Great Joy

Great JoyGreat Joy
Kate DiCamillo & Bagram Ibatoulline
Candlewick, 2007

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

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

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

Good King Wenceslas

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

I Heard Good News Today

I Heard Good NewsI Heard Good News Today
Cornelia Lehn
Faith and Life Press, 1983

We’ve reviewed a number of biographies here in the past; it seems as though it’s one sub-genre that we Christians do well.  My daughter and I are reading I Heard Good News Today as part of our homeschooling this year, and even though we’ve not yet finished the book I feel very confident in recommending it.  If you have children ages 5-10 I think your family would be very glad to own a copy!

Through 93 short stories, Cornelia Lehn introduces us to missionaries and Christian workers from all over the globe and throughout history.  The theme of the book is the spreading of the good news of Jesus, so it aptly begins with a few Bible stories of the first men and women to share the news of the resurrection: Mary Magdalene, Philip and the Ethiopian, Peter and Cornelius, Paul and Lydia.  The stories continue with early missionaries (from the first few centuries AD) and then modern missionaries are presented in groupings according to their country or continent.  I’ve found there to be a great mix of people I already knew and those who are new to me, and each one’s life is a compelling reminder that we, too, long to be part of bringing the gospel to those who have not yet heard it.

The length of the stories lend themselves well to daily devotional material.  My daughter and I share one chapter together most days after reading a Bible story, and I can also envision them being read aloud at dinnertime as a family (by those who don’t have squirmy babies and toddlers at your table…) or read alone by an upper-elementary aged child.  I love that the stories are grouped according to geographic region because it connects the individuals together into a larger story about the people living in a specific place.

Lehn’s writing is clear and straightforward, neither overly embellished nor sparse, and I really appreciate the lack of comprehension questions tacked onto the end of each chapter.  Being a fan of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy I would rather let the child’s own mind interact and wrestle with the characters and storyline.  We tend to do our own re-telling and then talk about what stood out to us – and there is always plenty to ponder and discuss!

[If you’re interested in tracking down this book one good source is Sonlight, a homeschool curriculum that includes it in its kindergarten program.]

Trial and Triumph: Stories from Church History

Trial and Triumph Trial and Triumph: Stories from Church History
Richard Hannula
Canon Press, 1999

I love church history. As a young adult, learning that this faith I professed in the late 20th century was something received and that had a living past, that we weren’t just making it up, was incredibly helpful as I wrestled into a more grown-up belief. And ever since, reading church history has been like an exercise in genealogy for me: I love getting a better understanding of the family history, including the crazy, woolly, and sometimes downright broken parts. It’s enormously humbling and enormously encouraging at the same time, seeing God’s Spirit and his people work this whole being-the-church thing out through history.

Richard Hannula’s Trial and Triumph: Stories from Church History is a wonderful and nuanced introduction to this story for children. Originally conceived as a series of sketches for his own children, to teach them about our Christian forbears:

“The Psalmist calls us to praise the Lord and ‘tell of his works with songs of joy.’ God’s greatest works are not the creation of the mountains and seas but His acts of saving love, which transform sinners into children of God. These stories were not written to exalt great Christian men and women. They were written to exalt the Lord who made them great.”

And that is precisely the function of these stories, ranging from the earliest church fathers to the middle of the 20th century: to show how God has never abandoned his church, but has instead worked in the hearts and lives of redeemed sinners to be his presence in the world. There are martyrs, kings, bishops, popes, abbots, missionaries, men, women, and one (of course) Oxford don. Hannula treats each with honesty, fairness, and genuine historical faithfulness: each subject speaks in his or her own words (no corny made up dialogue!), and complicated figures like Charlemagne and Constantine aren’t whitewashed. But neither are they neglected because they were complicated: both men played pivotal roles in church history, for good and ill, and I appreciated the care with which Hannula presents them.

One of this book’s greatest strengths is in its breadth: how many books for children contain, between their covers, Athanasius and Hudson Taylor, Elizabeth of Hungary and David Brainerd, King Alfred and Francis of Assisi? While Hannula’s theology is decidedly Reformed — Gregory the Great is called out for his teachings on purgatory and the veneration of saints — his biographical accounts are generous and faithful to the history of the “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”

My oldest is seven, and we are going to begin reading through it together this summer; this book would also be a wonderful addition to a Sunday School classroom for read-alouds, or as a gift for a middle-school child who is interested in learning more broadly about the history of her faith. I commend it to you joyfully!

In the Time of Noah

In the Time of NoahIn the Time of Noah
N.D. Wilson & Peter Bentley
Canon Press, 2007

The series title in which In The Time of Noah appears is The Old Stories. And that’s important to keep in mind when opening N.D. Wilson’s retelling of the Flood story. It is an old, old story. Old, and strange.

A short mention in the flyleaf notes that:

In the Time of Noah uses the version of the Deluge story told by many church fathers from the first several centuries after Christ. Nemesius of Emesa, Ambrose, and Clement of Alexandria are just a few. Augustine believed the giants were true giants, but were not the descendants of angelic beings. Others deny both elements of the story and, of course, today it’s not difficult to find theologians who deny the story in its entirety.”

Yep: giants. That’s your first clue that this is not a version of the Noah story that you’ll want to reproduce on nursery hangings. Rather, Wilson is telling the story the way it would have been known in parts of the early church. This telling was deeply influenced by The Book of Enoch, a text that got attention from the church fathers because it appears to be quoted in the book of Jude. (See? You should go read Jude. It’s more exciting than you thought, tucked back in there between 3 John and Revelation.) The first part of Enoch is called the Book of the Watchers, and it’s about those mysterious nephilim mentioned in Genesis 6. Enoch takes them to be, literally, the offspring of the fallen angels and human women. Wilson picks up on this reading – influential as it was in the early church – as the touchpoint for his own version. So if you’re looking for a book that refrains from elaborating on the biblical account (six-fingered giant kings, anyone?) then The Time of Noah is plainly not for you.

Or maybe it is. Honestly, I was put off at first by what felt like too much imaginative liberty with the Genesis story. Then I went back and re-read the Genesis story. People: it’s weird, and old, and full of all kinds of interpretive possibility. Without launching into a history of hermeneutics, let me say that I tend to read much of Genesis not as historical writing as we understand it in the 21st century, but as an account of the origins of our rebellion against God and his mysterious, merciful beginnings of rescue. A history, yes: but one that borrows and transforms the poetics of its age, not the forensic fact-checking journalism we expect today.

So: if my goal is to saturate my children’s imaginations biblically, I want to do it on the Bible’s own terms. And In The Time of Noah does great service to the flood story here. It takes a story we’ve become over-familiar with — to the point that we think we know it without reading it — and makes it strange and compelling once again. The evil that God determines to destroy is menacing and cruel, posing a direct challenge to his authority.  The waters that wash it away are at once judgment and mercy, a terrible liberation, and the earth rises again cleansed of a particularly ruinous rebellion. This is the logic of the biblical flood account, a logic that echoes through the arklike rooms where the Hebrews wait on Passover, and hangs over us as we stand in the waters of baptism, which Paul insists is a kind of death (Rom 6:4).

It’s true, N.D. Wilson does engage imaginatively with the biblical text – but only in ways Christians have been doing for centuries, opening up the Bible in all its deep explanatory power. The Time of Noah renders Noah’s story an old – venerable, rich, wise – story once again. Wilson ushers us back into the strange world of Genesis 6 and helps us to see more clearly the magnitude, and the mercy, of the flood.

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.