Christmas is an important festival in all children’s lives, regardless of its implications; and the Nativity story is one of the most simple and awe-inspiring ever told. There is something universally satisfying in the thought of a child who was destined for lasting glory beginning its life in a lowly barn, the child of humble parents. Dorothy Butler. Babies need books. London: Penguin, 1980
Play & Pray recommends ten delightful books – old favourites, newly published, and just-discovered – to read with your family this Christmas.
This wonderful, wordless story is told in 96 pictures, similar in style to the panels used by Raymond Briggs. An impoverished busker woman receives unexpected help at a time of great desperation, in a story which blends pathos with humour, realism with fantasy, and simplicity with intriguing detail. When first sharing this book with children, expect urgent and heart-felt exhortations to ‘turn the page!’ and immediate requests for a re-reading. Highly and enthusiastically recommended, this unforgettable classic deserves to be much better known.
Refuge by Anne Booth, illustrated by Sam Usher
Recently published in 2015, the donkey narrates this poetic and timely version of the Christmas story, with a subtle emphasis on the man, woman and baby as refugees. They leave the danger of Bethlehem ‘through empty streets, whilst people were sleeping, hoping for the kindness of strangers. Again’. They are sustained by each other, by love of their child and ‘whispered blessings’ from the shepherds, until we see them find refuge and hospitality in Egypt.
From the author of the Pulitzer-winning memoir Angela’s Ashes, this children’s picture book tells a humorous and moving story from Limerick at the turn of the century. Six-year-old Angela steals the statue of the Baby Jesus from the nativity scene at St Joseph’s Church. She’s concerned that he is cold in the crib without a blanket: she herself is often cold and hungry. Angela’s authenticity glows out from the shadowy illustrations, and the engaging text is full of evocative descriptions of urban life in Ireland at that time: the snuffling old people in the church, a nice cup of tea with lots and lots of sugar, flickering gaslight, outside lavatories, and the large family gathered round the fire.
Christmas by Dick Bruna
Perfect for young readers, the illustrations express the events and emotions of the Christmas story as clearly as anyone could wish for, and the words are concise and straightforward. The Dutch illustrator, Dick Bruna, who also wrote the famous Miffy books, has a distinctive style of simple, uncluttered pictures with bold black outlines and bright colours. These are attractive and memorable, although the exoticism of his three wise kings now feels dated. The 50th anniversary edition of this book has a luxurious white and gold cover, a ribbon bookmark with dangling Bruna angel, and the original elongated landscape shape.
Doing Christmas by Sarah Garland
In this deeply rewarding wee book we recognise the loving chaos of family life, as a calm single mother, her pre-schooler, toddler and a rambunctious dog prepare for Christmas and a visit from their racy Granny. The illustrations are packed with funny details, accompanied by the simplest of words, in the style of a school reading book. The pictures gently subvert the text, as in the double page spread captioned, ‘It’s Christmas Day and here come Granny’, where Granny’s snazzy red sports-car vrooms dramatically in every direction. Next, we see a peaceful Christmas morning scene of contented dishevelment interrupted by the honking of the sports car, and Mum must open the door in her nightshirt: ‘She is early’. Sarah Garland’s books are entertaining, unsentimental and affectionate. Also highly recommended is her new 2015 title, Azzi in Between, about a refugee child arriving and settling in Britain.
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, by Susan Wojciechowski, illustrated by P. J. Lynch
A poignant story set in an early American frontier village. Grumpy Jonathan Toomey carries the great weight of bereavement. Healing comes through the process of carving a set of nativity figures and connecting emotionally with the characters of the Christmas story, and with a young boy and his widowed mother. P. J. Lynch was awarded the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal for the beautiful paintings.
A Night the Stars Danced for Joy by Bob Hartman, illustrated by Tim Jonke
A family of star-gazing shepherds express their human yearnings as they wish on a shooting star on the hills outside Bethlehem. The father craves a saviour from the tyranny of Roman occupation and physical danger, the mother wants peace from bitter regrets and the shepherd boy longs for excitement and joy. The fanciful illustrations in rich blue and golden pastels show the pyrotechnics of the angels who appear to the shepherds with good news. The story accentuates a motif of deep, known truth. The angels sing ‘a song that the shepherds had never heard before, to a tune that had been humming in their heads for ever’. When Mary hears of their experience, the look in her eyes said ‘”How wonderful” but also, “I’m not surprised”‘. This book may not hold the attention of pre-schoolers, but older children will enjoy the viewpoint of the shepherds, and adults may find themselves drawn back for repeated, reflective readings.
Papa Panov’s Special Day by Mig Holder, illustrated by Julie Downing
A folktale which explores the parable in Matthew 25:34-40 – finding Christ in ‘the least of these brothers and sisters of mine’. An old shoemaker is kind to strangers on Christmas Eve, and comes to understand that he has been visited by the boy Jesus in the people he helped. Julie Downing’s sentimental pictures are laden with festive snowflakes and her Papa Panov resembles Father Christmas, so perhaps seek out a second-hand copy of the 1978 edition with more pensive illustrations by Nathalie Vilain.
A Christmas Story by Brian Wildsmith
A child’s-eye perspective on the nativity story, told with glowing, jewel-coloured pictures and lavish gold illuminations. The simple tale shows the progress of a little girl and a young donkey, following Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. Older readers can spot hints in the text and illustrations at the fuller story, such as a glimpse through a window of the Magi being received in Jerusalem: ‘There are important visitors here to see King Herod’.
The Little Drummer Boy by Ezra Jack Keats
The popular Christmas song is set, a few words at a time, with wonderful collage and paint pictures. Much of each page is taken up with swirling coloured skies and foregrounds, which warm to a radiant golden glow as the Little Drummer Boy’s gift of music for Jesus is accepted. Even a young baby will be engaged by the simple silhouette of the ox and lamb dancing joyfully, and the tiny hand of the infant Jesus reaching from his manger. It is currently out of print, but second-hand copies can be found online, and are well worth tracking down.
If you enjoyed this selection, you might like our other reading recommendations in Children’s Books and Spirituality.
Thank you for the book cover images to Open Library, a non-profit project with the goal of providing a page on the web for every book ever published.
Play & Pray by Epiphany Group Scotland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.