Bible Story Picture Books: Faith Formation Series

My last post covered children’s Bibles, the kind of books that collect a bunch of stories from both the Old and New Testaments in an attempt to give a child an overview of the whole Bible. I’m not quite sure what to call this next set of books: picture books that don’t try to present the whole Bible, just a single story.

If you make a pile of books on the dining room table, someone will want to read them.

If you make a pile of books on the dining room table, someone will want to read them.

What I love most about these books are the beautiful pictures which are so engaging and enticing, luring a young reader to linger over the pages. And I love that they are the kind of book you can read from cover to cover at bedtime.

A reminder: this series is not an attempt to tell you about the best possible books available for Catholic faith formation. This is just a list of the books I have in my personal collection with some notes about why I like them. Please do tell me about the books that you love that are not on my list. I always love recommendations of new books. All the links in this post are Amazon affiliate links. Our family really appreciates it when you purchase a book I’ve recommended by clicking on the link. We get a little bit of money and can use it to buy more books.

1. Who Laid the Cornerstone of the World?: Great Stories from the Bible

Perhaps I should have included this one with the Children’s Bibles. It’s a compilation of 11 Bible stories, 7 from the Old Testament and four from the New. It doesn’t try to present the whole Bible, though. It was the title that caught me eye, a question from one of my favorite passages in the Book of Job.

Beautiful pictures. A nice selection of stories. This book is better for slightly older children as it is pretty text heavy. Not for the preschool set, but elementary kids.

2. God’s Covenant with You: The Bible Tells a Story by Scott Hahn and Stratford Caldecott.

When I read Scott Hahn’s book A Father Who Keeps His Promises: God’s Covenant Love in Scripture I thought it needed to be made into a children’s book. How pleased I was when I found this beautiful coloring book. The pictures are by David Clayton the text is by Scott Hahn with Stratford Caldecott. I think this should be in the collection of every Catholic family. Buy now and add it to your children’s Easter baskets.

This gorgeous coloring book can be purchased directly from Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.

Old Testament Stories

3. In the Beginning by Pauline Baynes.

I love Pauline Baynes illustrations from The Chronicles of Narnia and elsewhere. I’ll go out of my way to find her books, especially this and other Bible stories that she’s done. In the Beginning is out of print, but there are copies floating around and if you find one at a decent price, it’s worth snapping up. The text is from the King James version of the Bible, which I think children should be somewhat familiar with because it has been so influential to literature in English. A beautiful retelling of the seven days of creation.

4. Creation by Gennady Spirin

Another retelling of the seven days of creation. I think it apt to quote the illustrator’s introductory note.

The Bible says God created man based in his own likeness. I feel that this gives the artist the right to represent the image of the Creator based on his or her own interpretations. When I review the history of art and the artists who have tried to illustrate God’s image, I find that the interpretations are unique and individual. Naturally artists represent God according to their beliefs about how he should appear.

But there is one theme that unites all of these representations– a great love for the Creator. Love is the key element and inspiration of the work, and this love unites the Creator with his creation.

Everything that God creates, he creates with love: the grass, the flowers, the trees, the animals, the birds, and his greatest creation– people– bestowing upon us his own likeness. Likeness does not only mean our appearance. God gave humans a great gift: the ability to create– a godly ability. And we co-create with God during our lives on earth.

I cannot imagine a more valuable gift, and my tremendous gratitude fills me with joy and love towards our Creator.

The pictures are stunning, idiosyncratic. The text is excerpted from the New International Version of the Bible.

5. Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden

I absolutely adore the pictures in this book, but I find Jane Ray’s retelling of the story of Adam and Eve problematic at times. For example, God tells Adam and Eve, “You may eat anything you like except the fruits from the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life, if you eat them, you will die.” But Adam and Eve aren’t prohibited from eating of the Tree of Life until after they have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil when God bars them from Eden so that they will not eat of the Tree of Life. I’m not sure why the author feels the need to conflate the story and include both trees not only in God’s initial prohibition but also in the serpent’s testing of Eve. Also, the author interpolates that Eve is all alone and Adam was gone and only returns after she’s eaten the fruit. Also, I do like that after the fall the story emphasizes God’s love, “God loved Adam and Eve as if they were his children, but he knew that he must send them away from the Garden of Eden.” But I don’t like the “as if.” God loves them as his children, not just “as if.”

I wouldn’t say this is a must-have book, but I can’t quite bring myself to get rid of it despite my quibbles. I’d rather talk with the kids about why I don’t like the retelling. It gets us into some interesting conversations about the meaning of Genesis 1 and 2.

6. Paradise by Fiona French.

This tells the story of both creation and the fall. The pictures are in the style of stained glass windows. The text is from the King James version of the Bible. (French’s other books are available in a Catholic version with the text from the RSV, I’m not sure if this one is or not.) Stained glass is an important part of our Catholic heritage and I love what French does with the medium. This book beautiful addition to our library that we just got last Easter and I haven’t read very many times.

7. Noah’s Ark

The book begins with a quotation, “… But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.” And then a 17th century poem about the flood translated from the Dutch. And it ends with a final quotation, “… and he planted a vineyard.” Otherwise, the story is wordless, just images of the animals entering the ark, living on the ark, and leaving the ark. The charm is really in the beautifully detailed pictures that really convey the drama of people and animals surviving for such a length of time in such close quarters.

8. Psalms for Young Children

This is a collection of short paraphrases of the Psalms. Not even paraphrases, really. Each page chooses one theme or idea from the psalm, presumably the one they think will most appeal to young children. Now, I’m a huge fan of praying the Liturgy of the Hours with children, exposing them to the glory and grandeur of the language and imagery of the Psalms. Still, I really like this little book as a collection of short meditations for children based on the Psalms.

Psalm 108:

My heart is ready, God.
I want to sing.
I want to play music for you
on the strings of a harp
or on a beating drum.
Your love is bigger
than the earth and sky!

Psalm 69:

When I am sad,
it feels like I’m underwater,
like I’m stuck in the mud,
or at the bottom
of a dark hole.
Pull me from this dark place,
God!
Save me! I need your help!

Psalm 18:

God is like a rock,
strong and powerful.
God is like a warm, dry place
during a storm.
He protects me from
things that might hurt me.
When I ask for God’s help,
I feel safe.

Honestly, reading these I often tear up. They move me even though I find the language childish, they point me to the prayers that my childlike heart yearns to cry out.

9. Queen Esther The Morning Star

A fun version of one of my favorite Bible stories. When I first read this to the kids, I was a little surprised that some of my favorite parts of the story were left out. A little investigating found that the parts I like best are apocryphal, in the Septuagint and not in the Hebrew Bible. And this version if by a Jewish writer. In fact, I don’t think there is a Catholic picture book version, though I’d love to find one. Still, I like this book and my kids all love it. Because of this book Bella and Sophie have play-acted Queen Esther.

10. The Song of the Three Holy Children

Another gorgeous book illustrated by Pauline Baynes. The canticle of Daniel is one of my favorites. You know the one:

O ye Showers and Dew,
bless ye the Lord:
praise him, and magnify
him for ever.

O ye Winds of God
bless ye the Lord:
praise him, and magnify
him for ever.

The text of this edition is taken from the Book of Common Prayer. So it’s a different translation than the one I pray in the Liturgy of the Hours. But I actually like having my kids exposed to a variety of translations– I might have mentioned that once or twice before. The language is beautiful and this is definitely a favorite book. Sadly, it’s out of print; but it looks like Amazon currently has used copies for pretty cheap. Definitely one you’ll want to add to your family’s library.

11. Psalm Twenty-Three

This book is a pictorial meditation on Psalm 23. The pictures follow a brother and sister living with their grandparents in a house in the city as they go through their day: waking up, eating breakfast, walking to school, hugging a teacher, painting pictures and then walking home, eating dinner, taking a bath, going to bed. As the preface says, “He depicts a contemporary black family living among urban dangers, a family relying on the Lord as they thread their way through the risk-filled maze of daily life in the city.” The text of the Psalm is from the New International Version. I love the pictures, I love the image of the stained glass window of the Good Shepherd who watches over them. This book almost moves me to tears and I believe this psalm which so readily speaks to the hearts of children, is most appropriately illustrated in this way. Even though the children depicted in the pictures live in a very different world than mine do, I think the book speaks to them.

New Testament Stories

I’m not including all of our huge collection of Nativity stories here, since I have those packed away with the Christmas books. I’ve acquired a few more Christmas books since I made up this list of our Christmas books in 2011. I’ll try to update it at some point and include links. However, I thought I’d include a couple of my favorites so as to convey a sense of how we tell the whole of the Bible story through picture books.

12. Bethlehem: Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible, Catholic Edition

Fiona French’s lovely images are inspired by the classical stained glass windows of medieval cathedrals. Each image is accompanied by a snippet of text from the Gospel (Revised Standard Edition) just enough text to tel what is happening in the pictures. This is perfect for toddlers and preschoolers with short attention spans. We all love this book, a favorite telling of the story of the nativity.

13. A Medieval Christmas

The Christmas story told via beautiful illuminated manuscripts? Yes please! The text is from the Revised Standard version of the Bible. This book is a treasure, a work of art. Non-readers and readers alike can use the images to contemplate, meditate on the wonders of the incarnation.

14. The Donkey and the Golden Light

This book tells the story of Jesus’ life from the point of view of the donkey (named Bethlehem) who was born on the same day and in the same stable as Jesus and who later accompanies the Holy Family on their flight to Egypt. (The Virgin Mary rides on the donkey’s mother.) When the family returns to Israel Bethlehem gets a job working in the Temple gardens and is there when the child Jesus stays behind (the finding in the Temple). Then he’s stolen by a group of vagabonds and thereafter his peripatetic life intersects that of the Lord in various ways as he moves from one owner to another. All the time he continues to ponder “the magnificent golden light that had, on his first night, promised peace, goodwill, and a new beginning for all.” Finally he is pressed into service carrying Jesus into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday). Sure this is improbable and in fact the donkey that Jesus rode is specifically referred to by St Mark’s Gospel as one on which no one had previously sat, but as a narrative device which follows Christ from the point of view of a humble creature whose life parallels Jesus’ own it works well enough. The narrative continues with the crucifixion and ends with a marvelous encounter with Jesus as a gardener on Easter morning, finally finding the promised peace, goodwill, and new beginning.

If it weren’t for the marvelous illustrations, I’m not sure we’d keep this book. The story itself is one of those repetitive cumulative stories which can be such a chore to read, each page repeating the litany of all the events the donkey remembers. But the paintings by John Speirs are inspired by pictures and drawings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. They are really lovely to contemplate and in the years between the flight to Egypt and the Entry into Jerusalem it’s really fun to spot Jesus in the background of the pictures and to identify which episode from the Gospels is being depicted.

15. The Ageless Story: With its antiphons

This book tells the story of Jesus through various antiphons, mostly those from Vespers on various feast days. The pictures of the life of Jesus show the Holy Family dressed in contemporary clothes from the 1930s. I read about this book from Jennifer Miller and thereafter acquired a used copy, like Jenn’s a former library edition. I can’t sing the chant, but we’ve had some nice conversations about the way the Holy Family is dressed, about how various artists have always depicted the Biblical stories in contemporary dress to help us feel connected with them.

16. Jesus

The text of this book is excerpts from the King James version of the Bible. I really love the pictures. This is more a book that my kids look at than one that I read to them. I think I’ve only read it a handful of times.

17. Mary

I do not like that this book includes selections from the apocryphal Book of Mary, treating it the same as the selections from the Gospel narratives. But I do love the pictures and I figure I can explain why these stories aren’t historical. The text is from the King James version of the Bible.

I must say that I do find it odd that she uses the KJV and it’s kind of deceptive that a writer who wants to be accepted as Catholic includes an apostolic blessing from Pope John Paul II in the back of her books. An apostolic blessing is imparted to individuals and is not an imprimatur that declares the books to be without error, but to those who don’t know it gives an air of legitimacy to her books. Still, the pretty pictures make it hard for me to weed this one out of our collection.

18. Parables: Stories Jesus Told

It was the pictures that really drew me to this book when I saw it on the shelf at the store. The cover shows the story of the Prodigal Son, a lovely warm picture. All the pictures are very inviting. And I really like the idea of a book that tells just the parables, which can get overlooked in children’s Bibles.

I like that Hoffman’s retellings ask the reader questions, inviting him to think about the stories. The introduction says, “I have known these stories since I was a little girl and I often felt that Jesus was on the wrong side…. It took me a long time to understand that these are uncomfortable stories and that Jesus meant us to think hard about them. He wanted us to understand that God’s law is not like human law.” The end of the book includes the citations to the Gospel stories, inviting the child to read them again from the Bible.

19. Miracles: Wonders Jesus Worked

Like the Parables book, this one is just beautiful. I love the people, the softness of the watercolors that is neither cartoonish nor sentimental. It’s an interesting choice, a book just about the miracles. I confess, we haven’t spent much time reading this book or the parables one. Maybe they appeal more to adults than children? Or maybe their hour hasn’t yet arrived. I have a theory about children’s books, that simply having a wide range of good, beautiful books around the house makes it more likely that the children will find the book they need at the time they need it, the book that will speak to their hearts.

20. Easter

I love Fiona French’s books and my kids do too. They seem very drawn to the stained-glass window pictures. The three books we have are favorites and always drawn an audience when they are rediscovered. And you know this is not surprising at all since stained glass was originally intended to help teach the illiterate about the faith. If our parish church lacks the kind of windows that tell a story, I can still introduce them to that part of our tradition. The text is very short excerpts from the Gospel (Revised Standard Version). It’s really almost captions to the pictures rather than the full story. But it works well, especially for the preschool set who have very short attention spans.

The Roman soldiers are an always popular feature. The crucifixion page is one I really like to gaze at and use for meditation. I really like that this version includes many stories of what happens after the resurrection: the women at the tomb, doubting Thomas, Jesus feeding the disciples at the Sea of Tiberius, the ascension. Every window is beautiful, wonderfully detailed. This is the perfect book for Holy Week.

21. The Easter Story

This is another book that tells the story of the Gospel from the point of view of the donkey that Jesus rode into Jerusalem. I suppose a little donkey is very appealing to children and makes the story less scary?

The pictures are lovely. Soft watercolors with gold leaf highlights that really draw the eye. Kids like shiny books. They also love to try to find the angel on each page. The Last Supper maintains the essential elements of the words of consecration: “‘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 crucifixion page is one of my favorites as the angel who has accompanied Jesus and the donkey on every page is suddenly joined by a multitude of multicolored angels, who also appear at the tomb and at the Ascension.

Chapter Books for Older Children

22. The First Christians: The Acts of the Apostles for Children

23. A Life of Our Lord for Children

These books are wonderful as read alouds for slightly older kids. I used the Acts of the Apostles one with Bella last year when she was six and right now she and Sophie and Ben are all listening to the Life of Our Lord for Children. The books don’t just retell the story in simpler language, they add context and explanations and help the children to understand the Gospels as a continuation of the story that began in the Old Testament and the Acts as the founding of Christ’s Church in continuity with today’s Catholic Church that they themselves are members of. The nice thing has been that the books always point us toward Scripture and lead me to open the Bible and read. Marigold Hunt’s text constantly invites the reader to go read the Bible because she’s leaving out really good bits. The tone is chatty, friendly, like a tour guide who wants to put you at ease.

If you make a pile of books on the dining room table, someone will want to read them.

If you make a pile of books on the dining room table, someone will want to read them.

8 Responses to Bible Story Picture Books: Faith Formation Series

  1. GeekLady April 1, 2014 at 3:04 pm #

    I went hunting in the library today for picture books about Exodus, to supplement my newly acquired copy of Fiona French’s Easter. And I found two marvelous books by Brian Wildsmith – Exodus and Jesus. The pictures are very nice and intricate.

    I also picked out Mary by both Demi and Tomie de Paola, just to look at them. Demi’s is nice, but if I had to pick one to add to our library, I would pick de Paola’s. Demi’s illustrations are lovely, but the whole Gospel of Mary sections make it much less attractive, although I think she probably included them because they held scenes she wanted to draw. But dePaola starts each little story/illustration pair with an antiphon from the Divine Office, and I just love it.

    We also have a mega pop-up book called In the Beginning – The Art of Genesis by Chuck Fischer, with really wonderful artwork of all the major stories in Genesis.

    • Melanie Bettinelli April 1, 2014 at 10:07 pm #

      I’ve had my eye on both Exodus and Jesus– and on de Paola’s Mary, too– for a while now. They’re all on my Amazon wish list. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to splurge sight unseen and so I haven’t taken the plunge. I keep putting them in the cart and then taking them out and buying something else instead But maybe I will add them to the Easter baskets this year. I didn’t know about dePaola’s use of the antiphons. That sells me on the book right there.

      I love pop up books, but have sworn not to buy another one until I don’t have a toddler in the house. I hate seeing them destroyed and I hate having to patrol them. I feel kind of grinchly, but when I think of the fate of the ones I’ve seen shredded…. I stand firm in my resolve.

      • GeekLady April 1, 2014 at 10:41 pm #

        Well, I can recommend de Paola’s Mary without a single reservation. It is as lovely as any of his saint stories. (Patrick is good too.)

        Brian Wildsmith’s art is lovely, with lots of intricate detail. The language feels a little dumbed down to me, but it’s not terrible. But then, I have a pretty low benchmark for terrible.

        I sympathize on the popup books. I am very lucky neither David nor Raphael seems to be a heavy book mangler. But you should get that one for yourself, it’s so beautiful. 🙂

        • Melanie Bettinelli April 1, 2014 at 10:54 pm #

          That’s pretty much how I feel about Wildsmith’s Easter book. The text is not great, but it’s not terrible. I do remember at first being quite annoyed that at the end the donkey reflects on how he carried that really good and nice man. I rather wish that Wildsmith had instead gone with the medieval tradition of having the beast be perfectly aware of who He was and praising His Godhead in its humble way. I just love the stories about donkeys who revere the Blessed Sacrament and the like and would have liked a nod to that. But it wasn’t awfully wrong.

          • GeekLady April 3, 2014 at 8:48 am #

            This is interesting about a implied texts. Text in de Paola’s books also tends to be simplified, but it doesn’t grate on my sensibilities the way other simplifications do. Now I want to compare the two to see what’s different!

  2. Melanie Bettinelli April 7, 2014 at 11:13 pm #

    Another good book about Mary is the one by Inos Biffi: The Life of Mary

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