Questions With Answers | Dana Dirksen

This is not a review of a book. It is, instead, a review of some music written about a book—the book—and it is music that I think you and the little ones in your immediate vicinity would enjoy, so I am including it here, for your sake, for mine, and for the sake of those little ones.

Questions With Answers is a series of six albums by Dana Dirksen, who takes the Westminster Shorter Catechism and puts it to music. That means that while you run errands or cook dinner or take lengthy road trips, you and your children can memorize not only the catechism itself but various verses that relate to it (but will you ever be able to answer the catechism without singing? I don’t know. We certainly can’t).

Questions With Answers, by Dana Dirksen: music and theology for families | Little Book, Big Story

That is the good and wholesome answer to the question “Why should you listen to Questions with Answers?” But if you’d like an honest answer to why we have folded these into our family’s daily life and culture, here it is: they’re just really, really fun. You might be tempted to think—as I was—that six albums of any one musician could get old over time, but Dana Dirksen is a creative songwriter, and she pulls in just about every genre of music as she writes (just about: I haven’t heard hip hop in there yet, but then, we only have Volumes 1-4). And it doesn’t sound like she explores different genres because she’s trying to keep us listening: it just sounds like she’s having a great time. That joy produces the best music, I think.

These CDs have traveled with us halfway across the country and back. They have gone with us on the first day of kindergarten, down the Washington coast, over the Cascades, and across town. My daughter’s school used them as memorization tools last year; we have gifted them to missionary friends on the hunt for great preschool materials. We received them as a gift and love to give them to others.

That is the long answer to the question, “Why should you listen to Questions with Answers?” If you’re still on the fence, here is a short playlist of some of our favorite songs in the series:

 

And if you go to their website, Songs for Saplings, you can download all six albums for free! How compelling is that?


Questions With Answers, Volumes 1-6
Dana Dirksen, Songs for Saplings

Easter | Jan Pienkowski

Christmas books are easy to come by. We have many, and there are many more waiting on my “To Read” list, and that is good. But Easter books are scarce—really good Easter books, I mean, the kind that have less to do with eggs and bunnies and the beauty of nature than they do with the glory of God and the death and resurrection of his Son. We have some, but not many. And I was hard pressed to find new ones this year.

Perhaps, I mused in the comments at Aslan’s Library, that is because there is no baby in the Easter story and so few farm animals (just that donkey that crops up again and again). Later on, it struck me: there is no baby in the Easter story and there are few farm animals. But what is in the story is not the usual fodder for children’s books: Execution. Betrayal. Suicide. Torture, death, abandonment. Grief.

Easter, by Jan Pienkowski | Little Book, Big Story

How does an author or illustrator of books for children handle those subjects with delicacy and honesty? No wonder so many authors prefer to come at the story through peripheral characters; no wonder authors tell this story from a slight distance.

I touched lightly on this in my last post when I mentioned my surprise at finding that we had only one book that told the story head on, without some sort of literary filter. After that, a wise commenter directed me toward Jan Pieńkowski’s book, Easter, which I found later that week at our library and lo! It was beautiful.

If you're looking for a classic telling of the Easter story, Jan Pienkowski's book is reverent, faithful, and beautifully illustrated | Little Book, Big Story

The text is that of the King James Bible, so it is rich and elegant and somehow just right. Pieńkowski’s silhouetted illustrations are so unique and powerful, yet so simple, that they suit the intensity of the story of Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection, allowing him to depict details that would be too disturbing if shown head on without losing any of their gravity. (How he pulls so much expression out of black paper, I don’t know, but he does and he does it well.)

Easter, by Jan Pienkowski | Little Book, Big Story

Easter is a moving book—one that is hard to read without sniffling at least a little. It is a book that doesn’t look away from the horror of the Crucifixion of Christ, but one that opens and closes with these radiant endpapers meant to remind us that Christ’s death was neither the beginning nor the end of the story, for after it came the Resurrection. After that, everything changed.

Easter, by Jan Pienkowski | Little Book, Big Story


Easter
Jan Pieńkowski (1989)

Deeply Rooted Magazine, Issue 5: Life

As I write, it is 8:46 pm, and someone’s child is having a meltdown outside. Earlier today, it was my child wailing in the front yard (first one, then another, and eventually all three—for three entirely different reasons), so it was a good day for the mailman to hand me a box from Deeply Rooted.

Of course, I was delighted to get the magazine itself, but the first thing I did was—and this is predictable, if not terribly modest—flip to page 106, where I found this:

Deeply Rooted, Issue 5: Life | Little Book, Big Story

Dear readers, I labored over this essay. It changed shape again and again, as what I thought was a story about a neat gift idea morphed into a braided essay about my daughter’s stay in the NICU, my good friend Jessie, and a gift from her that came right when it was needed. I loved working on this essay, in part because I love telling stories and in part because, this time, I had a particular story to tell, one that snuck up on me as I was writing and yanked the reins out of my hands.

I wrote most of it while in my pajamas, between five and seven in the morning. Many cups of Earl Grey tea went cold while I wrote; a bunch of mornings dawned. But eventually, I finished the essay and sent it in to the editors, who combed down a few flyaway phrases before sending it on to the artists.

Do you see that? Do you see how beautiful those illustrations are?

Deeply Rooted, Issue 5: Life | Little Book, Big Story

love this magazine.

What else can I say about Deeply Rooted that I haven’t already said on this blog? It’s well-made, well-written, and beautiful to behold. If you like this blog, you will probably love it. This issue—the first anniversary issue—addresses theology proper, apologetics, and the fleetingness of life. It contains a verse-by-verse break down of Psalm 1, as well as a moving essay by Jen Wilkin (you know how I feel about her) about broken homes and geraniums.

Deeply Rooted, Issue 5: Life | Little Book, Big Story

Deeply Rooted, Issue 5: Life | Little Book, Big Story

Deeply Rooted, Issue 5: Life | Little Book, Big Story

Also, some of you have asked in the past if Deeply Rooted offers a subscription service and the answer for the longest time was no, but starting with this new issue, you will be able to subscribe to the magazine at 10% less than full price. (Yay!) So, if you’d like to order this brand new Spring issue, you have two options: pre-order the Spring issue, or subscribe to receive it and all forthcoming issues.

Deeply Rooted, Issue 5: Life | Little Book, Big Story


Deeply Rooted Magazine
Issue 5: Life (Spring 2015)

 

Easter | Fiona French

I have reviewed quite a few different Easter books since starting this blog, and most of them approach the story of Christ’s death and resurrection from a fresh perspective: through the lens of history and tradition, perhaps, or by letting a typically peripheral character tell the story.

It wasn’t until I read through Fiona French’s book, Easter, that I realized that the one thing our library of Easter books lacked was a simple, straight-forward telling of the Easter story—no frills, no fresh perspective. Just the story itself.

Easter, by Fiona French | Little Book, Big Story

French centers her book around text from the RSV, and the text informs her illustrations, which are “inspired by” (and I quote the dust jacket here) “the glorious English cathedral windows of Ely, Lincoln, York and Canterbury.” They are done in the style of stained glass windows, which lends a beautiful sobriety to the narrative of the events of Christ’s life between the Triumphal Entry and the Ascension.

Easter, by Fiona French | Little Book, Big Story

As Protestants of the reformed stripe, we don’t have much experience with elaborate stained glass windows—not on a weekly basis, anyway—so I loved giving our girls the opportunity to explore them through the pages of Easter. Between the clean, direct text and the beautiful illustrations, I can already tell that this book will be a staple in our house from year to year.

Easter, by Fiona French: an ornately illustrated yet simply told version of the Easter story, from Triumphal Entry to Christ's Ascension | Little Book, Big Story


Easter
Fiona French (2004)

God Gave Us Easter | Lisa Tawn Bergren

I expected to like this series less than I do. The books are cute, after all, with talking polar bears and pastel palettes, and so I expected the content to be cute, too. But I have finally–after reading at least three of these books–realized that the content is more commendable than cute, more challenging than cuddly.

Before we go further, let me be clear: I don’t have anything against pastels or talking bears. I have nothing against Laura J. Bryant’s illustrations–in fact, I think they’re lovely. Her perspectives are unusual, her details vibrant, her use of patterns just right. But for some reason, when I first saw them I didn’t expect depth from the story: I expected sweetness. And so the depth, when I met it, was surprising.

God Gave Us Easter, by Lisa Tawn Bergen | Little Book, Big Story

Lisa Tawn Bergren uses the comforting structure of a child’s conversation with a parent to unearth deep truths–like where babies come from (in God Gave Us You) or what love is (in God Gave Us Love).

In God Gave Us Easter, her characters discuss Easter, yes, but they also discuss the gospel. And death. And prayer. The conversation dives into those deeper subjects while still meandering in the way that conversations with small children do. Somehow, Bergren hits those two notes–theology and simplicity–just right.

God Gave Us Easter, by Lisa Tawn Bergen | Little Book, Big Story

God Gave Us Easter was a welcome addition to our family’s collection of Easter books–it balances out our many retellings of the events Holy Week by delving into not the “what,” but the “why” and “how” of Easter, and it does that by zooming in on what the Resurrection means for one family, one child.

God Gave Us Easter, by Lisa Tawn Bergen | Little Book, Big Story

One cautionary note: this book does present the gospel from the perspective of polar bears in such a way that it might be tempting to think that the author intended, in some literal sense, to imply that Christ’s atoning death applies to polar bears, too. Because the bears also talk and dye Easter eggs and behave in other un-bearlike ways, I didn’t take it that way, and I don’t think my children did, either. If it comes up, I figure it makes for an interesting conversation with the kids, that’s all. But it is a point worth mentioning.


God Gave Us Easter
Lisa Tawn Bergen, Laura J. Bryant (2013)

The Tinker’s Daughter | Wendy Lawton

Twice in one week, I found myself deep in conversations with friends about one question: Why is it so difficult to write about Christian characters?

The question surfaced after I narrowly resisted the urge to throw a certain children’s book across the room when the heroine—a Christian girl who held fast to her faith during adversity and yet to whom I remained thoroughly unsympathetic—”sobbed violently” one too many times. This offended both the reader and the editor in me, but also flummoxed the Christian in me, because shouldn’t a character’s relationship with the Lord form a compelling thread within a story? It’s something so beautiful, so rich. Shouldn’t authors be able to capture that well?

Some do. John Bunyan comes to mind, and so does C.S. Lewis. And Marilynne Robinson. But when the work is intended for children, somehow the Christian element emerges either in an understated theme or in allegory—both of which are fine—or else the Christian threads become so overt that they seem superimposed upon the story’s plot, lending the book an unwelcome awkwardness. A preachiness. And I don’t think anybody likes preachiness.

The Tinker's Daughter, or "Why is it so hard to find strong Christian characters in fiction?" | Little Book, Big Story

I have read a few children’s books that not only weave threads of Christian belief into a plot gracefully but also make them a key point of the story, and here they are:

Heidi. Treasures of the Snow. What Katy Did. That’s it. I have read a lot of children’s books and those are the only three that come to mind.

So, why is it so difficult to write believably Christian characters and to capture their walk with Christ in a way that is both genuine and appealing?

Here is my theory: Writing about something as intimate as a person’s relationship with an unseen God must fall into the same territory as writing about one’s own marriage without resorting to cliche or sentimentality. To succeed in communicating something so intimate about a subject to which you are so close, you must strike all the notes just right or the chord fails and turns from pure music to dissonance, and the reader finds herself (for example) tempted to chuck a book across a room in frustration, because the thing the writer attempted to do should have been beautiful but wasn’t.

Daughters of the Faith Series | Little Book, Big Story

For a writer to capture something as personal as a character’s spiritual growth, they have to be willing to allow the character’s doubt onto the page at times, and to accept the fact that faith is complex—it is neither simple or moralistic. They have to be willing to step back from their own relationship with the Lord a little and observe how it works, and to lend their characters just enough of their own experience that the characters successfully cross that gap from stereotype to genuine, likeable person.

I say this as a reader, mind you. I haven’t even dared tackle this subject in my own writing. But I have seen novels make the ambitious attempt to scale the twin peaks of faith and fiction only to tumble into a crevasse somewhere between the two and land in my “used bookstore” pile. Which brings me back to that book that I did not finish.

That story should have been at least interesting, if not absorbing. But it wasn’t. And after I abandoned that particular ship, I found my desire for good, Christian literature hardening into a resolve to find good, Christian literature for our daughters, as well as for the kids at school. I took to roaming the e-aisles of Amazon, looking for potential gems.

The Tinker's Daughter, by Wendy Lawton | Little Book, Big Story

And that is how I found The Tinker’s Daughter. More to the point, I suppose, is the fact that I found Wendy Lawton, an author capable of writing a compelling story that neither cheapens her characters’ Christian faith nor makes them unpleasantly trite. The Tinker’s Daughter is a well-crafted, fictional account of Mary Bunyan, John Bunyan’s eldest daughter, during the time when her father was newly imprisoned for “unsanctioned” preaching. His faith throughout the story is abundant and beautiful to behold. Mary’s faith is that of a fledgling, taking off timidly by the end of the book.

Another point in Lawton’s favor: Mary is blind, and for an author who can make me feel and smell and listen to the world of a girl without sight, I have nothing but admiration.

Daughters of the Faith Series | Little Book, Big Story

I have read a handful of books in this series so far, and I must warn you that Lawton does not tackle easy material: Shadow of His Hand relates Anita Dittman’s experience in the concentration camps of Germany; Freedom’s Pen tells the story of Phillis Wheatley, who was captured in Africa as a young girl and endured the horror of the slave ships before being sold to a wealthy New England family.

Lawton handles this material well, including just enough detail for the reader to grasp how truly terrible these historical events were without making the stories too heavy to bear. She allows her characters to ask hard questions through it all, and includes answers that satisfy the reader without oversimplifying the truth. So, I like the fact that these books tackle content like the Holocaust and slavery. But I don’t recommend handing them over to your children without reading through them for yourself.

That said, some of them I did allow Lydia to read on her own (after reading them myself)—The Tinker’s Daughter was one of those. We’ll wait on Shadow of His Hand and Freedom’s Pen for now. I believe there are nine books in the series, so I have more to read, but for now I’m savoring each new volume and rejoicing in the existence of an author like Wendy Lawton. These books allow me to hope that there are other authors out there like her.

And it occurs to me that you might know about them: Do you know of any chapter books that center around characters whose Christian faith is a central part of the story? Please let me know in the comments!


The Tinker’s Daughter
Wendy Lawton (2002)

How I Learned to Love Love Stories

It used to be that mysteries and love stories were my two least favorite forms of fiction. But Flavia de Luce, Father Brown, and Sherlock Holmes won me over to mysteries, just as–well. If you’d like to read about the authors and characters that won me over to love stories, you can read my new piece, “How I Learned to Love Love Stories,” on the Deeply Rooted blog.

"How I Learned to Love Love Stories," on the Deeply Rooted blog | Little Book, Big Story

And while I’m sending you off to other sites, have you listened to Sarah McKenzie’s podcast, Read Aloud Revival? If you connect with anything on my blog at all, you’ll love it!