Songs of praise;Children;s Books

10th April 1998 at 01:00
THE CIRCLE OF DAYS. Reeve Lindbergh. Illustrated by Cathie Felstead. Walker. pound;9.99.

TWILIGHT VERSES, MOONLIGHT RHYMES Compiled by Mary Joslin. Illustrated by Liz Pichon. Lion. pound;10.99.

A CHILD'S BOOK OF CELTIC PRAYERS. Joyce Denham. Illustrated by Helen Cann. Lion. pound;6.99.

Prayer books now come with glorious illustrations. Prepare to be dazzled, says Morag Styles

Until the 19th century, most literature for the young had a strong religious and didactic focus. Prayers, psalms and especially hymns not only form a substantial part of the history of children's verse, but provide some of the most stirring and musical poetry of that period.

Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts and Cecil Frances Alexander produced some of the best hymns, many of which are still popular today, while Bunyan's "To be a Pilgrim" and Blake's "Jerusalem" are considered classics. The texts that follow fall into the late-20th-century version of devotional literature - so we have some familiar hymns and prayers with the addition of books that seek to celebrate the spiritual side of human beings or promote positive self-esteem, both linked to the natural world.

It is Cathie Felstead's dazzling illustrations for The Circle of Days that first catch the eye. Celebrated for her artwork in A Caribbean Dozen, Felstead goes from strength to strength in this glorious accompaniment to Reeve Lindbergh's version of Francis of Assisi's "Canticle of the Sun", beautifully blended with the written text and suitable for very young readers. Take the endpapers. The warm tones of the setting sun, with just a hint of sky, on the right hand opening, is echoed by a muted tangerine left-hand page, offering the reader a radiant vision of early morning. The closing endpaper contrasts the smudgy blues and greens of darkening moonlit skies with the slate grey of thickest night. So clever. And I haven't begun to describe the delights within the pages.

Reeve Lindbergh (daughter of the famous aviator) provides an appealing verse adaptation in rhyming couplets of part of Saint Francis's gentle hymn of love, praise and faith.

Memories of bedtime, from the harassed parent's point of view, are often a guilty mixture of exhaustion and affection. The intention behind Twilight Verses, Moonlight Rhymes, compiled by Mary Joslin, is to "make a child's going-to-bed time even more special". She has chosen tuneful and tender snippets of hymns, songs and rhymes from the English oral tradition, inspirational poets (Blake and Christina Rossetti), devotional writers (Isaac Watts) and other voices old and new (Jane Taylor, Lois Rock). Liz Pichon's warm and amusing illustrations, emphasising night through imagery and colour, complement the verse and add to the overall appeal. An attractive book to share with sleepy children.

The texts discussed above are in glorious colour and large format, a good size for adult and child to read together. In smaller format and for older readers (the blurb says five to eight-year-olds, but I'd estimate up a little) is A Child's Book of Celtic Prayers, written by Joyce Denham with verses from Carmina Gadelica, early Irish lyrics and extracts from The Poem-Book of the Gael. It is beautifully illustrated by Helen Cann with images from the natural world inventively woven into Celtic designs. I don't predict large sales, even though the publishers have kept the price down, but it is good to have well-produced books like this to widen children's cultural and literary knowledge.

Look out for the Children's Book of Poems, Prayers and Meditations, compiled by Liz Attenborough and forthcoming in the autumn from Element Children's Books. The preview pages of this bumper book look most inviting and it is the only book in this selection which has a serious commitment to poetry from a range of cultures.

Morag Styles's book 'From the Garden to the Street: 300 years of poetry for children' will be published by Cassell later this year

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