Tag: church history (page 2 of 3)

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)

Peter’s First Easter | Walter Wangerin, Jr.

Last week, I voiced some rather strong opinions about Bible stories that put peripheral characters in starring roles, but after rereading Petook to my children and preparing to review today’s book, Peter’s First Easter, I realized that I stand rather firmly corrected.

You see, all three of my Easter 2014 reviews feature books that are fantastic examples of how well a simple shift in perspective can refresh a story: in Petook, we saw the event of the Crucifixion through the eyes of a rooster, who stood, in a way, for creation; in The Donkey Who Carried a King, we followed Davey, the donkey; and in Peter’s First Easter, we leave the farm animals behind and read about the last week of Jesus’s life through the first person account of Peter (as envisioned by the author).

Peter's First Easter | Little Book, Big Story

Let me tell you one thing up front: Peter’s First Easter is a deeply moving book. You (if you’re That Sort of Person—I am) will probably cry. You see, Wangerin puts the reader right in Peter’s shoes, describing his love for Jesus, as well as his shock at some of Jesus’s pronouncements—the ones we take for granted, as part of a well known story, but that must have sounded dissonant and strange the first time they were voiced.

This is my body. Take and eat.

Peter's First Easter | Little Book, Big Story

And what must Peter have felt after that third denial of Christ? Wangerin presents a beautiful and believable story that allows us to view the Crucifixion through the eyes of one who is painfully aware of his own brokenness and who fears that nothing will ever be strong enough to restore him—even as he watches the very event that will restore him.

Peter's First Easter | Little Book, Big Story

Despite Wangerin’s use of past tense, there is an urgency to both the language and the illustrations that brings the story near to us, the readers. Tim Ladwig respectfully avoids showing Jesus’s face and uses unusual perspectives—strong diagonal compositions, showing characters in profile or from above—to achieve a sense of inclusion: as the crowd thrust their fists in the air, screaming, “Crucify him!”, the people are depicted at such an angle that we seem to be standing among them with our own fists in the air. And he has a knack with facial expressions: the tears welling up in Peter’s eyes, his expression of wonder at Jesus’s words, the joy and laughter on the disciples’ faces as they meet Jesus, resurrected, for the first time—Ladwig captures them all perfectly.

Peter's First Easter | Little Book, Big Story

This is a lengthy picture book, divided into ten short chapters, so you can read it all at once or in stages—a chapter or two per day throughout Holy Week, perhaps. However you do it, though, don’t rush! This is a book to be savored, one to linger over and explore with little ones.


Peter’s First Easter
Walter Wangerin, Jr., Tim Ladwig (2000)

Saint Patrick | Jonathan Rogers

I found my copy of Saint Patrick  in the vast and vaguely arranged “Religion” section of my favorite used bookstore, and based upon the cover, size and topic of the book, I expected a snappy, action-packed narrative—the man was captured by pirates, after all. What I found instead was a drier, somewhat academic story, with details on the relationship between Ireland, England and the Roman Empire. There were pirates, but not of the swash-buckling sort. High seas, but not a whole lot of adventure upon them.

So why, you ask, do I recommend a book that I just described with words like “dry” and “academic”? For that, I refer you to Charlotte Mason:

It is a great thing to possess a pageant of history in the background of one’s thoughts. We may not be able to recall this or that circumstance, but “the imagination is warmed” . . . The present becomes enriched with the wealth of all that has gone before.

– quoted in When Children Love to Learn, ed. Elaine Cooper

Saint Patrick | Little Book, Big Story

Reading biographies to our children is a great way to color this “pageant of history,” and biographies like Saint Patrick, though not dressed up for quick consumption, contain the depth and detail that make a figure’s story breathe. This book is only half biography, with the last half of  the book dedicated to Saint Patrick’s own writing. That was a treat: I found it quite enjoyable to read his works with the memory of his biography fresh in my mind.

Saint Patrick | Little Book, Big Story

Some of you have kids who will love reading Patrick’s story straight from the pages of this chapter book, while others have children who might benefit more if you read it for yourself and then livened it up by telling the story aloud. Either way, the faithfulness of God runs right through the middle of Patrick’s life, and his obedience sowed seeds that bore a bounty of fruit over the course of generations. His is a story worth remembering, and I’m thankful that a series like “Christian Encounters” puts the biographies of figures like John Bunyan, Jane Austen and Isaac Newton upon our family’s shelves.


Saint Patrick
Jonathan Rogers (2010)

Saint Valentine | Robert Sabuda

It is still winter, right? I thought it was, but my two eldest daughters are playing outside as I write, one of them in naught but a fairy dress.

We were supposed to start our home school lessons an hour ago, but they’ve been out there since breakfast, bounding around the front yard chattering like happy, fluttery birds. At present, they’re sitting side by side under the one tree in our yard—a great, overgrown Christmas tree—holding sticks in front of their knees like fishing rods, heads together, deep in confidence.

Add to that the fact that Phoebe has been sound asleep in her crib for the last hour and you have all the necessary ingredients for an important decision: school can wait.

I’ll let them continue doing whatever it is they’re harmoniously doing and instead of reading Saint Valentine to them, I’ll share it with you. In my inaugural blog post, I sang the praises of the unsung holidays, the ones that we celebrate in sheer fun but whose origins we have collectively almost forgotten. I wrote about Saint Patrick’s Day then, but Valentine’s Day also fits the bill. For those of you dissatisfied with stale candy and heart-shaped doilies, who find yourselves hungry for a bit of history with your holiday—this book is for you!

Saint Valentine | Little Book, Big Story

Robert Sabuda’s telling of the life of Saint Valentine is tender and compelling. It gives children a glimpse of life as a Christian under persecution without overwhelming the sensitive souls (of which I have—and am—one), while telling the beautiful story of Saint Valentine and a little blind girl who came to him for healing.

I’ll warn you: this story doesn’t end happily, but it ends with hope, the sort of stinging hope that makes your throat feel funny. And Sabuda’s illustrations are breathtaking in their complexity: each illustration is a mosaic of (what I’m guessing is) paper, but with such simple tools he conveys rich emotion and movement.

Now, I’ve timed this post perfectly! The little fairy just traipsed in, pink in the cheeks and breathless with cold. That means it’s time to herd my little troop onto the couch and start reading.


Saint Valentine
Robert Sabuda (1999)

Saint Nicholas | Julie Stiegemeyer

As new parents, we didn’t know where we stood with Santa. We didn’t want to be the killjoys who declared Santa dead, but neither did we latch on to the idea of celebrating him in our home—the stockings were simply there, full of gifts from us, and the focal point of our family celebrations is and always will be the infant in the feeding trough. Making an effort to include Santa felt forced.

So we stood on an uncertain middle ground, and we weren’t really sure what to do about it until an astute four-year-old asked a surprising question after reading a book about Santa.

Is this story fiction or nonfiction?

Saint Nicholas | Little Book, Big Story

Well, I said. That’s an interesting question. And so we talked about how some stories begin as nonfiction but take on fictional elements over time. There was a Saint Nicholas, I told her. But he was really different from the guy in this story.

“Why?” she asked.

That’s where this book came in. Saint Nicholas introduces little readers to the original Nicholas, a man whose generosity sparked a legend and flowed from a consuming love of Christ.

This book focuses around a particular act that brought him notoriety and blossomed into a tradition involving stockings and gifts, and closes with an interesting appendix that details how one story led to the other. The nice thing about that layout is that, for those of you who do celebrate Santa Claus but long to bring a little church history to your celebration, you can still read this book to your kids without giving away The Great Secret.

Saint Nicholas | Little Book, Big Story

Epilogue

My conversation with Lydia didn’t end there, by the way. I went ahead and let her in on The Great Secret, and told her who really fills the stockings. If I worried about destroying “the magic of Christmas” for her, the worry was needless: she was totally smitten with the idea of her mom and dad sneaking around in our jammies, putting stuff in her stocking at night. For the rest of the week she played “Christmas” by making us lie down and pretend to sleep while she took down our stockings and stealthily filled them with odds and ends from all over the house. She scolded us if she caught us peeking.

When I gave her the official job of filling the kitties’ stockings, she simply lit up. Getting to share in the joy of giving and preparing surprises for others somehow deepened her enthusiasm, and this year, she spent an entire afternoon making gifts for our whole family (kitties and unborn sister included). Of course, she “hid” them in plain sight—on the kitchen counter, on the floor behind a wing back chair—so her technique needs a little work.

But she’s got years to practice before she steps into the role of Official Stocking Stuffer. She’ll be a pro by then.


Saint Nicholas
Julie Stiegemeyer, Chris Ellison (2007)

Come Worship With Me | Ruth Boling

During certain seasons, I long for a book about the unsung holidays—the ones that most people are dimly aware of, but do not actively celebrate. These holidays are often overlooked as being associated with, but inferior to, the “real” holidays. And so, Lent has something to with Easter. Advent has something to do with Christmas. But what?

Come Worship with Me is a beautiful introduction to the days of the church year, as a young mouse invites readers into his church to share in a full year’s worth of celebration. I came across this book (thanks to Aslan’s Library) while struggling to find a book that explained Lent and Holy Week (not just Easter) to our daughters, and was delighted to find that Come Worship With Me goes beyond that by including the greater and lesser events of the whole church year. It’s helpful to have a resource that we can return to each year as these holidays come up, to remind the girls (and ourselves) what we’re celebrating and why.

Our church honors many—but not all—of these days. The church depicted is quite different than ours, and I love the opportunity that that presents to show our daughters how differently Christians can worship, when we rarely have the opportunity to physically visit other churches. And the mouse who narrates the book does so with such child-like wonder and honesty that it’s hard not to be drawn into the joy of his church family.

This is an excellent book for any time of year, but especially now, with Advent almost upon us, it’s a great introduction to the deeper significance of the season: Christmas is not a single day or week or month, but the fruit of a full year’s preparation! And that is a lesson best learned early.


Come Worship With Me
Ruth Boling, Tracy Dahle Carrier (2010)

The Church History ABCs | Stephen J. Nichols

History was, for me, a recent discovery. I know that sounds strange, but it was a pleasant surprise to find in history a genre that I simply hadn’t noticed—at least, not until Stephen Ambrose introduced me to the fascinating possibilities of the historical narrative.

Now I love the idea of sharing history with our children at a young age, as it is a comfort to know that others—in wildly different clothes, of course—have trod certain paths before us. Lydia and I talk a lot about fiction and nonfiction (this is how Santa was exposed, actually) and, when reading a new book, that is often one of her first questions: “Is this story fiction or nonfiction?” She leans into a book with a certain enthusiasm when she learns that this is a story that really, truly happened.

The Church History ABCs | Little Book, Big Story

The Church History ABCs offers not one true story, but twenty-six, in concise words and bold illustrations, emphasized by a striking graphic layout. Each letter of the alphabet represents a major figure in church history, from Augustine to Ulrich Zwingli (don’t worry: I hadn’t heard of him either).

Their biographies are told briefly within the context of the book and at more length in an appendix, which makes this a great book for a wide age range. There’s a lot to talk about here, so be prepared: theology, politics, persecution and martyrdom all make appearances, so this is a good one to read with your child so you can answer questions as they come up.

The Church History ABCs | Little Book, Big Story

This book also makes a great gift for your Reformation-loving friends, if you have those (we have lots). We don’t own our own copy yet, but it’s come through our home a number of times as gifts for others, and  Lydia always wants to read it when it does—with Sarah at her shoulder, calling out letters. That’s a sure sign that our small audience gives a book four thumbs up.


The Church History ABCs
Stephen J. Nichols, Ned Bustard (2010)