Friday 14 April 2017

Understanding Easter for little ones

As the girls get older I've been collecting picture books that, in a variety of accessible ways, tell the story of Easter - tales of infinite love and care, great sacrifice and salvation.
When they were youngest, I found that the simplest way to introduce the fundamental idea of a God who would do anything for his children, was through the simple parable of The Lost Sheep. Culturebaby loved imaginary play and little models, and to accompany the story I created a simple play landscape for the lost sheep to venture across on his own, complete with perils for his master to overcome in carrying out his recovery. After numerous "again!"s and two versions of the tale with slightly different props, Culturebaby began to recount the story herself. We filmed it and watched it back, and I even overheard her acting it out to her soft toys from the other room as she settled down for a nap. The two excellent versions of the parable we use are the lighthearted version from Stories Jesus Told by Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen. This compilation is a current favourite with Culturebaby, who loves the simple moral tales re-told here in accessible form. We also really like the cut-out board book The Lost Sheep, which is slightly closer to the original and equally accessible.

Then, a little later, Culturebaby fell in love with Aslan, Narnia and all things beyond the wardrobe. I found that, even at three, Culturebaby instinctively understood the parallels in the unwaivering faith of Lucy, the forgiveness of Edmund, the sacrifice of Aslan and the defeat of the White Witch. There are many wonderful simple Narnia books for children (particularly relating to the film with photographs and simple storylines - we have rather a collection) but one of the best is the beautifully illustrated Harper Collins version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, illustrated by Christian Birmingham, abridged well and with an extensive story. Culturebaby has rather a high tolerence for challenging and dark themes and she therefore gained a lot from the Disney film of the book. Whilst the retelling isn't perfect for the purist, from the moment she accompanied Lucy through the wardrobe she was hooked. Their world became hers and she inhabited Narnia in imagination and in play. We made a play-tray, which has been out ever since. The film was watched in part almost daily for almost a year. "Once a king or queen of Narnia, always a king or queen..."

"But what does it all mean?" asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer. 
"It means," said Aslan, "that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards."
 C.S. Lewis The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe
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Then came the story of Easter itself and we have found a number of great first illustrated books re-telling the (very difficult to explain) journey from Palm Sunday to the Resurrection. Firstly Usborne's Book of Bible Stories is a gorgeous volume with a number of essential bible stories and parables. This is a perennial fixture in our mass survival bag and was the primary introduction for Culturebaby to some of the iconic characters from the Bible. She loves the format of these Usborne productions with their simple and engaging images and accessible text. The Easter story is the culmination of this volume.

More recently Usborne has also published, as part of their brilliant Picture Book series (which tackles a host of classic stories for young readers), The Easter Story illustrated by John Joven. Taking the key elements of the story, told sensitively and simply, this version has been with us to the Good Friday service today.

We also received as a gift a few years ago, a gorgeous little Easter Bible Storybook board book featuring photographs of toy models acting out the excitement of Jesus' followers as they discover that he is alive. The characters are adorable, and with the repeated phrase 'Jesus is alive', this one really stuck in the girls' consciousness and they are able to take part in the telling of this story again and again.

Finally, Culturetot's Godmother bought her a simply stunning version of a classic folktale The Tale of the Three Trees. Told from the perspective of three trees, who respectively each have dreams and aspirations to hold treasure, become a great ship, and simply to be left to grow tall and point to the heavens, each (initially disappointed), finds that they achieve more than their hearts' desires. One, thinking it was merely an animal food box becomes the manger holding the Christ child. The second, initially a simple fishing vessel, carries Christ to calm a storm. And the last, crudely crafted into an instrument of torture, finds that from it hangs Jesus as he points the way for all to the heavens. It's a profound and beautiful book and the girls love it.

A couple of years ago during the final week of Lent, we created a Resurrection Garden table centrepiece that I'd seen on another blog and loved and have done it most years since. The model presents calvary and the tomb; complete with stone blocking the entrance, which can be rolled away to reveal the empty tomb and figurines. This was extremely simple to make and was a helpful way to act out the stages of Holy Week.

Start with a large plant pot base and a smaller ceramic plant pot or piece of pipe turned on its side. Build up earth around the pot into a mound with the top of the plant pot forming a cave-like entrance surrounded by sand or gravel. We created 3 small wooden crosses from branches bound together with thread and placed these on the top of the hill. We then added cress seeds (you can also use grass seed if you have longer) which grew over the course of the week and was a visible symbol of the resurrection. We also added figurines of Mary and a Roman soldier.,204,203,200_.jpgI've also discovered other classic and newer titles that unpack brilliantly aspects of the Easter Story. The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde was one of my favourite childhood books and comes in a number of versions. With Wilde's beautiful prose and the message of Easter through the eyes of a child, I eternally fail to get through this classic without a hankie. A hard-hearted giant throws children, who have nowhere else to go, out of his garden; it is his garden and his alone. But without joy present the frost and snow and hail and wind move in, bringing with them a perpetual winter. Then one day the giant is awoken by birdsong; the children have broken into the garden and with them comes the spring - the trees bloom and flowers spring up. However, one corner of the garden remains in winter - a spot where a small child is unable to climb into the tree alongside his peers and reaches up to no avail. The giant's heart is melted and he goes to the garden and helps the child reach the trees, which immediately bloom. His kindness is rewarded with a kiss and the giant is healed; he knocks down the walls and the children make his garden their playground once more. The children return daily, except the little child he loved the most. The giant grows old and frail with the children all around him, but he is always hoping that the small one will return... and one day he does, but scarred with wounds on his hands and feet. The giant, enraged, asks who has dared to hurt his friend, but the child tells him that these are the wounds of love. Once he let the little child play in his garden, and so today the child explains that he will be taking the giant to his own garden - paradise. The version of this story we discovered beautifully illustrated and abridged by Alexis Deacon stops at the point the Giant bestows his garden upon the children and all find happiness. This in itself is a beautiful and profound tale for the very young. However, for 5 year old Culturebaby we also love the full version. I have a vintage version illustrated by Michael Foreman and Freire Wright from 1978, but there are others out there too.

Then another weepy, The Clown of God, tells the tale of a poor boy who finds he can juggle exceptionally well and spends his life travelling from Italian village to village entertaining the crowds. Over the course of his wanderings he meets poor Franciscans who tell him about their belief. He continues, content in the knowledge that he brings joy to those around him, until he becomes old and unable to juggle. The crowds begin to reject him and he becomes hungry and without purpose. He decides to return to the village where he began, but finds himself in a monastery faced with a stern statue of the virgin and child. He takes out his equipment and, to the horror of one monk, begins to juggle. He juggles and juggles, the best he has ever performed, just for the baby Christ before him. The monk returns with others to find that the old man has died juggling, but there is left a miracle - the statue is holding the juggler's most precious golden ball and is now smiling. It's a beautiful tale about the gift of joy, and giving all that we are, or just simply what we are able to offer, for the glory of God.

Finally a couple of beautiful secular books have come out this Easter. Firstly a stunning work of art from Prestel and Britta Teckentrup The Egg. For children and adults alike, this gloriously designed volume explores the humble egg in all its simplicity and intricacy through the eyes of an artist, and unpacks its integral role in tradition, science and art and the way this 'miracle of nature' has inspired artists from ancient times. Did you know that in the Orthodox tradition, for instance, eggs were died red to represent Christ's death, and it was once a custom to place eggs on Christian graves? Many artists have paid homage to the egg as a source of life and in many ancient myths gods and heroes have hatched from eggs. This unique and fascinating book is a great addition to anyone's Easter bookshelf.

Finally a bit of fun. Spring is the time of new life, of appleblossoms and glorious magnolia, a riot of colour bringing the positivity of warmth. Usborne has published a beautiful and detailed book of The Wild Garden with transfers and, if one were so inclined, the opportunity for detailed colouring and observation. It's a perfect Eastertime gift to combat the riot of chocolate and I'm looking forward to trying it out with the girls on Sunday. Here are a few further Springtime and Easter activities from the blog.

Disclaimer: Many of the titles we have covered in this post are our own, however, we are grateful to Usborne for providing their books over the last few years for review purposes, and to Prestel for the beautiful new title, The Egg. As always, all opinions are entirely my own.

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