Stories of Heaven and Earth: Bible Heroes in Contemporary Children's Literature

By Bottigheimer, Ruth B. | Shofar, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Stories of Heaven and Earth: Bible Heroes in Contemporary Children's Literature


Bottigheimer, Ruth B., Shofar


Stories of Heaven and Earth: Bible Heroes in Contemporary Children's Literature, by Hara E. Person and Diane G. Person. New York: Continuum, 2005. 287 pp. $34.95.

"The stories that are focused on [here]... are tales in which a significant transition takes place on the part of the hero, a transition from innocence, naiveté and youth, whether metaphorical or actual, to adulthood" (p. 18). Thus the Persons introduce their descriptions and analyses of biblical "hero journey tales" for children (p. 22). The Persons are interested in a body of children's stories based on biblical narratives, which they evaluate with reference to "how [they] deal with the ambiguity and very real humanity of the Biblical characters" (p. 19). It is important for the Persons to do so because they hold that "Bible stories are part of children's literary legacy" (p. 21). Investigating English-language children's Bibles, the majority of which were published after 1990 (but with an interesting handful of earlier twentieth-century ones), the authors look at commercially produced books of Bible stories, rather than at those issued for parochial use by individual denominations. Most have titles that reflect their emphasis on one or a few stories. The Persons understand contemporary children's Bible stories' literary qualities in terms that Joseph Campbell has made familiar (p. 19). But as individual histories that are relevant to children's own lives in developmental terms, their references points are Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Bruno Bettelheim.

The book's introduction reprises the history of Bible stories for the young. Their focus is on Old Testament stories, and proceeding in Bible textual order, they successively treat Creation, Noah, Joseph, Moses, David, Jonah, and Esther.

An examination of the Moses chapter shows the Persons at work. Old Testament details of the life of Moses-revered by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam-extend from his birth to his death in a richly detailed biography. The Persons recapitulate his history (pp. 117-118), then characterize it as a "drama" with themes of "good and evil, rebellion, growth, revenge, and triumph" (p. 118) within Joseph Campbell's framework for understanding fairy tale heroes. In their view Moses' character fits the fairy tale hero paradigm, because he has an all-knowing protector (p. 121) and an all-giving mother (p. 124). In addition, as a great leader, Moses achieves mythic status. Indeed, the Persons not only see Moses' years in Pharaoh's household as similar to the children's author Jane Yolen's conceptualization of King Arthur as a child with a hidden identity (p. 120), but they also refer to similar themes in Harry Potter books. (As an aside, however, I'd like to point out that King Arthur and Harry Potter are both epic rather than fairy tale heroes.) The Persons cite Moses' own mother and the Pharaoh's daughter as suppliers of a comforting and reassuring mother love, adding the prominence of Moses' sister Miriam in the books they've investigated.

Children's Moses stories focus on several different aspects of Moses' life: 1) his endangered childhood; 2) his adolescent potential for leadership ("he's "a young man who cares deeply about justice" [p. 129]); 3) his achievement of cultural identity (p. 131); 4) his personally fraught transition to actual leadership (pp. …

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