One-Minute Book Reviews

May 5, 2007

Good Picture Books About Noah’s Ark

“High and long, / Thick and strong, / Wide and stark, / Was the ark.”
From Peter Spier’s Caldecott Medal–winning Noah’s Ark

By Janice Harayda

No Bible story has fared better at the hands of picture-book illustrators than that of Noah’s Ark. Preschoolers love stories about animals, so picture books and the Flood are a natural fit. And there are so many outstanding versions of the story in Chapters 6–9 of Genesis that many bookstores and libraries have several or more.

The best book for toddlers and younger preschoolers is Noah’s Ark (Dell, 48 pp., $7.99, ages 2–6), illustrated by the Dutch-born American artist Peter Spier, who won the 1978 Caldecott Medal for it. Noah’s Ark begins with a translation of a Dutch poem about the Flood that has singsong rhymes simple enough for 3-year-olds: “Dog and cat, / Mouse and rat, / Fly and vole, /Worm and mole … In they came, / Pair by pair, / Gross and fair.”

From then on, Spier uses only pictures – his signature black line drawings washed with color – to tell the story of the Ark from the gathering of the animals through the appearance of the rainbow symbolizing God’s promise never to send another flood like the one Noah survived. And Spier’s vibrant and sympathetic illustrations suggest both the gravity of the situation and the potential for humor in crowding so many species onto a wooden boat. Within the larger story of the Flood, his drawings tell hundreds of smaller stories of the endless tasks faced by Noah and his family, such as milking cows and gathering eggs from hens. Noah’s Ark has stayed in print for decades partly because you see something new each time you return to it.

An excellent book for older preschoolers and young school-age children is Arthur Geisert‘s The Ark (Houghton Mifflin/Walter Lorraine, 48 pp., $7.99, ages 4–8). Geisert tells Noah’s story through a spare, interpretive text and black-and-white etchings that include wonderfully detailed cross sections. The pictures in his book may fascinate even children who shun traditional Bible stories, because they show how ships of any kind might transport animals. Larger creatures like bears and elephants take up the lower decks while flamingoes strut and peacocks spread their tails on the upper ones.

Jerry Pinkney won a 2003 Caldecott Honor citation for his Noah’s Ark (North-South/SeaStar, 40 pp., $16.99. ages 4–8). It tells the story of the Flood in modern words arranged on the page like stanzas of free verse: “The zebras munched their hay. / The geese gobbled up the grain. / The monkeys nibbled on sweet grapes / and climbed to the roof / where the sparrows / perched and sang.”

As usual in Pinkney’s books, the exquisite illustrations steal the show. Pinkney works on a dramatic artistic scale. His illustrations bleed across gutters and off the page. And he zooms in so closely on faces – human or animal – that you can see the whites of Noah’s eyes and up the nostrils of a bear. Among living picture-book artists, perhaps only David Wiesner has more skill at creating stylized watercolors that are dreamy yet realistic.

Pinkney’s book is harder to find than Spier’s and Geisert’s but available in many libraries. And children who like it may enjoy learning about his unusual techniques, which he described in The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators (Houghton Mifflin, 542 pp., $17), edited by Anita Silvey. “In illustrating stories about animals, as with people, research is important,” Pinkney said. “I keep a large reference file and have over a hundred books on nature and animals. The first step in envisioning a creature for me is to pretend to be that particular animal. I think about its size and the sounds it makes, how it moves, where it lives. When the stories call for anthropomorphic animals, I’ve used Polaroid photographs of myself posing as the animal characters.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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