It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like… Advent!

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We’re well into the first week of Advent now, and the sights and sounds of this wonderful season have penetrated our house.  Here are some of the ways we’re marking Advent this year:

It’s tricky to figure out how to differentiate between Advent and Christmas because our culture generally skips directly to celebration without much preparation at all.  This year, though, I’m trying to take a few new steps in that direction.  We’re waiting to put up our tree until the third week of Advent (which is “joy” week) and the gingerbread house kit hiding in my closet will stay there until sometime during the 12 Days of Christmas.  I’ve not yet taken up the discipline of a full Advent fast, but I am trying to postpone many of our favorite celebratory activities and treats until after December 25.  My hope is that the 12 Days will seem more like a sustained celebration – and then we’ll get together with friends for a small Twelfth Night or Epiphany party to wrap it all up!

How are you entering into the preparatory season of Advent this year?

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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!

Thoughts To Make Your Heart Sing

ThoughtsThoughts to Make Your Heart Sing
Sally Lloyd-Jones & Jago
Zonderkidz, 2012

I bought Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing – a devotional by Sally Lloyd-Jones released in 2012 – for my 6-year old daughter for Christmas. We’re big Sally Lloyd-Jones fans around here, and I figured I would definitely have a review of it up by January at the latest. But I’ve had trouble getting it written: mostly because I just love it so much, I’m having a hard time getting past “I LOVE IT. PLEASE GO BUY IT NOW. THE END.”

But that’s not responsible reviewing, now is it? And if we take anything seriously around here at Aslan’s Library, it’s writing recommendations that help parents understand why we think a book deserves precious space on their shelf and in their child’s life. I’m guessing an all-caps-gush doesn’t cut it. So here’s my best go. I will keep the capital letters and exclamation points to a minimum, I promise.

An honest confession: this is the first “devotional” format book I’ve actually liked and consistently read with my daughter. And I’ve sorted through a number of them. (If there is one out there that I am missing, or that you can’t believe I didn’t love, do let me know in the comments!) There are no corny, moralistic stories; unbelievable kids who end each episode by perfectly displaying some biblical virtue; or patently misapplied Scriptural verses (Jeremiah 29, anyone?). That’s what Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing isn’t.

What it is is a series of daily meditations, gorgeously illustrated, that invites children to know the goodness and majesty of God, and his love for his broken and beautiful creation. There’s deep theology at work in these short pieces: the already-not-yet character of faith; a thorough and multifaceted explanation of Jesus’ atonement for us; God’s covenant with his people and its fulfillment in Christ. I especially appreciate Ms. Lloyd-Jones’ treatment of sin: nowhere does she gloss over its reality, even in the hearts of our children. She’s frank in giving kids words to understand their own wayward hearts:

What is sin? Sin is trying to get away from God who loves us – it’s wanting to go our own way without him. But the Bible says it’s not like simply wandering off the path and getting lost by mistake. It’s like a horse charging at full speed away from him. We want to get away from God that badly! We are like horses galloping headlong after the things we want.

And yet every meditation on sin (and there are multiple: any good devotional takes note of its persistent reality and addresses it likewise!) includes God’s final word on it: he can lead us back; he kept the covenant on our behalf; in Jesus, God finished the power of sin, although it is still dying a slow and ugly death.

Another repeated emphasis I loved, and wished I had understood as a child, is that even faith itself is a gift. Any parent of an anxious child (and I was one) should bookmark “Believing and Doubting”:

But, someone is saying, what if I can’t believe enough?…Our strong God is the one who rescues us – not our strong faith. Because faith isn’t just you holding on to God. It’s God holding on to you.”

But as rich as these meditations are theologically, they are – more importantly – lively, accessible, and gracious. Each and every one is shot through the the joyful realization of God’s radical grace. For all of its depth, this book is not a theological treatise. It’s an exuberant invitation to to know, love and trust the God who wildly, heedlessly loves us first; to find ourselves amazed and overjoyed at being created, found, redeemed, and included in God’s life.

So there you go. And now, because I can’t resist: I LOVE IT. PLEASE GO BUY IT. THE END.

What Is the Church

What Is the Church
Mandy Groce, Bill Bell, & Tessa Janes
Christian Focus, 2010

My family has been part of a church plant for the past two years, and during that time we have used three different locations for Sunday worship.  The first time we switched buildings my daughter was a tad confused – she kept talking about going to a new church.  Trying to explain the difference didn’t help much.

Children’s literature to the rescue!  What Is the Church helped us explain that church has nothing to do with a building and everything to do with an identity.  In other words, it isn’t a place but rather a group of people.  This lovely little book explains the concept very well by speaking of the church as people called to be a family, missionaries, servants, learners, and worshipers.  Each of those five callings gets its own 2-page spread and a short rhyme to help readers understand what they mean.  What Is the Church is, more or less, Ecclesiology 101 for preschoolers.

Tessa Janes’ whimsical illustrations are a perfect accompaniment to the text and left me wondering yet again why more theological kidlit isn’t similarly well done.  And brace yourselves: for the first time perhaps ever, I actually appreciated the discussion questions and activity suggestions at the end!  (I particularly liked the idea of creating a church family tree.)  At under $5 there’s no reason why not to add this title to your home library – or better yet, buy two and donate one to your church library.

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.

Brother Sun, Sister Moon

Brother Sun, Sister Moon
Katherine Paterson and Pamela Dalton
Chronicle Books, 2011

According to tradition, Francis of Assisi composed The Canticle of the Sun (or Laudes Creaturarum, “praise of the creatures”) toward the end of his life, around 1224. Written in the Umbrian dialect – rather than church Latin – it is a beautiful song praise to God for the glory of his creation. Its simple, earthy images drawn in a common language are a reminder that regardless of social station, we all are created beings, dependent like the rest of nature on the care of a good and loving God.

Brother Sun, Sister Moon is a “reimagining” of Francis’ song by Katherine Paterson, illustrated with absolutely gorgeous cut-paper images by Pamela Dalton. Seriously: these may be my favorite illustrations yet for a book we’ve reviewed on this blog. They are rich in detail, warm, peaceful, and inviting. Somehow they capture the song’s vision of humans living in bountiful harmony with nature, husbanding it together for the common good as we were created to do.

The song itself, as rendered by Ms. Paterson, praises God for our “brothers” and “sisters” in the created order: the sun, moon, stars, wind, water, fire and earth, as well as for human beings who live as peacemakers and grace-givers. Each of these reveals something about God himself, and bears his image stamped on its created being. It is a marvelous example as theology-in-prayer: Francis sees God revealed in nature, praises him for it, and in that prayer teaches us about God, too. My favorite passage in this vein, then:

We praise you for Sister Water, who fills the seas and rushes down the rivers – who wells up from the earth and falls down from heaven – who gives herself that all living things may grow and be nourished.

On the same page, the picture is framed by two large trees planted by streams of water (Psalm 1): as we see the trees nourished by the gift of water, we understand that we too are nourished by a self-giving God who poured himself out like water — and we are able to praise him for his gift of self and water with greater thankfulness. It is this sort of simple yet deeply rich imagery that makes this book a valuable piece of theological literature.

The last gift for which Francis thanks God – and which, according to legend, he added to the song on his deathbed – is for “our Sister Death, who will usher us at last into your loving presence, where we will know and love you as you have always known and loved us.” Now it’s true, theologically, that death is an enemy destroyed by Christ and a punishment for sin: so what’s with the Sister imagery? Well, for the Christian, death is no longer something to be feared; though intended for our destruction, it too has become God’s handmaiden, delivering the faithful safely into the presence of Christ. And again, the illustrations! On this page, a small boy and girl sorrowfully bury a small pet, surrounded by an explosion of butterflies – that ancient symbol of resurrection. Again, we are reminded that for the believer, death is nothing but the doorway to true life.

Lastly, some readers may find Paterson’s rendering of the final lines of prayer off-putting: “For this life and the life to come, we sing our praise to you, O Lord, the Father and Mother of all creation.” Taken in context, this is no denial of God’s Fatherhood; it is the simple recognition of God as the Parent of all creation and the image of all created fatherly and motherly care. The Old Testament uses both images to talk about God’s providential care, and it’s a lovely acknowledgement of just how deeply encompassing that love is.

This is a simply lovely book, suitable for reading aloud as a family or for individual poring over. If your child has a quiet corner or space where you keep devotional books, this would be a worthy addition. I think it will be appearing at our house on one of the twelve days of Christmas this year!

Dangerous Journey


Dangerous JourneyDangerous Journey

arranged by Oliver Hunkin, illus. Alan Parry
Eerdmans, 1985

It’s almost upon us, friends. Advent begins in less than two weeks, and here at Aslan’s Library we’ve been thinking about books and resources your family might want to use during the upcoming season of waiting and preparation. And let’s face it, most of us are thinking about what we might want to present our children with during our Christmas celebrations, too.

For each of those purposes, let me heartily recommend Dangerous Journey, a version of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress that has been illustrated and abridged for children. Some of you may remember it from your own childhoods: my father-in-law used to read it to my husband and his siblings at bedtime. It has stood the test of time, and is simply wonderful for reading aloud as a family or for older, more advanced readers to explore on their own.

The text itself is Bunyan’s, selected and abridged into short episodes. It retains, then, all of Bunyan’s wit, earnestness, and the careful crafting of phrase that have made the original book such a landmark in English literature. It is the allegory (or “dream,” as Bunyan described it) of the pilgrim Christian and his journey to the Celestial City, and all of the perils that attend him along the way.

For those of you who have never read Pilgrim’s Progress, it is first and foremost an adventure story. Christian’s passage to blessedness leads through the Slough of Despond, the Doubting Castle, Vanity Fair, the Palace Beautiful, and the Valley of the Shadow of Death. There is mortal combat, great beasts, unreliable guides, giants, escapes from captivity, unlooked-for friends, and narrow escapes. And my favorite allegorical character ever, Mr. Worldly-Wiseman. It’s a wonderful presentation of the Christian life as one of danger, excitement, watchfulness, and providential care. And the scene in which Christian passes through the River of Death – over which there is no bridge – is so immensely moving and theologically rich. This is one book that will bear many re-readings in your family.

The text is accompanied by wonderfully witty illustrations. Bunyan himself was a nonconformist who served in the Parliamentary army during the English Civil War; my inner history nerd took great glee in the portrayal of Christian and Hopeful in austere Puritan dress, while the unsavory characters are all corrupt and decaying Cavaliers. In addition the illustrations manage to convey the mood and spirit of each episode: Vanity Fair is bustling and distracting, and the Palace Beautiful exudes peace and repose. The images of the fight with Apollyon and the Valley of the Shadow of Death may be too scary for small or sensitive children.

This is a large-format, sturdy picture book that would make a handsome Advent gift for your family: just as we journey through the darkening days towards the light that dawns at Christmas, we can journey along with Christian towards the Celestial City. Or, if you have an older child, this would make wonderful devotional reading.

Did you read Dangerous Journey as a child? Have you read Pilgrim’s Progress? Any other abridged or illustrated versions that you would recommend?

The Divine Hours

The Divine Hours
Compiled by Phyllis Tickle
Image/Doubleday, 2000-2001

One of my favorite times of day is the close of breakfast, when I open up The Divine Hours and read the morning prayers with my nearly 2-year-old.  While she finishes up her cereal she’s happy to listen to me pray the daily readings out loud.  She is even learning how to join in; if I start reciting “The Lord is…” she knows what comes next: “King!”

The Divine Hours books (there are three main ones) consist of short passages of Scripture and prayers from the Book of Common Prayer arranged in 2-page daily liturgies.  Each set of readings starts with a call to prayer from the Psalms and ends with the weekly collect from the BCP.  In between there are more Psalm selections, a short reading from another part of the Bible, the Lord’s Prayer, and occasionally another historical prayer from Augustine or another source.  In the evening the text of a hymn is also included.

At our house we most consistently use the readings for morning (at the close of breakfast) and noon (at the close of lunch).  Sometimes we use the evening readings as family worship before our daughter’s bedtime, and my husband and I occasionally get into the habit of reading Compline together before we turn off the lights and sleep.  All that to say that even though there are four sets of readings every day, there’s no reason why you can’t just do one or two.  For that matter, there’s no reason that you can’t shorten, lengthen, or add to the readings, either.

If it’s not clear by now, no, The Divine Hours are not children’s books.  So why are we including them in Aslan’s Library?  When Sarah and I talked about what to write about during Lent this year, we decided to include some resources to help families practice some of the traditional Lenten practices: prayer, reflection, confession, and Scripture reading.  I know of no better resource to help families do those four things together than the Divine Hours series, so kidlit or not it made the list!

The sets of readings in these books are short enough for a young child’s attention span and substantive enough for an adult; they’re not targeted to children per se but as the Word of God they are appropriate for ears of all ages.  The youngest children will likely just be soaking it all in, but older children can participate in refrains and the Lord’s Prayer or even take turns reading aloud.  Best of all, these books will help every member of the family learn to come to Scripture in a posture of prayer.  They will help you worship together, pray together, repent together, feed yourselves on the Word together, and humble yourself before the Sovereign God together.

I do have a few quibbles with The Divine Hours.  For one, they use the New Jerusalem Bible and BCP Psalter, which are not my preferred translations.  Secondly, the evening reading typically contains a hymn, but every so often there is a poem in its place that either goes over my head or I find objectionable in some way.  Thirdly, very occasionally (rarely, really) there is a prayer or reading that runs contrary to Protestant theology.  But even considering these things, I truly love these books.  If you’re looking for a way to incorporate prayer into your family’s life in a fresh and meaningful way this Lenten season, I warmly commend them to you!

Below are the links to the three core books in the series.  There are a couple of extra ones in the series (one specifically for Advent/Christmas and one for Lent/Easter, for example), but the material they contain is entirely found in these three volumes: