Friday, 10 April 2015

Great Books for Catholic Kids

Reading to five

If there is only one thing that I am confident I am doing well as a parent, it's that I am doing my best to instill a life-long love of books in my children. I read to myself every single day, and I read every single day to my kids. It's by far my favorite thing to do with them. As soon as the baby takes a nap, I've got a little girl on either side of me, two little boys sharing my lap, and a pile of books at my feet. I easily check out 50 to 75 children's library books per month, minimum. Roughly half the stuff we read is non-fiction; the rest spans a broad range of juvenile fiction, from the gorgeous to the whimsical, and the serious to the silly.

THIS is what happens when we get home from the library. Blessed silence. 

Few things brighten my day more than when "awesome children's books" overlap with "faith".  In order to be "awesome" for me, a picture book (religious or otherwise) must be written and illustrated with excellence. When I stumble across something that makes a deep impression on my children (and that I'm willing to read again and again), I'll usually hunt down a used copy online and buy it. Recently, a few friends were returning to the faith after long absences and asked for suggestions about catechizing their very young children. My two easiest suggestions: hanging up beautiful religious art in the child's bedroom and building up a nice little library of great Christian books.

We all have really different ideas of what makes for a "great children's book". MANY (oh so, so many) a time I've scoured the library for titles on a List Of Great Juvenile Literature, only to emerge with a pile of books that my kids and I were all pretty "meh" about. So, rather than share a list of "Must-Own Christian Kid's Books", I think it's perhaps more helpful to go broad and discuss categories of books, rather than just the specific titles. I've probably missed some categories, but off the top of my head, I think a Catholic family benefits from having some books from each category below. Here goes.

Staples in a Catholic Home, with examples/suggestions for each category:

1. Books About the Mass:
These come in two species, so to speak -

Books about Mass, like
The Weight of the Mass (J. Nobisso)  Whimsical paintings. Loosely based on a true miracle. Story that highlights the value of the Catholic Mass. Wonderful vocabulary too! Age 5 or 6 and up.

and Mass books, such as
The Catholic Icing's Illustrated Mass (Appropriate for a child approaching First Communion. Available online for about $5. Guides a child through the parts of the Mass. )

2. Books About Scripture:
Okay, I used to think that a children's illustrated Bible was an absolute staple, but after trying and using several highly lauded versions, I learned that I personally would rather read the kids short passages directly from an adult Bible.  However, that choice may not be for everyone, which is why Children's Bibles exist.

One such choice.... The Action Bible (written and illustrated in..... Comic Book style. I hate it! I can't  say enough how much I detest this format for a Bible. But - Rich and the kids LOVE it. They love it even more than I hate it. To each his own....

When it comes to Scripture, I prefer something that absolutely screams "good, true and beautiful".... something a little more reverent than cartoons.... something more along the lines of The Beautiful Story of the Bible (Roche)  This little treasure is almost a child's Bible and it is soooo lovely.​  We've checked it out of our parish library a few times now and it's next on my "to buy" list.

In lieu of children's Bibles, I enjoy reading a gorgeous picture book that zones in on just one story/person/book from the Bible.  Some of my favorites in this category present text taken straight from Scripture with breathtaking illustrations. Others have no words at all, simply telling the story in pictures.

​    ​Creation (Genndy Spirin)​​
​    ​Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden (Jane Ray)
​    ​Noah's Ark: Words from the Book of Genesis (Jane Ray)
    Noah's Ark  (Peter Spier) (or the one illustrated by Jerry Pinkney)
​    ​Exodus (Brian Wildsmith)
    ..... and so on and so forth, through the entire Old Testament, if you so please!

Both of my libraries carry lots of these kinds of books. We've read at least 6 versions of the story of Queen Esther, for example, and the kids enjoy seeing the way different authors and illustrators present the same material.

3. Books About Saints
There are some well-done "encyclopedia" versions (one volume, lots of saints), such as:      

Ruth Sanderson's Saints Lives & Illumunations
More Saints Lives and Illuminations (also by Sanderson)
Treasury of Saints and Martyrs (by Margaret Mulvihill)
Amy Welborn's Book of Saints and the sequel, Book of Heroes  

I like to have one or two of these in the house so that I can easily access info about a saint when a kid expresses interest. But these are not books I sit and read cover to cover. They are more "textbook" than "storybook".

Side note: I'd love to rename this section "Biographies of Inspiring Catholics" and include within it some amazing books written for kids about our popes and Our Lady; however, I have yet to read any books on either that I absolutely love and want to reread a billion times to my kids. I've seen a lot of kids books on various popes and Mary, but either they're too long, too cheesy, too dry, too cartoony, take too many liberties, etc....  Please write a comment if I've missed a great book on Mary or a pope. (Please write a great book on Mary or a pope if I haven't.)

On the other hand, there are heaps of great picture books out there that depict the life of a saint. Just yesterday I read Demi's St Joan of Arc to my 4 oldest kids and we all loved it.  In March, we read books about St Patrick, including a great one by Ann Tompert. We also read about other Irish saints, finding treasures in our public library such as Don Brown's Across a Dark and Wild Sea (story of St Columba).  St Valentine by Robert Sabuda was a nice gift my kids got one Valentine's Day; I store it with the Valentine's decorations and we reread it every February.  Most kids like Tomie DePaola's fiction and may enjoy his series of saint books: The Lady of Guadalupe;  Christopher the Holy Giant;  Patrick;  Francis;  etc...

lest I give the impression that we just sit around and read books on holidays....

4.  An Illustrated First Catechism 
    Even with a 2 year old, this kind of little book provides a chance to start teaching some of the basics of the faith. We have two thin paperback versions (which we do not "read" cover-to-cover like a storybook. We look at pictures and I ask questions like "Who made the sun? The animals? The trees?" while my toddlers happily chirp out their answers. On the page with a depiction of the Trinity we review the idea of three persons and one God - and I quiz them on the names of the three Persons. They like answering the questions and some of the pictures are of more or equal catechetical value than the text - they illustrate concepts that would otherwise be hard/impossible to explain or discuss with a toddler!) Two possibilities:
    The New St Joseph First Communion Catechism   (really helpful pictures!)
    My First Catechism by Fr Lovasik

5. Christmas & Easter Storybooks:
Every Christmas and Easter, my kids get a couple of new religious Christmas or Easter books. Slowly we have acquired an awesome collection. I can't depend on the library for these because everyone else in town wants these books at the same time that we do, obviously.  I store them with the Christmas decorations and Easter baskets, and then each Sunday in Lent or Advent, I pull out a few and we build up to the holiday partly with books.

Some of Our Favorite Christmas stories:
Star of Wonder (Leena Lane & Elena Baboni)
            Thorough treatment of first Christmas, whimsical illustrations
Christmas (Jan Pienkowski)  All text straight from Gospel, intriguing illustrations
Room for a Little One (by Martin Waddell, gorgeous  illustrations by Jason Cockcroft)
           Suitable even for young toddlers - I love this book!
The Crippled Lamb (Max Lucado. Need I say more?)
Little One, We Knew You'd Come (Sally Lloyd-Jones, stunning ill. Jackie Morris)
          Also suitable for toddlers. Catechizes parents as well ;)
This is the Star (Dunbar, photo-like images by Gary Blythe)
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey  (Susan Wojciechowski)
            (ages 4 and up - may bring a tear to your eye!)
The Miracle of St Nicholas (Whelan)   (the value of being able to attend MASS on Christmas)
A Gift From St Francis (Cole. The first Nativity scene)
Also, seriously, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Such a fun way to start a discussion
             on what Christmas is really about!     

Our favorite Easter books: 
The Easter Story by Brian Wildsmith (Jesus' last days through the eyes of a donkey. Gilded involved
    paintings, lots to see, includes institution of Eucharist, very 'complete', very Catholic.  Ages 3 or 4 and up)
Follow Me: Peter Lays Down His Net (Rottmann. Also very Catholic.)
Easter (Jan Pienkowski. Scripture & cool art)
Peter's First Easter by Wangerin
The Tale of the Three Trees (Hunt. So deep!)
​The Easter Angels (Hartman. A sweet but deep fiction about the angels at Jesus' tomb)
The End of the Fiery Sword ​ (written by my friend and mentor, Maura McKeegan. Excellent for
           thoroughly examining WHY Jesus died, starting with Adam and Eve's fall!)
The First Easter by Lois Rock (very simple but thorough, best for very little ones)
On That Easter Morning by Mary Joslin (good, simple & thorough, nice illustrations)
He Is Risen Indeed (David Erickson) (simply the Easter Gospels, illustrated in oil paintings)
Easter in the Garden by Pamela Kennedy (very well done fiction about
        a little boy witnessing Jesus' Resurrection)

Also nice to have is a kid's illustrated Stations of the Cross booklet

Lastly, during Lent, I like to check the public library for children's picture books about Passover  - it has helped my kids have a deeper understanding of what Jesus was up to on Holy Thursday.

Pienkowski's art

6. Picture books/story books/novels that emphasis Christian mysteries & virtues, such as: 
(There are so many wonderful choices out there! Here are just some that we love!)

Max Lucado: Because I Love You, 
                      You Are Special, 
                       You are Mine, 
                       Just the Way You Are
                     Good for 3 to 7 year olds - and long beyond!
                     Even I get something out of reading these four. The art is really beautiful too.

To a lesser extent, Max Lucado's garden bug series books are of value - a bit cheesier, sort of along the lines of VeggieTales - and like VeggieTales, also available on DVD..... I don't really enjoy them, but my kids do - their favorites:        
                                                         Hermie, An Ordinary Caterpillar
                                                         Buzby, the Misbehaving Bee
                                                         Webster, the Scaredy Spider 
                                                          Flo, the Lyin' Fly

The Princess and the Kiss (purity for little girls age 4 or 5 and up)
     - beautiful! very gentle, sweet story about the gift of marriage & purity told in an age-appropriate          way  (Jennie Bishop)

The Squire and the Scroll  (purity for little boys - age 4 or 5 & up)  Also by Bishop, even better than
        the Princess and the Kiss!

Angel in the Waters  (Regina Doman) An affirmation of the dignity of human life from the moment of conception.  My kids have all enjoyed this even as very young toddlers, but I change the words for them at that age and make it their own story in the womb.

Have You Filled a Bucket Today? (Carol Mccloud. Concrete explanation of charity and kindness)

The Quiltmaker's Gift (Jeff Brumbeau. Not explicitly religious, but a great message about materialism/greed and generosity/detachment) My kids love this, I enjoy reading it and the art is intriguing - lots to see on each page! Age 3 or 4 and up.

Snow White Retold by Josephine Poole - a beautiful Christian retelling of the classic fairytale with a nice emphasis on forgiving our enemies rather than making our enemies wear red-hot dancing shoes until they fall down dead.....   (This version actually ends with a powerful depiction of the truth that evil is destructive unto itself - it is one of the only versions I know of in which Snow White and/or the Prince do NOT inflict a revenge upon the wicked queen; instead, her own malice is her  direct undoing.)

The Bearskinner (originally by the Brothers Grimm, retold by Laura Schlitz) Amazing "fairy tale" for boys (and girls) about the power of prayer and so much more. Best for older kids - the main character foolishly strikes a bargain with the devil, but afterwards learns his lesson really well.

Gershon's Monster (Kimmel) -- An excellent Jewish story about repenting for sin

Godiva by Lynn Cullen (beautiful princess/virtue book)

Snook Alone (Marilyn Nelson) - a story about a Catholic hermit and his dog, who become separated to illustrate a beautiful allegory about the life of prayer and faith and silence

Brother Hugo and the Bear (Kathy Beebe) - humorous, flattering tale about a medieval Catholic monk handcopying an illuminated manuscript.

By the time kids are old enough for novels, the choices really depend on gender and interests and taste, but here are just a few of the early novels my children have enjoyed (and which I feel have really made virtue wonderfully attractive):

Little House on the Prairie series
The Courage of Sarah Noble
Listening For Lions
Little Women
A Little Princess​
Narnia series (obviously)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 
The Tale of Despereaux
Mountain Born
Black Beauty
What Katy Did 
Thee, Hannah!

Happy Easter and happy reading!