First holy Communion: Five books that make excellent gifts
Linda Oppelt
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First holy Communion: Five books that make excellent gifts

By Elizabeth Scalia

May is the month of Mary, and in most parishes it is the month when many of our young Catholics receive Communion for the very first time. The celebrations are joyful, but sometimes gift-giving can be problematic. Money is a common (and always welcome) gift for the first communicant, but it can also feel distant to some givers.

And then there are the younger siblings — younger or slightly older — happily watching their well-dressed brother or sister being feted as the Child of the Hour but perhaps feeling just a little bit wistful, too. I will never forget the look of open delight and gratitude that beamed from my elder son’s countenance when (upon the occasion of his brother’s baptism) a thoughtful friend surprised him with a poster from the first “Ghostbusters” movie. He’d been excited about his brother’s “bap-a-tism” but the poster held pride of place in his bedroom until he was a teenager. He loved the film, of course, but I suspect being thought of during a day that was not about him made the small gift that much more treasured.

With that memory in mind, here are a few suggestions for children’s books that make lovely gifts for either the first communicant or a watchful sibling. (Click on the title for a direct link to the book's webpage on the publisher's website.)

“Jesus in Space: A True Story That’s Out of This World” by Cecilia Cicone, illustrations by Utomo (Pauline Books and Media)

This very clever little book tells the factual story of astronaut Tom Jones and the mission he flew aboard the space shuttle Endeavor in April 1994. The lively illustrations help the reader to imagine Jones’ training and the exciting liftoff of the shuttle, and explains how it came to be that the Catholic members of the crew were able to receive the Eucharist while in space. The book ends with a personal note from the astronaut, with photographs of the shuttle mission and a glossary of Catholic terms. It’s an entertaining yet instructive tale made all the more riveting by being true.

“Jesus and the Miracle of the Mass” by Grace Jagla, illustrated by Randy Friemel (OSV Kids)

“Look up to the altar

And what do you see?

What seems like plain bread

In the priest’s hands is me!”

Children respond well to simple poetry, and this colorful book uses joyful rhymes to bring a child through the liturgy of the Mass, from procession to dismissal. Jesus explains to the reader the importance of the Liturgy of the Word and the great reality of the Eucharist. My favorite part was the surprising inclusion of the communion of saints:

“The saints and past loved ones

Come squeeze in your pew

Tell them hello,

They’re here praying

with you!”

“I Am Earth’s Keeper” by Lisa M. Hendey, illustrated by Guiliano Ferri (Paraclete Press)

In her endnotes, author Lisa  Hendey writes of being inspired by a friend’s nature photographs to reflect on St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.” The result of her reflections is this meditative and calming introduction to the notion of environmental stewardship and the interconnectedness of creation.

In the early morning darkness a man and a child slip out of their cabin and into a kayak, paddling out on a lake to watch the sunrise. They are joined by frogs and birds and clouds reflected in the water. “All glory above me/and glory below/Is Heaven around me/Oh, when will I know” wonders the child, who comes to understand that caring for all of creation and impacting nature for the better is an important part of growing up.

“Brilliant!: 28 Catholic Scientists, Mathematicians, and Supersmart People” by David Michael Warren, illustrated by Jaclyn Warren (Pauline Books & Media)

This book would be a very fine gift for any child, but especially for adolescents and early teens, particularly as children are told — both early and often — that “science and religion don’t mix!” In these beguiling pages young readers will meet Catholic laypersons, priests and religious, and doctors of the church who helped to change their world with their research, their inventions, innovations and discoveries.

Among the men and women whose short biographies are included (accompanied by stunning black and white illustrations) readers will find many familiar names — like Father Georges Lemaitre, the “Father of the Big Bang Theory,” and Copernicus, as well as some perhaps less familiar names, like Laura Bassi (the first female professor of physics); Father Marin Mersenne (music theorist, mathematician and “Father of Acoustics”); geneticist Father Gregor Mendel; Servant of God Takashi Nagai, a radiologist who survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki; Dr. Adrian Atiman, a survivor of slavery; Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, an early computer scientist, and many more.

Adding to its charm, the book presents these fascinating Catholics in chronological order, so we begin with the great Doctor of the Church St. Hildegard of Bingen, born in 1098, and conclude with astrochemist professor Karin Öberg, born in 1982, which gives readers a sense of the scope and breadth of the continual commingling of faith and science which has existed within the church, despite the narratives.

“In This Catholic Church” by Maura Roan McKeegan, illustrated by Ted Schluenderfritz (OSV Kids)

Children able to appreciate the nursery rhyme “There was an old woman who swallowed a fly” will enjoy this irresistible book which works similarly. Amid its bright pages, the reader is encouraged to notice details and connect them to previous pages, thus:

“And with that child

There is a mom,

A loving mom

Who holds the child,

The darling child

Who likes the light

From the candle lit

By the altar boy

In a Catholic church

With its doors open wide

And God’s children inside.”

Both a memory game and a welcome into the church, this book helps kids to recognize Catholic worship space within a Catholic community and find their place in it.

Any one of these books would make a delightful gift for a young reader. The gift-giver may actually like a copy to keep, as well.

(Elizabeth Scalia is culture editor for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter at @theanchoress.)

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