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.

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.

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!

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 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.

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.

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.

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.