Sophia Institute Press has produced a most attractive and original book for girls, roughly of the age range 6-9. It is Our Lady’s Wardrobe by Anthony DeStefano, illustrated by Juliana Kolesova. The illustrations are at least as important as the text, which is a four-line verse on each page, alongside a full-page colour picture of Our Lady in the clothes she would have worn in life and for her apparitions. For Mary of the Gospels these are clothes of the period; other pictures include Our Lady of Guadalupe, with the image she imprinted on Juan Diego’s tilma; as the verse says, “In Guadalupe, Mexico/her dress was tinted red/A turquoise veil with yellow stars/flowed down from Mary’s head.” Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal has a traditional blue cloak; Our Lady of Lourdes is as St Bernadette describes her; and Our Lady of Fatima as recalled by the three young seers.
It is one of those books which allows children to absorb Catholic teaching through images, without providing doctrinal explanations, yet enough to stimulate questions and to come to appreciate the unique role played by Our Lady throughout human history. The Miraculous Medal itself, worn by countless Catholics, refers to Mary’s own immaculate conception; and at Lourdes children meet St Bernadette, one of the most loveable saints of the last two hundred years. Rather than giving money for a young girl’s First Communion, this would make a memorable gift.
And speaking of books for children, Bethlehem Books has republished another classic story for the age range 11-up (read-aloud 9-up.) It is Drovers Road by Joyce West, a story set in rural New Zealand in the early 1950s and the first of a trilogy. I read it from start to finish in one evening, not because it was easy to read, but because it had a distinctive natural charm that hooked me, that modern stories for young people don’t have – simply because it describes an unsophisticated pre-technological world, i.e. pre-iPhones and the internet. As older people raised before the 1960s would recognise, it was a less complicated time, where traditional family values were implicit, indeed the norm, and where children – especially in the countryside where this story is set – were given freedom to roam about on their own, without being constantly monitored or organised.
The author herself grew up in the world she describes; the landscape, the flora, the eccentric countryfolk and above all the horses which the children learn to ride at a young age – there being little public transport and few proper roads – are lovingly recreated in vivid detail. For the reader, it provides a kind of nostalgic envy for a world that even most English children growing up in the same post-war period would never have experienced.
The unusual household of the story of which the young narrator, Gay Allan, is a part, is a large feature of this charm. Looked after by her bachelor Uncle Dunsany on a rural homestead along with her three orphaned cousins, a home presided over with wise and affectionate rigour by an unmarried elderly relation, Aunt Belle, she learns the enduring values of loyalty, honesty and generosity in the midst of mishaps, odd encounters and not a few dramas. It need hardly be said that the story breathes real life, inhabited by real people – not a modern manufactured world of “issues’” and “problems’” that young people today are forced to encounter in their fiction.