15 November 2014 by thaliakr
From Rudolf and Santa to Slinki Malinki and the proverbial Pukeko in a Punga Tree, there’s a Christmas picture book for everyone. In most bookshops, though, Baby Jesus is hidden behind Grinches, trains and elves.
If you’re in the market for Christmas books for kids that tell the story of God coming into the world as a baby to join with humanity – you know, Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds and maybe even a newborn in a manger – then here are my top ten (or so). Ask your local bookshop to order them in if they don’t have them on hand. They’re worth it, and you’ll come back to them every Christmas – and often in between, probably.
I briefly offered five titles in my 76 Advent Ideas post. Here are a bunch more, with proper write-ups so you’ll have an idea who each one will appeal most to. As always, I’d love your opinions on these and any others you recommend, so do please leave a comment with your two cents’ worth.
Most of these Christmas picture books are sideways takes on the Christmas story, telling it from unusual perspectives, and bringing imagination to read between the lines of what happened 2000 years ago.
I’ve used four of these to tie different Christmas church services together, at three different churches, and they have been popular across the generations – something that’s important for books you will come back to annually!
You may have seen the cool Advent idea of wrapping up a stack of Christmas books, and unwrapping one each night of Advent. There are lots of other kinds of Christmas stories you could add in if you want to do that (modern kids doing a nativity play is a popular genre in itself; or even some elves and reindeer), and here are enough for half of your stash if you’re keen.
I’ve tried to compile the list and write the reviews with you, dear readers, in mind :). So while this list is only for Christmas picture books where Jesus appears, I note when books have useful theological content and approaches – for those of you who are churchy – but also include plenty of options that non-churchy parents will enjoy reading to their kids, as part of rounding out their understanding of why the world stops to have a party at this time of year.
Here’s the list!
Jesus’ Christmas Party
The best Christmas service I ever planned was based on a friend’s adaptation of Nicholas Allan’s hilarious Jesus’ Christmas Party.
One reluctant guest at my church that year was overheard to say, ‘This is great! It isn’t boring at all!’ with a hint of surprise in his tone!
My husband, bless him, played the main character (with a spur-of-the-moment French accent and a great deal of manic energy), a grumpy innkeeper who is just trying to get some sleep.
First a poor couple turn up when the hotel’s full and get sent ‘round the back!’ Pregnant or not, there’s no room at the inn, though he does grudgingly supply some blankets at the second knock.
No sooner has he got back to bed but there’s another knock at the door. And another, and another! Shepherds, wise men, even a choir of angels! Can’t everyone just give him some peace?
When he finally storms round the back himself, to complain about the racket, he sees a lovely little baby, and finds that he isn’t grumpy anymore.
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey
My favourite serious Christmas picture book is the tear-jerking American pioneer story, The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, by Susan Wojciechowski. This award-winning book will appeal to children and adults, and might be especially appreciated if Christmas is a bittersweet time for you or someone you know.
‘Christmas is pish-posh,’ grumbles the hermit-like wood-carver. But he accepts the commission to replace a widow’s lost nativity set. Seven-year-old Thomas is desperate to watch him work and promises to sit very still.
While Mr. Toomey carved, the widow McDowell poured tea. She touched the wood-carver gently on the shoulder and placed a cup of tea and a bun next to him. He pretended not to notice, but soon, both the plate and the cup were empty.
Thomas tried to eat the bun quietly. But it is almost impossible to eat a warm sticky raisin bun without making various smacking, licking, satisfied noises.
When Thomas had finished, he tried to sit quietly. Once, he almost hiccuped, but he took a deep breath and held it till his face turned red.
After a very long time, Thomas whispered, “Mr. Toomey, excuse me, may I ask a question?”
“Is that my cow you’re carving?”
Nod and grunt.
“Mr. Toomey, excuse me, but I must tell you something. That is the most beautiful cow I have ever seen, but it’s not right. My cow looked proud.”
“That’s pish-posh,” growled the wood-carver. “Cows cannot look proud.”
“My cow did. It knew that Jesus chose to be born in its barn, so it was proud.”
One night, when Jonathan is sitting at home alone, sketching the final pieces – Mary and Jesus – we see what has made him so sad, and he finds a new way to be happy. I defy you not to bawl, but I hope you’ll also feel a lot better for reading it.
I have read this at church (tears in my eyes and in many among the congregation) on Christmas Day more than once, as part of acknowledging that Christmas can be a very hard time for people who are missing loved ones. The book doesn’t shy away from the grief, and also shows that the future need not be forever black.
(On a side note, if you are grieving this Christmas, you may appreciate attending a ‘Blue Christmas’ service at a church nearby, developed with mourners in mind. Here’s an example of the service.)
My favourite angel appears in Julie Vivas’ illustrated Nativity, which uses an adapted text of the King James Version of the Bible.
Gabriel has glorious, coloured wings, spiky red hair and funky work boots. The more time he spends on earth, watching the Christmas story unfold, the more ragged he looks, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
Follow the link and make sure you ‘look inside’ and see what I mean. The art is delightful, and carries as much meaning as the text, from pregnant Mary’s burgeoning belly to the nappies on the line.
This is a must-read for little ones in particular. All the funny in-jokes (inn-jokes?) of other books in this list only make sense if you already know the straight story, and this is a delightful introduction to it.
It’s in older, traditional language, but I have found it easy to adapt and simplify as we go if I feel the need, depending on my little audience. Or you could just tell the story as you are prompted by the gorgeous illustrations.
Also great for littlies is the fabulous New Zealand picture book, Cowshed Christmas, a collaboration between two national treasures, Gavin Bishop and Joy Cowley.
In rhythmic verses, on brightly coloured pages, we follow Kiwi farm animals (bantam hens, a ginger cat, a collie dog) as, one by one, they bring Kiwiana gifts (hokey-pokey icecream, jandals, a rugby ball) to the cowshed door.
The jersey cow came mooing, mooing, mooing
The jersey cow came mooing to the cowshed door
And who do you think they saw?
Little baby Jesus, Jesus, Jesus
Little baby Jesus by the cowshed door.
This is an enduring favourite for our now almost-three-year-old, who can recite the whole book, just about, he loves it so much.
Room for a Little One
One of the great things about the Christmas narrative for younger kids is the role animals play. Put an animal in a book about pretty much anything and you’ve caught most kids.
Room for a Little One, by Martin Waddell, follows the story from the point of view of an ox in a barn, welcoming cold, lonely animals one by one: ‘There’s always room for a little one here.’
The text is poetic and simple, and the illustrations are rich. The gentle repetition of the refrain is great for very little kids. The last animal welcomed into the stable is a donkey, carrying a pregnant woman. The last page tells us:
That cold winter’s night
Beneath the star’s light…
A Little One came for the world.
Here’s a sophisticated picture book, for independent readers, or to be read to kids with a longer attention span, starring a trafficked and miserable cat.
Robert Westall’s The Witness has layers of theology and history for families who want to spark discussion with kids who know the Baby Jesus story well already.
An Egyptian thief snatches a cat to smuggle as a mouser into occupied Judea. She is used to being treated as a god, fussed over and watched for signs and oracles. Disoriented and pregnant in her new home in Bethlehem, she gives birth to two kittens at the same time as a certain little human baby is born.
There’s a lot to love about this book, especially for people familiar with the Biblical story and keen for new insights. There are thought-provoking evocations of life in Egypt and Israel, clever observations from a cat’s-eye view, and best of all, overheard conversations between Mary and Joseph.
What do you think happens when the Egyptian god-cat offers a rat as sacrifice to the God-baby? How much did Joseph and Mary know about Egypt when they decided to flee there for safety from the murderous king? And what does an angel smell like?! Check out The Witness for some imaginings.
Song of the Stars
What a team! Sally Lloyd-Jones wrote the much-loved Jesus Storybook Bible, and here she works with wonderful illustrator, Allison Jay, author of some of my son’s very favourite books.
Together they’ve created Song of the Stars, a poetic story of anticipation. Most of the book follows animals all over the world as they prick up their ears and wait for something amazing to happen.
Here’s the text from the first few pages (it’s nicely spaced out with only a few lines per page):
The world was about to change forever
It almost went unnoticed…
But the leaves that night
Rustled with a rumor.
News rang out across the open fields.
A song drifted over the hills.
The faces of little flowers lifted to the skies…
‘It’s time! It’s time!’
Some may find the text a little too breathy and abstract, but paired with the excellent illustrations which are jam-packed with animals and other things to notice with little ones, I think there’s a good balance.
Once the pilgrim animals reach the stable, the text weaves serious theological points in with the familiar story:
The animals stood around his bed.
And the whole earth
and all the stars and sky
held its breath…
‘The One who made us
has come to live with us!’
This is a good one for bedtime, with the long build-up of anticipation, and the climax of meeting Baby Jesus.
The Shepherd Girl of Bethlehem
The unnamed girl is her father’s right hand, helping each day with the pasturing, shearing and care of their flock. But she’s not allowed to join him on night shifts because ‘it’s too dark.’
But one night it’s not dark! So when she wakes up and sees a light sky, she hikes up her nightie and follows her Dad and his friends as they head to a stable.
The illustrations are wonderfully evocative and the characters and story are absorbing. The book feels fresh, both in point of view and visual appeal.
When the shepherd girl meets the baby, it’s a spiritual encounter that stays with her as her Daddy carries her home across the fields.
More Precious than Gold
There’s a lot of imagining to be done when it comes to the supporting cast of the Christmas story. Who were these ‘wise men’? Where did they come from and what was their journey like?
In More Precious than Gold, Gillian Lobel and Julie Monks introduce us to a family on a pilgrimage. They’re on their way to offer gifts to a special baby, but the little brother, Caspar, keeps being distracted by his compassion for forlorn animals.
He begs some myrrh to heal a lizard, and ends up popping it, along with a pregnant cat and an injured dove, in his saddlebags. Melchior and Balthazar laugh at him (kindly!), but even these strays have their part to play when the troupe arrives in Bethlehem:
the Lady said, ‘We thank you for all your gifts, but even more for these our little brothers and sisters, for they are sweeter than perfume, softer than the most expensive ointment, and the love in your hearts is more precious than gold.’
A Christmas Journey
I’ll finish with a meaty, biblical retelling that goes beyond the stable, shepherds and wise men. Susie Poole’s A Christmas Journey is framed with a page at each end that brings in modern children’s experiences of Christmas (Christmas trees, coloured lights, Father Christmas and presents), and connects them with the biblical narrative.
It starts with Genesis: the creation and fall stories (which you could skip for littlies for whom it’s too sad a story) and then explains the following biblical history this way:
Adam and Eve had lots of children. Soon they filled the whole earth. They were full of hate and forgot what it was like to have God’s wonderful light living inside them. But God still loved them. He had a plan to bring his light back.
God’s plan was like a big jigsaw puzzle. As the years passed, he would give little puzzle pieces to men and women who loved him and longed for his light. He gave one piece to a man called Isaiah. This is what God said to him:
‘People who are walking in the darkness will see a great light, for a child will be born and he will rule the world, bring peace, fairness and goodness… He will be called ‘God with Us’.’
And then we move to the New Testament Christmas stories – all of them, starting with Zechariah the Priest, his wife Elizabeth, and their surprise baby (Luke 1).
In modern language, and with rich detail, we see Mary and Elizabeth singing to God, Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem, the birth of Jesus, the blessings Anna and Simeon give Jesus in the Temple, King Herod’s nastiness, the visit of the wise men, and the little family’s escape into Egypt. It’s a great overview, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it before, all put together like this.
The illustrations are nicely multiethnic, too, so there’s a lot of good stuff going for this book, for kids who are interested in much more detail than most Christmas picture books.
(For another in this category of putting the Christmas story in the context of the whole Bible, see Stacey’s post on making a Jesse Tree and reading Geraldine McCaughrean’s Jesse Tree book.
And a few more…
Here are some crowd-sourced recommendations from readers of the Sacraparental Facebook page (you should totally follow us!), of books that I haven’t got hold of myself at time of posting. I’ll just link to good reviews online for you to follow up. Keep adding in the comments, too, please! [I’ve now updated the list below to reflect more recommendations on the Facebook threads.]
The First Christmas, by Jan Pienkowski (of Meg and Mog fame), reviewed, with peeks inside, at Vulpes Libris. Gorgeous, gothic silhouette illustrations of the King James text. (Thanks, Isabel, for the recommendation of a childhood favourite.)
The First Noel, by Jan Pienkowski, is a special one: a book in carousel form. (Thanks, Kathy.)
It’s the Christmas story (and then more of Jesus’ childhood) from Joseph’s perspective – which might make it the first I’ve come across considering this part of the story. The Kirkus review highlights the intellectual sophistication in the book:
On each beautifully illustrated spread, Joseph and Jesus as a young child are shown in a different activity, with corresponding text that relates Joseph’s intellectual conundrum about the futility of trying to teach someone who has created the world. His conclusion is that he can offer only his strong, helping hands, watching over the child as God watches over Joseph himself.
Listen to the Silent Night, by Dandi Daley Mackall. ‘It was not such a silent night’ goes the refrain, as the story unfolds using the sounds of the night to survey the scene. What a good sensory approach to take! There are useful reviews and summaries on the Amazon page. (Thanks again to Louise.)
This is the Star, by Joyce Dunbar and Gary Blythe. This book matches photo-realistic oil paintings with an unfolding verse in a ‘This is the house that Jack built’ pattern. The Amazon reviews show that it is very moving for many adults. (Another from Louise – what a great resource she is!)
The Lion and the Unicorn, by Jeanette Winterson (better known as a literary novelist, perhaps), and Rosalind MacCurrach, introduced and with extracts at the author’s website. A literary, spiritual and beautifully illustrated book, where the humble donkey is chosen over the lion and the unicorn, because ‘if He is to bear the burdens of the world, He had better be carried by me.’ (Thanks, Brenda, for the recommendation.)
Unwrapping the Greatest Gift, by Ann Voskamp (famous for the moving gratitude memoir One Thousand Gifts). This is a beautiful family guide to using a Jesse Tree. (Kathy has just ordered it so can report soon!)
So, what have I missed? What are your favourite Christmas books that tell the story of God moving into the neighbourhood as a little baby? Please leave a comment with your recommendations – I’m always on the look-out for more!
Looking back at the list, we have the story told from the perspective of Mary, Joseph, the innkeeper, the shepherds, the wise men (and their animal entourage), Gabriel, and plenty of different animals in the stable. Not bad coverage!
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