Book Reviews

                               

 Welcome to the inspiring world of children’s books! Recently, a friend asked me to write about children’s books. 

“What books do you think should be on the bookshelf of every Catholic family?” she asked.

 I am delighted to share my enthusiasm for children’s literature. As you will discover, I will not always recommend books about the bible or saints or the sacraments. Sometimes I will write about books that I consider classics from the broader world of children’s literature. Let me explain.

I believe there are objective and unchanging standards of goodness, truth, and beauty. By surrounding our children with inspiring books, young readers ultimately come to know Our Lord who is Truth. In these short reflections, I hope to help parents cultivate in their children a sense of beauty as depicted in literature.  Some books give shining examples of virtue; others have villains creeping through the pages, stirring up trouble. After all, exciting books need bad guys and tons of trouble. 

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I cannot think of a better Christmas gift to give the young reader in your family than The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—included on Time magazine’s list of the 100 Best Young-Adult Books of all time. Set in the fantasy land of Narnia, it is a classic battle of good versus evil, a place where it is always winter and never Christmas. For 100 years Narnia has been in the icy grip of the White Witch, a deadly antagonist who waves her wand and turns subjects into stone. One of the most memorable characters in all of children’s literature is Aslan, the majestic lion who is king of Narnia and on a noble mission to regain his rightful kingdom.

C.S. Lewis brilliantly weaves a thrilling adventure story with Christian themes. Although this was his first children’s book (he had no children of his own), he intuitively knew that you grab a young reader’s attention by making children the heroes. His protagonists are the four Pevensie children, evacuated from their home during the German blitz bombing of London during World War II. They are sent to live in a country estate owned by a kindly professor. One rainy day, the children play hide and seek. Lucy, the youngest, hides in a wardrobe closet that magically opens up to the strange world of Narnia—a world of talking beavers, mythological creatures, and murderous dwarves.

I have always been intrigued by Lucy’s brother Edmund whose actions exemplify the slippery slope of sin. His small lies turn to big lies and ultimately into outright betrayal of his siblings, putting them in grave danger at the hands of the White Witch. His obsession with the sweet confection Turkish Delight, supplied by the witch, accurately portrays the allurement of sin.

I was fascinated with C.S. Lewis’ description of the writing process. 

At first, I had very little idea how the story would go. But then Aslan came bounding into it…I don’t know where the Lion came from or why he came. But once he was there, he pulled the whole story together.

How grateful we are that Aslan bounded into the imagination of a gifted writer. Aslan, who gave his life to ransom Edmund the betrayer, is stabbed to death by the White Witch and resurrects the next morning, ultimately leading the epic battle against the forces of evil. Aslan is the most powerful Christ-figure in all of children’s literature.

Definitely add The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to your bookshelf. I also recommend the movie version entitled Narnia (2005). Filmed in New Zealand, it accurately presents the story, complete with dramatic scenes of towering cliffs, snowy woods, and ice-covered rivers—all adding to this classic story.

                          

Notice right away that the title provides a clue to the entire book. Jesus is not spoken of in the past tense. Jesus is alive and present to us now. That is the intent of this elegant book suitable for ages 6-12. Using maps, illustrations and intriguing facts, this book truly brings to life Jesus and his times. In one grand narrative arc, the writer puts together salvation history from Abraham to the Resurrection. 

Simply told, we are lead step by step through the story of Moses, judges, kings and the prophets. Detailed maps show us key spots along the Mediterranean Sea including Mt. Taber, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem. We read what people ate, where they lived and what they wore. I cannot think of any other book that describes the house where the Holy Family lived.

The houses of the period were simple square boxes with whitewashed earthen walls. There was only one room, and the only light came through a door and sometimes a window.

In this simple description, we can better imagine the hidden life of Jesus in Nazareth, a village “nestled in a valley at the foot of a steep hill.” An illustration shows Mary wiping the face of her little boy. Joseph looks on, smiling as he ponders this moment of tranquility.

Indeed, all of us, young and old alike, can learn from this book. I imagine families reading it together, tying together Gospel readings with chapters in the book.  One section delves into parables. We learn about rhythms of the seasons and agriculture in the Holy Land. Another chapter covers Jesus’ last days, including a description of the crown of thorns, woven from a creeping plant often used as kindling. A small photograph of the Shroud of Turin appears near the end of the book-likely to spark the curiosity of any reader.

Children will enjoy studying the delightful illustrations of fish and animals galore, including St. Peter’s fish complete with spiny dorsal fins. We learn that Jesus came to know his grandparents, who lived in Nazareth.

No other book like this exists among Catholic children’s books. It is definitely not another children’s bible, but goes beyond stories, making the life of Jesus come alive.

Published by Magnificat and Ignatius Press, 91 pages. Written by Gaelle Tertrais Illustrated by Adeline Avril

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Maine is home for many famous children’s book authors. E.B White, author of Charlotte’s Web, spent childhood summers on Great Pond in Rome and later settled in Blue Hills. Barbara Cooney, winner of the prestigious Caldecott Award, resided in Damariscotta. Add Ethel Pochocki to your list of Maine authors worthy of your attention.

I will tell you a secret about Ethel -she loved to write about saints and could not stop. To her, it was like eating popcorn or peanuts. Picture her table strewn with books and papers as she researches a saint.

As I work away, I have gotten hooked on a saint who is so funny, brave , outrageous, or noble that I must include him or her in the book.