Category Archives: Books

Gleanings from a Book: “Icon” by Georgia Briggs

Author’s note: This book will be of great encouragement and benefit to every Sunday Church School teacher’s journey of Faith. However, since the book is geared to older children, be aware of the events of the book and use caution when sharing it with your students. You know them, so you know if they would benefit from reading it, or if the events would be too disturbing and they would not find it uplifting. The book would be an excellent upper grades/teen book study!

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.

If you choose to share this book with your students, be sure that you read it first (it won’t take you too long: as I mentioned before, it is hard to put down!), so that you have a grasp on what is coming. If you share it with the class, you can read it aloud with them, or have them read several chapters at a time that you can then discuss when you meet together. It would make a great summer “book club” read that you could meet up during coffee hour to discuss the next few chapters, even if you are not having Sunday Church School over the summer! Regardless of how you read it, be sure to talk together about this book. It is my opinion that your Faith (and your students’ Faith!) will be strengthened after reading and discussing this book together!

Purchase your own copy/copies 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 discussions your class could hold when you arrive at that part of the book. (With apologies for spoilers: they are difficult to avoid in this book!) We hope that these selections can help to give you an idea of the types of discussions that this book can encourage!
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“Mimi leans closer to me. ‘I’ll tell you a bigger secret,’ she whispers, ‘I am still Orthodox. My name is Mary. And guess what? It always will be.’

‘They made me change mine to Hillary,’ I say, ‘I used to be Euphrosyne.’

‘After St. Euphrosynos the Cook?’

‘Yeah. He was my patron saint.’

‘He still is your patron saint,’ Mimi whispers.

‘What if he isn’t, now that my name is different?’

‘They can’t change the name God gave you, Mimi says.‘Besides… you want to know something really ironic?’

‘What?’

‘Hillary is an Orthodox name too,’ she says with a grin. She shakes her head. ‘And Mimi is short for Miriam, which is just another form of Mary. Somebody didn’t do their research.’”~ “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, p. 44

This exchange between Euphrosyne and her new friend, Mary the librarian, offers the chance to talk about names. What name does each member of your class go by? What is their Christian name? Spend some time learning more about and teaching each other about your patron saints!

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“I’m quiet for a few minutes, considering what he’s saying. It seems so easy, so simple, to believe that goodness is just following your heart and being nice to people.

It’s flat, thought. It’s like Winter Holiday instead of Christmas, warm and fuzzy but not real. It’s nothing like the rich smell of incense, or the warmth in your throat when you swallow communion, or the brightness of Pascha. I’ve pulled a bullet from an icon and watched it bleed. Maybe if I had grown up with my grandparents, I could agree with Dr. Snead, but you can’t go through what I’ve been through and not believe in God. The real question is if I want to follow God or not.” ~ from “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, pp. 99-100

Ask your students what they think of these thoughts Euphrosyne has in one of her “sessions” with Dr. Snead. Have them mentally compare their own spiritual life with the life of a non-religious person their age, to see if there are parallels to what Euphrosyne is saying about the emptiness of life without Faith. Invite them to cite incidents of times when they have had the opportunity to see God at work. Encourage them to think about following God as well, even if no one else around them is choosing to do so.

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“He turns the icon toward me, and I see St. Nicholas’ stern eyes and set mouth…

‘I thought Christians weren’t supposed to worship things like this,’ Dr. Wilcott says. ‘Graven images. Isn’t that kind of like idolatry?’

It’s like a picture of a friend, I think. Not an idol. But if I get drawn in, I might say too much, so I just say, ‘I don’t know.’

Dr. Snead chuckles. ‘Same old Hillary, shutting herself off.’”~ from “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, pp. 162-163.

After reading this passage, talk with your students about icons and idolatry. How do the students define the difference between reverencing an icon and idolatry? Have they ever encountered someone who accused them of idolatry because of having icons in their home and church? Talk together about Euphrosyne’s personal description of what an icon means to her. Challenge the students to think of the best way that they can describe what an icon means to them, so that when they meet with opposition or accusations, they can clearly express their intent with having and/or reverencing the icon.

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“‘So, I assume you’re here for one of these?’ [Dr. Snead] waves his hand from me to the icon. ‘Or both?’

‘Both,’ says Father Innocent.

‘How about we make a deal?’ says Dr. Snead. ‘I’ll give you one. You choose.’

‘Then I must take Euphrosyne.’

‘The sick orphan instead of a holy icon? Look at her. She won’t make it out to your car.’

‘There are two holy icons here,’ says Father.

Dr. Snead blinks in confusion.

‘And I believe St. Nicholas can take care of himself,’ Father Innocent says…” ~ from “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, pp. 180-181

Talk with your students about this passage. What does Father Innocent mean when he says that there are TWO icons in Dr. Snead’s office? There is St. Nicholas’ icon with the bullet hole and the bloodstain, and what/who else? Which icon is Fr. Innocent choosing to take with him? Do you think that is a good idea? Why or why not?

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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?

Gleanings from a Book: “The Suitcase” by Jane G. Meyer

Orthodox Christian author Jane G. Meyer has written a new picture book called “The Suitcase: a Story about Giving.” The book was illustrated by Chiara Pasqualotto. It is the story of Thomas, a boy who may be autistic but does not let his challenges keep him from being an active participant – even a leader – in entering the Kingdom of God while bringing others with him. Any reader, regardless of age, will be challenged to find ways to make God’s Kingdom happen in the world around them after meeting Thomas through this book.

Here is a brief summary and review of the book:

Thomas is like clockwork. He is so precise with his preferred activities that you can almost predict what he will do each day. So, when he randomly shows up at the family supper table one night with a suitcase, declaring that he intends to leave for the Kingdom of Heaven, it catches everyone’s attention, for this is far from his routine! With his family’s love and support, Thomas shares his plan, showing his family (and the reader) each item that he has packed and explaining why he has packed it. As he does so, Thomas unknowingly reveals how carefully he has been paying attention to teachings about the Faith, and unveils his commitment to following Christ, even though it means stepping away from his beloved routines.

The colorful watercolor illustrations in this picture book are gently realistic. They invite the reader to feel comfortable in Thomas’ home and with his family. There is just enough detail to illustrate the story in an orderly manner, just as Thomas likes his world to be organized. (There is also just enough missing in each illustration to leave room for the reader’s imagination, inciting curiosity.)

“The Suitcase” is full of scriptural references. The reader can’t help but try to make connections: What was Thomas thinking about when he packed this item? Where did he hear about that one? Where can I learn more about it?!? Parents and teachers will find in “The Suitcase” more than just a lovely story. They will find in it an opportunity to delve into the scriptures with their children, to ensure that they know the source of each of the contents in Thomas’ wonderful suitcase.

Readers of all ages will be challenged to think beyond their own routines, consider what they should be “packing” in their own suitcase, and then reach out into the Kingdom of Heaven by finding ways to love and serve all those around them. The resource page at the end offers an excellent place to begin!

“The Suitcase” will be a welcome addition to any Orthodox Christian library, and can easily be incorporated into a Sunday Church School class lesson or even a series of lessons. It could be the starting place for a series of lessons about the Kingdom of God and how we can make it happen right where we are! The book also provides an opportunity for Sunday Church School students to see through the eyes of a person living with autism, so it could be included in a series of lessons about different challenges that people face and how we need to embrace our own challenges while loving others with different challenges as we journey together towards God’s Kingdom.

Note: the author of this review was given a reading copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. Visit http://www.paracletepress.com/Products/7763/the-suitcase.aspx to order your own copy of the book.

Here are some other ways that you can help your Sunday Church School students to learn through the book “The Suitcase:”

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Read author Jane G. Meyer’s take on “The Suitcase,” including why she wrote the book, here: http://www.janegmeyer.com/books/the-suitcase/

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Take time to investigate the scripture passages that are alluded to in “The Suitcase.” You could incorporate them all into the same lesson, or have a series of lessons introduced after reading the book. Scriptural allusions include:

Feeding the hungry (Matthew 25:35)

Clothing the naked (Matthew 25:36)

Giving to those in need (Deuteronomy 15:11)

Being a good servant (Matthew 25:21)

Praying for the world (James 5:16)

Having Faith like a mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32; 17:20)

Talking less and listening more (James 1:19)

Entertaining angels (Hebrews 13:2)

Keeping ourselves pure (James 1:27)

Building things if God tells us to do so (Genesis 6:14-22)

The pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45-46)

The hidden treasure (Matthew 13:44)

Submitting to others (for example, allowing children to lead us) (Ephesians 5:17-21)

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Spend some time focusing on the Kingdom of Heaven as revealed in Christ’s parables. Read the parables with your students. Talk about them together. Here are two printable activity pages you could include in your study if your students enjoy such challenges:

Invite your students to seek and find words related to Christ’s parables about the Kingdom of Heaven in this printable word search: http://www.biblewise.com/kids/fun/hidden-word-kingdom-heaven

They can decipher this related verse, as well: http://www.biblewise.com/kids/fun/break-code-kingdom.php

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Find ideas of ways to teach younger students about Christ’s parables about the Kingdom of Heaven, as well as craft suggestions, here: http://adventuresinmommydom.org/parables-of-heaven-activities/

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“[The Suitcase] is the book I wanted…  when we were doing our HUGS-based lessons. The goal was to teach the children Christ’s words, ‘Do it to the least of these my brethren and you do it to Me’ (Matthew 25:40).” Read more of this mother/teacher’s review of “The Suitcase” in her blog post here: http://orthodoxmothersdigest.blogspot.com/2017/03/book-review-suitcase-by-jane-g-meyer.html

And find more about the HUGS program (including links to lesson ideas for each age level), which is a natural step to take with your students after reading “The Suitcase” here: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/05/15/hugs-hands-used-for-gods-service/

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This TED talk by Roger Antonsen (https://www.ted.com/talks/roger_antonsen_math_is_the_hidden_secret_to_understanding_the_world) explores the relationships in math and science, and what they teach us about perspective. When we shift our perspective, we learn more about the world around us. What we learn from math and science can be applied to our life as we interact with others. Consider this: “When I view the world from your perspective, I have empathy with you. If I really truly understand what the world looks like from your perspective, I am empathetic. That requires imagination and that is how we obtain understanding… Understanding something really deeply has to do with the ability to change your perspective. So my advice to you is, ‘try to change your perspective!’”

The talk could be an excellent way to extend the concept of stepping outside of your comfort zone (as demonstrated by Thomas in “The Suitcase”) in a discussion with teens. (Yes, it is possible to share a picture book with teens! Especially if they have a reason for listening to it!) Consider showing them the TED talk, then inviting them to think of how it relates to “The Suitcase” and share the book with them. THEN launch into a discussion of how the two relate, and how to apply the concept of changing our perspective, empathizing with others, and finding ways to serve them!

 

Gleanings from a Book: “In the Candle’s Glow” by Elizabeth Crispina Johnson

The picture book “In the Candle’s Glow” by Elizabeth Crispina Johnson captured my attention from the moment I saw it. The cover illustration radiates peace as the main character stands prayerfully, gently illumined by a row of candle flames dancing like fireflies as she prays. That juxtaposition of peace and joyful motion made me curious, anticipating what I would read within its pages.

When I slipped the book open, I was not disappointed. It starts with flowers and bees, all blowing and growing in the wind. The life of a candle actually begins in that place: in nature, beauty, wholeness, just as God created the world and meant it to be. Bees partake of that sweet beauty and do their own work of using it to create honey and wax to share with their hive. A pleasant-faced nun sings her way into the book, ready to collect both honey and beeswax, and next thing we know there are slender beeswax candles lying patiently in a church’s narthex awaiting their next job. At last the reader meets the young pray-er from the cover, who dances into the book with much enthusiasm. Once she arrives at the church doors, Felicia stills herself, signs herself with the cross, then prayerfully enters. She notices the color and aroma of the beeswax candles, recalling their history for a moment before selecting one and igniting it, initiating it to its next task: carrying prayers. Felicia quietly prays, and as she does, she sees her prayers hovering, illumined by the candle. She watches as a gentle breeze wafts through the window, carrying the smoke from her candle into the heavens. Her prayers ride along to meet the icon of Christ, which watches over Felicia and reminds her that Christ Himself receives her prayers!

Amandine Wanert’s playful illustrations bring to life the swaying flowers, buzzing bees, singing nun, and dancing Felicia in this story. They also illuminate the gentle glow of candles casting light and hope around the interior of an Orthodox church. Readers will relish the peace that they feel as they read their way from the gleeful buzz of sunny fields to the serenity of prayer in church.

Here are some ideas of ways to study ideas from the book with your Sunday Church School students:

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Help your Sunday Church School students learn about bees with these interesting hands-on activities: https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/explore-world-honeybees/

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This short video can introduce your students to bees and some of the amazing facts about them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ta154f5Rp5Y

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In “In the Candle’s Glow,” Sister Irene treasured the bees’ work and used some of their beeswax to make candles. Bees work together with monks in this American monastery, too, providing the monks with honey and a little income (the monks take the bees to places that need extra bees for pollination at certain times of the year) in exchange for a hive and plenty of flowers from which they can drink. Read more here: http://dowoca.org/news_140326_1.html. After reading, talk with your Sunday Church School students about the idea: how do the bees help the monks? How do the monks help the bees? In what ways are bees and monks the same? How do we benefit from both?

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After reading “In the Candle’s Glow,” talk with your students about beeswax. Show them a piece of honeycomb (and let them taste it, if they want to!) and talk about how the wax is made for storing the honey and the baby bees. Then talk about the process of turning honeycomb into beeswax candles. Help them to dip their own tiny beeswax candles, just like Sister Irene did in “In the Candle’s Glow.” To do so, have a small (perhaps a potpourri-simmering-size) pot of melted beeswax already heated when they come into class. Also before class, cover the table and floor with newspaper layers taped together to catch any wax drips and cut one or two 12” lengths of candlewick for each student. Fold each length of candlewick in half over a pencil and tape it in place. When you’re ready to begin the candle making process, show your students how to slowly dip their candlewick in the small pot of wax, then pull it out, allow it to cool for a while, then straighten it with their fingers. Allow each student to dip theirs, cool it a bit, and straighten it, then repeat the process. Depending on the temperature of the room, it will take anywhere from 10 to 15 dips to make a slender taper candle. While you take turns with the dipping process is a good time to talk about how peaceful and meditative this work is. Sometimes monks and nuns make candles like this, praying as they work. Perhaps the class can pray the Jesus Prayer together or sing a favorite troparion as you slowly take turns with the dipping process. Once the candles have reached your preferred width, the students can pull the tape off of their pencil and free their pair(s) of taper candles. Show the students how to cut the wick so that the two candles are separated. (You may also want to trim the bottom of each candle flat with a sharp knife on a thick piece of cardboard “cutting board” so that the students can more easily stand their candles upright in a candle stand or a candle holder.) Talk about how deep the wax needs to be, to make a long candle like the ones we light when we go into church. That would take a lot of melted wax! Talk about how long it takes someone to make the pile of candles waiting at church to be burned. In gratitude for that person’s hard work, encourage your students to consider saying a prayer for the person who made their candle, every time they light a candle at church. Gather your candles together and pray the prayer of blessing of the candles, found near the end of “In the Candle’s Glow.” Then allow the students to take their candles along home to use at their family prayer table, or encourage them to light them at church the next time they attend a service.

16682022_10210696526521083_1762604804850405088_nA heat-free beeswax candle-making option (better for younger students) would be to roll your own beeswax candles. Here’s a tutorial: http://playfullearning.net/2013/03/diy-hand-rolled-beeswax-candles/

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Why do we light candles when we pray? If you have older students, engage them in that question for a bit, then compare their answers to those of St. Symeon of Thessaloniki and St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite, as recorded here (under the same question, near the bottom of the page): http://www.stjohnsmayfield.org/what-is-orthodoxy-2/. Encourage them to talk about the answers of those two saints, comparing them to each other and to their own previous answers. Then, encourage your students and yourself to remember, as the page says, “For all these reasons cited by our Holy Fathers, let us often light our candles and make sure as much as possible that they be pure candles. We should abstain from all corruption and uncleanness, so that all of the above symbolism is made real in our Christian lives.”

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Allow your students to respond to the book “In the Candle’s Glow” with an art project. On dark paper, have them draw a candle (here’s one way: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGOFC6ahnVw) with chalk, oil pastels, gel pens, white or metallic pencils: any medium that shows up nicely on the black paper. Then have your students smudge the candle’s “glow” around its flame. Inside that glow, encourage them to write a prayer; the names of people for whom they want to pray; or a drawing of the people’s faces for whom they are praying.

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://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2016/05/27/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 or 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. It would be an excellent book to use for discussion (or a book club) if your Sunday Church School class is composed of pre-teen girls! 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/

A Handful of Helpful Books

At the the Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education, we are always on the lookout for great resources for parents. Whenever we discover some that will be beneficial, we do our best to pass them on to you! This week’s blog is about a handful of books that have come to our attention recently. They are written for children at a variety of ages. We hope that you find them helpful. We also hope to periodically offer you more “handfuls” of books that come our way!

13064502_10208132571623813_5266007699731931930_oFor the youngest children among us, we have found the board book called What Do You See at Liturgy? By Kristina Kallas-Tartara. This brightly-colored board book is filled with pictures of what a child will see when they go to the Divine Liturgy. The text is simple, with a delightful rhyming pattern. The photos are basic, featuring only the item being discussed on a white background, but the colorful photos are crisp and engaging. This book is the perfect size for little hands, and offers us an opportunity to help our wee ones enter into the service when their attention needs to be redirected. To learn more about this book, and/or to purchase it for a little one in your life, visit https://www.etsy.com/listing/196402444/what-do-you-see-at-liturgy-orthodox?ref=shop_home_listings.

13062316_10208132571223803_2347741077465837668_nYou may remember our blog post about Marjorie Kunch’s book, When My Baba Died. (Check out the blog if you missed it before, so that you are aware of this wonderful resource for parents to use to help their preschool-through-elementary-aged children learn about an Orthodox funeral: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/06/26/gleanings-from-a-book-when-my-baba-died-by-marjorie-kunch/.) We recently learned that Marjorie Kunch has also published a companion workbook to go with the book! When My Baba Died Activity Workbook is a full-sized workbook that parents and children can read through and complete together as a way to familiarize children with the Orthodox Christian funeral service and its components. The activity workbook has activities at a variety of levels, for many different ages of readers. Among other activities, there are coloring pages, drawing spaces, places to process the experience through writing, word searches, prayers to pray together, and even a recipe for Koliva! This activity book partners well with the book itself and will be helpful for parents to use to help their children learn more about what happens when a loved one departs this life. We recommend reading and working through these books before a child experiences a loss. It could also work to have them on hand to use in the event of a loss, but when such a difficult time happens to a family, there is so much going on that it may be challenging to even find the time to process in this way. That is why we recommend using them before a child’s first experience with the departure of a loved one. If your Sunday Church School class has read and worked in these books together, when a family member departs this life for one of your students, their parents will be able to pull these books out and revisit them, pointing out, “remember talking and learning about this? See, this is what we will experience with grandpa’s funeral today…” To purchase either book, or both of them together, visit http://www.paschapress.com/services.html.

13051693_10208132570823793_4281369946063680263_nSeveral years ago when it was first published, we asked two young people to evaluate Hear Me: A Prayer Book for Orthodox Teens, written/compiled by Annalisa Boyd. You may have read their evaluations here: http://www.antiochian.org/christianeducation/hearme. The third book we want to feature in this handful is the second edition of Hear Me. This edition is a smaller size at 4”x6”, so it is quite comfortable to hold and easy to fit in a backpack or a back pocket. Although it is smaller, the new edition contains additional prayers. It also answers more questions that young people have, and it tackles even more of the difficult subjects that young people face. This tiny book contains much needed help for our high school and young adult children, sweetly wrapped in a pleasant, “able-to-be-used-in-public-by-young-people” cover. 12932769_10208132571023798_421223402898251662_nIt is an excellent addition to any Orthodox Christian young person’s library. Purchase one (or a handful) for the youth in your life here: http://store.ancientfaith.com/hear-me-a-prayer-book-for-orthodox-young-adults/

So, there is our current handful of helpful books. What books have you recently found helpful that the rest of our community may benefit from? We’d love to know what is in YOUR hand! Please comment below to share your suggestions with the rest of us! Thank you in advance!

Here are a few more resources related to each of the above books. You will find additional educational ideas and spiritual encouragement at each site. Pass the links on to the parents of the children in your Sunday Church School class as well, if you think they would benefit from visiting these pages!

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What Do You See at Liturgy? By Kristina Kallas-Tartara is a lovely little board book about church and is worth noting of its own accord. However, it led us also to the the author’s blog page, called “Raising Orthodox Christians” (https://raisingorthodoxchristians.com/). The blog is a wonderful resource of its own! Check out the page to find blogs about Orthodoxy, teaching children, activities that will help children to learn more about the Faith, and recipes for allergy-friendly fasting.

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Follow Pascha Press (the publisher of the When My Baba Died Activity Workbook ) on Facebook for encouragement, tidbits of humor, and additional resources related to parenting and/or the departure of loved ones. https://www.facebook.com/paschapress/?fref=ts

A side note: the publisher selects an Orthodox-related charity to receive a tithe of their income for each quarter of the year! Find out the current charity at http://www.paschapress.com/about.html.

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Annalisa Boyd, the author of Hear Me, has also written two other books: The Ascetic Lives of Mothers and Special Agents of Christ. Both are wonderful resources for Orthodox Christian families. She also offers many ideas and encouragements for moms/parents/teachers in her podcast at http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/asceticlives and on her facebook page https://www.facebook.com/theasceticlivesofmothers/timeline.