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.

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.

Thanks a Million

Thanks a Million
Nikki Grimes and Cozbi Cabrera
Greenwillow, 2006

One of my favorite poems is “Messenger,” by Mary Oliver (found in her collection, Thirst). In it, she writes:

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished…
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

Gratitude. I would love to say that it’s the fundamental posture of my life. At this point, let’s just say that it’s my highest aspiration. It’s a habit to be cultivated. And as I’m working on it myself, I’m trying to help my kids along the way too. So I was thrilled – grateful even! – to stumble across Thanks a Million at our local library branch last week.

Thanks a Million is a collection of poems about gratitude. What I love is how Grimes’ poems take seriously the whole range of children’s thanks: there are poems about weekends, ball games with dad, and a new friend in the lunchroom. Those simple moments are treated with as much respect as the thanks given by children who have lost parents, been embarrassed in front of classmates, or are sleeping in a homeless shelter. On setting the book down, the reader walks away with the sense that there is blessing everywhere, if only we know how to look.

And oh, the illustrations. They are vibrant, sensitive, and beautiful. The interplay between images and language is wonderfully done. Both my literate five-year old and her wiggly two-year-old brother were happy to sit and take in the poetry, and they were arrested by the illustrations. As we’re approaching the Thanksgiving holiday, this is a wonderful volume to spend some time with, and to spur us on towards becoming people whose work is gratitude.

The Genesis of It All

The Genesis of It All
Luci Shaw, Sr. Huai-Kuang Miao & Sr. Mary Lane
Paraclete, 2006

Luci Shaw is a contemporary poet whose work is rich, highly regarded, and deeply spiritual. She writes for and serves on the board of Image (which I love); has published volumes of poetry, essays, and spiritual memoir; and co-authored a few books with the late great Madeleine L’Engle. In other words, she’s really cool. And she has written a beautiful children’s book about creation, The Genesis of It All.

I love books about creation, generally. Once we can imagine that this world was crafted by God, with love and care, the most mundane things are suffused with wonder and mystery. I love this book, in particular, because of its emphasis on God’s delight in what he creates, and its attentiveness to the creative process. God thinks, ponders, and imagines – and these thoughts become the reality we inhabit. God is “exhilarated” and “excited” as he thinks and speaks the world into existence. And throughout, this marvelous refrain is repeated: “It wasn’t easy, but God did it. It was a mystery, so we don’t know how it happened. We weren’t there to see.”

As they read The Genesis of It All, children can see a continuity with their own budding creative processes. Our ability to imagine and create comes from our Creator, and we mirror his image whenever we make. But there is a clear emphasis on the originality and power of God’s creation, and a welcome acceptance of the mystery of it all. It’s okay that we don’t know how this all came about. We can explore it scientifically, but we’ll never be able to prove anything about the origins of life. We weren’t there to see. But we’re here now, to rejoice in the glory of it all, and to marvel at the wonder.

Glory

GloryGlory
Nancy White Carlstrom and Debra Reid Jenkins
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2001

“Glory be to God for dappled things,” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins in “Pied Beauty,” a paean to the unchanging God who is nevertheless author of “all things original, counter, spare, strange”. Creation, in its dazzling multiplicity, calls us to praise in all our varied ways the one “whose beauty is past change.”

Nancy White Carlstrom’s picture book Glory gives an explicit nod to Hopkins’ poem. Each verse in this short poetic book begins “Glory be to God for — ” and proceeds to describe the wild and amazing profusion of animal life that He created. It’s simple and elegant: birds, sea life, wild animals, pets and farm animals all appear, and we are called to notice how “all creatures by their being praise their Creator’s name.” It’s an appeal to pay attention, to notice God’s glory in the things we think we know – and a reminder that “if these were silent, the very rocks would cry out.”

This is just the sort of book I love to look through with my almost-two-year-old son on my lap. The text is spare, the illustrations are lively and bright — and appropriately enough, dappled. It’s simple but rich, and worth checking out.

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!

All Things Bright and Beautiful

All Things Bright and Beautiful
Ashley Bryan (and Cecil Francis Alexander)
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010

For some strange reason, it took me a long time to warm up to the idea of songs-as-picture-books.  Earlier this year, though, I found one that I loved, which made me think that maybe there might just be a few others out there that are worth checking out.  And I was right!   Last week Sarah reviewed a song-book and today I’ve got another one to share.

All Things Bright and Beautiful, unsurprisingly, is a book illustrated to the text of the hymn by the same name.  (Note that two verses of the verses are left out.  One of them is left out for good reason: check out the complete lyrics to see what I mean.)  It’s a lovely hymn, and one that is very appropriate for young children who are beginning to notice and be enthralled by nature.

The artwork in this book is done entirely in paper collage, and the pages are great fun to pore over.  Bright colors, attention to detail, and a variety of textures will surely make this book a favorite of many children.  In addition, if you or your children are inclined to creating your own artwork, I’m guessing that it will make you want to pull out some scissors and colored paper to try paper cutting and collage for yourself.  (If you do, send me a picture!)

My favorite line in the book is the last stanza of the hymn: “He gave us eyes to see them, and lips that we might tell, how great is God Almighty, who has made all things well.”   What great fodder for discussion – and what a beautiful way to pray for our children.  May we all see creation as the handiwork of God and have mouths that would freely praise him for his creativity and grandeur!

Morning Has Broken


Morning Has Broken

Eleanor Farjeon and Tim Ladwig
Eerdmans, 1996

When I was in high school, my dad used to wake us up on Sunday mornings by bursting upstairs with an ear-splitting rendition of Eleanor Farjeon’s hymn, Morning Has Broken. (And I do mean ear-splitting. My dad is a wonderful man, but vocal solos are not his strong suit. That was sort of the point of this form of alarm.) So man, did I hate that hymn.

So Tim Ladwig’s illustration of Morning Has Broken has gone a long way towards endearing the hymn to me. And for those of you without the unpleasant associations, you’ll find the book pure delight.

The text of the hymn is jubilant praise for the dawning of a new day – something that those of us with small children all too often forget to do. But Farjeon’s words remind us that the sun spilling over the horizon, right now, is “born of the one light Eden saw play!” We may stand on the other side of a sin and a blazing sword, but there’s a miracle afoot: though not untouched by our misdeeds, creation retains its glory!

This is a simple book. Tim Ladwig’s illustrations are full of light, life, and motion, and echo the wonder the hymn sings. It is a lovely little reminder of the sheer glory and abundant grace that is a new morning. My kids don’t see me rejoicing nearly enough at the sunrise. But this book offers a much more graceful – and faithful – picture than me shuffling for coffee. I’m happy to be able to offer it to them.

(And for you sadistic parents out there, the musical setting for the hymn is at the end. If you need to croon it loudly and out of tune to your tired teenagers, just don’t tell me about it.)

At Jerusalem’s Gate: Poems of Easter


At Jerusalem's GateAt Jerusalem’s Gate: Poems of Easter

Nikki Grimes and David Frampton
Eerdmans, 2005

One of the things I love most about literature is its ability to precisely name things we are otherwise familiar with, and to help us to see them anew. Poetry, in particular, is the art of naming with precision and care. And Nikki Grimes’ volume of Easter poems, At Jerusalem’s Gate does a beautiful job of naming – of precisely articulating – what it must have been like to experience the intense, devastating, ultimately transformative events in Jerusalem two thousand years ago.

The first poem opens, literally, at Jerusalem’s gate as a minor Jewish priest strains to get a glimpse of the wonderworker who is processing into Jerusalem on a donkey. He ponders the accounts and probability of Jesus’ miracles, and concludes, “He is, by all accounts, extraordinary, yet I find him quite ordinary.” Until, that is:

Until he turns and drinks me in.
I gasp, a-tremble,
grasp a palm frond
and wave in a frenzy of praise and adoration,
singing Hosanna!
Hosanna! Hosanna!
as if my very life depends upon it.

It’s a simple account, surely – and yet a living glimpse into what it must have been like to be swept into the adoration and excitement that was Palm Sunday.

The poems proceed through the events of Holy Week, the Passion, the Resurrection and the Ascension. What I particularly appreciate is how each poem calls us to consider these events as they really happened. What must it have been like, after all, to be at Passover and suddenly have Jesus announce that one of his beloved disciples would betray him? And that he would die? And oh, yes, this bread is his body and this wine is his blood? I think we can become immune to the language, over time, and these poems restore some of the original shock and confusion that accompanied the events.

There are two poems, in particular, that I love. The first is called “From a Distance” (not to be confused with the Bette Midler song, for readers of a certain age), and it recounts Peter’s experience witnessing the Crucifixion from afar. “The shadow of the thing/was all I saw,/the crosses, three, a blot/against the sky.” As much as we read about Peter’s betrayal, I never thought about what it must be like to know that your Lord and Friend was being executed and only to see the thing from afar. This is a despairing poem, full of anger and grief, as Peter must have felt his highest hopes and dreams betrayed. For those of us who like to remember that we always live in the Resurrection, it is a good thing to be pulled back into the anguish of Good Friday and Holy Saturday from time to time.

The poem that immediately follows is “The Highwayman,” and it is in the voice of the believing thief on the cross (Luke 25:39-43). He recognizes Jesus in his innocence and royalty (“I’ve robbed and roundly beaten/enough innocents to know/he is one.”) and asks to be remembered when Jesus comes into His kingdom. With his dying breath, Jesus promises that they will be together in Paradise. The last four lines of the poem are words I hope to recite on my own deathbed:

My guilt and fear evaporate.
Content–I never was before!–
I close my eyes to wait
’til we meet at heaven’s door.

Of course, even as I write this, I can think of other favorites as well – including one in which the tree which has been hewn into the Cross asks its Maker’s forgiveness, and the one in which Mary says her last goodbye to her Son. That one never fails to make me cry.

The poems are accompanied by beautiful woodcut illustrations by David Frampton. The figures evoke Byzantine icons, and illuminate the words of the poetry without distracting.

In our house, Holy Week is special; it always feels as though time goes more slowly and is richer, more sacred. Last year, my daughter and I read the poems that accompanied each day, and I plan to do the same this year. These poems invite children into the wonder, fear, and majesty of the events, and don’t shy away from the difficult questions they raise. Questions like, was Judas destined to betray Jesus? What role did his own will play? Could Jesus have refused his Father’s commission in the Garden? The poems refuse to offer simple answers, and instead invite us into the mystery and human drama by which we are all saved.

A note: last year, I did skip the poem about Jesus’ torture before his death (“Call It What You Will”). The account of Jesus’ suffering – while perfectly biblical – was just too graphic for my then-three-year-old. I think I’ll probably skip it this year too. And be forewarned that the thief on the cross calls damnation down on the religious leaders who condemn Jesus to death. I think those things are perfectly appropriate for older children, but I’m waiting a bit to introduce them to my preschool-aged daughter. Still, although much of the rest of the volume is a little over her head, I still found it worthwhile to read with her and anticipate making it a tradition each Holy Week and Easter.

Psalms for Young Children

Psalms for Young Children
Marie-Hélène Delval & Arno
Eerdmans, 2008

Back in college, I suffered a brief bout of Benedictine-envy after reading Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk. (Never mind that I was engaged to be married and my theological background is thoroughly Protestant; the book is that good.) Looking back now, I think the most inviting part of the monastic life she describes is the practice of praying through the Psalms as a community, over and over and over. What better way to move through the whole range of human emotion and relation to God, and, over time, to be formed by them so that the Psalmists’ honesty, praise, and intimacy with God become our own?

Hoping to introduce my young daughter to just that beauty and possibility of the Psalms, I put Marie-Hélène Delval’s Psalms for Young Children into her Easter basket this year, and I haven’t been disappointed. This lovely little volume is a collection of paraphrased Psalms, rendered (in the publisher’s words) in “language and imagery appropriate for children while remaining faithful to the spirit of the biblical text.” In other words, it makes the power of the Psalms — the ability to cry out in rawness to God, the permission to question and doubt, and the freedom to praise wholeheartedly — available to very young children.

The simple paraphrases of each Psalm are easily grasped by small children, but they retain the colorful imagery and emotional resonance of the originals. Think of them as distilled into their emotional essence — some of the nuance may be lost, but the brightness of intention is all there. Delval doesn’t shy away from the pain and fear found in the Psalms; her rendering of Psalm 88 is particularly poignant:

God, please listen to me. / I am full of sadness, I am crying. / I feel lonely and scared. / Do you really love me? / I’m calling you, God.  / Please comfort me!

These texts are set alongside gorgeous illustrations by Arno, which don’t attempt to straightforwardly portray some image in the Psalm so much as illuminate the meaning of the whole. Spend some time poring over the pictures with a child, and you’ll see what I mean. Together, words and pictures evoke the prayerful spirit of each Psalm and invite us to linger there. Give this book to a child you know, read it along with her, and you’ll not only introduce her to the Psalms as wonderful, poetic prayer, but hopefully be moved by them yourself as well.