Wednesday, November 5, 2014

If He Had Not Come (A Schoolhouse Crew Review)

I've got a storage box of holiday-themed books going, and each year I try to add a few to my mini-library as each holiday of the year rolls around.  It's been interesting watching the titles change as our homeschool grows.  When we first started, they were all cute picture books; this year, Matthew added On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery to our "Memorial/Veteran's Days" section.   As much as I love colorful picture books, it's been interesting to age into ones that start leading to deep discussions.  The upcoming Christmas holiday is no exception to the add-a-book tradition, and this year, one of the ones we've added is If He Had Not Come. Part picture book, part discussion, it's a good book for the multiple ages here.

If He Had Not Come is a classic story, originally written by Nan F. Weeks in 1938.  It has been retold by David Nicholson and contains new illustrations from Charles Jaskiewicz.  The story begins with the protagonist, Bobby, and his father reading from the Bible at bedtime, and a quote from the Gospel of John preying on Bobby's mind as he slept --  "If He had not come..." (Jn. 15:22) In his dreams, Bobby encounters people who have no concept of Christmas.  It explores how different life would be if Jesus had never been born.  Bobby goes from place to place, and finds a different world -- factories and stores open on Christmas, no hospitals, no homeless shelters.  He returns home and finds the New Testament missing from his Bible.  When he awakes and realizes it all was a dream, he is even more thankful for the gift of the Christ Child.

The illustrations in the book highlight the story well.  During Bobby's dream, there is a hazy, dark quality to the drawings, almost like a smoky miasma.  When he awakens from his dream, the colors are crisp and bright.  The white snow gleams and the depth of color in Bobby's blue sweater rivals the Caribbean Sea in tone.  The visual contrast is stunning.

This book is intended for children ages 6 and up.  I found that most of it went right over Jude's head - he just doesn't have the ability for such philosophic/abstract thinking.  In the back of the book are several interactive questions that were good discussion questions for a younger child, but I think were better suited to an older elementary student (grades 4-5) and up.  Most of the discussion questions requires some pretty significant abstract thought, but make the book very friendly for use both as a family or in a religious education setting.
The book really was better appreciated by the older boys (ages 13 and 16), once they got past the "little kid storybook" format.  We actually had two different types of discussions. The first was a hypothetical "If He hadn't come...then what?" that explored the role of Christianity in many of the scenarios presented.   Many modern institutions from hospitals to homeless shelters now have secular incarnations, but are rooted in earlier Christian life.We discussed the role of the Benedictine monasteries and their "Welcome all" philosophy that much of the modern hospitality industry emerges from, and how medical hospitals and hospices are also descendents of the monastery system. I'd like to hope that we'd still have hospitals and shelters - Christian or not, it's the right thing for ANY person to care for a fellow human being -- but the monks and nuns certainly got them going.

The second was discussing religion in the United States and how Bobby found a factory and stores open and running on Christmas day.  I know there are many people who feel that because it is Christmas, everything should be shut down -- but I grew up on the edge of a Jewish section of Philadelphia, PA.  While some places were closed in recognition of Christmas, not all were -- because a large portion of the local population didn't celebrate Christmas.  I purposely led the boys into a discussion of American practices; I think it would be very easy to read this book and conclude "But it's Christmas, everything should be closed!" One of our debates was, "Even though the US separates government from religious practices, the majority of the country is Christian so should things be closed on Christmas? Or should it be up to the individual business owner, according to his beliefs?"  Cliché as it sounds, yes, most of my Jewish friends in high school went to the movies and got Chinese take-out on Christmas day. Is it right to force them to stay home to "celebrate" a holiday they have no part of? At first Luke thought that "majority rule" should apply, but then realized that it wasn't a far-fetched thought that should Jews attain "majority" status, he could be forced to sit at home on Saturdays because Kashrut forbids driving on the Sabbath.  It was definitely an interesting conversation.

If He Had Not Come is available as both a hardcover ($18.99) or an eBook ($3.99).  Our hardcover copy will join the rest of our Christmas classic books to be pulled out year after year.  Click the banner to read other reviews, or connect with the author on Facebook.

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