Christmas Books for Children

Catherine Fournier

Special books at Christmas are a tradition in our family. We like to sit down together and read stories out loud. We take turns in the evenings with the Jesse tree readings, and read versions of the Nativity to reacquaint the family with this most beautiful of tales.

We continue the tradition by giving each child a good book for Christmas. look for really special books, ones that the whole family will enjoy, that meet a child's special interests, or classic stories that the children might not otherwise encounter, books with beautiful illustrations, and good bindings, books that will in some way introduce my children to an appreciation of beauty and quality. Amidst the pastel fairies and the commercialized Santa's, the anthropomorphised forest animals and the sugary moppets, the excellent books can still be found.

Even though these books are not the newest releases of the year, I hope this review will provide some useful advice and guidelines.

Bedtime Books: Read Aloud Books for Young Children

One Special Star

Anita Mcfadzean, illustrated by Kate Jaspers Simon and Shuster, 1990, paperback, also in hardcover.

This book proves that there is no need to disguise the Nativity story with gift wrapped packages or talking animals to make it accessible to very young children. One Special Star is a counting book which in verse and illustration counts from " 10 distant stars" to "1 precious baby", ending on a quiet note with " the Holy Family sleeping in a humble cattle stall, as one special Christmas star shines brightly over all".

It is a sit- on- the- lap and read- aloud book which by it's simplicity inspires questions about the Holy Family and the birth of Christ. The simple verse does not distract from the fascinating illustrations, which are full of detail and lead the reader down from the hills and into Bethlehem and the stable. Each picture refers to the objects to be counted and to the rest of the book, the blanket on the donkey's back, for example can be seen later in the stable when the Holy Family is sleeping.

Our children really enjoyed this book. The youngest was fascinated, I think by the quiet blue of the moonlit illustrations, the next eldest showed off their ability to count, and the older children were intrigued by how well the idea of a counting book and a Nativity story worked together. I had to rescue it from their sticky clutches to be able to review it, and plan to keep it well hidden for a Christmas time evening.

The Christmas Birthday Story

Margaret Laurence, pictures by Helen Lucas. McClelland and Stewart, 1988, paperback.

Assuming that children are 'too young to understand' seems to be the greatest mistake a children's writer can make. If while readapting a centuries old story, you eliminate all the details that may be confusing or that you can't explain, substitute other details to fill in the gaps, and generally mold the story to fit a modern view of the world, you will be left with a bland, insipid and stupid story.

This is what Margaret Laurence has done to the Nativity story. In an effort to communicate the 'true meaning of Christmas', she has destroyed it.

"Joseph and Mary were happy because soon they were going to have a baby. They didn't mind at all whether it turned out to be a boy or a girl. Either kind would be fine with them."

"The tall king and the middle sized king both gave bottles of perfume called frankincense and myrrh, so that Mary could put a little bit of it in the water when she bathed the baby."

"That child Jesus grew up to be a man, and he was strong and hard-working, like Joseph the carpenter. He was gentle and kind, like Mary his mother. And he was something else, too. He was a wise teacher and a friend to all people."

The damage and danger in tampering with a story in this way is that it robs children- and through them all humanity- of a sense of wonder, of mystery, of trust in the inexplicable that lies at the heart of faith. It becomes doubly dangerous when it also undermines the foundation of the Christian faith, that Christ was conceived and born both human and divine. Mary and Joseph were not just an ordinary couple expecting a baby, they were cooperating with God, and participating in a mystery which they could not understand.

The pictures which accompany Margaret Laurence's text continue the error of patronizing children. The modern attitude that children need bright colours and simple line drawings to look at insults the inquisitive, inquiring mind of a child who can pore over the details in a tiny pebble for hours. Helen Lucas' pictures are very modern and impressionistic, bright and strong, but they communicate nothing. A book that is meant to be read to children needs pictures which will captivate a child and hold his attention while the words are being read. These illustrations have neither the detail nor the beauty to do that.

The ease with which this book slipped into our household, with the best of Christmas gift intentions, alerted us to the necessity of previewing everything our children come in contact with. We've put it aside for later, to show to our older children as an example of how far the truth can be distorted and trivialized.

Mary my Mother

Father Lovasik, S.V.D. Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1978, paperback.

This little book belongs to the series of Saint Joseph's picture books and tells the story of the life of the Virgin Mary. Her Immaculate Conception, the events in her life as the Mother of Jesus, and her eventual crowning in Heaven by her Son are all described in simple clear language. The Nativity is told as it happened to Mary, what her part was in that wonderful mystery.

Our children love these books. Father Lovasik has a talent for writing for children in a patient and direct style, with a faith that speaks clearly through every sentence. He uses very little description, very little of the elaboration that expands a tale into a story, yet quietly manages to capture the children's attention. He seems to say,'this is so incredible, how can it not be true?'.

Many things in a child's life are presented with little explanation and accepted as true by their innocent hearts. The sun comes up every morning and the Son of God was born in a stable. Mommy goes away and then she comes back again, and our Mother in Heaven is with us always. It takes the faith of a child to take it all in. Father Lovasik just spreads it out in front of them.

The illustrations in these books tends to be what some might call overly sentimental, with bright haloes behind the heads and doves fluttering around. The artist uses strong clear colours and dramatic poses to illustrate the text which makes them appear instructional rather than artistic, which is fine. The sentimentality of the pictures is what our children love the most about the books, the pictures match the images of their imagination.

Treasure Books: Experienced Readers and Family Read Aloud

The First Christmas

Rachel Billington and Barbara Brown. Collins Sons and Co. Ltd., 1983, hardcover.

The First Christmas is a perfect example of how well the Nativity story can be told. Rachel Billington has expanded the Gospel narrative to include details about the countryside and the characters. In doing so, she brings the period to life without distorting the central simple tale. Her careful use of an archaic style creates an atmosphere of history and reverence without 'talking down' to her audience or lecturing to them.

For example; "Mary made preparations for her journey to Elizabeth, who lived up in the hills. She collected black olives and flat bread and white goat cheese. She packed them in saddle bags on either side of the donkey who would carry her through the narrow winding paths." " Meanwhile, inside the stable, Mary thought over what the shepherds had told her. She looked at her little baby. It was very difficult to understand that he would grow up to save the world. But she knew that was what God had planned for him. She must do whatever was wanted of her.'

This is true 'story telling' in the finest tradition. Stories are told over and over again through the generations to instruct, to enlighten and to entertain. They survive because they impart truth and they speak to all of us.

Barbara Brown's illustrations complement and enhance the text. Done in gentle natural shades, the shades of the landscape and of the dyes used in those times, her illustrations fit the archaic style of the narrative. Some of her pictures are bordered with flowers and gold, some present a panoramic view of the countryside, all are detailed enough to tell the story on their own.

Together, the text and the illustrations make a very special book, one can be read over and over again as our children grow up, and unless protected very carefully will probably be loved to death.

The Glorious Impossible

Madeline L'Engle, illustrated with frescos from the Scrovegni Chapel by Giotto, Simon and Shuster, 1990, hardcover.

This is definitely a book for the experienced reader, and definitely a book which an experienced reader should be given. We hear the Gospel every Sunday at Mass, and perhaps at times take it for granted. It would be a rare child indeed who would read the Gospels and the Acts for what they are, the most incredible adventure story ever lived and told.

The Glorious Impossible tells the story of Jesus' life, from the Annunciation to Pentecost, as the story of a gloriously impossible mystery. "Possible things are easy to believe. The Glorious Impossibles are what bring joy to our hearts, hope to our lives, songs to our lips." Madeline L'Engle's narrates the events of the life of Jesus and tells about all the gloriously impossible things which happened when God sent his message of love to His people.

It makes a fascinating story. There were a great many wonderful things which happened, all of them Glorious Impossibles and all of them bringing the reader a greater sense of how far beyond our understanding God's Love really is. Big things like the Cruxifiction and little things like the Presentation at the Temple: "How remarkable, how beyond the bounds of ordinary possibility, that two old people should see a small baby and recognize that he was the Light of the World! Was it perhaps because they were so old, so near to the Beyond, that they were able to see what people caught up in the cares of life could not see?"

The illustrations which accompany this extraordinary text were reproduced from transparencies of frescos from the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua painted nearly seven hundred years ago by Florentine Giotto. Frescos are paintings that are done onto fresh plaster so that the pigments sink into the plaster and cure along with it, creating a decoration that is as permanent and durable as the plaster itself. An artist working in this medium must work swiftly to keep up with the drying plaster, a fact which makes the detail and life of Giotto's frescos all the more impressive.

The Glorious Impossible is a 'revelation' book, the kind of book which sets off little explosions of insight, and little dawnings of understanding on every page. It is beautiful in every sense of the word.

A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens, illustrated by Roberto Innocenti Stewart, Tabouri and Chang, 1990, hardcover.

Everyone knows Dicken's A Christmas Carol. Through movies and school plays and abridged versions, it has become a part of our society's Christmas traditions. It has been condensed and retold so many times, I assumed the original version must be dry and unwieldy. I found to my delight that though long and intricate in it's plot and descriptions, the unabridged version of the story is quite wonderful. So wonderful that I wonder why anyone would bother fiddling around with it.

The real beauty of this book though, is in its illustrations. The full page pictures tell of the contrasts that existed in Dicken's London; the bleak snowy streets, crowded with grey faced tattered people, and the rich warm interiors, full of firelight, colour and ease. We look down from rooftops to see children watching house sparrows on their window sill, labourers warming themselves by a fire and housewives shopping for the Christmas feast. Sometimes we peek out from behind a post to see the interior of a ragman's shop, or the gay dancing of an employee's party, or the meagre Christmas dinner of the Cratchit family. Roberto Innocenti has created a vision of Ebenezer Scrooge's world which lends further meaning and depth to Dicken's story. His illustrations give both humour and dignity to a story which through overuse and misuse has been trivialized.

The message of A Christmas Carol is not a new or unfamiliar one; that Christian love has tremendous power to transform and redeem men's lives, but Dicken's treatment of it deserves better than reinterpretation in a sitcom. In this version, it gets the treatment it deserves.

These six books are a very small sample of what is available for children in the category of 'Christmas books', books that deal with Christmas in some way and do it in a sensitive and respectful manner (with the exception of Margaret Laurence's book ).

A book for a child need not be expensive, I have found some very nice books in the Little Golden Books series, the ones that are sold in grocery store check out lines. For small children who have to chew a book to really appreciate it, I find these inexpensive books a good choice. I just make sure I check their content carefully first. A plentiful supply of quality books is so important to a child's development that I think it is well worth the effort to seek out good books.

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