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 Bella’s level of understanding and her attention span.
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 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 Bella; mostly because there are so many items in the list by the end.
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 the 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. The book ends as he 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 Brugel the Elder and is rich in detail and color. A nice touch is various events in the life of Jesus are in the background during these other scenes: 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 Brugel 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 are fascinating to Bella, though I’m not sure she understands the more hidden meanings just now.
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 more like guiding a child on a tour of a church, examining the artwork and explicating it than reading a story of Jesus’ life. Which is a plus for me as I love the didactic art in old churches. I especially adore stained glass and love the French uses its conventions.
The text is taken from the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament, though I think it is edited some. This isn’t 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. Bella is quite captivated by this book asking for it to be read again and again and pointing to the pictures and requesting further explanations of the images.