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Tales from the Old Testament bring heroes and other folk of the Bible to life


I was raised Roman Catholic, but I stopped going to Mass when I was 16. My husband is Jewish, but he hasn't been observant for years.

Our daughter is 4 and, well, we haven't quite figured out where we go from here.

This time of year it can get tricky. We celebrate Hanukkah -- Maya loves helping light the candles and hearing her father recite the prayer -- but Christmas is a strictly secular, Santa Claus affair.

It's the same at Passover and Easter. For whatever reason, I find more comfort in Jewish traditions than in the dogma of my Irish Catholic upbringing. Every "mixed" family is different. But even at the most mixed-up times of the year, there's always the Old Testament to provide common ground.

Here are some new books if you're interested in Bible stories:

* "Noah's Ark," retold and illustrated by Lucy Cousins (Candlewick Press, $14.95, 33 pages, ages 2-6), is a good place to start. Ms. Cousins' bold, child-like illustrations ("Maisy Goes to School," "What Can Rabbit See?") captivate kids, and her writing is just as simple and direct.

Noah is everyman's grandfather: He's bald, with rosy cheeks, bushy white eyebrows and a long, white beard, and he doesn't age a day even though he works "for years and years and years," to build the ark.

* If you have time to read only one book mentioned here, make it "Does God Have a Big Toe?: Stories about Stories in the Bible," by Marc Gellman, illustrated by Oscar de Mejo (HarperTrophy paperback, $7.95, 96 pages, ages 9 and up).

Mr. Gellman is a rabbi who explains that these are modern midrashim, the Jewish name for stories about Bible stories. His sense of humor and irony makes the tales fly by; kids will want to come back to them again and again.

In "Noah's Friends," Noah has the ark all packed and ready to roll when the rain begins to fall and his friends start banging on the side of the ark.

"Hey Noah, you rat, let us in! You can't float off and leave us here to drown . . ."

"My dear friends, I don't know how I can live without you," Noah says. "I don't know why God is saving me. Maybe God needs somebody to tell the story of how we all messed up the world. . . . Maybe my children's children will learn the story. And then maybe the world will not turn bad again. And then nobody will ever have to say goodbye to his friends again . . ."

Then the great rains came and flooded all the earth.

Some say it was just rain, but others say that it was God's tears.

* Fans of Jane Ray's "Noah's Ark" will want to read "The Story of the Creation" (Dutton, $16, 32 pages, all ages), in which she illustrates the words to the King James Bible's version of the Book of Genesis.

Ms. Ray's folk-art style is exquisite. In one landscape, tiny fish glitter in a harbor ringed by row upon row of flat houses, backed by fields and pastures that roll up to a sky where tiny stars glitter.

She presents the paintings in panels -- some in narrow strips that run across the bottom of the page, others in arched frames that mimic the stained-glass windows of a long-forgotten church.

* The illustrations are also gorgeous in "Stories From the Bible: Old Testament Stories Retold," by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Geoffrey Patterson (Ticknor & Fields, $17.95, 76 pages, ages 8 and up).

Mr. Patterson's acrylic paintings are full of curves and possibilities. Joseph lies sleeping in the desert, wearing his coat of many colors and appearing as safe as "The Sleeping Gypsy" by Henri Rousseau.

Mr. Waddell, whose many books include "Can't You Sleep, Little Bear?" and "Farmer Duck," uses a relaxed style that's engaging without being irreverent: Moses was scared. Who wouldn't be, with God speaking to them out of a burning bush?

* Traditionalists will favor "Children's Bible Stories From Genesis to Daniel," retold by Miriam Chaikin (Dial, $17.99, 92 pages, 8 and up).

Ms. Chaikin, a wonderful storyteller, includes several stories not found in most children's Biblical anthologies, including "Ruth and Naomi" and "King Saul and the Witch." Yvonne Gilbert's soft, colored-pencil illustrations are celestial -- there's even a haloed angel in one of her recurring borders.

Signings: Laura Krauss Melmed ("Rainbabies," "The First Song Ever Sung" and "I Love You As Much . . .") will autograph her books Dec. 10 from noon to 4 p.m. at the Catonsville Community College Library's Bookfair.

Priscilla Cummings, author of the "Chadwick" series, will appear in the Annapolis area tomorrow at St. Anne's Day School from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and at the Waldenbooks in Marley Station from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

At Stepping Stones in Bel Air, the lineup includes: Mary Claire Helldorfer ("Clap Clap!" "The Darling Boys," "The Mapmaker's Daughter," "Sailing to the Sea,") on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Lois Nicholson ("Cal Ripken: Quiet Hero") Sunday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.; and Mary Downing Hahn ("The Wind Blows Backward," "Stepping on the Cracks") on Dec. 18 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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