Illustrator: Tomie dePaola
Author: Caryll Houselander
Age Category: 3 to 5 years +
Genre: Picture Books
Creating good traditional Easter stories for children is difficult for a couple of reasons. First, the traditional story is quite violent, so a graphically illustrated version of the story could be quite shocking or disturbing for a young child. Second, the deep significance of the story can be pretty complicated for a young child, and so creating a picture book that tells the story in a way that is both true to New Testament theology and understandable for a young child is challenging.
Some picture books navigate these challenges by simply presenting the text from one (or several) of the Gospels along with illustrations that are not overly detailed. I think Easter: The King James Version
However, as I see it, the trouble with Easter stories for children that take this approach is that the text of the New Testament—especially in King James Version—is pretty difficult to understand for young children (hard enough for adults!), and pictures without much detail are not as interesting to look at. (Incidentally, if you would like to read something close to the New Testament story to younger children—say, 5-to-10-year-olds—I recommend The Child’s Story Bible
Thus, I prefer Easter picture books that show the religious meaning of Easter through an illustrated story, but that do not just give the New Testament text itself. One such Easter picture book is Petook: An Easter Story
Easter Stories for Children: Petook
Petook: An Easter Story
The second part of the story is many years later, when Petook and Martha are old, and Jesus is about to die. Again, Martha is sitting on a nest of eggs. As Petook waits for his new clutch of chicks to hatch he observes the events of Easter playing out in the distant background of the illustrations—the mob in the garden of Gethsemane, the three crosses on the hill, and the empty tomb. Finally—with all the world waiting for new life to burst forth—the first of Martha’s chicks hatches and Petook crows triumphantly, over and over again: “It was Easter Morning.”
Subjective Appeal: Beautiful Illustrations, Appealing Story
The subjective appeal of this Easter picture book—i.e., what makes it attractive to children—lies centrally in its illustrations. In Tomie dePaola’s typical style, the illustrations are relatively simple colorful line drawings, yet they include details such as the footprints of the young boy on the grass, and the discarded linen burial wrappings in the empty tomb, that make the pictures interesting to look at and talk about for a child. Also, by putting the story about hatching chicks in the foreground and the events of the Easter story in the distant background, the illustrations do a fantastic job of shielding children from the troubling parts of the Easter story, while still telling it and communicating its significance in an attractive way.
The story itself is also appealing, despite its simplicity. Young children love farm animals, and so a story about a proud rooster father and his family is always fun. However, I think the real magic of the story is the symbolic link between the story about the chickens and the Easter story running in the background. Since young children are not likely to get much of the symbolism right away, one caveat about this book is that the adult reader will have to do some showing and explaining for a young child to see the real significance of the story.
For example, if an adult reader talks through the various events of the Easter story happening in the background of the illustrations, I think the story will come alive to a child in a deeper way. It might be particularly interesting for an adult to explain the connection between the new life of the hatching chicks, and the new life that the Resurrection brings according to the Christian story. As Tomie dePaola puts it in his brief comments on the book, the story “breathes new life into the age-old symbol of the Easter egg, helping the reader become aware that it is more than just the tasty chocolate treat that we associate with Easter today.”
Developmental Value: Religious Teaching, Literary Quality
For families that are so inclined, the many allusions to the New Testament Easter story in this Easter picture book provide a rich opportunity for religious teaching. For example, the story portrays Martha’s gathering of her chicks under her wings as the source of Jesus’s later lament that he would have gathered Jerusalem under his wings, but that the hard-hearted city would not have it. Also, when Petook crows at dawn on the day of Jesus’s crucifixion, the background of the illustration shows what seems to be Peter denying Jesus. Petook’s crowing, then, is the third crowing before which Jesus said Peter would deny him three times.
The literary quality of the book is also very high. Indeed, this Easter picture book feels a bit like a poem: its evocative language communicates the depth of the Easter story indirectly, through beauty. For example, after a long dark Thursday night, the dawn of Good Friday is described like this: “But suddenly there came a break in the sky and like a red wound morning came.” Here the wound in the sky foreshadows the crucifixion in a beautiful and profound way. This literary quality nicely supports the development of good literary taste in children. In fact, while the story is appropriate for 3-to-5-year-olds, the nuances of the language will have developmental value even for 6-to-7-year-olds (though adult readers may have to work harder to hold a 6-to-7-year-old’s interest in the story).
In sum, I think Petook: An Easter Story
Have you read Petook: An Easter Story to your children? Did they like it? Tell me why or why not in a comment; I would love to hear from you.