Children's crusade

17th October 1997 at 01:00
THE BIBLE FOR CHILDREN FROM THE AGE OF GUTENBERG TO THE PRESENT. By Ruth Bottigheimer. Yale University Press Pounds 25. GOD'S PEOPLE: STORIES FROM THE OLD TESTAMENT. Retold by Geraldine McCaughrean. Illustrated by Anna C Leplar. Orion Pounds 12.99 IN THE BEGINNING. By Steven Turner. Illustrated by Jill Newton. Lion Pounds 8.99.

Read no ballads," cried Thomas White to the children of 1674, "but the Bible and the Plain Man's Path-way to Heaven." Not altogether inspiring, but typical of the philosophy behind the earliest literature for the young. The duty of readers was the absorption of Holy Scripture, although many were prepared to smooth that particular pathway.

The huge bibliography at the end of Ruth Bottigheimer's study gives a glimpse into the efforts of publishers then and now to make the Bible more approachable for the young.

Her list includes French, German and English sources, stretching from such volumes as Luther's Passional of 1531 to a Golden Books Children's Bible of 1993, but she is less concerned to delineate the switchback ride of fashion than to discuss some crucial editorial problems.

Chapter by chapter, she assesses what the makers of children's Bibles have done with a number of murky scriptural events. What sort of extrapolations might editors fear that children will make about parents in the God, Abraham and Isaac triangle? Or about sexual probity in that of Joseph, Potiphar and Potiphar's wife? How far does a Bible for children cease to be a Bible and become merely a reflection of "the psychological and pedagogical imperatives" of the editors?

It is in the attempt to answer such questions that Bottigheimer's wide frame of reference pays off. She is not only able to show how changes in social mores over four centuries have dictated changes in emphasis (we're a lot more squeamish than our forefathers) but she is also able to make comparisons between the way in which Catholic, Protestant and Jewish interpretations have influenced Biblical storytelling.

You don't get much chance to examine some of the current new scriptural renderings in the light of Bottigheimer's examples. The stories of Noah (reviewed above) have their natural conclusion at the rainbow's end, without going on to the altogether more problematic episode about the old chap getting drunk and exposing himself to his family.

Bottigheimer never arrives at a systematic critical discussion of whether editorial tamperings and sweetenings can ever be justified, but wariness is surely called for.

In a new collection, God's People, even so sensitive a re-teller as Geraldine McCaughrean is worsted by her awesome original. Her introduction reveals her respect for these chronicles of Yahweh, but, alongside Yahweh's text as conveyed by King James's translators, her poetical and at times reflective refurbishing seems overdone and unnecessary.

She cuts loose on those nasty Cities of the Plain, but cuts out the sexual bits; and with the Tower of Babel she aligns herself with those who - unwarrantably, according to Bottigheimer - accuse the builders of the sin of pride.

Perhaps the best answer is to forget fidelity and enjoy the pleasures of free interpretation as Steven Turner does. In the Beginning is a rollicking picture-book ballad of the Creation: "God said WORLD and the world spun around God said LIGHT and the light beamed down."

It raps along through a gaudy jungle of pictures by Jill Newton and pulls up smart with a charming punchline. By being its own thing first, it is truer to its source than polite and awkward periphrases.

Luther would have loved it - wouldn't he?

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