Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland

PatrickPatrick: Patron Saint of Ireland
Tomie de Paola
Holiday House, 1992

We were driving out of the city on Saturday, and had to pick up my husband on the way. He texted me to get him at the corner of Octavia and Page, then sent a series of texts with revised pickup points because he kept running into the St Patrick’s Day Parade which was apparently impossible to maneuver around. On our way back into town at the end of the day, passing a car full of noisy green-bedecked revelers, he said, ruefully, “Be careful: the streets of San Francisco are full of drunk twenty-somethings right now.”

After feeling enormously old for a few seconds (I am no longer close to being considered a twenty-something, and was mostly annoyed at the people blocking traffic between me and my pajamas), I thought about how disconnected most celebrations of St Patrick’s Day are from the actual life of the saint. In fact, I kind of doubt most people at that parade even knew why we celebrate St Patrick’s Day, except as an excuse to drink revoltingly green beer in public. Which is why I have taken it on myself to make sure my kids know about this marvelous man and why we bother to set aside a day in his remembrance.

In fact, as I pulled out Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland at snack time today, both of my kids protested “Mom! You’ve read this to us before!” (They were hoping for the next chapter of On the Banks of Plum Creek. Sorry, guys. Mom’s theological agenda prevails.) But, in our family at least, there’s something magical about Tomie dePaola’s illustrations: they never cease to captivate. And everyone settled in for the read.

I love this book. I love the illustrations, and I love the story. Patrick is kidnapped as a young man, enslaved in Ireland, and spends his cold and desolate days as a shepherd in prayer. He escapes with God’s help (and the help of some loud dogs), and then returns to Ireland – to bring the gospel to his oppressors – in obedience to God’s call. It’s a beautiful story, told simply and with heart, and it firmly, patiently reminds us that all of our cultural celebration of Ireland on March 17 has to go back to the man who loved God so dearly that he gave his whole life to that island and its people.

And a bonus (for us Protestants, at least): dePaola has separated the historically chronicled events of Patrick’s life from the legends that grew up around him later, and presents those clearly AS legends. Which are interesting, and illuminating, and helpful in understanding why people would love Patrick so much…but which are, for all that, simply legends. I’m grateful for the separation, and for this book. Happy Saint Patrick’s Day to you all!


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.

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!

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom

MosesMoses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom
Carole Boston Weatherford & Kadir Nelson
Hyperion, 2006

This review is a little late for Martin Luther King Jr. Day (which was yesterday), but that doesn’t mean you should wait another year before tracking this wonderful book down. I happened to stumble upon it in the MLK Jr. display at the San Francisco Central Library, and was so delighted that I sat down and read the whole thing right there. And took it home to share with my kids, as well.

Moses is a re-telling of Harriet Tubman’s first flight to freedom, and her eventual resolve to save as many fellow enslaved African Americans as possible. Her story is profoundly moving, and there are a number of good biographies (picture and otherwise) out there. Two things set this marvelous picture book apart, however.

In the first place, Harriet’s entire journey hangs on the frame of an ongoing conversation with God. Harriet speaks to God, and God speaks right back. He gives her His mandate for her freedom (“I set the North Star in the heavens, and I mean for you to be free”) and helps her minutely along the way. Her superhuman courage and conviction are revealed to be just that:

And Harriet heeds God’s call, goes south again and again, keeps her bands of runaways moving – come storms and rough country – clear to Canada: Canaanland. And when free souls sing her praises, she gives glory where it is due. It wasn’t me. It was the Lord. I always trust Him to lead me, and He always does.

My daughter is in kindergarten this year, and this month she is hearing about Dr Martin Luther King, Jr in school. She’s getting her first introduction to the tragic sin of racism that has festered at our nation’s heart since its inception. I’m so grateful to have happened upon a book that testifies to God’s heart at a real moment in history. In the middle of the evil system of human enslavement, God was resolutely on the side of justice and liberation, and his mighty work was channeled through a powerless slave woman. If this is the history of how God acts, what can we say about his heart today towards the millions who are enslaved and trafficked around the world?

The second thing that instantly won me to this book is the artwork by Kadir Nelson. We’ve reviewed another of his books, and the more time I spend with his work, the more I love it. There is so much soul and life and rich emotion in Harriet’s face, and always a soft light shining upon it – or more accurately, from within it. He may not be Rembrandt, but I can’t help thinking he’s learned a bit about the use of light from the Master. Nowhere in the book – except for her first day in Philadelphia – does Harriet look happy, but in every portrait she looks grimly, fiercely committed, alive, and beautiful.

I love that this book’s story is so deeply theological and Incarnational. God acted, and continues to act in history, and his pattern is uncomfortably plain: pouring himself into what is weak and broken in order to act mightily on its behalf. He did it for all of humanity in Jesus, and in a smaller way he did it for a group of cruelly enslaved human beings in the life of Harriet Tubman. As our children grow, and become increasingly able to understand this truth, I hope that books like this will ask them: how does God want to work in you?

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa
Margeret K. McElderry Books, 2005

For those of us who grew up in the closing years of the twentieth century, Mother Teresa is something of an icon. She stands for everything that is saintly, good, and – well, all too often, unattainable. “What do you expect,” I remember friends in high school saying. “I’m not Mother Teresa!” She’s one of those rare public Christians that nearly everyone can agree on: she is a Good Guy, a sort of secular saint.

Except that there is nothing remotely secular about her.

All we do is for Jesus,’ Teresa said to the Missionaries of Charity. ‘We are first of all religious. We are not social workers, teachers, nurses, or doctors. We are religious sisters. We serve Jesus in the poor, we nurse Him, feed Him, clothe Him, visit Him, and comfort Him in the poor, the abandoned, the sick, the orphans, and the dying. All we do – our prayer, our work, our suffering – is for Jesus. Our life has no other reason or motivation.’ “

Mother Teresa, an illustrated biography by noted author-illustrator Demi, makes the central focus of her ministry plain. Mother Teresa’s call, her obedience, the miracles she witnessed, and the astounding work God did through her are all recounted in detail; yet Demi allows the diminutive nun herself to speak throughout – and Mother Teresa could never speak of her work without speaking about who it was for: Jesus.

Although this is a picture book, it is really closer to a middle-grade reading level: there are lots of dates, facts, and details about Mother Teresa’s work, life in India, and the Missionaries of Charity. I was fairly familiar with her life story, having read Malcolm Muggeridge’s Something Beautiful For God. Nevertheless, I found this book particularly affecting and inspiring. The enormity and beauty of her work are on display alongside her humility and simplicity. Each page includes a quotation from Mother Teresa, a prayer she has composed, or a passage of Scripture. The illustrations are tender yet reverent: my favorite is one of Mother Teresa praying, face in hands, as Jesus looks quietly on her back.

(I found this picture especially poignant, given what we know now about Mother Teresa’s ongoing faithfulness through a lifelong dark night of the soul.)

Protestant readers, be aware: Mother Teresa was a faithful daughter of the Roman Catholic church, and the Missionaries of Charity are a Catholic order. The end of the book contains a detailed account of her process towards sainthood, and yes, there’s a picture of Pope John Paul II smiling from the back cover with his apostolic blessing for the book. Don’t let that deter you. You’d miss a wonderful opportunity to introduce kids to an ecumenical experience, in which we see God powerfully at work across confessions and man-made divisions.

Caedmon’s Song

Caedmon’s Song
Ruth Ashby and Bill Slavin
Eerdmans, 2006

For those of us who aren’t literature majors, a brief biographical note: Caedmon was a herdsman for the abbey at Whitby in mid- to late-seventh century England. He is also counted as the first recorded English poet. His transformation from ordinary, tongue-tied herdsman to one gifted by God to sing is the story of Caedmon’s Song.

Ruth Ashby’s account of Caedmon’s life is tender and joyous. Like most other men he knew, Caedmon “liked warm fires in the winter and cool drinks in the summer. The crow of the cock at dawn and the chime of church bells at twilight. Honeyed apples and smoked ham. Caedmon liked all the things his friends liked. Only one thing made him different. Caedmon hated poetry.”

When everyone gathered in the evenings to sing sagas and tell of long-ago battles, Caedmon dreaded his turn. He would stand to sing, but nothing would come out. One day, exasperated with himself and with poetry, he flees to the cowshed and has a dream. In this dream, a nameless man exhorts him to sing of what he knows – and instead of monsters and battles, kings and conquest, Caedmon sings of the glory of God’s creation. When he wakes and shares his song, everyone agrees that it is a miraculous gift, and the herdsman becomes a monk, composing songs of praise for the abbey.

This is such a warm, lovely story, with great illustrations of medieval England. I especially love its celebration of poetry and song as gifts from God – rather than merely human creations offered to God. Caedmon becomes a poet by God’s work in him, and this too is a kind of holy calling. Children need to be reminded that all talents – not just overtly “religious” things like cross-cultural missions or visible acts of charity – are divinely given, graciously and for God’s glory. And that even a simple gift like that of beautiful words bestowed on a humble herdsman, is a miracle that echoes the great Miracle of creation.

Eric Liddell: Something Greater Than Gold

Eric Liddell: Something Greater Than Gold
Janet & Geoff Benge
YWAM Publishing, 1998

I’m not much of a sports fan, but I do know that humility is not one of the most common character traits among today’s star athletes.  The more typical proud swagger and I’m-so-awesome attitude has become so synonymous to me with sports that reading the story of Eric Liddell sort of seemed unreal.  Given the current sports culture (in the US, at least), it’s rather difficult to believe that a humble, soft-spoken, fame-resistant man was at one time Scotland’s most beloved and famous athlete.  But he was!

If you’ve seen Chariots of Fire, as I’m sure many of you have, you’re already familiar with Eric Liddell – but the story of his life after winning Olympic gold is just as important to tell as the story of the most famous years of his life.  Eric Liddell: Something Greater Than Gold recounts his remarkable athletic career, yes, but it does so in a way that I think Eric would be pleased with.  Less than half of the book is spent on his rise to fame as a runner; the first few chapters tell the story of his childhood and at page 75 the focus switches to his life as a missionary in China.  Eric never thought that his career as a runner would be the only focus of his life, and it’s not the only focus of this biography, either.  I’m not going to spoil the story for you, but suffice it to say that the second half of the book contains just as much action as the first half!

I said this when I reviewed the Benges’ book on Corrie Ten Boom, but I’ll say it again: children should read biographies.  Our kids need to grow up hearing the stories of people like Eric Liddell, people whose faith in Christ grounds them and guides them more than the desire for money or fame or world-class talent or any other thing that doesn’t ultimately satisfy.  Biographies allow our sons and daughter to make friends and rub shoulders with people who can be their lifelong heroes.  Whether your children are sports minded or not, consider introducing them to the ordinary/extraordinary man of Eric Liddell.

(For those with sensitive children, please note that this book includes descriptions of war, prison camps, and death.)

Peril and Peace: Chronicles of the Ancient Church

Peril and Peace:Chronicles of the Ancient Church
History Lives, Volume 1

Mindy & Brandon Withrow
Christian Focus Publications, 2005

More than once, Haley and I have had the same experience. We see a book, we love the idea, and we think to ourselves somewhat fearfully, “I really hope this works.” Strangely enough, my own excitement about a book’s potential can actually keep me from reading it – because what if the author just didn’t pull it off? Better not to risk the disappointment.

That skittishness actually kept me from finishing this week’s book, Peril and Peace: Chronicles of the Ancient Church for over a year. Haley gave it to me last May right after my son was born, and it seemed like such a brilliant and necessary piece of theological kidlit – with so much potential to go terribly, horribly wrong. But at long last, I’m happy to report that this is a book well worth reading with middle-grade and early teenage readers. I wish something like this had been around when I was in middle school.

Briefly, this is the first book in Mindy and Brandon Withrow’s History Lives series. There are five volumes total, chronicling church history through the lives of major figures. In addition to the biographical chapters that tell the stories of the church Fathers, volume 1 includes short explanatory essays on the worship of the ancient church, the creeds, and the compilation of the biblical canon. The whole thing is written in breezy, action-packed prose – intended, I suppose, to make the ancient church figures more approachable.

I have to admit, I didn’t love that aspect of the book. While I admire the Withrows’ intention to show 21st-century readers their essential connectedness to the early church (which many of us tragically ignore), I highly doubt that Gregory of Nyssa ever described a Roman imperial prefect urging him to Arianism as a “bully!”

In fact, the church Fathers would likely have a hard time recognizing much of evangelical Christianity today – and as we encounter them, it’s worth preserving a sense of the distance between us. I think it’s valuable to keep in view both legitimate theological differences as well as (sadly) the theological shallowness foreign to the Fathers but so endemic to us. (Honestly: there were city-wide riots in Alexandria over the Arian controversy. When theological controversy erupts now, we just tweet at each other.)

That’s a minor quibble, though.  These stories are a wonderful introduction to the giants of our faith. I read many of the martyr accounts during Holy Week and was incredibly moved by how these men and women literally staked their lives on a story we’ve somehow domesticated with fuzzy chicks and chocolate bunnies.

I didn’t learn much about church history – and certainly nothing before the Reformation – until I was in college. When I finally did, I found the faith I professed to be much richer, more complex, and frankly more interesting than I had ever suspected. The Withnows’ book is historically solid (just check the bibliography at the end!) and clearly animated by a love for the saints who have gone before. I think I won’t be waiting another year to read the next one.

Corrie Ten Boom: Keeper of the Angels’ Den

Corrie Ten Boom: Keeper of the Angels’ Den
Janet & Geoff Benge
YWAM Publishing, 1998

A few weeks ago Sarah and I visited her daughter’s school library and scoured the shelves for books that we might want to review here.  At one point we strayed from the theology section to the biography section because we’d like to build up a nice collection of middle grade biographies that we recommend.

After a brief discussion we decided that Corrie Ten Boom might be a good starting point.  The only problem was that there were four separate youth biographies about her on the shelves!  I added all four to my stack to check out, thinking that I’d read a chapter or two of each one to see which author I thought was the best.

A few days later I set out on my task.  I settled down with all of the books during my daughter’s naptime and read the opening chapter in the first three titles.  Honestly, most of them were perfectly fine.  Corrie Ten Boom’s life story is remarkable no matter how you construct the prose!  But after I picked up Corrie Ten Boom: Keeper of the Angels’ Den, which is part of the Christian Heroes Then and Now series, I was at chapter five before I even looked up.  I had found my winner.

Most of you are probably familiar with Corrie Ten Boom’s life.  During the Holocaust she, along with her father and sisters (whom she lived with as an adult), provided refuge for Dutch Jews in their home because of their Christian faith.  Their secret room was so well hidden that the Jews survived a Gestapo raid – but Corrie and her family ended up in concentration camps because of their bold stance.  Several of her family members died in the camps, but Corrie survived.

Throughout her time in the camps, Corrie refused to give in to despair because of her deeply held conviction that “There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.”  That may sound like a truism to those of us who have not suffered much, but after reading about what Corrie endured you will be amazed that she proclaimed that message even in the death camps.  Not only did she believe it, she also lived it out by trying to give hope to her fellow prisoners through small acts of kindness, prayer, and Scripture.  In a situation when most people would be consumed with their own survival, she wanted to help others.

Janet and Geoff Benge’s account of Corrie Ten Boom’s faithfulness to God and neighbor during the darkest of times is well worth reading.  Our children need to grow up hearing stories like this one, stories that will vividly demonstrate for them what it means to know the depths Christ’s love and follow him no matter the cost.  It’s not a fun story to read, but it is an important one.  Through this book Corrie might even become a friend to our children and sustain them during times when they need a glorious example of standing firm in the faith.

Because of the subject matter, this book is best reserved for older children who are already familiar with this atrocious period in history.