The story of Jesus’ Passion, death on the cross, and resurrection is at the heart of our Christian faith and worship. Yet this is a challenging and difficult story for parents to share with children. The same baby Jesus whom we celebrate in carols and pageants at Christmas, and who grows up in wisdom and power to teach, to heal, to preach God’s love for all people, to tell stories of how God seeks out the least and the lost—this same Jesus suffers a violent and shameful death at the hands of the political and religious authorities.
The end of the story, of course, is the joy of Christ’s resurrection, and our own participation in his risen life. And yet, there is no way to get to Easter morning that does not pass by the Cross.
Complicating this for progressive Christian parents is that many children’s books on the Easter story emphasize a heavy-handed version of atonement theology (God demanded Christ’s sacrificial death in humankind’s place because of sin), or contain subtle or not-so-subtle anti-Semitism in the way Jewish authorities are depicted or described. Some of us may have our own “baggage” around the Passion story from faith backgrounds that depicted Jesus’ death graphically and seemed to revel in the gore and extreme suffering of the Crucifixion. It’s easy to see why many parents would rather gloss over the events of Holy Week altogether, and reach instead for blessedly simple chocolate bunnies and jellybeans.
Still, I believe it is important to include a storybook on the Easter story in the Easter basket, or to read one together during Lent. I want to give my children a Christian inheritance that acknowledges both the reality of evil and suffering, and the reality of God’s love for us. Though it winds through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, the Easter story is ultimately a story of how God’s love overcomes evil, for all time. It is a story of sacrifice, friendship, compassion, forgiveness, and new life despite what seemed like total and overwhelming loss. It is the story we will live into our whole lives as Jesus’ disciples.
Though they are not always easy to find, below are several books with sensitive, moving language and beautiful illustrations that will provide a good starting place for family reflection on this great mystery of our faith.
It is difficult to find quality books on the Easter story for young children (as opposed to cultural celebrations of egg-dyeing, lilies and Easter clothes). So it is especially disappointing that my two favorites, recently purchased, seem also recently to have gone out of print. If you can snatch one of these up used, do. If not, perhaps the publishers can be persuaded to bring them back.
The beautifully colorful illustrations of the board book My First Pictures of Easter by Maïte Roche (Ignatius Press) echo traditional Christian iconography. Instead of a narrative, there is a crowd scene for each day of Holy Week on the left, and individual illustrations of elements of the tableau on the right. The illustrations of Jesus on the Cross, and of Mary and Jesus’ friends with his body, are tender and sad instead of graphic. Because the figures are in traditional poses, my preschooler made the connection between the illustration of the resurrected Jesus with Mary Magdalene and a stained glass window of the same scene at our church. I especially love the last illustration of a parish celebrating the Easter Vigil.
Bible Story Time’s The First Easter (text by Sophie Piper, illustrations by Estelle Corke; Lion Children’s Press) uses simple language to tell the whole story, including Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple, and ending with Pentecost. The Crucifixion is seen from a distance. The illustrations, as in all the books of this well-done series, are engaging without being overly cartoon-like. My preschooler was a bit annoyed that the angels at the tomb were in white but didn’t have wings, though I admit I enjoyed that touch. (This series seems to come in and out of availability, but there are a number of used copies available.)
For First Grade and Up
The Easter Story by Antonia Jackson (Lion Children’s) features the luminescent illustrations of Giuliano Ferri, who has illustrated a number of religious books for children. His version of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane is particularly evocative and memorable. The language is simple, but less informal than The First Easter. This retelling includes the Emmaus story, and the breakfast on the beach where Jesus forgives Peter’s denial. My 2nd grader read this story to himself and lingered over several illustrations. (Giulliano Ferri has also illustrated Jesus by Anselm Grün, published by Eerdman’s Young Readers.)
The illustrator Brian Wildsmith’s The Easter Story features highly-stylized and gilded illustrations, with every page graced by hovering rainbow-hued angels. Wildsmith’s version is as much work of art as sacred retelling of the Gospel.
For all ages
Make Room: A Child’s Guide to Lent and Easter (by Laura Alary, illustrated by Ann Boyajian; Paraclete Press) weaves elements of the Gospel story together with an explanation of the observance of Lent, Holy Week and Easter in both the home and the parish. The language will especially resonate with children who participate in Godly Play. (“At supper we cross our arms this way and pray that the Kingdom of God will come. I wonder how this will happen? Maybe the Kingdom of God starts very small but grows bigger and bigger so slowly we hardly notice.”) There is a nice emphasis on practicing simplicity, and parents reading along will take away many straightforward suggestions for observing Lent as a family and describing the services of Holy Week.
Jesus’ message is summarized for young children with poignant directness: “Some people did not like the way Jesus made room. Look at him, they said. He chooses the wrong friends. He should know better. He cannot be a good man if he spends time with bad people. But Jesus kept inviting people in. Through what he said and what he did he sent this message: We can always make the circle bigger. There is room for all around God’s table.”
What is your favorite retelling of the Easter story for children?