I like teaching by storytelling better than almost any other kind of teaching. But the stories can’t be lessons; they have to be real stories, where the characters make real choices. If you were teaching a child what it means to keep the Ten Commandments, you would want a copy of Juanita Havill’s lovely story, Jamaica’s Find.
I spent some time in the Lutheran church on my way to Orthodoxy, and one of the treasures that I found there was Luther’s Small Catechism. In the catechism, which was written for children, Luther explained the meaning of each of the commandments. As he explained it, the eighth commandment, against bearing false witness, means that we should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.
The seventh commandment, against stealing, means that we should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect what is his.
And that is Jamaica’s struggle. Jamaica goes to the park on her way home one afternoon and finds a red hat and a stuffed dog. She turns the hat in to Lost and Found, but the dog … it was cuddy and gray, covered with stains, worn from hugging. Jamaica puts the dog in her bicycle basket and takes it home.
Her mother, of course, wants to know where the dog came from. Jamaica explains about the park and the red hat and Lost and Found. Her mother suggests that she should have taken the dog to Lost and Found, too.
And then she stops. She lets Jamaica find her own way through this dilemma.
Anne Sibley O’Brien’s expressive water color illustrations let us see Jamaica’s struggle. Jamaica is beaming when she brings the dog into the house. Later, as she considers that the dog might belong to a little girl just like her, she looks pensive, and then sad.
Havill doesn’t give Jamaica an easy out. Her parents don’t tell her what to do. She knows what the right thing is, but she has to find the place in her heart where she’s ready to do it.
And, of course, when she does, she finds something more wonderful than a stuffed dog. She finds a new friend.
I love this story because it deals with a child’s struggle with right and wrong without ever becoming condescending. Havill respects Jamaica, and she respects her audience enough to let Jamaica own her actions and her feelings. The struggle is real. Jamaica’s choice is meaningful. As a result, children absorb the lesson naturally. By sharing her struggle and her choice, her solution becomes theirs as well.
I also love the fact that Jamaica is black and Kristin, the friend that she finds when she gives up the dog, is white. That’s not mentioned in the story, just as Elizabeth’s disability isn’t mentioned in Catherine’s Pascha. It’s not important to the story. But it is important. Children who see disabled characters in beloved books are more comfortable around people with disabilities. Children who witness cross-racial friendships in the books they read are more comfortable themselves when they meet people of other races.
Jamaica’s Find was published 30 years ago. It was Havill’s first book, and she won the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award for it. Jamaica’s Find was also a Reading Rainbow selection. It’s still in print, in paperback. If you love hardcover picture books as much as I do, you may be able to find a copy at your favorite used bookstore.
17 essential picture books for Orthodox Christian kids: If you’re looking for picture books that include stories about Orthodox Christian people and traditions, you’ll find them on this list.
Disabilities and Special Needs in the Church: Some people are uncomfortable around people with disabilities. They don’t know what to do or say. You can get some advice here, from people with disabilities, to make it easier.
Justinian and Theodora: A Love Story: St. Theodora, the wife and co-ruler with St. Justinian the Great, is one of my very favorite saints.