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:
- 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.
- 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. It would make a great intro-to-iconography lesson for a Sunday Church School class. 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 parish! Print this reproducible page so that your students can keep track of the icons that you find as you go. http://www.scribd.com/doc/173729877/I-found-Icons
Find line-art patterns for writing icons here: http://www.betsyporter.com/patterns.html
Here are other books about icons that you could also read to your Sunday Church School students:
- “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.
- “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/.
- “From God to You,” also by John Skinas, can be found here: http://store.ancientfaith.com/from-god-to-you.
This 8-minute video shows the complete process of writing an icon (of St. Nicholas), from preparing the wood through the finished product. It would add much to a class on iconography, particularly if you do not have an iconographer in your parish who could demonstrate the process: 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/.