Tag Archives: Book Review

Gleanings from a Book: “Icon” by Georgia Briggs

I did not want this book to end. That is the first time in a long time that I’ve read a book and felt that way. “Icon” by Georgia Briggs may be aimed at young adults, but it is no ordinary young-adult-aimed fiction book, and is a great read for adults as well.

The story line in this book is believable, though fictional, and I found it hard to put the book down because of both the story line and the Orthodox insights throughout the book. “Icon” is the moving story of a young Orthodox Christian girl in a era similar to our own, except that in this dystopian tale (set in 0000 ET, “Era of Tolerance,” with flashbacks to the Pascha before ET began), it is suddenly no longer legal to be a Christian, most especially an Orthodox one. “Icon” is a story of loss, finding, miracles, death, light, and restoration, written so believably that the reader thinks “this could really happen!” It is a gripping story of Faith put to the test.

This book challenges its readers to think about their own Faith. What if all that we currently do and take for granted with regard to our Faith were suddenly illegal and we were being watched at every turn? What if our family members died/disappeared simply because of their Faith? What if we were left alone and had to move to new surroundings and change even our very name to one unassociated with our Faith? And what if all of this happened to us at the tender age of 12? My guess is that many of us would not react with the same endurance that Euphrosyne does. (But neither is this one of those books that glosses everything over. Euphrosyne definitely struggles with doubt and temptation all along the way, and the reader struggles along with her, knowing what she ought to do, but also understanding the reality of what will happen if she stands strong for her Faith!) The book is written so realistically that one almost feels the need to keep an eye out for “traps” in his/her own life after reading it.

After reading Euphrosyne’s struggles and then thinking through the questions that those struggles point to, the reader is left with the determination to take nothing about the Faith for granted. Readers will continue to realize the blessing that icons are in their life, whether the human-written ones or the icons that are still wearing the flesh that God Himself wrote. When a reader makes the sign of the cross, they will ponder the “streaks of light” that Euphrosyne could “see” traced over her Orthodox friends’ chests near the end of the book. The Divine Liturgy will not be the “same old” liturgy so easily taken for granted… I could go on and on (at the risk of divulging too much of the story) with ways that the reader will be challenged to ponder their faith. Suffice it to say that this book makes its readers really think about their Faith and then value it like never before.

I would encourage families of middle-grade-years or older children to get their hands on this book as soon as you can. Parents should read it first (it won’t take you too long: as I mentioned before, it is hard to put down!), in order to have a grasp on what is coming, and to best know which of your children would benefit most from reading it next. Or, if you can, after reading it yourself, read the book aloud together as a family (if everyone in your family could handle it – but only you will know that). Regardless of how you read this book, be sure to talk together about it after you read. This book can help to strengthen your family’s Faith when you read and discuss it!
Chances are, when you finish this read, you will hope along with me that author Georgia Briggs will write again, and soon!

Purchase your own copy of “Icon” here: http://store.ancientfaith.com/icon-a-novel/

Learn more about author Georgia Briggs here: https://georgiabriggsauthor.wordpress.com/

Here are some quotes from different parts of “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, along with suggestions of what your family could discuss at that part of the book. (With apologies for spoilers, which are difficult to avoid with this book!) We hope that these selections can help to give you an idea of the types of discussions that your family can have while reading this book:
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“My hands shake as I reach to pick the icon [of St. Nicholas] up. It’s small and light in my hands. I turn it sideways. It’s only about a quarter of an inch thick, but the bullet hasn’t gone all the way through… I was holding it in front of me when he fired the gun… It must’ve stopped the bullet, and the force blew it through my hands and knocked me over… I sit back down on the ground and gaze at the icon. St. Nicholas looks so calm. The bullet in his chest bothers me. I start to pick at it with my fingernails, trying to pry it loose… It’s wedged in tightly, but after a few minutes I manage to work it out. A thin trickle of blood runs from the hole in the saint’s chest.” ~ “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, pp. 30-31

This experience of Euphrosyne’s offers your family the opportunity to discuss miracles wrought by icons. What miracles do you know of? Take time to research and learn about more. God is at work through His saints, and sometimes even through their icons!
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“All this is so fake, I think, looking around at the plastic plants and uncomfortable chairs. Everything about this world is fake and watered down—the holidays, the people, the ‘just accept everybody’ thing that Dr. Snead keeps telling me. How do they all live in this place and not go crazy? My grandparents, Miss Linda, the other kids in school. Do they really believe this is all there is?

Maybe I know better because of what I’ve been through. Or maybe I’m just crazy and trying to make it all mean something.” ~ from “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, p. 74

Take some time to discuss Euphrosyne’s thoughts on her world. What do you think of what she thinks? Have you ever thought something similar about your own world? How does the world – even as it is right now – compare to the Heavenly Kingdom, God’s kingdom?

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“No one’s watching me.

I dance around a little, twirling and leaping, the ice squeaking under my feet. Soon my socks are wet and I’m breathing hard, but I don’t care. I twirl again and slip and fall. I lie back and make a snow angel…

…I look up at the dark sky without meaning to, like I’m going to see God up there or something.

No God in sight, but a few stars blink back at me.

For some reason it’s easier to believe in God when you’re standing alone in the snow on a cold morning and looking at the stars.” ~ from “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, p. 77

Ask your family why they think the author put a snow scene into this story (which is set in Alabama). What could it symbolize? How does the snow purify or refresh Euphrosyne? What do you think of the last statement? Have you ever had a similar experience? When?
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“When I notice the other priest in the altar, I can’t remember whether he’s been there all along and I just wasn’t paying attention. He’s helping Father Innocent like a deacon or one of the altar boys, but he’s about a foot taller than Father Innocent and he seems… different. Brighter, or more colorful or something. I wish I could get a glimpse of his face. He’s robed in red, not gold like the others, and he has a white stole with blue crosses draped around his neck and over one shoulder.

…Now that I look around, though, there are strange people in the congregation too. More people than were here when liturgy started. …Am I going crazy? Does nobody else see this?

…Everything around me is getting greyer and greyer. Everything except the icons and the strangers. I can see them better now. They seem to fill every corner of the room. They’re all different ages, some young, some old, their faces shining. Some wear crowns, many hold crosses in their hands. Some are dressed in rags, but they’re so beautiful that the rags seem beautiful too.” ~ from “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, pp. 154-155

After reading this passage, talk together about who you think Euphrosyne is seeing in this part of the story. Discuss the reality of the saints’ and angels’ presence in the Divine Liturgy every time we celebrate it together. How does it make you feel? Does it make you want to change anything about the way in which you attend the Divine Liturgy? If so, what?

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“‘I’m Shamar,’ he says, ‘I’m your guardian angel.’

Right away I remember the icon that used to hang between my bed and Kat’s, of the curly-haired angel in blue robes and a red cloak, the one carrying a sword.

‘So you’ve been here all along?’ I ask.

Shamar nods. ‘Ever since you were baptized.’

‘You were old enough to be a guardian angel then?’ He can’t be more than seventeen or eighteen years old.

‘I’m a lot older than I look,’ he says with a smile.

‘Oh.’ It’s weird to think he’s been watching me my whole life. I think of all the stupid things I’ve done, all the times I was mean to Kat or whined to Mom and Dad. It’s kind of embarrassing.” ~ from “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, p. 189

Talk together as a family about guardian angels. How long has each member of your family’s guardian angel been guarding him/her? Encourage each other to think about the fact that your angel is with you always and sees what you do, while also protecting you. Take a moment to pray the prayer to your guardian angel, thanking them for their protection and love. Find the prayer here: http://www.orthodoxprayer.org/OtherPrayers.html

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“When I get close, I realize I can see more than just the stuff on the outside. I can see her soul too. And it makes me sad. Its silver glow has dark scars across it. There’s a jagged rip over her heart and another on her right hand, the hand she’s holding over her face as she cries. The one across her heart looks old, but the one on her hand is fresh. I hover beside her, trying to touch her.

‘Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.’ she whispers over and over again. She makes the sign of the cross, and her fingers leave a trail of light that lingers for a moment before disappearing.”  ~ from “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, p. 195

Talk together about this passage after reading it. Why do you think her soul glows? Where did the scars come from? Why do her fingers leave a trail of light when she crosses herself? How does this make you think differently about your own soul and your own prayers?

 

Through the Eyes of a Young Reader: “Queen Abigail the Wise” by Grace Brooks

You may remember the blog post we published about the recently-published Orthodox children’s book, “Queen Abigail the Wise,” by Grace Brooks. Our blog post was published in May 2015. (If you did not get a chance to read the blog before, find it here: https://orthodoxchristianparenting.wordpress.com/2016/05/25/gleanings-from-a-book-queen-abigail-the-wise-by-grace-brooks/.

We are in the new calendar year, which means that Great Lent is not too far off. The entire story of “Queen Abigail the Wise” takes place during Great Lent. We are revisiting the book in this blog post for two reasons. First and foremost refers to my statement in the first blog post about the book, “I must share this book with my 10-year-old goddaughter.” I did exactly that, and gave my then-10-year-old goddaughter Hope her own copy to read. After she read the book, we got together and talked about it. I thought you may be interested to hear Hope’s perspective on the book, not just mine, so here it is! (Mind you, there are spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t say we didn’t warn you about them!)

When Hope and I got together to discuss this book, I came with a series of questions for her. I tried to think of questions that would help “grownups” have a sense of how relative and enjoyable the book is for a young Orthodox Christian. (As you may have read in the prior blog post, the book is geared to children, but I found it to be uplifting even though I am an adult. I thought it was a great book, and I was pretty sure that Hope would like it. The older I get, though, the more I realize that what I think is nice for a person of a certain age may not necessarily sit as well with them as I thought it would. So I wanted to test this in-my-opinion-wonderful book with Hope to get her opinion of it. Here it is.)

The first question I asked Hope was whether or not she liked “Queen Abigail the Wise.” I was rewarded with the anticipated resounding “Yes!” and a huge smile on her face. Curious, I asked why, and she said, “I liked how [Abigail] had to do something to get something.” and “I like that she figured out that the young priest was the the iconographer by the end of the story.” (Remember, I already warned you that there are spoilers!)

I went on to ask Hope if there were parts of the book that she could relate to, and she said “Yes…” So I asked her which parts of the story she could relate to. She said, “Well, sometimes I get bored in church, too…” and went on to explain that she can understand how that felt to Abigail. She also said that she could relate to Abigail’s feelings at Pascha, when Abigail felt hot and cramped. Hope said that, like Abigail, she’s also not a crowd person and also, she is not hungry when she’s tired — just like Abigail.

Hope named Abigail as her favorite character in the book when asked, because, “I liked how she didn’t want to give up; and she felt bummed about missing church. I do that too sometimes. I also liked how she was willing to work hard and help others because she wanted the icon so badly.”

I couldn’t just ask about a favorite character, so I wondered aloud if Hope had a least favorite character? She said, “Well, at the beginning probably Vanessa because she seems snobby but I changed my opinion at the end. I could also say baby Jacob but he did play an important role.” (Again, spoilers! Well, almost…)

Although “Queen Abigail the Wise” is a chapter book, it contain a few illustrations. I am a visual person and love pictures, so I was delighted with the sketches: I found them charming. But, as mentioned above, I wondered if my personal theory fit with the actual practice and thus, how the illustrations would sit with a young lady of her age. So, I asked Hope if the illustrations added to the story. She said, “Yes, I like to have visuals!” (Like godmother, like goddaughter, I suppose!) But she mentioned that she wished for color, not just blackline illustrations. (I suggested that since the book is her very own, she could go through and color any illustrations that she wanted to, if she wished. A few weeks later, she came to church with her book and showed me that she had colored part of it with colored pencils! It was beautiful.)

I then asked an all-encompassing question about the theme of the book. I wondered what Hope thinks that the author, Grace Brooks, was trying to say with this story. What does Hope think is the book’s message? She give me two excellent answers: “If you set your mind to something and if you work hard you can achieve it… And no matter how much you dislike something or someone, in the end you may find that you actually love them.” Both answers were insightful. Sage words, coming from a 10-year-old.

I asked Hope if she had a favorite part of “Queen Abigail the Wise.” She answered, “The end, when Abigail gets her icon… And the way she describes the icon was pretty, too.”  I asked her if she would recommend this story to others, and she answered,”Yes!” She went on to say, “I would recommend it especially to those new to the Orthodox faith.”

Hope could not think of any part of the story that she did not like. Rather, she liked the book so much that sometimes she stayed up reading it past her bedtime! She was reading it in summer, so she could lie in bed reading until it got too dark outside to read by the snatches of light shining through her window. She got in trouble for doing so (oops!), but she really liked the book, and that’s what she does when she likes a book. (Again, like godmother, like goddaughter!)

So, as I had expected, Hope liked the book. She could relate to the characters and enjoyed learning along with them. Her experience with the story was similar to mine, and I am glad. But you’ll recall that I mentioned two reasons for this blog post, and you may be wondering about the second.

Well, the second reason I am posting about this book right now is all about timing. In a matter of weeks we will be in Great Lent again! You may want to get this book to share with an Orthodox youngster of your own, so that he/she can read it during Great Lent this year! Or perhaps you personally want to follow the related blog posts as the weeks go by: they are very challenging and encouraging for Orthodox Christians of any age! Or maybe you just want to read the book yourself, for your own growth. We’re sharing this blog post now because both Hope and I want to give you plenty of time so that you can do any (or all!) of the above!

Taking one final glimpse at my interview with Hope, my final question for her was whether or not she would be willing to read a sequel when it comes out? She answered with a resounding, “YES!.” So now there are TWO of us eagerly anticipating the second book in the “Every Tuesday Girls Club!” Our guess is that if you and/or your young Orthodox friends get a chance to read “Queen Abigail the Wise,” you will feel the same way. We certainly hope so!

Here are some important links related to the book:

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Purchase “Queen Abigail the Wise” by Grace Brooks, either for yourself or for young friends, here: https://www.amazon.com/Queen-Abigail-Wise-Grace-Brooks/dp/1518600115/  
There is also an ebook available. (But you can’t color in the illustrations of an ebook with colored pencil!)

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Meet all the girls in the “Every Tuesday Girls Club” at the Queen Abigail website: http://queenabigail.com/

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According to this blog post by “Queen Abigail the Wise” author Grace Brooks, http://queenabigail.com/2016/11/27/december-news-with-queen-abigail/, the second book in the series will be available soon! This one is called “Vanessa the Wonderworker!”

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Follow along on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/QueenAbigailtheWise/ for a variety of interesting posts including fresh creations by “Queen Abigail the Wise” author Grace Brooks, new blog posts that she writes, and other interesting things that she finds online and shares which are enjoyable to children and adults alike!

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Consider reading your way through “Queen Abigail the Wise” bit by bit, meditating on these wonderful blog posts by author Grace Brooks. http://queenabigail.com/2016/07/20/reading-through-queen-abigail-with-me/ Perhaps you can do this with a young friend, or even an entire Sunday Church School Class, throughout the course of Great Lent. Consider using these “Abigail” notebooks to document your learning along the way: http://www.cafepress.com/+queen_abigail_the_wise_journal,1908228623!

Gleanings from a Book: “Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home” by Elissa Bjeletich and Caleb Shoemaker

“Where have you been all of my (Orthodox Christian) life?” This pickup line applies, at least for me, to the book Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home by Elissa Bjeletich and Caleb Shoemaker! As soon as I heard about this book, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it and read it. Because I am a parent, I am always looking for ideas of how to better incorporate Orthodoxy into our family’s life. Because I am also an educator, I am in constant search for ideas of ways to make the Faith tangibly accessible to young people. When I heard the title, I was pretty sure this book would be a helpful read on both counts. When I recently received the book, I dove right in and began to read.

From the first page, I could tell that my suspicions were correct. Each page of this book, from the introduction to the “best appendix I’ve ever read in my life” (my exact words to my husband as I read it) is bursting with encouragement, ideas, and challenges for Orthodox parents and teachers. Among the many things that I love about this book is the variety of suggestions that it presents. At its core are the three disciplines in which we are to be continually growing as Orthodox Christians: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The book provides proposals from the authors and also includes contributions of “how our family is living this concept” via paragraphs written by other parents. The book does not suggest imply in any way that there is a hard line of “what everyone must do to be really Orthodox.” Rather, the authors send their reader again and again to check with their own priest. This recommendation begins early. The first page of the book is titled “Ask your priest,” and that attitude of “your spiritual Father knows you best and therefore can most wisely help you know how to apply this” permeates the book, as it should. Each chapter is as useful and practical as the one before, and the whole book ends with an appendix packed with hands-on ideas of ways to celebrate each feast of the Church Year (and more!) together as a family.

Orthodox Christian parents and educators who apply the concepts in this book will firmly establish the Faith in the hearts of the children in their care. In architecture, blueprints are drawn up by trained artists with building experience. In the same way, this book was written by Orthodox Christian parents with experience in both parenting and Orthodoxy. Just as blueprints are necessary to begin a successful building project, this book is a necessary tool for parents and teachers who want to firmly ground their children in the Faith. Any Orthodox Christian who is serious about living their Faith should read this book and begin the slow work of applying it to their family life.

Although I may not have had this book for all of my Orthodox Christian life, I am grateful to have it now. I will be sure to share it with others. Blueprints for the Little Church will be my go-to gift for new converts and/or new parents in our parish. And we will all be the better for it, for when we work to build the “little church” at home, the Church as a whole is strengthened.

Do you need to pick up a blueprint for your little church? Purchase your own copy here: http://store.ancientfaith.com/blueprints

Find ideas for celebrating feast days, similar to the ones described in the Appendix, on the “Blueprints” Pinterest page: https://www.pinterest.com/orthoblueprints/

Listen to Elissa and Caleb talk about their book (including how the book itself came to be), answer questions about the book, and share related stories in this podcast about the book: http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/faithencouragedlive/blueprints_for_the_little_church

Here are some excerpts from “Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home” by Elissa Bjeletich and Caleb Shoemaker:

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“This book offers hope to those engaged in the struggle against the passions. It is imperfect advice penned for imperfect people, warring to make sense of a dark and mysterious world through the lens of the Orthodox Faith. Among the myriad voice is trying to tell you what to think and how to act, among the countless sources of monastic wisdom and patristic treasures, among the countless Pinterest boards and parenting blogs, this book makes a humble offering to mothers and fathers who wish to see their family embrace the Orthodox faith and to raise living saints.” (p. 9)

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“The key ingredient in building your little church is to avoid comparing yourself to anyone else. Everyone’ piety is personal; it’s between them and God—and hopefully their Confessor. It’s not one-size-fits-all and just as you can’t expect to try on someone else’s custom made leather gloves and expect them to fit—well, like a glove—you shouldn’t expect someone else’s prayer rule to fit you perfectly, either. There are countless resources online and in print for developing a pious Orthodox life but nothing can compare to a personal conversation with your priest or father confessor, who can guide you through the process.” (pp. 11-12)

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“We cannot provide a meaningful experience with God for our children. We can prepare the ground, present them with opportunities, share our own experiences, but we cannot encounter Christ for them–they must do that for themselves. We can lead them to water, and we can tell them what it means to thirst and talk about how satisfying the water has been in our own lives, but they must decide to drink.” (p. 18)

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“Our modern family homes offer very little stillness; we move frenetically from one activity to the next, and our loud lives seem to have nothing in common with the monastic life. …In some ways it feels as if we cannot accomplish anything spiritual, because we are always called back to …redundant tasks. …Think about the traditional monastery; this community, this space, is set aside for worship and contemplation of God. The monastics engage in simple, repetitive work, with regular interruptions from the talanton or the bells, which call them away from their work to prayer. Parents engage in redundant tasks and find themselves called away from their own thoughts and plans by their children. Both environments are designed to call us away from our own egos and our own plans, drawing us to prayer. Perhaps the family home is not so different from the monastery.” (pp. 23-24)

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“Becoming the little church means acquiring a new mindset. We are not simply raising children to live happy and healthy lives—we are raising saints who will find their rewards in heaven. This is radically different from the popular notion that we want “good kids” or “well behaved kids.” Moralism will only produce pharisees and passionless drones. The saints of God are filled with the Holy Spirit, radiate the Divine Light, and bring others to salvation.” (p. 30)

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“As you set out to create sacred space in your home, know that you cannot do this wrong. Set aside a space in your home and let your icon corner develop as it suits your family best. The important thing is to gather together in prayer and to make room in your home to live out your faith. This is an important step in the creation of your little church, and you will continue to return to these sanctifying activities again and again with your children as you grow together in faith.” (p. 89)

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“The church in her wisdom offers at the healthy rhythm that leads us to a wholesome and good routine. Instead of the frantic pace of a family spinning out of control, the Church provides an intentional, peaceful rhythm that is firmly grounded in prayer and love. In an Orthodox home, time is put to holy use so that the routine is not tearing us apart and wearing us out, but actually contributes to our spiritual lives. When we sanctify time with prayer rules, liturgical cycles, and spiritual seasons, we have time itself as it was intended: as a reminder of God and a tool for our spiritual growth.” (p. 93)

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“…It is vital to the success of your family’s prayer rule that the parents are making the effort to pray daily no matter how briefly. …Parents are the workmen who are building the little church and the children will take their religious cues from them.” (p. 107)

“The best way to teach a child what a fast should be is to show them. If we are happily eating less and feeding the hungry more, if we are really studying the Word of God and increasing our prayers, our children will see our honorable fast—and its spiritual rewards—and every word we have said to them will be proven and made manifest.” (p. 132)

“The question to ask of yourself and your family is not how much you can afford, but in what ways you can give to God’s work of your time, treasure, and talents.” (p. 154)

“From the day our children are baptized, they are full members of the Orthodox Church. They are neither junior members nor extensions of their parents, but full Orthodox Christians with the same free will and potential as adult members. It is common to hear children referred to as ‘the future’ of the parish. This is a lovely thought, but the nomenclature is all wrong. If we really believe the words of the prayers said at baptism and chrismation, then we cannot simply categorize children into ‘the future.’ They are the parish now, fully invested in what happens around them.” (pp. 161- 162)

“If we can trust that our children are truly God’s and not ours, we need never be exasperated or humiliated by their behavior. We don’t have to fear they won’t turn out well enough—we need only call upon their Father and ask Him to give them what they need. They are His children, and we must commend them to Him.” (p. 169)

Gleanings from a Book: “Queen Abigail the Wise” by Grace Brooks

I wish I had “Queen Abigail the Wise”in my hands two months ago. I had heard about the book online somewhere, so I found and liked its Facebook page, in hopes that I would get to the book itself some day. Throughout Great Lent, Holy Week, and Pascha, author Grace Brooks kept posting links to the book’s blog. I chose not to read the blog posts, because I didn’t want to have any spoilers before I finally got my hands on the book and read it. Now that Lent is finished and I got a copy of the book, I can’t help wishing I had read both it and the related blog posts months ago! So many of the experiences that Abigail and her friends (oops, that’s a spoiler, sorry!) have throughout the course of this book are things that I can relate to, even though I’m a “grownup.”

I am an adult, but I freely admit that I love children’s literature. I have always enjoyed a good story, especially one with takeaway value whether in the overall story, the ethical choices of the story’s characters, or the lessons that they learn along the way. “Queen Abigail the Wise” offers all three: it is a package deal. The storyline is filled with the ups and downs of a very realistic Orthodox Christian girl, Abigail, as she lives her life during one Lenten season. Each of the main characters – the girls in the Every Tuesday Girls Club – have struggles, but they are determined to do their best, and the reader is invited along for the ride. Throughout the book there are many lessons learned, as well! Many chapters of the story contain their own mini-lessons, but the story is told so effectively that the reader doesn’t even notice that they are learning.

This book does an excellent job of presenting the Orthodox Christian life as real, applicable, and desirable for modern day girls. The charming illustrations enhance the storyline, adding delight to the story itself (and tempting this reader to break out her colored pencils!). The saints whose lives are appropriately introduced throughout the story are presented realistically, and the things that the characters learn from both the saints and the scriptures are relevant for life. Each of the girls in the Every Tuesday Girls Club is very different from all of the others, yet they interact with the Faith and each other in a genuine manner. This means they sometimes get along and sometimes they are just being, well, pre-teen American girls! The characters are so believable that the reader steps away from the story feeling like she has several new young friends.

I have a daughter who will soon turn 20. She has always loved to read, and has loved the Church and her girlfriends at church. Like Abigail and her friends, my daughter and hers have not always gotten along at every step of their journey, but they have learned together and grown closer to God along the way. To be honest, I wish I had this book ten years ago. She would have inhaled it, learned a lot, and shared it with her friends. And she probably would have made up a song about it. But I won’t say more about that: I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone who hasn’t read it yet!

Since I have the book now, instead, I will just have to share it with my 10-year-old goddaughter… so we can BOTH wait impatiently for the second in the series!

To learn more about “Queen Abigail the Wise” by Grace Brooks, or to purchase your own copy, visit the book’s website at http://queenabigail.com/. Follow along on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/QueenAbigailtheWise/.


“Queen Abigail the Wise” is a great story for young girls to read. But it is not just for young girls! Here are just a few of my favorite “quotes to ponder” that I found as I enjoyed the book and the blog posts related to it:

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Words to ponder from pp. 66- 67, when Abigail is talking to her mom and trying to figure out how to help her friend:

“Abigail… felt disappointed. ‘But isn’t there something to do?’

‘Praying is doing, Abby. Didn’t you hear what father Boris said in the homily? …He said that if you didn’t remember anything else about St. Gregory [of Palomas] you should just pray this week. Not just with words. Pray with your heart. And then—?’


‘Listen?’


‘Yes. Pray and then listen. Because God hears our prayers, but we don’t always hear His answers…’”  

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Words to ponder from page 138, in a discussion with one of her parish’s priests, Fr. Andrew tells Abigail, “There’s a lot more to the Cross of Christ than you understand right now. But then, there’s more to the Cross than any of us understand. It’s certainly more than just an expression about someone being your cross to bear. And the crosses God brings into our lives aren’t just bad things — they’re the things that can save us.”

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Words to ponder from Fr. Andrew’s sermon on Holy Saturday (pg. 234): “‘We’ve come to the end,’ he said. ‘Lent is over… Tonight we will meet here again when the sun is gone and the stars are out… We all know what will happen tonight, but what happens now, in the present? What will happen at the end of the service?’

Abigail couldn’t help jumping a little at the question. On the other side of the church, where Vanessa stood with Noah, she grimaced and pulled him a little closer to her. Fr. Andrew paused again, gazing around the church at the assembled people. ‘That part is up to you. May we use these last hours before the blessed Pascha service in ways that bring glory to the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.’

All the people murmured, ‘Amen,’ and Abigail exhaled. That had been a bit of a shock. It seemed that things in  church sometimes mirrored what was going on in her life to an astonishing degree.”

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(Warning: spoiler alert!!! Skip this until AFTER you read the book!)

Words to ponder from p. 264: “For the girls to walk in such sweet and simple harmony was more touching than they new. It had been a hard year at St. Michael the Archangel Church. There had been a lot of arguments and problems that had to get solved that year, and some people worried that they would never stop fussing and carrying grudges. But if the daughters of the Murphys, Peasles and Jenkinses could go along together, then maybe they could as well. If Abigail Alverson and Vanessa Taybeck could walk hand in hand, then really anything was possible.

“Abigail didn’t know it then, but that was when the Every Tuesday Girls Club began in earnest. That was when those five girls truly began to help the church.”

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Insights to ponder: “‘Queen Abigail’ is really just the story of how one girl ‘woke up’ to the Living God, to Christ present in every moment. That is really the very heart of any Christianity that is alive, intelligent and active. There are many of us — young and old, ‘cradle’ Christians and converts — who are going along in a kind of sleep-walk. We talk about God all the time — we talk and sing and hear about Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But do we believe that the Trinity is active and present in every moment — not 2000 years ago or at the Second Coming, but now?” ~ from author Grace Brooks’ blog post http://queenabigail.com/2016/05/10/last-thoughts-comments-and-some-secrets/

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Insights to ponder: “Whether we grew up Christian or not, chances are we were hearing the story of Jesus Christ’s life and death from the time we were young. We probably heard Christian claims that this man, who declared Himself to be the Son of God, died for us and rose from the dead. But do we really try to take that in? Do we let ourselves be amazed, as a child would be amazed?

Abigail’s eyes strayed up to the dome and the great image of Christ Himself looking down on them all. That image larger than any other, seeming to fill up the sky. One hand was raised in blessing. The other was on a book and on the book, a cross. She seemed to hear that voice again. Do you see, Abigail? Do you see?

“I wrote that passage for me, to give me a little kick. Do I really look, when I’m in church? Do I really listen? Lent is halfway over, so it’s worth thinking about, because we’ll arrive at the days of Holy Week sooner than we know. The cross of Christ is there every week in church, and extra attention is paid at the feasts of the Cross. But do we see?” ~ Grace Brooks, author of “Queen Abigail the Wise”, in her blog post http://queenabigail.com/2016/04/05/so-many-crosses-from-one-cross/

Gleanings from a Book: “Heaven Meets Earth – Celebrating Pascha and the Twelve Feasts” by John Skinas

Author’s note: I had other plans for this blog post. But when this book arrived in the mail this week, I knew that I had to share it with you immediately. It is THAT good. My other plans will wait!

“The Christian story is not ‘just’ a story. It is truth… that transforms, both in the telling and in the hearing. That is why we enter into the great feasts of the Church and build our lives around them. They are not mere commemorations but transforming stories, true in a way that is more profound than the bare search for ‘fact.’ And they determine not only our calendars and schedules but also the way we see and understand the world.” These words by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick are a fitting introduction to the book Heaven Meets Earth: Celebrating Pascha and the Twelve Feasts. The book itself was written by John Skinas, and published by Ancient Faith Publishing this year. Orthodox Christians of all ages will savor and learn much from it.

The pages of this beautiful book are full of information and personal challenges related to each of the 12 Feasts of the Church as well as Pascha. Each feast has several pages dedicated to it. The first spread features the icon of the feast (with a details from the icon pointed out in footnotes), the story behind the feast, and related scriptures. The following pages highlight Old Testament connections, a church or landmark in the world related to the feast, the festal hymns, a quote from the Church Fathers, some Festal Traditions, and personal challenges in both the “Think About It” and the “Where are You?” sections. The pages are colorfully illustrated with icons, photos, and related graphics. Each page is a feast for the eyes as well as the mind.

Regardless of the age of the reader, this book will help to nurture a love for the great feasts of the Church. Young children will pour over the beautiful icons and pictures. Older children will enjoy finding connections to the book of “things we sing and hear at church.” Teens and adults will find a plethora of information about each feast. Everyone can be challenged to think about the feast and will find ways to become a better Christian while celebrating that feast. Heaven Meets Earth is an invaluable resource that will be well-loved and much-used in an Orthodox Christian home.

This book belongs in your family’s prayer corner! Find it here: http://store.ancientfaith.com/heaven-meets-earth

The Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education offers free printable standup centerpieces that can be used with each of the feasts. They would work well alongside this book, to help you and your family celebrate the feasts. Read about them here: https://orthodoxchristianparenting.wordpress.com/2014/08/13/introducing-a-resource-feast-day-stand-up-centerpieces/

Find additional information about the 12 feasts in these places: http://www.antiochian.org/twelve-great-feasts; http://www.goarch.org/ourfaith/ourfaith8713; and http://oca.org/FSicons-churchyear.asp?Section=twelvefeasts, among others.

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Here is a sample quote from each feast’s pages:

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Nativity of the Theotokos (Sept. 8): “Salvation is near! The first feast of the liturgical year celebrates our new beginning. Mary, the Mother of God, is born, bringing great joy to her parents and hope to the world. It is here that the story of her Son’s Incarnation and our liberation from sin and death begins, since it is in Mary that the Lord will find a place to dwell when He comes down from heaven.” (p. 7)

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Elevation of the Cross (Sept. 14): (from the “Where are you?” section) “The excitement of the new liturgical year may already be gone, and maybe we’ve slid back into our old sinful ways. The Church holds the Cross up to remind us of our calling.” (p. 13)

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The Entrance of the Theotokos (Nov. 21): (from the “Old Testament Connection” section)“The Ark of the Covenant contained: The word of God written in stone; manna that came down from heaven; the rod of Aaron that miraculously budded without water. The Theotokos, the New Ark, contained: The Word of God Himself in the flesh; the Bread of Life who came down from heaven; the Seedless Flower that sprang from the Root of Jesse.” (p. 16)

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The Nativity of Christ (Dec. 25): “Jesus the Messiah is wrapped in swaddling clothes that resemble His death shroud; the manger is the same shape as is tomb; the cave of His birth resembles the cave of His burial. Church Fathers such as Ephraim the Syrian emphasize that God the Word was made flesh so that He could enter Hades and leave it powerless, freeing us from sin and death forever.” (Festal Icon footnote #1; p. 18)

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The Theophany of Christ (Jan. 6): (from the “Festal Tradition” section) “…In joyful continuation of Christ’s act of sanctification, priests immerse a cross into a container of water three times… The priests sprinkle water in every direction, blessing churches, people, and all of creation…. Through this cleansing, Christ continues making everything new…. This is also the season when priests bless the homes of the faithful, reminding us that hour home life should never be separate from our church life; it all belongs to Christ, who has sanctified the waters through His Baptism for the life of the world.” (p. 24)

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The Meeting of the Lord in the Temple (Feb. 2): (from the “Think About It” section) “In preparing to meet Christ, Simeon and Anna stayed connected to the temple, to scripture, to God… every Sunday we meet Christ more intimately than Simeon and Anna could have imagined: in the Eucharist… Appropriately, Simeon’s famous words are used not only at the end of the day, but also after Holy Communion. Having united with Christ, we can ‘depart in peace’ to wherever God calls us to go.” (p. 29)

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The Annunciation (March 25): “In the days of the creation of the world, when God was uttering His living and mighty ‘let there be,’ the word of the Creator brought creatures into the world. but on that day, unprecedented in the history of the world, when Mary uttered her brief and obedient, ‘so be it,’ I hardly dare say what happened then — the word of the creature brought the Creator into the world.” ~ St. Philaret of Moscow (p. 32)

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The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem: (from the “Old Testament Connection” section) “Jerusalem was crowded with visiting Jews who had come to celebrate Passover (Pascha in Greek), the commemoration of their deliverance from slavery and death in Egypt. Little did they know that this man whom they hailed as their deliverer from slavery to the Romans was entering the city as the Passover lamb being led to slaughter. This sacrifice will release them from their slavery to sin and the eternal death that results from it.” (p. 36)

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Pascha: The Resurrection of Christ: (from the “Where Are You?” section) “Pascha is the highlight of our liturgical year, the feast so great that without it the twelve feasts would lose their light and meaning. No matter where any of us find ourselves, there is nothing to fear now. ‘The Light has shone forth, awakening those who sleep in darkness and turning tears into joy.’ All we have to do is reach out, and Christ will pull us into His everlasting glory.” (p. 45)

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The Ascension of Christ: “For forty days, since Pascha, Christ has been appearing to His disciples, eating with them, showing them His wounds, testifying to the accomplishment of His Crucifixion and proving the reality of His Resurrection. Now they stand watching as the Son of God ascends, raising earth up to meet heaven.” (p. 47)

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Holy Pentecost: (from the “Festal Tradition” section) “Pentecost is the gift Jesus gives to His bride. We’ve received something even greater than the Law; we’ve received the grace of the Spirit of God. Now we are called to be faithful to our Bridegroom.” (p. 52)

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The Transfiguration of Christ (Aug. 6): (from the “Think About It” section) “Even Christ’s clothing shines brightly, showing that everything and everyone connected to Him can shine with His light. In fact, this is our calling: to shine with heavenly beauty in a darkened world.”

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The Dormition of the Theotokos (Aug. 15): “The way in which Christ is holding her soul, wrapped in swaddling clothes, reminds us of the icons in which Mary is holding her Child. Christ is now accepting Mary on behalf of heaven in the same way that she accepted Him on behalf of earth.” (Festal Icon footnote #3, p. 58)

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“Each year, our spiritual journey around this circle of feasts is meant to bring us closer to the One who is at its center, the One who calls us to let His Light shine through our being in an endless day of brightness and joy.” (p. 61)

 

To Celebrate Picture Book Month With Books About Thankfulness

Did you know that November is International Picture Book Month? It’s the month of the year when people of all ages are encouraged to enjoy carefully worded writing paired with beautiful illustrations. For those of us living in the United States, November is also the time when we focus on Thanksgiving. The Thanksgiving season is a welcome change from the norm, offering a break from school and perhaps also from work. Let us consider spending some of this extra family time in reading together. Many happy memories can be built during family read-aloud times, so why not add to the fun of Thanksgiving memories by reading and discussing some related picture books?

There are a plethora of books available today that are appropriate reads for the Thanksgiving season. We will offer a few here, in no particular order, for your perusal. Children of all ages (even adults!) will enjoy these books. While they don’t take long to read, they are thought provoking and can offer many opportunities for discussion!

For more on Picture Book Month, see http://picturebookmonth.com/.

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Thankful by Eileen Spinelli is a rollicking rhyme about all kinds of people, each thankful for something that makes their work or their life more enjoyable. Illustrator Archie Preston adds a heartwarming and playful twist in his illustrations. The pictures show a family whose children dress up as those “all kinds of people,” playing their roles, and interacting with each other in ways that will make readers of all ages smile. Watch the trailer for the book here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXLhjE9J-EU. You can buy the book here: http://www.zondervan.com/thankful. Discussion: Ask each person to share one thing that they are thankful for. Challenge: Together think of how Archie Preston would illustrate what you have just said. How would he show what each person is thankful for? How would he tie them together in the illustrations?

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The Secret of Saying Thanks by Douglas Wood follows a young girl through her day, as she savors the beauty of nature around her. Greg Shed’s gentle gouache illustrations reflect that beauty so that the reader can see it for themselves. Throughout the book, the young girl is looking for something secret. Along the way, she offers words of gratitude for the loveliness around her. In the end, she realizes the secret she had been seeking is this: “The heart that gives thanks is a happy one, for we cannot feel thankful and unhappy at the same time.” You can buy the book here:http://books.simonandschuster.com/Secret-of-Saying-Thanks/Douglas-Wood/9780689854101. Discussion: Ask each person to think back through this day and share one thing of beauty which they saw, for which they are thankful. Then take time to actually thank God for all of that beauty! Challenge: Take a look at the Akathist of Thanksgiving (http://www.stnicholasdc.org/files/Prayers/Akathist-of-Thanksgiving.pdf), and talk about how it compares to this book! If time allows, pray the Akathist of Thanksgiving together, giving Glory to God for all things!

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Thank you, God, by J. Bradley Wigger, is a prayer that thanks God for everything. Jago’s illustrations, created in digital paint with photographic textures, add a deep richness to the book. Watch the trailer and/or buy this book here: http://www.eerdmans.com/Products/5424/thank-you-god.aspx Discussion: After reading the book, ask, “If you were the author, what would you add to this book?” Then page through the book again and take turns adding more things that could have been mentioned on each page. Challenge: Work together to write and illustrate your own “Thank You, God” prayer. (You could even make it into a book!)

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Bear Says Thanks, by Karma Wilson, is a charming poem-story about a bear who wants to throw a dinner for his friends to show his gratitude for their friendship. Unfortunately, as he prepares to do so, the bear discovers that he has no food left in his house! The friends come over anyway, each bringing food to share, and they assure the bear that his stories are his contribution to the gathering. Jane Chapman’s charming acrylic illustrations make the story infinitely more adorable and sweet! Purchase the book here: http://books.simonandschuster.com/Bear-Says-Thanks/Karma-Wilson/The-Bear-Books/9781416958567. Find a free reproducible pdf (geared to 1st or 2nd graders) with activities related to the book here: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Bear-Says-Thanks-A-FREE-Mini-Unit-1546522. Discuss: Talk together about the book. Bear felt like he didn’t deserve to be part of the party, since he didn’t have any food to contribute. Talk about times when anyone in your family has felt inadequate or like their contribution was lacking. How did it end up? Talk about how bear’s friends saw the value in his stories, and considered the stories to be his contribution to the gathering. Challenge: Encourage each other to be sensitive to others’ feelings of inadequacy, and find ways to affirm their strengths! You could begin by creating a “Thank you beary much” card to give to someone you appreciate, as suggested here: http://d28hgpri8am2if.cloudfront.net/tagged_assets/13330_40818%20cheer%20on%20reading%20activities_bearsaysthanks.pdf.

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Giving Thanks, by Jonathan London, follows a boy and his dad through their day’s walk in the woods. Throughout the book, the father notices and thanks the beautiful items in nature (because he believes that all things in nature are a gift) for being and for sharing their beauty with him. The boy confesses that he feels a little embarrassed by the fact that his father is thanking everything, but his father tells him how much better he feels when he is thankful, and in the end, the boy thanks the stars as they appear in the night sky. Gregory Manchess’ oil paintings are right for this book, a charming combination of generalities in the illustrations with just the right touch of details. Purchase the book here: http://www.candlewick.com/cat.asp?browse=Title&mode=book&isbn=0763655945&pix=n. Discuss: Talk about the idea of thanking things in nature. What do you think about that? Is there Anyone else Who we should thank for creating those natural things? Challenge: Go for a hike together, and, like the boy and his dad, practice noticing the detailed beauty of the world around you. Stop at points along the way to listen and look, talk about what you hear/see, and then take a moment to give thanks for it!

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My Book of Thanks by Hennessy offers thanks to God for something different on every page; and asks God for help with regard to that thing/person. For example, “Thank you for the earth. Help me to take care of it for you.” Hiroe Nakata’s playful watercolor-and-ink illustrations are the perfect accompaniment to the powerfully concise words of the prayer. (Note: the book is no longer available from publisher Candlewick Press, but can still be found from various online distributors.) Discuss: Talk about the prayer as it is written in the book. Why do you think the author included a prayer for help after each thanksgiving? Is that important? Why or why not? Challenge: Make a personalized extender to the book! Take time to each write down one “thank you” that you would add to this prayer. Remember to also include a related prayer for help! If you own the book, keep the extender page(s) in the book for future readings.

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Giving Thanks: Poems, Prayers, and Praise Songs of Thanksgiving edited by Katherine Paterson is a book full of just that! The poems, prayers, and songs from many different cultures and beliefs offer food for thought for an older audience. The book is divided into themed collections, and each collection begins with a personal reflection written as only Katherine Paterson can write, straight from the heart. Pamela Dalton’s detailed scherenschnitte (detailed cut-paper) and watercolor illustrations are mesmerizing, and provide an appropriate backdrop for each page of the book. Buy the book here: http://www.chroniclebooks.com/titles/giving-thanks.html. Discuss: Paterson’s reflections in and of themselves offer good discussion starters! As you read each section, discuss her thoughts before you dive into the selections in the section. Since each prayer/poem/song is from a different part of the world, discuss the thought behind it. Make connections to our Orthodox beliefs: how is this thought similar/different? How do you suppose the people who first prayed/sang this arrived at these words? Challenge: Have each member of the family find and share their favorite selection from the book, and explain why they like it so much. For an added challenge: Learn more about scherenschnitte (see Dalton’s explanation of her work on another book at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wfyIQFYaao) and/or check out Dalton’s website at http://www.pameladaltonpapercutting.com/. Create your own piece of scherenschnitte art, then copy your favorite selection from Giving Thanks onto your work!

Gleanings from a Book: “A Gift for Matthew” By Nick Muzekari, Illustrated By Masha Lobastov

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of sitting in the nave of my home parish while listening to Nick Muzekari read aloud his first picture book, “A Gift for Matthew.” I had already read the book, so I was familiar with the story. Nevertheless, I enjoyed hearing it read aloud with the author’s own inflections. Story lover that I am, I also savored hearing some of the stories behind the book. While listening I happened to glance upwards and I discovered that Mr. Muzekari was reading the book beneath the icon of St. Matthew! Although unplanned (at least as far as I know), it was the perfect spot for this reading to happen!

“A Gift for Matthew” is the story of a young boy named Matthew who is privileged to visit a monastery for a day to observe and assist a monk in the process of writing icons. Brother Justin welcomes Matthew and incorporates him into the writing process, teaching him about icons and how they are made. The wording of the book concisely explains the process in easy-to-understand terminology, and takes the reader through the writing of the icon step by step, through Matthew’s eyes. By the end of the day, Matthew is reluctant to leave the monastery because he is enjoying the experience so much. Brother Justin’s invitation for Matthew to return the next day cheers him, as does the gift he discovers in his backpack when he arrives home.

In case you also enjoy background stories, here are a few stories behind the story:

  1. The author told us that it was while he was reading a picture book about icons that he got the idea for this book. He thought to himself, “It’s great that there are books for children about icons. But why isn’t there a book for children that explains the icon writing process?” and the idea behind “A Gift for Matthew” was born. In my opinion, this book fills the gap perfectly.
  2. To any reader who delights in the beyond-the-story details included in the illustrations of any great picture book, Muzekari would point out the monastery cat, Paizousa. Her name is Greek (παιζουσα) and it was chosen because it means “she who plays” (in this context, it means “she who plays tricks”). The cat’s name is fitting, for the author wanted to add a touch of humor into the story, and this fuzzy trickster does just that in the illustrations without adding a single word to the text. Paizousa can be found snoozing, snooping, and, yes, even getting into trouble in many of the illustrations of Matthew’s time at the monastery. I have enjoyed finding her and observing what she is doing at each moment in the story!

This book is a great read for Orthodox Christians of all ages, but especially for children. The illustrations are simple yet beautifully lifelike. Both the storyline and illustrations work together well to portray the tale, drawing the reader in while effectively teaching them about iconography without them even realizing that they are learning.

Author Nick Muzekari lives in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, with his wife and their five children. He likes to convey truth, mystery, and beauty through stories. He has also founded and published a literary/art magazine for Christian teens. “A Gift for Matthew” is his first picture book.

Illustrator Masha Lobastov is a classically educated figurative artist. After graduating from the Russian State University for Humanities of Moscow in 1996, she moved to the U.S.A. to continue her artistic goals. She is known for painting portraits, especially those of children. Masha has also collaborated with Ancient Faith Publishing and authors E.C. Johnson and Jane Meyer, illustrating “And Then Nicholas Sang,” “What Do You Hear, Angel?” and “The Hidden Garden.”

Listen to an Ancient Faith Radio interview with author Nick Muzekari about “A Gift for Matthew” here: http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/exlibris/a_gift_for_matthew

Purchase the book here: http://store.ancientfaith.com/a-gift-for-matthew/

Follow along on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/giftformatthew

Find age-leveled lesson plans for teaching children about icons (intended for use before/during/after a visit to the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts, but useful even if the field trip is not possible) here: http://museumofrussianicons.org/en/education/family-school-programs/for-teachers-k-12/. Lessons range in topic from the symbolism in iconography, to the science of writing the icons, to the art of iconography, even the math applied to the writing, and more!



Go on an icon hunt in your home or parish! Print this reproducible page so that your child(ren) can keep track of the icons that you find. http://www.scribd.com/doc/173729877/I-found-Icons

Find line-art patterns for writing icons here: http://www.betsyporter.com/patterns.html

Read more about icons!

  1. “What is an Icon?,” a picture book by St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, explains what they are. It can be found here: http://www.stanthonysmonastery.org/ccp7/index.php?app=ecom&ns=prodshow&ref=3WHAT_EP.
  2. “Pictures of God,” John Skinas’ multi-leveled picture book explaining icons in a way that children can love and understand (which also happens to be the book that Muzekari was reading when he got the idea for “A Gift for Matthew”) can be found here: http://store.ancientfaith.com/pictures-of-god-a-childs-guide-to-understanding-icons/.
  3. “From God to You,” also by John Skinas, can be found here: http://store.ancientfaith.com/from-god-to-you.

Watch an 8-minute video that shows the complete process of writing an icon (of St. Nicholas), from preparing the wood through the finished product here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZh6geY4hMc

Children interested in writing their own icon may want to consider attending an iconography camp program such as this one: https://avcamp.org/summer-camp/sacred-arts-camp/iconography-camp/.