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.

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.

Saint Francis

saint francisSt Francis
Brian Wildsmith
Eerdmans, 1995

It’s still Epiphany for two more weeks, and amidst this busy season of imperceptibly lengthening days, resuming schoolwork and activities, and planning for the coming year, I like to pull out books that remind us all of the light that has dawned and that we bear into our mundane, messy, daily lives. My daughter’s second grade class is reading biographies right now, and I shamelessly used her weekly homework assignment as an excuse to pass her a library copy of St. Francis, because he was one of the great light-bearers of our Christian family.

We’ve reviewed no less than three books based on Saint Francis’ Canticle of Brother Sun, so no surprise that Haley and I are attracted to his theology of radical gratitude and his intense experience of God’s rich presence in his creation. But the fact remains: the man is a medieval saint, and with that comes some territory that most Protestants shy away from — miracle stories, stigmata, and the like. This is the first picture biography of St Francis that I’ve come across that tells those episodes (the taming of the wolf of Gubbio and the reception of the stigmata) in a matter-of-fact way, of a piece with the life of a man who so identified with Christ that he is no longer at war with creation and is able to receive the scars that come as a result.

In fact, the real joy of this book is in the simplicity of its telling, accompanied by Wildsmith’s lavish, light-soaked illustrations. (Those of you who have read Exodus and Joseph know what I mean.) The sentences are short, declarative, straightforward. But the light and joy that shines through is unmistakeable. It’s the most appropriate possible telling for a man who chose simplicity, spoke and lived without elegance, and whose life still shines with holy glory.

Christmas Day in the Morning

Christmas Day

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

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

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

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

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

I Saw Three Ships

I Saw Three ShipsI Saw Three Ships
Elizabeth Goudge & Margot Tomes
David R. Godine, 1969

I have recently been introduced to the works of Elizabeth Goudge and suffice it to say that I have quickly become a loyal fan. My book group adored The Bird in the Tree this fall and if you have not yet read that masterful book, let me have the privilege of being the first to tell you to run out and get yourself a copy as soon as you can. Much to my delight, I discovered that Goudge wrote for children as well as adults, and when I saw earlier this month that one of them was Christmas themed I bought it on the spot.

I Saw Three Ships is a mere 60 pages long, but oh my, what a perfect tale to share with an older-elementary aged child at this time of year. (Stocking stuffer, perhaps?) In it we meet Polly, a young girl who lives in England with her two spinster aunts and whose spunk and determination keeps them on their toes. We meet the threesome just before Christmas, and in the opening pages Polly is trying to convince her aunts to leave the doors unlocked on Christmas Eve. She has always heard that if you do so, the three wise men might come in and visit. Being an adventuresome lass, she is eager for that to happen. Her aunts protest, saying that leaving the doors unlocked is simply not safe. And besides, that old tradition is just a legend. Here’s a snippet of conversations from page 10:

“The wise men might come,” said Polly. “Why not? Susan at the sweetshop told me that Christ Himself came to the West Country when He was a little boy.”

“That’s only a legend, dear,” said Dorcas.

“What’s a legend, Aunt?” asked Polly.

“A story whose truth cannot be proved,” said Dorcas.

“You can’t prove God,” said Polly.

As I’ve mulled over I Saw Three Ships during the past few days, I think that passage is at the crux of what Goudge is sharing with us through this story. We may not be able to prove God, it is true. But do you know what happens when we open ourselves up to childlike faith? Our eyes are opened. Opened to reality, opened to seeing people for who they really are, opened to joy. I’m not going to tell you much more about the plot because you’ll enjoy discovering it for yourself. This book is full of warmth and charm (and, yes, a bit of old-fashioned quirk) and wonderful for anyone age 8 and up.

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!

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.

Thoughts To Make Your Heart Sing

ThoughtsThoughts to Make Your Heart Sing
Sally Lloyd-Jones & Jago
Zonderkidz, 2012

I bought Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing – a devotional by Sally Lloyd-Jones released in 2012 – for my 6-year old daughter for Christmas. We’re big Sally Lloyd-Jones fans around here, and I figured I would definitely have a review of it up by January at the latest. But I’ve had trouble getting it written: mostly because I just love it so much, I’m having a hard time getting past “I LOVE IT. PLEASE GO BUY IT NOW. THE END.”

But that’s not responsible reviewing, now is it? And if we take anything seriously around here at Aslan’s Library, it’s writing recommendations that help parents understand why we think a book deserves precious space on their shelf and in their child’s life. I’m guessing an all-caps-gush doesn’t cut it. So here’s my best go. I will keep the capital letters and exclamation points to a minimum, I promise.

An honest confession: this is the first “devotional” format book I’ve actually liked and consistently read with my daughter. And I’ve sorted through a number of them. (If there is one out there that I am missing, or that you can’t believe I didn’t love, do let me know in the comments!) There are no corny, moralistic stories; unbelievable kids who end each episode by perfectly displaying some biblical virtue; or patently misapplied Scriptural verses (Jeremiah 29, anyone?). That’s what Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing isn’t.

What it is is a series of daily meditations, gorgeously illustrated, that invites children to know the goodness and majesty of God, and his love for his broken and beautiful creation. There’s deep theology at work in these short pieces: the already-not-yet character of faith; a thorough and multifaceted explanation of Jesus’ atonement for us; God’s covenant with his people and its fulfillment in Christ. I especially appreciate Ms. Lloyd-Jones’ treatment of sin: nowhere does she gloss over its reality, even in the hearts of our children. She’s frank in giving kids words to understand their own wayward hearts:

What is sin? Sin is trying to get away from God who loves us – it’s wanting to go our own way without him. But the Bible says it’s not like simply wandering off the path and getting lost by mistake. It’s like a horse charging at full speed away from him. We want to get away from God that badly! We are like horses galloping headlong after the things we want.

And yet every meditation on sin (and there are multiple: any good devotional takes note of its persistent reality and addresses it likewise!) includes God’s final word on it: he can lead us back; he kept the covenant on our behalf; in Jesus, God finished the power of sin, although it is still dying a slow and ugly death.

Another repeated emphasis I loved, and wished I had understood as a child, is that even faith itself is a gift. Any parent of an anxious child (and I was one) should bookmark “Believing and Doubting”:

But, someone is saying, what if I can’t believe enough?…Our strong God is the one who rescues us – not our strong faith. Because faith isn’t just you holding on to God. It’s God holding on to you.”

But as rich as these meditations are theologically, they are – more importantly – lively, accessible, and gracious. Each and every one is shot through the the joyful realization of God’s radical grace. For all of its depth, this book is not a theological treatise. It’s an exuberant invitation to to know, love and trust the God who wildly, heedlessly loves us first; to find ourselves amazed and overjoyed at being created, found, redeemed, and included in God’s life.

So there you go. And now, because I can’t resist: I LOVE IT. PLEASE GO BUY IT. THE END.

Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve
Gwendolyn Reed and Helen Siegl
Lothrop, Lee and Shephard, 1968

One of the pleasures of an afternoon library visit without my kids is the liberty to really peruse the shelves. Closely. Like sitting down in the aisle, and pulling volumes off one by one. Flipping through them, seeing what catches my eye, the way I did when I was a kid.

On my last visit, while looking for something else, I chanced across an older volume, simply titled Adam and Eve, with a fantastic woodcut print on the front. I had to pull it out: I love woodcuts. Something about woodcut prints puts me in mind of medieval altarpieces: the simple, almost primitive figures and lines are so charged with feeling and meaning. If you ever lose me in an art museum, just check the medieval rooms first, with all the stern Christ-babies and stiff Pietas; failing that, see if there’s a special woodcut exhibition happening. I’ll be in one of those rooms.

Anyhow, at first I was just going to glance through the illustrations and put it back. But as I read, I was charmed despite myself and decided I wanted to share it with all of you for inclusion in Aslan’s Library.

Why share it? Three things in particular, and they may be because this is an older book (published in 1968). In the first place, I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in Eden, with Adam and the animals. The Genesis story is one we’ve all heard a thousand times, close enough to know it by heart. Most of the time I hear it without seeing or sensing it at all. In fact, all of the creation books I’ve recommended in the past have grabbed me because they help me break through my familiarity and actually experience the story. Adam and Eve is no different. “Purple figs, golden apricots and peaches clustered under the green leaves” of the trees in Eden. A hawk circles; a flamingo balances; and “gazelles turned their great soft eyes toward Adam.”  It’s a fresh, attentive telling of paradise — Gwendolyn Reed is unabashed in using language that gives delight.

Secondly, the woodcuts. If woodcuts aren’t your thing — they’re kind of the antithesis of much children’s illustration today — give them a shot. They have a way of making a familiar story distant and strange, yet they are vibrant and full of life. Like I said: I can’t get enough of them. Helen Siegl’s are thoroughly compelling.

Lastly, the subtle expression of the story’s climax. This is one of the simplest but most nuanced retellings of Genesis 3 I’ve come across. There’s no attempt to explain it or place it in context; as in Scripture, the story is just told. Eve is overcome by the desire to be godlike. Adam joins her. They get their wish, and it ruins them: “Never could they walk in the shade of the great trees where Adam had talked with God. Always on their lips was the taste of the forbidden fruit. As well as joy they knew sorrow. In their lives they knew both good and evil.”

This isn’t a perfect book (I wasn’t nuts, for instance, about God blowing a soul into Adam, like he’s a water balloon) and it’s out of print, but it is absolutely worth tracking down. At last check, used copies were fairly inexpensive on Amazon, and major libraries ought to have copies available. You can also email the good folks at Hearts and Minds Books; they’re good at digging things up! If you do find it, let me know what you think. Especially about the woodcuts!