"Today the greatest challenge in publishing is distribution and discoverability. As a result, sites like [PictureBooksReview] are more important than ever to discerning readers, new authors and independent publishers."
-Steve Floyd, chief executive officer of August House books

"The interview is so amazing! I appreciate you picking up on all these aspects of what I've been doing. It's always great to talk with someone who understands what goes into these things."

- Jose Lucio, self-published author of Heave Ho!
Showing posts with label The Bible. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Bible. Show all posts

1.05.2014

Saint Francis and the Christmas Donkey (2000)

Retold and Illustrated by Robert Byrd

Dutton Children's Books

"...Francis was not simply a charming, eccentric lover of nature," writes Robert Byrd. "To see him only in that dimension trivializes his outlook on life."

I think Robert Byrd is an interesting illustrator. He really prefers to illustrate characters either head-on or in full profile, which gives the pages a simplistic tone, but at the same time he fills his backgrounds with so much wonderful detail it is almost overwhelming.

The opening page is of a verdant landscape, in which several types of trees are captured, receding into the distance, rocks and hills and distant birds, a thousand and one blades of grass, and there stands the saint, looking out at us with equanimity, a wolf to one side, a bunny to the other.

It reads to me as though Saint Francis is a stand-in for Adam, the first Man. We learn in Sunday School that Adam gave all of the animals their names, of course, but it is Saint Francis, we learn in this story, who called them his "little brothers" and reminded them of how precious they are, "from the tiniest mouse to the powerful great gray wolf."

It is while Francis ponders in his 'eden,' that he hears the loud, sad braying of the donkey, and asks why he should be so unhappy.

"You would cry out yourself, if your work was as hard as mine. Ever since the beginning of time, we donkeys have carried heavy loads on our small backs, and people and animals have made fun of the way we sound."

And so Saint Francis begins his tale, which begins at the dawn of creation...

Creation
It has the form of one of Kipling's Just-So stories, as we discover that the Donkey was at first an extremely proud animal, with short ears and a small tail, who spent these early days of Creation waltzing about and mocking the elephant, ridiculing the giraffe, for their extreme and comical features. Then a band of monkeys get together and decide to teach that Donkey a lesson, by pulling out his ears and tugging on his tail, and them finally - if that weren't bad enough - his is cursed by God Himself:

"...you shall always laugh, but your laugh will be an ugly sound. And when my creatures hear your loud, ridiculous 'Hee-haw! Hee-haw!' they all will laugh at you. You will always do the hardest work, carrying heavy loads for the rest of your days, wherever you go."

This does not cheer the Donkey up, to know of this long ago curse on he and his kin. But Saint Francis assures him, that is only the beginning of the story. There is redemption to be had, of a kind, and it is wrapped up in the Christmas story, as the donkey is called upon to carry a very important traveler through the desert.

Several times the donkey stumbled,
but he did not fall.
I love desert wildernesses, and Byrd does an exquisite job of rendering it is as much detail as he paid to those verdant pastures at the offset. The sands and the rocks of the desert are done with so many shapes and shades, it feels like a living place.

The quest is an epic one, pushing the beast of burden to the absolute limits of his abilities, but finally bringing Mary safely to Bethlehem, and is witness to the birth, to angelic encounters, to shepherds and wise men bearing gifts.

And in his own heart, in his very own way,
the donkey knew what he had done,
and he was happy.
"But the little donkey in the stable had no gift to give," said the Donkey sadly.

"Well," said Francis, "surely you can see that by carrying Mary and the baby Jesus, the Christmas donkey had truly given the most wonderful gift of all."

1.28.2012

Noah's Cats and the Devil's Fire (1992)

Retold by Arielle North Olson

Illustrated by Barry Moser

Typeset in 16 point Trump Medieval

Transparent watercolor painted on paper handmade by Simon Green at The Hayle Mill

Orchard Books

This wonderfully dark retelling of Noah's Ark comes from Romania. What, a dark retelling of Noah's Ark? Surely there can be no such-a thing. But the black cat with the piercing green eyes adorning the cover begs to differ. This is a Barry Moser book. He doesn't take things lightly.

Within these pages, you will find the half-constructed Ark rising from the mud like an ancient castle from an Edgar Allen Poe story. You will find glowing red eyes and dark shapes moving about the ark. You will see the Devil himself, horned and scaly and ready to kill. Even the non-demonic animals appear sinister.

When the animals came aboard, two by two, a pair of fiery eyes peered out from under the lion's mane - the fiery red eyes of the devil who had turned himself into a mouse.


The Devil doesn't seem to be needing any rescuing, but rather wants to come aboard the ark to cause some mischief - Devil-as-trickster. He torments the other animals, ruins the feed, and finally attempts to sink the ark itself.



He takes on the guide of the most hideous rat I've ever seen in a children's book. And what is the natural predator of the rat? A quick glance back at the cover of the book should cue you in.

Did that red-hot demon leave a bit of fire inside her? Ever after, her fur made sparks when Noah petted her - and her eyes gleamed in the dark. And that's the way it is with cats to this very day.


8.08.2011

On Purim (2000)

By Cathy Goldberg Fishman

Illustrated by Melanie W. Hall

Collagraph and mixed media

Text set in Novarese Medium

Atheneum Books for Young Readers

"Oh, today we'll merry, merry be," I sing as I work on my mask.

In On Purim, Goldberg gives us a story within a story, showing how the Biblical story of Esther translates into a modern-day celebration.

We begin as a contemporary Jewish family is preparing for Purim. The young narrator of the story is making masks, and wonders, "Why do we wear masks on Purim?"

Soon, the whole family is wearing masks, taking on the guise of specific characters. There is wise Mordecai, handlebar-mustache-weilding King Ahasuerus, and of course, Esther.

"Line up!" demands this incarnation of the King. "I will choose a new queen!"

It's all a giggle. So funny, how these violent Old Testament stories can become something so pleasantly diverting.

"Who knows the story of Purim?" asks the grandfather, and soon the family has gathered around for the telling. When the young narrator reads, "The king's chief advisor was an evil man named Haman..." the grandfather yells, "Boo! Boo!"

"Haman wanted everyone to bow down to him," she attempts to continue, but is again interrupted by the booing of her grandfather. Every time Haman's name is spoken aloud, he feels compelled to shout out his displeasure.

It's a simple retelling, but Hall's illustrations are quite lovely and emphasize the fairy-tale aspect of the story. It is plain to see how this is a story which would be especially appealing to children, and particular to girls who daydream of becoming princesses.

Following the story, the family continues their celebrating, noshing on some hamantashen. Hamantashen are triangle shaped cookies which are supposed to look like the hat Haman wore. "Gobbling them up is another way of blotting out his name," says the grandfather, who really does seem to have a personal vendetta.

Then comes the Purim carnival itself, with games and prizes, a costume parade and a Punch and Judy-esque puppet show, in which all the children - not just elderly grandfathers - chant, "Boo! Boo!" and shake their groggers when puppet Haman makes its appearance.

All in all, this is a light story, very deftly providing the origin behind the traditions, how a story becomes another story, becomes another story. At the end, the narrator asks a question that I too had been wondering for some time, as I've worked on this series on Purim and Esther.

"Where is God in the Purim story?"

I have now gone through several versions of the story, and it has not escaped my attention that - though Biblical - there is no obvious supernatural element. There are wicked people, yes, and there are good people, but never did I get the sense that there is any Devil-work at hand, or divine intervention.

"He is hidden in the faith of Mordecai and Esther and in their courage to do the right thing," says her father.

We wear masks to remind us that, even though we don't hear His name, God is a hidden part of the Purim story. We wear masks to remind us that, even though we don't see Him, God is a hidden part of our lives, too, and when Purim is over, He will still be there.
.
Click here for more versions of the story of Queen Esther!
.
Click here for more Biblical Stories from the Old Testament!
.
Click here for Jewish folktales!

7.19.2011

Esther's Story (1996)

Retold by Diane Wolkstein

Illustrated by Juan Wijngaard

Gouache on paper.

Text set in 14.5 Gody Old Style BT

Morrow Junior Books

This is a very full retelling of the story of Esther, which I've been piecing together from various picture book versions in my previous entries. This one is by far the most beautiful and expansive version I've read yet.
.
"Esther's Story is woven together from the biblical Book of Esther, oral legends, and my own musings," writes Wolkstein. "Other legends were told to me by my own rabbi, Shlomo Carlebach."
.
Right away, I could tell I was going to dig this one. I can tell she has her priorities straight. Not a mere retelling, but a conflation of different sources and personal acquaintances.
.
Esther is eleven years old when the story opens, and named Hadassah. She is writing in a diary given to her by her Uncle Mordecai, on a night wherein he has left her by herself and attended the King's banquet. The whole of the book is written in the first person, with Esther's voice.
.
When Mordecai returns home, he comes bearing news:
.
"Tonight Queen Vashti, the queen of all Persia, refused to go to the king when he called for her, so she has been banished. Tomorrow a search for a new queen begins throughout the one hundred and twenty-seven lands of Persia."
.
We follow Esther through her adolescence, growing into a young woman. Wijngaard has done wonderful work showing not just the key players, but the entire world in which they live: fully realized with innumerable details. I love the lattice work and her triple braids as she stands looking out at the evening sky.
.
In Persia, Esther is the goddess Ishtar, who is the goddess of love and war. She is also the first planet to appear every night in the sky. I often watch for her in the evening. I think it is very brave of her to appear all alone when it is dark.
.
What?! Polytheism in a Bible story?!
.
I dig it.
.
When Esther is a bit older (thank God) she is selected to live in the palace with other beautiful, young women from the kingdom. Presumably, this is part of the bride-choosing process. It is only when she happens across the king in the hall and they share a laugh that he asks her to marry him.
.
This was the only version I've read in which some genuine emotion went between them, and we feel that they truly are in love, that it is because of her good-natured, child-like quality that she is able to warm the sad king's heart. Not just because, you know, she's hot. In fact, I think it works greatly toward this story's overall message that Esther is not necessarily the most beautiful.
.
There are many other details which I loved. Esther does not merely enter the King's throne  room, but she "..walked through the first, the second, and the third gates. At the fourth gate, my legs began to tremble. I walked more slowly. I passed through the fifth and sixth gates. As I came to the seventh gate, I wondered if these were my last moments to live. Then I heard the sound of the shofar, and pushed the last gate open." In a medium in which minimalism seems to be the name of the game, I love lengthy descriptions like this all the more.
.
The story will pass from one to another. I think that is how it was meant to be. Once it was my story. Now it belongs to each of us.
.
Indeed.
.
For more stories about Queen Esther, click here!
.
For more stories from the Old Testament, click here!
.
For Jewish Folktales, click here!

7.14.2011

Queen Esther (1986)

Retold and Illustrated by Tomie dePaola
.
Harper and Row
.
Continuing my trip through the tale of Queen Esther, I picked up this small volume by the great Tomie dePaola. I thought it would be interesting to refrain from reading the actual text of the Biblical account, and instead stick with picture book representations.

The artwork is distinctly dePaola - he has such a unique style - very simple, very stylized. Usually I think of his characters as possessing an abundance of rosy cheeks and pleasant dispositions. Not so, in this book. A quick flip-through reveals a plethora of dour complexions which occasionally give way to fear, angst and some wrath. Even at the very beginning, as King Ahasuerus sits upon his throne and has all of the beautiful, young women in his kingdom brought before him so that he can select a wife - he doesn't look too happy about it.

King Ahasuerus admired Esther more than all the others. So he chose Esther to be his queen.
.
And there he stands, at the left-hand side of the page, holding his royal scepter. There stands Esther, on the right, eyes shut, hand on breast, bowing formally. I would expect this degree of formality with an arranged marriage, but the King has basically let his lust do all the choosing for him! Ah well.

Something this book does which the previous version did not is that it explains what 'purim' is - lots, like dice. We see the wicked Haman - cloaked all in red - casting them to help him determine the best month and the perfect day to kill all the Jews.

Once the purim have spoken, Haman tells the king the Jews must be slaughtered. DePaola very specifically writes, "King Ahasuerus listened and then he ordered the Jews to be killed." [emphasis mine]

I thought that was telling, because in the other version, it was not clear if Ahasuerus was to blame or not. The text left it a bit muddled - for obvious reasons, I think. As I read this line, however, I suddenly became interested in how dePaola was going to resolve the story, now that he has so plainly outed Ahasuerus as the villain.

I did not have long to wait. During the climactic feast - and after touching the royal scepter (?) - Esther says, "If it pleases your Majesty, my wish is that I may live, and that my people may live. We are about to be killed."

"Who dares to do such a thing?" asks Ahasuerus. Really, you have to ask? Or perhaps we are meant to think that his apparent  outrage is an act, in order to cast suspicions off himself? It must have come as a great relief, then, when Esther says, "Our enemy in this cruel man, Haman."

Phew! And to cover his tracks completely: "Hang Haman himself on those gallows!"

So King Ahasuerus stops the Jews from being killed, and...  Er, wait. No, he actually doesn't stop the Jews from being killed. The book says that the King decreed the Jews could "defend themselves against the people who came to destroy them." Come again?

It would be like Hitler having a massive change of heart during the Holocaust: "You know, we're still going to try to exterminate you, but from now on, feel free to try to stop us from exterminating you!"

My hope is that other versions of the story will make this clearer for me!
.
Click here for other versions of the story of Queen Esther!
.
Click here for more Biblical tales!
.
Click here for Jewish Folktales!

7.07.2011

The Story of Queen Esther (2009)

Retold by Jenny Koralek

Illustrated by Grizelda Holderness

Pastels

Text set in Angie

Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

After I indexed Raisel's Riddle last week, which uses the Festival of Purim as its backdrop, I thought it would be a great idea to refresh myself with the story of Esther.

It's a story which seems the inversion of most other tales, as it begins with the typical Happily Ever After part and then unravels from there. A rich and powerful king named Ahasuerus chooses for himself the most beautiful woman in his kingdom to be his wife. Her name is Esther, and Grizelda has indeed made her very beautiful. Her hair is long and black, inexplicably filled with the stars and the moon. She seems very happy, with no misgivings, and spends her time being bathed and prepared for the wedding. All is well and good, except... she's a Jew! D'oh!

I love how Grizelda illustrates the story, with many pages containing several scenes happening concurrently. In one spread of the king's castle, we see men snickering and plotting murderously in an upper window of the tower. In two other windows, Mordecai and Esther communicate by carrier pigeon, while on the castle roof, the King hands his servant Haman his royal ring of command.

It is a strange scene, I think, when Haman suggests to the King, "Your Majesty, the Jews do not obey some of your laws. Why don't you get rid of them?"

"Do what you like with them," is the King's lackadaisical response.

Later, we are meant to side with the King when, learning of the plot to kill the Jews, says with feigned innocence, "By whose order? Who would do such a terrible thing?"

Give me a break, King Ahasuerus. What exactly did you think was going to happen when you agreed with Haman in getting rid of the Jews? It's an irony which the story does not explore. All that matters is that Haman is executed while his weeping wife watches, Esther is one beautiful lady and, "to this day, a noisy, happy feast, the Feast of Purim, is held every year to remember how Queen Esther saved the lives of her people."

I've read some other reviews of this book, and they all agree that it is pretty liberal with its interpretation of the actual Biblical story, oversimplifying and changing several details. Ah well, I guess I'll have to find and read other versions!
.
Click here for more versions of the Queen Esther story!
.
Click here for more Biblical Stories from the Old Testament!
.
Click here for Jewish folktales!

3.11.2011

Creation (2003)

By Gerald McDermott

Dutton Children's Books

My telling is based on Genesis 1:1 through 2:3 of the Hebrew Bible, with an eye toward its antecedents in the ancient Near East, such as the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish, and sources as diverse as the illuminated Bibles Moralisees of 13th Century France and the Sarajevo Haggadah of 14th Century Spain.

A tall order, Mr. McDermott.  Though, to be fair, this is the same guy who wrote and illustrated the classic Anansi the Spider and many other cultural trickster tales from the world over.  McDermott has earned his credentials.  When he speaks, I listen.  When he writes, "The voice of the story is an inner one that begins with a breath and a whisper, a spark ignited within us all that grows to illuminate the universe," I take him at his word.

The size of the book is what initially impressed me.  However, its first image makes ironic use of that size.  It is just a large, black page with a tiny gray dot in the center.  There is no text.  There appears to be movement within.

This is a story told in the first person.  "I was before time.  I was everywhere.  There was nothing.  I was there."  God appears as a large, gray, textured breeze floating in the blackness of space.  Then the gray turns sheet white, which becomes the foam on the rolling waters, above which hover dark and stormy rain clouds, between them a strand of blackness, all the meanwhile God is still narrating:

I gathered together the waters below and made the sea.  Out of the sea I brought the earth.

Things are beginning to make spatial sense at this point.  The earth rises like a giant tortoise shell from the murky depths.  Soon it is covered with grass and tress, growing larger and larger, taking over the whole of the planet.  At this point, McDermott unleashes his whole palette of colors.  Reds and oranges and yellows are what he uses to fill the sky with stars and suns, which become the wings of colorful birds and underwater creatures, animals of every kind rising out of the sea and moving inland - a reference to God's hand being instrumental in Darwinian evolution?

Regardless, McDermott loves animals.  His creatures always have a two-dimensional look about them, but taken together with so many and so brightly colored, they fill the pages with beauty and life and movement.  The charging of the rhinoceros and elephant and lion and boar seem as though they are charging toward life, rushing toward the earth with zealousness.

Lastly come the humans - curiously blue-skinned and faceless with wild multi-colored hair, reaching toward the atmosphere.

With the final few pages, the Big Bang seems to have begat the Big Crunch, as all the animals, the birds, the fish, the plants, the sea, all of it swirls about the people in a receding cyclone, until all that is left is that small dot, in parallel with the first page, but housing now a fetus in embryo.

I am all this.  All this I AM.

3.04.2011

Genesis (1997)

Illustrated by Ed Young

A Laura Geringer Book

"To me, Genesis represents the very beginning of all possibility - the energy that is the seed of life," writes Ed Young in the introduction of this splendid little book.

Although I almost wonder if the smallness of the volume works against it. We're dealing with abstractions here. Each opposing page has a line from the King James version of the book of Genesis, set alongside Young's best attempt to capture that thought artistically. I would love to know more about his thought process in this. For example, the first illustration is:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was wihtout form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.




Well, what would you paint? Young presents a textured, dark red background, within which sit two vaguely human-shaped forms, one large, one small. Is this God? Is this the void? The "firmament in the midst of the waters" takes the form of a bright stretch of light acorss a dark, thundercloud of blue and gray.

The only thing which is distinct are the two "great lights" set within the firmament of heaven. Even when we get into the territory of the animals - birds of the air, fish of the sea - they are only vague and indistinct. A feather, a fin, a hand, lost in a swirl of color.



I wish the book had been larger. Much larger. It reminds me a bit of looking at the paintings of Mark Rothko in books and not understanding what the big deal was. It was only when I saw them in person and was overwhelmed by their sheer size that at last was in awe. These illustrations too, I feel, could benefit from such an enlargement. What would the impact be if the black and red shapes meant to signify God and Void were large and encompassing instead of small and compact within this book?



Nonetheless, this is a beautiful book. But the beauty isn't limited to the paintings.

"The endpapers," Young writes, "are composed of the names of hundreds of endangered and extinct animals, with those that are extinct highlighted; for I also see in Genesis a gentle reminder that the earth is ours to protect."


2.16.2011

Moses in the Bulrushes (1986)

Retold and Illustrated by Warwick Hutton

Watercolors

Margaret K. McElderry

Another great work by Hutton.  Text-wise, it is the briefest of all the books of his I've reviewed so far, opting as he does to spread out a single sentence over the course of several pages.  For example:

There was a Hebrew family called Levi, and when a son was born to them the mother, seeing that he was a healthy child, decided to hide him carefully for three months, hoping to save his life.

There is an awful lot of story in that sentence, and Hutton divvies it up over four pages, showing us the happy family seemingly posing in front of their home, followed by an interior shot of the women and the infant - worried men glancing in from the background, chickens pecking at their feed in the foreground.  Then there is the loving mother embracing her child, and finally the nervous mother stowing the child away like carry-on luggage.

The book opens, however, with the Pharaoh facing us - the audience - angrily.  "Behold the people of Israel are more numerous and mightier than we are!" he yells.

The two things I've come to admire about Hutton are on display here.  First, the contrast between tiny humans and their larger surroundings.  I find this again and again.  It is exemplified here by the minuscule Egyptians and the awesome pillars of the Pharaoh's palace which take up two whole pages, and is paralleled several pages earlier by the Egyptian women bathing in the water, in which it is the tremendous trunks and branches of the surrounding trees which take up most of the pages, producing a staggering comparison.

Secondly, Hutton's unflinching eye for the human body - seldom seen in a children's book.  We can see the Pharaoh's daughter's nude body quite clearly in several pages as she's bathing, and even after she's finished.  It's all presented very matter-of-factly.

I almost wished Hutton had kept the story focused on Moses as a baby.  Instead, near the end, we suddenly see grown-up Moses standing before a long line of several thousand Jews, pyramids silhouetted against darkened, thunderous clouds in the distance.  "Moses was a man of God and lived to be a hundred and twenty years old," is the final sentence of the text, though the final image is of a fish swimming through the bulrushes, to which we have narratively returned.
.
Click here for more Bible stories from the Old Testament!

2.04.2011

Adam and Eve (1987)

Retold and Illustrated by Warwick Hutton

Watercolor

Margaret K. McEldery Books

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was without form, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

This is a straight adaption of the creation story found in Genesis, using the language of the King James Version.  The first image is of a dark stage, the blue of the waters just subtly colored in, a sliver of light just barely visible.  I have not found Hutton to do such abstract images before, and I can't help but wonder if this represented a challenge for him, especially as this is the illustration which opens up this work.

As the earth takes shape and comes into form, so does the artistic rendering of same.  The next page, the sun and the moon are in the same sky, plumes of what appear to be smoke, but are perhaps meant to be billowing shadow which will eventually become night.  Or, as God puts it, "Let there be a firmament in the midst of the water."

God is drawn as a white outline of a person, whose face we never see.  He brings Adam to life in a circle of light.  The animals also come out of a similar orb of light, and Adam and God watch as they emerge, lions and horses scattering off into the jungle, birds immediately taking off toward the sky.

Then, the final creation - Adam laying face down in the earth, unconscious, while Eve floats above him, as though a spirit who has just been exorcised.  This is but a small scene in a much richer illustration filled with blooming flowers and wild overgrowth, animals hiding in shadow.

 I must admit I admire about Hutton's view of Eden is that where the text declares, "And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed," then indeed, it is so.  Hutton is not ashamed either.  Adam has a penis.  Eve has breasts.  They both possess bare bottoms where their backs are turned.  It is not for naught.  After the serpent has done it beguiling, we next see the first humans hidden in the woods, using leaves to cover themselves, Eve with a hand across her breasts.  It is a resonant image.

Down the garden path strolls that glowing white outline of a person, and all the animals hide in fear, peeking out.

So He drove out the man and the woman from the garden of Eden and He placed at the east of the garden cherubims and a flaming sword to guard the tree of life.

Such a stark tale.  Is there a moral?  I don't think so.  Just a portrait of the human condition.
.
Click here for more Bible stories from the Old Testament!

12.22.2010

Amahl and the Night Visitors (1986)

Written by Gian Carlo Menotti

Illustrated by Michele Lemieux

William Morrow and Company

This book has great resonance. I was only somewhat familiar with the story when I began reading, and knew that it was based on the opera of the same name, from 1951.

This is the story of the Nativity, but one in which the baby Jesus and his parents do not make an appearance. The central character is Amahl, a young boy who lives with his mother. We first see him playing his pipe as the stars begin to appear in the night sky. He is clearly a dreamer.

There is one star in particular which captures young Amahl's attention. It burns more brightly than the others, and he cannot take his eyes off of it. Even when his mother scolds him, he cannot tear himself away.

"Oh Mother, you should go out and see! There's never been such a sky! Hanging over our roof there is a star as large as a window. The star has a tail, and it moves across the sky like a chariot on fire!"

Amahl's mother sighed. "Oh, Amahl," she said wearily, "When will you stop telling lies? All day long you wander about in a dream. Here we are with nothing to eat, not a stick of wood on the fire, not a drop of oil in the jug, and all you do is worry your mother with fairy tales..."

Yes, indeed. At that moment, Amahl is one with Jack the Giant Killer. He is one with Dorothy and with Alice and with every dreamer of any fairy tale ever told or written. The Star of Bethlehem is not merely a Sign from God, it is an icon of other adventures and romance.

That night, as Amahl lays sleeping, the adventure comes to his front door.

First, there is only singing:

From far away we come and farther we must go.
How far, how far, my crystal star?
Cold as the sands by the silent sea.
Frozen the incense in our frozen hands.
Heavy the gold.

When his mother opens the door, still disbelieving her son and his wild stories, she gasps in shock and amazement. There stand the three kings, dressed as aliens from a faraway land. They've come following the Star, and wish to spend the night with Amahl and his dumbfounded mother.

And when they eventually leave, it is with Amahl - who leaves his home for the first time. "...as he piped, the caravan moved onward."

This review was linked from Tales and Their Tellers 7: "The Prayer of Saint Nicholas."

Spirit Child, A Story of the Nativity (1984)

Retold by Bernardino de Sahagun

Translated by John Bierhorst

Illustrated by Barbara Cooney



Finding books like this make doing this index well worth it. I had been going through my library's Christmas section, thumbing through various Santa Claus phantasmagoria and sacrosanct religious tales. The words, "Spirit Child," along the spine caught my eye. With the words, "translated from the Aztec" on the front cover, along with the dark-skinned angels and dormant volcanoes, my interest was more than piqued.

"The text is preserved in Sahagun's Psalmodia Christiana (Mexico, 1583)," reads the tiny print on the copyright page. This was a book written entirely in the Aztec language and one of the first books to be published in the so-called New World.

It was actually translated into English specifically for this picture book. Bierhorst, the translator, happened across the tale while writing an Aztec-English dictionary based on sources from the 1500s. The artist, Cooney, traveled to Mexico City and the surroundings in order to properly illustrate it. Needless to say, this is not the same old Nativity story you've heard before.

We begin in the shadow of a smoking volcano. Families appear to be running for their lives. "For 5000 years after the world began, the devil was king," we read.

The devil looks like he is culled from a Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. There he sits, in the bowl of the volcano, a grinning, eye-less skeleton dressed in bird feathers and smoking a pipe. Skeleton girls fan him and dance for his pleasure while naked children suffer in the flames before him.

"But the name Jesus already existed before the world began. This was always his name, even before he was born," we read. "O spirit, I child, you are the flame, you are the light of the almighty father. O child, remember how you were born long ago."

Gabriel comes to visit Mary, wearing a loin cloth with green wings, bearing flowers and a fan, proclaiming, "Hail Mary, full of grace! Listen, I will tell you a great mystery."

I love that. "I will tell you a great mystery."

O spirit child! All the people of the world are waiting for you. We are prisoners tied in chains, and you can save us. You are the light and we are in darkness.

This review is linked from Tales and Their Tellers 7: "The Prayer of Saint Nicholas."

12.14.2010

Jonah and the Great Fish (1983)

Retold and Illustrated by Warwick Hutton


Warwick Hutton is growing on me. He seemed a bit stale in Theseus and the Minotaur, but now I am finding something endearing about his simple illustrations. I notice too that he likes to draw people very small. He is not one for close-ups. On most pages, the main characters are tiny figures surrounded by the larger landscape which seems more Hutton's forte. I feel like if he could do a whole book that was composed of nothing but seascapes and mountains, he would.

In this book, the perspective really works. I felt like I was watching events unfold from God's point of view. On the very first page, Jonah stands looking out at us - the audience - with something of a perplexed expression on his face. The text informs us that God has just spoken to him, saying, "Arise and go to the city of Nineveh!"

Of course, Jonah immediately bolts. Wouldn't you?

We see him next as a tiny figure careening through the streets, trying to outrun the presence of the supernatural, to lose himself in the crowds. Eventually, he finds himself by the ports where he books passage on the first ship that will take him, bound for Tarshish. It's not mentioned in this version of the story, but from what I understand, Tarshish is located in the exact opposite direction as Nineveh.

Who, me?

But there is no escaping from God. That, more than anything, seems to be the point of this story: You can run, but you can't hide.

The ship set sail, but almost at once the Lord sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest. The wind and the waves grew ever more threatening.

Hutton is really in his element here, with the black clouds intruding upon the blue sky, the crashing waves and the fleeing dolphins and seagulls. Eventually, Jonah comes clean. He announces to the sailors who he is, why God is angry with him. "Throw me into the sea!" he says. "Only then will the waters be calm!"


The sailors do throw him overboard, all the meanwhile begging his forgiveness. It might have been nice for Jonah to spare them this grief, and instead just jump into the waters himself. Nevertheless, once Jonah is overboard, Hutton returns to his long-view approach, and we see the blanket of the ocean has settled down.

However, beneath the tiny ship, the dark shape of the great fish swims near. It has an ominous feel, which I liked very much.

For three days and three nights, Jonah lives within the belly of the beast, all the meanwhile praying, "Lord, help me. You have cast me into the deep. Water stretches for miles around me. Vast waves roll over my head. I am banished from your sight. I will never again disobey your word, if only I can be saved, and from now on I will praise you and give thanks to you."


Now, if it were me, I would have said, "Oh, come on, you're only saying that because I was trying to kill you!" But, I guess God must have though Jonah was being sincere, because on the next page, Jonah is vomited up on shore, along with other smelly, partially-digested fish and eels. He is free, and has no doubt learned his lesson about the futility of rebelling against an all-powerful being.

The story ends with this, "Jonah went to Nineveh as the Lord had commanded. And the people of Nineveh gave up their evil ways and believed in the Lord."


David and Goliath (1993)

Retold and Illustrated by Leonard Everett Fisher


The phrase "David and Goliath" has such allegorical resonance, its sometimes easy to forget the specifics of the actual story.

I like that the first two pages of Fisher's adaption is a large map to give us - if nothing else - geographical context. It's kind of a strange map, now that I look at it. Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea take up about 80% of the two pages. Along the right-hand side of the right-hand page is a narrow green strip labeled, "Israel." To the left, a smaller golden landmass called Philistia, with the city of Gath pinpointed. And within Israel - right smack-dab between the 'R' and the 'A' - lies the Valley of Elah, where this most famous of all duels took place some thousands of years ago.

We begin the story with David tending his flock, gently putting them to sleep with the soothing tunes of his harp. "The music of David's harp filled all who heard it with joy." Such a gentle, nice boy. Not a mean bone in his body. Little do we suspect that within a handful of pages he will be holding aloft the decapitated head of his enemy, basking in the glory of his blood thirsty comrades!

But I get ahead of myself. One day David is summoned to King Saul, who - he has been told -- is filled with dark spirits. Indeed, we see him laying with his head on his fist, frowning and looking generally apathetic. It is only sweet David and his beautiful harp which can cheer the king up, and when he does so, Saul tells him, "I need you to stay so I can listen to the sound of your harp."

Then war comes, and armies come to clash and the fierce giant Goliath of Gath introduces himself to the Israelites. "Choose a man among you to fight me. If he wins, we are your slaves. If he loses, you are ours!" Fisher illustrates the giant as a fair-skinned relative of Frankenstein's monster, with a bit of a slow-look about the eyes. I was surprised to see that his Goliath wears no armor. I thought I had remembered that Goliath wore full battle dress, including a helmet which covered practically his entire head, and that his forehead was the only unprotected part of his body.

Sure enough, a quick read through my Barry-Moser-illustrated King James confirmed my memory as being accurate. I have to wonder why Fisher altered this detail.

Another discrepancy I thought I found was that in this story, David only hurtles one single stone at Goliath. I could have sworn that in the Bible, David hurtles three stones at the lumbering giant, and that it is only the third stone which hits its mark. Furthermore, I could have sworn that I've sat through Sunday School lessons in which the fact that David uses three stones was numerologically and cosmologically significant in some way. A glance through that wonderful King James with Barry Moser's magnificent woodcuts revealed me to be a liar. It was only one stone, and the battle was over before it began.

If you're going to take liberties with the text, however, I feel this would have been the place to do it. The battle could have been drawn out, made much more climactic. So much build-up... After page after page of boasting and praying, David hurtles his fateful stone and that's that. End of battle.

But maybe that's the point.

A turn of the page later, and there's Goliath's head, David's face twisted in rage. "Here is Goliath, our enemy!"

The final page shows David standing amongst his flock of sheep, having seemingly returned to his simple way of life, all killing and decapitations behind him. If only it were so.

David, the shepherd boy, had saved the land of the Israelites. One day he would be their king.
.
Click here for more Bible stories from the Old Testament!

12.08.2010

The Christmas Story (1998)

Illustrated by Gennady Spirin

Designed by Martha Rago

Tempera, watercolor and pencil on watercolor paper


This is an absolutely gorgeous book which, on first glance, does not appear to be a picture book at all, but is surely a reproduction of classical paintings centered around the birth of the Christ. But this is not the case.

We are told only that Spirin is drawing on his "classical training and his Orthodox Christian faith." Some of the images are in a small box accompanied by a corresponding reading from one of the Gospels, whereas others are a full, double-page spread, the detail and the beauty of which is overwhelming.

My favorite illustration is of the angel visiting the shepherds. It appears as a huge, golden figure, luminous, slowly touching down with outstretched wings. The rest of the picture, by contrast, seems dark and obscure, but a closer look reveals the tiny figures of the shepherds as they cower their eyes and run for cover. The true scale becomes apparent.

For Spirin, the Christmas story is a cosmic one, in which the human players are tiny in comparison with the supernatural.

This review is linked from Tales and Their Tellers 7: "The Prayer of Saint Nicholas."

12.03.2010

Noah's Ark (2002)

Written and Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

Pencil, colored pencils, watercolors

Book design by Jerry Pinkney and Atha Tehon

Chronicle Books

An incredible book by Jerry Pinkney, and gives a fair and beautiful interpretation of the Noah's Ark myth found in Genesis. I'm always dismayed by the saccharine take many writers seem to strive toward, as though the whole ordeal was just a giggle and... oh, look at those cute puppy dogs!

Pinkney lays out the grimness of the scenario with the first line of text: "God was not pleased with the people of the earth." He presents a barren landscape in which black smoke plumes from a distant city.

Noah, however, does not live in the city. He is seen gathering berries with his family out in the woods, when his head cocked, as though receiving a message from an invisible source.

For the next several pages, Noah and his family construct the ark, but it is only when the animals begin to arrive that we get the full force of Pinkney's talent. He captures the chaos of their movement, their body language, their craned necks and their attempts to not be trampled underfoot by their brothers and sisters, in just one painting.

Then: rain.


The water rose over cities and towns. Whales swam down ruined streets. Schools of fish darted through empty windows.

I actually found that to be the most inspired and creative sequence in the book, as large humpbacks navigate over submerged cities. The entire world is now their environment, and they prosper.

Meanwhile, back on the ark, Noah lets fly his raven and his dove. The humpbacks are seen in the distance bounding out of the waters as the dove returns with its olive branch to Noah's outstretched hand.


And God set a rainbow in the heavens as a sign of this promise to Noah and to Noah's family and to every living thing.

Noah is last seen tilling the fields with his oxen, while his sons and their families journey out, each in a different direction, to populate the earth once more.

In the final painting, Pinkney takes a step back and presents the planet earth hovering in space, covered in rainbows and thick clouds.


Seedtime and harvest, cold and heat. Summer and winter, night and day, shall never cease as long as the earth endures.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...