Here are a few of this year’s favorites. All of these picks meet the criteria that the girls love them but even more importantly that I look forward to re-reading them not only now but for many Christmases to come.
Good King Wenceslas illustrated by Tim Ladwig. I love Tim Ladwig’s beautiful illustrations. They bring the characters to life and capture the warmth of the king’s castle, the icy cold of the winter landscape, the joy of the peasant family when the saint pays his visit. I especially love the final scene of King Wenceslas smiling as he holds the peasant’s cooing baby. I love the way Ladwig frames the text of this favorite hymn with a little narrative of a boy and his dog listening to a street musician in Prague in front of the statue of St Wenceslas. The page in the illustrations of the song looks like the boy and the poor man looks like the musician. The book’s final page shows the boy bringing the musician a bagel and coffee. There is a also a historical note about the real King Wenceslas and the origin of the hymn.
(Incidentally, I think the musician/poor man looks very like pictures I’ve seen of my friend, blogger Owen Swain currently of Drawn to Catholicism, who I ‘met’ when he was blogging his conversion journey at Luminous Miseries—particularly pictures Owen posted when he and his family were received into the Church. I always think of Owen when we read this book and smile.)
Merry Christmas, Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola. I didn’t expect to like this one very much; but it’s grown on me. I like the emphasis on Advent as a liturgical season of preparation: Strega Nona lights Advent candles and cleans her house to prepare for the feast. I love her conversation with the Christ Child in the manger after Midnight Mass:
“Ah, Bambino, said Strega Nona,
“the night you were born it was not like this manger scene,
with all these people.
You were all alone with your mama and Saint Joseph—
all alone, just like Strega Nona is tonight.
Ah—anyway—happy birthday, Bambino,
and Buon Natale.”
The story has a sweet message about generosity and hospitality that doesn’t feel forced. And of course I appreciated the color of a traditional Italian Natale since my children are 1/4 Sicilian.
The Legend of the Poinsettia by Tomie de Paola.
Lucida is upset when her mother falls ill and they are unable to complete the blanket they were weaving to give to the Baby Jesus at the Christmas Mass procession. A stranger teaches her that it is the act of giving rather than the gift that is valuable and Lucid finds that the weeds which are all that she has to offer become beautiful red flowers, blazing in the dark church. I like that the center of this Christmas story is the village celebration of Christmas Mass.
The theme of finding a gift for the Christ child in our poverty is timeless. I love the message that Christmas comes, full of grace, even when illness separates us from our loved ones. I know my children will at some point experience a let-down Christmas, one in which the magic is marred by the imperfections of life in this fallen world. I am thrilled to read them stories that remind them that we can celebrate our Savior’s birth no matter what the external circumstances.
Who is Coming to Our House? by Joseph Slate, illustrated by Ashley Wolff. This was a big favorite with Bella last year. The mouse and various farm animals ready the stable for the visit of Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus. An appealing rhyme scheme and lots of animal pictures make this especially attractive to toddlers. I like the emphasis on preparation, perfect for Advent.
I confess, I always choke up and even get watery eyes when I get to the end:
“Who is coming to our house?”
“Mary and Joseph,” whispers Mouse.
“Welcome, welcome to our house!
I’m not sure why this affects me so much. I think part of it is the very obviously pregnant Mary seated on the donkey on the first page. That in addition to the tender scene on the next page that shows Mary lounging next to the manger, surrounded by animals, her bare feet crossed, the baby cradled in her arms with his hand gripping her finger, mother and child exchanging a tender glance as St Joseph leans close in and tenderly places his hand on the baby’s head. It looks so much like so many post-birth photos I’ve seen of myself and others, really captures the full humanity of that moment: the mother and father so enchanted with the person who has joined them.
All for the Newborn Baby by Phyllis Root illustrated by Nicola Bayley. This is one of my favorite Christmas picture books and Bella loves it too. A cradle song that Mary sings for the baby Jesus that draws its imagery from folk tales from around the world. No music is provided (I couldn’t read it anyway) so I made up my own tune and I always sing it the same way. I was a bit afraid I’d have forgotten it since last Christmas but it came back to me as soon as I looked at the first page. This song will touch any mother’s heart and draws me in to the mystery of Mary’s motherhood.
I adore the illustrations, soft and rich and full of delightful detail. With beautiful illuminated borders full of insects and flowers, it has the feeling of a medieval book of hours. The girls love the sweet baby Jesus cuddling with sheep and looking delightedly at various birds and fishes.
This one has captivated Bella’s imagination and is responsible for her desire to feed Baby Jesus cherries. Once I even calmed her down in a middle of the night tantrum by singing this sweet cradle song.
Bethlehem: Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible, Catholic Edition illustrated by Fiona French. The text, which is abridged from the RSV, is very readable. It maintains the language of the Gospels but shortens it for a child’s attention span. Bella and Sophie both enjoy listening to it. Of course, I love the fact that it doesn’t water down the Bible as some children’s Christmas books do but presents it to them full strength. The illustrations are beautiful, real works of art inspired by stained glass. The girls enjoy their bright colors and will spend time staring at the pages. I find them conducive to a prayer and meditation and find myself flipping through the book when the children aren’t around. This is my favorite version of the Nativity story that I’ve found so far. (You can see sample pages here)
Angela and the Baby Jesus by Frank McCourt, illustrated by Raul Colon.
This is a true story, told to McCourt by his mother Angela. When she was six years old, Angela was afraid the baby Jesus was cold and so stole him from the church. She smuggles him into her house, tossing him over the garden wall to avoid her siblings’ prying eyes. But her simple brother Pat rats her out. At first her mother doesn’t believe him when Pat says, “She have God in the bed, so she do.” Then she is horrified and they rush off to return the baby to the church. I always choke up at the final scene where a slightly confused Pat volunteers to go to jail for his little sister.
“Oh, Pat. Oh, Pat. You’d go to jail for your little sister?”
“I would. I would. I love the Baby Jesus and I love my little sister.”
The story enters into the serious imaginative world of the children for whom the baby in the manger is no mere statue and also allows us also to see the humorous side as the adults do, though without ever mocking Angela or Pat. Rather, we see Angela’s deep compassion that is rooted in her own experiences of cold and privation.
Bella adores this book. I think she sees herself as Angela, caring for Baby Jesus.
Colon’s illustrations are soft and warm and capture the child’s world perfectly. His characters are wonderfully real people. And his Bay Jesus always has a soft glow about him so that he is never a lifeless doll.