Two Irish Saints: Picture Books Reviewed

Two Irish Saints: Picture Books Reviewed

I rarely buy books. Most of the time I either borrow them from the library or swap on Book Mooch. When I do buy books, I like to get ones that I’m not likely to find from either of those sources. And thus my book buying tends very heavily toward Catholic books and especially Catholic picture books for Isabella and future kids. Among the recent haul of books for Isabella’s birthday were a bunch of picture books with Catholic themes. I’m going to try to post about them a few at a time over the next few days.

The most recent to arrive were two books about Irish saints. Now my MA studies were in Irish literature and I’m particularly fascinated by medieval hagiography, so admittedly I bought these as much for myself as for Bella. But isn’t that what so much of parenthood is about, sharing our passions with our children, hoping to ignite a similar spark?

The Blackbird’s Nest is the story of St. Kevin, a story I first became acquainted with in Seamus Heaney’s poem, St Kevin and the Blackbird (Click through to read the full text of the poem. Unfortunately, it seems the recording of Heaney reading the poem is broken. I love his voice!). In both Heaney’s poem and in this beautiful picture book by Jenny Schroedel and Doug Montross, it’s a fabulous story about a real historical figure, the abbot and founder of the monastery at Glendalough. And it’s full of the most marvelous of medieval flights of fancy that carry deep spiritual truths, even if they do seem a little hard to swallow as historical fact.

The crux of the story is that St. Kevin, kneeling in prayer with his arm stretched out the window, has a blackbird build its nest in his hand. He then must continue to hold that posture for forty days until the eggs have hatched and the babies grown up and flown away. The book points out that the forty days has a spiritual significance: “Just as Kevin waited for the baby birds to break open their eggs and come to new life in his hand, during Lent we wait for Christ to break open the tomb and bring new life into our hearts.” The book follows St. Kevin from his miracle-touched birth (the snow melted all around his house) to his holy death at one hundred and twenty and has a wonderful message about loving nature and our fellow men.

Isabella loves the pictures of the animals and is especially enchanted with the image of infant Kevin’s baptism, chattering about the priest “putting water on the baby’s head” (just as her sister was baptized a few weeks ago). I love the fact that the book concludes with an icon, a short biography and a prayer to St. Kevin, reminding me that he’s more than just a storybook figure, he’s also an intercessor in heaven, a real person with whom we have a wonderful relationship as fellow members of the Body of Christ.

You were privileged to live in the age of saints, O Father Kevin, being baptized by one saint, taught by another, and buried by a third. Pray to God that he will raise up saints in our day to help, support, and guide us in the way of salvation.

Highly recommended for all ages.

I had high hopes for Across a Dark and Wild Sea, writen and illustrated by Don Brown, the story of St. Columcille (also known as St. Columba), but I am sadly disappointed. It isn’t a terrible book, but it falls short of what it should be and could be and its deficiencies are in strong contrast when it’s read next to the excellent book about St Kevin.

I had two main complaints. The first is an overly didactic tone that gets in the way of telling a good story. Brown’s decision to incorporate definitions of words, information about the historical period, and a long discourse about the process of making manuscripts into the flow of the story is an unfortunate one. This information, while quite welcome, could have been included as notes at the back of the book rather than in the text of the story. (This is what the story of St Kevin does and I think it allows the story to be entertaining to a much younger audience while still informing an older reader.) The story frequently bogs down and I noticed Isabella’s interest waning at the same time I began to be annoyed.

My second complaint is that the book is completely secular in its approach. That Columcille is a saint is only mentioned in the author’s note at the end. It doesn’t appear at all in the text of the story. God is never mentioned and religion, faith and prayer seem to be embarrassing incidentals to be glossed over and talked around as much as possible. The author seems to be an outsider, distinctly uncomfortable with the vocabulary of religion.

I think this discomfort can be demonstrated best in contrasting the way the two books handle the protagonists’ entrance to monastic life. The Blackbird’s Nest states simply:

When he was seven, Kevin’s parents sent him to live at a monastery where he could learn to read, write and pray. As he knelt beside the monks in chapel, he felt he almost belonged there.

Across a Dark and Wild Sea, on the other hand, though clearly written at a much more advanced reading level, seems distinctly uncomfortable with the vocabulary of faith and introduces awkward circumlocutions to define the words “monastery” and “monk”, words which the Kevin book simply uses naturally without any glosses:

These schools were part of religious communities called monasteries and were candles of learning in a dark world. Columcille became a monastery member known as a monk.

Really, “monastery member”!?! Give me a break!

Another passage that sounded a wrong note was when after a bloody battle Columcille imposes a penance of exile upon himself. Note, though, the absence of the vocabulary of faith (words such as vows, sin, virtue, and penance):

Yet the victory felt hollow and wrong to Columcille. The blood shed over the book had betrayed his pledge as a monk to live a worthy life. He decided he must be punished and set the punishment himself: He would leave his beloved Ireland to make a more worthy life elsewhere.

Later we are told that the monks at Iona “struggled to live worthy lives and shared their faith with their Scottish neighbors.” That adjective “worthy” is anemic! Were I writing this story, I’d have written about their living lives of heroic virtue, serving God, and bringing the light and love of Christ to their Scottish neighbors. 

Brown seems to want to tell the story of how the Irish monks saved civilization while being embarrassed that religion has to come into it at all. This is not a story about a man of faith, but about literacy and books. Not a bad thing in itself; but, as I said, disappointing when I was hoping for an inspiring story of a great saint. Here’s the conclusion of the book:

Books were made and dispatched, like small boats on a dark and wild sea, to places where reading and writing had been forgotten or ignored. The books made colonies of learning, and people’s minds, once dark with ignorance, were brightened.

Columcille, the man who loved books, helped the world love books. So we remember him and retell his story.


Though I’m fascinated by Columcille the man who loved books, I think he would agree with me that more important than his love for books was his love for Christ. St. Columba wasn’t just copying words but The Word. His greatest work was bringing light to darkened minds, the light of Christ. Sadly, the author of this book seems blind to that greater light.

Two more minor quibbles, I almost think it’s overkill to include them. From the first page I was uncomfortable with the characterization of the Medieval period as “the dark ages”. From a Catholic perspective the middle ages were in fact an era of light, the light of Christ shining in a formerly pagan world as monasteries spread . But the introduction presents the familiar secular perspective: “the darkness of ignorance and the shadow it cast over people’s minds.”

I also was distinctly uncomfortable with this characterization: “Reading and writing were like magic and the people who knew their secrets as rare as wizards. Columcille became one of them.”

I think this book may still be useful, especially for studies of Ireland, Irish history, medieval history, etc. Not so good for catechetical purposes, looking at religious themes. It certainly isn’t wrong in anything it says and I do appreciate the literacy narrative aspects of Columcille story. But I’m going to have to think about how to present it so as to mitigate its thoroughly secular perspective. This might be a book better kept for the older child.

Recommended with reservations.

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  • I am consistently amazed at your accounts of Bella’s use of language!!  My Doodle, who is about 6 months older, I believe, has very different strengths in that areal

    I feel bad for poor Bella in this case.  My mom has stories of my own stubbornness with language use, when I insisted the the dialog of my books-on-tape was other than it was…  wink

  • Oh and she can be stubborn, let me tell you. For the longest time—months—she insisted that butter was “cheese” and limes were “avocados”. Absolutely refused to be corrected.

  • […] 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) […]