Saturday, December 20, 2008

Key Themes in Children's Literature: Christmas

Christmas is a major celebration in most western countries and is arguably the largest religious celebration in the world. While for many, the celebration of Christmas has become disconnected from its traditional purpose of remembering and celebrating the birth of Jesus some 2,000 years ago, the Christmas story is told and retold in varied forms in many Australian families and also in our schools. Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on the 25th December. Parents or teachers who want to share the traditional Christmas story can use one of the many wonderful children's Bibles available for children of varying ages in modern translations. For example, Lion Hudson publish a variety of versions that paraphrase the Bible accurately and with illustrations that children will find meaningful and enjoyable (more information here). You can also use an adult Bible with primary aged children and can simply read the appropriate section from the gospels of Matthew (here) or Luke (here).


Of course there are many wonderful works of literature that offer their own interpretation of the meaning of Christmas. Some of these are quite faithful to the traditional telling while others are based on elements of the Christmas story or themes from biblical teaching on Jesus life, typically love, devotion, kindness and sacrifice. I thought that as we approach Christmas that I'd share a few examples of good literature that are based on the theme of Christmas.

1. Books based closely on the biblical story of Jesus birth

A Baby Born in Bethlehem, Martha Whitmore Hickman's retelling is based on the gospels of Luke and Matthew. It begins with the revelation to Mary that she will have a child who will be the son of God and ends with the visit of the Wise Men. The text emphasizes the joy of Jesus' birth. Giulliano Ferri's pencil and watercolour illustrations contribute to making this a great book for four to eight year olds.

The Baby Who Changed the World by Sheryl Ann Crawford, Sonya Wilson (Illustrator). In this imaginative retelling of the Christmas story, the animals get together and discuss the approaching arrival of a new baby that some say will grow up to be a strong and powerful King. Then Mary and Joseph enter the picture and the events of the true Christmas story unfold!

The Christmas Story: According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke from the King James Version by Gennadii Spirin (Illustrator). This telling of the Christmas story begins with Mary's meeting with the angel Gabriel then proceeds to the birth of baby Jesus in a stable, the visit of the shepherds and the three wise men. Spirin's Orthodox Christian faith is reflected in the wonderful art that makes this a special retelling of the story of Jesus (although not all will find the images match their ideas of what Jesus was like).

Mary's Christmas Story, by Olive Teresa. There are a number of different retellings of the Christmas Story available in the Arch Books series. Most are told from the perspective of different witnesses to the birth of Jesus or draw more heavily on one of more of the gospel accounts. This one retells the Christmas story from Mary's point of view based on Luke 1:5-2:18.

2. Books that use the Christmas theme to offer moral lessons

This category of books is quite large. They typically use the Christmas celebration or season as the setting for a human story that teaches something about one of more fine human qualities that are consistent with Christian teaching. For example, love, kindness, generosity, forgiveness and sacrifice. Some examples:

How the Grinch stole Christmas! by Dr Seuss. This is one of my favourites within this category. The Grinch lives on top of a mountain that overlooks Whoville. As he watches the villagers getting ready to celebrate Christmas he comes up with a plot to stop them. But instead of stealing Christmas he learns that Christmas means much more than the trappings such as gifts, decorations and food. You can also watch the video version of this story that has been popular with children for over 50 years (here).

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. This probably deserves to be in its own category. The miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is taught the true meaning of Christmas by a series of ghostly visitors. This is essentially a fable that stresses that Christmas should be a time of goodwill towards mankind. There have been many versions printed of this classic story first published in 1843 with wonderful illustrations by John Leech. This new edition has to be one of the best illustrated versions that I've seen, which isn't surprising as Robert Ingpen is arguably one of the finest illustrators we have seen in the last 50 years. The edition also contains Dickens story Christmas Tree which offers an insight into a Victorian Christmas of the 1850s.

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, by Susan Wojciechowski and illustrated by P.J. Lynch. This story focuses on Jonathan Toomey who is the best woodcarver in the valley, but he bears a secret sorrow, and never smiles or laughs. When the widow McDowell and her son ask him to carve a creche in time for Christmas, their quiet request leads to a joyful miracle, as they heal the woodcarver's heart and restore his faith.

Wombat Divine, by Mem Fox and illustrated by Kerry Argent. This wonderful story by Mem Fox tells of the quest of a wombat to find the perfect part to play in the annual Nativity play. He tries out for every part without success until he finds one that he carries off with distinction.

3. Stories based on Christmas traditions

For those who are more interested in Christmas traditions than the traditional Christmas story, there are masses of books that take the Christmas theme in all sorts of directions (some quite strange). However, there are some that have literary merit and are enjoyable stories to read at Christmas and suit the needs of families that are from non-Christian traditions. Some of the better examples follow.

The Night Before Christmas, by Clement Clarke Moore. There are many published editions of this classic poem, but one I like is the board version compiled by Harold Darling and Cooper for preschoolers.

Finding Christmas, by Helen Ward. This slightly mystical book was voted in the top 10 Christmas books in 2004. It tells the story of a little girl in a bright red coat and bright green boots who wanders at dusk from shop to shop looking for “the perfect present to give to someone special.” Things look hopeless until she is drawn to the bright window of a toy shop filled with colourful toys.

All I want for Christmas, by Deborah Zemke. What does a skunk want for Christmas? French perfume! What does a spider want? A spinning wheel! Deborah Zemke's wonderful art and great sense of humour makes this a hit. I wonder what the porcupine will want?

Emily and the big bad bunyip, by Jackie French and illustrated by Bruce Whateley.
It′s Christmas Day in Shaggy Gully. Can Emily Emu and her friends possibly make the Bunyip smile this Christmas? All the animals are in a good mood except the Bunyip. He proclaims, ′I′m mad and I′m mean! Bunyips don′t like Christmas!

Mooseltoe by Margie Palatini, Henry Cole (Illustrator). This one is a lot of fun.

The Nutcracker by Janet Schulman & E. T. A. Hoffmann, illustrated by Renee Graef. A version of the classic tale.

The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg. A magical train ride on Christmas Eve takes a boy to the North Pole to receive a special gift from Santa Claus. This book won the 1986 Caldecott Medal and of course has been made into a movie.

The above are just a sample of the thousands of books that have used the theme of Christmas.

Every blessing at this special time to all the readers of this blog.

1 comment:

The Book Chook said...

It's lovely to find a blog that comes out and actually talks about celebrating Christmas, instead of politically correct and vague Happy Holiday references.

I love Wombat Divine, too!