The Easter Story

The Easter StoryThe Easter Story
Brian Wildsmith
Eerdmans, 1993

We’ve recommended a couple of Brian Wildsmith’s other books already here at Aslan’s Library, and since each contains a pretty straightforward retelling of a biblical story, that tells you something about the beauty of his artwork. We have Exodus and Joseph in my Sunday school classroom, and they’re consistently the books the children who want to settle in with a quiet story gravitate towards. They’re simply gorgeous to sit with and pore over.

The Easter Story varies slightly, and tells the story of Jesus’ last week as seen through the eyes of the donkey who carries him into Jerusalem. Happily, the donkey is a reliable witness whose account mirrors the synoptic gospels; nothing is added, and the focus is squarely on the man who drew all eyes to himself as he gave himself over to Jerusalem, its leaders and its crowds.

As in all of Wildsmith’s books, the colors are rich and the illustrations detailed; although the words are sparse, there’s plenty to linger over on each page. An angelic observer follows Jesus through Jerusalem, and at the moment of his crucifixion an entire heavenly host looks on, perplexed and distressed. It’s both a thoughtful echo of the angels on hand at Jesus’ birth, and a moving witness to the cosmic significance of the moment. Jesus is abandoned, yet all of heaven and earth look on.

This would be a lovely addition to an Easter basket, and I especially like the idea of giving it as a gift to a child who isn’t familiar with the Easter story in all its magnitude and beauty. It’s also pretty widely available in public libraries, so you still have time to track it down to share on Easter morning!

The Longest Night

The Longest NightThe Longest Night: A Passover Story
Laurel Snyder and Catia Chien
Schwartz & Wade, 2013

Easter is coming soon – my children may or may not be counting down the days until our fasting from sweets ends! – but the momentous journey through Holy Week still stands between us and the resurrection. And the major dramatic background to the events that we’ll relive together next week is the ancient Jewish celebration of Passover. As Christians, we often treat Passover as a nice decorative backdrop; we nod at it on Maundy Thursday because, after all, it’s so convenient that Jesus had a ritual meal so he could institute the Last Supper.

But spend any time at all in the Old Testament, and it’s obvious how theologically rich this setting is. When Paul writes that God sent his Son “in the fullness of time” (kairos), he means that this was the cosmically opportune moment. And the story of the people of God and their passover from slavery into freedom is woven into the fabric of that moment’s consummation. Which is all a long and unwieldy way of saying: I’ve got a great Passover book for you, and now’s a great time to read it with any small children in your vicinity.

The Longest Night is an account of the Exodus story told in rhyme, and from a child’s perspective. What might it have been like to know forced slavery as your only reality, to witness the descent of the plagues, to suddenly have the opportunity to rush out and away to freedom? This story’s strength is that it doesn’t offer a theological explanation for what’s going on, but rather invites us into experiencing it as a child. The grownups know that something is up – they bake the bread and slaughter the lamb – but the children watch, and wait, and receive the new life of freedom.

And that’s what is about to happen to us. Going into Holy Week, it’s good to be reminded that something is about to happen that is not of our own doing. Like children, we will watch this sacrifice unfold, we’ll crouch beneath the blood of a lamb, and we’ll wait to see what happens: to hear the news that we are free.

Petook

PetookPetook
Caryll Houselander & Tomie DePaola
Holiday House, 1988

Over the years, as I’ve thought about theological children’s literature and written about it on this blog, my tastes have widened in some ways and narrowed in others. Once upon a time, for instance, stories that blend fictional tales with Scriptural accounts were not my cup of tea. It’s just so easy to get them wrong and end up distracting from (or even obscuring) the Biblical narrative. Unfortunately, I would often dismiss them categorically because I’d rarely seen one done well. More recently, though, I’ve grown to appreciate them because I’ve seen how books of their kind can illustrate truth in fresh ways. Caryll Houselander and Tomie dePaola’s Petook is one of the books that has convinced me of this.

Petook is the tale of a rooster who lives just outside of Jerusalem. His rather simple life intersects with the child Jesus (presumably when he is on the way to the Temple at age 12) and then with the fully grown Jesus during Holy Week. There is a great deal of biblical imagery in this book, in both text and illustration, that might sneak right by someone who isn’t biblically astute or just isn’t paying very close attention. Even though the story of Petook’s life isn’t flashy or dramatic in itself, the biblical references transform it into something quite profound.

Petook’s initial encounter with Jesus is when the boy steps on grapes while walking through the farm’s vineyard (I googled that one, actually, to learn more about that image in historical art). Jesus watches and draws near to Petook’s wife as she gathers her chicks under her wings. There are other images as well, rich with meaning yet not heavy-handed, along the way. Then in the second half of the book we see, in the background, Jesus and his disciples enacting all of the most important scenes of Holy Week. Petook plays an critical role in one particular scene (think about Peter’s denial…) but otherwise he plays a more general role of one who, with all creation, cries out in acknowledgement of the Passion and then the Resurrection of Christ.

I do feel like I need to point out one thing that gives me pause about this book. At the very end, Tomie dePaola writes a page about the author, Caryll Houselander, and suffice it to say that there were aspects of her life that don’t fit neatly into evangelical categories (he mentions mysticism and extra-sensory perception). Quite frankly, I don’t know what to do with that description. Having said that, the story about Petook is one that I still think you will come to love as an extraordinary book that is faithful to Scripture and abounding in beauty.

I hope that you and your family will have the chance to read Petook sometime soon, as it’s a perfect choice for enjoying during the weeks leading up to Easter. It’s out of print and expensive to buy used, but if your library owns a copy place a hold on it today! However you manage to track down a copy, I hope that you’ll give yourself a chance to spend some unhurried time with this book. Its beauty shines brighter with repeated readings.

Easter

Easter Fiona FrenchEaster
Fiona French
HarperCollins, 2002

Every year about this time I start moaning and groaning about how few Easter books there are out there. Not Easter bunny books, obviously, or spring-themed cheerful books that point generally to new life, but ones that do justice to the central point of all Christian belief: the resurrection of Jesus. Whatever the reason for this literary dearth, it always feels so strange that in November Sarah and I are practically buried in lovely books about the birth of Christ yet in March we find ourselves hunting for good books about his death and resurrection and coming up with… not much.

We do have a handful of Easter books in our archives (scroll down to find the Easter ones), and I commend them all to you. One of them in particular is a personal favorite of mine, but all are worth sharing with the children in your life. While we’re still in Lent, we also have a list of books that fit well with traditional Lenten themes, so check those out as well if you’ve not already. In addition, I’m pleased to report that this year Sarah and I will be reviewing a couple of new books appropriate for Lent and Easter! We’re excited to share them with you, and first up is a companion to Bethlehem, a Christmas book that I wrote about couple of years ago.

Fiona French is the creator of a number of children’s books, at least three of which pair illustrations inspired by stained glass in English cathedrals with text from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Her Easter book opens with a scene from Palm Sunday and from there takes the reader through the events of Holy Week and all the way up to the Ascension. The illustrations of Jesus’ torture and death are more graphic than most other Easter children’s books, but because of the style they aren’t scary and don’t feel excessive. This is perhaps one of the only books that directly depicts the crucifixion that I’d feel perfectly fine sharing with even a very sensitive child.

The combination of the stained glass effect and the familiar-yet-transcendent RSV cause me to feel like I’m in church. Which is a good thing! When I read through this book I find myself slowing down, and with each page I am drawn more and more into meditation upon the events that are at the core of my faith. It’s the same contemplative feeling I have when I settle into a pew on a Sunday (you know, if I’m not completely distracted by a baby or toddler…). Easter a kind of book that asks you to quiet your heart and listen with ears and eyes and soul. It’s just the kind of book I love having around the house during the weeks leading up to Easter Sunday, and it’s worth tracking down if you’re looking for the same.

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.”

 

The Colt and the King

Colt and KingThe Colt and the King
Marni McGee & John Winch
Holiday House, 2002

A few days ago a friend pointed out to me that the story of the triumphal procession is not included in either the Big Picture Story Bible or the Jesus Storybook Bible.  I was surprised when she told me – perhaps simply because Palm Sunday is this weekend and its proximity makes it feel particularly important – and left the conversation wondering what is out there in children’s literature that tells the story well.  Happily, I found one to share with you all just in time for the beginning of this year’s Holy Week!

Marni McGee (of The Noisy Farm fame) and illustrator John Winch have together created The Colt and the King, a creative retelling of the triumphal entry that is just right for preschoolers and early elementary kids.  It’s out of print, but my own library had it on its shelves and used copies seem affordable and easy to find.  The donkey is the narrator, and through the book’s pages he reminisces about the day he was drafted into the King’s service and carried him into Jerusalem alongside an exuberant crowd.  The text is clear yet gently poetic, the illustrations are captivating, and the author’s note that precedes the title page provides additional context and explanation.

Now, I have to admit that normally I’m not a fan of Bible retellings that focus on something other than what is the clear biblical theme.  Most frequently I see this in the form of telling the Christmas story from the perspective of the animals, though I can think of other examples as well.  It’s just not my cup of tea.  However… I really like this book.  For one thing, I love the way that McGee foreshadows both Good Friday and also the Second Coming as the story progresses.  Moreover, the colt’s encounter with Jesus is somehow entirely relatable, especially for a young child.  Jesus’ presence calms the animal as the Good Shepherd calms his sheep, and the colt is in turn pleased with the role he gets to play on that special day.  He feels anxious at what he senses is soon to come for Jesus (a feeling that I’m sure many young children share as the day we remember the crucifixion draws near).  And after the procession ends, the donkey longs for the day when he will once again see Jesus and be at home with him.  Each of these reflections strike me as particularly relevant for children and taken together they’re a wonderful way to begin Holy Week.

Sarah and I have long had trouble finding children’s books for Holy Week and Easter that we are truly excited about, so I’m particularly pleased to be able to recommend this one to you.  The Colt and the King is a lovely book that makes the Palm Sunday story come alive and I hope that you’ll consider tracking it down to share with the young ones in your life.

Ian and the Gigantic Leafy Obstacle

Ian and the Gigantic Leafy Obstacle

Ian and the Gigantic Leafy Obstacle
Sheila Miller
OMF International, 1983/2002

The most common forms of prayer that my children engage in are probably prayers of gratitude and meal blessings, and those don’t often lead to tough theological questions.  But as they grow and the more they ask God for specific requests, the more conversations we have about what that form of prayer is all about.  How we understand God’s ways when he doesn’t answer in the ways that we asked him to?  What if his timing is not our timing?  How do we continue to trust his love when we don’t see immediate evidence that he is listening to us when we talk to him?

The nuances of prayer are hard to communicate to young children, but I think that Sheila Miller has done an excellent job of doing just that in Ian and the Gigantic Leafy Obstacle.  It tells two intersecting tales: one of a missionary whose car is blocked by a huge fallen tree and one of a Thai man who loses an elephant.  I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it’s a great story of how God sometimes answers a prayer immediately yet we have to wait to see the evidence of his answer.  It’s certainly not going to answer every question about intercession you child may throw at you.  But as one simple illustration of how God is at work behind the scenes and knows the best ways to answer our prayers, it’s a great success.

This short, small paperback is a true story (which makes it even better!) and published by OMF, a missionary agency.  Amazon carries used copies as well as new copies from third party vendors, but you can also find it at Sonlight or purchase it directly from OMF.  I loved sharing Ian’s story with my daughter during Lent because prayer is a traditional Lenten theme (and the one that we’re focusing on this year), but since prayer is woven into the fabric of our lives year round it’s a great choice for any season.

Sights and Sounds of Easter

Easter 2013

As much as I usually enjoy observing Lent with my family, this year we’ve barely done anything to set aside the season as special.  Part of the issue is that both of my children’s birthdays are during Holy Week this year, which has left me feeling a little unmotivated towards all things Lenten.  How do you do Lent when you know that Holy Week will be filled with cakes and gifts?

Despite this, I am planning for some grand Easter celebrating!  A friend recently told me she’s noticed that liturgically-minded Christians seem to do better at planning for Advent and Lent than they do for Christmas and Easter, and I think she’s probably right.  (At least, I think we often talk more about Advent and Lent.  This might be simply because they are new observances to many of us.)  So as I think about Easter this year, I’ve been trying to come up with ways to maintain a spirit of celebration past 11am on Easter morning.  Sure, it would be impossible to keep up a party-like atmosphere in your home all day every day for the full 50 days of Easter, but I still think there’s a lot we can do to enrich our Resurrection feasting.

Last year I wrote a post about engaging the senses during Lent, and I use that same idea to organize my thoughts on Easter celebration.  I want my children to grow up knowing in their bones what it feels like to rejoice at Jesus’ resurrection.  I want the sights, sounds, and tastes in our home to be a signal that Easter truly is our greatest festival.  We Christians are Easter people, after all.  The empty tomb is the core of our faith, so let us use every creative fiber of our being as we plan for the great celebration!  Please chime in with your own ideas in the comments so we can all learn from one another.

{Disclaimer: Of course I’m not doing every single one of these things.  I’ll feel good if we hit one from each category!}

Things to See

  • Create an Easter garden with some pots, soil, stones, and stick crosses.
  • Hang up a “He Is Risen!” banner or a gold/white cross banner.
  • Print out and display this BCP quote: “Dying you destroyed our death, Rising you restored our life, Lord Jesus come in glory.”
  • As a table centerpiece, set out flowers, a cross, and a sign (even just handwriting on construction paper) saying “He is risen!”
  • Light candles all over your home.  I’m itching to try my hand at making soy candles, which I hope to do sometime during Eastertide.
  • Make or buy ribbon streamers your kids can use in worship at home or church.
  • Beautifully, naturally dyed eggs can be a discussion starter about new life.

Things to Hear

  • Set out a basket of bells that your children can ring.
  • Put on the Hallelujah Chorus first thing on Easter morning and again frequently throughout Eastertide.
  • Create a celebratory Easter playlist to play for all 50 days.
  • Teach your kids the traditional proclamation, “The Lord is risen!” and its reply, “He is risen indeed!”
  • Read the end of a Gospel and then Acts together for family devotions.
  • Memorize an Easter-themed hymn or worshipful portion of Scripture together.
  • Choose books to read aloud that have redemptive themes or tell the lives of faithful believers.  And don’t forget my favorite Easter book!

Things to Taste

  • If you attend an Easter Vigil and have fasted during Lent, bring some small pieces of chocolate to slip to your children right as the Resurrection is announced. (Many thanks to Molly R. for this idea and the following one.)
  • Similarly, have some champagne, fancy cheese, and crackers on hand when you get home from the Vigil – you’ll be too excited to sleep anyway!
  • Serve sparkling juice every morning for Easter week.
  • Enjoy hot cross buns for breakfast at least once during the 50 days.
  • Have a potluck feast with friends sometime during Eastertide.
  • Use the fancy china!  Even at breakfast!
  • If you’ve given up sweets during Lent, be sure to make everyone’s favorite dessert in the weeks following Easter.  We haven’t fasted this year, but I am going to make some chocolate dipped homemade marshmallows during Easter, which is something I’ve long wanted to do.
  • Candy is great fun, but remember that there are ways to celebrate besides overloading on sugar.  Here’s a great list of things to put in Easter eggs in addition to candy.

Living in Light of the Cross

  • Invite neighbors who live alone to share a meal with you.
  • Consider buying only fair trade chocolate to place in Easter baskets.  Natural Candy Store has the chocolate eggs I’m going to order and a variety of other kinds as well.
  • Encourage the spiritual growth of each person in your family in fresh ways: send your spouse on a retreat, give your child a new devotional, or buy a new CD (try Resurrection Letters Volume II, To Be Like Jesus, or one of the Seeds albums).
  • Find a local ministry to support with time, money, or prayer.
  • Write letters of gratitude to the people who introduced you to Jesus or who have spiritually mentored you or your children.

Best Books for Lent

Between the two of us, Sarah and I have reviewed nearly 80 books since we’ve been blogging.  We’re still discovering new ones all the time, but one of the things we’d also like to do this year is go through the archives and pull together some best-of lists on a series of different topics.  Today is Shrove Tuesday (pancakes for dinner, anyone?), so we thought we’d start with our favorite books for Lent.  Our hope is that the list will help us fully enter into the Lenten season with our families.

In making the selections we were looking for books with four different themes: (1) books placing Jesus’ life and death as the main subject,  (2) books that help children understand the dynamics of sin, judgment, and grace, (3) books that show us the way of humility, and (4) books to guide the daily living-out of our faith.  No matter how you do (or don’t) observe Lent, there’s something for everyone here!

You probably already know that Sarah and I both love Lent, and in previous years we’ve written a lot about this particular season of the church calendar.  After the booklist we’ve provided links to those posts in case you’re in need of fresh ideas for how to set aside the next 6 1/2 weeks in meaningful ways.

Books for Lent

Jesus at the Forefront!

Sin, Judgment, and Grace

Humility

Spiritual Disciplines and Holy Living

Food for Thought about Lent (and Easter)

Passover: Celebrating Now, Remembering Then


Passover-001Passover: Celebrating Now, Remembering Then

Harriet Ziefert and Karla Gudeon
Blue Apple Books, 2010

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

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

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

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

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