I spent four years at Immaculate Conception Seminary, which occupies 500 acres in Mahwah on the New Jersey-New York border. The Rev. Francis Maione, a former business manager, saved the seminary oodles of property tax money when he discovered that the property could become a tree farm on most of the acres as long as they sold some trees annually. Never did he imagine, though, that in my last year, 1981,and two years later, a tree on the property would be selected for the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.
Virtually the entire seminary gathered around the tree right off the entrance on Route 202 — which is why it was spotted by the tree hunters — when the 1981 tree was cut, wrapped and loaded on a huge flatbed for its trip to Manhattan. The Rev. Joseph Masiello, seminary business manager at the time, led a group of seminarians to be guests of honor at Rockefeller Center the night of the televised tree lighting. And the entire seminary watched it on television.
While that must be a common experience wherever the Rockefeller tree is cut each year, nothing could have matched the excitement when the 2020 tree brought a “resident” of Oneonta, New York, with it for the 175-mile ride. A Northern Saw-Whet owl, one of the smallest in the U.S., was embedded in its boughs.
And that’s the premise of the beautiful “Little Owl in the Big City” (2021), a children’s book that tells a story of the bird’s travel plans. The artwork captures the real setting of the tree Upstate, on the road and in Manhattan. And, of course, it humanizes the owl’s wanderlust. But the author never named the bird, which allows the reader’s imagination to soar.
In real life, she was named Rocky and retrieved from the tree for a wildlife rehabilitation center. After a few days, she flew away for more adventures.
Occasionally, I like to find and recommend children’s books like “Little Owl in the Big City” that would make good holiday gifts. All of the books in this column have been published by Paulist Press, a Catholic publishing house in Mahwah, a stone’s throw from where the seminary trees were uprooted.
“Moonlight Miracle” by Tony Magliano (2000) explores the power and light of the moon and explains what the moon does like “push the oceans’ tides” and help “salmon as they make their way to the sea.” It offers some practical ways children can harvest the moon’s light by cupping their hands. That can be done all over the world as a sign of global unity.
The author prints “AMDG ‘on the first page. At St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, we would write those letters on the top of our papers. In Latin, it stands for the phrase “For the greater glory of God.” And nature does, indeed, give glory to God.
“Twelve Colorful Things” (2011) teaches children the months of the year through the activities celebrated in each. For example, February is when “two clever cupids, two arrows shine, aimed at her mailbox; pink valentines.” December’s 12 days of Christmas take on a different spin by teaching numbers.
Blessings are a theme that resonates this time of year — from Thanksgiving to Christmas through Epiphany.
“Count Your Blessings” (1999) is perfect for little ones; the art is photos with poetry to make the book sing.
“Children’s Book of Family Blessings” (1999) is an excellent way to teach school-age children the breadth and depth of prayer. The prayers are divided by family members, days of the week, special holidays and needs.
The sentiment “For My Grandparents” especially resonated for me after a recent children’s Mass before Thanksgiving when I asked the kids to name something they are thankful for. Little Sandra — all Shirley Temple looks and enthusiasm — said, “My grandmother,” who had taken her to church that Sunday since her mom had just given birth to her younger sister, Maria.
The prayer in the book credits grandmothers for special actions: “They give huge hugs, terrific treats and they’re always proud when you do something great.”
“The Look and See Bible” (2006) is the best one I’ve seen to teach key Bible stories. Each story, like “Noah and the great flood,” or “Jesus heals a man’s hand,” is one page of text with colorful art. And it ends with a task for the child.
Reading to children is a beautiful treat and these books make it spiritual and satisfying.
The Rev. Alexander Santora is the pastor of Our Lady of Grace and St. Joseph, 400 Willow Ave., Hoboken, NJ 07030. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @padrehoboken.
These books are all published by Paulist Press of Mahwah, PaulistPress.com.
“Children’s Book of Family Blessings,” by Ellen J. Kendig, 1999; Paperback, $7.95.
“Count Your Blessings,” by Heidi Bratton and Sally Ann Conan, 1999; Hardcover, $5.95.
“Little Owl in the Big City,” by Marcia Mogelonsky, 2021; Hardcover, $19.95.
“Moonlight Miracle,” by Tony Magliano, 2000; Hardcover, $9.95.
“The Look and See Bible,” by Sally Ann Wright, 2006; Hardcover, $12.95.
“Twelve Colorful Things,” by Heather Tietz, 2011; Hardcover, $ 14.95.