a list of…five reflections of Easter for Holy Week

In time for Holy Week, here are five titles depicting  Easter from the Christian point of view.

Without any intention of insulting anyone here, I must say — these five titles were difficult to unearth.  I scanned large library inventories,  Amazon listings, Christian book sites, and skimmed through piles of books searching for five which 1) handled the Biblical story with a reasonable degree of accuracy, and 2) were illustrated in keeping with the dramatic, sober, historical nature of these events.

With those parameters in mind,  I eliminated probably a hundred cutesy-pie books about Jesus’ death.  Remarkably, many of these were from religious publishing houses. There’s definitely a dearth of quality children’s literature on this subject,  but a few worthy books are out there and here are five:

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis, illustrated by Pauline Baynes

Most of you don’t need a synopsis of this well-loved fantasy by C.S. Lewis.  So, I won’t bother.  It’s easily found elsewhere.

However, although this book is certainly enjoyable as a mere fantasy, populated with fauns and dwarves, a terrifying White Witch and four unsuspecting British schoolchildren, Lewis wrote far more than all this into his story.  His themes of betrayal and forgiveness, of Ancient Laws and substitutionary death, of resurrection and curses working backwards, offer piercing, illuminating pictures of the Biblical story of the death of Christ on behalf of sinners.

This could be an  appropriate book to read during the weeks preceding Easter.  Personally, I would do that without a big agenda, not forcing any particular understanding of it on children, but allowing those familiar with the Bible to make connections in their own way and time.  I think Lewis would agree with this.  He was highly respectful of children’s minds.  His story can be appreciated on many levels, and allowing it to work it’s own magic in a child’s mind allows for satisfying Aha! moments and wonderment.

At Jerusalem’s Gate: Poems of Easter, by Nikki Grimes, with woodcuts by David Frampton

Here’s a book of poetry that is crafted with such artistic creativity, depth of emotion, and richness of language, that it is appropriate for anyone from elementary-age through adult.  It contains almost two dozen pieces reflecting various individuals’  perspectives on events during the Passion Week.

For example, here is an excerpt from “The Last Goodbye” which portrays Mary’s thoughts at the cross:

So, this is how
you have him
wrenched from me —
permitting lying lips,
leather lash,
holy men flinging
fistfuls of anger
sharp as the spikes
that split his sweet muscle,
spoiled his smooth skin.
I’d have gladly laid him
unblemished, unbroken
on the altar, had you asked…

Grimes’ poems include the thoughts of a spectator at Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, a disciple at the Last Supper, Pilate’s wife, and Simon, who carried the cross.  She observes Joseph of Arimathea who opened his family tomb, and Mary Magdalene who first met the resurrected Jesus.   Short introductions to the poems provide a glimpse of Grimes’ thought process as she crafted each one.  The woodcuts by David Frampton are striking, bold images with a sort of modernized- Byzantine feel.  Very fitting for the tone of the poetry.

I very much like this thought-provoking collection.  If I were buying just one Easter selection, this is probably what I’d choose.  Poetry of this calibre is an excellent medium through which to explore the significance, mystery, and emotion of Easter.

The Story of Easter, by Aileen Fisher, illustrated by Stefano Vitale

Aileen Fisher is a favorite poet. Here she uses her clear, plainspoken writing style to relay several interesting aspects of Easter in prose.

First, she re-tells the Biblical account of Jesus of Nazareth — his teaching, his acclaimed entrance into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, his crucifixion and resurrection — pausing to explain how various symbols and traditions have passed down within the Christian Church from these events, such as the use of palm branches on Palm Sunday.

Then she tells how, over the years, Easter celebrations became connected with old spring festivals, and especially how eggs, representative of new life, have become associated with Easter.  We learn about ancient Persians and Ukrainians, Russians and Germans, and each peoples’ interesting egg traditions.

She goes on to briefly talk about the origin of a few other Easter traditions such as the Easter bunny, Easter parades, and outdoor Easter services, and wraps the book up with ideas for decorating Easter eggs and a recipe for traditional Hot Cross Buns. Yum.

That’s a nice array of information, and in typical Aileen Fisher fashion, it’s presented in simple, beautiful, dignified language.  The illustrations are excellent:  child-friendly, but artistic; colorful, yet with an antique finish; bold paintings depicting events in places ranging from  Palestine to  Eastern Europe or New York City.  This is a really lovely book, quite different from anything else out there.  Nice choice for early-elementary age children.

Easter, The King James Version, with pictures by Jan Pienkowski

A number of children’s books have chosen to copy the Easter story directly from the New Testament, and all of those I found used the King James Version, including this one.  I am not sure just why they have done that, as it is difficult for very young children to follow the flow of that language.  “Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus,” for example, or “But a certain maid earnestly looked upon him and said, Thou also wast with Jesus.”  Just antiquated.  However, except for some instances where intriguing editing was done of the Biblical account, quoting the Bible clearly yields an accurate approach to the story, and savvy adults can rephrase as they go if they prefer more contemporary English.

Interestingly, most of the illustrators who worked with the Biblical text chose to use a painting style either of the Old Masters — da Vinci-esque — or a Byzantine look.  Thus the entire feel of the books is very, very old.  Old language.  Old art style.  Very removed from current experience.  Here is where this book differs.

Jan Pienkowski, who is such a brilliant illustrator, uses his trademark silhouettes in these illustrations, setting them against gorgeous colored backgrounds to create a very striking book.  His interpretation of the scenes has a very human, realistic tone to it.   The postures, the scenery, the perspectives are fresh and captivating.  A prolific use of gold ink lends a regal tone to the designs, as well.  I really, really like his approach here.  It’s the best straight-forward Biblical account I found.

The Glorious Impossible, by Madeleine L’Engle, illustrated with frescoes from the Scrovegni Chapel by Giotto

“The first of the gloriously impossible things that Jesus did was to be born — the power that created the universe come to live with us as one of us.  And now his time on earth was over, and in the eyes of the religious establishment of his day, he had failed and they had triumphed.  True, he had healed a few cripples and lepers, given sight to a few blind people, driven out a few demons; but he threatened the religious establishment and they killed him.  Or thought they did.”

Award-winning author Madeleine L’Engle has written this account of the life of Jesus, presenting his birth, life, miracles, death, and resurrection, as a series of gloriously impossible wonders which though hard to believe, bring joy to our hearts, hope to our lives, songs to our lips.  She writes as a believer.

L’Engle writes beautifully and clearly, summarizing the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life in a couple dozen entries.  She uses contemporary language to tell the story, while closely adhering to the Biblical accounts.  She intersperses questions within her text, wondering aloud about puzzling elements of the story such as whether Judas was frightened, or how humans can treat others as cruelly as the Roman soldiers treated Jesus, and these questions serve to draw the reader into the text as a true story to ponder in fresh ways.  Of course, she never talks down to her readers.

The frescoes are Giotto’s work from the 1300s, done on the walls of a chapel in Padua, Italy.  Giotto was known for giving a more three-dimensional look to his paintings than had been done before that time.  An afterword describes him and his work, giving us a better understanding of his genius.  The book is a large-ish 10×10 square, and the frescoes each take up a full page, so they are nice, large, colorful prints, full of details and expressions to examine.

This is an excellent,  longer book which could even be read  bit by bit throughout the Lenten season to those from about 7 and up.

Here are Amazon links for these titles:
Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: A Celebration of the First Edition (Narnia)
At Jerusalem’s Gate
The Story of Easter (Trophy Picture Books)
EASTER: The King James Version
The Glorious Impossible [Illustrated with Frescoes from the Scrovegni Chapel by Giotto]