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.

Be Blest

Be BlestBe Blest
Mary Beth Owens
Simon & Schuster, 1999

There are several times during the year that naturally lend themselves to reflection on the past and wondering about the future: the start of a new school year, the beginning of Advent and a new church year, the turning of seasons, January 1st. As you may have gathered, a big part of moving through the church year for my family has to do with the books we read, and the same is true of the seasonal year. We have books that are read all year round, of course, but others only get pulled out at certain times. Today’s book is unique in that it’s a thoroughly seasonal book, yet it’s appropriate for sharing at any time, no matter what month or season we’re in.

I picked up Be Blest at that used book sale I mentioned back in October. I’d never heard of it before, but the illustrations were so striking that I was immediately drawn to it. Each of the twelve spreads features a short seasonal poem on the left surrounded by a circular illustration done in a matching seasonal theme. The righthand side of each spread is a full page illustration with a caption listing one of the months of the year. So, for instance, January’s spread shows various winter animals in a snowy landscape, while August’s depicts blackberries and foraging bears.

Owens’ work is beautiful, which makes this a book to move through slowly, noticing artistic details and thinking about the poems that whisper praises to the Creator. Each one starts with a word or phrase that is repeated for three months in a row. Be Blest is for winter, Sing Praise is for spring, Rejoice is for summer, and Give Thanks is for autumn. To whet your appetite, here’s the complete verse for January:

Be Blest / when wind and ice / shake seeds / from lifeless plants / and tattered weeds.

On barren branches / leaf buds bear  / the promise of  / another year.

The author’s note tells how the book’s inspiration was Saint Francis’ “Canticle of Brother Sun.” She also notes that she drew from other traditions and, indeed, I am sure that many outside of the Christian faith would find much to like about this book. However, just because there’s not Trinitarian theology clearly coming through on each page doesn’t mean that we Trinitiarians should steer clear of this lovely book. While you won’t find a complete Nicene Creed here there’s nothing in the text that I find contradictory to it. It is, truly, a wonderful book, and I hope that you’ll check it out – especially those of you who share a fondness for the turning of seasons and are attuned to how God’s faithfulness can be seen in nature.

Christmas Day in the Morning

Christmas Day

Christmas Day in the Morning
Pearl S. Buck & Mark Buehner
HarperCollins Children’s, 2002

I’ve seen Christmas Day in the Morning in the past couple of Chinaberry holiday catalogues, and marked it to track down and check out. Then a few weeks ago, I was browsing in Books Inc for some Christmas presents and saw it displayed alongside a few of my other favorites, Christmas in Noisy Village The Story of Holly and Ivy. I love Mark Buehner’s artwork (for some non-theological favorites, check out Fanny’s Dream and Snowmen at Night), and a quick glance through this lovely hardback landed it quickly in my pile. What I wasn’t expecting was to review it here.

Originally published in 1955, Christmas Day in the Morning is the tale of a boy’s discovery that his father loves him, and the desire that is immediately awakened by that discovery to give a gift of love of his own. Rob lives on a farm with his hardworking parents, and pitches in dutifully with the chores like early-morning milking. But one day, he overhears his father’s regret that he has to wake Rob so early for the work and “something in him woke: his father loved him!” It’s that sudden realization so many of us have in early adolescence: as we begin to emerge from childhood’s (necessary) self-centeredness, it dawns on us that our parents aren’t just a fixture of the universe. Their years of care come from choice, and dedication, and fidelity — from love.

What’s so beautiful about this story is Rob’s response. It’s the biblical response of the Beloved to the Lover: an immediate desire to sacrifice, to show an awareness of the gift that has been given and to reciprocate. illuminuated by Mark Buehner’s tender and feeling illustrations, this story absolutely deserves a spot under the Christmas tree or to be read aloud on Christmas Eve. After all, it echoes (in a simple, creaturely tale) the True Story of Christmas: the Son who so loves that Father that he responds by pouring himself out, straight into his own creation, and the Father’s echoing delight.

I’ve already read this story with my children, and am planning on reading it again with them and their cousins once more before Christmas. If you’re looking for a new Christmas tradition, or simply a good book to share as a family, this is one that I can heartily recommend.

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.

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.

In the Time of Noah

In the Time of NoahIn the Time of Noah
N.D. Wilson & Peter Bentley
Canon Press, 2007

The series title in which In The Time of Noah appears is The Old Stories. And that’s important to keep in mind when opening N.D. Wilson’s retelling of the Flood story. It is an old, old story. Old, and strange.

A short mention in the flyleaf notes that:

In the Time of Noah uses the version of the Deluge story told by many church fathers from the first several centuries after Christ. Nemesius of Emesa, Ambrose, and Clement of Alexandria are just a few. Augustine believed the giants were true giants, but were not the descendants of angelic beings. Others deny both elements of the story and, of course, today it’s not difficult to find theologians who deny the story in its entirety.”

Yep: giants. That’s your first clue that this is not a version of the Noah story that you’ll want to reproduce on nursery hangings. Rather, Wilson is telling the story the way it would have been known in parts of the early church. This telling was deeply influenced by The Book of Enoch, a text that got attention from the church fathers because it appears to be quoted in the book of Jude. (See? You should go read Jude. It’s more exciting than you thought, tucked back in there between 3 John and Revelation.) The first part of Enoch is called the Book of the Watchers, and it’s about those mysterious nephilim mentioned in Genesis 6. Enoch takes them to be, literally, the offspring of the fallen angels and human women. Wilson picks up on this reading – influential as it was in the early church – as the touchpoint for his own version. So if you’re looking for a book that refrains from elaborating on the biblical account (six-fingered giant kings, anyone?) then The Time of Noah is plainly not for you.

Or maybe it is. Honestly, I was put off at first by what felt like too much imaginative liberty with the Genesis story. Then I went back and re-read the Genesis story. People: it’s weird, and old, and full of all kinds of interpretive possibility. Without launching into a history of hermeneutics, let me say that I tend to read much of Genesis not as historical writing as we understand it in the 21st century, but as an account of the origins of our rebellion against God and his mysterious, merciful beginnings of rescue. A history, yes: but one that borrows and transforms the poetics of its age, not the forensic fact-checking journalism we expect today.

So: if my goal is to saturate my children’s imaginations biblically, I want to do it on the Bible’s own terms. And In The Time of Noah does great service to the flood story here. It takes a story we’ve become over-familiar with — to the point that we think we know it without reading it — and makes it strange and compelling once again. The evil that God determines to destroy is menacing and cruel, posing a direct challenge to his authority.  The waters that wash it away are at once judgment and mercy, a terrible liberation, and the earth rises again cleansed of a particularly ruinous rebellion. This is the logic of the biblical flood account, a logic that echoes through the arklike rooms where the Hebrews wait on Passover, and hangs over us as we stand in the waters of baptism, which Paul insists is a kind of death (Rom 6:4).

It’s true, N.D. Wilson does engage imaginatively with the biblical text – but only in ways Christians have been doing for centuries, opening up the Bible in all its deep explanatory power. The Time of Noah renders Noah’s story an old – venerable, rich, wise – story once again. Wilson ushers us back into the strange world of Genesis 6 and helps us to see more clearly the magnitude, and the mercy, of the flood.

He Was One of Us

He Was One of UsHe Was One of Us
Rien Poortvliet & Hans Bouma
Doubleday, 1978

I have a friend – and I hope you are blessed with one of these too – whom I will follow blindly into any book. If she tells me to read something, I will, no matter how far it falls off my radar screen. Over and over, her choices have delighted, challenged, or taught me. I used to be in a book group with her, and read what she told me to for several years, so believe me: she has totally earned her book-choosing street-cred. (And is probably reading this blog right now: Hi, Sarah!)

So of course, when she emailed and asked if I had seen Rien Poortvliet’s He Was One of Us (I hadn’t), there was nothing to do but request it from interlibrary loan. Right away. And of course, she was right.

Sadly out of print, this is nonetheless a volume absolutely worth hunting for. He Was One of Us is a large, gorgeous collection of drawings by Dutch artist Rien Poortvliet depicting the life of Jesus and the reactions he evoked in those around him. Each painting is accompanied by short, evocative text by Hans Bouma that pulls the viewer straight into the world of the drawing. Much of the focus is on those around Jesus, arresting them mid-reaction to his words and deeds. Supplicant hands reach out; features twist in anger and rejection; self-satisfied, comfortable arms are crossed, shutting Jesus out. Paging through this volume, I felt not so much an observer as a participant in the gospel scenes – each page invites us to react, heart and mind, to the events playing out before us.

And honestly – sitting on the sunny porch of the Walt Disney museum in the Presidio, with tourists filing past – I teared up while paging through the book. The drawings radiate real, incarnate human life, almost like a collected family album.  Anna and Simeon gaze at the baby with a look that anyone who has held a newborn will recognize. Spread across two pages, a baby Jesus nurses; toddler Jesus plays and snuggles his father; a young man grins, proudly, holding the tools of his father’s trade. The disciples, standing with Jesus, are captured in a moment, almost as college friends enjoying the afternoon are caught by a camera unaware. The text above is poignant, as they smile out at us: “Do they know what awaits them? They’ll despair, be mocked, hated, threatened, persecuted. Their quiet life is a thing of the past. Either you belong to Jesus or you don’t.”

There’s a sense of reality and wholeness we can get from seeing the disparate moments of someone’s life captured in images and arranged in a narrative. (Why else do we put together slideshows at graduations, weddings, and funerals?) The great gift of He Was One of Us is that it invites us to contemplate Jesus’ life and humanity through these vivid, provocative portraits. Slight enough of text that the smallest lap child can join in, rich and evocative enough to be used devotionally by adults, and gorgeous enough to live on a coffee table and draw in unsuspecting visitors, this is a book to be treasured.