It’s that time of year again, time to muster the books and plans for Lent with children. Time to look fondly on that box full of picture books for Advent and Christmas that I brought out just three months ago and packed away just last month and to wonder why the pickings for Lent are so much slimmer.
Well, that’s pretty obvious, really. Advent is about a baby, kids can get that. Advent is a season made for small children: angels and babies, and wonder. Lent is about death, the passion is hard for kids. No, little ones might be able to get Easter, but Lent is really a season for adults and older children. Kids who have made their first communion, or at least who are preparing to make their first communion, they can start to enter into the season of Lent. But preschoolers, it’s not really a liturgical season they will dwell in readily in their imagination.
A few picture books about Easter will have to suffice and I’ll also mention some books that aren’t explicitly seasonal but which might be profitably read during Lent or given to a child in an Easter basket. Also, a few books for older kids while I’m at it.
On Facebook I recently saw a mom posting about needing to bring out her huge box of Lent/Easter books and I wondered what on earth could be in that box, lots of books about bunnies and flowers and eggs? Maybe. Or maybe she was getting creative with what kinds of books are good Lenten reading for little ones, focusing on saint stories, Bible stories, and books which will inspire prayer, fasting, and almsgiving?
When Bella was about five or six she started to be interested in Lent in small ways. She played at being in the tomb with Jesus and then coming out again. She looked at the cross and at the image of the resurrected Jesus in the garden and tried to make sense of them. She even started to draw pictures of the tomb and of the crucifixion. But before that, for the 3-5 set, Lent isn’t really for them.
Here are my few Lenten/Easter picture books that I have that we read every year and a few off the wall suggestions.
For the Little Ones
1. The Easter Story by Brian Wildsmith tells the story of the passion and resurrection from the point of view of the donkey that carried Christ on his back. “The little donkey had never been ridden before, but Jesus spoke gently to him, and soon he stopped being afraid.” Soft watercolor illustrations with gold highlights on each page. The language strikes a nice balance being neither overly simple nor overly flowery. The Eucharistic language of the Last Supper is maintained:
“Take and eat this,” said Jesus, holding the bread. “It is my body.” And the donkey watched as Jesus lifted up a cup of wine. “Take and drink this,“Jesus said. “It is my blood.”
The bloody details of the passion are gently minimized: no scourging just mockery,
“So the soldiers took Jesus away. They put a crown of thorns on his head and made fun of him. ‘Hail the King of the Jews!’ they said. They gave him a huge cross of wood and forced him to carry it.”
(The donkey wishes he could help Jesus carry it.) And the crucifixion and death are all covered in a simple statement: “They crucified him between two thieves.” The narrative moves directly from that to Joseph requesting the body from Pilate.
The donkey witnesses the resurrection and the ascension and then returns home. “And the donkey stayed there the rest of his life, remembering the kind and good man he had carried on his back to Jerusalem.”
I’m not thrilled with reducing Jesus to a “kind and good man” in the final sentence, I think there are plenty of stories and pious legends about animals recognizing the divinity of Christ and I’d have preferred the story take that tack. But it isn’t terrible either. At least the book covers all the essentials of the story. I think this is a good introduction to Easter and works well with a preschooler’s level of understanding and attention span.
2. Another book in a similar vein is The Donkey and the Golden Light by John and Gill Speirs that follows a donkey who was born on the same night and in the same stable as Jesus and who never forgets that it was a special night, symbolized by the mysterious golden light that shines from the star that guided the Magi. The donkey, named Bethlehem, also accompanies his mother when she carries the Holy Family on their flight to Egypt. When the Holy Family returns to Israel, he goes to work in the Temple garden. We continue to follow him as he passes from owner to owner and continues to ponder the events in his life and especially the meaning of the golden light he has witnessed.
The story is recursive: each incident adds another item to the list that the donkey remembers and ponders which grows longer and longer. This is from near the end:
“As he made his way into the city, Bethlehem thought of
the donkeys seeking comfort in one another,
the woodcutters struggling to make a living,
the village children looking for fun,
the farmer helping him find strength,
the peasants hoping for a bountiful future,
the merchants pursuing riches,
the vagabonds entertaining the villagers,
the students seeking knowledge,
and his family searching for safety…”
The repetition can get bit tedious, not only for me but even for small children; mostly because there are so many items in the list by the end. Sometimes with little ones I skip items in later iterations of the list to streamline the reading.
He is later the donkey that carries Christ into Jerusalem, thinking there is something familiar and special about this man. The crucifixion is not really dealt with directly in the story. The donkey is only aware of an earthquake and a great disturbance as angels challenge the forces of evil in a painting inspired by Bruegel’s fall of the rebel angels. A small circle with three crosses hangs in the background almost lost in the tumult and confusion. I think it rather works, though. I like the oblique approach which allows children to pay attention to the crucifixion or to ignore it depending on their own readiness and need. The book ends as the donkey meets the resurrected Jesus in the garden and recognizes him and finally enters into his rest and peace.
All the art in the book is inspired by various paintings from Pieter Bruegel the Elder and is rich in detail and color. A nice touch is that various events in the life of Jesus are in the background during these other scenes when Jesus is not explicitly mentioned in the text: the child Jesus in the Temple, the baptism in the Jordan, the temptation in the wilderness, the feast at Cana, walking on water, blessing the children, the raising of Lazarus, the sermon on the mount, etc. A list of these appearances is in the back of the book, with thumbnails to highlight Jesus. Also, this list explains which Bruegel painting inspired each of Speirs’ paintings.
I really liked the fine art aspects of the book. It really reminded me of the pairing of Auden’s Musee de Beaux Arts with Brugel’s The Fall of Icarus that I studied in some long-ago poetry reader. Spiers uses that painting, in fact, replacing the figure of Icarus with Jesus walking on the water. The detail-rich paintings were fascinating to Bella when we read it when she was a preschooler, though I’m sure she didn’t understand the more hidden meanings yet.
3. The Tale of Three Trees: A Traditional Folktale is one I’ve used both as a Christmas and Easter book. It’s a fable about three trees, one of which is made into the manger, one becomes the fishing boat that carries Christ in the storm, and the third becomes the cross.
4. Easter by Fiona French is a gorgeous presentation of the Easter story. She tells the story in twelve stained glass tableaux: the entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the betrayal in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus judged before Pilate, the scourging at the pillar, the carrying of the cross, the crucifixion, taking him from the cross and laying him in the tomb, the resurrection, meeting with doubting Thomas, the loaves and fishes by the Sea of Tiberius, the ascension into heaven.
The effect is rather like guiding a child on a tour of a church, examining the artwork and explicating it. Which is a plus for me as I love the didactic art in old churches. I especially adore stained glass and love the way French uses its conventions.
The text is taken from the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament, but the book doesn’t present the full text of the Gospel, just short passages of a paragraph or two that caption the picture. I like that it doesn’t water down the Biblical language with too-simple paraphrases and yet doesn’t overwhelm with too much text either. I felt like this book really opened up a dialogue with Bella, inviting her to ask questions.
French’s Easter might work well paired with her book, Paradise, which recounts the story of the Creation and the fall in the Garden of Eden.
5. The Easter Story: According to the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John illustrated by Gennady Spirin
Pairs the KJV text of the Gospels with Spirin’s gorgeous illustrations. Don’t let the KJV text deter you, this one is worth it for the pictures. So, so, so beautiful they will feed a child’s imagination and thirst for beauty.
I actually like my kids to have a passing familiarity with the KJV, it’s so often the version quoted in English literature, a well-educated person should be familiar with its language and rhythms. So though I wouldn’t use it for devotional reading, I don’t avoid it in picture books and other places my children will encounter it.
6. Petook: An Easter Story by Caryll Houselander illustrated by Tomie de Paola
It’s not my favorite Easter story, but many people love it, including some of my kids. I should probably break down and buy a copy at some point. Easter told from the point of view of the chickens, a bit reminiscent of Chaucer’s story of Chanticleer. I don’t know why I don’t love this, but its just one of those books I dread reading aloud. The sentences are too long or something.
7. Unfortunately Maite Roche’s My First Pictures of Easter seems to be out of print and used copies are very expensive. But consider a Maite Roche book about Jesus for the Easter basket, My First Pictures of Jesus, The Beautiful Story of Jesus, or The Gospel for Little Ones. Or maybe even Baptism Day if you’re talking about the link between baptism and Easter.
8. The Blackbird’s Nest: Saint Kevin of Ireland by Jenny Schroedel, illustrated by Doug Montross
While not explicitly a Lenten book, Kevin’s ordeal with the blackbird’s nest lasts the whole forty days of Lent and is transformative. This book would be a great way to begin a conversation about prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and sacrifice and the transformative power of Lent whose purpose is to bring us to the Easter Vigil and to restore us to communion with Christ and the Church. This book is a long-time family favorite (see my review here)
9. The Saving Name of God the Son by Jean Ann Sharpe, illustrated by Fra Angelico
Another book that’s not really an Easter book exactly, but a gorgeous picture book about Jesus that has images of the passion, the tomb, and the resurrection. This board book is a treasure and if you don’t have it, you should buy it and put it in your child’s Easter basket, even if he is fourteen. it’s that beautiful. The art of Fra Angelico is paired with a beautiful, poetic text, a meditation on the Name of Jesus.
10. The Monk Who Grew Prayer by Claire Brandenburg
Ok, one more book that’s not about Lent but about prayer. If you don’t have The Monk Who Grew Prayer, you’re missing a treasure. It’s a beautiful introduction to the Liturgy of the Hours as it follows an orthodox monk through his daily routine, which hinges on work and the liturgy. You could use it in conjunction with a resolution to pray one or more of the hours during Lent.
For Older Children
Thinking about pairing Fiona French’s Easter and Paradise reminds me that The End of the Fiery Sword, Adam and Eve, Jesus and Mary by Maura Roan McKeegan is another beautiful book that speaks to the necessity of the passion and resurrection by highlighting Biblical typology, showing parallels between the story of the Fall and the story of Redemption. And Into the Sea, Out of the Tomb is a story about Jonah and Jesus that focuses on the story of Jonah and the whale as a type of the death and resurrection of Jesus. (see my reviews here and here.)
My Path to Heaven by Father Geoffrey Bliss SJ, illustrated by Caryll Houselander, a beautiful Ignatian retreat that uses intricate pictures and thoughtful text to guide children in contemplation. Even though it is aimed at older children, last year it especially captivated five year old Anthony.
There are many books I could mention, but I’ll leave it at the two we are currently reading ourselves:
St Patrick’s Summer: A Children’s Adventure Catechism by Marigold Hunt.
Two children, Michael and Cecilia, meet St Patrick and other saints, who show them visions of the past, and teaches them their catechism in a very exciting manner. It sounds kind of cheesy, but it’s not. The storytelling is top notch and so is the catechetics.
Sun Slower, Sun Faster by Mariol Trevor
Two children, cousins who have not previously met, in post-WW2 England find themselves at the country house which has been in their family for centuries. They find themselves traveling back in time, first to the Victorian era and then each successive jump takes them further back in time. They meet their ancestors, go on adventures, and learn about the Catholic faith and the history of Catholics in England. It’s not a tediously didactic novel; the lessons are so smoothly interwoven into the exciting adventure story and the reader learns as the children themselves do.