Catherine’s Pascha by Charlotte Riggle

My kids know when I pull out our copy of “Catherine’s Pascha” by Charlotte Riggle that I’m going to cry. I can’t help it. You might think that means this is a sad story, but in fact it’s the brightest story we could have in the Orthodox faith.

This book does an excellent job of viewing the Paschal Midnight Service from the eyes of a young girl (I would guess 8-10 years old), her family, and friends. What I love about this book is that on each page in the background is a different Orthodox Church from around the world. RJ Hughes takes us across the globe on that Holiest of nights when we as Orthodox celebrate the Resurrection of Christ.

Holy Resurrection Cathedral in Tokyo, Japan (background)

Catherine is determined to stay awake through the service with her best friend Elizabeth. They get up to normal kid stuff during Liturgy (dripping wax from their candles on their hands), which I appreciate as a mom of 4. This book is realistic in both the artwork and storyline, you can insert your family into this night of worship quite easily.

If you’re wondering about the part I cry in each read, it’s when the family is outside the church and the Priest knocks on the door and someone inside asks “Who is the King of Glory?!” Why does this part make me cry? It is one of my most vivid memories as a convert of my first Paschal celebration in 2008. It is also perhaps one of the most important services as Christians. Other than the Nativity service where we celebrate how Christ came into this world as both God and a babe, the defeat of death by his death and resurrection is key to our life in Christ as Orthodox Christians. He is the light and by his light we spread that to others through loving them in this life and worshipping him in both this world and the Three me to come.

“Lift up your gates so the King of Glory May come in!”

There are also some fun Pascha basket traditions in the book, Catherine’s mother makes Sticky Bubbies and my kids ask me every year to make them! Sticky Bunnies Recipe from the book:

Photo used with author Charlotte Riggle’s permission from her website.

I pray this book helps your family celebrate the night of Pascha year round and that it encourages you to have conversations with your children about our faith. -Kathryn Reetzke

“The Saint Nicolas Day Snow,” also by Charlotte Riggle and RJ Hughes

You can order Charlotte’s books from her site for bulk orders or follow the directions there:

Kelsey’s Review of God’s Saintly Friends

This is a sweet book about what saintly people do, focusing on their relationships with others. Each page is laid out so that it is predictable to emerging readers, with words on the left and art on the right. The beautifully simple line-drawing illustrations focus on the main characters; the color palette is gentle and pleasing.

The theme of describing what a saint is like is clear throughout the eight stories in the book, and is made understandable with relatable concepts. Sparking curiosity for “the rest of the story,” older kids will likely ask for more details about some of the saints. For younger kids, they can be asked to point out similar experiences in their world.

The words on each page are separated into a short factual statement and a longer description with some details, making it easy to read to children of all ages. Children can visit with each page, soaking in the details and pondering the story.

It is the perfect size: large enough to read to a lapful of kids, small enough to fit in a diaper bag, and takes about 3 minutes to read. For our family, it will be a perfect addition to our rotation of books for the kids’ church bag, and as a short story break for when I’m asked “can you read me a book?” while I’m in the midst of folding laundry or vacuuming.

This book is 100% American made by Orthodox Christian mothers who run small businesses when not busy with their children. It was written, illustrated, edited, printed, and packaged in the USA. (Not every Orthodox publisher prints in the US.) My kids love it, and we’re excited to add it to our collection of Christian kids books!”

God’s Saintly Friends is available from the publisher and in the Ancient Faith Store.

Kelsey is a mom of three who sometimes gets to design fabric and sew, but always makes time to read to her kids and to herself.

Alyson’s Review of Spyridon’s Shoes

Cover of Spyridon's Shoes
This book is also available as a paperback.

Set on the Greek Island of Corfu, the audiobook Spyridon’s Shoes by Christine Rogers is written for the seven-year-old to the pre-teen, but can be appreciated by any age. The historic fictional child Spiro and his environs are described in colorful language and details as we learn how he catches fish and octopuses to support his family. The choice expressions the author uses are dramatic and paints pictures of the playful and realistic antics of your everyday beach-loving boy. She also reads the story aloud with expression that matches the lively action.

The author brings to life the historical character of St. Spyridon who young Spiro encounters multiple times while fishing at the shore. He helps the boy when he injures his foot and nobody else is nearby to help him home. The boy looks for his kindly friend and repairs the ripped sandal tall Spyridon loaned him to walk home in. In later encounters, they become friends as he tells the white-bearded man about his worries and dreams and is consoled and encouraged. I loved the drama of the relationship that unfolded as the fatherly man shared his thoughts and aspirations about how to know God and confide in Him about everyday matters.

The traits of St. Spyridon such as his habit of helping people in need are based on actual stories passed down for centuries in Corfu. I enjoyed the author’s creativity in adding drama that aids the imagination to picture the skeleton story-line we are often left with in historical accounts. This allows the reader to appreciate the historical figure and for a child to encounter him or her more fully.

I came away with a vivid picture of the generosity and kindness of our historic saints who labor for us in invisible ways. And also the profound reminder of what saints’ lives constantly remind us of: that our connection to God is vital for the everyday things we need and prayers are what create and continue this connection.

Spyridon’s Shoes is available on Audible, and as a paperback from the publisher and on Amazon.

Alyson d’Arms is a homeschool education specialist and teacher who dabbles in poetry and historical fiction writing. She is currently exploring the trails and stories of wild Alaska.

Garrett’s Review of The Cellarer’s Celery

Cover of The Cellarer's Celery

The Cellarer’s Celery is a joyful tale that will draw the reader along as it explores some deep truths of the Christian faith and its practice in the world.

First, I want to draw attention to the rhyme and rhythm of the book. Fr. Jeremy Davis’s writing style is so fun and whimsical. The style and language of the book beg for it to be read aloud, which I did several times with my 3-year-old daughter—who also enjoyed the story.

Second, the story offers a very simple yet profound lesson on the Christian life. A few things jumped out at me during my repeated readings of this with my daughter:

  • The sower prays nightly for the flourishing of the celery crop. He doesn’t do this because he wants praise, but rather because he loves the cellarer and knows that he enjoys the celery;
  • The sower’s despondency when the celery is destroyed and his concern on how to let the cellarer know is so useful in presenting how we oftentimes face dread when we have to ask forgiveness of another;
  • The cellarer’s response and the imagery of celery as life is simple but so true and helps readers of any age remember that our life here on earth is not meant to be one of ease and comfort, but of struggle and trying. Nevertheless, our life—like celery—is savory and refreshing.

I highly recommend this book for anyone with young children as the story and illustrations—by Luke Garrow—are a delight to view and inspect. My daughter was especially fond of finding the cellarer’s mouth as it is hidden in a big beard.

Now I’m off to go enjoy a nice stick of celery.

The Cellarer’s Celery is available from the publisher and on Amazon.

Garrett is a teacher at a classical charter school in Texas, where he lives with his wife and daughter.

Grandmother Reflections: 70 Years with Picture Books

Today, I’m interviewing someone I love. Kathy is a retired educator, mother of four children, and grandmother of 11 grandchildren. She has read picture books, used them at work, and created some for her family. Today she’s sharing perspectives she’s gained from more than 70 years of picture-book reading!

Melinda: What is the first picture book you remember reading as a child?

Kathy: I remember having The Little Engine That Could read to me when I was very young.  In fact, it became a family rule of sorts.  None of us where allowed to say that we couldn’t do something.  We all had to say, “I think I can.  I think I can.  I think I can.”

Melinda: What was your favorite part of reading books with your children when they were small?

Kathy: I loved settling on the couch or bed with little people cuddled on each side and on my lap as we shared a fun adventure together.  Sharing a book with a little one is such a loving thing, and it expands their world beyond just home and neighborhood as well.  I especially enjoyed sharing with them the picture books I had loved as a child.

I also loved the way that books can teach life lessons by stories without being preachy.  It reminds me of how Jesus taught by parables.  He made us, and He knows humans relate to stories.  Also the stories are about someone else and not pointed at us, so it is easier to not be defensive and just learn from them.

Melinda: When you began sharing picture books with your grandchildren, how had they changed from the books you remember reading to your children?

Kathy: That is a hard question. There are certainly many more stories available.  I think there is more diversity now, in a positive way. And the production of books now is advanced, so some of the pictures are more sophisticated and nuanced, and less cartoony or simple.  On the other hand, some illustrators now do simple drawings to reach out to children, and those are great.

Melinda: What are some books that both your children and your grandchildren enjoyed? Why do you think they worked so well for both generations?

Kathy: I actually read some books that have worked for three generations – my childhood, my children’s childhood, and now my grandchildren’s.  I think there are some universal human experiences that resonate through the ages. An example, to return to The Little Engine That Could, is the experience of not having the resources many have and yet keeping a positive attitude and making the best of what you have.  This kind of approach is admired and appreciated by others, and it comes across in the story without being preachy.

Melinda: How did you use picture books as an educator?

Kathy: Many educators try to relate different subject matter to make a more connected whole of a concept.  When I wrote elementary math curriculum, we used picture books to get across ideas in an appealing way and to illustrate without making a point of it that math is part of everyday life.  For just one example, there is a wonderful picture book called The Doorbell Rang that worked very well for teaching fractions and, incidentally, sharing as well.

Melinda: How can authors and publishers make a picture book especially effective for classroom use?

Kathy: This is tricky. Many authors have tried this, and few really succeed.  I think many books like this are too conscious of trying to teach rather than just sharing a good story that can then be applied to a concept in some school subject.  I guess I would say to start with a good story you are excited about, and if it is true to life in reality or imagination, then it might easily be applicable in a subject.  For example, if you love quilting, write a  story about quilts.  There are actually already a number of good quilt stories that can be used to teach history about the Civil War and Underground Railroad, or about geometric shapes and repeating patterns.

Melinda: What is the funniest picture book you remember reading?

Kathy: I always loved Amelia Bedelia stories.  If you have never read one, give yourself a treat and find one at the library.  Amelia is a literalist who misinterprets the meaning of words because of the way they are used colloquially.  I chuckled all the way through each of them.  Words are such fun – used or misused, they are still fun.  Some of the funniest things I remember as a teacher were mistakes students made from misusing words – for example, the youngster who wrote about how effective “gorilla warfare” was.

Melinda: What is the most important picture book you’ve read? Why?

Kathy: How to choose?!  Well, we used many different Bible picture books with our children for evening worship each night, and these made the stories more real.  Since our daily life is not like it was in Bible times, something that helps us understand the meaning is really important.  Other than that, I think the story Beginning with Mrs. McBee by Cecil B. Maiden is outstanding as it demonstrates with humor and humanity the concept of passing good on rather than paying it back.  I have read this with our children and grandchildren and still love it regardless of how often I read it.

The Runaway Bunny as Christian Allegory

In this remarkable scene from Wit (2001, directed by Mike Nichols), Evelyn Ashford (Eileen Atkins) comforts her dying friend and former student Vivian (Emma Thompson) by cradling her gently and reading Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny.

At the 5:00 minute mark, these two grieving women, both academics, share a surprising discovery about the book. “Ah! Look at that,” Evelyn says smiling. “A little allegory of the soul. Wherever it hides, God will find it.” Vivian is hardly able to speak, but the moment figures as a turning point as her suffering gradually gives way to sleep.

The Runaway Bunny is a picture book classic, most often read in the same spirit as books such as Love You Forever or Guess How Much I Love You. It’s meant to be read over and over again, until the words are all memorized and the spine cracks and the pages fall out. Little ones never tire of hearing that wherever they go, however life changes them, their mama will find them and bring them home.

It’s a logical choice for the film, which chronicles the inward journey of an intellect-centered college professor struggling for transcendence as she dies of cancer. Her friend and mentor in this scene is much like the mother bunny in the book. Evelyn arrives at the hospital having only just learned that Vivian is there. What are the odds? It is a detail just touched on as Evelyn takes off her coat, but it is the same quiet miracle as the mother bunny finding her baby wherever she goes. The little bunny who keeps trying to shape-shift, to become some other animal, to have some other life, mirrors the human journey to discover and improve our actual self, the one we hope to keep. And the kindly, humorous, unfailing persistence of the mother bunny is the Love that birthed us and leads us home.

Of course, once you begin to hold a lens over the story, you see more in it than you first expected. Consider the progression of transformations the little bunny suggests, and the ways his mother answers them. These pairs of images are rife with Christian symbolism!

I will be a fish in a trout stream/ I will be a fisherman. Jesus calls His apostles with the promise that they will become “fishers of men,” gathering in new believers.

I will be a rock on a mountain/I will be a mountain climber. He calls Peter the “rock” on which He will build the Christian church.

I will be a crocus in a hidden garden/I will be a gardener. When Mary comes to  the grave seeking Jesus after his crucifixion and He meets her there, she believes at first that He is the gardener.

I will be a bird/I will be the tree you come home to. The tree is a reference to the Cross, the place to which Christians “fly home” in search of eternal life.

I will be a sailboat/I will be the wind.   The wind is the Holy Spirit, and “blows where it will”, just as the mother bunny will blow her little sailboat “where I want you to go.”

I will be a trapeze artist/I will be a tightrope walker. The circus is an old and often-used metaphor for the world (as distinguished from heaven or the Church). Biblical tradition describes Satan as the “lord of the air,” and Jesus harrowing hell and rising to heaven “clears the air,” overcoming what darkness lingers there. Thus, like the mother rabbit, He meets us in danger and saves us. Alternately, the trapeze artist and the tightrope walker could prefigure the Second Coming, when believers will be “caught up together in the clouds” and “meet the Lord in the air.”

I will be a little boy/I will be your mother. This pair brings the little bunny to the pinnacle of Christian imagery, and teaching – the incarnation. Interestingly, in this final iteration, the little bunny has assumed the divine role (the Son of Man, born on earth) and the mother bunny plays the dual role of birthgiver and guide. She will be this little boy’s mother and catch him up in her arms to hug, just as Mary must so often have embraced Jesus in her role as Theotokos, God-bearer, mother. But simultaneously, this is also the role in which she succeeds in bringing her little bunny home to his true identity, a nod at the salvific power of the incarnation and the Christian striving to be in God’s image. When the little bunny chooses an identity that both parallels and transcends his present life, he has come to the end (or beginning!) of his spiritual journey. And of course, he has found his way home.

The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd, was first published in 1942, and is still in print!