who keep us so busy). Come Christmastime, though, it’s almost hard to know where to start. There are so many great Christmas books out there! Nearly every children’s author and illustrator, it seems, has an urge to create a Christmas book even if they don’t normally write theologically. It may be harder to find really creative ones, but beautiful books that straightforwardly tell the nativity story are plentiful.

Ironically, because there are just so many good Christmas books out there I sometimes find it hard to choose new ones for our home library. How to choose?! I found Go Tell It on the Mountain while browsing on Amazon and, because it looked promising and there was a practically new copy for a penny plus shipping, I took a gamble and placed an order. I’m glad I did, because now that I’ve read it I know it’s one we’ll enjoy revisiting each year.

Fiona King has created illustrations reminiscent of woodcuttings and somehow they also bring to mind the artwork in one of my favorite Thanksgiving books, Over the River and Through the Wood. The pictures tell the familiar story of the nativity, but as we watch the events of Luke 2 unfold we see clearly that what has happened is worthy of being shouted from the rooftops. It’s not a sentimental tall tale, it’s Emmanuel! God with us! The lyrics of the familiar carol are fantastic food for thought at this time of year, reminding us that the birth of Christ is, at its core, good news that begs to be told. The author adds one verse of her own on the end that makes a bridge between the shepherds who first told the good news and our privilege today to continue to be bearers of that same news.

My kids already know the song so they enjoyed singing along with me as I read and at the end they gave the book that classic stamp of approval: “Read it again!” Go Tell It on the Mountain is out of print but happily, very reasonably priced used copies abound. I commend it to you as a book that I think you’ll enjoy sharing with the children in your life.

He Was One of Us

He Was One of UsHe Was One of Us
Rien Poortvliet & Hans Bouma
Doubleday, 1978

I have a friend – and I hope you are blessed with one of these too – whom I will follow blindly into any book. If she tells me to read something, I will, no matter how far it falls off my radar screen. Over and over, her choices have delighted, challenged, or taught me. I used to be in a book group with her, and read what she told me to for several years, so believe me: she has totally earned her book-choosing street-cred. (And is probably reading this blog right now: Hi, Sarah!)

So of course, when she emailed and asked if I had seen Rien Poortvliet’s He Was One of Us (I hadn’t), there was nothing to do but request it from interlibrary loan. Right away. And of course, she was right.

Sadly out of print, this is nonetheless a volume absolutely worth hunting for. He Was One of Us is a large, gorgeous collection of drawings by Dutch artist Rien Poortvliet depicting the life of Jesus and the reactions he evoked in those around him. Each painting is accompanied by short, evocative text by Hans Bouma that pulls the viewer straight into the world of the drawing. Much of the focus is on those around Jesus, arresting them mid-reaction to his words and deeds. Supplicant hands reach out; features twist in anger and rejection; self-satisfied, comfortable arms are crossed, shutting Jesus out. Paging through this volume, I felt not so much an observer as a participant in the gospel scenes – each page invites us to react, heart and mind, to the events playing out before us.

And honestly – sitting on the sunny porch of the Walt Disney museum in the Presidio, with tourists filing past – I teared up while paging through the book. The drawings radiate real, incarnate human life, almost like a collected family album.  Anna and Simeon gaze at the baby with a look that anyone who has held a newborn will recognize. Spread across two pages, a baby Jesus nurses; toddler Jesus plays and snuggles his father; a young man grins, proudly, holding the tools of his father’s trade. The disciples, standing with Jesus, are captured in a moment, almost as college friends enjoying the afternoon are caught by a camera unaware. The text above is poignant, as they smile out at us: “Do they know what awaits them? They’ll despair, be mocked, hated, threatened, persecuted. Their quiet life is a thing of the past. Either you belong to Jesus or you don’t.”

There’s a sense of reality and wholeness we can get from seeing the disparate moments of someone’s life captured in images and arranged in a narrative. (Why else do we put together slideshows at graduations, weddings, and funerals?) The great gift of He Was One of Us is that it invites us to contemplate Jesus’ life and humanity through these vivid, provocative portraits. Slight enough of text that the smallest lap child can join in, rich and evocative enough to be used devotionally by adults, and gorgeous enough to live on a coffee table and draw in unsuspecting visitors, this is a book to be treasured.

The Colt and the King

Colt and KingThe Colt and the King
Marni McGee & John Winch
Holiday House, 2002

A few days ago a friend pointed out to me that the story of the triumphal procession is not included in either the Big Picture Story Bible or the Jesus Storybook Bible.  I was surprised when she told me – perhaps simply because Palm Sunday is this weekend and its proximity makes it feel particularly important – and left the conversation wondering what is out there in children’s literature that tells the story well.  Happily, I found one to share with you all just in time for the beginning of this year’s Holy Week!

Marni McGee (of The Noisy Farm fame) and illustrator John Winch have together created The Colt and the King, a creative retelling of the triumphal entry that is just right for preschoolers and early elementary kids.  It’s out of print, but my own library had it on its shelves and used copies seem affordable and easy to find.  The donkey is the narrator, and through the book’s pages he reminisces about the day he was drafted into the King’s service and carried him into Jerusalem alongside an exuberant crowd.  The text is clear yet gently poetic, the illustrations are captivating, and the author’s note that precedes the title page provides additional context and explanation.

Now, I have to admit that normally I’m not a fan of Bible retellings that focus on something other than what is the clear biblical theme.  Most frequently I see this in the form of telling the Christmas story from the perspective of the animals, though I can think of other examples as well.  It’s just not my cup of tea.  However… I really like this book.  For one thing, I love the way that McGee foreshadows both Good Friday and also the Second Coming as the story progresses.  Moreover, the colt’s encounter with Jesus is somehow entirely relatable, especially for a young child.  Jesus’ presence calms the animal as the Good Shepherd calms his sheep, and the colt is in turn pleased with the role he gets to play on that special day.  He feels anxious at what he senses is soon to come for Jesus (a feeling that I’m sure many young children share as the day we remember the crucifixion draws near).  And after the procession ends, the donkey longs for the day when he will once again see Jesus and be at home with him.  Each of these reflections strike me as particularly relevant for children and taken together they’re a wonderful way to begin Holy Week.

Sarah and I have long had trouble finding children’s books for Holy Week and Easter that we are truly excited about, so I’m particularly pleased to be able to recommend this one to you.  The Colt and the King is a lovely book that makes the Palm Sunday story come alive and I hope that you’ll consider tracking it down to share with the young ones in your life.

Slugs and Bugs CDs

Slugs and Bugs - Under WhereI’ve mentioned this before, but one of the ways that Sarah and I trying to branch out here at the ol’ blog is to include non-book resources in our library of reviews.  Up today are the fantastic Slugs & Bugs CDs!

What first drew me to Slugs & Bugs was Andrew Peterson, who co-created the first S&B album with Randall Goodgame.  I’ve been an Andrew Peterson fan for years (please tell me you know and love his Christmas album!) and I’d listen to anything by him.  We all know there is plenty of children’s music out there that we’d really rather not listen to, but I was absolutely sure that if Andrew Peterson was behind a CD for kids it would be worth trying out.  And… I was right!

Since the first Slugs and Bugs album, Randall Goodgame has taken the driver’s seat (though Andrew Peterson does make appearances in each recording) and now I can say that I’d listen to anything he writes or sings as well.  Randall has an incredible knack for songwriting for children and their parents.  His funny songs are hilarious.  His serious ones are tender and moving.  His God-centered ones are just right for little ones – he deals with all sorts of meaty topics but always in ways that communicate God’s love towards children.

Thematically there is an incredible variety of songwriting going on in these CDs and I adore that about them.  Over the course of an hour you hear an ode to Mexican food, a song about confessing wrongdoing, a moving lullaby, and a song about potty training.   The silly songs and the spiritual songs and the sleepytime songs are all right there together, comfortably side by side.  In other words, it’s just like life.  We can’t artificially divide ourselves into mind and spirit and body, and the Slugs & Bugs songs really reflects that.

Our very favorite way to listen to Slugs & Bugs is a playlist with a handful of songs from each album, but I personally think that the best album as a whole is Under Where? so if you’re new to Slugs & Bugs I’d recommend starting there.  All of the current CDs are available at Rabbit Room (do yourself a favor and poke around there for a few minutes) and the most recent two are at Amazon, too.  Happily, there’s a new one coming out this fall, but this one will be slightly different:  just like the wonderful Seeds Family Worship, all of the songs will be Scripture set to music!  You can check out the details on their Kickstarter page and see lots of song previews at the Slugs & Bugs blog.  We will be the first ones in the (virtual) line ready to buy it on release day!

S&B 3

To Be Like Jesus

To Be Like Jesus

One of my Easter traditions is placing a new Christian CD in my children’s Easter basket.  Last year I took a gamble and bought To Be Like Jesus, which was a gamble simply because I’d never listened to it – I’d never even heard anyone talk about it, as far as I can recall.  It’s been listened to a lot this past year and in the process has become one of our family’s very favorite albums.  In fact, when Sarah and I decided that we were going to expand our blogging horizons to include music reviews, I knew right away that it was one of the first ones I would write about.

The music of To Be Like Jesus is upbeat and catchy (in a good way!) and my daughter loves that the songs are sung by children as well as grown-ups.  The really outstanding feature of this album, though, is its lyrics.  The fruit of the Spirit is the overall theme of the CD and after the title song there’s a track devoted to each of the fruits, plus two others sandwiched in the middle.  The folks at Sovereign Grace have done an outstanding job of not turning the work of the Spirit into moralistic rules we must try very hard to obey.  Rather, in each of the songs there is acknowledgement that the fruit of the Spirit “grow in those who trust in you,” that we love God because he first loved us, that sin makes us want to go our own ways, and that intimacy with Christ is what will make us more like him.  This is no try-hard, be-a-good-person Christianity; it’s the real, grace-filled, true gospel deal.

I love to turn on To Be Like Jesus and see my almost 1-year-old start bopping around and hear my almost 4-year-old sing the fantastic lyrics… but to be honest, the reason I love this CD so much is for another reason entirely.  See, when we get up in the morning and it I can tell it’s going to be “one of those days” or when we’ve been cross with one another all afternoon, playing this album helps us turn it around.  Quite honestly, my soul sighs with relief about two lines into the first track as I remember what it is, exactly, that I’m trying to do with my life in the hard moment in which I find myself.  Just as much as my children, I need the reminder to look to Christ as my example and to rely on the Spirit as I pursue godliness, and this CD really has been very helpful to our whole family as we seek to know Jesus and find our life in him.  Of course, it also helps that the music makes you want to dance around the living room – it’s so joyful!

To sum up: this is most definitely one CD that is worth buying and I highly recommend it for Easter listening.  The mp3 album at Amazon is the cheapest way to purchase it at present, but if you prefer to have an actual CD the prices at the Sovereign Grace store are better.

Books for a New Baby

For the next installment in our series of booklists, we thought we’d address books for one of my very favorite kinds of people: new babies!

The books listed below are the ones I reach for first when I want to read theologically with my 10-month-old son, and they’re also the same ones I buy over and over to give expectant parents and their babies.  They are each well crafted, beautifully illustrated, theologically accurate, and developmentally appropriate for the youngest of readers.  Next time you’re shopping for someone under the age of 2, be sure to check them out!

toppicksforbabygreen-001

Perfect Books for a Baby Shower, Infant Baptism, or 1st Birthday

Board Books

Picture Books

Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention Honey for a Child’s Heart.  If you’re buying gifts for a family who hasn’t yet discovered this treasure trove, by all means introduce them to it!  Gladys Hunt is one of the best guides to the world of children’s literature, and she has much to offer parents who are new to that delightful world as well as those who are well acquainted with it.

Jesus Loves Me

Jesus Loves MeJesus Loves Me
Tim Warnes
Little Simon, 2008

With a nearly 4-year-old and a 9-month old in the house, our family’s literary life consists of simultaneously re-visiting favorite board books and branching out into new territory: chapter books!  Although I thoroughly enjoy introducing my son to the books I shared with my daughter during her babyhood, it’s been harder to regularly set aside time specifically for board book reading.  He’s usually around when I’m reading picture books to my daughter, and it’s been easy to forget that the little guy deserves reading time just for him, too!

We already have lots of favorite board books, but of course there are many that have been recently published and we’re staring to explore those as well.  Back when my daughter was a baby I lamented the fact that there were so few theological board books.  (Ones that were well done, that is…)  Lately, though, I’ve found several really good ones that I’m eager to share!

Jesus Loves Me comes in hardback and board book formats (kindle too, actually) and is best suited to kids up to age 3.  The text is, as you might have guessed, simply the lyrics to the children’s hymn Jesus Loves Me.  Did you know that there are actually 12 verses to that song?!  There are 3 included in this book: the one that nearly everyone knows plus two more.

Jesus loves me this I know
As he loved so long ago
Taking children on his knee
Saying, “Let them come to me”

Jesus loves me still today
Walking with me on my way
Wanting as a friend to give
Light and love to all who live

I’ve sometimes been tempted to label this song as overly sentimental or flippant, but I’ve decided that those critical inclinations are completely wrong.  After all, what is the basic building block of what a very young child needs to know about God?  He needs to know that He loves him, welcomes him, and is with him each day – which is precisely the message of Jesus Loves Me.

Here is my simple test for artwork in books I’m considering reviewing here on the blog: If I put it on our display bookshelf with the rest of our library books, does it fit in?  Or does it look out of place because it’s done with less excellence?  Happily, Tim Warnes’ artwork in Jesus Loves Me fits in very well next to other books we love for their artistic beauty.  The book follows a bear family of three as they go about daily activities like reading, eating, gardening, fishing, hiking, and going to bed.  The images bring to mind Deuteronomy 6 and the commandment to talk about God with children wherever you go, whatever you do.  The bears are a warm and playful bunch, and I can pretty much guarantee that watching them in this book will make you want to give an extra snuggle to the little people you love.

Jesus Loves Me has made its way onto my list of favorite books to give for baby showers, and I’d encourage you to share it with to the babies and toddlers in your life as well!