6 Children’s Picture Books Perfect for a Catholic Family Bookshelf

One of the many essential tools to teaching our children about the glory and depth of our faith is the picture book.

DSCN4835

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:

#1 The Clown of God

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.

#2The Weight of a Mass: A Tale of Faith

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.

#3 Take It to the Queen: A Tale of Hope

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.

#4 The Squire and the Scroll: A Tale of the Rewards of a Pure Heart

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.

#5 The Children’s Book of Virtues

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.

#6 Can You Find Saints?: Introducing Your Child to Holy Men and Women

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.

Happy reading!

  1. 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. []

Author: Catherine

Catherine was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She converted to Catholicism in November 2004. She graduated from Oral Roberts University in the winter of 2005 with a degree in New Testament Biblical Studies. She married the love of her life in January 2006. She is a mother of two wonderful and rambunctious boys and hopes God will bless her with several more. She loves to read good literature and theology, she dabbles in writing, and she likes to riff bad movies.

  • Sal

    “The Clown of God” was a gift to my godson over thirty years ago. His father got so choked up he finished it with difficulty. I had to steel myself to read it to my own. A beautiful book, but heart-touching in the extreme. Be warned…
    Mr. DePaola also illustrated “Petook”, an Easter story by Carryl Houselander.

    May I suggest “My Path to Heaven” by Geoffrey Bliss, S.J.? It would be suitable to read to slightly older children. While not technically a picture book, each chapter has an intricate, full page illustration in black and white by Carryl Houselander. Children love to pore over the
    pictures, picking out the details.

    • I totally forgot about “Petook!” Good point!

      I actually struggled with choosing “The Clown of God” at first because it is so riveting; however, I remembered my reaction when I was a child. It might have been the first time I honestly wanted to please God for the sake of pleasing God (instead of wanting to love God just to please my parents). This book perhaps changed my life, although I admit it is a bit intense.

      I will have to check out the “My Path to Heaven.” Thank you for the suggestion.

  • Rachel Kenny

    Thank you for this post. It’s great to get recommendations. I like “Jacinta’s Story” by Andrea F. Phillips. There’s quite a lot of text but the illustrations are beautiful. My oldest child loved it from 3 years old. We would read part of it each night. We also like the comic type book “The Adventures of Loupio.” Though it’s comic style it has some big one page illustrations. Another one we like is “Yes” about St Josemaria. Though there’s a lot of text there’s a nice full page illustration per page of text.

    • I will have to check out all three stories. I love comic book type of books because for early readers they can sort of tell themselves the stories by looking at the pictures. Also I thin comic book type books really appeal to boys in particular. Thanks for reading and especially thank you for the suggestions. I hope your Mother’s Day is going well. God bless and keep you!

  • I did not like “The Weight of a Mass” and would never buy it; I thought it was dull and I just don’t see a child finding it interesting. One by Tomie de Paola that my kids liked, and I still have because I love the pictures, is “The Lady of Guadalupe.” Of course it should be OUR Lady, not THE Lady, so I just read it that way when I read it out loud. But I am picky about picture books. So many of them are just plain awful.

    • I got my goddaughter “[Our] Lady of Guadalupe,” and it was beautifully done as most of Tomie de Paola’s works are. I am glad you reminded me of that one. Thank you.

  • Sally

    Yes, “The Clown of God” is what I consider essential childhood reading. I know you said the list was not in any particular order, but I was delighted to see that you put it first. Another story I’d like to see in one of your lists is “The Selfish Giant” by Oscar Wilde. I don’t recall whether I ever actually read this one to my children, but reading it as an adult I still find it inspiring. It gives hope even for those whose lives have been entrenched in selfishness.

    • I am glad you approve of “The Clown of God.” The Selfish Giant is included in my list of short stories.

  • Audrey

    My kids (6,4,2) really like “The Weight of a Mass” and “The Clown of God.” But while well-intentioned, I find “The Squire and the Scroll” too convoluted and poorly executed.

  • Anne

    Tomie de Paola is an ex Catholic and is homosexual. I did not know this until I did a bit of internet research. Always loved his books. Any discussion of whether to introduce all his books to my grandchild? Not trying to be a hater..just wondering…

    • Anne, First of all, I had no idea about that. Thank you for letting me know. No worries! You are not being a hater. You are a being a good mother and grandmother in being concerned about this. I really appreciate you for presenting this issue as it is hinting at a major problem within the Catholic realm of parenting and education. I don’t think that you should recommend all the books written by any particular author. I think you should only introduce books that you have first read yourself. I think it is irresponsible of parents to allow their children to read picture books without discerning whether it is appropriate or not (as children get older, it is difficult to keep up with everything they are reading, but I am addressing children who are still reading picture books). As to Tomie de Paola and authors whose personal lives appear to be contradictory to Catholicism, I think that you should only recommend books that you know still testify to some truth of our faith despite the authors personal leanings. I am honest believer that most authors and artists are “Christ-haunted” (if I can use Flannery O’Connor’s words loosely). Being “Christ-haunted” means that the artists are being guided by the need to find redemption in the darkness of their world. The art reflects this haunting and in that haunting you can glean pearls of wisdom from their work that can impact the spiritual and intellectual education of the children in your life. The great thing about parents, grandparents or godparents is that they can monitor what their children read. In the case of picture books, they are likely to be reading these books to their children and can, therefore, also direct their discussion and form their comprehension. It is our duty to be the sentinels for children’s young minds, and I believe, Anne, that your concern is a testimony to your desire of fulfilling your duty. You should be commended.

      In the realm of arts and literature, we are as Christians constantly confronted with artists and authors whose personal lives are contrary to our Catholic teaching. However, these same authors and artists are also giving the world including the world of Catholicism a gift of some beautiful piece of artwork or literature. The question that arises from these occasions is what is the right way to deal with this artwork? Should we as Catholics embrace the piece of artwork because it captures a certain aspect of faith while ignoring who the author or artist actually is? Or, should we dismiss the piece of artwork despite the fact that it is true in itself because the author or artist is not the exemplum of Christianity? The answer is certainly not an easy one and perhaps the answer is very subjective.

      I lean towards relying on the discernment of the parents whether a piece of literature is appropriate or not. I believe that because “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” that the authors personal life should not be the complete reason whether to not expose your child to their work (the operative term is “complete” as authorship is something very serious). There is no such thing as a perfect author. Every author has some sort of issue whether it is dealing with a deep embedded sin or a varying political stance or clings to a different confession. The actually piece of work should only be thrown out if what the book or artwork overtly teaches a moral that is contrary to the Magisterium. In the case of “The Clown of God,” Tomie de Paola is teaching children that in everything that they do they should do for the glory of God, which is an important lesson for children to not become apathetic to even the more basic tasks of life (like cleaning their room).

      In the case of Children’s picture books, the odds are your child is not going to do research on a particular author until they are much older. They are just too young to really think about who the author is. All they know is that that particular author wrote a story that they love. They will perhaps when they are older look him up and read about his life. This, I believe, is opportunity to discuss between you and your child about how to handle art and literature when it comes from a different source other than the Magisterium.

      Also it should be mentioned that despite the leanings of the author or artist, the partakers of art and literature, the audience for lack of a better term, are really the ones responsible for making that art their own. This is what makes art so special in that a piece of art often means something slightly different to everybody despite the intentions of the author. For example, in the case of the late Maurice Sendak (Author of Where the Wild Things are) who had homosexual leanings, his writings, in my opinion, are still pertinent to a Catholic audience. I want my kids to have a universal education in order to relate to the world around them. Parents when reading these books to their children can often glean from secular sources a means of spiritual formation while not robbing them of that ability to relate to their world.

      As this reply has probably bunny-trailed and is already too long. I will stop here.

  • Madeleine

    I haven’t read any of the above, but I have been impressed by books by Brian Wildsmith (many of which are explicitly religious, even Catholic, though I do not know his personal beliefs) and I was also very impressed by Ruth Sanderson’s beautiful Papa Gatto and see that she made a book on the Saints and on the Nativity as well.

  • Luci

    Thank you!! I love all the recommendations and your long reply above as well. Any book suggestions for the preteen audience? teen audience?