These are worrying times for the unbelieving parent, the season when children start asking awkward questions. Usually you can play along without uttering a lie direct - mail letters to Lapland, leave out plates of mince pies by the fireplace etc. But if you're too soft-hearted to blow the cover on Santa, how does the conscientious atheist break it to the little ones that God doesn't really exist?
The short answer is "don't". The gentlest remedy is the pathetic but serviceable `Some people believe' gambit. I opted for this one recently and, my softly-softly approach combined with his forthcoming appearance as Balthazar in the nativity play means that I am now the proud owner of a six-year-old who believes quite firmly in God.
The major advantage of this possibly transitory God-fearing phase (quite apart from the potential long-term benefit to the immortal soul) is the newly acquired appetite for bible stories and a superb opportunity to force-feed the boy with old and new testament characters from Aaron to Zachariah so that his future reading of Shakespeare or Dickens won't involve a thumb in the back of the book. You don't need to believe in Zeus to enjoy the Greek myths but Bible stories can be surprisingly pointless without the salt of belief to flavour them.
Once upon a time mummies and daddies didn't have to worry their trendy little heads about this sort of thing. The basic jawbone-of-an-ass stuff was all taken care of by Sunday School, RE lessons and a volume known as the Family Bible, which was lovingly remembered for its births and deaths column on the endpapers, its steadfast adherence to the orotund magnificence of the King James version and its glowing colour plates of Ruth amid the alien corn. Got one? Me neither.
So there you are in Dillons running your eye along the shelf of Bible stories (always out in force in December to feed the voracious demands of unimaginative godparents) and you realise that illustrated versions of the scriptures are very big business: all the major children's publishers have at least two anthologies of holy doings. But are any of them happy to tell the story without labouring the message?
Most publishers are conscious that not everyone is buying their books as an aid to belief but they also quite like an endorsement from the Church Times on the dust jacket. They are also anxious to provide something for all ages. Lion Publishing leads the field in the provision of mainstream children's scriptures. The chunky hardback First Bible (480pp, pounds 11.99) was unwrapped on the kitchen table, at which point the resident six-year- old fell upon its clear, friendly text and began reading aloud. We got through the Creation, the Fall and Noah before he was dragged reluctantly off to school. Leon Baxter's colourful illustrations are a tad dull but Pat Alexander retells the stories with great charm "Take no notiss of what God sayss. The fruit of the tree iss good to eat" etc. This sort of thing is very good for reading aloud. So too is the Lion Storyteller Bible (110pp, pounds 9.99) although it does overdo the sing-song, repetitive narrative supposedly essential to hold the attention of the under-eights. Older children might be better off with Lion's Children's Bible (255pp pounds 8.99) or the life sentence of The Children's Bible in 365 stories.
The Lion books are all very clearly and competently illustrated but you couldn't call it art. The grown-up's need for something nice to look at while reading aloud are better served by Kady MacDonald Denton's fuzzy watercolours for the Kingfisher Children's Bible (155pp, pounds 12.99) and, most strikingly by Brian Wildsmith's numerous volumes for Oxford University Press including the good value The Bible Story (135pp, pounds 7.99) 48 stories illustrated with a gaudy palette and a scratchy nib - as if Ralph Steadman were to design stained-glass windows.
The older reader needs something a little more sophisticated, such as Dorling Kindersley's Children's Illustrated Bible whose maps and footnotes anchor the stories in their historical context. As a general rule the over-tens have an allergy to any volume with "children's" in the title and may prefer Walker Books' God's Story (180pp, pounds 10.99) which retells the Old Testament as a continuous narrative powerfully illustrated by David Parkins's darkly sophisticated images. A far cry from pop-up bible stories such as Brian Wildsmith's The Creation and Noah's Ark for OUP both at pounds 12.99 - pretty steep for a book whose novelty will wear off in minutes. However, no publisher ever lost money by underestimating the taste of small children. My fellow judge's second favourite was The Puffin Book of Bible Stories (pounds 10.99) which is glued unhelpfully inside a cardboard folder that also contains a set of 16 apparently pointless cards that build up into a surreal biblical landscape in which Noah's Ark sails past the Garden of Eden and baby Moses nestles in the bullrushes nearby. He loved it.
As a result of this scriptural saturation bombing my son is even more firmly convinced of the existence of God. But he also believes in Santa Claus. And Daleks.Reuse content