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It’s Holy Week! My children eagerly gathered around us tonight as we read them Catherine’s Pascha for the first couple of times this season. Among its other distinctions, Catherine’s Pascha was a finalist in the 2015 USA Book Awards, and it’s my family’s favorite Easter book. (Click on the title of the book anywhere in this post to visit the Amazon page. There’s still time to order copies!)

I had the honor of talking with Charlotte Riggle, the author of Catherine’s Pascha, about some of the unique joys of the book and of Easter books and Pascha for children.

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Your book, Catherine’s Pascha, is brilliant for children with special needs for so many reasons. First of all, I think the picture within a picture format captures the way we teach language so well. It’s a relational book in its very format, helping us enter the story. Were you thinking of that as the book came together?

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The picture within a picture came out of conversations with my illustrator, R.J. Hughes. She’s utterly amazing, and she knew exactly how to convey the big ideas of the book visually, and to combine them with the words, so that a child would understand.

It started with us chatting about the look and feel we wanted for the book. I told her that it had to be beautiful, and full of light and joy. It had to look like Pascha. And when we talked about picture book styling in general, I told her that I very much like picture books where the illustration is “framed.”

So she started doing research, trying to decide what sort of page frame might work with our book, what would be beautiful. And not just beautiful – it had to convey both the beauty and the meaning of the Paschal celebration. Over the next few weeks, she sent me sketches. Marginalia from medieval and Byzantine manuscripts, motifs from liturgical embroidery, and some other things, too.

And then, one day, when we were talking, I mentioned the Orthodox Church in Antarctica. “No way!” she said. I assured her that, yes, there is an Orthodox Church in Antarctica.

And at that moment, she knew exactly how to frame the story. She would put a different Orthodox church on every page. And in all of those churches, it would be Pascha. And even though they’re in different time zones around the earth, on the pages of the book, it would be at the same point in the Pascha service there as at Catherine’s parish.

That allowed her to show, visually, the universality of Pascha. In that celebration, we have all stepped outside of space and time, and we are participating in one glorious celebration of Paschal joy. It pulled everything together. I couldn’t have been more pleased.
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Another way the book welcomes children with special needs is that the artwork shows children with disabilities actively participating in the celebration of Pascha. What inspired you to make sure to include all levels of ability in the book?

That came out of another conversation with my illustrator. She told me a story that she’d read about Dietrich Boenhoffer. He was a German Lutheran, of course. And somehow, although he didn’t realize it, and he certainly knew better, he thought of Easter as something that Lutherans did. And then one year he happened to be in Rome on Easter. And he saw people of every land and tongue celebrating Easter together, rejoicing in the Resurrection of Christ. And it opened his eyes and his heart in a way that nothing else had ever done.

Even before we had thought of framing the pages with churches from around the world, we knew that we wanted to show, not just Catherine’s celebration of Pascha. We wanted to capture this universal rejoicing.

We wanted to make it clear that Pascha is for everyone.

And because my children had special needs, I wanted to make it absolutely clear that “everyone” included children like mine. My children have what are known as invisible disabilities – you can’t look at a child and see autism, or other neurological or developmental disabilities. And we couldn’t figure out how to communicate those sorts of conditions to a child reading the book.

Making it a physical disability made it work with the story. And one of the important things about Elizabeth’s disability, in the story, is that Catherine never mentions it at all. It’s not that she doesn’t know about it, or that she doesn’t care. It’s that, in the context of their friendship, it doesn’t matter. They’re best friends.

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Catherine’s Pascha is our family’s favorite Easter book. I had to read it twelve times in a row last Holy Week, and I’m sure we’ll read it even more this week. There’s that anticipation of the Great Feast that draws children’s hearts, even if they aren’t quite able to stay awake for it yet.

When I read your book, I think of the very few other places I’ve seen Orthodox children in picture books, like Chicken Sunday. Which are your favorite children’s books for celebrating Easter?

There are, sadly, very few picture children’s books about people celebrating Easter.

If you go to a bookstore or a library, you’ll see that Easter books are largely about bunnies and other little animals having egg hunts. And there’s a place for that. I think any collection of Easter picture books ought to include The Easter Egg by Jan Brett, and The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by Du Bose Heyward. But those two would be enough. They’re masterpieces.

And then, of course, you want a book that tells the story of our Lord’s death and resurrection. I shied away from those books when my kids were small, because they were always watered down and insipid. But last year, I discovered The Easter Story by Brian Wildsmith. It is a magnificent book. It is visually compelling and honest and true, without overwhelming children with the violence of the crucifixion. I can’t recommend it enough.

I absolutely adore Chicken Sunday. Patricia Polacco is always wonderful. Rechenka’s Eggs is fun, too. It’s fun, when Orthodox Christian children are reading those books, when they notice the icons and such. They don’t expect to see their faith in a picture book, and when they do, it’s delightful.

I’d add to those books Tekla’s Easter by Lillian Budd, The Dance of the Eggshells by Carla Aragon, and Piccolina and the Easter Bells by Pauline Priolo. Tekla’s Easter and Piccolina and the Easter Bells are out of print, but you can still find them online, if you look. All three books share stories of young girls celebrating Easter with their families according to their culture and traditions. Talking with a child about how the celebration in the story is the same as yours, and how it’s different, is a great deal of fun. And it helps children understand the universality of the joy of Christ’s Resurrection.

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What’s your favorite memory of Pascha with children?

One year, when my children were small, one of them fell asleep on the bench in the church. I couldn’t get him to wake up for communion. I couldn’t get him to wake up for the party after the service. I couldn’t get him to wake up to get him into the car after everything was over. He was just out. As sound asleep as only a young child can be.

So I wrestled him into the car, and out of the car when we got home, and into bed.

And the next morning, when he woke up, he wailed, “I missed Pascha!”

(And now you understand the ending of Catherine’s Pascha.)

Thank you, Charlotte!


Make sure to find a copy of Catherine’s Pascha this week. Visit Charlotte’s website, {Catherine’s Pascha}, to find out more about Easter traditions, children’s book reviews, and resources for families with special needs. Follow her on Instagram for her life with icons and writing on trains. Her Facebook Page has wonderful links to resources for children, children’s books, and special needs parenting.

This post contains Amazon affiliate links. If you choose to shop through the links, I will receive a small percentage of your purchase price for referring you to the Amazon pages of the books mentioned here, with no change in costs to you.

Images from the book courtesy Charlotte Riggle.