The Story of Christmas


The Story of Christmas
Jane Ray
Puffin, 1998

Lately my 3-year-old daughter and I have been reading everything our library has to offer by Jane Ray.  The Dollhouse Fairy and The Apple Pip Princess are more than delightful (they’re both on her current wish list) and several others that I haven’t seen yet look equally wonderful.  Her stories are incredibly captivating, and – lucky us! – she has also penned several theological books.  Sarah reviewed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden back in 2011, and today I want to share her version of the nativity story with you.

When you’re talking about Jane Ray, it’s hard to know whether to gush first about her storytelling or her artwork.  The Story of Christmas exclusively uses Scripture (KJV) as its text, though, so I’m afraid she doesn’t get the amazing storytelling credit for this one.  The artwork, however, is simply marvelous.  There’s a luminous quality about the images that somehow make this book (and all of her books, really) seem extra special.  There is so much to look at – and yet nothing detracts from the central storyline of the Messiah’s humble birth.  There is also a beautiful juxtaposition of holy and ordinary in many of the scenes.  Mary, for instance, is clearly someone special, but in nearly every scene after Jesus’ birth she is shown breastfeeding.  This depiction is particularly poignant for me as a nursing mama, and I often find myself wondering at the mystery of God incarnate: God was once a baby who needed his mother’s milk as often as my son needs mine.  Amazing.

One of the things I like best about this particular nativity book is that the story doesn’t stop at the birth of Jesus.  Jane Ray uses selected passages from the books of Matthew and Luke, starts at the Annunciation, and follows the biblical account all the way until Mary, Joseph, and Jesus return to Nazareth after their flight to Egypt.  Sometimes nativity stories have an almost fairy-tale like quality to them, but this book makes it clear that the story of Christ’s birth doesn’t start or stop with a baby in a manger.

The Story of Christmas may very well be my very favorite nativity picture book to date, and I hope you’ll be able to track down a copy to share with your family.  Sadly, it’s out of print and used copies aren’t cheap, so it might be a good one to hunt down at the library.  While you’re there, pick up some of Jane Ray’s other books and you’ll take home a treasure trove!


The Genesis of It All

The Genesis of It All
Luci Shaw, Sr. Huai-Kuang Miao & Sr. Mary Lane
Paraclete, 2006

Luci Shaw is a contemporary poet whose work is rich, highly regarded, and deeply spiritual. She writes for and serves on the board of Image (which I love); has published volumes of poetry, essays, and spiritual memoir; and co-authored a few books with the late great Madeleine L’Engle. In other words, she’s really cool. And she has written a beautiful children’s book about creation, The Genesis of It All.

I love books about creation, generally. Once we can imagine that this world was crafted by God, with love and care, the most mundane things are suffused with wonder and mystery. I love this book, in particular, because of its emphasis on God’s delight in what he creates, and its attentiveness to the creative process. God thinks, ponders, and imagines – and these thoughts become the reality we inhabit. God is “exhilarated” and “excited” as he thinks and speaks the world into existence. And throughout, this marvelous refrain is repeated: “It wasn’t easy, but God did it. It was a mystery, so we don’t know how it happened. We weren’t there to see.”

As they read The Genesis of It All, children can see a continuity with their own budding creative processes. Our ability to imagine and create comes from our Creator, and we mirror his image whenever we make. But there is a clear emphasis on the originality and power of God’s creation, and a welcome acceptance of the mystery of it all. It’s okay that we don’t know how this all came about. We can explore it scientifically, but we’ll never be able to prove anything about the origins of life. We weren’t there to see. But we’re here now, to rejoice in the glory of it all, and to marvel at the wonder.

Passover: Celebrating Now, Remembering Then

Passover-001Passover: Celebrating Now, Remembering Then

Harriet Ziefert and Karla Gudeon
Blue Apple Books, 2010

I feel like I should start this review with a disclaimer: I may not be the best person to write about today’s book!  It’s written from a Jewish perspective and includes many details about the traditional Passover Seder… and I’m neither Jewish nor have I ever attended a Seder meal.

If that confession doesn’t make you unsubscribe to this blog immediately (thank you!), let me just say that one of the reasons I have enjoyed reading Passover the past few weeks is precisely because some of its subject matter is new to me.  I know the biblical story of the Passover, of course, but like most Christians I am much more familiar with the celebration of Good Friday and Easter Sunday than I am with the observation of Passover.

Whether you’re like me in your ignorance about Passover or whether you know all there is to know about it, I commend this book to you equally.  In it, Harriet Ziefert weaves together parallel accounts of the biblical Exodus story and the way that Jews have traditionally observed it for hundreds of years.  Each spread tells one piece of the biblical story and then shows how it’s represented in a certain part of the Seder.

Christians will find much to love about this book.  For one, Ziefert’s telling of the Exodus is faithful to the biblical account, and because of the significant theological parallels between Passover and Good Friday, it would behoove us to know the Passover story well.  Secondly, as someone who is very interested in liturgy and passing on faith traditions to the next generation, I loved reading about the rich Jewish traditions surrounding the Passover holiday and how children are incorporated into them.  Best of all, this is a story that is well told, creatively presented, and beautifully illustrated.

Passover, of course, falls during the same week as Easter – Jesus was in Jerusalem celebrating Passover the week he was crucified.  For this reason, Passover is a fantastic book choice during Lent.  I’m hard pressed to think of a better way to prepare to observe Holy Week than to look back at the events of the Exodus, when God saved his people by the blood of lambs in a foreshadowing of how he would later save them by the blood of the Lamb.

The Jesus Storybook Bible

Jesus Storybook BibleThe Jesus Storybook Bible

Sally Lloyd-Jones and Jago
Zonderkidz, 2007

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to write this review. We’ve had a copy of The Jesus Storybook Bible since my (now 5-year-old) daughter was two, and she and I have read it from cover to cover at least twice. I guess I’m just wary of recommending story Bibles in general (not that it’s stopped me before!), because none is theologically sufficient on its own. It’s probably best to own a couple – in our house, it’s the JSB and The Big Picture Story Bible) – and let them complement one another, with lots of actual Scripture being read alongside. But I want to go on record and apologize for not including this book in Aslan’s Library sooner. I’ve planned to, ever since we started the blog. And I’d love to see others get their hands on this little gem.

I was won over the first time I picked it up and read, on the very second page, “But the Bible isn’t mainly about you and what you should be doing. It’s about God and what he has done.” Each story recounted in the JSB emphasizes what God is doing at that moment, as well as how each episode reflects God’s ongoing work of redemption that will culminate in Jesus. I especially love how Sally Lloyd-Jones honors the real history that happens in the Old Testament, and still captures the provisional, waiting, not-yet-fulfilled sense of longing that pervades Israel’s story.

The overarching metaphor is that God is telling a Story, and – joyfully! – it is a true fairy tale in which the Prince rescues his beloved and takes her home.  If that sounds too squishy or romantic to you, bear in mind just how stern and dangerous the best fairy tales and fantasies are. This is not a Disneyfied Jesus. In fact, I think “story” is a great metaphor for children to work with. They intuitively love a good story and know how stories work; small children are also especially good at imagining themselves in stories. And that’s the life of discipleship, really: waking up from our slumber to find that we’re in God’s story, and we had better figure out our part.

While the theological emphasis is tight and focused, the prose maintains a loose, breezy tone. It’s really best for reading aloud, I’ve found: most of the stories are told in a witty, conversational tone that adapts well to a parent willing to get into it. The account of the Crucifixion is somber, rich, and moving. And honestly? The scene when Jesus arrives in the Upper Room after his resurrection is worth the price of the book. (“I’m hungry,” Jesus said. “What’s for lunch?”) I really appreciate Ms. Lloyd-Jones’ ability to capture how the Biblical story moves from the tragic to the comic to the utterly joyful.

This would be a fabulous little book to pick up with your child during Lent, since every story looks forward to when Jesus will finally come and make things right. It captures the hope of the season well: God is active now, and God is coming to rescue us.

A quick note on usage: my daughter and I began reading the JSB out loud when she was about 3 1/2. She was too small, really. So for a year or so, we mostly read The Big Picture Story Bible, which I adore. She’s 5 now, and can read The Big Picture Story Bible to herself.  The JSB is now our primary read-aloud alongside narrative passages of Scripture and a children’s psalter. While the illustrations are fabulous, it’s got pretty long sections of text, so if your child has trouble sitting for long stretches you might want to wait. Most children will need to be strong middle grade readers to read it alone.

In Your Own Words

A couple of weeks ago I had a wonderful conversation with a friend about what kinds of theological books work well with 2 1/2 year olds.  I mentioned that we weren’t having luck yet with The Big Picture Story Bible and I was wondering if she had any suggestions for Bible story books that resonated with her three children when they were my daughter’s current age.

She reminded me of Read Aloud Bible Stories (which, for some odd reason, I hadn’t yet introduced), but then the conversation turned from the topic of books to the topic of storytelling.  My friend suggested, especially at this young age, not relying exclusively on books to teach children the stories of the Bible.  Instead, she encouraged me to tell my daughter Bible stories in my own words.

My first reaction was theological anxiety: what if I got it wrong?!  I wouldn’t want to mess up my daughter’s understanding of God just because my own biblical literacy isn’t quite up to par with that of a professional scholar.  From my perspective, one of the beauties of books is that I can pre-read them and give them some thought before sharing them.  If the book is a winner, I can just sit down and (without worry) enjoy the reading experience with my daughter.  Telling Bible stories in my own words seems like it would require accuracy in and depth of biblical knowledge – not to mention quite a bit of skill in the art of storytelling.

Or does it?

When I related my worries to my friend, she said I had misunderstood her suggestion.   She didn’t want me to think about telling Bible stories in my own words as formal theological education at all.  Instead, she was encouraging me to share my love of God to my daughter directly from my heart to hers.  She was encouraging me to tell her in my own words what it is about Jesus that moves me and makes me want to follow him.  “What do you love about Jesus?” she asked me.  “What do you think of when you think of  him?”  Those are the kinds of storytelling prompts that she thinks are most helpful.

The more that I think about this conversation, the more I’m convinced that my friend is right.  After all, we can’t theologically educate anyone into the Kingdom.  Following Christ isn’t just about believing all the right things in your mind.  Your heart has to be inclined to the beauty of the Trinity, too, and letting children catch a glimpse of what that looks like in your life has got to be one of the best ways to inspire that trait in them.   (Well, that and a lot of prayer!)  It’s not that right theology doesn’t matter; not at all.  It’s just that if we start to think about Christian education just in terms of a transfer of theological facts, we’re probably veering off course just a bit.

If any of you have experience in storytelling with your kids (particularly in reference to spiritual things), please comment and share your wisdom with us!  Once I’ve gotten more practice in it I’ll be sure to report back, but I’d love to learn from you all.  I’m particularly curious about any differences in children’s responses or follow-up discussions to reading Bible storybooks than to hearing you speak in your own words from your heart.

Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden

Adam and Eve-001Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden

Jane Ray
Eerdmans, 2005

Hooray for the California Library Link+ system! We arrived home from 3 weeks in Minnesota last Monday, and waiting for me on our library’s hold shelf was a wonderful stack of books from within the San Francisco public library system and around the state. Schools like Azusa Pacific and Biola are part of the system, which means great access to theological books for me – kidlit and grownup alike.

Traveling to me up the peninsula from Mountain View was a lovely, lovely picture book: Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. Maybe I’m alone in this, but I find telling the story of the Fall rather tricky. There’s so much I want to emphasize: humanity’s created goodness; our sole responsibility for the Fall; God’s foreknowledge and eternal provision for sin; God’s simultaneous anger at sin and protective love for his creatures; and most importantly, the way this story already points towards God’s triune character and personal involvement in undoing the effects of sin in the world. Way, way too much for a picture book, right?

Well, yes. But Jane Ray’s account manages to both tell the story simply and faithfully, without piling on too much theological interpretation for little ones, while at the same time hinting at the richness that lies beneath. And she does this primarily through the remarkable illustrations.

The narrative itself is a pretty straightforward account of Genesis 2 and 3. But each moment in the story is beautifully, meditatively illustrated – and the illustrations tell deeper parts of the story, evoking rather than spelling out some of its beauty and mystery. For instance, Adam is simply naked and unadorned – until the creation of Eve. In the pages that follow her creation, the two of them wear garlands in their hair and have decorative patterns painted on their bodies. The created relationship between men and women adorns, beautifies, and complements each. Likewise, when Adam and Eve are sent out of the garden to till the ground, they are shown working together on an orderly, beautiful plot of land. Angels hover overhead, suggesting God’s ongoing provision and common grace – the possibility of some flourishing outside of Eden. Look closer, though, and you notice that under the ground are a buried corpse and scattered bones. Outside of Eden, death is built into earth’s productivity. As buried things decompose, the soil is enriched. It’s a point worth meditating on.

Of course, these illustrations are merely hints and suggestions. And that’s what I appreciate. Rather than delivering children a heavy exegesis of Genesis 2 and 3, Ms. Ray has drawn the story in a way that lets it tell itself. It’s a wonderful example of a beautiful children’s book that tells the truth in and through its beauty.

Noah’s Ark

Noah's Ark

Noah’s Ark
Jerry Pinkney
Chronicle Books, 2002

As we’ve mentioned before, “the Noah problem” has become shorthand around Aslan’s Library for an all-too-common pitfall in Christian kidlit: Bible story books that completely miss the point. It’s pretty difficult to find a flood-story picture book that echoes the gravity of the biblical narrative. (After all: this is a story about the near-annihilation of the human race!) So, honestly, I didn’t expect we’d ever review a picture book on this one. Some stories just live best in the Bible.

But I was browsing at the library a week or so ago, and came across two versions that merited a second look. The first, a Caldecott-winner by Peter Spier, is a wordless retelling; overall, I liked it. His art is great fun to look at (if you don’t have a copy of People, it’s worth tracking down) and really engaging. But the book that earns a spot on the shelf at Aslan’s Library is Jerry Pinkney’s Noah’s Ark (a Caldecott Honor book).

While I liked both volumes, one thing in particular won me to Pinkney’s book: its beautiful portrayal of how God shelters creation on a wooden ark even as he wipes it away everywhere else. The gorgeous illustrations are accompanied by a simple retelling. Combined, they evoke God’s delivering work throughout Scripture: a faithful human (or group of humans) is entrusted with the care and husbanding of creation, the preservation of God’s good work, even in the midst of destruction and judgment.

Here is is Noah, calling the animals and caring for them on the ark. Later in Scripture we see the Israelites forming a new community, complete with laws about their neighbors’ oxen, out in the desert; the exiled Jews sitting on the banks of the river in Babylon and singing songs of the land they hope to farm once again; Jesus, feeding his friends on the night before his death and the morning of their post-resurrection meeting. The massive scope of God’s rescue of creation lives side by side, in Scripture, with the call for humans to care for it in the most mundane ways: feeding animals, tilling the earth, feeding each other.

Of course, none of this is explicit in Noah’s Ark. It is simply a beautiful account that manages to capture a theme running all through Scripture. The story of the flood, after all, is a story of judgment and renewal; it’s a story of one man shepherding God’s creation through destruction, and God’s covenant with him to continue that trust for all time. Noah’s Ark is a picture book that gets the story right, and with beauty to spare.


Brian Wildsmith
Eerdmans, 1997

Some of you may remember that I love Brian Wildsmith’s work. My first encounter with it, actually, was last summer at our lake home – Haley’s niece asked me to read her Joseph one lazy, hot early evening. Together we admired the pictures, and then got into an involved discussion about Joseph’s tactics with his brothers: why did he send them back, but keep Benjamin behind? Why did he hide the silver cup in their things? And my easy assurance with the story wilted rather quickly under the intense perplexity of a 6 1/2 year old. We finally had to track down her grandfather, a pastor, to help us out.

Certain Bible stories crop up again and and again in childrens’ picture books (Noah’s Ark, anyone?), while others don’t lend themselves as easily to cartoonish illustrations and smiling animals. (Of course, by now, you probably know how we at Aslan’s Library feel about such things.) But my experience last summer reminded me that while children are diverted by “kid-friendly” re-tellings, they are genuinely engaged by truth well and beautifully told.

As with Exodus, Brian Wildsmith gives a straightforward retelling of the Biblical narrative in his account of Joseph. Again, he eschews the temptation to focus on the sensational bits – the coat of many colors, Potiphar’s wife – and simply, soberly recounts the story in all its tragedy, strangeness, and beauty. What we remember after reading this book isn’t the coat; it’s Joseph’s giftedness in interpreting dreams, and his tortured but ultimately redeemed encounter with his brothers. In other words, it’s God at work in Joseph’s life.

One particular thing I like about this volume: the illustrations of Egypt are so similar to those in Exodus. My daughter loves Exodus, and I know she’ll notice the similarities. It’ll be a great opportunity to talk about the stories as bookends: in Joseph, God’s people are providentially led into Egypt (as was Jesus!) for deliverance from famine ; Exodus is the story of God’s deliverance from slavery in the very same Egypt. God’s ultimate kingship and provision for his people stretches above both stories and binds them together. It’s nice to have two volumes, both worthy of closely poring over, to help reinforce the theological connection between the stories.

To Everything There Is a Season

To Everything There Is a Season
Jude Daly
Eerdmans, 2006

Less than a month ago I told Sarah that I was giving up on picture books about Ecclesiastes.  I had read several and was, to be frank, astonished at how some illustrators chose to depict certain verses.  But here I am a few weeks later and guess what?  I found an Ecclesiastes book that I like!

Jude Daly’s To Everything There Is a Season pairs Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 with beautiful illustrations of rural South Africa.  A farming family’s day to day life is the backdrop for the text.  A sense of continuity runs through the pages, conveying that our lives are made up of different seasons but somehow it all comes together into one story.  There are sorrows, yes, but everything (as the Scripture says) has a season.  Our sorrows and all that is wrong with the world won’t last forever.

Even so, you might be thinking, isn’t Ecclesiastes 3 a bit too… difficult?  scary?  unsettling?  That’s a fair question.  Let me back up a bit and tell you why I think it’s not.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with Maurice Sendak’s picture book Where the Wild Things Are.  But did you know that when it first came out, many parents were vehemently opposed to it?  Walter Wangerin Jr. tells the story in an essay in Swallowing the Golden Stone:

They believed it would damage the children, implanting frights and fears in innocent brains, inspiring nightmares.  Sleep?  Sendak hath murdered sleep.

As it turns out, of course, the book became a classic.  Why?

Because the book was right… Far from inaugurating fears in children, such books as his gave a habitation and a name to fears the children already experienced, but amorphously, perplexedly.  One of the most important commandments for the creation of an effective children’s tale is: thou shalt not condescend!

The text of Ecclesiastes 3 is challenging, to be sure, and children and parents alike will have to grapple with its meaning.  But like Where the Wild Things Are (more so, actually!) this book is right, which makes it worth reading.  My hunch is that if our children already have a real life context for what it means that there is a time to be born and a time to die (for instance) we don’t need to worry that it will be too much for them to handle.  Actually, it might be comforting to them to know that the Bible doesn’t ignore pain, sadness, and other difficult issues.  And that their parents won’t either.

Think carefully before sharing this book with your children and be prepared for lots and lots of questions.  It’s not for everyone – there are certainly some children who are too young or inexperienced to grasp it – but don’t avoid To Everything There Is a Season just because it brings up topics that aren’t easily explained.  Let us not, as Wangerin implores us, condescend to our children by only giving them books that are all rainbows and butterflies.



Brian Wildsmith
Eerdmans, 1998

I think the story of the Exodus is, hands down, one of the most exciting in the Bible. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most familiar – so much so, that we often lose sight of the drama when we come back to it. But there’s a reason it is the archetype that is invoked over and over again in Scripture to tell us about the kind of God we worship. From Moses in the bulrushes, to Sinai, to the people of Israel laying Moses in his grave, it is God’s massive, dramatic, salvific action for his people. Of course the events of Holy Week coincide with Passover. Of course Jesus is identified as the lamb of God. Of course he teaches like Moses on the mountaintop. If we want to understand who God is in Jesus – and to appreciate the drama of the Incarnation – we have to allow ourselves to get swept up in the excitement of the Exodus.

Thank heaven for Brian Wildsmith’s gorgeous retelling. The story is simply told, from the discovery of Moses in the rush basket all the way to Joshua’s assumption of leadership. Rather than simply focusing (as so many children’s books do) on the “exciting parts” — the plagues, crossing the Red Sea — Wildsmith wisely follows the Scriptural narrative. The killing of the Egyptian guard, the waters of Meribah, the golden calf, manna and quail and pillars of fire and smoke: they’re all there. The happy result is that we feel the weight of the entire drama as it plays out over Moses’ lifetime.

And the illustrations. Oh, the illustrations. This is a book you can pore over. It is beautiful. The pictures are detailed and sweeping all at once, so that you can stare at the hieroglyphs in Pharoah’s palace and be stunned by the massive wave of Hebrews crossing the Red Sea. If you’re familiar with Brian Wildsmith’s work, you know what I mean. If not, you owe it to yourself to check it out. He has also managed to create my favorite-ever depiction of God in the burning bush and on Sinai. How does one draw the God who has no image, you might ask? Turn to page 8 and find out.

This is the sort of book that is lovely to give as a gift. The jacket and printing are handsome, and would look just right in an Easter basket. That said, I plan on reading it with my daughter during Holy Week, and talking about the connections between Passover and Easter. Though there is no explicit mention of Jesus -obviously – this is nevertheless an excellent Lenten book. The God of the Exodus is Jesus’ God (my daughter pointed to the pillar of smoke and said, “Jesus is hiding in there!”), and this book offers a beautiful way to explore the resonances between God’s action in the Sinai desert and his action in Jerusalem 2000 years ago.