The Common Good
November-December 1996

Children's Books Wrapped Up

by Richard Vernon | November-December 1996

Finding just the right gift for holiday pleasure

While Sojourners readers likely wrestle with all that's good and ill in the Christmas season, we still want to buy gifts for the children in our lives. A good book is the surest way to find a present that is edifying, enduring, and pleasing.

How, though, do we successfully navigate the mass of titles, the overwhelming commercialism, and the inner doubts over judgment and choice? How can we emerge on the other side of Epiphany with sanity, pride, and family harmony still intact?

I won't claim to solve all your seasonal sorrows, but I have a few suggestions. Use the resources available to you: Find a well-stocked book shop with a helpful, knowledgeable staff; speak to parents; talk to teachers; go with your instincts. And most of all, listen to children.

If all of that is too much of a stretch, then trust me. I've read voraciously most of my life; my childhood memories are largely intact; and I used to be a nanny. Anyway, I read all these books so that I could make your Christmas less stressful by suggesting some for you.

THE 11TH Commandment: Wisdom From Our Children, from Jewish Lights Publishing, is a beautifully presented volume, written and illustrated by children from synagogues, churches, and religious camps and schools all over the United States. The children wrote and illustrated an 11th commandment, supplementing the 10 we've had ever since Moses hauled them down the flank of Mount Sinai. (The most popular entry with Sojourners staffers is "No bombing just for the heck of it.")

As you'd probably expect, this book is replete with accidental humor, touching sentiment, wisdom, and great pictures. The 11th Commandment is conveniently arranged thematically in "Living With..." sections, including Other People, Earth, Family, Ourselves, and God. It's a great book, fun for all the family. My only (very minor) concern is that this book might actually be aimed at young-at-heart adults.

Any hint of smug coffee-table-ness that might have been lurking in The 11th Commandment is definitely absent in another Jewish Lights publication, But God Remembered: Stories of Women From Creation to the Promised Land, by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso. A collection of four midrash, based around non-central characters from the Jewish tradition, this volume would be great for a child learning to read for herself or as reading aloud material. The midrash are well-written, literate, comprehensible, and interesting, set off beautifully by Bethanne Andersen's flowing illustrations and painted-page borders. I fearlessly recommend this book, which has gender-equality sensitivity woven seamlessly into the text.

Chicken Sunday, written and illustrated by Patricia Polacco, is the best single-volume story in this year's selection. It's the account of a young Ukrainian-American girl, Patricia, and her African-American, Baptist friends Stewart and Winston. They are falsely accused of throwing rotten eggs at Mr. Kodinski's hat shop. The path to reconciliation is rich with magnificent ingredients: the wisdom of elders; Miss Eula's fondness for hats, fried chicken, and singing to the Lord; cross-cultural friendships; and even folk crafts. (The children paint Pysanky eggs for Mr. Kodinski as a gesture of good faith, redeeming the "badness" of the eggs thrown at his store.)

Polacco's watercolors are not only beautiful and evocative, they contain whole stories in and of themselves. Mr. Kodinski, for example, is an Orthodox Jew, a fact revealed only in the paintings. We know he is also a Holocaust survivor by the death camp tattoo on his left arm.

I can't say enough good about this remarkable book. The back flap photograph of Patricia, Winston, and Stewart as adults reveals that this is not only a story of truths, but also a true story.

Gifts of Our People: An Alphabet of African American History, by Portia George, is just that. The "dictionary" is supplemented by game suggestions and Bible verses. Unfortunately, the layout is confusing and drab, and the insistence on sticking to Christians as examples has left some rather glaring omissions (Malcolm X, for example). Gifts is a noble offering, though more suited to the classroom than the bedroom.

Also aimed more directly at African-American children is Virginia Kroll's Masai and I, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter. This is more of an exercise in comparison than a story per se, and suffers as a consequence. Despite the caveat, there are some treats in store as the character Linda compares her modern American lifestyle to the one she would have "If I were Masai."

Less interesting visually, but of greater merit and more sustained interest, is Classic African Children's Stories: A Collection of Ancient Tales, edited and compiled by Phyllis Savory. These are "proper" stories for children who read alone and for pleasure, although the 12 tales would also make good bedtime stories.

Just One Flick of a Finger, by Marybeth Lorbiecki, deals with gun violence and children. Other than the vaguely rap-style narration, the most remarkable feature of the book is the magnificent art work of David Diaz. His bright, stylized narrative illustrations provide the motive force, while his computer-manipulated backgrounds hold interest. Sadly, Lorbiecki's point is made heavy-handedly and her style tends toward preachy.

Eve Bunting's Smoky Night is a more coherent tale of a single-parent black family finding friendship with their Korean, store-owner neighbors in the heat and fear of the Los Angeles riots. Once again, though, Diaz's incredible narrative paintings and (in this case) collage-style backgrounds make the book.

SPEAKING OF GREAT art: Have you ever wanted a simple, sincere prayer book for children, featuring works by giants such as Caravaggio, Velasquez, and Giotto? Wouldn't it be great if it were written by an excitable English nun, recently turned art critic? With 13 lavishly reproduced paintings-plus a related prayer, enlarged details, and art history accompanying 12 of them-Sister Wendy Beckett's A Child's Book of Prayer in Art fills a niche I hadn't previously known existed, and fills it in grand style.

With no visible social justice or religious agenda whatsoever, The Very Best of Friends, written by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Julie Vivas, is a deeply touching tale. Through the experience of a cat neglected after his owner dies, the book deals with death, grief, depression, and responsibility to others as well as the possibility of transformation, redemption, and reconciliation. The story closes with William "purring like an engine," and Jessie, the non-cat-loving widower, "beginning to love him a lot."

If you're "into" creation spirituality, Edwina Gateley's God Goes on Vacation could be for you. Otherwise, it's a theologically dubious tale with overly cute drawings by the author, who nonetheless is cool. God is clearly portrayed as transcending both gender and race. Unfortunately, the selfish spirituality and the crassly patronizing narrative far outweighed any p.c. bonus points the book might have otherwise got. Vacation is more libertarian than liberating, I'm afraid. I guess being cool doesn't necessarily qualify you for writing children's books.

One last tip: Don't be afraid of classics. A Christmas Carol, The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Earthsea Trilogy are all brilliantly conceived literature written primarily for children and all have strong Christian social justice messages, either blatantly or as subtext.

And there's always poetry. Maya Angelou has written some good material for children. The Oxford Book of Children's Verse, which no home should be without and without which very few of my childhood Sunday afternoons would have been complete, is a more traditional option.

RICHARD VERNON is a former Sojourners intern who lives (we hope temporarily) in Scotland. His teacher friend Allison Frederick Harteis and the staff at Dolphin Tales book store in Norfolk, Virginia, were very helpful with this review.

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