If you want a picture book that tells the story of Easter, you can’t do better than The Easter Story by Brian Wildsmith.
The Easter story is difficult to do as a picture book. Not that it’s hard to put the events into pictures. There are cathedrals and museums full of works of great art showing the death and resurrection of Jesus.
But even the great art can be difficult for children to process. I was raised Presbyterian, so religious images were not part of my early childhood. I still remember the day a family friend took me to her Episcopalian church. I was confronted, for the first time, with an image of the Crucifixion. I didn’t have a context for understanding it. I found it painful and horrifying, and it made me wonder why we called Good Friday “Good.”
Because the story of Easter is brutal. It begins with fear, violence, torture, and death. It’s a story that risks overwhelming little ones with emotions they’re not yet prepared to handle.
Authors and illustrators, of course, know the risk. So picture books that tell the Easter story are often cleaned up to make them suitable for children. In the process, they may be watered down to the point that they no longer seem to tell the same story that we find in the Gospels.
With gentle words and gorgeous art, Wildsmith manages to do what I had thought might be impossible. He tells the story of Easter, all of it, in words and images that are appropriate for and accessible to young children.
Wildsmith is known for telling stories that combine brief, spare words with lavish art. The style is perfect for The Easter Story. His illustrations include details both from the Bible and from Church tradition. In the scene where Jesus is carrying his cross towards Golgotha, for example, you can see Simon Cyrene coming out of the crowd to carry the cross for Jesus, and Veronica holding out her cloth to wipe his face.
The angels that appear throughout the book are magical, like angels in Coptic icons. The gold leaf that highlights the pages adds to the sense of wonder, and somehow helps create a little bit of distance from the sorrow and pain in many of the images.
And the donkey that joins Jesus on Palm Sunday and follows Jesus through all of the pages – the donkey provides an innocent view into what happens. He’s not saccharine and sentimental. He’s sturdy. He wants to be exactly where he is. With Jesus.
It’s a beautiful book. I recommend it without reservation.
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