William’s Doll

William’s Doll
Charlotte Zolotow (author), William Pene Du Bois (illustrator)
1972, HarperTrophy
William's Doll - Story in Worship

More than anything William wants a doll. He wants to take the doll to the park, push it in the swing, bring it home, kiss it goodnight and wake it up again in the morning, just as if he were its father and it was his baby.

William dutifully plays with the train set his father gives him. He gets quite good at shooting the basketball from his father. Still, though, he wants a doll.  His brother and friends call him a creep, but what will Grandma say when she finds out?

William’s Doll has been in print for forty-plus years because it does what a really good story is does best; it allows the reader to enter someone’s experience in a meaningful and touching way, without schmaltz or heavy-handed moralizing.

Zolotow’s tone is warmly matter of fact, as if written in the voice of the grandmother character. The grandmother in the story is what we should all aspire to be  if we are blessed with a grandparent role.  She is interested, attentive, kind, and gives her grandchild the space to be who he is.

Part of the beauty of Zolotow’s book is that she expresses the tension of the character’s experience with gentle, skilled, and spare writing.  When William confesses his desire to care for a doll, his grandmother’s simply says, “Wonderful.” When he explains that it isn’t wonderful to his brother or father, she simply says “Nonsense.”

Without ever sounding heavy handed or appearing to baldly push home a point, Zolotow’s story makes several very strong ones. The nurturing capacity of men and boys and the importance of fatherhood ring throughout this book. The innocent nature of children simply being who they are regardless of gender is made abundantly clear. The power of caring adults to gently and clearly speak out on a child’s behalf is evident.

There has been much change in our society and our congregations in the forty some years since this book was written.  Men are allowed and expected to play nurturing roles as parents and grandparents in ways they rarely were allowed when the book was written.  Men and children have benefited from that greatly.  And yet, we have not come so far that this book is no longer relevant. Far from it.

At various developmental stages, children tend to take in and amplify gender expectations. They are trying to make sense of the rules of the world and how they fit in. This book, read in their place of worship, will help them to understand that a loving, kind, and accepting response is more important than whether someone fits into “the rules” of convention. This book will be especially powerful in helping them know they are each valuable and okay as they are, even if they are different than their peers. It is a powerful illustration of non-judgment and compassion, cornerstones of every religion.

Themes: non-judgment, compassion, acceptance, difference, bullying, gender, fatherhood, parenting, teasing,

Motifs: Doll, Toy, Train, Basketball, Father, Son, Grandparent, Grandmother

Reviewer:  Kristin Maier
author, A Good Telling: Bringing Worship to Life with Story

Exclamation Mark

Exclamation Mark
Amy Krouse Rosenthal (author), Tom Lichtenheld (illustrator)
2013, Scholastic PressExclamation Mark

There comes a time when every worship leader just needs a cute, pithy little story with a message that says, “Be yourself!”  This is that story.

Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld have put together a very clever little take on punctuation.  Sound dry?  Not at all!

Exclamation Mark is surrounded by periods.  He tries to fit in, but everywhere he goes he just sticks out.  It isn’t until he meets question mark that he begins to see that he has something unique to offer.

The illustrations are simple but engaging.  School-aged children (first grade and up) who have learned about punctuation will get more out of it than preschoolers, but even very young children will understand the emotions of the main character and his attempts to be just like everyone else.  Adults and older youth will get the visual and textual puns.

It isn’t a super emotional book for sharing in worship, but it is a fun book with a solid underlying message. It is short – approximately 300 words – and some of those words are more for visual effect and would not need to be read.

Because the humor is largely visual, the children (and adults) will need to see the book – this would be a very challenging story to tell in a way that would be understood.  If you use a projection screen in your service, that will help everyone to see the visuals of the book. (When in doubt, seek permission from the publisher, especially if your service is recorded in any way.)  Occasionally interjecting descriptions of the visuals can help adults in the back of your sanctuary follow the action if they cannot see the book.  For example, I might say, “Oh, look.  Exclamation Mark is sleeping on his side so he doesn’t stick up so much. ”

Themes: Being yourself, self acceptance, friendship, conformity

Motifs: question, sentence, writing, punctuation, exclamation, running away

Reviewer:  Kristin Maier
author, A Good Telling: Bringing Worship to Life with Story


Mr. Brown’s Fantastic Hat

Mr. Brown’s Fantastic Hat
Ayano Imai
2013, Minedition

Mr. Brown's Fantastic Hat CoverMr. Brown prefers to be alone, at least that’s what he says. Then one day, a woodpecker takes up residence in his hat – and then another and another. Soon, Mr. Brown’s hat is full of birds. When they all fly away for the winter, Mr. Brown says he doesn’t care, but even he doesn’t believe that. Will the birds return when Mr. Brown wakes from his own hibernation?  What other surprises are in store?

Mr. Brown’s Fantastic Hat is a gorgeous book with a solid message about the power of community and connectedness. The author and illustrator, Ayanao Imai, joins a gentle narrative style with highly engaging yet equally gentle illustrations. The result is a book that children will want to return to again and again.

Imai’s illustrations are spare with subtle variations in color that provide an overall sense of harmony.  Her use of light is strong, but never overpowering.  So many picture books today rush toward the reader with jarring color and over-the-top perspective.  Sometimes that works, but what a delight to encounter Imai’s visual invitation to the reader.  Her work is lively but spare and makes room for a child to enter the picture, and thus the story as a whole.

What will delight young readers most is the placement of small, surprising objects in each scene.  The laundry hanging up to dry includes socks, dish towels and two mushrooms.  A tree branch grows out of the wall.  The objects are so skillfully drawn and carefully composed that it isn’t until after some observation that the objects appear.

The story speaks to loneliness, community, and the power of connection. Those themes will speak to both children and adults and they underscore exactly why we gather in religious community. The story could certainly be adapted for telling, yet the artwork is so perfect it seems a shame not to share it as a book. The details are fine and colors subtle, so you will want the children close to see it.

Themes: Community, Loneliness, Connection, Happiness

Motifs: Bear, Hat, Bird, Migration, Hibernation, Change of Season, Fall, Winter, Spring, Tree, Birdhouse

Reviewer:  Kristin Maier
author, A Good Telling: Bringing Worship to Life with Story

Apple Days: A Rosh Hashanah Story

Apple Days: A Rosh Hashanah Story
Allison Sarnoff Soffer (author), Bob McMahon (illustrator)
2014, Kar-Ben Publishing

Apple Days A Rosh Hashanah Story

Every year Katy and her mom go apple picking before Rosh Hashanah. They carefully pick enough apples to make delicious apple sauce for their family’s celebration.  At the last minute, her mom gets a call from Katy’s aunt.  Katy’s new baby cousin is coming early and her mom won’t be able to go apple picking this year.

Katy is very disappointed and tells each friend and neighbor she sees.  The next day, she is surprised as each of those friends and neighbors hands her an apple as consolation.  Might Katy still end up with enough apples to make her special apple sauce anyway?

This is a sweet little story about the power of community.  The story is geared toward young children (ages 2-7), but the message can be appreciated by any age.  Small acts of kindness in response to a disappointment make a big difference for one child.

Bob McMahon’s illustrations are brightly colored and lively.  The cartoon-like style that he uses will appeal most to younger children.  The story could also be told rather than read.  It would likely take a little adaptation to make it work from the voice of a storyteller, but there is so much potential for a good telling of this gentle little tale.

Religious educators could have some serious fun with the apple sauce recipe in the back.  For congregations outside of the Jewish tradition, this little book could be an opportunity to engage in a bit of respectful interfaith education – a very needed thing in our world.

Reviewer:  Kristin Maier
author, A Good Telling: Bringing Worship to Life with Story



Circles of Hope

Circles of Hope
Karen Lynn Williams (author), Linda Saport (illustrator)
2005, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

Circles of Hope by Karen WilliamsFacile had no gift for his baby sister Lucía, but he had a mango seed, so he dug a hole in the dry earth and planted it.  When a goat came and ate it, he did not give up.  He just planted again.  When heavy rains washed the seed away, he did not give up.  He just planted again. But when the farmers set scrub fires and left him with only a blacked stick, Facile was ready to give up.  What did his tontón (his uncle) tell him that convinced him to give it another go?  What did it finally take to grow that tree?

The author of Circles of Hope, Karen Lynn Williams, lived for a time in Haiti.  She saw firsthand, the hardscrabble struggle for survival and the effort to repair the depleted natural environment. Her story of one little boy’s perseverance mirrors an entire people’s efforts to again and again find hope and make a way forward.  Williams’ story was written before the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010, yet the story seems only more poignant and relevant in light of the long and arduous recovery process.

Kristin Maier with Circles of Hope

Kristin Maier sharing Circles of Hope in a Storytelling and Social Justice Workshop

I’ve told Circles of Hope in worship services, but I also used it in a workshop about storytelling and social justice. This story is a great example of how stories can connect with and inspire faith-based social just work like what is being done in Haiti right now.

This summer, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee successfully built over 100 container gardens for urban farmers in Port-au-Prince.  The container gardens were made from discarded tires- another kind of circle of hope.  Many other faith traditions are also partnering with people in Haiti to help rebuild that nation’s future.

If you use Circles of Hope in a worship service, let me make a plug for telling it rather than reading it aloud. The plot is structured in a way that makes it easy to remember and tell.  Also, there are many physical actions that are fun to incorporate into the telling – planting, digging, and carrying water on one’s head.

Of course, there isn’t a wrong way to share this story. If you do read it aloud, the illustrations by Linda Saport are bright and engaging and bring the text to life in a beautiful way.  It’s a fine story and a fine book,too.

Reviewer:  Kristin Maier
author, A Good Telling: Bringing Worship to Life with Story