A Great New Children’s Book

Some Background

My quixotic quest in recent years has been to find a good book of Bible stories for kids. I’ve always loved children’s books, but I discovered that there is a real lack of a good Catholic children’s Bible when I was teaching 4th grade religious education. The kids didn’t seem to know the basic stories—most of them couldn’t identify who Abraham was. I tried to read to them out of the children’s Bibles the parish had in the store room, all of which had either bad pictures, bad text, or both.

I went out to the bookstore to find my own Bible after I tried to read my class the story of the last supper from a picture Bible that was missing the words of consecration… instead I had to get the kids to recite them from memory (fortuantely they could all do that).

I have spent hours flipping through Bibles looking in vain for something with beautiful art that draws me into the text matched with beautiful language, preferably a text that does no damage to important theological concepts and ideally one that helps to explain concepts imbedded in the stories but not explicitly stated.

The Find

Finally today I found a book that does most of those things: Who Laid the Cornerstone of the World?.The only thing it lacks from my vision is that it is not a complete children’s Bible. Instead it excerpts eleven stories. But this is really a strength not a weakness because the book has a strong focus.

Taking it’s title from the Book of Job—it was the title and the cover illustration that grabbed my eye in the store—it presents a collection of stories linked not so much by theme as by the idea of the questions children ask. As the Introduction says:

The title of this collection is a question put to Job by God himself, and it is the sort of basic question asked by every child: “Who made me and where did everything come from?”  “What happens when we die?” “How did evil get into a perfect world?” “Why do people have to suffer?” These are not childish questions; they are only childlike. The child in each of us never stops asking them.

Of course, many adults know that these stories contain the answers to these questions, but many do not think of them in this way. They are almost too familiar as stories that people do not make the connection. The book makes these implicit questions explicit in the subtitles to each story. For example: “In the Beginning: The story of creation and why the world exists.” “The Wily Serpent: The story of Adam and Eve and why there is both good and bad” “The Tower that Reached to Heaven: The story of the tower of Babel and why it people find it so hard to understand one another” and my favorite “The Day Everything Went Wrong: The story of Job and how bad things happen to good people.”

Ann Pilling the Storyteller

The text itself has a grace and poetry all of its own that drew me in. The bible should have beautiful language and Pilling does this well:

On the fifth day, he set about making all kinds of living creatures, and he was extravagant. He created millions of everything: swarms of sea creatures to fiull the deep and flocks of fowl to fly above them in the sky. Some of these creatures were so tiny that they looked like specks of brilliant light. Everything, whether great or small, belonged to its own species and was separate from the next. Everything had its own special way of life. Although God had made countless numbers of creatures, he knew every single one of them.

I love that word extravagant. I love her emphasis on God’s loving attention to detail. At the end she adds: 

It is hard to understand how the Creator, who made huge things like the sun, the moon and the stars, could take the same care over the little things, and know all his creatures one by one. Yet he did, and he does, because he is Love.

Best of all, as I read I discovered that these stories were not as much translations so much as retellings. I love the way Pilling fearlessly adds her own text to the original stories to emphasize lessons about who God is and how he relates to us. The story of Adam and Eve concludes:

That is why there is both bad and good in the world, when God meant there to be only good. He had given Adam and Eve freedom, which meant that they were free too choose bad things as well as good, and they chose to do bad. But God went on providing for them, even as he sent them off to work in the world beyond Eden.

As Adam and Eve walked away hand in hand, God watched them from the entrance to his garden, and he looked sad.

This doesn’t sound like a moral of the story ending, but it clearly and concisely sums up the main ideas: sin is the consequence of our choice, it makes God sad, God does not stop loving us, but always provides, God does not want there to be bad in the world, but allows us the freedom to choose bad. 

Another thing I liked is that there is an attempt to make connections between stories. In the story of Noah she explicitly draws the parallels with her telling of the creation story:

For 150 days the world was covered with water. There were no signs of life because everything had perished. It was just as it had been in the awful chaos time before the world was made.

and after Noah and the animals are commanded to leave the ark:

“Come out of the ark… You and your family and all the creatures with you. Everything must have young and multiply.” It was just as if the world were being created all over again.

Of course, Noah’s ark has parallels to the creation story that are obvious to adults, and maybe some kids see it too or have it pointed out to them. However, I don’t remember consciously making these kind of connections until I was in college. I think it’s wonderful to find a children’s book that doesn’t see these as separate, discrete stories, but as a part of a thematic whole.

Underlying Pilling’s approach is a solid understanding of the Bible’s pedagogy. Her text makes the lessons integral to the telling of the story, it feels natural.

I notice on Amazon that Pilling also wrote The Kingfisher Book of Bible Stories and a quick comparison of the texts show that my favorite lines from Who Laid the Cornerstone are not in the Kingfisher. Also the Kingfisher pictures aren’t as good.

The Illustrations

Of course in children’s books good pictures are just as important as a good text. I’ve seen picture Bibles that had an adequate text but pictures which were too cartoonish for my taste or whose style simply did not appeal to me for one reason or another. Too often I feel the pictures dumb down the story or bear only a passing relationship to the text.

Helen Cann has provided beautiful artwork, water colors done in a wide range of colors from soft watery blue tones for the creation story, bold bright colors for other stories.

Each story has it’s own palette and thematic borders: spiralling waves for creation, animals on ramps for Noah, flames for the fiery furnace, sea creatures for the story of Jonah, a winding road for the good Samaritan. Sometimes they are mostly decorative, sometimes they actually tell a part of the story.

The animals and people are naturalistic and the people look appropriately Semetic, Egyptian, etc. except in the great tower of Bable scene where at the end one can identify a wide range of ethnic types. The clothing is more detailed than the generic robes in many Bible story books, and feels appropriately matched to the characters.

Adults and children alike will appreciate the detailed visual elements.

Final Note

Who Laid the Cornerstone is published by Loyola Press who also publish Amy Welborn’s excellent children’s books: The Loyola Kid’s Book of Saints and The Loyola Kids Book of Heroes. I’m thinking someone over there at Loyola is doing something right. I’ll have to keep my eye on them.

 

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