Easter baskets are a huge deal for my family. 13 years away from home, and Mom still sends a box filled with the usual suspects: Cadbury Creme Eggs, Peeps, Robin’s Eggs, and Jelly Beans. And, of course, a book. Easter has always been a time for my parents to get a special book for each one of us kids, and I’ve seen my own peers passing on the tradition.
Today I’ll look at a number of books about Easter itself and tomorrow on some biblical based picture books.
THE STORY OF EASTER
by Aileen Fisher; illustrated by Stefano Vitale
Stefano Vitale is a favorite illustrator (I’ve always loved his soft palette and folk inspired style) so I was thrilled to see he teamed up with Aileen Fisher for The Story of Easter. This book is less a narrative of the Easter Story and more about the history of the feast Easter, as celebrated through the ages. It is filled with many interesting facts about Easter:
- the ancient (pagan) use of the egg as a symbol for new life: “it is not strange that many of the customs of the old spring festival because part of our celebration of Easter.”
- to the reason we wear new clothes on Easter: “In the days of the early Christians, Easter was the time when new members of the church were baptized. Afterward they put on new white clothes as a sign of their joy.”
I love these kinds of facts, and think they are worth knowing and sharing with your children. The tone is a bit too detached for my liking: Fisher says it is a day of great joy without evoking this joy in her readers.Vitale’s illustrations, on the other hand, are marvellous. The ones illustrating the life of Christ are inspired by Giotto and other early renaissance painters. His crucifixion is one of the best I’ve seen in picture books.
written and illustrated by Patricia Polacco
Rechenka’s Eggs is, without question, my very favorite Easter book, so I have saved it for last. It tells the story of a Russian Babushka, known for her beautifully painted Easter Eggs, which she labors over all the cold long winter. She is a good woman, and provides what she can for animals as they begin to creep out of hibernation in the Spring.
One day a wounded goose lands in her yard, and she brings it in and cares for it. She binds it’s wing, and feeds it cake and tea, and makes a place for it in her home. And she names the bird Rechenka. Then as Rechenka has gotten stronger and stronger, she knocks over Babushka’s basket full of beautiful eggs, breaking them all. The whole winter’s work is lost, and Babushka is so sad and upset. But her kindness towards Rechenka will not go un-rewarded: the next morning there is a bright and colorful surprise in Rechenka’s nest.
This beautiful story is enhanced by Polacco’s lush and detailed illustrations. She weaves together layers of color, pattern, mixing simple black and white line drawings with decoupaged icons, Ukrainian painted egg patterns and designs, and the bright colors of the Russian city. It is a feast for the eyes, and a joy for the heart.
PETOOK: AN EASTER STORY
by Caryll Houselander; illustrated by Tomie de Paola
I must include this, even though it is out of print and difficult to find, because when you do find it, you should buy it, no matter what condition it is in. Petook is a sublimely joyful story, written as part of Houselander’s Catholic Tales for Boys and Girls. Tomie dePaola’s illustrations crown an already beautiful tale. De Paola has long admired the work of the English mystic Caryll Houselander and created this picture book about the rooster Petook, a fine, handsome bird, and a proud new father. One day a boy (Christ) comes to his yard, and watches as Petook’s wife, Martha, gathers her chicks under her wing.
The farm Petook and Martha live on is at the base of Calvary Hill. And so, when the day of Christ Passion comes, Petook is involved in the day as well (he is the cock that crows when Peter betrays Christ.) Indeed, the entire Passion is played out in the background of dePaola’s illustrations: we see a crowd of people with torches in the garden at night; high on the hill we see three trunks, waiting their cross beams and victims; later, we see a tomb with a soldier standing guard. They are not at all prominent, but they are there and anyone who knows the story sees them.
Before dawn on Easter morning, the farmer’s wife comes to visit her chickens. She is shrouded and bent. But as she picks up one “soft pink” egg under Martha, she stoops to listen. So does Petook:
So were the blades of grass, the drops of dew on them, so were the leaves on the trees, and the stars that lingered still in the sky. The world was listening. Petook knew that. The trees everywhere were listening. All the winds held their breath. Every flower and leaf and bird was still. It was so quiet that Petook heard the chicken in the eggs tapping softly with their beaks to get out.
Yes, Petook heard that, and he hear life everywhere tapping softly to get out, to come out of the dark into the light, out of silence into sound, out of death into life: bird and beast and seen in the earth and bud on the tree. Petook heard all that when the chickens tapped to get out.
And suddenly one of them came, a struggling splutter of gold fluff. The woman laughed, and the sky broke into a splendor of light.
In his note to readers, DePaola betrays his primary motive for illustrating this Houselander tale: it “breathes new life into the age old symbol of the Easter egg.” While this isn’t the best reason to treasure this sublime book, it is a good one. The Easter egg is not a secular symbol but a Christian one, and one that has lost much of its meaning. In Petook DePaola and Houselander honor these symbols, and the joyful reality of new life. This simple, beautiful story points us to that glorious morning when our Hope was fulfilled.
AT JERUSALEM’S GATE
by Nikki Grimes; illustrated by David Frampton
At Jerusalem’s Gate is a collection of free verse poem / meditations on scenes of the passion, paired with wonderful woodcuts by David Frampton. Grimes free-verse poetry is better suited to a slightly older children, one who has been catechized, and who has been taught some fairly advanced poetry (probably 4-6th grades). My one complaint is that the book is entirely in free verse. But Grimes captures the scenes of the Passion very powerfully, and offers rich meditations on the different actors in those fateful days. To convince you of its merit I am simply going to quote my favorite of the poems, “The Last Goodbye” told in the voice of the Blessed Virgin Mary:
So, this is how
you have him
wrenched from me–
permitting lying lips,
holy men flinging
fistfuls of anger
sharp as the spikes
that split his sweet muscle,
spoiled his smooth skin.
I’d have gladly laid him
on the altar, had you asked.
You gave me some sway
in his beginning.
Why not his end?
Look at him.
I could never kiss away
half those bruises.
His countless wounds
all my cloth crimson.
Besides, these human hands
hold no healing.
Maybe it’s best
if I go with John now,
if I say goodbye
and let my son fly
to your arms.
For more of a preview, check out the book on Google Books.
THE TALE OF THE THREE TREES
by Angela Elwell Hunt; illustrated by Tim Jonke
A retelling of the folk-tale about three trees that become the manger, the boat, and the cross of Christ, The Tale of Three Trees has been an Easter classic for 40 years. This is also, as it happens, one of the few Easter books that is available as a board book, and therefore the perfect gift for a baby or toddler in your life.