Bible heritage for young readers

Biblical culture and history ought to find a new generation of young readers with two new nonfiction picture books. The Road to Bethlehem: An Ethiopian Nativity, told by Elizabeth Laird (Henry Holt, $12.95, ages 6 and up), draws on several folk legends from one of the world's oldest Christian countries. Based on Gospel narratives, this tale of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus is embellished with distinctly regional accounts of Mary's lineage and of two thieves who try to steal her child.

Vibrant red-, green-, and gold-tone paintings from 18th-century illuminated manuscripts give primitive vigor to the story and are used to explain unfamiliar religious customs. Laird's poetic text holds its own on the richly illustrated pages with a tempo made for reading aloud. A note indicates that a percentage of the book's earnings will be donated to Ethiopian famine relief groups.

Jerusalem, Shining Still, by Karla Kuskin, illustrated by David Frampton (Harper & Row, $12.95, age 6 and up), takes readers to another long-ago biblical city, the home of King David. This is a survival story of a city that spans 4,000 years and wave after wave of building and re-building. As Jerusalem rises from the stony hills in sun-filled woodcuts, we see gold shining in the crescents of its mosques and the crosses of its churches. Solomon, Nebuchadnezzar, Suleiman the Magnificent - conquerors all, they come and go, and still the city stands. Although no single religion is advocated here, the underlying theme of walls raised in praise to God makes this a winning seasonal title.

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