Monday, November 29, 2010

Great Picture Books to Read at Christmas

I did a post on children's picture books for Christmas in 2008 as part of my 'Key Themes in Literature' series (here), which I updated in 2009 (here).  This post is another update of previous posts with the addition of a number of wonderful new books published in 2010. Some of the books that follow are quite faithful to the traditional Christmas story, while others are based on elements of the Christmas story or themes from biblical teaching on Jesus life, including love, devotion, kindness, forgiveness and sacrifice. Here are some of best examples that you can find. Many of these books can be used even with children aged 8-12 years. The illustration below is used by permission of Walker Books and is from Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' illustrated brilliantly by Robert Ingpen (reviewed in this post).


At the heart of the Christmas story is the celebration of the birth of Jesus on the 25th December. While for many, the celebration of Christmas has become disconnected from its traditional purpose of remembering and celebrating Jesus' birth some 2,000 years ago, it is told and retold in varied forms each year at this time.

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 has published 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).

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

The Nativity by Julie Vivas is a wonderful book. The story is close to the Bible narrative and the illustrations as you'd expect from Julie Vivas are superb.

The Christmas Book, written and illustrated by Dick Bruna. Dick Bruna's delightful and simple telling of the nativity story is special. He manages to tell the greatest story ever told with his typical simplicity. This one is suitable even for preschool children.

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 Best Christmas Pageant Ever tells the story of how one of the "worst Kids" in the world finds out about the real Christmas story for the first time as he takes part in the church Christmas pageant. The story itself is very funny but it also manages to communicate the Christian message accurately.

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. When 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 looked 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 or more fine human qualities that are consistent with Christian teaching; for example, love, kindness, generosity, forgiveness and sacrifice.

The Christmas Eve Ghost, by Shirley Hughes (2010)

Walker Books has just published this wonderful book in time for Christmas. It is written and illustrated by one of my favourite English author/illustrators, Shirley Hughes. At 83 years of age Shirley is still producing wonderful books. It is a classic example of books in this category. It doesn't really mention the Christmas story at all but uses Christmas as one of its themes to highlight kindness against the background of sectarian differences between Catholic and Protestant residents of Liverpool in the 1930s (the place and time of her childhood). Without saying it, Hughes offers the message that Christmas is a time when people should connect with one another in love, kindness and service.

The book tells the story of a mother and her two children, living in poverty. The mother cares for the children and earns just enough to survive by washing other people's clothing. On Christmas Eve 'Mam' has to leave the children in bed while she goes off to deliver a batch of washing. The children awake to strange noises (as it turns out they are 'natural' noises) and flee the house in fear straight into the arms of Mrs O'Riley from next door, a person their mother doesn't speak to for reasons not clear until the end. It's a wonderful book with a touching resolution.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, illustrated by Robert Ingpen (2008). This probably deserves to be in a category of its own. 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. Published in 2008 this new edition has to be one of the best illustrated versions that I've seen, which isn't surprising as Robert Ingpen is one of the finest illustrators we have seen in the last 50 years. The edition also contains Dickens story Christmas Tree that offers an insight into a Victorian Christmas of the 1850s.


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. I used to read this to my children at Christmas time and now they read it to their children as part of their Christmas traditions (my daughter did a post on this here). You can also watch the video version of this story that has been popular with children for over 50 years (here).

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 tells of the quest of a wombat to find the perfect part to play in the annual Nativity play. He tries out every part without success until he finds one that he carries off with distinction.

The Nativity Play, by Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen. This is the story of a group of children who put on their own nativity play. There is a much creativity that is needed to get the show on the road.

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, Clement C. Moore, illustrated by Robert Ingpen (2010). This is a wonderful new release from Walker Books. Just the mention of Robert Ingpen's name will get me excited, because surely he is one of Australia's greatest illustrators. This is the best illustrated version of the classic Clement Moore poem that I know of. Moore wrote the poem for his children and first read it to them on Christmas Eve 1822.  A friend sent it anonymously to a New York newspaper in 1823 and once published it quickly became well known. Only in 1844 did Moore claim authorship. Many attribute much of our contemporary portrayal of Santa Claus to this poem. Who can forget the start:

'Twas the night before Christmas
when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring
not even a mouse...

Ingpen's depiction of Santa as a mischievous and happy old man sits well with the traditional myth. His usual immaculate line drawings are in evidence, but this time they are softened by a gentle wash that gives an ethereal feel to the drawings. The 'soft' lines also sit well with the traditional northern white Christmas.

Suzy Goose and the Christmas Star, by Petr Horacek (2010).  This is another new release from Walker Books. It is a perfect book for preschoolers or young children up to 6 or 7 years. Suzy and her farmyard friends are gathered on Christmas Eve around their Christmas tree and she notices that something is missing - a star on top of the tree! She cries to her friends, "It needs a star on top....Just like the one in the sky. I'll get it." So she sets off to 'get it' with some amusing episodes along the way before the surprising solution. Young kids will love this book. It is well written and beautifully illustrated by Petr Horacek. Again, it barely mentions Christmas, but parents and teachers could speak more about Christmas using this story as the springboard.


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! A spider want? A spinning wheel! Deborah Zemke's wonderful art and great sense of humour makes this a hit. I wonder what the 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!


Twinkle, Twinkle Christmas Star by Christine Harder Tangvald. This delightful story is based on the familiar children's rhyme but re-words it to parallel the Christmas story.

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. 

Summing Up

There are endless books that have written about Christmas. When choosing a suitable book to read to your children try to find one that is faithful to the Christmas story and which is appropriate for your children's age. Even those books that mention only tangentially the real Christmas story can be a good springboard for the discussion of the central meaning of Christmas.

2 comments:

Raising a Happy Child said...

This is a fantastic post - I'll be looking for some of the books you recommend. Thanks for sharing the list.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your comment. I hope you can track down some of the books. I also hope that you and your daughter have a wonderful Christmas.

Trevor