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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

Noah and the Ark

Noah and the Ark
Pauline Baynes
Holt, 1988

Really? Do we need another Noah’s Ark book? Maybe you don’t. But I’m always looking for books that tell the old stories faithfully – and while I love Peter Spiers’ version, sometimes I don’t really feel up to a wordless book. Pauline Baynes’ version, with its engrossing illustrations and text from the Revised Standard Version, fits those days perfectly.

The most remarkable thing about Noah and the Ark is, of course, the illustrations. You can just sit and pore over them – they’re that engrossing, full of fascinating little details. (Can you find the seasick person on the ark?) The animals are vivid, in motion, wild – and yet willing to be shepherded onto the ark. When they burst out at the end, you can feel the pent-up energy and sheer joy of encountering dry land again. Noah offers a burnt sacrifice, and as his family gives praise to God, it’s unclear which emotion dominates: thanksgiving for deliverance, or the creature’s awed beseeching of the Creator never to undo his work again. When the sign in the heavens comes on the last page, the grace is palpable.

And be warned: this book illustrates the true story. No Noah Problem here. As the waters rise, people cluster on hillocks, pleading with the sky. The animals left behind flee to the treetops in terror. And bodies are floating all around, while the Ark floats impassively nearby. It’s a sober and solemn vision, but it’s the Biblical one. This is a book of true pictures: on the days when I feel up to it, even with the Biblical text, I just might read it as a wordless book.

NB: This book is out of print as well, so the usual advice about buying used, emailing Hearts and Minds, and hitting up the library stands.