Thursday, May 10, 2018

Review: Picture Book - "The Story of Saint Brigid" by Clarke and Croatto

The Story of Saint Brigid by Caitriona Clarke, illustrated by Barbara Croatto, Veritas (2015), 23 pp..

This small, slender, and well produced picture book in one way resembles adult books about Saint Brigit more than most picture books: rather than telling a single, unfolding tale, it picks a number of items of information about the saint and briefly recounts them, opposite illustrations that highlight one of the items mentioned on each page. My limited experience with reading books to children suggests that this sort of thing is often of less interest than a gripping story line. Nevertheless there are times when this kind of thing is just the ticket, or is at least a pleasant way to learn a lesson—in this case, who is Saint Brigit? In this particular instance the book is aimed at Irish school children who will have heard often about her, perhaps even go to a school named for her, and so will be more inclined to be curious about the answer to that question than a child who hasn’t grown up knowing her name. Published by Veritas Publications, it comes from an unapologetically Catholic perspective.

I like the easy, conversational tone of the book, beginning with the first page, where Clarke addresses the child reading the book (or more likely having it read to them). “Have you ever heard of Saint Brigid? ... Maybe you have made a St Brigid’s Cross out of reeds? Maybe even your school is named after her!” This engages the child him- or herself, letting them know that this story is about their lives, too.

I was startled on the next page of text to learn of Saint Brigit’s mother that, “it is thought she was captured by pirates in Portugal and brought here as a slave—just like St Patrick …” I have never heard this before. I am more familiar with the suggestion that Broicseach was the daughter of Dalbrónach of the Dál Conchobair in County Meath. I am delighted to learn of another folk geneaology and would love to know where the idea started and how common the belief is in Ireland. In the fifteen hundred years since Saint Brigit’s birth there has been ample time for shifts in and additions to her stories, departures from the texts that I largely rely on for things like this.

I was also surprised to read that Brigit’s father, Dubhthach, had chosen to name his daughter after “the goddess of fire, who was thought to be gifted in poetry, healing, and craftsmanship.” Of course, there is no basis for this in any of the texts, but it is a neat way of connecting the two in the mind of the reader without supposing that they are the same person. This of course would get some backs up, but as I am of the opinion myself that they are not the same person, though they have grown together in our modern understanding, it doesn’t bother me at all, and I appreciate the nod to the goddess.

From this point on there are no surprises. We are told the familiar outline of Saint Brigit’s life, pared down drastically for the brevity of a picture book, and learn of the emphasis in her tales of generosity, compassion, and holiness. Her founding of a double monastery which was in time to produce great works like the (now lost) Book of Kildare is an addition which I favour, taking her out of the sweet holy girl category and placing her into the powerful efficient woman category—a good model for young people to be aware of.

We are told of the use of Saint Brigit’s Crosses in Irish homes for protection of people and animals against illness and their homes from fire, and of her holy wells in healing. There are some humorous elements, such as the expression of gobsmacked horror on the king’s face when Brigit’s cloak is spreading out over his land. The book concludes, “In her, Ireland can proudly lay claim to a wise and charitable woman who devoted her long life to the service of others.”

I have mixed feelings about the artwork that accompanies the text. Mostly, I like it. It is has a light touch which works well with the sparse, friendly writing. There are clean lines against colourful washes and a good sense of design, and there is, as mentioned above, a touch of humour in some of the images that appeals. What I don’t like, and this is purely a matter of taste, is how Croatta draws many of the human faces, which feel a bit awkward to me.

On balance, I like this book.

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