Monday, November 17, 2014

Book Review: Les Belles Histoires de la Bible

Book Title: Les Belles Histoires de la Bible: Volume 1: Le Livre des Commencements
Author: Arthur S. Maxwell
Date: 1953
Publisher: Monde Français / Pacific Press
ISBN: none (but click here to see seven of the nine other volumes in the series, because these are picture books and you have to see the pictures)
Length: 190 pages
Illustrations: full-color paintings on most pages
Quote: “La Bible est le plus merveilleux livre d’histoires qui ait jamais été écrit.”
Arthur S. Maxwell was English. Some of his early books for adults were published only in English. With his Bedtime Stories series, published between 1920 and 1970, and even more with his Bible Stories series, published in the 1950s, publishers knew they’d struck gold. Maxwell’s storybooks have been widely translated in a variety of beautifully illustrated editions.
It might be said that translators took some liberties in retitling Bedtime Stories as La Route Enchantée and inserting Belles into Histoires de la Bible, but cultural sensitivity was probably a factor. On the whole the translation of this volume is more faithful than a disgusting “modernized" English edition I’ve seen. This is an authentic Bible Story book, printed on low-gloss but durable paper, bound to stay bound in a wonderfully waterproof, even peanut-butter-and-jelly-proof cover. You’d have to look at the copyright date to know that my copy, although handled extensively, wasn’t printed within the last ten years. (Actually my copy was printed in the 1970s or 1980s. You can tell because the contemporary pictures were updated; some people have dark skin, and the fathers of the churchgoing families on page 60 have 1970s “mod” haircuts.)
The illustrations of all Bible Story books deserve introduction to those who don’t know them. In commissioning paintings for these books, the publishers spared no expense. Professional landscape painters supplied at least one full-page, poster-quality image to introduce each story. Some pictures were done from photographs of the Middle East, and some, done by Harry Anderson while he was staying at an historic home in Maryland, come from Takoma Park.
In The Faith Club, the Jewish participant asked the others to describe the stereotypes the word “Jewish” brought to their minds. The unflattering images they described aren’t totally unfamiliar to me. I’ve seen cartoons like that; I’ve even seen a few people like that. Yet that’s not the image the word “Jewish” brings to my mind. The first context in which I met the word “Jews,” as a child, was The Bible Story. As an adult I can observe that the painters were directed to select attractive models whether they were painting faces, landscapes, buildings, or whatever. In any case they succeeded in making “Jewish” suggest, to me, “good-looking people, with either dark or snow-white hair, usually observed in attitudes stereotyped as noble and devout.” Even the wicked characters have, at worst, scowling expressions on their classic faces. Since most of the stories focus on good characters these books can be said to give child readers a favorable image to go with the word “Jewish.”
I’ve actually heard some complaints about the fabulosity of the models painted in these books. While the artists gave Moses and Abraham white beards, they couldn’t bring themselves to make heroines like Sarah and Miriam age at all—some of the virtuous women of the Bible seem to have luxuriant black hair and girlish faces at ninety. 
The books are, of course, Christian. They’ve been endorsed by rabbis, but I suspect these rabbis were Messianic Jews, since four of the ten volumes are about the life and teachings of Jesus. They stick to the literal sense of the Bible stories, without many attempts to explain any “poetic,” “allegorical,” or “metaphoric” interpretations or abstract theological teachings. They are, however, padded out with explanations of Bible words and concepts, from “the begats” (preschoolers are told that "begat" means "was a daddy") through “kindness” and “generosity.”
Stories some adults prefer to construe as metaphors are presented as literally true, with illustrations of the traditional picture-book school. Adam and Eve always stand behind convenient bushes or large animals; domestic animals that hadn’t been fully domesticated even in New Testament days appear as types bred in the nineteenth century, marching into Noah’s Ark two by two.
Volume one takes the child reader as far as “The Girl with the Kindly Heart” and “The Boy with the Friendly Spirit” (La jeune fille au coeur aimant...Le garçon à l’esprit amical). These stories expand on how Rebekah was chosen to marry Isaac because she was kind enough, as well as strong enough, to draw water for ten camels, and although we’re not told whether Rebekah had ever met Isaac before she rushed off to marry him, we can guess that they were compatible because Isaac later dug two wells for Ishmael before keeping one for his own farm. This kind of approach is typical of Maxwell.
Maxwell wrote down to children of picture-book age in some ways but he expected them to look up, or ask adults about, new words. Translators have preserved this quality in Les Belles Histoires de la Bible. Second-year students whose native language is English should be able to read this book without much recourse to the dictionary; it’s not dumbed down for first-year students. 

All of Maxwell’s picture books are warmly recommended to anyone who is a child, used to be a child, or knows a child. Although thousands of copies were sold (door to door, by deserving students at Christian schools) and many copies printed in the 1950s are still readable, these books tended to be handed down through families rather than resold on the Internet, so when they're available online they tend to be sold for collectors' prices. Note the price tag on the incomplete set linked above...single volumes in this series seem to start high on Amazon. The non-English versions aren't easy to find in the U.S. and I'm afraid the best I can do for this volume, online, is currently $120 + $5 for shipping.  If I find a better deal I'll update this post. At least Arthur S. Maxwell no longer needs 10% of whatever you have to pay for his books.