Tag Archives: Read Aloud

Gleanings from a Book: “A Gift for Matthew” By Nick Muzekari, Illustrated By Masha Lobastov

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:  

  1. “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.
  2. “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/.
  3. “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/.

Gleanings from a Book: “When My Baba Died” by Marjorie Kunch

How do you help a child to process what occurs when a beloved family member or friend passes away? What do you say? How can you explain what the child will see, feel, and experience? If you have ever been in this position, you most likely asked yourself these questions and then did the best that you could to answer them and help the child. If you have not yet had this happen, you are blessed. Either way, allow me to introduce you to a resource that will help you help them if/when someone precious to you and/or your child(ren) passes away.

Mortician (and mother) Marjorie Kunch has written a wonderfully helpful book to familiarize Orthodox Christian children ages 4 to 8 with what happens after the loss of an Orthodox Christian loved one. When My Baba Died features color photos and the story of a little girl from the moment she learns about her baba’s death all the way through her baba’s funeral service, graveside service, and memorial service. The story is told from the little girl’s perspective, and everything is explained as she observes and begins to understand it.

Every page is illustrated with photos of the little girl and/or what she is experiencing. The photos were taken with such attention to detail that the reader feels as though the story is taking place before their eyes. The first time I read this book, I thought, “Wow, it’s really nice to have such thorough pictures of this story, but how difficult it must have been for the photographer to take them without being in the way of the family during this significant and difficult event in their lives!” When I later learned that the photos were all staged, I was happy that no family had a photographer snapping photos during their loved one’s funeral, and at the same time I was amazed at how realistically the photos communicate the story! (A side note: at no point in the book do you see the “departed loved one.” All the photos cleverly hide the fact that the photo essay was staged and that the casket was in fact empty!)

There is so much terminology for a child to learn when their loved one departs. Throughout the story, important related words such as “grief,” “funeral,” “casket,” “grave,” and “koliva” are presented gently but clearly. Each new vocabulary word is appropriately introduced in context, and many are referred to again later in the story, to help cement their meaning in young readers’ minds. There is a glossary at the end of the book as well, with simple definitions for many of the new terms used in the book.

Tucked into When My Baba Died here and there are snatches of scripture or portions of the services and prayers that relate to that part of the story. These can be read aloud along with the story or can just act as a gentle reminder to the adult reader of what is happening at that point in the process. It is up to the reader to decide how to include them.

Readers in our community who have been following our blog regularly may well remember Carol Federoff’s suggestion in our blog “On the Cross of Christ and Leading Children Through Holy Week” with regard to discussing death with children. She wrote, “Use picture books that deal with death… Don’t wait until someone significant in their life passes… pick these books now… so that this subject can be a gentle introduction rather than dealing with it after such a crisis in their life.” When My Baba Died is an excellent book for just such a purpose. It can be read as a story and is a helpful discussion-starter even without the context of having just lost a loved one. It will, however, be even more invaluable to a family with young children when one of their beloved members has just departed this life. This book provides a child-friendly way for young Orthodox Christians to process what they will experience when someone they love passes away.

Read more about the book (how it came to be, etc.), find out where to purchase your own copy, and discover what else this brand new publisher, Pascha Press, is up to at their website at http://www.paschapress.com/home.html.

Here are a few other resources for helping children who are experiencing grief:


Find age-appropriate ideas for helping children through grief and tragedy here: http://www.goarch.org/special/september11/archival/youth/developmental


Read an excellent and very personal article (based on Albert Rossi’s experience with his own children when his wife departed this life) on talking to children about death here: http://oca.org/the-hub/the-church-on-current-issues/talking-to-children-about-death


Here are basic (Christian, but not specifically Orthodox) ideas of ways to help your child grieve: http://www.focusonthefamily.com/parenting/your-childs-emotions/how-to-help-your-child-grieve/how-to-help-your-child-grieve


Always and Forever by Alan Durant discusses the death of a friend and how the memory of them helps them to live on in your heart. http://www.amazon.com/Always-Forever-Alan-Durant/dp/015216636X

After reading this book together, talk about how the friends ended up remembering fox and what they did in his memory. Then, discuss what we in the Orthodox Church do together to remember those who have departed this life (memorial services, koliva or bread, Saturday of Souls, Bright Monday graveside service, etc.). After that, do something together to remember the person who the child is grieving: make koliva together for their memorial service, make something the person enjoyed making or eating, go where the person enjoyed going, or do an act of service in their honor.


Read I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm to help children talk about what happens when a pet dies. http://www.amazon.com/Ill-Always-Love-Hans-Wilhelm/dp/0517572656

On Read-Aloud Books

*Note: these notes/blogs are usually written in third person. This one, however, is personal in nature and therefore is written as a conversation with you, the reader. May the book suggestions bring you and your family at least as much joy as they have brought to mine!


Welcome to my backyard. Have a seat on my bench, and let me read you a story… Oops, maybe I should clear it off first!?! It is covered in dear friends: favorite books that our family has read aloud and loved. Some of them we’ve read more than once. Most of them have been read (and re-read) by my kids after we read them aloud to the family. I’ll tell you what: let me introduce you to them as I move them!

Featured image

First, I’d like you to meet some of our family’s favorite picture books. From before my children were born, and throughout their childhood, I have read to them with great frequency. Even though both of my kids are teens now, they still enjoy hearing a great story. Once in a while, we even *still* read picture books together. Here is a sampling of our favorites:


It is great fun to learn about other cultures through their stories. I am especially drawn to folktales from those other cultures, so my kids have heard hundreds of folktales. Here are just a few examples of ones we have enjoyed:


Our family loves to laugh. We like the clever use of words in silly poetry. Here are a few of the books we’ve giggled over again and again. Some of them we still quote on a regular basis!


We have always read stories from the scriptures with our children. Books like these have been helpful to bring the stories to the kids’ level, telling them in ways the children were able to understand. Now that the children are teens, we daily read the Epistle and the Gospel as well as a saint’s story from a spiral-bound calendar from http://livesofthesaintscalendar.com/. Here are a sampling of Bible story books we read together when the children were younger:


We have read many Orthodox Christian books together along the way. Unfortunately for you, dear reader, we tend to lend these books out when we finish them… So, favored tomes such as “Facing East” and “The Scent of Holiness” are gracing other homes at the moment and could not be included in this photo. But we do currently have part of our great Orthodox read-aloud material still at home. Here are a few examples:


Probably the best loved of all the “friends” in that first picture are the chapter books. These have been read, re-read, and discussed from the time when our children were little through the present. These are stories, yes, but they also become springboards to discussion. Chapter books provide opportunities to delve into the lives of others and point out what they’ve done right and wrong, without judging another person. They offer the chance to strengthen our children’s faith as together we read about, discuss, and thereby learn from the characters and what happens to them in these books. (And apparently we are not alone! Listen to this podcast about how quality literature led an atheist into the Faith: http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/recollectingglory/interview_with_holly_ordway!) Many of the friends pictured here are just one part of a series, all of which we have inhaled and lingered over. Have we loved them? Look at their book covers and decide for yourself:


Aaah! Now we can see the bench!  Have a seat (pardon the sap drops from our pine tree)! I’d like to read you a story.


Which one should we read first?

*Added note: following are a few examples from many of the children’s book categories above, that will hopefully inspire you to think of ways to use children’s literature in your Sunday Church School classroom!


Here are a few of my favorite picture books from the photo above, with descriptions that may help you think of ways to use them in the Sunday Church School classroom:

“Tacky the Penguin” is a story of doing what is right in the face of ridicule and danger, in order to save others. It also contains a strong message of being who you’re created to be; not what everyone else seems to think you should be.
“Pink and Say” is the story of great love between friends, regardless of race.
“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” lends itself to discussion about attitudes and how to handle when things do not go our way.

There are so many picture books that are appropriate to use with lessons in the Sunday Church School classroom. Children of many different ages will enjoy hearing these stories, and they can be a great springboard to discussion. Challenge yourself to read a new-to-you picture book frequently (they don’t take long to read!), and keep a list of any books that you could possibly add to your curriculum. Remember to also list their theme(s)!


Because of their very nature of having been created to entertain while teaching, folktales are an excellent resource for Sunday Church School teachers.

Some are directly related to Christian life: for example, “The Tale of Three Trees” is a folktale that tells the story of three trees with big dreams that ended up being the manger, a ship, and the cross of Christ. The story alludes to the fact that it is good to have big dreams, and God can use us best when we are faithful in the work He lays before us, whether or not it is ‘what we dreamed of doing.’

Others are easily related to our lives as Christians: for example, “The Mitten” would lend itself to discussions of hospitality and/or helping others who are in need. (An aside: see interesting background information about the book at http://www.janbrett.com/bookstores/mitten_book.htm!)


There are many Bible story books available to read aloud. Find a variety of Bible story books at http://www.christianbook.com/page/bibles/childrens-bibles/bibles-storybooks. You could also read some Bible stories together online at  http://theminiark.com/. Or let me read a Bible story to you: listen to this week’s Gospel re-telling or reading, voiced by the author of this week’s note/blog, at http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/letusattend.


Orthodox books are wonderful read-alouds that can be used in the Sunday Church School classroom. They can add to the learning experience, whether or not they relate directly to the lesson being taught. Finding time to read them to the children can be a challenge, but if your students are eating their snack in your class after Divine Liturgy, they can certainly listen while they eat! Or, if you have a planned craft or art activity that associates with the lesson, you could read to them while they work.

Books like “Grandmother’s Spiritual Stories,” that are full of stories of the saints, can be read one chapter at a time, exposing the children to the lives of the saints in a child-friendly manner.

“Basil’s Search For Miracles” is an excellent modern-day story of a boy’s encounter with miracles, which leads him slowly to following Christ and loving the Church. Again, one chapter at a time would be a great way to share this book.
“Sweet Song” is a lovely picture book that tells the story of St. Romanos and how he became ‘the melodist,’ in a miracle that happened on Christmas Eve. This book lends itself to discussions about miracles, saints, sacred music, and works well to be used around Christmas because of the timing of the miracle!


As you consider books to share in your classroom, be sure to check out your church’s bookstore or library, and seek great Orthodox options!


Sunday Church School teachers may not be able to read entire chapter books from mainstream children’s literature to their students because of their length and the time constraints of the SCS class period. As a teacher, however, you should be aware of what is available in children’s literature, so that you can point students to books that relate to your lessons. There could be time to read selected portions of appropriate literature to add to the discussions in your classroom, as they fit.

For example, a selection from “Many Waters” would enhance a discussion on Noah and his family, for older children. “Mrs. Piggle Wiggle” contains chapters on selfishness, bickering, etc., that could easily fit into lessons about these topics. The “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” chapter about Father Christmas is lovely to read around Nativity, and the chapters on Aslan’s death and resurrection would be great ones to read around Pascha.

The more familiar you are with wonderful children’s literature, the better you will be able to read selections or recommend to your Sunday Church School students, so that they can read the books themselves. What is the best way to learn about what is out there? Read it for yourself!!!


As the Nativity season approaches, Sunday Church School teachers may want to consider reading aloud books that will help the children to prepare for the Nativity. Here are a few Advent/Nativity books that can be helpful to that end: