by Jill Swanson

(Jill writes a regular blog recommending great children’s literature, and has taken some time to give some COTC some special recommendations. You can find her blog at orangemarmaladebooks.com)

Hi Church of the Cross,

I have to say, to start with, that I am picky about children’s Easter books.

Even young children absorb many messages from books besides simply the objective statements of the text. Beautiful language conveys a richness and wonder while drab prose lands like cold oatmeal. Likewise, the artwork can cheapen and denigrate, or enhance and exalt our experience of the words.

Far too many children’s Easter titles lack the glory and creativity this most magnificent of stories demands. Angels that would not startle a flea sit on tombstones beside unconscious Roman soldiers. What? Tellings that disrespect the minds of young children bore them with this stunning history.

The Bible itself offers to us and our children an unmatched, straightforward, unsentimental narrative and in my opinion, it far surpasses many children’s books that try to retell it for little ones. I’ve searched for years for other titles and here’s a list of my favorites..

And by the way — excellent picture books speak to adults as well as children, so don’t skip past those simply because a two-year-old might also enjoy them!

51cwazc7vgL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Let the Whole Earth Sing Praise — Tomie dePaola

Sun and Moon, Stars and Comets in the Heavens. Praise God.

Selecting verses and language from the Benedicite and Psalm 148, Tomie dePaola sets praise- filled phrases to dance across the pages of this small, effervescent book.

The text is hand-lettered, expressing a lovely, childlike quality; the imprecise lines are refreshingly naive; the all-capital-letters sing out with a strong voice. dePaola’s illustrations are done in a folk art style inspired by the Otomi people of Mexico. Joy and beauty course through the colorful designs. This book makes me glad as I leaf through its few short pages. A jubilant Easter morning choice for ages 18 months and up.

Easter — The King James Version, illustrated with paper cuts by Jan Pienkowski

Jan Pienkowski’s trademark silhouettes are set against gorgeous colored backgrounds to illustrate the KJV narration of the Easter account. His interpretation of the scenes has a very human, realistic tone to it. The postures, scenery, and perspectives are fresh and captivating. A prolific use of gold ink lends a regal tone to the designs, as well. Preschool and up.

61JBjHmXpSL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_The Story of Easter — Aileen Fisher, illustrated by Stefano Vitale

A brief, clear, plainspoken survey of Easter for preschoolers through elementary age.

First comes an account of Jesus’ teaching and the Passion Week events, with explanations of how various symbols and traditions originated such as the use of palm branches on Palm Sunday. Next, a look at how, over the years, Easter celebrations became connected with old spring festivals, and especially how eggs, representative of new life, became associated with Easter. Finally, a glimpse at the origin of Easter traditions such as the Easter bunny, Easter parades, and outdoor Easter services, and a recipe for Hot Cross Buns.The illustrations are colorful paintings with an antique finish depicting events in places ranging from Palestine to Eastern Europe and New York City.

Jesus — written and illustrated by Brian Wildsmith

Brian Wildsmith is a brilliant illustrator, whose kaleidoscopic color, exuberant lines, spattering, and detail, have won him many prestigious awards. Here he traces the life of Jesus — his birth, visit to Jerusalem at age 12, baptism, temptation, miracles, transfiguration, triumphant entrance into Jerusalem, Last Supper, trial, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost.

Each segment is narrated briefly and illustrated in those exquisite bursts of color Wildsmith is known for. He’s set each scene in a golden window frame, as though they are stained glass windows in a cathedral. Gorgeous work, with the story of Jesus’ life presented plainly, without commentary. Ages 4 and up

The Exodus — Brian Wildsmith

9780802851758_xlgBeginning with the birth of Moses, Wildsmith succinctly takes us through Moses’ years in Pharaoh’s household, his sojourn in Midian and encounter with the burning bush, his pleas to Pharaoh and the ensuing plagues, including the final plague and the first Passover. We follow the Israelites as they leave Egypt, cross the Red Sea, collect manna, and receive the Ten Commandments, before briefly reading of Moses’ death and Joshua’s turn taking the people into the Promised Land.

These pages are a feast for the eyes. From the exotic birds feeding among the bullrushes of the Nile, to the vast columns profusely decorated with designs and hieroglyphics; a magnificent, supernatural burning bush, and a sea of tents spread out at the foot of Mt. Sinai — this is a spectacular interpretation of these well-known events.

Chicken Sunday, written and illustrated by Patricia Polacco

Drawing on a childhood memory, master storyteller Patricia Polacco tells this warm story, full of generosity, kindness, a love that reaches across all kinds of divides… and fried chicken. It centers around Easter, and introduces an old Ukrainian shopkeeper and Miss Eula, whose singing voice is “like slow thunder and sweet rain.” Polacco’s rich, human figures and faces add immensely to the beauty of it. Ages 4 and up.

511MY0NV76L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_I Wonder as I Wander, by Gwenyth Swain, illustrated by Ronald Himler

“I Wonder as I Wander” is sung at Christmastime, yet the song begins and ends with wondering about how Jesus, our Savior, would come to die for “poor orn’ry people like you and like I” which fits it for Easter celebrations as well.

The song was made known to us by John Jacob Niles who traveled Appalachia transcribing traditional melodies. He heard it sung by a young girl named Annie Morgan.

This fictitious story poignantly imagines the origins of Annie’s song and her encounter with Mr. Niles. It’s a beautiful slice of Americana, and a warm story of a young girl, the daughter of an itinerant preacher, whose mother has recently died. Her questions and wonderings about God, death, grief, and poverty, and her father’s measured answers, find their way into this haunting tune. Himmler’s handsome, evocative watercolors are a perfect complement. Ages 4 and up.

Peter’s First Easter — Walter Wangerin, illustrated by Timothy Ludwig

This is the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection as told by his disciple Peter. I have not seen this book, actually, but Haley Scharf at Church of the Redeemer loves it and says it’s a great portrayal of the power of God’s forgiveness. Ages 4 and up.

PassoverPassover: Celebrating Now, Remembering Then — Harriet Ziefert, illustrated by Karla Gudeon

This gorgeous book begins by telling the story of the Israelites in Egypt. The author then highlights the preparations and elements of the seder, one at a time, and each element is tied to its historical counterpart. This is what we do — because of what the Israelites experienced then.

The pages are dominated by Gudeon’s beautiful paintings. Her rich, vibrant colors pop against the handmade, wheat-colored paper. Each page shows the present-day seder elements, then by unfolding a flap, a large scene from the Old Testament story is revealed showing the historical context. Folk art borders, calligraphy, paintings, and narrative all contribute to a warm, celebratory, yet bittersweet understanding of Passover. Ages 5 and up.

One Wintry Night — Ruth Bell Graham, illustrated by Richard Jesse Watson

Okay, this is technically a Christmas book, yet only two of its eleven chapters are about the Nativity. The rest surveys the entire Biblical story of salvation.

It’s the story of a young boy caught in a sudden snowstorm in the Smoky Mountains, who shelters in the log home of a kind grandmother. While he waits out the storm, she offers to tell him the Christmas story. She begins by recalling that when the angels came to the shepherds, they called the baby Jesus a “Savior,” which means “rescuer.” So, she concludes, someone must have needed rescuing. Who?

She proceeds to set the account of Jesus’ birth in its historical context, jumping all the way back to Creation, then highlighting relevant Old Testament stories, relating each to the coming rescuer. Finally, she fits in the Christmas story, and then, in answer to the boy’s question of how a baby could rescue the world, she continues on with the story of Easter.

Richard Jesse Watson’s illustrations for this book are stunning starting right off the bat with his gorgeous, multiracial Adam, Eve, and Angel. The book can be appreciated by ages 4 or 5 and up if taken a chapter at a time.

At Jerusalem’s Gate — Nikki Grimes, woodcuts by David Frampton

A thoughtful collection of almost two dozen poems reflecting various individuals’ perspectives on events during Passion Week.

Nikki Grimes crafts her poetry with such depth of emotion and richness of language that her book will please readers elementary-age through adult. We hear from a spectator at Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, a disciple at the Last Supper, Pilate’s wife, Simon of Cyrene, and many others. David Frampton’s woodcuts are striking, bold images with a sort of modernized- Byzantine feel. Fantastic book.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — C.S. Lewis

I think you all know the story. Lent is a golden time to re-read it, or to read it aloud in your household. Marvel over this picture of treachery, restoration, sacrifice and resurrection victory.

DSC_0354_67d9a10b-5016-41b7-a670-1584fe21d028_1024x1024The Glorious Impossible — Madeleine L’Engle, illustrated with frescoes from the Scrovegni Chapel by Giotto

Madeleine L’Engle presents Jesus’ birth, life, miracles, death, and resurrection, as a series of gloriously impossible wonders which though hard to believe, bring joy to our hearts and hope to our lives.

She uses contemporary language while closely adhering to the Biblical accounts, and intersperses the stories with questions, wondering aloud about whether Judas was frightened, or how humans can treat others so cruelly. These questions serve to draw the reader into the text as a true story to ponder in fresh ways.

The frescoes are Giotto’s work from the 1300s, painted on the walls of a chapel in Padua, Italy. An afterword describes him and his work, giving us a better understanding of his genius. The book is a large-ish 10×10 square, and the frescoes each take up a full-page, so they are nice, large, colorful prints, full of details and expressions to examine.This is a longer book which could be read bit by bit through Lent to those about age 7 and up.

The Bronze Bow — Elizabeth George SpeareThe_Bronze_Bow_cover

Daniel bar Jamin is an 18-year-old Galilean boy who lost his parents at the hands of the hated Romans. This is Palestine, during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, and the Jewish people wear the chafing, heavy yoke of Roman rule with varying responses — some patiently, some craftily, some defiantly — as they await the Messiah who will come and rescue them from their oppressors.

Daniel lives an outlaw’s life, hiding up in the mountains with a band of men under the leadership of Rosh, who is plotting to overthrow Roman rule by force. The lifestyle suits him, allows him to nurture the knot of hatred in his gut as he waits to take revenge, permits escape from the haunting specter of his younger sister who is so traumatized by the violent death of her father that the whole village believes her to be demon-possessed.

Then, Daniel’s bitter plans begin to unravel. Grandmother dies, leaving him alone to care for his sister back in the village. While there, he encounters a teacher named Jesus, who greatly perplexes him. Is he a Zealot, preaching as he does about the coming kingdom? Yet Jesus seems to speak of a different kind of kingdom, and of a different kind of strength, claiming that love is the only thing that can properly conquer hate.

Elizabeth George Speare won the Newbery Medal for The Bronze Bow in 1962. It’s superb historical fiction, packed with multi-faceted characters, fascinating historical detail, a gripping plot, and significant themes. Many kids would name it as one of their all-time favorite books. For mid-to-upper elementary and older, it’s a fine book to read during the Lenten season.