"The Lord's Prayer"
Illustrated by Tim Ladwig

"A Stowaway on Noah's Ark"
By Charles Santore
Random House

"Because Nothing Looks Like God"
By Lawrence Kushner and Karen Kushner
Jewish Lights

"Witches' Night of Fear"
By Silver Ravenwolf

In 1993, Tim Ladwig won great acclaim in 1993 for his picture book "Psalm Twenty-Three," which depicted two small African American children resting in the Psalm's promises as they navigate the inner city. Ladwig modernized the psalm's familiar lines with a canny aptness, illustrating the "valley of the shadow of death," for instance, as a dim street corner peopled by surly characters.

Tim Ladwig is back with "The Lord's Prayer," which takes much the same approach, interpreting the prayer in fresh ways through the eyes of an African American girl and her father who team up to help an elderly woman. "On earth as it is in heaven," reads the text, as Ladwig depicts the two helpers, in overalls and carrying garden tools, showing up at their friend's door. They accept no payment for their labors ("forgive us our debts"). Ladwig's deep faith resonates from the creativity apparent on every page of this book.

Two other picture books also try to marry vivid illustration with memorable spiritual texts, but with less delightful results. In "A Stowaway on Noah's Ark," Charles Santore retells the story of Noah's Ark from the perspective of a mouse. The illustrations are strong--note the craggy, gnarled face of Noah, or the shadows of overhead birds on the turtles' shells--and small children will get a thrill from searching out the diminutive mouse hiding on every page.

But the power of Santore's pen outdoes his storytelling, which isn't of the same quality. After "The Mouse's Tale," which tells the story of Jesus' birth from the lowly-mouse POV, there would seem to be no need for another mouse-as-narrator-of-biblical-events storybook. (Then again, we all know what happens when you give a mouse a cookie. There will likely be more books of this ilk.)

Lawrence and Karen Kushner elucidate a sweet panentheism (God is in everything; not to be confused with pantheism--God is everything) in "Because Nothing Looks Like God." Illustrated with vividly colored but basic watercolors throughout, "Because Nothing." answers a series of theological questions (Where is God? What does God look like? How does God make things happen?), attempting to explain God's presence in terms that small children will understand: God is in cookies fresh from the oven, in a worn baby blanket, in "birdchirp, frogsong and chattering squirrels," in "the Band-Aid fix-up after a fall." In short, it asserts, "God is wherever we let God in."

The Kushners' illustrations are so determinedly multicultural--Native American and Asian family portraits crowd in with scenes in which kids of all races play happily--that they feel a bit forced, but the book's heart is certainly in the right place.

For young adults, there's "Witches' Night of Fear," the second book in Wiccan priestess Silver Ravenwolf's fiction series for teens. The novels center on Bethany, Tillie, and Nam, a coven of three high school girls who dedicate themselves to learning the Craft. They get help from Ramona, Bethany's West Indian nanny. If giggly teenage girls convincing a Caribbean servant to teach them magic sounds a bit too much like the witchcraft trials of 1692, at least Ravenwolf has a sly sense of humor about it: Bethany's last name is Salem.

"Witches' Night of Fear," which opens at a Halloween party featuring the typical adolescent assortment of nerds, druggies, and popular kids, concerns a murder that Bethany sees in a disturbing psychic vision. Bethany and her friends set out to catch the killer, all the while dealing with pretty serious adolescent angst: parental abandonment, an eating disorder, and an abusive boyfriend are all in the book; other characters suffer from drug abuse, their parents' extramarital affairs, their teenage lovers' infidelities, and domestic violence. Whew! Oh, and of course they also experience the usual pressures: trying to get good grades and wondering what in the heck to do when they grow up.

Where, it might be asked, are these kids' folks amid all this trauma? In the style of Nancy Drew and other teen queens (Belle and the Little Mermaid also come to mind), Bethany's mother is conveniently dead, making her daughter at once a sympathetic character and one who enjoys a nice amount of freedom. Like Mr. Drew, Bethany's dear old dad is a workaholic who occupies Bethany's thoughts but not much of her day-to-day life. (A police officer in New York City, he keeps Bethany upstate because she's so much "safer" there. He is, of course, clueless.)

But the Nancy Drew similarities end there, since Ravenwolf's characters are in such very real danger. By book's end, there is a distressingly high body count, courtesy of a couple of different cold-blooded teen killers. Nancy never had it this bad.

Then again, Nancy never got to use witchcraft, either. Some of the coolest scenes in the book occur when Bethany and friends are learning how to cast spells and recognize their magickal gifts. In an afterword, Ravenwolf explains that she wanted to "devise a world where teens use real magick, not the fairy-tale stuff." Bethany and her friends lack supernatural powers, she adds, because "conjuring magick is a skill that one acquires after hard work and practice."

It goes without saying that parents who believe that neo-pagan spirituality is of the devil shouldn't bring home "Witches' Night of Fear." Unlike the Harry Potter books, for example, Ravenwolf's book actually encourages kids to explore witchcraft as a viable belief system. But teens who have a taste for the occult will relish the book, and look forward to the sequel that is due out in May.

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