In the Candle’s Glow, the new book by Elizabeth Crispina Johnson, is a delight from beginning to end. Just look at the end papers! So many picture books (even my own) have either blank end papers, or end papers in a neutral, could-be-any-book pattern. But the end papers for In the Candle’s Glow are honeycomb and bees, images drawn from the illustrations in the story.
And the illustrations by Amandine Wanert are delightful. Infused with the colors of honey and candlelight, they glow with cheerfulness and faith and joy. They couldn’t be more perfect for this story.
In the story, the words are selected and assembled like gems. The nun who collects the honey and wax from the hives could have had any name, but she’s Sister Irene; the little girl who lights the candles is name Felicia. Peace and Happiness. And Johnson lavishes the same care on every other word that she does on the names of her characters.
The characters are part of a single story, but they don’t meet each other. Do you remember the “field trip” episodes from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, like the one where children got to see how people make crayons, or how they make fortune cookies? This book is that kind of story. There isn’t a conventional story arc, with conflict, rising action, climax, denouement. Rather, In the Candle’s Glow shows how prayer candles are made and used.
A Breath of Wind
In the Candle’s Glow starts with a breath of wind, and with bees. Bees gathering nectar and making wax.
Then Sister Irene harvests wax and honey from the hives, singing hymns and blessing the bees as she works. A beekeeper would notice instantly what I didn’t see until my fourth or fifth time reading the book: Sister Irene doesn’t wear beekeeping gear. Just a white apron over her black habit.
Perhaps her hymns and prayers are enough to calm the bees. Perhaps she has a special relationship with the bees, as St. Seraphim and St. Koprios had with bears. Perhaps peace just flows from her to the bees. Or perhaps she had beekeeping gear on while she had the hives open, and the illustration just doesn’t show that part.
Going in from the hives, Sister Irene makes dipped candles. The process is covered in just a few brief sentences. If your children want to know more, they can watch Mister Rogers explain how candles are made.
From the monastery, Sister Irene’s candles find their way to a church. As does a little girl, Felicia. Felicia takes a candle, lights it, and sees her prayers in the candle flame.
And a breath of wind catches the smoke form the candles and lifts it up, with the prayers, to the icon of the Panotcrator in the ceiling of the church.
Starting and ending In the Candle’s Glow with a breath of wind was a brilliant choice. It gently frames the steps in the candle-making process, providing a sense of structure and creating a narrative whole. And it suggests the work of the breath of God, the Holy Spirit, in the bees and in the prayers.
Blessings of Bees and Flowers and Fruit: The feasts and fasts of the summer include blessings of bees and honey, flowers and fruit.
Groundhog’s Day and the Presentation of our Lord: Traditionally, candles are blessed on the Presentation of our Lord, giving the feast its other name, Candlemas.