Monday, April 24, 2017

Children's Book Review: “Brigid and the Butter” by Love and Stott

Review Brigid and the Butter: A Legend about Saint Brigid of Ireland 
  by Pamela Love (author) and Apryl Stott (illustrator) (2017) 
  Pauline Books and Media. 
  30 pp. For children ages 5-8 years.

What a delightful picture book! I was pleased when I learned of its existence. I have read, reviewed, and enjoyed three other picture books about Brigit so I looked forward to discovering another person’s—or rather pair of persons’—perspective on her young life. I was not disappointed.

Brigid and the Butter is the first Catholic offering I’ve encountered in the Saint Brigit picture book genre, which have included one specifically Orthodox book and two that tell the saint’s tales from an “Irish Legends” perspective and from an almost magical perspective in which young Saint Brigit goes to Bethlehem to help out Joseph and Mary in the birth of Jesus. (For my review of these books please go here.)

In Brigid and the Butter the first thing I notice of course is the art of Apryl Stott. The cover shows a comely, open-faced young girl with a bowl of butter, cattle in the pasture behind her, and a painted framework round the whole that mixes Irish knotwork with another style of art inlaid into it—beautiful though a little out of keeping with the setting. Flipping through the book without reading, to get an idea of the flow of the story and to steep in Stott’s imagery, I grew more excited—her paintings are rich and generous and well designed, and even the non-reader is quickly drawn into a land where there are great cattle looming over us, finely arching thistles growing up along a page, and an earnest young girl caring for the cattle and setting to work making butter.

I have few criticisms of Stott’s lovely work, apart from a neglect of research into the times depicted. The hut, for instance, looks like something from a different land (England, perhaps?), unlike what would be expected in Iron Age Ireland, when Brigid lived. The cattle would be at home in a modern cowyard but are not the native cattle of Ireland—and so on. Those elements, if done correctly, would have added to the charm of the book and its usefulness in teaching children about 5th century Ireland, but even as it is, the art is outstanding and supports the story of the book very well.

Pamela Love has drawn together a number of elements to tell a story that is both entertaining and educational, mostly in terms of its spiritual teachings. The child who reads the book will learn a little of what life was like for a youngster in Brigid’s time, for instance that children were expected to work independently and hard (potentially dangerous work, too, if you check out the size of and the horns on those critters). She handles a herd of animals much larger than herself, caring for them in many ways, and does the exhausting work of making butter from their milk. Butter comes from milk?! From a cow?! Amazing! And this is how it’s done. By hand?!

Add to this that the girl is briefly mentioned to be a slave. It may come as news to a child that Irish children have ever been slaves—in our uneven coverage of the topic we have tended to give the impression that only African people were ever captured as slaves, but of course slavery exists even today and has been an important and legal part of many cultures all across the world. This mention might give a teacher or parent an opportunity to talk to a child about slavery. But it is not explored in the book, and indeed if you forget that one introductory line you may think from the following story that Brigid and her mum lived unmolested on their own in a pretty, well equipped house and had a good herd of cows. You would notice, though, that they seem to have very little to eat.

And that is the crux of the story. Hard-working Brigid churns the butter and comes up with only a little for herself and her mother (who we never meet). There is no mention that most of the churnings and indeed most of the milk would have gone to the master; the impression is that only a teeny bit of produce comes from all that work, and I can only assume this is to simplify the story, but I do think it leaves it a little bit unanchored. If we saw that the results of Brigid’s hard work were mostly carted away and then she was left with only a little there would be a stronger impact—although even the smallness of the butter is a literary device, as there is no indication in Brigid’s Lives that she and her mother were poorly fed, only that they were hard-worked. No matter, a small opportunity lost but possibly needless clutter avoided.

So, back to the crux of the story, which is that with only a small amount of food for herself and her mother, Brigid is faced with a situation where someone with even less has asked for help, and she must decide what to do. An elderly, skinny woman comes to the door asking for food. Brigid offers to let her wait for her mum to return, saying she might bring food and they could share it with her, but the woman is in a hurry. Brigid says all they have is butter, with nothing to put it on, and the old woman gets a look of longing and says how much she loves butter and how it’s been ages since she’s tasted it.

Earlier in the story Brigid has heard Saint Patrick tell the story of the loaves and fishes. In it a young child brings a tiny offering of bread and fish, all he has, to Jesus, and Jesus makes of it enough to feed a great crowd. Brigid thinks of this when considering what to do with the butter. She and her mother had eaten nothing all day and she had been looking forward to tucking into the butter, whether her mother brought other food back with her or not. Now she was faced with the difficult choice of preventing a hungry woman from finding enough food to carry on and facing that deepening hunger herself. Her instinct is to be inviting and generous, but her feeling of self-preservation makes her reluctant to just give it all away.

Suddenly she understands that “helping others could be difficult”. What had seemed like a nice idea in the story was actually a hard reality in day to day life. She has a little conversation in her head with Jesus, a kind of natural prayer where she acknowledges that unlike him, she isn’t able to feed thousands, but that she can help the one person right in front of her. Thus, the elderly woman walks happily away, all the butter and even the bowl tucked nicely in her bag. Brigid is a little worried that her mother will be upset, and she asks Jesus to provide for them so that they, too, will have something to eat.

As was nearly always the case in the Lives of Brigid when she has acted in this fashion, her generosity ends up not being as costly as it at first appears it will. She turns back to the table and there two bowls of butter stand, each more full than the original. The young girl who has taken a risk with her own and her mother’s bellies in order to help someone else is rewarded with enough food for several days, and gives thanks.

I like how gently and humanly this story is told. There is no hectoring, no sense that she was a bad girl even to think of not giving, but that this was a difficult life decision that each of us faces—in fact we face such decisions thousands of times in our lives. Will we be generous today? Will we reserve enough for ourselves? What makes sense in any given situation? The complexities of such ethical decisions aren’t gone into here, nor should they, but the beginning of the conversation is opened up. The idea is put before a child that even when we ourselves have very little, we are capable of giving, capable of helping someone else, and that we might consider this when faced with a decision of whether or not to give help.

I like that Brigid and the Butter can be read as it is and enjoyed quite simply, with no pressure to have big heavy Teaching Discussions, or can become the starting off place for several different conversations, then or later, round the dinner table perhaps, on the different kinds of responsibilities children face, on slavery, on miracles, on generosity, on taking care of ourselves and our own families, on cattle rearing and making butter, or on the Biblical stories referred to in the text. (A family that is into history might even look into whether or not Saint Patrick and Saint Brigit could ever actually have met, as they were said to have done in some of her later Lives.)

The story is followed by a portrait of the grownup Brigid and a few paragraphs about her later life, and then by a short prayer to Saint Brigid:

“Saint Brigid, you gave food to someone who was hungry although your stomach was also empty. I want to be generous, too. Pray for me so that, like you, I may do what I can to help others. Help me to care for people in need, even when it isn’t easy. Amen.”

A prayer we could most of us benefit by.

The book ends with writeups and photos of the author and illustrator but also, wonderfully, of the Catholic Sisters who run Pauline Books and Media, as well as a brief catalogue of some of their children’s books. I am left with the sense of a very joyful and loving group of women, and I am well pleased that I have this book.

For a sneak peek into the first few pages of the book, follow this link.

For a review by a Catholic father of three (so you can get the kids’ response, and not just some fusty old adult’s), check out Steven R. MacEvoy’s blog.

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