Listers, one of the many essential tools to teaching our children about the glory and depth of our faith is the picture book. Children often have short attention spans, and their comprehension skills are still not as developed and refined as adults; however, that should not prevent us from sharing with them the truth, the glory, and the goodness of our Catholic tradition. The picture book is often an excellent tool to use to help remedy this difficult hurdle. When you really consider what makes good children’s literature you will notice a common thread among all the greats. Good children’s literature must be an intricate blend between the following: 1) a thoughtfully laid-out plot using plenty of descriptive language; 2) captivating relevant illustrations created with the intention of capturing children’s attention. When religious content is thrown into this intricate mix, it transforms story-time into an occasion of spiritual formation. But, how do you determine whether one Christian picture book is better than the other? The answer is very subjective, but there are some things I would suggest for you all to consider when selecting one:
- Does the book’s subject matter line-up with the teachings of Magisterium? (i.e. Is it orthodox? Is it in any way blasphemous?)
- Is the meaning or subject worthwhile? (i.e. Does it challenge your child to strive to be virtuous? Does it inspire discussion? Is there a moral? Does it teach them about truth in some way?)
- Is the plot composed in a way that is engaging to children (i.e. is it written in way to make children care about what actually happens)?
- Do the illustrations captivate children’s imagination (i.e. are the illustrations interesting with beautiful colors, shading, and perspective? Are they composed skillfully and purposefully? Has the illustrator taken great pains to flesh out the plot so that children can get the gist of it by merely studying the pictures?)
- Is the language stilted and awkward, or is it smooth and descriptive? (i.e. Does it flow? Does it sound like you are reading out of a dictionary?)
- Are the illustrations and writing appropriate and respectful to the particular subject matter (i.e. Are the serious things illustrated and written in a serious manner? e.g. Jesus should not be smiling on the cross in illustrations, and Jesus should not be described as someone’s “Homeboy”)
- Is the book re-readable? (i.e. Did the book create and enjoyable or tedious experience? Are the illustrations detailed enough to discover something new each time it is read? Does the story inspire in depth discussion?)
I used this criterion to compose the following list* of good children’s picture books that are helpful in the spiritual formation of children. These books are not listed in any particular order. (N.B. Some of these stories deal with issue of death. I recommend that you read it first before introducing the book to your child, so you can determine whether the subject matter is age appropriate). I also realize that six stories is a rather a short list, but I wanted to make sure I did a good enough review of each of the books’ merits. I fully intend on doing a part 2 and 3, so if you have any books to bring to my attention please let me know.1 Now on to the stories:
Retold and Illustrated by Tomie dePaola
Tomie dePaola is easily my favorite children’s author and illustartor. His unique artistic style and striking illustrations rival some of the more beautiful pieces of art in modern culture. The Clown of God is my personal favorite among his numerous books, which include Strega Nona, The Song of St. Francis, and Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland. The Clown of God made a profound impact on me when I was a child. I know, I know, you all are thinking “A story about clown, really?” But trust me, this story will surprise and touch you and your children. The plot is as complex and rich as the illustrations. The story is about a little orphan boy named Giovanni, whose desire in life was to make people happy through juggling. This story is very serious, and I would recommend previewing it first as certain twists in the plot may upset sensitive children. Nevertheless, I highly recommend it because this book quite possibly could be life-changing for your children. It should inspire them to play, to work, and to live in a way that always brings glory to God.
by Josephine Nobisso/Illustrated by Katalin Szegedi
If you have younger children you know that taking them to Mass can be quite an ordeal. However, eventually your children will begin to perceive that Mass is a serious and important thing (so keep it up). In order to illustrate the importance of Mass to your children I recommend The Weight of a Mass to them. I consider this book The Hint of an Explanation for children as it deals specifically about the weighty value of the Eucharist. The story is filled with reverent yet lavish illustrations that certainly will not only pique the aesthetic sensibilities of children but also of adults. It is a tale about a starving beggar woman who tells a baker that she will lift up the baker’s intentions at Mass in exchange for a scrap of bread. The baker is incredulous at first, but then something miraculous happens that saves the baker and the whole kingdom from disbelief. This is book is perfect for bedtime. It will hopefully lead your family into edifying discussion about why Mass is an integral part of the Catholic faith.
by Josephine Nobisso/Illustrated by Katalin Szegedi
Perfect for story-time during the month of May or during any Marian feast day, Take It to the Queen expounds on why praying the Rosary and venerating the Holy Mother is an important part of our Catholic faith. Josephine Nobissio weaves an allegorical tale about a King who marries a woman from a village. In gratitude to the village, the King gives the village many gifts and promises that his firstborn son will help and advise the village council. However, as years pass the villagers forget his kindness and start reviling the king and one another. The village falls under disrepair due to selfishness and deceit, and the villagers begin to starve. However, they remember that the Queen was a fellow citizen and made supplications to her to help them at their darkest hour. Take It to the Queen helps children learn to love our Holy Mother and rely on her holy assistance as they strive to serve God throughout their lives.
by Jennie Bishop/Illustrated by Preston McDaniels
In the present day, our children are bombarded constantly by the various agendas of the world. And more often than not, these worldly things are contrary to the values of the Christian life. One such major tenet of our faith that is under constant attack by the world is the Church’s message of purity. The Squire and the Scroll story is an allegory about this very same conflict. The story is about a kingdom that loses it greatest treasure, the lantern of purest light, to a great enemy, a monstrous dragon. The King of the realm sends all his knights but loses all but one to the unknown perils on the the road to the dragon’s keep. The last knight and his lowly squire are then sent out to face the unknown dangers in order to re-obtain the lost light. The only way for them to keep from harm and maintain their virtue is to listen to the often-neglected yet sagacious wisdom of an ancient scroll. This story is filled with adventure, sorrow, redemption, and joy. It will bring up a great discussion with your children about ways they can avoid temptation through listening to tenets of the faith and relying on the grace and wisdom of Scripture.
Edited by William J. Bennett/Illustrated by Michael Hague
This compilation of illustrated stories categorizes various fables, fairy tales, legends, prayers, and poems by virtues that are essential to the excellent life (e.g. there is a whole section on courage, charity, and responsibility). Not all the stories are not always overtly Christian or religious, but the stories do underscore various essentials that mark a virtuous person. Many of the stories and fables are familiar to the Western mind (e.g. “St George and the Dragon,” “The Stars in the Sky,” and “The Lion and the Mouse”) while others are not, which allows for growth and familiarity with other cultures (e.g. “The Honest Disciple,” “The King and His Hawk,” and “The Indian Cinderella). Like the other stories in this list the illustrations are done with particular detail and effort which help children to imagine and to dream. As anthologies go, this should be on top of your list as it inspires children to strive in virtue and helps acquaint them with stories and fables of the past.
by Phillip D. Gallery/Illustrated by Janet Harlow
Being on the more light-hearted side, Can You Find the Saints is the perfect road trip book. It is sort of like Where’s Waldo? but with Catholic subject matter. I know it sounds a little disrespectful, but really it is done in a very tasteful and educational way. The illustrations are filled with the great detail and are very engaging even for the youngest of readers. The illustrations depict the wonderful and vastly different lives of the saints. For example, one whole page in this book is a collage dedicated to Mary. Your child will discover many things about our Holy Mother like different titles she is given throughout world and the major moments in her life. Another particularly interesting aspect to the book is the parent guide in the back. It assists parents to having a more fruitful discussion while their children make new discoveries throughout the book. Each page is packed with illustrations that will make your children discover something new every time they read it. In this book, your children will learn about the ways in which Saints are identified, who many of the Saints are and what they did during their lives on Earth, and how can your children strive to be Saints in our day and our time.
- The Authors and Catholicism: Although the majority of the authors in this list are Roman Catholic, there are one or two of the authors that I am not certain about. Regardless, all of the selected stories’ subject matter fall into line with the Catholic teaching. Also all of the books can be found with most major online Catholic book retail companies. If you all, listers, have any information about this let me know. [↩]