Teaching about God and Noah has never looked so good

Illustrations can make or break a children’s book. In “Let’s Talk About God” and “On Noah’s Ark,” we have two winners.

The first, a completely updated re-release of the 1953 original by Dorothy Kripke, features all new illustrations by Christine Tripp. Her bright watercolors show happy children, docile animals and loving families, be they people, birds or ducks. There’s a comic feel to the characters — some of the children wear silly expressions or oversize eyeglasses, and even the butterflies smile — but there’s a hint of the real world, too.

The illustrations have both black and white children, and not everyone is carefree all the time. People make mistakes, the reader learns. Just take a look at the little girl who hits a baseball through her neighbor’s window! But if we say “I’m sorry” and really mean it, we’re told, usually all is forgiven.

Tripp’s pictures perfectly counterbalance the weight of the text, which addresses a heavy topic: God. Written as a resource for parents who want to teach their children about God, the book is earmarked for ages 5 to 9. To the author’s credit (Kripke, a writer, teacher of Hebrew and high school English, and the wife of a rabbi, died four years ago), the concepts are relatively easy to grasp. Also, though Jewish ethics are discussed, they are not bogged down by religious dictates. Instead, Kripke uses both simple verse and conversational text to reach young minds.

For example, the two-page section, “We Cannot See God,” begins this way:

“God is never seen,

“And yet we know that God is there,

“Because we see the things God does

“And feel God’s loving care.”

Then it continues:

“We cannot see many things. We cannot see the wind. But we see autumn leaves flying and dancing … We see a bright green kite sailing in the sky. Then we know the wind is there.”

It goes on to discuss love, which cannot be seen but can be felt “in a hug or a smile or a friendly look or a warm touch. We feel love in many ways, but we never see love.” The accompanying, feel-good watercolor shows a barefoot girl in a tree, holding a contented cat that is gazing at a visiting squirrel.

Other short sections tackle similarly difficult concepts, such as “God tells us what to do” and “God is everywhere.”

Jan Brett’s beautifully illustrated “On Noah’s Ark,” on the other hand, skips the why’s. Without any reference to God, and through the voice of Noah’s unnamed granddaughter, Brett simply sketches the biblical story of the flood. Using brief text and bold illustrations, she conveys how the earth’s creatures boarded Noah’s ark, two by two, and crowded together in the ship for 40 days and nights until the rain ceased, the waters receded and Noah steered his ark to land.

The watercolor and gouache panoramas are rich. Bordered by papyrus and flanked by smaller pictures within cutout animal shapes, each large illustration is a centerfold worthy of study. Inside the ark is a jumble of magnificent creatures: exotic birds, benign beasts, resplendent reptiles, furry creatures large and small. Hanging from rafters or curled up in sleep, they’re a twisted mass of magnificence.

“Everyone is asleep except for me,” says the granddaughter. “I tiptoe around and untangle them.”

In a sense, the story climaxes with the flight of the dove. Wings spread as it returns to the ark with “a fresh green leaf from a new tree” clutched in its beak, the dove marks the return of hope and a fresh start in a new land.

Recommended for ages 4 to 8, “On Noah’s Ark” could easily captivate older children as well. How many different animals can they name? How many can they find? Where’s the armadillo? The hedgehog?

The book could also serve as a springboard for thoughtful discussions of the biblical story, to learn the why’s. But even at its simplest face value, “On Noah’s Ark” is a lovely book.

“Let’s Talk About God” by Dorothy K. Kripke (32 pages, Aleph Design Group, $9.95).
“On Noah’s Ark” by Jan Brett (32 pages, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $16.99).

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.