by Rev. Amy Parsons Vaughn
Looking for a new way to begin discussion in your small group? Need a comforting starter for a committee dealing with an uncomfortable topic? Want to add a fresh dimension to your Sunday School lessons? Consider using Picture Book Theology (PBT). Hanna Schock, a member of First United Methodist Church in Birmingham, has created a blog you'll find helpful at www.picturebooktheology.blogspot.com.
Making use of a suggestion from Hanna’s PBT blog, I recently shared a book called In God's Hands by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and Gary Schmidt to begin the annual work of our congregation’s Lay Leadership (Nominating) committee. The book's two main characters each bring their gifts to serve one another and beyond. It was a playful and reflective offering as we entered again into discerning gifts for ministry in our congregation.
I recommend you to the section "About Picture Books" on the blog itself for an evocative introduction to the power of picture books in Christian education and formation ministries at all age levels. I had a chance to talk with Hanna more specifically about using picture books in adult ministries.
APV: What is Picture Book Theology and why did you start a blog?
HS: While attending the Academy for Spiritual Formation, a program of The Upper Room, I was required to do a project that would serve others. I had always found picture books to be useful tools in my volunteer work in Christian Education and spiritual formation. A blog seemed to be the most efficient way to demonstrate the efficacy of picture books in ministry to a large, ecumenical audience.
My choice to offer a picture book a day for a year was a dramatic gesture to demonstrate the validity of what I am proposing: that public libraries (that means free!) are full of potential resources for ministry appropriate for all ages in the form of secular picture books. For instance, many adults know the book The Three Questions (Day 16 on the PBT blog) written and illustrated by Jon Muth and based on a story by Leo Tolstoy. Muth has several books which offer further rich ministry possibilities. This year at my church, Rev. Stephanie Arnold used Muth’s version of the traditional tale Stone Soup (Day 4 on the PBT blog) twice in her adult ministry. The DVD version was at the library so she showed it to inspire our Justice and Mercy Team. Then to launch our “Good Food for All” program this year, a focus on justice issues surrounding food, Stephanie played the DVD again in our modern worship service. It’s a beautiful rendition of a timeless story about a fearful village being encouraged to be a community again by sharing ingredients for a common meal. How’s that for a church lesson!
APV: How do you see stories helping connect us to God?
HS: I view our Holy Scriptures as our story with God, and I view our personal stories as our best and primary tool for connecting to others, the world, to God, and even to those Holy Scriptures. Jesus demonstrated this so well with his parables. Picture books offer great potential for those same kinds of story connections. Think of the old classic The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (Day 68). For those of us of at a certain age who read that book in our youth, that generous and sacrificial tree powerfully represented Christ for us in a way that was novel and memorable.
APV: Why do you review mostly secular picture books?
HS: Picture books about specific religious stories, characters, and concepts are easily accessed via search engines, on-line, and at local libraries. In contrast, the subjects of secular picture books are more subtle so that accessing those books is more difficult. I do include what I call “God-books,” which are sacred but not explicitly religious, neither doctrinal nor preachy. They offer a valuable exploration of God’s nature in ways that are broad enough to fit into many theological contexts. A well-known example is Old Turtle by Douglas Wood, a story of animals struggling with their ego-centered images of God. There is a sequel to this book that is just as powerful: Old Turtle and the Broken Truth. (Days 27 and 28)
APV: When might PBT be especially beneficial or relevant?
HS: Sometimes an emotional event happens in a religious group such as a crisis, tragedy, illness or death. Using picture books to talk about difficult subjects is particularly non-threatening and helpful to sooth hurts, dispel fears, and encourage conversation. For a church in financial crisis, I would recommend A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams (Day 119), which is about a family who lost everything in a fire and how they are patiently working hard to purchase a comfortable chair for the hard-working mom of the family. The Tsunami Quilt by Anthony D. Fredericks (Day 201) and The Extraordinary Music of Mr. Ives by Joanne Stanbridge (Day 122) are both about cathartic artistic responses to a devastating tragedy.
APV: What book would you recommend for each of these ministry contexts, and where are these books reviewed on the blog?
Beginning a short term class on parenting? I can easily think of three: Koala Lou by Mem Fox (Day 192) which encourages quality time and deals with competition and perfectionism, I Love You Stinky Face by Lisa McCort (Day 137) which is a silly book all about unconditional love and connects with our Creator God’s love for us. Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes (Day 127) encourages affirmation and deals with identity issues and peer problems.
Use in a women's retreat? There is a picture book designed for women about women’s friendships. She Taught Me to Eat Artichokes: A Discovery of the Heart of Friendship by Mary Kay Shanley (Day 90) is the story of an actual beginning to a friendship and offers much in the way of exploring that topic for adult women.
Sharing with a grief group? I would recommend The Goodbye Boat by Mary Joslin (Day 36) which is not specifically about death, but is definitely about loss and the process of saying goodbye. There is Owl Moon by Jane Yolen (Day 57) about a young girl’s night search for owls with her father or Singing Away the Dark by Caroline Woodward (Day 193), a true story of how a young girl had to walk through the woods in the dark to the school bus. These last two would require a more symbolic exploration where you would guide the connections. Then there is Leo Buscaglia’s The Fall of Freddie the Leaf (Day 168), a classic.
Illustrating a lesson on the Psalms? There are many picture books of the Psalms that are not on my blog because I focus on secular books. However, I have recently featured Give Thanks to the Lord by Karma Wilson (Day 220), which was written to celebrate Psalm 92. For a more conceptual focus, consider the well-known Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Jane Yolen (Day 170) for an exploration of lamentations in the Psalms and When Sophie Gets Angry-Really, Really Angry by Molly Bang (Day 45) for an exploration of anger in the Psalms and the comforting presence of God, particularly in nature.
Reading at a multi-generational Lenten event? There are so many picture books that emphasize cross-generational relationships, but when I think of Lent, I think of darkness, sacrifice, and struggle so I would suggest these: Knots on a Counting Rope by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault (Day 66) emphasizes identity stories and resilience. Then there are Patricia Polacca’s two books about her family’s immigration from Russia, The Blessing Cup and The Keeping Quilt (Days 125 and 126). These are both about how ritual helps us unite, remember, and persevere.
APV: Thank you Hanna! I'll close with a quote from www.picturebooktheology.blogspot.com:
"When thinking of much-loved picture books, the books we recall are often brimming with emotions. Underneath the emotions between the lines of those books, there is sometimes a personal connection with the story or a character. Because of the picture book, we learn a thing or two about being a more hopeful, more loving, and more fully-human person. In broad terms, isn’t that what growing theologically is all about?”