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Movie review: 'Hostiles'

"Hostiles" (Entertainment Studios) works from the premise that not only were white soldiers in the 1890s aware of their complicity in the decades-long genocide of Native Americans, they could feel immense, paralyzing guilt about their actions.
 
The end result is more than a bit anachronistic -- white supremacist beliefs at the time were the norm, and the all-consuming energy required for daily life in the untamed American West allowed little time for reflection -- but director-writer Scott Cooper wishes to make a strong moral case.
 
So he opens with a quote from British novelist T.H. Lawrence, who wrote in 1923 about James Fenimore Cooper's 19th-century novel "The Deerslayer:” "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer. It has never yet melted."
 
Times were tough, hearts were hard and disputes were settled at the point of a gun. Sounds like the opening of most episodes of the TV western "Gunsmoke."
 
Except that there's no Marshal Dillon here to set matters right. Cooper's protagonist, taciturn Capt. Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), is wracked with anguish about the slaughter he's undertaken as well as the violence inflicted on virtually anyone he's worked with during his Army postings. He's killed, and seen his men killed by, the Native Americans they've been separating from their ancestral lands and way of life and putting them on impoverished reservations in the name of manifest destiny.
 
Blocker, despite his emotional damage, is an educated sort who reads Julius Caesar's writings in the original Latin. He thinks of his task as somehow noble, but nearly rebels when he's ordered to escort a dying Native American chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family from New Mexico to Montana.
 
Along the way, he picks up Rosalee (Rosamund Pike) the lone survivor from a massacre of her family by rampaging Comanches. She's catatonic from losing her husband and young children but somehow restores her bearings to regard Yellow Hawk's family with compassion. At another stop, they pick up convicted criminal Philip (Ben Foster), who will face a military execution at the end of the journey.
 
Master Sgt. Metz (Rory Cochrane) brags of having made his first kill at age 14 during the Civil War, but he, too, succumbs to the accumulation of grief.
 
To survive on this sad, loping journey requires everyone to find common ground so they can repel the ongoing threat of Comanche raiders. This dips into the ancient racial trope of "good" and "bad" Native Americans, and also creates, as the lone form of suspense, the question of who will die along the way.
 
The story would undoubtedly have worked better if only a couple of the principal characters were deeply depressed. But Cooper gives everyone an overwhelmingly sensitive conscience and a sense of how they'll be regarded by history. The result is an unrelentingly unsentimental road trip that can be appreciated by an adult audience aware of how many times Cooper wants to just wear them down.
 
The violence and racism are matter-of-factly and realistically portrayed. There's no mythology here, and also no joy. Any character, if exceedingly fortunate, becomes merely a survivor.
 
The film contains gun and physical violence, fleeting gore and some racist dialogue. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
 

Movie review: 'Paddington 2'

Unlikely as it seems, "Paddington 2" (Warner Bros.), an endearing blend of animation and live action, sends the much-loved bear of its title (voice of Ben Whishaw) to the slammer. More predictably, once imprisoned — in a grim Victorian fortress of a jail — he still manages to exert his trademark charm on all around him.
 
The warm goodness and jaunty joking that pervade writer-director Paul King's follow-up to his 2015 original are only slightly marred by some ridiculous wordplay that may have a few parents frowning momentarily. And the smallest members of the family may be scared by a few action scenes. Otherwise, however, this is an appealing adventure for a broad range of moviegoers.
 
Once again based on the series of books by recently deceased author Michael Bond, to whom the film is dedicated, the proceedings initially find Paddington far from his roots in the Peruvian jungle, having settled into a cozy domestic life with the Browns, the very British human family that adopted him in the first screen outing.
 
Led by dad Hugh Bonneville and mom Sally Hawkins, the Brown household is rounded out by daughter Judy (Madeleine Harris), an aspiring journalist, son Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), who fears his love of steam trains is not cool, and housekeeper Mrs. Bird (Julia Walters). With their affection to bolster him, Paddington leads a contented existence munching on marmalade sandwiches and helping his neighbors in small but thoughtful ways.
 
His happy routine is rudely interrupted, however, when he is accused and convicted of stealing an antique book. Far from purloining the volume, Paddington had earlier taken a job in order to save up enough money to purchase it as a gift for his cherished Aunt Lucy (voice of Imelda Staunton).
 
None-too-subtle clues point to neighborhood fixture Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), an egotistical actor who has recently been reduced to making dog-food commercials, as the real culprit. While Paddington makes friends with his fellow inmates, including the jail's initially ferocious hardened criminal of a cook, Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson), the Browns work to clear his name.
 
Lessons about family loyalty and the importance of looking for the good in everyone are served up along with heavy doses of cartoonish but very enjoyable comedy. The result is a treat as soothing as a good cup of tea on a foggy day in London town.
 
The film contains perilous situations and brief childish anatomical humor. The Catholic News Service classification is A-I — general patronage. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
 
 
 

Movie review: All the Money in the World

By turns suspenseful, darkly comic and stridently moral, this slightly fictionalized account of the famous 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer), the grandson of his billionaire namesake (Christopher Plummer), makes a strong case that immense wealth not only can't buy happiness, it also imposes depths of misery that few ever know. As scripted by David Scarpa from John Pearson's 1995 book "Painfully Rich," it traces the efforts of the victim's divorced mother (Michelle Williams) and the ex-CIA agent (Mark Wahlberg) aiding her to out-negotiate both the miserly oil tycoon — who refuses to pay the $17 million ransom — and the lad's captors.

The film has mature themes, fleeting gore and frequent rough language.

The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
 

Movie review: 'Father Figures'

About the funniest joke in the threadbare comedy "Father Figures" (Warner Bros.) concerns the fact that, in childhood, its two main characters -- now-grown and estranged fraternal twins Kyle (Owen Wilson) and Peter (Ed Helms) Reynolds -- had a pet cat named Chairman Meow.
 
That historical pun aside, though, there's precious little that's revolutionary about the film that surrounds this duo.
 
Reluctantly reunited by the second wedding of their supposedly widowed mother, Helen (Glenn Close), bored-with-his-life proctologist Peter and carefree beach bum Kyle are in for a surprise. The man Helen long ago told them was their deceased father was, it seems, just a friend of hers.
 
So their real dad may, in fact, still be alive -- though Helen's promiscuous past makes it impossible for her to identify for sure which of many candidates he might be. This discovery launches the siblings on a road trip during which they visit a series of contenders, the first being famed football star Terry Bradshaw, playing himself.
 
As Terry and the lads toss the old pigskin around on a Florida beach, director Lawrence Sher's formulaic feature debut quickly sinks into a stupor from which only an energetic turn from Katt Williams as a hitchhiker can it briefly emerge.
 
Predictable developments include, most obviously, the gradual repair of the breach between the temperamentally diverse brothers. But subplots concerning Kyle's money troubles and divorced Peter's efforts to get back on track romantically are equally easy to anticipate.
 
Kyle's interest in serving as Peter's "wingman" by facilitating a casual encounter is symptomatic of the fact that the movie's distasteful premise is matched by a worm's-eye view of human sexuality throughout. The resolving plot twist can, however, be seen as vaguely pro-life.
 
The film contains pervasive sexual and some scatological humor, an incest theme, a premarital bedroom scene, about a dozen uses of profanity, a couple of milder oaths and constant rough and crude language.
 
The Catholic News Service classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R -- restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
 

Movie review: 'The Greatest Showman'

The life of pop entertainment pioneer P.T. Barnum provides the subject matter for the big, brash musical "The Greatest Showman" (Fox).
 
Ironically, the film arrives in theaters almost seven months to the day after the demise of the 19th-century impresario's most lasting legacy, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
 
Though unlikely to engage the youngest viewers, an emphasis on marital fidelity and family values in general, together with the virtual absence of objectionable material, makes this screen biography appropriate for most others. Moviegoers' appreciation of it, however, will likely depend on their taste for the Lloyd-Webber style of Broadway and West End theater, whose approach it imitates.
 
Hugh Jackman leads with his chin in playing Barnum with bring-on-the-lions enthusiasm. Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon's script, meanwhile, traces its protagonist's rise from impoverished beginnings to worldwide fame with the kind of occasionally challenged, but ultimately unquenchable, optimism that might have appealed to novelist Horatio Alger.
 
Barnum gains support in his ascent from his childhood sweetheart, Charity (Michelle Williams), who eventually turns her back on her wealthy and well-bred parents to marry him. Also shunning a genteel background to bolster Barnum's career is his unlikely business partner, New York socialite Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron).
 
Assembling an ensemble of such unusual figures as Lettie Lutz, aka the Bearded Lady (Keala Settle) and dwarf "General," Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), Barnum turns a large profit by exciting the curiosity of the masses. Tensions arise, though, when he shifts his focus away from these loyal performers and friends to concentrate on backing the American premiere of Swedish diva Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson).
 
Barnum risks his fortune in the effort to promote Lind, hoping thereby to gain the elite standing that has previously eluded him. The fact that this breakthrough may require him to shun those on whom he has built his success fails, initially at least, to deter him.
 
He is equally blind to the danger his absence on the road with Lind poses to his bond with Charity and their children -- not to mention the foreseeable temptation arising from the beautiful soprano's prolonged company.
 
There is an implicitly pro-life message underlying director Michael Gracey's feature debut since its treatment of the social outsiders with whom Barnum surrounded himself strongly vindicates their inherent dignity and entitlement to respect. The picture's portrayal of Carlyle's convention-defying romance with African-American trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) is equally in line with Christian morals.
 
Both these aspects of the plot, however, betray historical naivete in projecting a contemporary outlook backward onto Victorian-era America. The audience is left with the impression that all the gaping inequalities of Barnum's day might easily have been effaced by a few brassy songs delivered with the requisite zest.
 
Still, parents on the lookout for wholesome holiday fare will probably refrain from such nitpicking as, perhaps with teens in tow, they take in a love and success story that's old-fashioned in the best sense.
 
The film contains some nonlethal violence, a mild oath and a racial slur. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG -- parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
 

Movie review: 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi'

Despite the high price of a movie ticket these days, patrons are unlikely to come away from a showing of the engrossing sci-fi epic "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" (Disney) feeling shortchanged.
 
Vast in scale and operatic in intensity, this 152-minute visit to that galaxy far, far away is both satisfying and, for the most part, family-friendly.
 
With the mayhem inevitable in a movie about a war kept gore-free and only minor blemishes on the dialogue, parents may be more concerned about the nonscriptural notions centering on the famous Force that are here collectively referred to as the "Jedi religion." Teens able to take this fictional faith, a sort of dime-store Taoism, as just one more element in a fantasy world will benefit from lessons about the value of hope and the true nature of heroism.
 
The "Star Wars" saga has often been characterized as the Iliad of contemporary culture. So perhaps it's fitting that the opening of writer-director Rian Johnson's eighth episode of the narrative initiated by George Lucas in 1977 finds Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) imitating Homer's Achilles by holding aloof from the great struggle in which he once took an active part.
 
Rather than sulking in his tent, as Achilles did, Luke is leading a solitary life of self-imposed exile among the small stone huts of a distant planet. (These scenes were shot on the Irish island of Skellig Michael, site of a medieval monastery.) His isolation is interrupted by the arrival of Rey (Daisy Ridley) who has come as a messenger from Luke's twin sister, Leia (the late Carrie Fisher).
 
As the leading general of the embattled Resistance -- the latter-day version of the Rebel Alliance for which Luke once fought -- Leia urgently needs her brother's famed skills as a warrior if the struggle against the fascistic First Order (successor to the evil Galactic Empire), and its malignant leader, Snoke (Andy Serkis), is to continue.
 
Luke refuses to join the conflict. But he does agree to train Rey in the ways of the Force. Rey will need the power of this mysterious spiritual energy, the source of Luke's own prowess, when she eventually confronts Leia's son, Ben Solo, aka Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
 
Originally a good person, Ben has gone over to the side of darkness and now serves as Snoke's chief lieutenant. Even so, he still has some elements of good remaining in him, and his ongoing moral struggle has the potential to sway the outcome of the intergalactic battle.
 
Though it gets off to a slow start, once it hits its stride "The Last Jedi" sweeps viewers along with stirring action and audience-pleasing plot twists. While not as taut as last year's "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," this sprawling installment of the great franchise makes, in the end, for a more memorable experience.
 
The script's portrayal of the Force as capable of endowing those who cultivate it either with goodness or iniquity may strike moviegoers of faith as establishing a false equivalence of power between these two poles of morality. Some may even see in this an implicit denial of the rule of divine providence and God's ultimate supremacy over sin.
 
Yet, in keeping with a Christian worldview, characters do make their ethical choices more or less freely. And the idea that a change in basic identity should be reflected by a change of name echoes a recurring trope in Scripture -- and in the Church's sacramental practice.
 
Audience members young or old are unlikely to spend much time meditating on these aspects of the picture, however. Instead, they'll be content to ride this cinematic whirlwind while it lasts and leave its mythos behind them like so much popcorn on the theater floor.
 
The film contains frequent but bloodless combat violence, a scene of torture, a couple of mild oaths and a few crass terms. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
 

Movie review: 'Let There be Light'

 
"Let There Be Light" (Atlas) is an evangelical Christian drama with a familiar plot: A wayward sinner, in this case a famous atheist, experiences a change of heart.
 
The film is being marketed as a family-friendly event for church groups. The promotion tools include not only a teaching guide with Scripture references but also suggested outlines for sermons. And, in truth, the movie feels as if it had more to do with a religious studies curriculum than with entertainment.
 
Reflecting a small budget, its pacing is torpid, although Kevin Sorbo, the star and director, brings all his charisma to bear as Sol Harkens, a divorced, hard-drinking father bitter about the cancer death of his young son, Davey (Ethan Jones).
 
Sol says he no longer believes in prayer, because "that would mean praying to the very God that killed (Davey)." He's turned his atheism into a best-selling book.
 
Several twists and turns in the dialogue, presumably aimed at conveying cultural and political relevance to a wide audience, come out sounding odd instead.
 
Comedian Bill Maher, for instance, who has long identified as a religious skeptic, is compared to the diminutive mayor of Munchkin City in "The Wizard of Oz." What Maher's stature has to do with the validity or invalidity of his views on religion is not made clear.
 
Sol undergoes a second spiritual crisis after he's injured in a car accident and has a near-death experience during which he temporarily reunites with Davey in a tunnel of light. "Let there be light, Daddy," Davey says. Sol is mystified about this request for a very long time, but eventually figures it out.
 
Which brings us to Pastor Vinny (Michael Franzese). Explaining the Resurrection to Sol, Vinny thinks of himself as a "street guy" who did a 10-year stretch in a federal penitentiary, and "I don't believe things so easily."
 
Vinny then delivers a rough-hewn, "Sopranos"-style sermonette likely to be as quotable, down the years, as the King James Bible: "The empty tomb. What happened to the body?... Jesus gets whacked, right? They stick his body in a tomb, they seal it up tighter than a cement drum. What happens next? Bada bing! The body disappears. ...
 
"Now if he resurrected, that's a miracle. And that's not a little miracle. That's a big mother of a miracle. ...
 
"But nobody ratted out where the body was. Think about that. The disciples, not one of them broke rank. They went to their death sticking to that story. You know why? Because Christ was resurrected. There was no body."
 
Screenwriters Dan Gordon and Sorbo's wife, Sam, who also plays Sol's ex, Katy, clearly know how to put the fun in fundamentalism. Shortly after that, Sol is baptized in a creek, reunites with Katy and searches for a new direction for his life.
 
More unsettling than this straightforward conversion story is later dialogue about Islamic terrorism involving Fox News personality Sean Hannity, who is also the film's executive producer. Appearing on Hannity's radio program is shown as Sol's big break in his newfound evangelization effort.
 
"Are you guys ready for the amount of heat that will be coming your way with this?" Hannity asks. "Your intention is to proselytize. What about diversity? What right do you have to impose your religious values onto somebody else?
 
"What right does ISIS have to cut people's heads off?" Sol responds.
 
Hannity nods. "That's a powerful point."
 
The exchange speaks for itself, and indicates the uneasy blend of sincere religious sentiment and political propagandizing that is "Let There Be Light." More homiletics and less of Hannity would have helped.
 
The film contains mature themes and scenes of excessive alcohol use. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
 
 

Movie review: 'Roman J. Israel, Esq.'

Writer-director Dan Gilroy's drama "Roman J. Israel, Esq." (Columbia) is a generally intriguing character study pitting idealism against the hard realities of contemporary life and the allure of wealth and comfort.
 
Though the film takes left-wing values for granted, even conservatives may recognize its appeal, much of which derives from an intense performance by Denzel Washington in the title role.
 
Roman is a disheveled, eccentric civil rights lawyer in Los Angeles who toils behind the scenes so that his legendary senior partner and mentor, William Henry Jackson, can perform successfully in the courtroom. As the movie starts off, Jackson -- whom the audience never sees -- is stricken by a critical illness from which he is unlikely to recover.
 
Roman tries to take over Jackson's caseload. But his uncompromising attitude soon has him at odds with prosecutors and judges alike -- he's cited for contempt in one of his first appearances.
 
Jackson's niece, Lynn (Amanda Warren), soon makes it clear that the end has come for the unprofitable partnership. Successful high-end attorney George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a former student of Jackson's whom Roman regards as a sellout, is brought in to supervise its dissolution.
 
Desperate for a job, Roman turns to social activist Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo). But the organization whose local office she heads is not hiring. Instead, Roman is forced to consider going mainstream when George offers him a position in his downtown firm.
 
Though Gilroy's dialogue sometimes lapses into political rhetoric, the moral shadings of the two main characters keep the proceedings from becoming dull. George is not the uncaring shyster he at first appears, while Roman turns out to be capable, under pressure, of a serious moral lapse. Once committed, his misdeed and its consequences drive the plot forward and keep tension high.
 
Roman and Maya develop a quasi-romantic friendship but one so discreet it never goes beyond the kissing stage. And the minimal violence in the movie is heard but not seen.
 
Accordingly, parents may wish to consider whether the ethical resonances of this serious-minded picture outweigh the swearing that sometimes crops up in the script -- most often, unfortunately, in the form of the Lord's name being taken in vain -- making it acceptable for older teens.
 
The film contains fleeting off-screen violence, several uses of profanity and a milder oath, a single rough term and occasional crude and crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
 
 

Movie review: 'The Man Who Invented Christmas'

Its rather ill-chosen title notwithstanding, "The Man Who Invented Christmas" (Bleecker Street) involves no denial of the Nativity.
 
Instead, this charming fact-based historical drama tells the origin story of Victorian author Charles Dickens' beloved 1843 novella, "A Christmas Carol."
 
Dan Stevens brings brio to his portrayal of the complex writer, whose humanitarian instincts seem, initially, to benefit all but those closest to him. And the film as a whole shares much of the warmth of the slender volume whose creation it chronicles.
 
With his last three titles having failed to sell, Dickens fears falling into debt if his next production is equally unpopular. But, having struck on the idea of a holiday-themed narrative, he struggles with writer's block and with the endless distractions of his burgeoning family's domestic life.
 
A visit from his feckless father, John (Jonathan Pryce), whom Dickens blames for the sufferings of his childhood -- flashbacks show us his grim life as an apprentice in a shoe polish factory -- is a particular source of worry and conflict. Dickens, who fancifully summons up, and interacts with, his own characters, also spars with dour miser Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) who here serves as a naysaying critic of Dickens' work.
 
When his publishers, Chapman (Ian McNeice) and Hall (David McSavage), turn the prospective volume down, Dickens resolves to publish it himself, thus raising the financial stakes still further. He does at least enjoy the steady encouragement of his patient wife, Kate (Morfydd Clark), and of his friend and unpaid literary agent, John Forster (Justin Edwards).
 
The conversion story Dickens' eventually pens finds a real-life counterpart in the amendment of his own behavior. So director Bharat Nalluri's adaptation of Les Standiford's 2008 book has some positive moral lessons to convey about consideration and forgiveness.
 
Since it's also family-friendly in most respects -- a solitary instance of mild bedroom humor is based entirely on inference -- "The Man Who Invented Christmas" will likely prove a winner with a broad range of age groups.
 
The film contains a very vague sexual joke and a single mild oath. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG -- parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
 
 

Children's books for Christmas giving

reviewed by Regina Lordan

"The Watcher" by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Bryan Collier. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2017). 42 pp., $17.
"The Watcher" is a rare treasure in the world of children's books: The verse is poetic, the illustrations are a compelling blend of photographs and drawings, and the story is a gripping tale of bully and victim ... or is it? The narration unfolds and reveals that the instigator is really just a lonely child desperate for a friend. Influenced by Psalm 121, which attributes all help to God's loving protection and care, it is written in "golden shovel" form, in which the last word of each verse is a word from the psalm. "The Watcher" is a story that holds onto you as it slowly reveals understanding, compassion and innocent faith in God's love and protection. After it is read, its lyrical tale will not be soon forgotten. Ages 6-10.
 
"Be Yourself: A Journal for Catholic Girls" by Amy Brooks. Gracewatch Media (Winona, Minnesota, 2017) 100 pp., $20.
"Be Yourself" is a place for Catholic girls and young women to indeed learn how to be themselves, just the way God intended them to be. Colorful, interactive and brimming with saint spotlights, prayers and biblical quotes, "Be Yourself" will encourage Catholic girls to, as author Amy Brooks writes, nourish their relationship with God to better know his will for them and to use the journal to "navigate that relationship -- on good days and bad days." Ages 9 and up.
 
"Look! A Child's Guide to Advent and Christmas" by Laura Alary, illustrated by Ann Boyajian. Paraclete Press (Brewster, Massachusetts, 2017) 32 pp., $16.99.
Advent is a time of anticipation and waiting, but it can also be a time for reflection and mindfulness of today … if we take the time to look. Author Laura Alary welcomes children to be aware, appreciate and change during Advent within a biblical and present-day context. She tells the story of Jesus' birth within the framework of children's daily lives, and she encourages children to anticipate Christmas by preparing to say "yes" to God with simple, practical activities and works of service. Ages 5-10.
 
"Anointed: Gifts of the Holy Spirit" by Pope Francis. Pauline Books and Media (Boston, 2017) 120 pp., $18.95.
Intended for young men and women preparing to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of confirmation, but appropriate for all teens, "Anointed" is a compilation of the teachings of Pope Francis brightly illustrated with graphics and photos, Bible verses and prayers. "Anointed" makes the pope's teachings accessible and engaging, and invites readers to openly receive the gifts that God has given us. Ages 12-18.
 
"That Baby in the Manger" by Anne E. Neuberger, illustrated by Chloe E. Pitkoff. Paraclete Press (Brewster, Massachusetts, 2017) 31 pp., $15.99.
Father Prak was puzzled: A group of curious children, beautiful in their multicultural diversity, were preparing for Christmas Mass when they started asking questions about the statue of the baby Jesus. Why didn't he look like many of them, and why didn't he look like Jesus most likely did, with dark skin, hair and eyes? The priest turned to God for help while an innocent parishioner in the church overheard the discussion. Answering Father Prak's prayers through the eavesdropper's clever idea, the children discovered that through the gift of Christmas, Jesus has come to save each and every one of them, no matter what they look like. A perfect Christmas gift for children, this book celebrates the truth of Christmas while highlighting the mystery of God's interactions with us through prayer and each other. Ages 4-10.
 
"Angel Stories from the Bible" by Charlotte Grossetete, illustrated by Madeleine Brunelet, Sibylle Delacroix and Eric Puybaret. Magnificat (New York, 2017) 47 pp., $15.99.
Beginning with Jacob's ladder and ending with the angel appearing at Jesus' tomb, author Charlotte Grossetete adapts biblical passages of God's celestial messengers into children's short stories. Children will enjoy the illustrations of the five stories, created by three artists with varying styles, and the narratives of God intervening in human lives with his angels out of love and care. Particularly appropriate for Christmas, "Angels Stories from the Bible" includes St. Gabriel the Archangel visiting Mary to announce Jesus' impending arrival. Ages 5 and up.
 
"The Secret of the Santa Box" by Christopher Fenoglio, illustrated by Elena K. Makansi. Treehouse Publishing Group (St. Louis, 2017). 32 pp., $16.95.
There comes a time in every parent's life when a child anxiously asks them, "Is Santa real?" Many parents struggle with this answer, knowing that with the loss of belief in the jolly old man comes the loss of a part of childhood. But fear not, the Catholic faith shows us that the real joy of Christmas is Jesus' birth itself and the joy of the mystery of Christmas comes not from Santa but from everyone but Jesus himself. "The Secret of the Santa Box" is a needed book for curious children ready to move past the secular stories of Christmas and into a deeper relationship with the true meaning of Christmas. It gently explains the sometimes sensitive topic in cheerful and thoughtful rhymes and illustrations. Ages 7-10.
 
"Contemplating Scripture in Color" by Sybil MacBeth. Paraclete Press (Brewster, Mass., 2017) 64 pp., $11.99
Ever find yourself at a loss of words when trying to pray? Sometimes the actual effort to find the right thing to say is so distracting that prayer is lost in frustration. Author Sybil MacBeth found her words trivial and trite compared to the magnitude of her prayer intentions, so she created a doodle book to encourage focus, creativity and a space to pray. Guided by a relaxed formula, older children can practice this version of "lectio divina." "Pray for Others in Color" and "Count Your Blessings in Color," also by Sybil MacBeth, offer similar avenues for intercessory prayers and prayers of gratitude. Ages 12-18.
 
"Molly McBride and the Plaid Jumper" by Jean Schoonover-Egolf. Gracewatch Media (Winona, Minnesota, 2017) 32 pp., $11.
One in a series, "Molly McBride" helps normalize discussions about religious vocations through its cheerful and accessible narratives about a young girl and her women religious friends. Molly wants to be one of the "Purple Nuns," and she wears her purple habit everywhere. But she will be attending Catholic school soon and will have to wear a school uniform. Thankfully, a fun-loving priest and her parents help Molly understand that Jesus' love is much deeper than the clothes she wears. Children will love Molly and her cute wolf pet named Francis. Ages 4-8.
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Lordan, a mother of three, has master's degrees in education and political science and is a former assistant international editor of Catholic News Service.
 
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