Parents looking to introduce their children to the Easter story in a loving, gentle way have a great resource in “Petook: The Rooster Who Met Jesus.”
Written by Caryll Houselander, Petook ostensibly tells the tale of a first-century rooster, his wife, Martha, and their brood of chicks.
Literally in the background, however, a parallel story of Holy Week unfolds in distant images of Christ’s arrest, crucifixion and resurrection – all gorgeously brought to life by the beloved children’s illustrator, Tomie dePaola.
When I read this tale to my five young children, they were delighted by dePaola’s joy-filled imagery of a crowing Petook and his fluffy yellow chicks. I was just as delighted when both my six-year-old girl and one of my three-year-old sons separately pointed to the understated background images to ask what they represented.
Those people led by a man carrying a glowing lantern? They were on their way to arrest Jesus, I explained, because they didn’t understand who Christ was.
That man who raises his arms as a woman points to him and Petook crows from a distance? That’s St. Peter as he denied being Christ’s friend.
And those wooden crosses on a far-off hill? That’s where Jesus would die.
Petook first encounters Christ as a boy, one who tramples grapes and is spellbound at the sight of the rooster’s wife gathering her chicks under her wings. He later watches Christ being crucified, not realizing that he was the same person Petook had met years earlier.
Houselander’s way of connecting Christ’s resurrection to the new life about to spring forth from Martha’s eggs is really quite beautiful. All creation awaits both events by intently listening.
“It was so quiet that Petook heard the chicks in the eggs tapping softly with their beaks to get out,” Houselander writes. “Yes, Petook heard that, and he heard life everywhere, tapping softly, knocking softly to get out, to come out of the dark into the light, out of silence into sound, out of death into life: bird and beast and seed in the earth and bud on the tree. Petook heard all that when the chicks tapped to get out.”
When one of the chicks hatches, a woman laughs and the sky breaks into a “splendor of light.” The accompanying illustration of the triumphant chick shows his head raised, wings outstretched and beak agape. In the background, in a detail I missed on my first few readings of this story, dePaola displays a formerly dark tomb now radiantly white, symbolic of the resurrection.
“Petook threw back his head and crowed and crowed and crowed,” Houselander writes. “His red comb burned in glory, the white feathers in his plumage dazzled in the light, and the new chick danced at his feet. He crowed again and again and again.”
Petook was first published in 1988 as “Petook: An Easter Story,” but has long been out of print. The new 32-page edition, published by Ignatius Press, is a long-awaited revival of this classic tale.
In an introduction to the story, dePaola, who died last year, notes that he was introduced to Houselander’s writing through a Benedictine nun at Regina Laudis Abbey in Bethlehem, Conn. He describes Houselander as a mid-20th century artist, mystic, counselor and “great spiritual writer.” He notes that Houselander’s description of the emergence of one of Petook’s chicks from an egg “breathes new life into the age-old symbol of the Easter egg, helping the reader become aware that it is more than just the tasty chocolate treat that we associate with Easter today.”
“Without symbols such as this,” he said, “Christianity becomes pale.”
Much of the religious symbolism contained in this book will be lost on younger readers. Even adults will have to read the tale multiple times to catch and appreciate all the biblical references and subtleties. The joy of this enchanting story, however, is that with every reading, new details emerge in word and image, giving parents repeated opportunities to open up conversations about faith with their children.
Email George Matysek at gmatysek@CatholicReview.org
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