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.

Saint Nicholas

Saint NickSaint Nicholas: The Story of the Real Santa Claus
Mary Joslin & Helen Cann
Lion Children’s, 2003

I’ve been on the lookout for a good introduction to the historical figure of Saint Nicholas for a long time.  I’ve certainly not hunted down every single book on the topic, but I’ve read probably half a dozen.  Most of them have been well done and informative, actually, and I enjoy exploring a few every December.  However, some of the legends about Nicholas contain fairly grizzly details so I often found myself doing a fair bit of editing on the fly when I read them aloud.  Mary Joslin’s Saint Nicholas, though, is a great choice for my young children and is the book I’m reading to them this year to prepare for Nicholas’ feast day on December 6 (this Saturday!).

If you’re familiar with Nicholas’ life you know that he was a very generous man and also the bishop of Myra, a city in present day Turkey.  There are a variety of tales told about him, but the only one in Joslin’s book is the one of his generosity to an impoverished family with three daughters who were unable to marry because they lacked a dowry.  If you’re not familiar with it, this story involves Nicholas secretly tossing small pouches of coins into the family’s house (in most books they say he tossed it in the window, in Joslin’s case she says he threw them down the chimney).  The family joyfully receives the gift and with it the hope of a better future for the three girls.  Joslin’s retelling of this story is definitely a bit more rosy than others I’ve read, but in my case that’s exactly what I was looking for.  She connects the dots between Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus traditions more straightforwardly than some books do, so if you’re looking for more of a pure history this might not be the right option for you.

Unfortunately, this book is out of print and at this time of year prices for used Christmas books tend to spike.  If you don’t want to pay a premium but have some patience, I’d suggest marking your calendar to remind you to purchase this lovely book… in July.  In any case, join me this weekend in leaving chocolate coins in our children’s shoes and sharing a story about the legendary generosity of Saint Nicholas!

Let Us Keep the Feast

Let Us Keep the FeastLet Us Keep the Feast
Jessica Snell, editor
Doulos Resources, 2014

Our favorite topic to write about here at Aslan’s Library, right after theological kidlit and reading with children, is celebrating the church year.  So I’m incredibly excited to share a new resource for you: Let Us Keep the Feast: Living the Church Year at Home.  If you have any interest at all in learning about the celebrations of the church calendar and if you want to create a deeper sense of seasonal liturgy in your home, this is the book for you!

Let Us Keep the Feast, published by Doulos Resources, was actually written in four installments that were made available last year.  This newest edition contains each of those shorter books and has information about each season of the year from Advent (the first season of the Christian calendar) to Christ the King (the last Sunday in the Christian year).  The sections are well researched and written by a variety of people, but each contains similar components.  An introduction gives background about the season, both historic and theological.  Old, new, and global traditions for the season and any special days within the season are discussed.  Traditions involving food, children, crafting, and community engagement are all shared – and thankfully, the suggestions manage to be thorough without feeling burdensome.  Lastly, the resources section lists ideas for Scripture readings, songs, prayers, and other readings that correlate with the season.

I own the kindle versions of a couple of the season-specific Let Us Keep the Feast editions and if you’re short on cash or just not sure if this book is up your alley that format is a good option.  However, I think this book is one that probably presents itself better in print, so if you’re not a die hard kindle user then I’d encourage purchasing the paper copy.  Best of all, if you do buy the print copy you can actually get the kindle version for free – a nice win-win solution to my own ongoing debate about ebook vs old fashioned paper.

Advent is a time when, after a long season of Ordinary Time, many of us gear up for a long stretch of intentionally incorporating the church year into our family life.  I have a number of books that I reference in my quest to bring the Christian seasons to life in my home, but this is my new favorite.  Run out to get your own copy today and you’ll be ready for an end-of-year Christ the King celebration in a few weeks just before launching into Advent!

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!

The Story of Easter

The Story of Easter

The Story of Easter
Aileen Fisher & Stephano Vitale
HarperTrophy, 1997

While I love, and will probably always gravitate towards, books that invite us into the experience of the Passion and Easter (Peter’s First Easter and  At Jersualem’s GateI’m looking at you), I also have a seven-year-old who is hungry for information. This child falls asleep at night reading her science dictionary, and asked me yesterday on the way home from a playdate how the Romans stopped killing Christians and became Christians themselves. She likes to know why and how things happen: why are there so many eggs at Easter? What does a bunny have to do with it anyway? Bunnies don’t lay eggs, do they? Snakes do: hey, how long is an anaconda? Does an anaconda eat bunnies?

Sometimes you just need a good reference, right?

If you’re looking for just such a book for a similarly inquisitive child, or perhaps for a child who isn’t familiar with the holiday beyond the version you can buy at Target (as is the case for many of my daughter’s friends), The Story of Easter, by Aileen Fisher, is just the thing to tuck in their baskets.

This book does a lovely job explaining the history of Easter itself, beginning with the life of Jesus and the events of Holy Week. The pastel illustrations in this section of the book echo Renaissance frescoes, with color, light, and activity to draw us in. The second half of the book is devoted to illustrating how parts of ancient spring festivals were drawn into Easter celebrations as the good news of Jesus’ resurrection spread beyond the Jewish world. Easter eggs, the bunny, wearing new clothes on Easter: they’re all there. Fisher tells in simple, direct language the origins of each custom and how it complements and was taken up into the Christian celebration. It’s all very winsomely, gently written, and I especially appreciated that it gives my daughter a point of connection with the (sometimes-derided-as-“pagan”) pieces of Easter that are all her friends know.

And full of fun facts, which is just the thing for her right now! For instance: did you know that wearing something new on Easter can be traced back to the white baptismal clothes that early Christians received on their entry into the church (often on Easter)? But it all comes back to the sole reason for the holiday at all: “It is the joy and celebration of the belief that God’s love is stronger than death.”


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.

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.