The Story of Christmas: Five Great Children's Books on theNativity
There’s a lot to get excited about during the Christmas season: giving and receiving presents, spending time with family, celebrating with friends. For many of us, however, it is also an important time of religious reflection and observance. Celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ in the stable in Bethlehem is one of the high points of the Christian year.
And, as this is a time of year that brings loved ones together, it's a wonderful opportunity to engage children in the religious traditions of your family and community. There’s something about Christmas that's particularly connected with childhood. The feast itself centres around the birth of a child, and the world seems to partake in that sense of magical wonder that comes so naturally to children— but often lost in adult life. For these reasons and more, this is a great time to make an extra effort to involve the kids in your life with the religious celebrations and traditions of the season, and the most obvious place to start is with the Christmas story itself. These are a selection of books telling the story of the Nativity, to help your child understand the significance of the season, beyond the obvious draws of gifts and good fun. You could give them as presents for the day itself; another wonderful idea is to read them together during Advent, as you prepare for the celebration. There are some families who even have an ‘Advent Calendar’ stack of 24 books, for nightly reading in December. I haven’t gone quite that far with this list, but I have selected five books that beautifully tell the story of the birth of Jesus. Some of them follow the various biblical narratives, while others take a slightly different perspective on the story, but all are centred on the coming of Christ to the world in a humble stable in Bethlehem.
The Story of Christmas by Mary Joslin
It was a tough toss up between this and Joslin’s other Nativity book, On That Christmas Night. Both faithfully tell the biblical story of Christmas, and are accompanied by beautiful illustrations. Both would be perfectly suitable for this list, but to avoid repetition I went with the one whose illustrations I completely fell for. Alida Massari’s illustrations evoke something of Russian iconography, and are filled with sumptuous detail, from the geometric stars, to the flower pattern on Mary’s clothes. The colours are rich and deep, with royal tones of reds, purples, and blues. The characters are also not overly Westernised, as can happen all too often. There are full page of art as well as small vignettes throughout. As for Joslin’s text, it tells the story in simple language, making it approachable for young readers, and yet the power of the story is not watered down, as can be seen in Joslin’s rendering of Mary’s famous line "I will do as God wants." This is an excellent starting place introducing children to the story of the nativity, there’s a lot of attention to detail, and love and care for this beloved part of the Good News.
Refuge by Anne Booth and Sam Usher
The first thing that jumps out about Refuge is its gorgeous ink illustrations. These instantly lend a simple yet moving tone to the book. The pages of pressing dark skies convey the sense of mystery and even danger experienced by Mary and Joseph, while the occasional splashes of colour give it that necessary sense of warmth and hope.
The book follows the biblical story of the nativity, narrated by the donkey that Mary and Joseph travel on. However, while most nativity stories focus on the early part of the tale: Mary’s encounter with the angel, the journey to Bethlehem, and most centrally, the birth of baby Jesus. In Refuge, this section is covered in a matter of pages, instead the focus is turned to the second half of the story. This part of the story is often overlooked in the jubilations of Christmas, but it is no less important. Refuge follows the Holy Family as they fly from persecution into Egypt. This highlights the humble and even the subversive entry of the Messiah to this world. But it also teaches a great lesson in Christian values that should be all the more embraced at Christmas: those values of charity, kindness, hospitality to strangers. These values are particularly relevant today, as more and more people are seeking refuge from violence and danger in their home countries. To further illustrate this, the book states that £5 pound of every purchase of the book will go to the charity War Child UK which seeks to protect children in conflict zones. Refuge is a wonderful way to introduce children to the religious story, the political realities of today, and the importance of charity at this time, and always.
The Story of Christmas Advent Calendar by Mary Packard
If you, like me, feel a bit intimidated those who manage to provide 24 books for the duration of Advent then you could always turn to this fantastic Advent calendar story book set. The calendar folds out to reveal a panel of tiny books, that you can pop out for each of the 24 days. Each book has three pages, telling the story in tiny bite sized chunks throughout the month of December. The inside flaps of the calendar also contain a map of Israel and a number of relevant Bible passages to help give context to the story. The covers of books have a delightful and colourful illustration of that section of the story. These charming trinket-like books also have a loop of ribbon attached so that, having completed the reading for the day, they can be hung as a decoration on a Christmas tree. The simple telling of the story makes it ideal for young children, while the process of reading each section every day, make for a perfect ongoing Advent family tradition that you can come back to every year. It’s a great way to focus on the story for the duration of the build up to Christmas.
A Christmas Story by Brian Wildsmith
For a slightly different take on the Christmas narrative, Brian Wildsmith’s book wonderful way to help your child place themselves within the story of the Nativity, to see and feel all the wondrous significance of it. The story follows a little girl called Rebecca, who sets out on a journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to reunite a young donkey with its mother. In the background of the panels we are treated to glimpses of the main events of the Christmas story, from the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin, to the meeting of the Magi with King Herod, but it is all told through the innocent perspective of a small girl.
Along with the endearing story, the appeal of this book lies in the enchanting art style of the illustration. The deep colours, striking gold foil details, and higgledy-piggledy style of illustration reminds me of collages I used to make as a child using the foil wrappers from Christmas chocolates. On a more esteemed note, it also has something of the magic of Klimt. There is a wealth of detail which contrasts strikingly with the flat shiny areas of gold.
Ituku's Christmas Journey by Elena Pasquali
For our final book, I’ve picked something different to the usual Nativity story. You won’t find the traditional biblical story here, but you will find the Christian message told with a whole lot of heart.
In the icy Arctic, Ituku and his loyal pup Jaq, see a Divine Message in the Northern Lights, and so set off in their canoe on an immense journey south to find a newborn king. Along the way the meet many people who have heard rumors of him. When they finally come ashore, they share their humble meal with a fisherman, his wife, and their small baby. Ituku soon discovers this is the child king they have been searching for. This charming story is a real testament to that Christmas call: ‘O Come Let Us Adore Him.’ Ituku’s Christmas Story highlights that Christ’s coming was for everyone, across the world, and that we should always journey towards Him, no matter how far that journey takes us. This touching story is really helped along by Dubravka Kolanovic’s illustrations. The soft pastel colours and careful ethnic detailing bring the world of colours and careful ethnic detailing bring the world of Ituku and his little dog to life.
This article was originally written for Bookwitty.com and published in December, 2017.