Review: Brother Sun, Sister Moon

With the autumn equinox just behind us, the harvest moon above us, and the commemoration of Saint Francis before us, this seems like a good moment to pause and give thanks with our children. The gorgeous Brother Sun, Sister Moon by Katherine Paterson and Pamela Dalton will fill that pause well.

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The text of this book is a “reimagining” of The Canticle of the Sun by Saint Francis of Assisi himself. He wrote this classic song of praise in his native tongue not long before his death. This abridged English translation reads beautifully and conveys the essence of the original, which is provided in full at the back of the book along with notes from the author and illustrator.

Paterson has gently shortened this prayer of thanksgiving addressed to “God, the Lord of Heaven and Earth”. She preserves the saint’s tributes to sun, moon, wind, air, water, fire, earth, peacemakers, and death. Each theme is wondrously illustrated with Dalton’s painted papercuts, taking great care to help a young reader understand just how much humanity depends on these good gifts.

For example, the scene depicting water is richly detailed with an old millwheel and pond. We see families not only drawing drinking water, but also using water power to grind their grain for bread (which is baked in the next pages, depicting fire); fruit-bearing trees spring up from the waters’ edge, where birds and children catch fish and animals come to drink. The words read:

We praise you for Sister Water, who fills the seas and rushes down the rivers – who wells up from the earth and falls down from heaven – who gives herself that all living things may grow and be nourished.

By pairing such thoughtful illustrations with these reflective words, a child is prompted to consider how much we depend on nature’s bounty, and Who has given it. Simply and naturally, Francis’ prayer will become their own.

With nostalgic images of beehives and oxen, flowers and birds, and simple families working and playing and caring for each other, this book gratefully acknowledges God’s affectionate providence. Even Death is treated kindly, as the one who “will usher us at last into your loving presence, where we will know and love you as you have always known and loved us.” The accompanying children are shown respectfully burying a chipmunk, in a poignant vignette that kindles peace rather than fear.

This adaptation is altogether lovely, without being the least bit foolish or sentimental. For children who need a gentle reminder about the importance of prayer, kindness, unselfishness, and a genuine respect for natural resources, this book would make an encouraging gift. For adults who need the same thing, I feel certain they will find it equally uplifting.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: All Things Bright and Beautiful by Cecil Frances Alexander and Bruce Whatley

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Review: The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

A character in a story often doesn’t realize what treasure he possesses until he has lost it. The same can be true of a society; but thankfully our treasure has been recovered in The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris.

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A number of newly-pertinent words were added to the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary for children; words like blog and voicemail. But a few people noticed that words were also left out, making way for the jargon of the technical age. These discards were words of the natural world, suddenly deemed so unfamiliar and irrelevant to the lives of children that they no longer warranted a place in a common school dictionary. Mourning their loss, Robert Macfarlane set out with illustrator Jackie Morris to bring these words back.

But surely, you protest, language changes. Antiquated terminology should be dropped in favor of current usage. What were these old words, so unceremoniously banished from the childhood lexicon?

Well, I’ll tell you.

Acorn. Dandelion. Fern. Ivy. Otter. Raven. Weasel. Willow.

There are twenty in all.

You see how grave this is from many points of view. These are simple words, naming common outdoor discoveries; they should be as familiar to any youngster as the milk she pours on her cereal. How can she not know the joy of blowing away her wishes with the dandelion seeds? How can that squished bouquet of cheerful yellow flowers not have a name? And how much fun is missed if she cannot chuckle over Piglet’s “haycorns”Aesop’s Fables and The Wind In The Willows lose vital members of their cast, and Poe’s majestic poem has no meaning for her. Such a child has been denied both experience of the natural world and references to it; how then can she love it?

But all is not yet lost. Macfarlane and Morris return these words to us in grand style. Written a decade after the telling omissions, their gorgeous book devotes three spectacular full-page spreads to the reintroduction of each word. The first two pages allocated to every lost word depict its letters, scattered like puzzle pieces with other letters among various flora and fauna. The second pair of pages presents the word, bringing it to life by describing the organism itself. An acrostic poem exuberantly depicts the plant or animal named, and opposite this is a portrait of it in detail enough to please any naturalist. On the final spread we then find a splendid illustration of the subject – now no longer lost, but lovably familiar – in its own habitat. We recognize it, and recall with satisfaction that indeed we have loved it.

The Lost Words is a lush book, and it doesn’t even need to argue that these words – these birds and beasts and growing things – are important. Rather, it shows us. It captures the gleam in a kingfisher’s eye, the temper of the irascible magpie, the twitter of a flock of starlings. It preserves the blazing beauty of the heather, and the possibilities of a lowly conker. It demonstrates the value of these lost words by reminding us that they are more than words: they are living things that have a rightful place in our language and our world.

This striking volume is large, like a coffee-table book; perfect for studying in detail. It cannot fail to ignite a fresh appreciation for our fellow creatures, and a desire to encounter them in both field and literature. The poetry is delicious and the paintings truly impressive. Readers of any age can savor it, but above all it should be shared with our children; that these words – and the wild things they represent – need not be lost from our collective memory.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: The Complete Book of the Flower Fairies by Cicely Mary Barker

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Review: My Garden

In this part of the world the bounty of vegetable gardens is reaching its peak, and we should not let summer pass without one more imaginative gardening story. Thus I present you with My Garden by Kevin Henkes.

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A little girl enjoys helping in her mother’s garden; but when she considers what a garden of her own might be like, she comes up with something quite different. Permanent blooms in changing colors, buttons growing on vines, glowing strawberries and sprouting sea shells are just a few of the delights conjured by this fanciful girl. In fact, with invisible carrots and jellybean bushes, it’s probably anyone’s perfect garden. When the little girl is called in for the night she takes a chance on her own magic, and readers are given a hopeful glimpse of her gardening success.

This story, so charmingly illustrated by the author, is a pleasing expression of a child’s imagination. She clearly enjoys spending time with her mother, and has learned more than a thing or two; yet she is permitted to dig and dream, improve and imagine all on her own. She takes those timeless skills and gives them a cheerful twist. The wonder she creates would take even the grumpiest gardener back to the halcyon days of a childhood summer.

My Garden is a dreamy readaloud for toddlers through the early grades. The pictures are large and simple enough – and the story short enough – to make this a very good choice to read out to a group at a story time or birthday party. For children who can sit in your lap and see closer, there is a small detail which I particularly appreciate: both the sketched outlines of the illustrations and the words of the text are printed in a dark royal blue rather than black. It’s a subtle difference, but it makes these pages tremendously inviting.

May you enjoy these last few days of summer in a garden, with a book in your hands and a child in your lap.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: All In A Day by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Nikki McClure

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