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.

Saint Nicholas

Saint NickSaint Nicholas: The Story of the Real Santa Claus
Mary Joslin & Helen Cann
Lion Children’s, 2003

I’ve been on the lookout for a good introduction to the historical figure of Saint Nicholas for a long time.  I’ve certainly not hunted down every single book on the topic, but I’ve read probably half a dozen.  Most of them have been well done and informative, actually, and I enjoy exploring a few every December.  However, some of the legends about Nicholas contain fairly grizzly details so I often found myself doing a fair bit of editing on the fly when I read them aloud.  Mary Joslin’s Saint Nicholas, though, is a great choice for my young children and is the book I’m reading to them this year to prepare for Nicholas’ feast day on December 6 (this Saturday!).

If you’re familiar with Nicholas’ life you know that he was a very generous man and also the bishop of Myra, a city in present day Turkey.  There are a variety of tales told about him, but the only one in Joslin’s book is the one of his generosity to an impoverished family with three daughters who were unable to marry because they lacked a dowry.  If you’re not familiar with it, this story involves Nicholas secretly tossing small pouches of coins into the family’s house (in most books they say he tossed it in the window, in Joslin’s case she says he threw them down the chimney).  The family joyfully receives the gift and with it the hope of a better future for the three girls.  Joslin’s retelling of this story is definitely a bit more rosy than others I’ve read, but in my case that’s exactly what I was looking for.  She connects the dots between Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus traditions more straightforwardly than some books do, so if you’re looking for more of a pure history this might not be the right option for you.

Unfortunately, this book is out of print and at this time of year prices for used Christmas books tend to spike.  If you don’t want to pay a premium but have some patience, I’d suggest marking your calendar to remind you to purchase this lovely book… in July.  In any case, join me this weekend in leaving chocolate coins in our children’s shoes and sharing a story about the legendary generosity of Saint Nicholas!

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.

All About Jesus

51L7T7Kr6LLAll About Jesus
Martine Blanc-Rerat
Loyola, 2000

Do you remember that book sale I went to a few weeks ago?  One of the happy surprises I found there that day was All About Jesus, a children’s Bible that’s in some ways quite similar to the ESV Illustrated Family Bible.  Given how much I like it, I’m surprised that I’d never heard of it before!

The text of All About Jesus comes directly from the New Living Translation of the Bible.  I love that even though the selections are quite short and the NLT isn’t my translation of choice for myself, when I read this book my kids are hearing the actual language of the Bible instead of that of an author.  (Not that storybook Bibles are at all bad; I’m just grateful to have both.)  That makes this book a natural half-step to reading from a storybook Bible to a copy of the complete Scriptures.

The first nine stories are from the Old Testament while the remaining 200 pages focus in on Jesus: who he is, what he did, what he teaches, and how he remains with us.  I like the selections that were chosen, but I especially appreciate that most of the stories that fall during Holy Week are included (because I find most children’s Bibles to leave out at least some of them).  Come spring, I’ll definitely be pulling out this book as we’re nearing the end of Lent and walking through the week before celebrating the Resurrection.

As far as the illustrations go, they remind me a bit of a slightly more grown-up version of Mick Inkpen’s drawings in Stories Jesus Told, even though Blanc-Rerat’s style is less cartoony.  They’re inviting to gaze at and I appreciate how they artfully help us to focus on the Scripture itself.  All things considered, I’d say that this book is perfect for ages 2-7 (those at the older end of that age spectrum could read it themselves, as the passages are short and the translation is pretty kid friendly).

At the very end of the book there are a dozen pages that aren’t simply passages of Scripture, and a couple of those mention topics like Mary, saints, priests, and the Eucharist in distinctly Catholic ways.  Personally, I’m comfortable with most of them, and find it easy to switch a word or two where my Anglican theology differs.

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.

Ian and the Gigantic Leafy Obstacle

Ian and the Gigantic Leafy Obstacle

Ian and the Gigantic Leafy Obstacle
Sheila Miller
OMF International, 1983/2002

The most common forms of prayer that my children engage in are probably prayers of gratitude and meal blessings, and those don’t often lead to tough theological questions.  But as they grow and the more they ask God for specific requests, the more conversations we have about what that form of prayer is all about.  How we understand God’s ways when he doesn’t answer in the ways that we asked him to?  What if his timing is not our timing?  How do we continue to trust his love when we don’t see immediate evidence that he is listening to us when we talk to him?

The nuances of prayer are hard to communicate to young children, but I think that Sheila Miller has done an excellent job of doing just that in Ian and the Gigantic Leafy Obstacle.  It tells two intersecting tales: one of a missionary whose car is blocked by a huge fallen tree and one of a Thai man who loses an elephant.  I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it’s a great story of how God sometimes answers a prayer immediately yet we have to wait to see the evidence of his answer.  It’s certainly not going to answer every question about intercession you child may throw at you.  But as one simple illustration of how God is at work behind the scenes and knows the best ways to answer our prayers, it’s a great success.

This short, small paperback is a true story (which makes it even better!) and published by OMF, a missionary agency.  Amazon carries used copies as well as new copies from third party vendors, but you can also find it at Sonlight or purchase it directly from OMF.  I loved sharing Ian’s story with my daughter during Lent because prayer is a traditional Lenten theme (and the one that we’re focusing on this year), but since prayer is woven into the fabric of our lives year round it’s a great choice for any season.

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

He Is My Shepherd

Lord Is My Shepherd-001He Is My Shepherd
Helen & David Haidle
Multnomah, 1989

Of all the images of God in the Bible, surely the image of the Shepherd is one that resonates most deeply with children.  Last year, when my daughter and I participated in a family preschool program, we observed a Godly Play presentation each week.  All of the stories were captivating (our teacher was incredibly talented!) but the presentation of the Good Shepherd was one that stuck with us all year long.  In fact, I even purchased some felt and figurines so we could replicate the story at home.

Ever since then I’ve been on the lookout for a good children’s book that explores the imagery of God as Shepherd, and today I’m happy to add He Is My Shepherd to Aslan’s Library.  This book goes through Psalm 23 and offers insight and a short prayer for each beautiful, meaning-laden line.  Here is the portion on the valley of the shadow of death:

A dark valley is a scary place to be.  Sheep do not want to walk through shadowy pathways and deep ravines, but they learn to overcome fear when the shepherd is by their side.  They huddle close to him as he leads them through the valley.

Lord, you know everything that scares me.  You even know the things I’m afraid might happen to me.  I’m glad you’re with me no matter what happens.

The goodness and tenderness of God shines through the words and images of this book.  It’s a perfect choice for just about any scenario I can think of: a child in need of comfort, a child struggling with fear, a child who struggles with pursuing their own ways instead of Christ’s ways, a child who doesn’t want to go to sleep.  The message of this book, and of Psalm 23, reaches deep into the human heart.  Wherever we are, whatever we are facing, there is a Shepherd who is ready to give us the care and guidance that we need.

He Is My Shepherd is older than many of the books we’ve reviewed, and I’ll admit that its illustrations may not be as remarkable as those in, say, Love Is or He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.  Nonetheless, the warmth of the shepherd towards his sheep comes through quite clearly.  I found myself endeared to the sheep who are in such clear need of their master’s care.  At the end of the book we read that “they have learned that he is completely trustworthy,” and I daresay that as you turn the last page you’ll be refreshed in your own trust in our Lord, the Great Shepherd of the Sheep.

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.