Author: Father Olivier Bonnewijn
Illustrator: Amandine Wanert
Age Range: 7 – 10 depending on reading ability
I haven’t seen this Catholic children’s series before. Probably because it was originally published in another language, and this is the English translation version. Father Olivier Bonnewijn is a Catholic priest born and raised in Belgium. He has written several theological books and is well known on the internet, however I could not find any of his interviews or presentations in English. There are three books in this children’s series that have been translated and published in English.
Surprisingly, I found the first book, An Extraordinary Friend, to be packed full of Catholic ideas and theology. The story commences as our main character, Jamie, becomes separated from his family on a busy railway station in a foreign country. Jamie panics and searches everywhere for his family, but the crowds and foreign language overwhelm him. I liked the fact that Jamie was initially presented as a little resentful and non-compliant, which made his character seem more human and relatable. And then when he is lost and alone, we can’t help but feel sorry for him. These details bring characters alive for readers and children will have no trouble connecting emotionally with this story. Just when Jamie gives up his searching and utters a prayer asking God to help him, he notices a gang of boys beating another boy who is dressed in rags, dirty and bleeding.
Eventually, Jamie and the homeless boy, Popov, help each other out, sharing the little that they have. Jamie helps Popov to clean his wounds and they eventually wander into a church where Jamie kneels before the crucifix and gazes carefully at the details of Christ’s wounds. He becomes aware that the wounds that Jesus has on his hands, feet and side are exactly the same as Popov’s. And in that moment of recognition, Jamie’s family arrives at the church and finds him there.
After a joyfully tearful reunion with his family, Jamie tries to find Popov, but he has disappeared. The story ends abruptly without explanation, which is interesting. Popov has vanished.
What I particularly love about this little book is that there is an extensive section at the end that provides questions and answers for children. Father Bonnewijn explores several themes – Jamie’s courage in the face of bullies and the ‘cold indifference of station guards’ as well as the bitterly cold temperatures. A further theme that I thought was cleverly addressed was the whole notion of how we help the poor. In this story, Popov is poor, but Jamie is needy too. They help each other. Father Bonnewijn refers to the image on the front cover and likens it to the Samaritan woman at the well. “Who is giving, and who is receiving?” he asks. He sums up:
“This is the best way to help the poor: to give and to receive.”
How cool is that? It’s a message of great wisdom that requires humility to fully understand. I love that this idea is presented and explored in a children’s story.
Author, Father Olivier Bonnewijn
Finally, Father Bonnewijn reveals that the book is based on a real story and that Popov, the homeless lad, really seems to have vanished. He also asks children to consider if Popov might have been Jesus in disguise. He refers to Jesus’ words in Matthew, “what ever you do for the least of these my brothers, you do unto me”. Father Bonnewijn concludes:
“That is why theologians say that the poor are like a sacrament: they render Jesus present, alive and visible”.
I can’t think of a children’s book I’ve read that leads children into such a rich and deep theological discussion. It makes me wonder if we don’t underestimate children and their capacity to understand these concepts. I highly recommend this book, the first in a series of three. An excellent resource for religious teachers and homeschool families.
You can purchase An Extraordinary Friend from Veritatis Publishing HERE
You can read my review of book two in the series, The Three Roses HERE
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