Beautiful books are enduring and I can imagine sharing our collection, which will be quite large, at Christmas with my children’s children. I also try to give books to each of my godchildren each year at the beginning of advent. I hope these books will find a special place in the hearts of the children who are dear to me. I know they have found a place in mine.
My favorite book this year is a simple one compared to the others. The illustrations are drawn in colored pencil and reflect the message: Christ is not complicated. He is not hard to find. He is simple. He came to the shepherds—poor, uneducated, humble servants. He made himself obvious and available to the lowly. The Shepherd’s Christmas Story by Dandi Daley Mackall evokes the whispers of Old Testament prophecies and underscores the tenderness of the Good Shepherd. Children will like the storyline which is rich with the images of a shepherd’s life, but the message is not a childish one. Children believe in God; they accept Him readily as truth. It is adults who search for God—they seek him, often without knowing what they are seeking. They look for knowledge and nobility, for theological understanding, for outward signs of secular greatness, both for themselves and for their Savior. But they will find Him in infinite simplicity. He is Love. He is the baby, the Good Shepherd, the Lamb of Sacrifice, and the risen Lord who commanded Peter to feed his sheep. He made himself known to the uneducated, unsophisticated, simple shepherd who walked solely by faith. This Advent, as we share stories with our children, we pray for an increase in faith, so that though we may not understand at all, we—like the shepherds—will truly know Love.
An excellent art book, whose text is pure scripture is a sophisticated picture book illustrated by Jane Ray called The Story of Christmas. The large pictures combine symbols from ancient and modern folk art to illustrate the Christmas story. Text is taken directly form the King James version of the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The book begs to be read aloud reverently by fathers on Christmas Eve.
Father and Son: A Nativity Story by Geraldine McCraughean I'm so sad this is out of print. Do hunt it down. This quiet picture book imagines the thoughts and fears of Joseph as he reflects on the birth of the Christ child. Glowing illustrations offer a series of pleasant scenes, as Joseph envisions the baby growing to be a boy. Charming decorative borders add gracefully frame the pages.
I freely admit that I bought All for the Newborn Baby when I was expecting Nicholas, solely because of its title. This book was wrapped and ready, waiting for our newborn baby. It is a well-researched, beautifully illustrated picture book that might be enjoyed by a small child on a quiet afternoon, but will truly be appreciated by much older children and adults.
The author shares that she remembered being told as a child that some people are blessed on Christmas Eve with the ability to hear animals speak. She researched Christmas stories from around the world that featured miracle tales of animals and wove the stories into a lullaby that Mary might have sung to her newborn baby. The text is very simple and the illustrations exquisite. This is a book that will truly be a treasure for those who collect fine Christmas books.
A picture book that is suitable for older children is The Christmas Miracle of Jonathon Toomey. Toomey is a widower who has become sad and reclusive since the death of his wife and son. A seven-year-old boy and his widowed mother are persistent in offering their friendship as Jonathon carves a creche for them. The carving of the creche is a story within the story and there is a joyous miracle on Christmas day. This is a tear-jerker that gives me chills every time I read it. It is not sappy and overdone but truly touching. This is the perfect picture book for children in the middle grades who might consider themselves too old for picture books. The book was written by Susan Wojciechowski. Illustrations are rich, realistic watercolors by P.J. Lynch. If there is a seven-year-old boy in your life, you must have this book. The rest of us should find a seven-year-old boy and buy the book so that we can live the story through the eyes of the child.
Christmas in the Barn by Margaret Wise Brown, pictures by Barbara Cooney (from two Grand Dames of children's lit)
For the very youngest child, Who’s Coming to Our House? by Joseph Slate is engaging and endearing. The book follows a pattern so predictable that my son Christian, who was not even really a fluent talker at three, had the entire book memorized so that her could “read” it to Patrick, one. All the animals in the stable take part in preparing their house for a very special visitor.
Three of my children were baptized during advent and we received a lovely picture book as a baptism gift. This is the Star by Joyce Dunbar is a lovely story of the birth of Jesus that builds on itself. The book works well as a read-aloud because it is rhythmic and employs rich, poetic language and gorgeous illustrations that hold the older listener while younger listeners absorb the story.
One book in our box which is so tattered and well-loved that I would like to replace it in hardback isThe Donkey's Dream by Barbara Helen Berger. It tells the story of the dreams a donkey dreamt as he carried the Blessed Mother to Bethlehem. This book is one of a few really “Catholic” feeling Christmas books. The images of Our Lady—which read like a litany—are worthy of study and discussion with older elementary and middle school children but the story can stand on its own with very young children. The pictures are beautifully colored and framed by a border of forget-me-nots, also called les yeux dex Marie.
The Legend of the Christmas Rose by William H. Hicks is the story of Dorothy, a nine-year-old girl whose older brothers are shepherds. When they see an angel who directs them to a baby in a manger, Dorothy secretly follows them. Just before she arrives, she realizes she has no gift. Beautiful white flowers miraculously appear. When she presents them to the Christ child, He performs another miracle. The book is well-written and illustrated by lovely, realistic paintings. To extend the book, I would bring some Christmas roses into the house.
King of the Stable, by Melody Carlson, is the story of Matthew, who leaves his father’s affluent home to live with relatives in Bethlehem. Not accustomed to working, Matthew is a bit discouraged when he is made “king of the stable,” in charge of feeding, watering, and cleaning up after the animals. Since this is Bethlehem and Matthew is in charge of a stable, wondrous things are certain to happen.
Jacob’s Gift by popular Christian author Max Lucado, tells the story of a carpenter’s apprentice, Jacob, who is competing with the other apprentices to determine who will be chosen to help build the new synagogue. Jacob loves working with wood and pours his heart and soul into a beautiful feeding trough. He falls asleep just as he finishes only to be awakened by brilliant starlight and a tough decision. Jacob truly learns that “when you give a gift to one of God’s children, you give a gift to God.”
CHRISTMAS GIFT OF THE PRIESTHOOD:
King Island Christmas by Jean Rogers, illustrated by Rie Munoz This is an Eskimo story. Will Fr. Carroll make it in time for Mass?
The Miracle of St. Nicholas by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Judith Brown Don't miss this story of a Russian Christmas surprise. I dearly, dearly love this book. This year, with all the parts of our parish mission dispersed into various homes in the neighborhood, the book resonates all the more.
Inspired by Christmas Music
Joy To The World! Carols selected by Maureen Forrester, illustrated by Frances Tyrrell (favorites and lesser-known songs with especially cute illustrations)
And It Came To Pass by Jean Slaughter, illustrated by Leonard Weisgard (the Biblical account interspersed with snippets of carols, vintage 1971)
Silent Night, The Song and Its Story by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Tim Ladwig (I totally wish I could visit Austria some day.)
A gift book to give a musical family is Silent Night illustrated by Susan Jeffers. The text is that of the lovely carol and the illustrations, in shades of blue and soft yellow, are by popular children's illustrator Susan Jeffers. This book will help visual children to interpret the carol. The pictures are very engaging. Since the words are well-known, you might also find yourself digressing from the text to just chat your way through the book. These are pictures for conversation. Music is included so this book would make a pretty decoration propped on the piano.
Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella, A Provencal Carol, pictures by Adrienne Adams
The Huron Carol is a beautifully illustrated, sophisticated picture book. Illustrator Frances Tyrell has set pictures to the English translation of an old Christmas Carol composed by Father Jean de Brebeuf, a French Jesuit missionary who lived among the Huron Indians in the early 1600’s.The carol entwines the traditional Christmas story with Huron spirit and tradition. In this book, the pictures complement the text and maintain the authenticity of the Huron heritage. There's an MP3 here: The Huron Carol by Father Jean de Brebeuf
'Twas In The Moon Of Wintertime, The First American Christmas Carol adapted by Roz Abisch, illustrated by Boche Kaplan (same song as the previous book with a completely different art style. See which one your children prefer.)
My friend Kathy discovered O Holy Night: Christmas with the Boys Choir of Harlem at the Catholic Shop and called especially to tell me about it. The first thing that struck me about this book, illustrated by the renowned Faith Ringgold, is that the Holy Family is dark-skinned and the supporting cast is multi-ethnic. The book begins with scripture and then moves to illustrated lyrics of traditional carols. An accompanying CD is a soulful recording of the Harlem Boys Choir singing Christmas carols. Truly, this book and CD set is a sensory feast.
Deck the Hall by Sylvia Long. Is a fun, whimsically illustrated book of the favorite carol. Pre-readers love to "read" it aloud because they know the song.
Any version of The Nutcracker if going to the ballet is in your plans this year. The Scarlett family has a commercial version that is kind of a Where's Waldo-inspired Nutcracker. The Foss family has this one:
The Nutcracker, is a hefty coffee table book in classic Sendak style.
Tallulah's Nutcracker is a must-give book for anyone who has a little ballerina on her list. This is a darling story of a little girl who makes ind of a big mess of her first Nutcracker performance, but then lives to tell the tail (er, tale;-).
Nurturing Family-Oriented Themes
Grandfather's Christmas Tree by Keith Strand, illustrated by Thomas Locker (survival in 1886 Colorado)
In The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: An Appalachian Story by Gloria Houston, it’s Ruthie and her mother who must fulfill the family’s Christmas obligation. They are supposed to furnish the perfect Christmas tree for the town’s celebration. Ruthie’s father had chosen the tree before he left to fight in the war. But he has not yet returned home when it is time to harvest the tree for Christmas. This is a touching story of great wealth amidst poverty. Barbara Clooney’s illustrations are wondrous and this lovely tear-jerker is destined to become a family favorite in our house.
An Orange for Frankie This story of generosity is a new one in our house this year, a gift for someone who learned that trips to Lansing can bring lessons and blessings. This is a holiday story close to author Patricia Polacco's heart. Frankie was her grandmother's youngest brother, and every year she and her family remember this tale of a little boy who learned--and taught--an important lesson about giving, one Christmas long ago. Polacco is a favorite author who doesn't disappoint with this one.
My Prairie Christmas by Brett Harvey, illustrations by Deborah Kogan Ray (touching and suspenseful)
A New Coat For Anna by Harriet Ziefert, illustrated by Anita Lobel Based on a true post-WW 2 story of delayed gratification, can be enjoyed year around.
Silent Night by Will Moses has folk art and a new baby--what's not to love?
The Snow Speaks by Nancy White Carlstrom, illustrated by Jane Dyer (one of my favorite illustrators)
The Miracle on 34th Street I love this version. It's out of print, but worth the hunt.
The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden, pictures by Barbara Cooney Both boys and girls like this for different reasons.
Linda Schlafer’s A Gift for the Christ Child: A Christmas Folktale is a lovely story of two South American boys who travel from their poor home in the mountains to the glorious church in town to make a Christmas offering on behalf of their family. Along the way, they are called to minister to a woman in need. This book is also illustrated with bright collages, but they are simple collages. And it’s the simplicity of the illustrations that really captivates and truly expresses the message of the story.
A children’s favorite is The Legend of the Candy Cane by Lori Walburg. A young girl named Lucy helps a stranger in town unpack the boxes in his store. There, she discovers that his is to be candy store. The owner shares with Lucy the legend of the candy. When held upside down, the cane is a “J”, for Jesus. The red stripes represent His suffering, which washed away our sin and made us pure as the snow, represented by white stripes. I really appreciated this gentle reminder that the sweet baby was born to die for all of us--the ultimate Christmas present. The candy held upright looks like a shepherd’s staff. I pointed out to my children that the bishops and the Pope carry such staffs today. This book really begs to be a project. Lucy and the candy man went to every house in town leaving candy canes and an invitation to the store to learn the legend. I don’t think I’m up to entertaining the whole town, but perhaps a few neighborhood children would enjoy a candy cane and some cookies while we read some carefully chosen Christmas stories.
The Angel of Mill Street by Frances Ward Weller, illustrated by Robert J. Blake Catholic culture pervades this survival tale.
Nine Days To Christmas, A Story of Mexico by Marie Hall Ets and Aurora LaBastida Caldecott Medal, use this if you celebrate La Posadas.
A Time To Keep, The Tasha Tudor Book of Holidays (check out the December, then January sections)
'Twas the Night Before Christmas: This version or this one. Or this incredible pop-up version. We don't wrap these in our house. We start reading daily at the beginning of Advent and aim to have it memorized by Christmas.
A Christmas Garland, Stories, poems, and prayers for the holiday season compiled by Grace Hudson, illustrated by Margaret Tarrant (sweet illustrations)
Welcome Christmas! A Garland of Poems chosen by Anne Thaxter Eaton, decorated by Valenti Angelo(1955, sparsely illustrated)
Tales of Christmas
Why The Chimes Ring by Raymond MacDonald Alden, illustrated by Rafaello Busoni (cathedral setting)
For Every Child A Star, A Christmas Story by Thomas Yeomans, illustrated by Tomie dePaola (would work well for Epiphany, too)
The Fourth Wise Man, Based on the story by Henry Van Dyke, retold by Susan Summers, illustrated by Jackie Morris (even the endpapers are gorgeous in this one)
Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, illustrated by Roberto Innocenti (the best version I have ever seen, good prep for or follow up to a live performance)
The Christmas Donkey by Gillian McClure (the only book on the list with a talking animal, I promise)
Special Feast Days During Advent:
St. Barbara December 4th: This is the day we build and decorate gingerbread houses (because St. Barbara is patroness of architects;-), so I break out all the Jan Brett Christmas/gingerbread books on this day for artistic inspiration. The treasury is out of print, so don't miss Who's that Knowcking on Christmas Eve? Home for Christmas, Christmas Trolls, Wild Christmas Reindeer
St. Nicholas, December 6th: We seem to be collecting quite a treasure trove of Saint Nicholas books, so I’m not sure how The Legend of Saint Nicholas by Demi escaped us until now. A very complete account of the beloved Patron of Children, this book’s gilded pictures are memorable and tease the reader with almost icon-like presentations of modern Christmas symbols. For instance, young Nicholas tosses gold coins into a fur-trimmed red Christmas stocking. There is so much to talk about on every page of this book and so many opportunities for every member of the family to grow closer good St. Nick!
The Gift of Saint Nicholas by Dorothea Lachner, illustrated by Maja Dusikova (Eastern European village-y feel)
The Baker's Dozen by Heather Forest, illustrated by Susan Gaber Scarlett family fave. I told my crew that the semi-creepy old lady is a metaphor for the baker's conscience. Others have done versions of this story, but this is my top choice. When a business begins to cut corners or cheap-out over time, our family refers to it as a Van Amsterdam. Read this book and you will see why.
From my favorite publishers, the folks at Bethlehem Books, comes The Miracle of Saint Nicholas. Alexi is a Russian child whose grandmother tells him of the soldiers who closed Saint Nicholas church many years ago. When he asks why they can’t celebrate Christmas there this year, she tells him that it would take a miracle. The little boy believes in miracles. I purchased this book to give to my children on the feast of Saint Nicholas. It is my sentimental favorite because it reminds of me of people in my life who are very dear to me and who have meant much to the growing faith of our family. Two of my children’s godparents are Eastern Orthodox and, among other things, the boys are learning a true appreciation of Eastern religious art. I am especially pleased with the icons throughout the text. It is nice to see both the art and the faith of the Russians so beautifully depicted here.
Immaculate Conception, December 8th:
These do a good job of covering Mother Mary's early life.
Young Mary of Nazareth by Mariana Mayer (my first choice)
Mary by Brian Wildsmith (great artwork)
Mary, the Mother of Jesus by Tomie dePaola
St. Juan Diego, December 9th/Our Lady of Guadalupe:, December 12th
The Story of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Empress of the Americas by C. Lourdes Walsh, illustrations from paintings by Jorge Sanchez-Hernandez (excellent version)
The Lady of Guadalupe by Tomie dePaola (very reverent, but easy to relate to)
St. Lucia (Lucy), December 13th
Lucia Morning in Sweden by Ewa Rydaker, with illustrations by Carina Stahlberg (modern family's customs)
Erik and the Christmas Horse by Hans Pererson, illustrated by Ilon Wikland (also set in Sweden, vintage 1970)
Lucia Saint of Light by Katherine Bolger Hyde Lovely book, with recipe of Santa Lucia buns and also with music for a hymn. Written from the Eastern Orthodox perspective.