March is Women's History Month, so it seems just the right time to examine three children's books detailing the lives of women in the Bible.
Let's begin with "Tapestries: Stories of Women in the Bible" (Little Brown, $15.95), a book that puts a spotlight on 23 different women in the Bible, from well-known characters like Jesus' mother, Mary, to lesser-known women like Jael and Rahab.
Author-illustrator Ruth Sanderson's text offers an easy-to-read look at each woman and the role she played in biblical history. Some of the stories are quite short--barely half a page. Others are longer and provide a more complete portrait.
The story of Jael, for example, is brief but gory (something that will appeal to children of a certain age!). Sanderson writes that Jael's husband was at peace with King Jabin of Hazor, who held the people of Israel as slaves. After Jabin's general, Sisera, was defeated on the battlefield (with the help of Deborah, one of Israel's judges), Jael took him in. Then, as the exhausted Sisera slept, Jael "took a tent peg and a hammer and drove it into his head, and so he died."
A rather ghostly Old Testament story included in "Tapestries" focuses on the Witch of Endor, who was desperately consulted by King Saul as he sought to defeat the Philistines in battle. By asking the witch to conjure up spirits from the dead to advise him, however, King Saul broke religious law, and he was killed on the battlefield the next day.
Sanderson also tells the tales of New Testament women like Phoebe, who risked her life to deliver one of Paul's letters to the Romans, and Pontius Pilate's wife Procula, whose troubled dream about Jesus led her husband to try to convince the Jews to set him free.
As Sanderson has attempted to weave together the life-threads of these biblical women, she has also carried that symbolism through to her illustrations, which have the look of richly embroidered tapestries. The illustrations, done in deep earth tones, add extra depth to Sanderson's biographical sketches.
"Tapestries" would appeal primarily to Christian families, since there are stories of women in both the Old and New Testaments. Not all of these stories offer a lesson for young readers; in Jael's case, for example, she is mentioned in the Bible because of her brutal murder of Sisera. Yet the stories are important because they fill in the blanks that so many religious books leave when they focus only on male characters. (Ages 7-10)
While Sanderson's portraits rely heavily on information in the Bible, author Sandy Eisenberg Sasso has taken the opposite approach in "But God Remembered" (Jewish Lights, $16.95).
Sasso, a rabbi and regular columnist for Beliefnet, creates her own biographies of four women from the Bible and popular legend by using the Hebrew device known as "midrash." Using this technique, Sasso takes a snippet of text from the Bible and then creates an entire story from it.
For example, from just a few biblical details, Sasso crafts a marvelously complex portrait of Bityah, Pharoh's daughter who adopted Moses as a baby. She also does the same for Lilith, the first woman in the garden of Eden, who was determined to have men and women treat each other as equals; Serach, whose beautiful music reveals to Jacob that his beloved son was alive and well in Egypt; and the five daughters of Zelophehad, who successfully challenged the Israelites' tradition that only men could own land.
Sasso's stories are lyrically written and offer a highly creative way of approaching the role of women in the Bible. Her text is complemented by the vivid illustrations of Bethanne Andersen.
Although it's based only on Old Testament stories, Sasso's book would appeal to both Christian and Jewish families. In fact, Sasso is best known as a writer of ecumenical books that appeal to people of many faiths.
Some more-traditional families might be put off by the gently feminist tone of Sasso's stories. Most readers, however, will enjoy this different look at some interesting women. (Ages 9 up)
In "Mary's Story" (Barefoot Books, $16.95), author Sarah Jane Boss presents a lively portrait of the woman who is perhaps the best-known female character in the Bible.
Boss, who is a theologian and writer in Great Britain, has drawn from the Bible and several other sources, including folklore, to write a seamless tale of the life of Mary. While most children's books about Mary present her as a hopelessly perfect goody-goody, Boss' story attempts to show Mary as a more human character.
Although we can easily see how special she is, Boss' Mary also likes the things many of us like: dancing, going to parties, spending time with family. Through Boss' evocative narration, we feel Mary's overwhelming joy at the birth of Jesus and her awful sorrow at his death. This, finally, is a Mary with whom we can identify, a story that will both interest and inspire children.
Helen Cann's illustrations, done with watercolor, graphite, and collage, sparkle with life, perfectly capturing the vibrant spirit of Mary in this book. Christian families will be most interested in this book, although some more-traditional readers may disapprove of this more-secular portrayal of Mary. (Ages 7-10)