Great Joy

Great JoyGreat Joy
Kate DiCamillo & Bagram Ibatoulline
Candlewick, 2007

If you’re at all familiar with the world of children’s literature, you probably know some of Kate DiCamillo’s books. The Mercy Watson series is a favorite around here, both in book and audiobook formats, and I’m eager for the day when my daughter is ready to be introduced to The Tale of Despereaux. DiCamillo is a truly gifted storyteller, one who has been recognized by the Newbery folks on a number of occasions. (She’s also a local to the Twin Cities. I might daydream about running into her at my favorite independent children’s bookstore…)

Lucky for us, a handful of years ago DiCamillo joined the club of children’s authors who write Christmas books. And even luckier for us, it’s a really good one! To start with, Bagram Ibatoulline’s illustrations are perfect. Evocative, warm, and wintery, they make for a quintessential Christmas book. And as all great illustrations do, they help the reader enter into the story and make the author’s words live.

Great Joy is a sort of parable, as so many of DiCamillo’s books are, about how Christmas is really for everyone. In the Bible, the good news is shared first with the shepherds, the societal outcasts of their day. In Great Joy the news goes to someone in a similar circumstance, all because a little girl named Frances notices his presence in the world and desires to draw him in. In some ways there are some thematic parallels to The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, though DiCamillo’s approach is more quiet, more meditative, less hilarious. Both books are wonderful additions to any Christmas home library, and I’m really enjoying sharing both of them with my kids this year.

Good King Wenceslas

Wenceslas jacket.inddGood King Wenceslas
John M. Neal & Tim Ladwig
Eerdmans, 2005

I’ve come a long way from being someone who used to dislike picture books that use song lyrics are their only text. I can’t even remember, exactly, what I found unappealing about them back then. Whatever it was, I’m glad to have seen the light because there are a number of excellent books in this subgenre. Earlier this week I wrote about one and today I’ve got another one to share: Good King Wenceslas, an old Christmas carol that’s been illustrated by Tim Ladwig.

Ladwig has illustrated quite a few theological picture books, but my favorite of his is Peter’s First Easter, that gem of gems that was one of the initial inspirations for creating Aslan’s Library. Ladwig’s art is always vibrant and warm, but I find his work in this book to be especially endearing. The carol requires a variety of settings to be pictured and I love seeing them all, from the castle to the nature scenes to the peasant’s cottage. The people are just as varied (page, peasant, servant, king) and all do their part to tell the true story of King Wenceslas’ journey through harsh winter weather to give aid to one of his subjects. It’s a great story, one that I’m eager to tell my children at this time of year that can too easily become too much just about receiving and not enough about showing compassion and care.

If you enjoy connecting books with the liturgical calendar as I do, Good King Wenceslas is an obvious choice for December 26, St. Stephen’s Day (which is also Boxing Day to the English among us).

I Saw Three Ships

I Saw Three ShipsI Saw Three Ships
Elizabeth Goudge & Margot Tomes
David R. Godine, 1969

I have recently been introduced to the works of Elizabeth Goudge and suffice it to say that I have quickly become a loyal fan. My book group adored The Bird in the Tree this fall and if you have not yet read that masterful book, let me have the privilege of being the first to tell you to run out and get yourself a copy as soon as you can. Much to my delight, I discovered that Goudge wrote for children as well as adults, and when I saw earlier this month that one of them was Christmas themed I bought it on the spot.

I Saw Three Ships is a mere 60 pages long, but oh my, what a perfect tale to share with an older-elementary aged child at this time of year. (Stocking stuffer, perhaps?) In it we meet Polly, a young girl who lives in England with her two spinster aunts and whose spunk and determination keeps them on their toes. We meet the threesome just before Christmas, and in the opening pages Polly is trying to convince her aunts to leave the doors unlocked on Christmas Eve. She has always heard that if you do so, the three wise men might come in and visit. Being an adventuresome lass, she is eager for that to happen. Her aunts protest, saying that leaving the doors unlocked is simply not safe. And besides, that old tradition is just a legend. Here’s a snippet of conversations from page 10:

“The wise men might come,” said Polly. “Why not? Susan at the sweetshop told me that Christ Himself came to the West Country when He was a little boy.”

“That’s only a legend, dear,” said Dorcas.

“What’s a legend, Aunt?” asked Polly.

“A story whose truth cannot be proved,” said Dorcas.

“You can’t prove God,” said Polly.

As I’ve mulled over I Saw Three Ships during the past few days, I think that passage is at the crux of what Goudge is sharing with us through this story. We may not be able to prove God, it is true. But do you know what happens when we open ourselves up to childlike faith? Our eyes are opened. Opened to reality, opened to seeing people for who they really are, opened to joy. I’m not going to tell you much more about the plot because you’ll enjoy discovering it for yourself. This book is full of warmth and charm (and, yes, a bit of old-fashioned quirk) and wonderful for anyone age 8 and up.

Go Tell It On the Mountain

Go Tell ItGo Tell It on the Mountain
Debbie Trafton O’Neal & Fiona King
Augsburg Books, 2003

Most of the year Sarah and I have to do some serious sleuthing to find books that we feel good about reviewing here on the blog. That accounts for at least some of our irregular posting (the rest is due to those darling small people who keep us so busy). Come Christmastime, though, it’s almost hard to know where to start. There are so many great Christmas books out there! Nearly every children’s author and illustrator, it seems, has an urge to create a Christmas book even if they don’t normally write theologically. It may be harder to find really creative ones, but beautiful books that straightforwardly tell the nativity story are plentiful.

Ironically, because there are just so many good Christmas books out there I sometimes find it hard to choose new ones for our home library. How to choose?! I found Go Tell It on the Mountain while browsing on Amazon and, because it looked promising and there was a practically new copy for a penny plus shipping, I took a gamble and placed an order. I’m glad I did, because now that I’ve read it I know it’s one we’ll enjoy revisiting each year.

Fiona King has created illustrations reminiscent of woodcuttings and somehow they also bring to mind the artwork in one of my favorite Thanksgiving books, Over the River and Through the Wood. The pictures tell the familiar story of the nativity, but as we watch the events of Luke 2 unfold we see clearly that what has happened is worthy of being shouted from the rooftops. It’s not a sentimental tall tale, it’s Emmanuel! God with us! The lyrics of the familiar carol are fantastic food for thought at this time of year, reminding us that the birth of Christ is, at its core, good news that begs to be told. The author adds one verse of her own on the end that makes a bridge between the shepherds who first told the good news and our privilege today to continue to be bearers of that same news.

My kids already know the song so they enjoyed singing along with me as I read and at the end they gave the book that classic stamp of approval: “Read it again!” Go Tell It on the Mountain is out of print but happily, very reasonably priced used copies abound. I commend it to you as a book that I think you’ll enjoy sharing with the children in your life.

B is for Bethlehem

B is for Bethlehem

B Is for Bethlehem
Isabel Wilner & Elisa Kleven
Puffin, 1995

Maybe it’s just that I suddenly find myself with an enthusiastic pre-reader in the house, but alphabet books are the order of the day around here right now. The four-year-old who was previously content to refuse all requests to sound out letters with an unruffled “but I can’t read!” is now walking around the house naming every letter he sees, and asking if “B-A-C-O-N” (on a magnet on the fridge) is how you spell his sister’s name.

Still, I don’t normally go in for thematic or holiday alphabet books. I pulled B is for Bethlehem off the library shelf almost as an afterthought last week, in what passes for recklessness in my life these days. (“A Christmas alphabet book? What the heck! Let’s give it a spin!” Clearly, friends, I live on the edge.) And in this case, my daredevil ways paid off. It’s a simple, lovely Advent read with my little guy over cider: just right for a four year old who loves rehearsing what he knows about the Nativity story, with enough depth and joy to enrich it for him even more.

Starting with “A’s for Augustus, Emperor of Rome/Who decreed, “To be counted, let each man go home,” the story of Jesus’ birth unfolds in short, bright couplets. It’s a familiar story, of course, but told in a way that reflects the wideness and richness of what happened that night: “L is for Lullaby Mary would sing/To her baby, her lamb, the Messiah, the King.” Her lamb: how many of us have used just that endearment for a small, downy newborn? And how perfect, and beautiful, and heartrending a diminutive for this particular baby?

I especially appreciate that the final third or so of the book moves from the story itself to our response: “V’s for Venite, the summons, O come./Come praise him with harp and with trumpet and drum.” And the collage illustrations are warm, lively, and inviting. If you happen across B is for Bethlehem at your own public library, you can pull it with confidence: you’ll have to take up skydiving, I suppose, if you’re looking for a risk.

**Note: B is for Bethlehem is currently only available for purchase on major bookseller sites via third-party sellers.

Advent Resources for Grownups

IMG_3227Every year, around Thanksgiving, Haley and I lament the fact that we don’t already have reviews written for ALL THE BOOKS, because sorting through and sharing the wealth of Advent and Christmas picture books is a daunting task that we should tackle in, say, July. (But really: who wants to read Christmas books in July? Probably the same people who have the self-discipline to make all those homemade decorations in the summer so that they can pull them out and pin/Instagram them the day after Thanksgiving. If you are one of those people, know that you simultaneously amaze and perplex me.)

It’s a good problem to have, though, because it just means there are so many good books for children to share this time of year. And we certainly will have some new reviews up in the coming days and weeks.

However: in the past two years or so, I’ve fallen into the same trap during Advent and Lent. I’ve gotten so focused on doing the season “well” with my children that I’ve barely inhabited the seasons myself, or let the days of preparation teach me. In the process, I’ve found that I become pretty untethered from what each season is all about — with the sorry result that my words about “getting ready” feel dry and disconnected. And my kids aren’t dumb. They can tell when Mom is trying to get them to eat something she won’t touch herself, rather sharing the source of her own nourishment.

So this year, I’m trying to spend part of each day (generally the early morning) sitting quietly with Scripture, reading poems and selections that someone else has chosen, and generally listening to see if and how God will speak. I’ve set aside, for now, the goal of a productive quiet time, of chasing after what I think I need to learn. So much of the Advent story is about having our own projects upended and waiting to see how God is going to fulfill his promises. Waiting to see how, and when, God will arrive.

Toward that end, then — to help us all in the waiting, and watching, and setting aside our agendas for God — here are a few Advent resources for grownups. I hope you’ll find something here to help you wait upon the Lord, and sharpen the bright hunger of hope.IMG_3225

7--portinari-triptych-detail_advent_thumbnailThe Advent Project, created by the Biola University Center for Christianity, Culture & the Arts
Our small group is using this online resource together this year, and (like the previous spring’s Lent project) it is a wonderful opportunity to reflect meditatively, through word, art, and music, on Scripture that helps us understand this season. Short daily meditations for Advent through Epiphany are accompanied by musical selections and visual art. And I promise you: this isn’t flat or sentimental work. Introducing the project, Biola president Barry Corey writes, “It [Advent] is merriment and melancholy together, beauty so sublime that, like the best art, it simultaneously comforts and rocks us to the core.” You can visit the site daily, or subscribe to it via email.

Light Upon LightLight Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas & Epiphany, Sarah Arthur
This is the book I’m sitting with in my early mornings. It’s a simple but ingenious idea: for each week of Advent, Christmastide, and Epiphany, daily Scripture readings and prayers are paired with complementary poems and excerpts from fiction. Authors like Dickens, Herbert, Donne and Eliot sit comfortably alongside newer voices, familiar and unfamiliar. It’s been an interesting and challenging book, one that has forced me out of my typical reading style (attempting to wring every bit of understanding out of every sentence) and into a more reflective, meditative approach. Which, as it happens, is perfect for Advent.

Sounding the SeasonsSounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian YearMalcolm Guite
Haley gave me this book a year ago, and it’s a lovely resource (or gift) for someone beginning to explore the church year, or who may not want an Advent devotional per se but still wants to approach the season mindfully. Or maybe you’d like to keep it on hand for bedside reading or preschool pick-up waiting?

Seeking God’s Face: PrayiSeeking God's Faceng with the Bible Through the Yeared. Philip Reinder

In a talk he gave at our church, Jamie Smith recommended this as a year-round daily devotional, and I ordered it right then and there. I’ve used it for about a year and a half now, and actually set it aside this Advent in favor of Light Upon Light, but it’s a wonderful book — and what better time than the beginning of the Christian year to start something new? For each day, there are Scripture readings as well as seasonally-appropriate prayers and suggested focus for free prayer. I love this book, and if I could, I’d stick it in all of your stockings.

Pray as You GoPray As You Go
Disclaimer: I haven’t used Pray As You Go myself, but I came across it awhile back while clicking through some of our church’s recommended Advent resources. I was particularly interested because it reminded me of Headspace, an app that some friends use and love. But, by my lights, Pray As You Go is much better: it offers a daily Scripture reading, music, and guided prayer in a short audio format. If you’re someone who has a daily commute, wishes for a personal spiritual director on call (why can’t I have my own church and curate on the property?) or is simply an auditory learner, this is a great site. In the tradition of Ignatian spirituality, they also offer a daily imaginative exercise and personal examen, both of which I have a very little experience with and would like to do more.

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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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!

The Circle of Days

The Circle of DaysThe Circle of Days
Reeve Lindbergh & Cathie Felstead
Candlewick Press, 1998

One of my favorite questions to ask of kids’ books is: “what sort of world does this book help children imagine? Does it simply confirm the world they already experience, or does it offer a glimpse of a wider, more varied, more beautiful universe out there and invite them in?” After all, isn’t that one of the reasons we read? For that “enlargement of our being” that can only come in the encounter with the creations of other minds?

It’s a hard feeling to articulate, but my favorite books as a child did precisely that: they created worlds I wanted to live in, and helped me to look for (or imagine!) the same wonder and delight in my own little corner of existence. The Circle of Days, by Reeve Lindbergh and Cathie Felstead is just one such book.

Like Brother Sun, Sister MoonThe Circle of Days is an illustrated setting of St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun. The text is simple, sparse, and rich: perfect read-aloud fare with little ones, and good for a quiet, meditative read with elementary-aged children. St. Francis’ song is a litany of thanksgiving for the small miracles that order our days: sun, moon, water, wind, sleep, fruit, flower, fellow-creatures. The beauty of the prayer, to me, is the way it awakens wonder for the things I take most for granted. In addition to the words of the prayer, the bright watercolor collage on each full page spread invites us to gratefully notice all of the wondrous variety and beauty in the quotidian.

In other words, this book is a testament to the joy and renewal that happens in the circle of our days. The words of the Preacher may feel more true, alas, especially to us grownups: “All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. All things are wearisome, more than one can say…What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:7-9). But paging through this book with my four-year-old, recounting the mercies that are daily renewed, I find myself echoing the prayer of St Francis:

For all your gifts, of every kind,
We offer praise with quiet mind.
Be with us Lord, and guide our ways
Around the circle of our days.

**Note: this book is currently out of print — I ran across it at a used bookshop — but is available used, and inexpensively at that, on Amazon.