Friday, February 26, 2016

Featured Author: Cynthia Rylant

Cynthia Rylant is a very popular and much-loved author of more than 100 picture books and novels for young readers. You might know the popular Henry & Mudge series or the Newbery Award Winner, Missing May. Even in her simplest stories, there is often an underlying spirituality that has much potential for mining The Holy in the ordinary moments of our lives.  Here’s a selection of her books and some ideas for how to use these books in ministry, private/homeschool settings, bibliotherapy in a counseling session or in a family conversation.
God God a Dog is a one of a kind series of poems about God that are both hilarious and thought provoking. God changes form in surprising ways with each poem and engages with creation by making spaghetti, going to a beauty school and the doctor, working at a desk, drinking coffee, traveling to India, etc. Marla Frazee’s illustrations are delightful! I suggest this book for older children or adults for it offers views of God that might be confusing for the young. Expanding our view of God seems to be the author’s motivation and she does this with such fun and cleverness. I recently read it aloud to my teenage daughter. We laughed and laughed! This is not the book for you if you are not comfortable with playing with your concept of God or if you would be offended by the possibility of God having a relationship with Buddha.  
Picture Book: God Got a Dog
Author: Cynthia Rylant
Illustrator: Marla Frazee
Original Publisher & Date: Beach Lane Books, 2013
Age & Grade Appropriateness: 10 and up, 5th and up
Formats other than Book: Tablet

Give Me Grace is a book comprised of a series of short prayers for each day of the week. There are prayers for kindness, comfort, safety, guidance, gratitude and holy ways. I like the simplicity of these prayers. They get to the heart of children’s spiritual concerns and in simple, non-masculine language. Reading these 7 daily prayers will encourage consistency and may be starting points for further thoughts about God and prayers to God. 
Picture Book: Give Me Grace
Author & Illustrator: Cynthia Rylant
Original Publisher & Date: Little Simon, 2005
Age & Grade Appropriateness: 2 and up, Toddler and up
Formats other than Book: Board Book

The Old Woman Who Named Things is a poignant story about a funky-looking elderly lady who is alone. With no more friends alive, she begins naming objects in her life such as her car (Betsy) and her chair (Fred). Because she doesn’t want to face anymore death, she names only those things she is convinced will outlast her. This plan keeps her content until a puppy begins coming to her home. She refuses to name it for fear it will die. After many visits, the dog no longer comes, so she worries. Eventually she claims it at the dogcatcher’s kennel and names it Lucky because she wants the dog to remind her how lucky she is to have known and loved so many friends. This story about vulnerability, the fear of loss, and the power of friendships will be especially valuable if you are trying to build relationships across generations in your family of faith. With adults, this books gives you the opportunity to talk about healthy responses to grief. With children or adults, you could connect this book to those scriptures where key characters’ names are given or changed.
Picture Book: The Old Woman Who Named Things
Author: Cynthia Rylant
Illustrator: Kathryn Brown
Original Publisher & Date: HMH, 2000
Age & Grade Appropriateness: 4 and up, Pre and up
Formats other than Book: Tablet

All in a Day is a celebration of the possibilities of one day. Rylant offers spiritual concepts such as the hope of planting and kindness that will likely come, the loving promises that each new day brings, and faith that eventually you will return home to loving arms. You could easily build a lesson for children around this book and the scripture that begins “This is the day that the Lord has made…” (Psalm 118:24).
Picture Book: All in a Day
Author: Cynthia Rylant
Illustrator: Nikki McClure
Original Publisher & Date: Henry N. Abrams, 2009
Age & Grade Appropriateness: 3 and up, Pre and up
Formats other than Book: None at present

 An Angel for Solomon Singer is a beautiful and somewhat mature picture book. The stunning paintings and compassionate story offer a New York City setting and a lonely man who is being housed but is essentially homeless and longing for the comforts of home and family. He walks the streets at night remembering his boyhood home in Indiana. When he enters The Westway Café – where all your dreams come true, he is intrigued and delighted by the hospitality of the server who he later discovers is named Angel. Each night, the walker offers up his dreams and slowly find comfort and a sense of place and belonging. There is ambiguity here in both the story and illustrations, but this opens up possibilities for some serious and personal discussion about what all human beings long for and how faith communities can help meet some of those needs. You might think of the café as a metaphor for a spiritual family and Angel as a spiritual mentor, friend, or one of the Holy Trinity.
Picture Book: An Angel for Solomon Singer
Author: Cynthia Rylant
Illustrator: Peter Catalanotto
Original Publisher & Date: Scholastic, 1996
Age & Grade Appropriateness: 7 and up, 2nd and up  
Formats other than Book: None at present

Apparently, Rylant wrote The Stars Will Still Shine in response to troubled times. Here she rejoices in the promise of a new year and the joys of daily living, even in uncertainty. She lists many comforting constants such as stars, birds, church bells, ice cream, and cozy homes with companions to curl up with. She declares that love will grow strong and there will be goodness, grace, and light because “the stars will still shine.” This book is like a prayer of praise for God’s creation that, despite our disillusion, offers faith and hope. Read this beautiful book after a difficult year or a terrible loss in your faith community. Picture books are especially comforting at these times because they are non-threatening and nostalgic for many.
Picture Book: The Stars Will Still Shine
Author: Cynthia Rylant
Illustrator: Tiphanie Beeke
Original Publisher & Date: Harper Collins, 2005
Age & Grade Appropriateness: 4 and up, Pre and up
Formats other than Book: None at present

A Caldecott Honor book, When I Was Young in the Mountains was Rylant’s first book. It celebrates her summer visits at her grandparents’ home in West Virginia. Memories include the ritual of a kiss on the top of her head from her grandfather as he returns each day from the coal mines, Sunday worship in a small schoolhouse, and the baptism in a nearby creek of a cousin. Perfect for a group of children that is approaching baptism or confirmation and/or learning about the concept of ritual. Older adults who want to remember the sacred in the ordinary of their own childhoods can be spurred into conversation with this lovely book.  There is a 20th-Anniverary edition that you might want to seek.
Picture Book: When I Was Young in the Mountains
Author: Cynthia Rylant
Illustrator: Diane Goode
Original Publisher & Date: Puffin, 1993
Age & Grade Appropriateness: 5 and up, K and up
Formats other than Book: Audio 

Sunday, February 21, 2016

God and Edwina

Dinosaur books are everywhere. Like most, Edwina: The Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She was Extinct by Mo Willems is fun and plays with the ridiculous idea of having a dinosaur as a friend. However, this book offers an additional and intriguing possibility for consideration.  
Edwina is kind and helpful so she’s popular and well-loved by all but one. Reginald Von Hoobie-Doobie is determined to tell everyone that dinosaurs are extinct. 
His peers argue, “What about Edwina?” Then they list her acts of love and service. 
Reginald hopes that once they are convinced that dinosaurs are extinct, then Edwina will disappear. Reginald tries fliers and protests but no one listens, except for Edwina, who attentively listens to Reginald’s persuasive arguments. How does she respond? She’s shocked! 
But also she just doesn’t care, and neither does Reginald once he is won over by Edwina’s goodness and generosity.

Tweens and teens will enjoy picture books more than you might suspect though you don’t want to offer these too often. There is a quiet, nostalgia in older children to remember the delights of their younger selves and the comforts and discoveries of picture books. I’m suggesting that you tap into those feelings and consider the important questions and situations that picture books can offer.
Just under the surface, this Mo Willems book presents questions of God’s existence and how to relate to those who are passionate atheists. Furthermore, the evidence of Edwina’s existence can easily be applied to evidence of God’s nature.
Should the question of God’s existence be up for consideration in theological conversations or lessons with children? Absolutely! They hear these arguments in school and in social media and sometimes feel quite alone in their faith.
In fact, exposure to thoughtful responses may lead to a more solid foundation in their faith as they grapple with arguments like Reginald’s. Helping older children and youth frame their own personal responses is a way faith families can help prepare them for their inevitable confusions and doubts in adulthood.  
For this book, be sure to focus on the kindness and goodness of Edwina and connect these with God’s nature and the positive influence God has on humans – complicated stuff but today’s youth are surprisingly good at considering various arguments and different points of view.
Focus especially on how Edwina listens attentively to Reginald. Sometimes listening is all that is needed to diffuse a passionate and uncomfortable argument. Also, consider Reginald’s motives. Is he most interested in being right or being heard and included? Are their children in your faith community who have similar inclinations?
I especially love how Edwina ends with a sense that she doesn’t have to understand. I think that this kind of humility, particularly when it comes to existential questions, is crucial, what God hopes for, and often the least hurtful response. Too often arguments over beliefs cause damage in faith communities. We don’t have to understand all the mysteries in order to enjoy the delights and goodness of our faith in God.
Picture Book: Edwina: The Dinosaur Who Didn’t Exist
Author & Illustrator: Mo Willems
Original Publisher & Date: Hyperion, 2006
Age & Grade Appropriateness: 4 and up, Pre and up
Formats other than Book: Audible

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Symbolism of a Box

Several months ago, I ran across Jessica’s Box by Peter Carnavas and loved it immediately, but it wasn’t widely available. I’m pleased to tell you about it now. If your local library doesn’t have it yet, request it. Better yet, purchase a copy for yourself and one for your library. This rich book will have you and your family, classroom, or congregation considering just what is Jessica’s box while delighting in her gumption.
Jessica is nervous because she is about to start school. Her family is supportive and hopes she will make “plenty of friends.” Jessica has a plan to do just that. She brings a box to school, hoping to build curiosity about its contents. When she reveals a teddy bear, her peers are unimpressed and wander away. Jessica is both surprised and disappointed.
That night her mom, while they do yoga (I love this illustration!) advises her to “try something else. Next Jessica makes and brings cupcakes in her box. The goodies are quickly gobbled, but just as quickly, Jessica’s classmates disappear without even a “thank you.”

Jessica decides that her dog should be the next box surprise. Doris will win them over! The children love Doris, but not the school’s groundskeeper who declares that dogs aren’t allowed and takes Doris back home.” That night, Jessica and her father quietly consider possibilities under a full moon, another wonderful illustration!
Finally, Jessica brings nothing in her box; instead she uses it to quietly disappear. A boy assumes she is playing Hide & Seek so he says, “Found you!... Now you have to find me. Count to ten.” Jessica, realizes she has found a friend after all and begins counting.
After reporting that she did make a friend at school, Jessica’s grandpa says, “You must have had something very special in your box today.” Jessica smiles and says, “I did.”
There are many aspects of this book that are especially positive. First of all, Jessica’s wheelchair and the reason she needs it are never mentioned. She is a typical, capable, child. I love this! We’ve come a long way in children’s literature!
I also love some little touches in the illustrations such as a bird that will be fun for children to spot. What I mostly love about this picture book is the potential symbolism of Jessica’s box.
I read this book to my family and some dinner guests one evening. I wasn’t surprised to hear each of them offering different possibilities of what Jessica’s box might represent. Of course, there’s no correct answer. The possibilities are many. If you want to hear some of those possibilities, let me know in a comment and I’ll share my ideas. Meanwhile, consider how you might use this book to talk about secrets, wholeness, generosity, offering, friendship, anxiety, transitions, family, creativity, hope, limits, community, vulnerability, gratitude, resilience, and affirmation. Scripture abounds with connections to these ideas and all that might be symbolic of Jessica’s box.  
Picture Book: Jessica’s Box
Author & Illustrator: Peter Carnavas
Original Publisher & Date: New Frontier, 2008 
Age & Grade Appropriateness: 4 and up, Pre and up
Formats other than Book: Not at present

Friday, February 12, 2016

Sophie's Feelings

On June 3rd of 2014, I offered the picture book When Sophie Gets Angry – Really, Really Angry by Molly Bang as a part of my Picture Book a Day for a Year project. Check out that post [here]. I also listed this wonderful book a couple of days ago as a part of the books I’ve recommended for Lent and Easter [here].

I’m pleased to tell you that there is a sequel. This new book is another extraordinary tool for helping children identify and understand their feelings, crucial for social-emotional health. It also offers a relatable context to connect those feeling with the Holy. In addition, we have another opportunity to visit the delightful world of Sophie and see how she handles having strong feelings this time. Emotionally and behaviorally, she’s come far since her first book!

Anytime I can find the Holy in such a charming and valuable book, I jump at the chance. I connected When Sophie Gets Angry… with the concept of comforting, contemplative prayer in nature because that’s what Sophie does. In fact, I’ve designed a lesson for elementary aged children that uses this first Sophie book and Psalm 51: 10-12 (Create in me a clean heart oh God…). If you’re interested in this lesson, contact me via the blog and I’ll tell you more.
The sequel, When Sophie’s Feelings Are Really, Really Hurt finds Sophie at school doing an art lesson. She’s been asked to paint a tree. She immediately thinks of her favorite tree (one that gave her comfort in the previous book), but when she begins to paint it, the natural colors don’t seem to capture her feelings about the tree. Instead, she chooses to use vibrant colors: blue for the trunk & orange for the sky so that the blue pops. 
After painting the leaves green, she adds a touch of yellow around the trunk & each leaf so that it appears to be shining. Her painting, which makes her so happy, is quickly criticized by a classmate, Andrew, who tells her, “We were supposed to paint a REAL tree, Sophie. You did it all wrong.” No wonder Sophie’s feelings are really, really hurt!
Sophie’s reaction is described in detail, both physically (her face gets hot) and emotionally (she regrets her decision to paint with such colors). Thankfully, the teacher, Ms. Multry, intervenes. She encourages Sophie and Andrew to tell about their trees. In so doing, Sophie sorts her feelings and justifies her creative decisions and Andrew explains his point of view.
At the end of her explanation, Sophie declares that the tree makes her feel “good and strong.” Ms. Multry says that when she looks at Sophie’s picture she feels good and strong too. When Andrew explains his painting, Sophie points out the prominent roots in Andrew’s painting, “His tree is holding on to the hill like it will never let go – ever.”
Ms. Multry praises both children for carefully considering their trees and expressing their feelings in their art. The book ends with Sophie returning to her tree no longer feeling angry, sad or hurt. In fact, she “loves just being Sophie.”  

There is so much here that can connect to being a precious child of God who creatively celebrates the beauty of God’s creation (how it can make us “feel good and strong”) and handles hurt feelings in a way that is thoughtful, respectful, and affirming of others. Sophie could be a role model for some adults I know!
Exploring what happens when we “get our feelings hurt” is especially positive in any educational or religious context because it normalizes the situations and feelings and offers helpful ways to deal with such feelings. If God can be viewed as a comfort and help, then all the better. Such conversations are important for all children (and adults).
Another possibility with both of these books is in exploring trees as a common spiritual metaphor. You’d be surprised how early children understand this. Andrew’s tree is a beautiful representation of human faith in God or God’s relationship with humans. The tree “holds on like it will never let go.”

Have fun introducing Sophie to your children and dare I say, some adults you know.
Picture Book: When Sophie’s Feelings                                                                 Are Really, Really Hurt
Author & Illustrator:  Molly Bang
Original Publisher & Date: The Blue Sky Press, 2015
Age & Grade Appropriateness: 4 and up, Pre and up
Formats other than Book: Tablet

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

PBT Books for Lent and Easter

For those of us who are liturgical Christians, tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. This solemn day begins the season of Lent, a period of 40 days (not counting Sundays) that symbolically represents Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness. This season guides us through Holy Week in preparation for Easter. 
At PBT, I’ve offered many picture books that you might want to choose to read during this season to help children connect in new ways to the concepts we consider and the events we remember during Lent and Easter. I’ve listed them below with a guiding connection that will help you tie the Biblical concepts/stories to the content of the picture book. 

These books are not meant to be perfect reflections of the Biblical concepts/stories. Instead they are offered as tools to encourage conversation, exploration, and application. For each, enjoy the secular story then let it lead you to more meaningful consideration of theological or spiritual possibilities. I’ve listed the book titles which serve as links to the PBT post. I also list the ages at which the book is appropriate. Easiest books are listed first.
Lent (in general)
Lent is a time for remembering that Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness for 40 days and found clarity and strength to resist temptation. Therefore, during Lent we focus on intentional prayer, fasting, and service. Fasting is viewed generally as refraining from something (not just food) that distracts you from God. With a sense of repentance (returning to God), we re-focus our lives to be more like Jesus.
Make connections with these stories and the concept of refraining from distractions or temptations in order to live more generously, like Jesus:
Strega Nona                                             
A Chair for My Mother                          
Extra Yarn                                                
My Mouth is a Volcano                         

These are great books about prayer:
Does God Hear My Prayer?                 

Ash Wednesday
In an Ash Wednesday worship service, the sign of the cross is made with ashes in order to recognize our mortality so that we may humbly begin Lent committed to make changes and determined to be more like Jesus.

These stories connect well with the concept of humility:
Bear Has a Story to Tell                        
The Three Questions                               
Those Shoes                                              

Palm Sunday
Palm Sunday is a celebration of the hope that Jesus brings and an offering of the praise that he deserves. Here I’m offering books about both of these concepts: hope and praise.
Tie these concepts to the story of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.
    About Hope:
Hope is an Open Heart                          
If You Want to See a Whale                  
And Then It’s Spring                              
A Child’s Garden                                     
We Shall Overcome                                
Hope Springs                                           
About Praise:
I Will Rejoice                                            
Let’s Make a Joyful Noise                   
All God’s Critters                                     
The Hallelujah Flight                             

Jesus’s Anger at the Money Changers
Children need clarification when it comes to how to deal with their anger. When Jesus sees the money changers whose greed is spoiling the purposes of the Temple, he gets violently angry.
Here’s the best story I know for children about anger:
When Sophie Gets Angry…                     

The Upper Room (Maundy Thursday)
The story of Jesus in the Upper Room with his disciples is a foundational story in the Christian faith. You have the first communion (the elements and a call to remember) and Jesus washing his disciples’ feet (a call to service).
Delve into the components of the Upper Room story with these books: 
Hands Say Love                                        
Bread Comes to Life                                 
The Memory String                                  
Washing the Willow Loon                       

The Garden of Gethsemane
The focus on this event is usually Jesus’ prayer, but here I offer a book about what Jesus’ disciples did not do for him in the garden.
This is the best book I know about being with friends when they are suffering and doing what they need you to do:
A Sick Day for Amos McGee                   

Peter Denies Knowing Jesus
This story is about Peter’s deceit and shame.
Here I offer a delightful picture book about being shamed and lying about who you are:

Connect these picture books with the story of Jesus on the cross.
These books are either about the concepts of sacrifice, giving, forgiveness or death:
One Winter’s Day                                      
The Friend                                                   
Stone Soup                                                   
Badger’s Parting Gifts                              
The Grudge Keeper                                    
Our Tree Named Steve                              
The Goodbye Boat                                      
The Giving Tree                                          

The pivotal event of the Christian faith is a celebration of joy, beauty, and possibility.
These wonderful feelings can easily be connected to these picture books:
Anna Hibiscus Song                                  
Morning Has Broken                                
Winter Moon Song                                     
Yes Day!                                                        
Waiting for Wings                                      
What a Wonderful World                         
The Gardener