BIBLE STORIES. The phrase evokes images of yet another retelling of "Noah's Ark" or a collection of the most familiar Biblical tales stripped of their drama and human emotion and reduced to a series of pious sentimental tracts. While the religious stories of other cultures (which we classify as mythology) have become a staple of children's literature and their primal themes sometimes have been evoked with power and honesty, stories from our own Bible are seldom grappled with by writers and illustrators of picture books. When they approach the Bible, they do so gingerly and self-consciously. The unanswered need in this area is reflected in the discouragement felt by many parents who want to introduce their children to Biblical material but find bookstore shelves stocked with only the most saccharine and lackluster religious publications.
Two recent books, I Am Joseph and The Binding of Isaac, both written by Barbara Cohen and illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak, successfully combat the stereotype of the Bible storybook. Both volumes, well-written and handsomely illustrated, suggest an interesting nontraditional approach to the presentation of traditional materials. In the hands of author and illustrator, the ancient themes from the Story of the Patriarchs come to life with drama and a sense of immediacy.
Cohen unfolds the long tale of Joseph the Dreamer in the form of a first-person narrative and shows how his divinely inspired powers of dream interpretation guide his fate. The writer gives us a dramatic account of Joseph's bloody betrayal at the hands of his resentful brothers and of his subsequent slavery.
Joseph rises through diligence to a position of responsiblity in the household of his Egyptain master. His master's faithless wife attempts unsuccessfully to seduce Joseph. Spurned, she turns on him in anger and falsely accuses him of betraying her husband. Joseph is disgraced and cast into prison.
Again Joseph uses his special powers of divination and correctly interprets the dream of a fellow prisoner, the pharaoh's baker. As predicted, the baker is exonerated, then promptly forgets his debt of gratitude to the innocent Joseph.
Redeemed at last, Joseph becomes a powerful lord in the land to which he was brought in slavery. He receives emissaries from his native Canaan. They are his brothers, seeking to buy grain for their famine-ridden land. Unrecognized, the compassionate Joseph tests and challenges them. In a series of moving encounters, the estranged brothers are reconciled and vow to remain in Egypt "so long as God wills."
Artist Mikolaycak's heavy, representational illustrations for I Am Joseph are solid and brooding. Set against richly hued Egyptian motifs, the drawings of the main characters have an exotic aura. These figures are earthy and forthright, in keeping with the story, though several posses a sensuality that may make some readers uncomfortable. Scenes are often depicted in close-up with significant gestures frozen and set off by a frame. The result is sometimes static but the images have enough mystery and ambiguity to be continually interesting.
The earlier volume, The Binding of Isaac (Lothrop, Lee and Shepard. 32 pp. $7.95. Ages 7-10) by the same author-illustrator team, also employs the device of the first-person narrative. Isaac, now old and blind, recounts for his grandchildren the harrowing tale of his near-sacrifice at the hands of his father, Abraham. More than any other Biblical character, children must identify with the boy Isaac as he lies bound like a lamb on the altar of sacrifice, his father's knife poised above him.
Isaac's presence as storyteller, however, removes at the outset the element of suspense from what must surely be one of the most suspenseful episodes of the Bible. In Cohen's redaction, Saac's grandchildren are bewildered by his tale and cannot believe their parents would dream of such a thing even if commanded to do so by God. The message is redirected from the timeless and universal to the historical and specific. The emphasis is on gratitude for being alive while contemplating why some are spared and others are not. The point is underscored by the illustrator's depiction of the doomed children of the Holocaust glimpsed through the smoke of the sacrificial fire.
Mikolaycak's art for The Binding of Isaac is animated and full of force. Swirls of smoke and flame create self-contained compositions that are bold and emblematic. There is assurance in these drawings, suggesting they flowed readily from the artist's hand, and the result glows with energy.
These two volumes represent an earnest and interesting attempt to interpret a very rich Biblical heritage. One hopes this writer and illustrator continues to evolve a style and form that will make Bible stories live anew for young readers.