And so it was re-written...

31st October 2003 at 00:00
Dinah Starkey reviews versions of the scriptures designed to capture a child's imagination

My Very First Bible. Adapted by Lois Rock. Illustrated by Alex Ayliffe. Lion Publishing pound;9.99.

First Bible Stories. Retold by Margaret Mayo Illustrated by Nicola Smee. Orchard Books pound;7.99.

The Lion First Bible. Adapted by Pat Alexander. Illustrated by Leon Baxter. Lion Publishing pound;12.99.

A Child's First Bible. Adapted by Kenneth Taylor. Illustrated by Nadine Wickenden and Diana Catchpole. Dorling Kindersley pound;9.99.

The Usborne Family Bible. Retold by Heather Amery. Illustrated by Elena Temporin. Usborne pound;14.99.

The Usborne Children's Bible. Retold by Heather Amery. Illustrated by Linda Edwards. Usborne pound;12.99.

The Biggest Bible Storybook. By Anne Adeney. Illustrated by Ruth Rivers. Orion Children's Books pound;19.99.

The Lion Storyteller Bible. Adapted by Bob Hartman. Illustrated by Susie Poole. Lion Publishing pound;10.99.

The Children's Illustrated Bible. Adapted by Selina Hastings. Illustrated by Amy Burch and Eric Thomas. Dorling Kindersley pound;9.99.

The Lion Graphic Bible. Adapted by Jeff Anderson and Mike Maddox. Lion Publishing pound;9.99.

Retelling the Bible for children is not as easy as it may seem. The secret is to produce an accessible text which sticks closely to the original and that means making some hard decisions about what to include and what to omit.

There seems to be general agreement among publishers about the broad themes. The focus is on biblical stories, and that means leaving out Leviticus and Deuteronomy, Proverbs, most of the Psalms and great chunks of the Acts of the Apostles. So, although described as Bibles, the works reviewed here are in fact collections of biblical stories.

But even then, writers are not out of the woods, because these are not cosy nursery tales. Rape and murder, fratricide and polygamy stalk through the Old Testament, and at the core of the Gospels lies the barbaric cruelty of the Crucifixion. In a more robust age, children were expected to take such things in their stride, but modern writers face the constant temptation to sanitise and explain. Most compromise by leaving out the gory bits, especially in retellings for very young children. That is legitimate and so is some explanation of motives, but there's a fine line between clarifying and making things up. When Jairus's daughter opens her sparkling brown eyes, warning bells begin to ring.

The most successful of the collections for younger children focus on the more accessible stories, simply told. Lion Publishing is the market leader in the field of children's Bibles. All of its books are good, but My Very First Bible is a new and welcome addition to the list. It consists of 20 stories, 10 from the Old Testament and 10 from the New. The vivid collage-style pictures, by Alex Ayliffe, beautifully complement Lois Rock's spare, direct text. The stories are told with an exquisite simplicity which faithfully reflects the language of the Bible. Easy enough for a beginner reader, but sufficiently meaty for class discussions, this version pulls off a very difficult feat with total success.

First Bible Stories Retold, by Margaret Mayo, features nine of the most popular stories from the Old Testament and is a good introduction for younger children. The lively style - lots of italics and sound effects - cries out to be read aloud.

More familiar to teachers is The Lion First Bible. It's been around for some years now and, although it is aimed at younger children, there are plenty of copies in key stage 2 classrooms as well. Pat Alexander's retellings have a verve and freshness which plunge children straight into the heart of the story. "Jacob was running away" begins the story of Jacob and Esau. "He wanted to stay at home, but he couldn't. His brother Esau was so angry at the trick Joseph had played on him." The contents list gives chapter and verse for each story and there's a simple index of key people at the back.

Less successful is A Child's First Bible by Kenneth Taylor, published by Dorling Kindersley. It's a little book with a lovely chunky feel that's just right for small hands. In each spread, a few lines of large clear text are surrounded by generous areas of white space and plenty of cosy illustrations by Nadine Wickenden and Diana Catchpole. But this very generosity is the book's undoing, because it has meant pruning the text so drastically that some stories, like that of Samson, lose their point entirely. Samson gets a doublepage spread with just 34 words. There's no room for Delilah or the Philistines or his blinding. All that's left is a bland description and a picture of him knocking down "a large building".

Moving up the age range, The Usborne Family Bible, retold by Heather Amery, seems to be aimed at the home market, but could just as well be used in school. It is comprehensive, including a map of the Bible lands and a Who's Who in the Bible. Elena Temporin's dreamy illustrations capture the heat and dust of the Holy Land. These are good workmanlike retellings which stick close to the original and are a useful resource for the teacher.

Heather Amery also provides the text for The Usborne Children's Bible, which is illustrated by Linda Edwards. In contrast to the Family Bible, it is designed for independent readers with bigger print, a simpler text and more of a broad brush approach. A lot of thought has gone into the design. The richly bordered pages, the large clear print and delicate, detailed illustrations all combine to tempt even the reluctant reader.

An imaginary child introduces each story in The Biggest Bible Story Book by Anne Adeney. Jared the butcher's son, Stephen the dove seller and Miriam the basketmaker's daughter are some of the hundred children from biblical times who remember the stories they have heard and pass them on.

The device adds texture and a sense of place and time to the familiar narratives. The stories, told by children for children, are accessible, and the selection is a well judged mix of the well known and less familiar stories.

The Lion Storyteller Bible, by Bob Hartman, is intended for reading aloud. These lively retellings are full of humour and drama. The strong rhythmic prose invites children to join in and the notes at the back contain useful ideas for listener participation. Whether they're groaning with Jonah, marching round the walls of Jericho, or rocking back and forth like the waves on the sea of Galilee, involvement is guaranteed.

The Children's Illustrated Bible, adapted by Selina Hastings, takes a new approach by setting the Bible stories within their historical context. The book begins with a short, lucid explanation of how the Bible took shape, and the stories are divided into sections, each preceded by a factual introduction - "Life in Egypt", "The Patriarchs", "Daily Life in Jesus's Time" and so on. The adult style could cause problems for less confident readers, but the stories provide plenty of background information for teachers. The stories themselves are much more accessible and most upper juniors should be able to cope with them. They are illustrated with a mixture of art work and captioned photographs, which are used to enlarge on details in the text. Did you ever wonder what the Israelites looked like when they girded their loins? Well, there's a picture of them - and of the locusts and wild honey eaten by John the Baptist. At first sight, it's odd to see the Dorling Kindersley technique applied to this most traditional of texts, but it really does work.

Another version for the same upper junior or lower secondary audience, The Lion Graphic Bible, is a powerful retelling in pictures. Action-packed images conjure up the sheer vitality of the stories. Jesus, wild-haired and sinewy, has all the charisma of a rock star, and the illustrations for Revelations are pure sword and sorcery. Jeff Anderson's text pulls no punches either. While other versions skirt round the exact status of Mary Magdalene, here she is clearly identified as a prostitute. You'll either love it or hate it, but if you want to bring the excitement of these astonishing stories into your classroom, then this is the book to get.

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