One of the objectives of Religious Education is to provide ‘Religious Literacy’ – that is to give children a knowledge of religions and religion so that they can read about it, write about it and talk about it with understanding and intelligence. How does the current crop of books on the Bible and related topics measure up? Ralph Gower investigates from a Christian perspective.
My initial reaction on opening the large parcel of books on the Bible and related topics sent by Books for Keeps for this article was – ‘What on earth are publishers doing, publishing so many titles, so similar to what has been around for my sixty or so years – rag books excepted!’ But what should publishers be looking for when publishing books relating the Bible to children?
From a schools perspective, such books need to fit in with the objectives of Religious Education. One such objective is to provide ‘Religious Literacy’ – that is to give children a knowledge of religions and religion so that they can read about it, write about it and talk about it with understanding and intelligence. With a strong foundational knowledge of Christianity, they will go on to obtain a good knowledge of those other world religions such as Judaism and Islam which have links to Christianity, and will extend this knowledge to other faiths which are important internationally and locally.
Key Stages and Objectives
As children move through the ‘Key Stages’ of education they will move from a knowledge of stories and activities in Christianity at Infant level (roughly Key Stage 1; but key stages refer to stages of development and not to chronological age groups, although for the ‘average’ child, key stages will roughly correspond to infant, junior, lower secondary and secondary examination level) to a deeper and broader knowledge of Christianity and other faiths through Junior level (roughly Key Stage 2) and Lower Secondary Level (roughly Key Stage 3). At Key Stage 4, they will normally be preparing for GCSE examinations. The question for the publisher (and the reviewer!) is, ‘in view of the level of the book as determined by illustration, language and concept, does it fit into a progressive understanding of Christianity?’
The other key objective in Religious Education is linked to Personal and Social Education, and is referred to as ‘Spiritual Development’. It would help if R.E. specialists could all agree on exactly what this means because there are two different ways of understanding/emphasising it. To some specialists, spiritual development simply means the growth of those faculties which go beyond the materialistic; the maturing of a person’s inner nature. To others, it is the development of a relationship between a person and what that person perceives to be God. Most R.E. specialists probably feel more at home with the first, and would feel happier that the churches dealt with the second in their church education programmes.
The relevance of Bible stories?
Which brings us to the church side of things; and here there is a problem. It is clear from the large volume of research summarised by Francis and Kay in Drift from the Churches (University of Wales Press), that whatever the starting point for the child such as age, region, sex or denomination, there is a gradual loss of interest in religion (Christianity) and in religious education from Key Stage 2 onwards. This is also reflected in recent surveys conducted by the Bible Society and by the Scripture Union which showed that while 60% of adults said they owned a Bible, most said that they never read it; 60% admitted that they had not looked at it once in the past year. It is therefore clear that children’s books need to engage and stimulate young readers so that their interest in religious education is maintained.
In what ways, then, are Bible stories relevant to children and young people? What is their purpose? And where do those areas of the Bible which are not stories and are therefore neglected (like law, poetry, wisdom literature, prophecy and pastoral letters) fit in? If people do not see in the Bible a revelation of the nature of God which is basic to their understanding of God, the rationale for the means of living a moral life to Christian standards, and a means of being able to cope with life’s hardest questions, then how is it to be deemed relevant? How far do children’s books on Christianity and the Bible begin to tackle these areas, going beyond the basic historical stories to what is being said through them, supported by law, poetry, wisdom, prophecy and pastoral letter? These are the questions I asked myself as I assessed the 30″ high pile of children’s books before me. These are also the questions that the creators of such books need to ask themselves!
For discussion purposes I have divided the books in categories.
Old Testament Stories
The famous stories of the Old Testament are often retold, usually with reasonable accuracy. They include Noah’s ark (although the ark did not look like an ancient version of a tourist liner as so many of the illustrators of these books depict it); Joseph’s coat (except that it should have been of many pieces and not many colours); Moses in the bullrushes; David and Goliath and so on.
Amongst the examples before me for the very young, Mission Publishing has produced ‘The Beginners Bible’ series, four cheerful, small format pop-up books with cartoon style illustrations. From Walker Books the ‘Bible Stories’ picture book series illustrated with agreeable strip cartoons by Marcia Williams also has great appeal. Moonlight Publishing’s ‘Best Bible Stories’ is a paperback series different by virtue of the excellent illustrations done in silhouette while Usborne’s ‘Usborne Bible Tales’ is a series written and illustrated for children who are just beginning to read. It is a matter of personal choice which of these retellings are used by parents or by teachers for the infant class (Key Stage 1) library.
The meaning of the stories?
But do such retellings tend to equate Bible stories with other favourite tales from Little Red Riding Hood to Noddy and Big Ears, so that their significance is lost and reduced to folk lore to be discarded along with Santa Claus? While it may be argued that children have first to know the story, and later come to understand its significance, I still look for the writer/illustrator who has the courage to incorporate the meaning behind the story into their version! What was God saying to the Jewish people through the story of Joseph? Why did the Jews of their time need to be told the story of Jonah? Who exactly needed the encouragement which came from the story of Daniel in the lions’ den?
John Ryan’s splendid picture book, The Very Hungry Lions, gets much nearer to conveying the meaning and significance of the Daniel story than other retellings here and it is better detailed. In so many other picture book versions of Bible stories, the inaccurate and distorted text is simply a vehicle for contemporary artwork. We are told by Pippa Goodhart in Noah Makes a Boat, for example, that Noah got his plans by observing nature – in fact God gave Noah the plans. We are told by lsaac Bashevis Singer in Why Noah Chose the Dove that all the animals except for the dove presented their case for being allowed on board when in fact, God gave clear instructions for admittance. We are told by Geoffrey Patterson in Jonah and the Whale that Jonah was a lazy man told to stop the people of Nineveh fighting; in fact Jonah was sent to bring the people of Nineveh to repentance so that God would not destroy them even though they were enemies of the Jews. Such distortions need to be avoided. Jewish, Christian and Muslim believers cannot approve such licence being taken with the stories of their holy books and such versions therefore have no place in the classroom.
We do better at Key Stage 3/4 level (10 years and above): Geraldine McCaughrean retells 32 stories well in the anthology, God’s People, illustrated with good pictures of contemporary life and Michael Coleman’s paperback, Top Ten Bible Stories, is full of humour and insight accompanied by hilarious line illustrations.
The problems discussed above to do with the retelling of Old Testament stories also apply to New Testament stories. These can be divided into two groups – Christmas stories, and others!
Heather Amery’s cheerful board book, Christmas Story, and Georgie Adams’ picture book, The First Christmas, are both written and illustrated in the traditional mode. Other picture books have added material (way beyond poetic licence!) in their adaptations of the story. Marcus Pfister’s The Christmas Star bases the story on shiny silver stars throughout the book – but it was the angels’ instructions the shepherds followed, not a ‘single magnificent star’. Pennie Kidd’s Sleepy Jesus tells us that on Christmas Eve, ‘God mixed the colours of the sunset and shaded the sun’ but, in fact, Mary didn’t ‘wrap him in a cloth’ and we have no record of her calling the baby ‘Sleepy Jesus’. In Gabriel’s Feather, Elizabeth Laird tells the story of the Nativity straight, but makes the mistake of saying that Mary and Joseph were married at the time of the birth announcement, and that the baby was wrapped in a blanket at the time of the birth. The feather is an artistic motif; a little brown bird picks up a feather from Gabriel’s wing in the picture accompanying the annunciation; and still has it for presentation in the manger scene! Personally I would not touch any of these titles with a shepherd’s crook!
When will writers/illustrators dare to incorporate the fact that Christmas is an ‘official birthday’, that shepherds were to be found in the fields of Bethlehem only at Passover time; that the inn where there was no room was a ‘Kataluma’ – a grubby marquee for crowds erected by the Romans, so that Jesus was born not in a stable but in a shepherd’s cave which anyone who goes to Bethlehem can see for themselves; that the Magi arrived so long after the event that a careful Herod put babies of two and under to the sword; and that this could not have happened in Bethlehem because a few days after the birth, the family returned home to Nazareth!
Nick Butterworth’s The Nativity Play (first published in 1985) is set in a primary school and now comes packaged with an audio tape which includes the story and a couple of carols sung by children. With the children caricatured in both drawing and in text, this picture book will appeal to the adult who has many hilarious memories of such school plays, rather than to children themselves.
Other Stories of Jesus
‘Other’ stories from the life of Jesus in my pile varied from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Mary Joslin’s Miracle Maker is a handsomely illustrated anthology of quotations from the Gospels. For Key Stage 3 and 4 readers, Rachel Billington’s The Life of Jesus is the best book here as it accurately harmonises the key stories from the four Gospels in an enjoyable way. Indeed, many adults, unfamiliar with the Bible will also appreciate this paperback.
And the ridiculous? Nicholas Allan’s Jesus’ Day Off is a jolly, small format picture book with cartoon style illustrations. It has a lovely lesson in it, that when people take a rest (as Jesus does in the author’s imagination – eg turning cartwheels in the desert and playing catch with his halo) it does them good. But do we want to read about an imagined Jesus or a real one?
Whole Bible Anthologies
Anthologies representing the whole Bible are probably a better buy. These books would have to be ‘read to’ rather than ‘read by’ Key Stage 1 children. Margaret Mayo’s First Bible Stories is well printed and illustrated for group story times but has the disadvantage of being confined to the Old Testament. Sally Grindley’s Bible Stories for the Very Young has smaller print and less realistic illustrations, but it does cover stories about Jesus as well. The Usborne Children’s Bible is the most comprehensive at this younger level with lots of words on colourful backgrounds.
The anthology which stands out for Level 3 is a hefty tome, The Lion Graphic Bible, composed of high quality comic-strip graphics which retell the story of the Bible to a generation familiar with cartoon-style TV imagery. There are always problems of interpretation when moving from words to pictures, but these have been competently dealt with for the most part while holding to a generally conservative viewpoint. The one disappointment is that while its language and the concepts identify this as a Key Stage 3 book, there is little about the non-story element of the Bible (law, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, pastoral letters), which is important at this stage of development; it is not so much a Graphic Bible then, as graphically portrayed Bible stories.
Interestingly, non-story elements have been included in Lois Rock’s anthology Words of Gold which consists of extracts from all parts of the Bible, sensitively illustrated. Many people may see this as a gift book for adults, but it is a good way for Key Stage 3 and 4 pupils to explore passages from the Bible.
Stories Beyond the Bible
The content of the Bible is of very great importance in any area of Religious Education whether as a means of coming to know what Christianity is about, or whether it is one of the ways of drawing a person nearer to the God who is revealed in the Bible. It is of such great importance that there have always been those who assume that Christianity starts and stops with the Bible, and that if it is necessary for children to learn about Judaism, they should get to know it through the Old Testament. David Self’s Stories from the Christian World and Sybil Sheridan’s Stories from the Jewish World render us a great service by taking us to stories beyond the Bible which children in the upper junior school will enjoy for their content and their illustration, and on which further brief ‘background notes’ are provided. The Christian source book is tied to biographical material – the familiar Francis of Assisi and Mother Theresa, but also Richeldis of Walsingham, Joan of Arc, Adjai Crowther (the first black African bishop) and Father Borrelli of Naples. The Jewish source book goes beyond it and invaluably introduces us to Midrash (how evil came to the world after the Flood), the Apocrypha (the Maccabaean revolt), Jewish humour and recent historical experience in the Holocaust. I look forward to more titles in this excellent series!
Some of the books in my pile are really ‘art books’ in which the text is almost secondary to the artwork. The Life of Jesus in Masterpieces of Art by Mary Pope Osborne speaks for itself; the 41 pictures chosen are from such artists as Botticelli and Fra Angelico. Alison Wisenfeld has illustrated the life of St. Francis in a style reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts in Mary Joslin’s picture book, The Good Man of Assisi, while St. Francis’s ‘Canticle of the Sun’ has been vividly interpreted in a decorative modern style by Cathie Felstead in her striking picture book, The Circle of Days. The Dog who walked with God is a beautifully illustrated picture book version of the story of Creation as told by the now extinct Kato Indians of California. Books of this kind do not fit into artificial Key Stages – the words, not always clear in themselves, are given life through the art in which they are set and they speak to all ages.
Books of Prayers
In the preface to Best-Loved Prayers, the compiler writes, ‘Prayer is spending time with God: talking, listening, learning, loving, laughing and crying together. But how can anyone pray if they don’t know God? One way to start is to use prayers written by people who know God as a friend…’ Sound advice! All of these books of prayers can be used in this way. The Lion Book of First Prayers is written and illustrated with pre-school children in mind (‘Dear God, I just feel good knowing that you are everywhere. That’s all’); parents and nursery teachers will be delighted!
For older children, Best Loved Prayers, Glimpses of Heaven and A Child’s Book of Celtic Prayers with their evocative artwork, typescripts and setting are difficult to place in the school of prayer. After all, ‘A little child shall lead them’. But in this difficult area of teaching (how Christians pray, what they pray about, what picture of God they have in mind as they pray and how they believe that it ‘works’), these books provide a useful school resource at Level 3 or above for insight and for reflection brought out by personal assignment, with the possibility that some prayers might then subsequently be used in an assembly.
Three very different books in my pile might be classed as ‘Theology’.
Whose God Is It, Anyway? written by a Jewish Rabbi and a Roman Catholic Priest with a preface by the Dalai Lama introduces the Key Stage 4 reader at around the level of a non-tabloid newspaper to world religions (in 224 pages!). But this title covers much more than is usual, introducing the reader to aspects of the different branches of Buddhism, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism, Tribal religions and the religions of Native Americans. The book will be a godsend to a teacher unfamiliar with world religions in general and looking for an overview. But it does have its problems. Not many people would define a religion as ‘a collection of big answers to the really big questions’ (they might define philosophy that way) or agree that ‘religions are the same because all answer the same questions’ – each religion has its own absolute truth claims. There are occasional and perhaps inevitable inaccuracies in view of the scope of the book and the tone is occasionally patronising. Perhaps when this title is reprinted, the publisher could arrange for references to Sikhism to be included, repeat their italicised ‘technical’ words in an end of book glossary and include a book-list for further reading.
Russell Stannard’s, The Curious History of God is in reality a popularised, Key Stage 4 account (very well illustrated with excellent cartoons!) of the progressive revelation of God as he reveals more and more about himself to a developing people, as recorded in the Hebrew Bible. Unfortunately, the expected supreme revelation of the person of God in the person of Jesus, and the supreme act of God’s love in becoming a sacrifice for the world’s sin is not absolutely clear.
Marie-Agnès Gaudrat’s What is God Like? is a small format picture book intended to ‘help parents to answer questions that many young children find difficult to articulate, and to explain basic Christian concepts’. Dealing with the Love of God, Faith in God, Presence of God and the Word of God, this book approaches the truth through sentimental statements and pictures of children – ‘The love of God is like a cuddle that brings you out of a sulk’… ‘The word of God is like a fantastic present – the more you open it up, the more it gives.’ – and many more. Intended for parents to use with Key Stage 1 and pre-school children, this book will delight many Christians way above the Key Stages!
Some religious books do not fit easily into any category. Two outstanding books at Level 3 go way beyond their titles. Stephen Motyer’s Who’s Who in the Bible tells the story of the Bible through its most important characters, introduced in their historical sequence and background, aptly and carefully illustrated. Andrea Dué’s The Atlas of Bible Lands tells the story of the Bible through its social geography, profusely illustrated not only with maps but with contemporary pictures showing life as it was lived at the time. It then goes beyond the Bible, tracing the story of the land of Israel from New Testament times through the ages of Islam and the Crusades to modern times (1995). It is one of the best books of its kind I have seen.
Christina Goodings’s large format full colour guide, Celebrating Christmas will prove a good resource for parents and especially for teachers, with children at Primary School age. It is full of readings, poems and ‘How to do it’ features from making shortbread to the nativity play.
In conclusion, I have to say that my initial, hasty judgement was unjustified. There are good books here, with splendid artwork, beautiful design and inspiration as well as learning for the reader. And there are more to come. Look out for Ann Pilling’s forthcoming story collection, Who Laid the Cornerstone of the World? and Bob Hartman’s picture book, The Easter Angels, and appreciate the books on the Bible for children, which are being produced by so many publishers for us!
Ralph Gower is a Baptist minister, a former Local Authority and OFSTED inspector of Religious Education and someone who loves and collects books.
Details of books discussed
Daniel and the Lions, 0 85953 812 5, David and Goliath, 0 85953 810 9, Jonah and the Whale, 0 85953 813 3, Noah and the Ark, 0 85953 811 7
James R Leininger, Mission Publishing, Child’s Play (International) ‘The Beginners Bible’, £2.99 each hbk novelty
The Amazing Story of Noah’s Ark, 0 7445 6058 6, The First Christmas, 0 7445 6317 8, Jonah and the Whale, 0 7445 6059 4, Joseph and His Magnificent Coat of Many Colours, 0 7445 6060 8
Marcia Williams, Walker Books ‘Bible Stories’, £4.99 each pbk
Story of Joseph, 1 85103 268 1, Story of Moses, 1 85103 269 X, Story of Noah, 1 85103 267 3
Moonlight Publishing ‘Best Bible Stories’, £3.99 each pbk
The Easter Story, The Prodigal Son, Moses in the Bulrushes, Noah’s Ark, Jonah and the Whale, The Christmas Story, Daniel and the Lions, David and Goliath, The Good Samaritan, Joseph and his Amazing Coat, Loaves and Fishes
Usborne ‘Bible Tales’, £4.99 each hbk, £2.99 each pbk
The Very Hungry Lions, John Ryan, Lion, 0 7459 3601 6, £6.99 hbk
Noah Makes a Boat, Pippa Goodhart, ill. Bernard Lodge, Heinemann, 0 434 97480 3, £9.99 hbk, Mammoth, 0 7497 3422 1, £4.99 pbk
Why Noah Chose the Dove, lsaac Bashevis Singer, trans. Elizabeth Shub, ill. Eric Carle, Macmillan, 0 333 73255 3, £4.99 pbk
Jonah and the Whale, Geoffrey Patterson, Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 1246 5, £4.99 pbk
God’s People, Geraldine McCaughrean, ill. Anna C Leplar, Orion, 1 85881 163 5, £12.99 hbk, Dolphin, 1 85881 620 3, £7.99 pbk
Top Ten Bible Stories, Michael Coleman, Scholastic, 0 590 19257 4, £3.99 pbk
Christmas Story, Heather Amery, ill. Norman Young, Usborne, 0 7460 3507 1, £3.99 board
The First Christmas, Georgie Adams, ill. Anna C Leplar, Dolphin, 1 85881 188 0, £3.99 pbk
The Christmas Star, Marcus Pfister, North-South Books, 1 55858 203 7, £12.95 hbk
Sleepy Jesus, Pennie Kidd, ill. Susie Poole, Lion, 0 7459 3764 0, £8.99 hbk
Gabriel’s Feather, Elizabeth Laird, ill. Bettina Paterson, Scholastic, 0 590 54314 8, £11.99 hbk
The Nativity Play, Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen, Hodder, 1 85998 776 1, £7.99 pbk book and tape
Miracle Maker, Mary Joslin, ill. Francesca Pelizzoli, Lion, 0 7459 3629 6, £9.99 hbk
The Life of Jesus, Rachel Billington, ill. Lee Stinson, Hodder, 0 340 69357 6, £4.99 pbk
Jesus’ Day Off, Nicholas Allan, Hutchinson, 0 09 176749 0, £6.99 hbk
First Bible Stories, Margaret Mayo, ill. Nicola Smee, Orchard, 1 86039 147 8, £9.99 hbk
Bible Stories for the Very Young, Sally Grindley, ill. Jan Barger, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 3552 3, £12.95
The Usborne Children’s Bible, Heather Amery, Usborne, 0 7460 3043 6, £12.99 hbk
The Lion Graphic Bible, Mike Maddox, ill. Jeff Anderson, Lion, 0 7459 2708 4, £20.00 hbk
Words of Gold, Lois Rock, ill. Sarah Young, Lion, 0 7459 3630 X, £9.99 hbk
Stories from the Christian World, David Self, Macdonald Young Books, 0 7500 2553 0, £8.99 hbk, 0 7500 2554 9, £4.99 pbk
Stories from the Jewish World, Sybil Sheridan, Macdonald Young Books, 0 7500 2555 7, £8.99 hbk, 0 7500 2556 5, £4.99 pbk
The Life of Jesus in Masterpieces of Art, Mary Pope Osborne, Viking, 0 670 88198 8, £12.99 hbk
The Good Man of Assisi, Mary Joslin, ill. Alison Wisenfeld, Lion, 0 7459 3633 4, £8.99 hbk
The Circle of Days, Reeve Lindbergh, ill. Cathie Felstead, Walker Books, 0 7445 4047 X, £9.99 hbk
The Dog who walked with God, Michael J. Rosen, ill. Stan Fellows, Walker Books, 0 7445 5616 3, £9.99 hbk
Best-Loved Prayers, Lois Rock, ill. Alison Wisenfeld, Lion, 0 7459 3343 2, £8.99 hbk
The Lion Book of First Prayers, Su Box, ill. Leon Baxter, Lion, 0 7459 3441 2, £7.99 hbk
Glimpses of Heaven, Lois Rock, Lion, 0 7459 3632 6, £7.99 hbk
A Child’s Book of Celtic Prayers, Joyce Denham, ill. Helen Cann, Lion, 0 7459 3774 8, £6.99 hbk
Whose God Is It, Anyway? Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman, The Bodley Head, 0 370 32432 3, £10.99 pbk
The Curious History of God, Russell Stannard, ill. Taffy Davies, Lion, 0 7459 3964 3, £9.99 hbk, 0 7459 3992 9, £3.50 pbk (pbk April 1999)
What is God Like? Marie-Agnès Gaudrat, ill. Ulises Wensell, Lutterworth, 0 7188 2973 5, £4.99 hbk
Who’s Who in the Bible, Stephen Motyer, ill. Peter Dennis, Dorling Kindersley, 0 7513 5778 2, £9.99 hbk
The Atlas of Bible Lands, Andrea Dué, Macdonald Young Books, 0 7500 2633 2, £10.99 hbk
Celebrating Christmas, Christina Goodings, Lion, 0 7459 3955 4, £14.99 hbk
Who Laid the Cornerstone of the World? Ann Pilling, ill. Helen Cann, Lion, 0 7459 3634 2, £10.99 hbk
The Easter Angels, Bob Hartman, ill. Tim Jonke, Lion, 0 7459 3877 9, £8.99 hbk