Showing posts with label The Christian Gospels. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Christian Gospels. 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."

12.22.2010

Amahl and the Night Visitors (1986)

Written by Gian Carlo MenottiIllustrated 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."

12.08.2010

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."
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