Alan Brine, County General Inspector, RE, for Hampshire, assesses some new – and not so new – texts.
Religious books for children! The idea can bring a glazed look to the eyes. Alas it’s still the case that, for many, Religion + Children = Bible Stories. So let’s start there – knowing we need to go further. ‘
How to choose a book of Bible stories? The cry of ‘Bible stories are part of our culture so children ought to know them’ is familiar enough – and not good enough. We need to take account of a crucial question. How can we offer the stories in a way which helps children appreciate their imaginative, creative power and avoids a cosy, preaching literalism?
Tomie de Paolo’s Book of Bible Stories (Hodder & Stoughton, 1990, 0 340 501316, £8.95) captures this imaginative quality. It combines simple, witty drawings with the direct, accessible text of the New International Version of the Bible. His background as a painter of Church murals gives the pictures a medieval feel which focuses the reader on the mythical, dignified quality of the text. The idea of the picture as a ‘silent teacher’ works well, enhancing the text by drawing out the symbolic storytelling quality of the Biblical tradition. His choice of material is both wide-ranging and imaginative. Popular Old and New Testament stories are woven with extracts from some of the best loved poetic passages in the Bible. He avoids trying to create one long story from the Bible, as if it were a history book, and concentrates on the power and meaning which each story offers. His treatment of Jesus is particularly good. He doesn’t stress the difficult parables and miracles but focuses on those episodes which emphasise the humanity and mystery of the person.
Lion are issuing a new edition of their popular Lion Children’s Bible retold by Pat Alexander (Lion, 1991, 0 7459 1939 1, £7.95). This contains revamped illustrations by Carolyn Cox which are a great improvement. They replace the monochrome and rather static pictures of the 1981 edition with lively, powerful colour. The new pictures have an energy and directness which will make the telling of the stories much more imaginative. It’s perhaps a pity that they didn’t also revamp the text which remains rather prosaic and literal – but the new pictures certainly help.
For me, however, the best text, particularly for older children, remains the rather under-valued City of Gold by Peter Dickinson (Gollancz, 1980, 0 575 02883 1, £8.95). Michael Foreman’s magical illustrations combine excellently with the off-beat retelling of the major Old Testament stories. What makes this the bench-mark for good quality is the way in which Dickinson creates a sense of a time before the text was set in stone, when it still lived as part of the Jewish storytelling tradition. The book conveys superbly the sense that the stories have been told, re-told, interpreted and re-created. The Red Sea story is told by a peasant fisherman to an Egyptian official some hundred years after the Exodus – in front of a monument to Pharaoh’s great victory! Who has the truth?
But let’s widen our horizon. Any book which stimulates the creative, questioning imagination of the child will enhance her religious or spiritual sense. Maybe all good books have this quality. Certainly, we should mention The Whales’ Song by Dyan Sheldon and Gray Blythe (Hutchinson, 1990, 0 09 174250 1, £6.99) – reviewed in BfK No.67 (March 1991). [See also the reports in this issue on The Mother Goose Award and the Kate Greenaway Medal … Ed.] If you want to help children appreciate the wonder and mystery of our place in the natural world – what could be better? Is it heretical to suggest this might do more for a child’s religious sensitivity than most Bible stories?
Four other recent publications deserve praise for enlarging the scope of ‘religious’ story material.
Jenny Koralek and Pauline Baynes’ The Cobweb Curtain (Methuen, 1989, 0 416 13462 9, £6.95) extends the imaginative approach to religious tradition by recounting the legend of the Spider’s Web – the origin of our use of tinsel on the Christmas tree. The book is beautifully illustrated and conveys the sense of the magical quality of the Nativity in an original and compelling way.
Barbara Ker Wilson’s retelling of The Turtle and the Island (Frances Lincoln, 1990, 0 7112 0624 4, £6.95; 0 7112 0697 X, £3.99 pbk) is based on a creation myth from Papua New Guinea. The story is beautifully told with delightful native-style paintings by Frane Lessac. It offers a powerful sense of the harmony between humankind and the environment with ancient wisdom vested in the figure of an earth-mother – the great sea turtle.
In similar vein, but for older pupils, Collins have combined with the Worldwide Fund for Nature to produce Worlds of Choice by Joanne O’Brien (Collins, 1990, 0 00 322205 5, £4.95 pbk). This is a fascinating combination of stories and case studies exploring the ways in which people throughout the world have sought to find and create harmony in nature. The focus is on the ways belief and action come together in a number of different situations – Aboriginal, Buddhist, Christian, Socialist, Central American Indian, etc. The book is beautifully illustrated and lures the reader into appreciating the variety of ways in which the environment has become an appropriate place of reverence in our modern world.
Finally, Angela Woods’ Faith Stories for Today (BBC/Longman, 1990, 0 582 05946 1, £3.95 pbk) is a selection of the author’s favourite stories from the major religious traditions. As she says in the introduction, ‘Faith stories are for asking questions, not really for telling answers. My pet name for them is “Why?” stories.’ This hits the mark. The ten stories are imaginatively told and explore the five themes of Worship, Nature, Relationships, Right and Wrong, and Beliefs. The stories tease and puzzle the imagination. To quote her again:
‘Another thing I like about this kind of story is that it reminds me of a sweet – one you can suck for ages and even when it is all gone, you can still taste it.’