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Wednesday, 19 December 2012 00:00

Re-discovering a child’s outlook and a sense of humor

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bookAlthough its publisher marketed Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever as a children’s book, this touching story of a mother’s love for her boy and the subsequent love and care of the boy for his mother in her old age soon became an enormous hit among adults. When the book was at the height of its popularity, you could see grown-ups in libraries and bookstores weeping as they read the book. Parents who read the book to their children at bedtime often became so choked up with tears that they couldn’t finish the story.

Meanwhile, of course, the listening pre-schooler didn’t quite get the point of the book. In my own household, my sons would ask questions like “Why is the man climbing into his mother’s house on a ladder?”

William Joyce’s The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (ISBN 978-1-4424-5702-7, $17.99) will undoubtedly produce this same sentimental reaction among bibliophiles everywhere. The story begins when writer and reader Morris Lessmore — say those two names aloud a few times for the word-play — has his books, writing, and house devastated by a storm. After a period of wandering, Morris finds an enormous old house filled with books, a place where Morris can hear “the faint chatter of a thousand different stories, as if each book was whispering an invitation to adventure.” It is in this house where “Morris’s life among the books began.”

During the day, Morris reads the books, dusts them, repairs them. At night, he writes in his own book of “his joys and sorrows, of all that he knew and everything that he hoped for.” The years pass, and Morris grows old. Finally, the day comes when he must say goodbye to his books and writing. He flies away, changing “back to the way he’d been that long ago day when they’d all first met.” In the final pages of the story, a girl visits the house, where Morris’s book entices her inside to become another lover of books.

Joyce’s story and the hauntingly beautiful illustrations by Joe Bluhm make this paean to literature a must-have for the home library of every book-lover. Rarely has any tale, whether intended for children or adults, described what it means to love books as well and as beautifully as The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. The power of this love will stay with readers long after they have turned the final page.

•••

Another fine gift for the Christmas season is The Book of Saints: A Day-By-Day Illustrated Encyclopedia (978-1-61628-451-0, $27.95). Stuffed with information about the saints, ranging from explanations of reliquaries to the process by which a human being is declared a saint in heaven, The Book of Saints is a treasure chest of Christian doctrine, art criticism, and Church history. The stories of the saints are vividly told, though the authors maintain a shy skepticism about some of the more far-fetched miracles.

The most stunning part of this gorgeous book, however, is the artwork. The gilded haloes surrounding the heads of the saints on the book’s cover; the many reproductions both by the great masters and lesser-known artists; the numerous smaller inserts of paintings, medallions, and statues; the six hundred works of art presented in this book will dazzle those who open its pages.

Although the majority of the five hundred saints depicted here are associated with the Catholic Church, The Book of Saints also includes many men and women who were not Catholic, among them Martin Luther King Jr., Quaker George Fox, Anglican Florence Nightingale, Methodist John Wesley, and others.

For the devout and the culturally curious, The Book of Saints is a grand resource.

•••

In these somewhat grim times, when, for so many people, politics have become a religion and heretic a designation for those who disagree with them, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life (ISBN 978-0-06-202425-1, $14.99) by James Martin, SJ, offers a resting place of laughter and wisdom.

At first glance, a compendium of jokes and pithy adages on the value of joy by different writers, readers who explore the book will find here a call to live a life filled with delight, joy, and gratitude. At the heart of the book, in the chapter titled “I’m Not Funny and My Life Stinks,” Martin takes readers through the challenges of living a joyful life by means of questions and responses. He points out that while we cannot be joyful all the time — “sadness,” he writes, “is the natural response to pain, suffering, and tragedy” — we can nonetheless seek joy when these three conditions are absent. He offers counsel here to those who seem to live under a perpetual cloud, to those who contend that the environment in which they live — a difficult family life, a harsh workplace — condemns them to depression and sadness, to those who feel they are incapable of experiencing joy.

The jokes are good (don’t miss the one about the nuns and the baseball game), the tone light, the topic important. If the holidays have you down, if you’re afflicted by S.A.D. (seasonal affective disorder) or by S.O.D. (Santa’s outta dough), if you need reminding, as Chesterton once said, that angels can fly because they take themselves lightly and that you could grow a pair of wings yourself, then pick up a copy of Between Heaven and Mirth.

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