AS PARENTS come to know, children love not only adventure stories, but ones which tell something about the past. A girl of 8 once put the matter to me this way: "I like hearing what went on a long time ago, and why it happened." The why is important to consider -- her interest not only in history, but in ethical reflection. These days, many of us who are all too taken with psychology and sociology, forget how important it is for children to gain some sense of life's purpose -- and how useful, in that regard, story-telling can be.
No wonder, then, that the Bible continues to interest even children brought up in the secular part of late 20th-century America. In many agnostic homes I visit in connection with my work I hear references made to the Old or New Testaments, and questions asked about those books by boys and girls. Lore Segal, who in The Book of Adam to Moses (Knopf, $13.95; all ages) has given us a vigorous, lucid translation of parts of the Old Testament, explains in a preface why those young people continue to have such an interest, such curiosity: "The Bible is not a book only of religion, laws, lessons -- of the answers antiquity gave to the ur-questions. The teachings come to us in the form of incomparable stories with characters who, like ourselves, act both familiarly and incomprehensibly . . . The narrative mode is subtle, devious, double and triple. It is funny. The stories enter your life. It is no wonder the book's been two and a half thousand years on the best-seller list. How can we bear for our children to miss this?"
That last question is well worth consideration. For millions, obviously, the Bible has by no means been put aside. Children the world over read continually from both the Old and New Testaments, and indeed, commit to memory certain passages from both. But many parents in today's America have no great interest in religion, and no desire that their children go to church or synagogue. Such parents are also not especially eager to have their children become acquainted with the Bible -- though, if that is the case, their children will be missing something quite special, should they decide to deny them Lore Segal's biblical translation and Leonard Baskin's accompanying illustrations. Their book is meant to bring children close to the old Hebrew stories, and succeeds wonderfully in doing so. The words are strong, inviting and rendered so as to preserve the ancient Biblical cadences, yet prove accessible to contemporary readers: "And a mist rose out of the ground and watered the fields, and the Lord God formed a man out of the dust of the field. Into his nostrils He blew the breath of life, and man became a living creature."
As the reader comes across such felicitous prose, he or she is also invited by a distinguished artist to look inward, to grant leeway to the visual imagination. Leonard Baskin (exactly the right illustrator for this book) emphasizes the seriousness of certain dramatic moments (Abraham's sacrifice of his son Isaac, Jacob's wrestling encounter with an angel) but does so with enough gentleness, tenderness and even whimsicality to ensure, overall, a decidedly welcoming tone. His animals are charming -- shrewd observers of mankind's spells of turmoil or ethical testing. His biblical figures (the great heroes and heroines of covenantal Judaism) are done with obvious respect, and in each case one feels the noble dignity of the person and the enormous significance of the particular event. These are illustrations that deserve (and no doubt will achieve) their own assembled moment in a museum; meanwhile, they seem wonderfully at home with Lore Segal's prose -- a running pictorial boost to an already visionary text.
OTHER ARTISTS have also recently turned their attention to the Bible: Warwick Hutton, in the exuberantly lush and suggestive watercolors of his Adam and Eve: The Bible Story (Margaret K. McElderry/Macmillan, $13.95; all ages); Tomie de Paola, in his direct and endearing pictures of moments in the life of Christ, in two books -- The Parables of Jesus and The Miracles of Jesus (Holiday House, $14.95 each; ages 6-up); and Charles Mikolaycak, in his vigorous illustrations to Miriam Chaikin's Exodus (Holiday House, $14.95; all ages). None of these illustrators has hesitated to offer a point of view, and the result is for the good -- a stimulus to introspection.
Hutton's naturalistic emphasis reminds us how overwhelming the world of trees and plants and animals and rivers and mountains must have been to our ancestors, just as today, for all our technological prowess, floods, earthquakes and droughts frighten us, unnerving reminders that we are mere passing witnesses to a world of infinite time and space whose mysteries will -- forever, it seems -- tease and taunt us. Mikolaycak wants us to remember how long and hard a struggle was Israel's -- the effort of a people to obtain personal freedom and to hear God's voice, become their commandments. He offers vivid, arresting images, worthy of the Bible's powerful narrative. For Tomie de Paola, Jesus is not just another human being -- but neither was He an intimidating figure, beyond the everyday comprehension of His friends and foes alike. He is delightfully a peasant, a warmly engaging traveler, teacher, healer; and the simplicity of his appearance, the lack of affectation and self-importance in these pictures all goes to make a point -- that Christ came not as a big shot, but as a humble being with whom many of us, alas, would not be taken, were He to appear today in one or another neighborhood.
Tomie de Paola has also recently illustrated Tomie de Paola's Book of Christmas Carols (Putnam's, $17.95) and An Early American Christmas (Holiday House, $14.95; all ages). In both instances his pictures make the same point -- that Christmas is meant to connect with our ongoing lives in a simple, lively way -- stir our hearts, prompt our minds to think of others as much as of ourselves. These books do not, however, lapse into self-indulgence or sentimentality. The artist can be austere and hieratic at moments -- reminding us that he is not merely summoning us to a village song-fest or a folksy time with a nice fellow who had a few fetching phrases to offer. The sacred remains the subject of each book.
No city, arguably, is more sacred than Jerusalem -- home to three of the world's major faiths. Karla Kuskin's Jerusalem Shining Still (Harper & Row, $12.70; ages 6-up), a charming book for children, tells about the proud and sad moments in the history of that still magical city. The text is lean, yet evocative: "Sit beside me. The sky is getting lighter. The sun comes up behind the ridge. It puts gold on the crescents and stars of the mosque, gold on the crosses of the churches. It touches the Western Wall and turns the old, enormous stones pure white." A nice way of bringing together faiths all too often estranged from one another, even though they share such intimate quarters -- the same sun shining on them with that soft, mesmerizing glow so many visitors to Jerusalem remember years later as they think of prayerful Jews swaying gently before their wall, of shoeless Moslems similarly calling upon God in one of the city's mosques, of Christians walking the Via Dolorosa, and trying to imagine how Jesus looked, how others looked as they saw Him. David Frampton's woodcuts encourage solemn contemplation -- a sense of awe at what has happened to so many for so long in one place.
All of the above books draw directly on the Bible, or on stories and songs which have become associated with its religious message. Charles Dickens also called upon the Bible when he wrote, in 1846, The Life of Our Lord (Silver Burdett, $11.95; all ages), so that his own children would get to know who Jesus was, how He lived, and most importantly, what values and ideals He upheld in the course of his brief life. Dickens was, of course, a marvelous story-teller, but he was also an unashamed moralist, and he obviously enjoys the chance to lend his voice to Jesus, to assert once more the kind of message he kept working into his novels -- the goodness of ordinary people, if they are given half a chance by a world all too often their worst enemy. Jesus and Dickens often merge, naturally -- both advocates of the poor, the ailing, the "rebuked and scorned," and both enemies of the rich, the powerful, the smug and self-satisfied.
This is a moral fable written by a novelist who loved Jesus, but harbored a great skepticism (to put it mildly) toward institutional Christianity. There was in Dickens a fiery populism which kept company with a tenderness toward the vulnerable and the needy -- a mix one can without difficulty also find in the statements Jesus made during his life. No wonder 19 centuries were not enough to keep the two apart. Dickens reaches out to his Lord with great affection, and tries hard to spring His moral message free of all intermediaries, the interpreters who have claimed Him in such diverse (and often conflicting) ways. :: Robert Coles is Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities at Harvard and the author of "The Moral Life of Children" and "The Political Life of Children."