Friday, December 17, 2010

Doubt and Faith

There are so few Christmas-themed books aimed at teens, and I’m hard pressed to think of any with the staying power of Katherine Paterson’s Angels & Other Strangers. The nine short stories here focus on young people and adults experiencing the kinds of crises of faith that often creep up during adolescence—and a single event that brings about a change in perspective.

Over the years, many of the teens and adults I’ve spoken with have described going through their catechism, confirmation, bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah—a rite of passage at the center of their communities of faith designed to welcome them in—and finding themselves questioning that very community. It’s such a common experience of adolescence, yet we rarely talk about it amongst ourselves or with teens. We become complicit in a silent agreement that in “polite society” we don’t discuss religion or politics. But books like Katherine Paterson’s can help young people feel less isolated if they’re experiencing a sense of alienation from their religion, and to know that doubt is part of developing a lasting faith.

Many of our country’s citizens came to our shores to escape religious persecution. Not just the Puritan pilgrims, but throughout history—Jewish families seeking refuge during World War II, Muslim refugees from Kosovo, the subject of Paterson’s The Day of the Pelican. Growing up in a family that practices religion is not always easy. Communities are made up of individuals, and a teenager who questions his or her religion does not always feel there are places to go to talk about those questions. And the wide range of religions and cultures in America also make us feel that we’re in a largely secular society, making teens feel they must be believers in secret.

Books like Katherine Paterson’s let teens know they’re not alone, that there are many stages within a religious practice, and that it’s also normal to doubt. Some of the characters in these nine stories are in a crisis of faith, like Carol, the mother in “Tidings of Joy.” Others are in a period of doubt, like Carl, the father in “Star of Night.” Or they have only ever known doubt and fear, like Genevieve, the foster child in “Maggie’s Gift.” But in each story, one honest act of compassion or generosity—often from a child—leads the questioning adult or child to a place of hope, and perhaps on the road to a more lasting feeling of faith. For those times when we feel alone and faithless, these characters make good companions.

Friday, December 10, 2010

A Trusty Companion

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Eva Nine in The Search for WondLa, written and illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi, feels certain that there are other human beings like her. She is forced outside of the Sanctuary she shares with her robot guardian Muthr, and finds other creatures, but they too look nothing like her. The elegant two-tone double-page illustrations that open each chapter pull you into this futuristic world where things are out of balance, and Eva is trying to find out why.

It’s a quest story with a girl at the center, surrounded by her trusted creatures, most notably Rovender Kitt (the blue-hued rabbit-like Caerulean) but also Otto (the armored water bear). These creatures, both male, and the fast-paced adventure and advanced weapons will keep boys, too, glued to the pages. (Plus there’s an augmented reality feature: if you have a Web cam and go to to download the software, you can experience WondLa-Vision—by holding up several spreads from the book, you can see a 3-D map of Orbona. But that’s an added bonus to a completely satisfying straight reading experience.)

The Search for WondLa is an example of beautiful bookmaking—a thick volume with creamy pages into which you and your youngsters can happily escape over the winter break when the days are short and a great story makes the best companion through the long winter nights.

Friday, December 3, 2010

A Birthday Party for Jesus

Who knew that the story of the birth of Jesus could be told so simply yet so completely? In The Child in the Manger, Liesbet Slegers distills the events related in the Gospel of Luke to their barest elements. Mary and Joseph are on a journey: “They knocked on many doors. But nobody would take them in.” They are grateful to find a stable “because Mary wanted to lie down. She felt that her child would be born soon.” Slegers’s version is an example of superb storytelling because she never loses sight of her audience.

In a recent interview, Liesbet Slegers talked about her approach to The Child in the Manger, and she said that she took her story into the schools as she was working on it (from the link to the interview, you may also read the book throughout the month of December online free). She said she read it over and over again to “test my ‘book to be,’ ” to make sure it was connecting with her audience. Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight Moon, did the same thing. She went into New York City classrooms and tried out her stories with the students.

Slegers captures the sense of wonder at the birth of Jesus, with the angel, the shepherds, and the three kings all playing their parts in the story. And then she brings that sense of wonder into a context that’s familiar to children. The idea of Christmas as a birthday party for Jesus, at which we all get presents, is one that nearly every child can comprehend—and celebrate!