Hero Tales

Hero Tales
Dave & Neta Jackson
Bethany House, 1996

When my husband and I were engaged, he was in graduate school and living with Haley’s in-laws. I was still in college nearby, and would drive up occasionally and stay with their family for the weekend. After dinner together, we would sit together around the table and listen to a chapter from a book; those that I remember are from missionary biographies. During that season of life, of course, I was full of plans for my own soon-to-be formed family, and it definitely included adopting this tradition.

Happily, my own daughter is just now reaching the age where this is feasible – although reading a long or in-depth chapter book is still a few years away. But Dave and Neta Jackson’s Hero Tales is just right for beginning to share the stories of heroic Christians with preschool and early elementary aged children.

The book tells the stories of fifteen Christians who lived their faith heroically. Many were missionaries, and all were evangelists, in the sense that they devoted their lives to spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. Reformers (Luther, Tyndale, Menno Simons), opponents of poverty and oppression (William & Catherine Booth, Harriet Tubman), foreign missionaries (Gladys Aylward, Adoniram & Ann Judson, Hudson Taylor) and bold preachers (Wesley, Moody) are all represented. Each receives a brief biographical summary, and then three short stories from their life each illustrate a character trait that God used for his Kingdom.

The stories are brief and simply told, making them suitable for younger children – say, ages 4 to 8. And they don’t feel contrived to merely illustrate some heroic trait; they genuinely commend the humility, boldness, sacrifice, patience, and joy that these men and women embodied. Simple as the stories were, I was moved and inspired by many of them.

My only quibble with the book is really a by-product of its intended audience. That is, some of the treatment struck me as over-simple, especially the account of Martin Luther. I’m concerned that the portrayal of the the Catholic church – while essentially accurate – could contribute to the common Protestant misperception that it was a godless, superstitious place. The truth of the matter is of course much more complex: godlessness, cynicism and superstition resided alongside real piety and holiness. And that’s probably too much to try and show to a 4 or 5 year old in just a page and a half. But be aware: you probably don’t want this account to be the only or last your child hears.

Minor quibbles aside, though, this is a lovely book for introducing your child to the heroes of the Christian faith. May it inspire them to go and do likewise, whether you read it around the dinner table, on the couch, or at bedtime.

The Holy Twins: Benedict and Scholastica

The Holy Twins: Benedict and Scholastica Kathleen Norris and Tomie dePaola
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2001

When I was last browsing through the picture book stacks at my local library, I was delighted to chance upon The Holy Twins: Benedict and Scholastica, a collaboration between Kathleen Norris and Tomie dePaola. Not because I had a prior burning interest in either Benedict or Scholastica, mind you, but because I love each of these artists’ work and was astonished to see they had done a picture book together.

Kathleen Norris is a poet and essayist whose writing I first encountered in college, in a creative nonfiction class my senior year. We had a long booklist of essays, spiritual writing, and autobiography to choose from; at the time, having spent the past four years immersed in political science and philosophy, I didn’t recognize many of the authors on the list. (This is a deficiency I have happily spent the past ten years correcting.) A California kid engaged to be married to someone from that alien and fascinating state, North Dakota (“Really? People live there?” was one actual response I got when I told someone from my hometown where my fiance was from), my eyes lit on a memoir entitled Dakota. I picked it up, was immediately drawn in to her spiritual meditations on life on the Great Plains, and quickly read my way through her other nonfiction as well. She is an adult convert to Christianity, a Presbyterian who is also an oblate at a Benedictine monastery, and a woman whose writings testify to patient wisdom borne of prayer and close observation of the world.

(Our book club read her short book The Quotidian Mysteries a few years back, and it completely changed the way I view my work here at home, in a redemptive and hopeful way. But that’s another post for another day.)

So, needless to say, I was thrilled to see that she had paired with one my favorite author/illustrators, Tomie de Paola. Except: Benedict and Scholastica? Really? I’m a church history junkie, and even I had trouble getting excited about this one. How compelling could it be as a children’s book? And, frankly, as a Protestant, a biography of a founder of a monastic order felt, well…a little less than relevant.

I was totally wrong. First of all, if you didn’t know, Benedict (480-547) had a really exciting life. Miracles, attempted poisonings by disgruntled fellow monks, wilderness ramblings – it’s all there. The founder of the Benedictine order only came to develop his common sense rule for Christian life together after wandering Italy and experiencing many trials. These trials taught an otherwise brilliant and exacting man to be patient, gracious, and hospitable to his brothers in Christ.

His story is told alongside that of his twin sister, Scholastica – an equally precocious child, but as a woman, consigned to a simple life among nuns in a monastery. She was more than a match, though, for her brilliant brother – and over the course of a long correspondence, taught him that the way of obedience is through love, not legalistic adherence to rules. At one point, when Benedict describes to her the rule that he is writing for the monks at Monte Cassino, she begins to laugh. “Isn’t it funny, Brother, that you had to travel all over Italy to learn some of the things that I discovered by staying in one place!”

Although the Protestant tradition has departed from monastic life, these “holy twins” are nevertheless part of our church history and well worth meeting. I love how this book introduces them as true saints: those in love with God, dedicated to living their life in submission to him, and seeking to love his world as Christ loved us. It’s a wonderful way to share church history with children in an ecumenical, inspiring way.

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
Eric Metaxas
Thomas Nelson, 2010

An admission: this new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is not, technically speaking, a children’s book. It is reviewed in the Wall Street Journal, sprinkled with German words, has an extensive bibliography and endnotes, and clocks in at 542 pages. However: Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer is an absolutely riveting read, and I wish someone had given me something like it when I was sixteen or seventeen years old. If you have, or know, a precocious teen reader, this is a book well worth placing in their hands – and reading along with them as well.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who came of age as his country began to emerge from the national disaster of World War I and the Weimar Republic. As Metaxas illustrates so ably, he came from a family of great distinction and prestige in German society. He studied in Berlin and at Union Seminary in New York, and was a man of deep and abiding faith in the transforming, costly grace of God in Jesus Christ. He saw, earlier than most, the threat that National Socialism posed to Christianity in Germany and to civilization itself. He played a major role in the  Confessing Church’s resistance to the Nazi “German Christians”; in the ecumenical movement of the 1930s; and eventually, as a resistance spy within the German Abwehr, in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. For his role in the assassination attempt, Bonhoeffer was arrested and eventually martyred at Flossenburg in 1945.

What makes this book an especially excellent choice for a teen reader? First, Metaxas keeps the story moving with the pace of a novel. There is good historical work done here, but he is first of all a storyteller. Even though I know how the story ends, I was holding my breath through the retelling of Bonhoeffer’s final journey to Flossenburg: “maybe, this time, he’ll get away!” Second, and more importantly, Bonhoeffer’s life is utterly compelling and thoroughly inspiring. That may sound cliché, but it’s true. Metaxas does a fantastic job of making clear the connections between Bonhoeffer’s theology and his life. The resulting portrait is of a man who is completely human but has been gripped unmistakably by the grace of God. His heroism is that of a man who lived his life “by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).

It’s true that there is some heady theological stuff in this biography. Most teens won’t have the background to really grasp all of it; however, Metaxas has done a nice job of making Bonhoeffer’s thought accessible to the lay reader. In fact, this ought to whet a reader’s appetite to read Life Together or The Cost of Discipleship. Much of the story is told using first person accounts and letters, which provide good context for understanding Bonhoeffer: he was an eminently practical theologian. And in fact, watching Bonhoeffer follow his convictions to the gallows at Flossenburg; hearing his final recorded words before his execution — “This is the end. For me the beginning of life.” — could there be a better way to learn about the power of the costly grace of God?

Stories of the Saints

Stories of the Saints
Joyce Denham and Judy Stevens
Paraclete, 2007

I grew up in a church that didn’t talk much about the saints, nor did we mark All Saints’ Day in the church year. And to be honest, I still have some reservations about how saints are sometimes celebrated – especially when they are portrayed as fundamentally different from ordinary Christians rather than fellow sinner-pilgrims. But it remains true that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and that God has worked mightily in the lives of men and women who have gone before us. We do well to mark their lives, learn from them, and honor them. Our church is having an All Saints Day family celebration this year, and to prepare for it, I’ll be reading to my daughter from Stories of the Saints.

This collection of short narratives is divided into three sections: “God With Us” (Mary the Mother of Jesus, John the Baptist, Peter, and Mary Magdalene); “A New Kingdom” (Stephen and Paul); and “The Light Shines in the Darkness” (8 early medieval and medieval saints, such as Martin of Tours, Francis of Assisi, and Bridget of Sweden). Each life is sketched briefly and vividly, capturing the drama, bravery, suffering and faithful love that marked these men and women. I especially appreciated how each life is described as significant for the church – because, after all, we don’t celebrate these folks for living good, pious lives. We celebrate them because they have been used by God to encourage and grow his people.

Six of the fourteen stories are about women, and what women these are! “Mary, in humble obedience, mothered her own maker and held in her arms the one who holds the universe.” Elizabeth of Portugal stood between two warring armies (one led by her son!) and challenged them to lay down their arms. And Bridget spoke the truth daily for years as a lady-in-waiting to a foolish king and his haughty wife. My favorite story, though, is about man: Laurence, who was martyred in Rome, in the third century. I first heard his story in Rome, and have had a picture of him on my refrigerator ever since: he’s the patron saint of cooks, because he himself was killed on a gridiron. The story of how he stood up to the Roman prefect is worth the price of the volume alone.

Readers whose churches don’t speak much about church history will nevertheless find this an accessible  collection. There is a brief mention, in the postscript, about Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata (miraculous wounds that are similar to Jesus’); those who find that troubling can easily skip it. It is, of course, a tradition within Roman Catholicism, and can simply be explained as such to older children. Overall, though, this is a collection that provides great material for conversation with our children about what it means to live godly lives, how to honor those who have gone before us, and how God uses the people he calls to grow his church.

Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed the World


Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed the World

Paul L. Maier and Greg Copeland
Concordia, 2004

Reformation Day is coming up on October 31: it’s been 493 years since Luther posted his theses for debate on the door of the Castle Church and started a revolution in Western Christendom. Lutheran, Catholic, Reformed, Baptist – whatever your ecclesial identity, if you’re a Christian in the West, your experience of the faith has been shaped by the Augustinian monk who just wanted to know how to stand before a righteous God. His answer, found in his reading of Paul–our only righteousness is the righteousness of God, granted to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ–turned out to be a word of spiritual, social, and political freedom in western Europe. Whether you share his theological convictions or not, we all inhabit the world he helped create.

Paul Maier’s picture book biography, Martin Luther: The Man Who Changed the World is a great way to introduce elementary-age children to this extraordinary man. The book has a lot of text, as befits a complex theological and historical figure, but it’s readable and accompanied by lavish illustrations. It’s not perfect (what is?): the telling is highly sympathetic and tends at times towards hagiography. Overall, though, it’s a beautiful introduction to a pivotal character in church history.

Maier recounts the major movements in Luther’s life simply and economically. On the whole, this is done well, such as in the elegant summing up of Luther’s tower experience: “In St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, Luther read that God’s righteousness (his holiness) is a gift to those who believe in Christ as their Savior. Paul explained that this righteousness was not only God’s own perfection, but something he gave to people who were sorry for their sins and believed in Christ.” Life-changing gospel theology in picture book form! That alone helped me live with some of the flaws of the book: an oversimplified account of indulgences, for instance, and the implication that Luther drew the Church back to basing its beliefs on “the Bible alone,” which is an imperfect account of sola scriptura.

I’ll admit: I’m in love with theology and church history, and I was disappointed at first that Maier didn’t deal more fully with Luther’s theology and some of his more, ahem, problematic moments (the Peasants’ Revolt, later polemic against the Jews). But then again, I don’t think that’s a picture book I’d read to my kids.  (“Look, kids, it’s the Muenster rebellion!” ) Martin Luther, on the other hand, is a lovely introduction to a man who staked his life above all else on “Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” It would make a wonderful family read in the days leading up to Reformation Day.

In fact: if you do read it with your family, let me know! My kids are still too young, and I’d love to hear about the conversations it prompts.

The Story of Ruby Bridges

The Story of Ruby Bridges
Robert Coles & George Ford
Scholastic, 1995

I’m a complete sucker when it comes to buying books for my daughter; it’s a wonder she hasn’t realized yet that my innate parental ability to say “no” utterly ceases when we cross the threshold of a bookstore. I’m pretty selective about what I’ll buy, but the result usually looks something like this: child suggests a book I don’t like; I say “no”; I have sudden massive guilt attack for denying her request (“What kind of a parent refuses books?” rings through my head); I suggest another book that looks more promising; repeat. We walk out with new books.

About a year ago, the haul from this sort of interchange in Half Price Books included a used Scholastic copy of The Story of Ruby Bridges, and I’ve been blessing my inability to refuse books ever since. It’s one of those happy finds that makes unplanned book-buying such a joy, and it’s a lovely instance of theological kids lit that isn’t a Bible retelling or fictional allegory. It’s a true story, beautifully illustrated, and although I started reading it to my daughter when she was 2, it’s a fitting picture book all the way up to 8 or 9 years old.

Written by the child psychiatrist Robert Coles (who has written and taught extensively on the moral and spiritual lives of children), The Story of Ruby Bridges recounts Ruby’s experience as the first black child to attend the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, in 1960, amidst the protests and school boycott of the white community. She was escorted to school by federal marshals and attended the first grade in an empty classroom, hustled in and out past an angry mob every single day.

Although the story is concerned with momentous historical events, Coles places Ruby’s experience at the center of the narrative – and at the center of Ruby’s experience is her Christian faith. This is a tale of social justice, of bravery in the face of evil, and of the power of forgiveness, carried on the back of a little girl’s deep belief in what Jesus did on the cross. I won’t give away what the story reveals about Ruby’s daily journey to and from school – it’s much better to discover it for yourself – but trust me, it’s powerful and inspiring without being in the least bit preachy or sentimental. Young children can both identify with and admire Ruby; she is a call to virtue that is within their reach, though their heroism may not take place as publicly or historically.

The story is told in simple, straightforward language that is powerfully enriched by the illustrations. No attempt is made to explain the historical context of racism in America, or to make it more comprehensible; rather, the gentle illustrations of Ruby’s mother kissing her children goodnight and the contorted faces of the angry white mob make it plain that racism is hatred, and it is an evil against fellow human beings. When we brought this book home, I was sure my daughter was too young for it, but she was completely enraptured by the expressions on the characters’ faces long before she could fully understand the story. “Why is Ruby sad, Mommy? Why are those people angry?” Her engagement with the pictures prompted some great conversations, and now that she can understand more about the story, it remains a regular in our reading rotation. Given the richness and the beauty of this courageous girl’s story, I predict it will stay there for a long time.