Big Bible stories for little readers

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NOAH'S ARK Retold by Sally Lloyd-Jones Illustrated by Tracey Moroney Reader's Digest Children's Books, unpaged, $4.99 Ages 18 mos. - 4 years

THE WHALE'S TALE Retold by Beverly Larson Illustrated by Tracey Moroney Reader's Digest Children's Books, unpaged, $4.99 Ages 18 mos. - 4 years 2) EXODUS Retold and illustrated by Brian Wildsmith Eerdmans Books, unpaged, $20 Ages 5 and up 3) JOURNEYS WITH ELIJAH:

EIGHT TALES OF THE PROPHET By Barbara Diamond Goldin Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney Harcourt Brace, 78 pp., $20 All ages

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There's a great deal of biblical illiteracy in this country," pollster George Gallop Jr. said at a recent gathering in Boston. What can be done about this disturbing situation? The Bible itself may suggest an answer: "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it." Given the many Bible-story books now available, teaching children about the Bible has never been easier. Here are some of the newest:

Board books - those small, sturdy volumes for tiny hands - are a perfect way to introduce toddlers to the Bible. Two familiar stories are featured in Noah's Ark and The Whale's Tale. Sally Lloyd-Jones retells the story of Noah in only 150 words, but she captures much of the drama and comfort it affords. In this version, positive images abound. God isn't angry at anyone. He's just sending a lot of rain. After hearing from God: "You'll need a boat," Noah and his family get busy. God points out animals and says: "I'll need them to come too." Of course, they survive the flood, "all cozy in God's floating zoo." After the seas subside and a dove returns with an olive branch, everyone disembarks. " 'Come out.' God said, 'and see the rainbow! It's a promise of my love for you.' "

The story is a time-tested classic, and this version's design and illustrations enhance its appeal for kids. Artist Tracey Moroney develops characters and settings that are colorful and charming. This 10-page board book - with die-cut windows and peek-a-boo views - is even shaped like an ark.

"The Whale's Tale," the story of Jonah as retold by Beverly Larson, also has a clever shape - a whale with an open, smiling mouth. Moroney's illustrations make this companion book equally appealing. While Noah's story is all about obeying God, Jonah deals with the consequence of disobedience. After Jonah repents in a whale's belly, the whale spits him out on a beach. This time, Jonah does as he's been told: "Jonah headed straight for Nineveh. The people listened to Jonah and learned to love God."

Exodus, retold and illustrated by Brian Wildsmith, is an impressive book. Its large size, elaborate art, and gold-foil touches fit this epic story. It starts with Moses as a baby and ends with his death shortly before the Hebrews are delivered into the Promised Land. The tale unfolds over 36 pages: Moses and his brother Aaron negotiate with Pharaoh, plagues strike the Egyptians, Moses parts the Red Sea, manna and quails appear at the Hebrews' campsites, God delivers the Ten Commandments, and Joshua leads the wanderers into their new homeland. Intricate illustrations encourage young readers to study the palatial architecture of Egypt, enormous crowd scenes, and desert landscapes. Its glorious art and religious content make this volume worthy of becoming a family keepsake.

Journeys with Elijah is a stunning storybook that opens up a rich tradition in Jewish folklore. While many individuals know Elijah from the Bible, fewer are aware of the legends associated with this Old Testament prophet. In retelling eight Elijah tales, Barbara Diamond Goldin shows how the Jewish people and their literature have spread around the world. Elijah calls on Jews in Northern Africa, Argentina, Persia, the Caribbean, China, and Europe. Sometimes, he's an itinerant peddler, sometimes a weary traveler, and sometimes a simple beggar. The lesson he teaches, however, is always the same: Treat everyone with honesty and kindness. Award-wining artist Jerry Pinkney contributes more than two-dozen gorgeous watercolor illustrations. Several accompany each story, lending depth and richness to a splendid collection.

*Karen Carden reviews children's books for the Monitor.

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