‘The Thief Who Stole Heaven’ Takes on an Ancient Legend, Offering Spiritual Reading for Kids This Lent
New picture book by Raymond Arroyo highlights saintly conversion and the mercy of God.
THE THIEF WHO STOLE HEAVEN
Written by Raymond Arroyo
Illustrated by Randy Gallegos
Sophia Institute Press, 2021
40 pages, $18.95
To order: EWTNRC.com or (800) 854-6316 (preorder)
Spiritual reading is just not for grown-ups. Kids (ages 6-12) will find The Thief Who Stole Heaven, written by Raymond Arroyo, founding news director for EWTN, the parent company of the Register, an exciting companion for the Lenten days leading to Easter. Arroyo, who anchors the network’s The World Over, is no stranger to weaving good tales for young readers, as his Will Wilder adventure series attests. His recent release of The Spider Who Saved Christmas marked Arroyo’s debut as a picture-book author.
Teamed once again with artist Randy Gallegos, Arroyo’s new picture book also contains within it an ancient legend. Arroyo spotlights The Good Thief, one of the two robbers crucified alongside Jesus. The Church honors him as St. Dismas.
Reaching beyond the Gospel account of St. Luke, Arroyo takes readers back in time: Young Dismas, under the tutelage of criminal Gestas, has learned well the craft of thievery — often at the point of his knife. It is he the Holy Family encounters on their already-perilous journey to Egypt while escaping Herod’s soldiers. With every intention of doing them grave harm, Dismas’ plan crumbles when the Baby Jesus locks eyes with his and later grips his finger. Unexpected but fleeting shame overtakes Dismas for the man he has become. Sparing the family, Dismas whispers to the Infant, “If ever a time should come when I need your mercy, remember me.”
As the years pass, it is Dismas who forgets that moment of grace and becomes even more hardened. The two shall meet again on another road. Jesus, Dismas and his partner in crime, Gestus — all sentenced to death by the Romans — will travel the Way of the Cross.
Readers might wonder if this backstory or prequel is a stretch too far. As with any good legend, Arroyo builds the framing of The Thief Who Stole Heaven around historical fact and then elaborates with stories — oral and written — passed on from one generation to another. In this case, Arroyo finds himself in excellent company in coupling the robber with the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt. Both St. Peter Damian and St. Augustine also tell their versions of the same story. St. Augustine is, in fact, credited as the source recounting the thief’s plea that the Child remember him. While often many layered, legends such as this inspire and celebrate virtue beyond the facts. And, in this story, virtues abound.
The Thief Who Stole Heaven is, above all, a tale of mercy — mercy denied, mercy implored, and mercy lavishly given at a supreme cost — played out in a world of thieves, soldiers and the Son of God.
It is a story of Mercy hanging on the cross and the Mother of Mercy at the foot of that cross. And it is a story of faith, hope and love embraced by the contrite Good Thief, who, in his last breaths, begs Jesus to be merciful.
“Jesus, remember me,” he pleads, “when you come into Your kingdom.”
There can be no better ending for this murderous thief and for all of us, readers young and old, to hear: “Truly I tell you, this day you will be with me in Paradise.”
The combined approach of the writer and illustrator is cinematic in nature. While the text advances the story page by page, there is no break in the illustrations that flow or sweep through the double-page spreads. Close-ups, selected cropping and bold color work together to convey both story and mood. The face of Dismas glancing upwards and his arms lashed to the crossbeam, for example, show enough. Readers do not need to see where his eyes are cast. They know, and the story takes over:
“Then as the light shifted, the shadow of Jesus fell upon Dismas. And for the first time on the Cross, the thief could see.”
Young readers may, in fact, notice the important role light played then and throughout the story — Joseph carries a lantern, casting light on the pathways; the moon backlights the Holy Family and, later, creates a natural halo for Mary and her Child. The threads connecting the two stories might also draw attention. One of the most memorable is Mary, the young mother, lovingly kissing the toes of the Infant in her arms and, later, tearfully embracing her grown Son’s feet nailed to the wood of the cross.
The Crawford sisters write from Pittsburgh.