Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Brother Sun, Sister Moon

Saint Francis of Assisi's
Canticle of the Creatures
Reimagined by Katherine Paterson
Illustrated by Pamela Dalton
Chronicle, 2011
$17.99, ages 4-8, 36 pages

A two-time Newbery Award winner adapts a beloved hymn into a children's prayer in this stunning book of paper-cut tapestries.

Katherine Paterson (Bridge to Terabithia) rephrases the blessings of Saint Francis of Assisi's Canticle of the Creatures as children today might recite them.

The changes are subtle, just enough to draw children closer to the spirit of the song, and reflect Paterson's deference to the original work. 

When Paterson writes of Sister Moon and her stars, she draws off Assisi's description of them as "precious and beautiful," and writes to God that the heavens "clothe the night with their beauty and, like you, watch over us while we sleep."

Sweet and spare, the verses echo familiar ways children describe nature: water "wells up" and a storm sounds like a lion.

"We praise you for our Brother Wind and every kind of weather, stormy or mild," she writes. "For when he roars he reminds us of your might, and when he comes as a cooling breeze, he tells us of your gentleness."

Paper-cut artist Dalton illustrates using a technique of Scherenschnitte or scissor cuts, cutting each spread from a continuous piece of paper, an amazing process detailed in a video below.

The paper cuts are then painted in earthy watercolors and set against a black backdrop. Like needlework samplers, each is a country scene with gently shaded layers of activity, in this case filled with children and animals living Assisi's message.

When Brother Fire is praised for warming homes and making luminous light, Dalton shows children baking bread, carting bags of flour and chopping wood in a framed scene surrounded by tangles of rose hips. Orange hues warm the page like the glow from fire and pop against deep greens.

Every cut-out embodies the feeling of the blessing that it's about. When thanks is given for Brother Sun, the cutout glows with the orangey-yellow of the sun, wheat and sunflowers, and when praise is given to the heavens, a farmyard lined with arcing trees glistens in the silvery light of the moon.

In one tapestry, parts of the cut-out almost appear to be fluttering. When Brother Wind is thanked, trees and wheat bend over in a sustained gust of wind, and scarves and hair sweep forward as a girl sifting grains watches her harvest scatter in the air.

Written in 1224 at the end of Assisi's life, the hymn sums up Assisi's fundamental beliefs and praises God for all aspects of life, from the sun to the wind to the animals, and refers to each of these as companions, brothers and sisters of Mankind.

Even Death is treated as a sister and there is a calm feeling of acceptance that comes off the page. Butterflies fill the air around a boy and girl as they kneel on the ground to bury a woodland creature under weeping trees.

Luminous and hopeful, Paterson and Dalton's tribute inspires children to think about how they are blessed at Thanksgiving and throughout the year. Though a Christian poem, its message of reverence for Earth feels universal.

Paterson won the Newbery Medal for Bridge to Terabithia (1978) and Jacob Have I Loved (1981), and a Newbery Honor (1979) for The Great Gilly Hopkins.

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