From Rudolf and Santa to Slinki Malinki and the proverbial Pukeko in a Punga Tree, there’s a Christmas-themed picture book for everyone. In most bookshops, though, Baby Jesus is hidden behind Grinches, trains and elves. If you’re in the market for Christmas books for kids that tell the story of God coming into the world as a baby to join with humanity – you know, Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds and maybe even a newborn in a manger – then here are my top five. Ask your local bookshop to order them in if they don’t have them on hand – they’re worth it!
Most of them are sideways takes on the Christmas story, telling it from unusual perspectives, and bringing imagination to read between the lines of what happened 2000 years ago. If you put them alongside a more straightforward telling of the story (perhaps from the wonderful Jesus Storybook Bible), you’ll have a great set of books to bring fresh insight to adults and children over the years.
I’ve used four of these to tie different Christmas church services together, and they have been popular across the generations – something that’s important for books you will come back to annually!
The best Christmas service I ever planned was based on Nicholas Allan’s hilarious Jesus’ Christmas Party. One reluctant guest at my church that year was overheard to say, ‘This is great! It isn’t boring at all!,’ with a hint of surprise in their tone!
My husband, bless him, played the main character (with a spur-of-the-moment French accent and a great deal of manic energy), a grumpy innkeeper who is just trying to get some sleep. First a poor couple turn up when the hotel’s full and get sent ‘round the back!’ Pregnant or not, there’s no room at the inn, though he does grudgingly supply some blankets at the second knock.
No sooner has he got back to bed but there’s another knock at the door. And another, and another! Shepherds, wise men, even a choir of angels! Can’t everyone just give him some peace?
When he finally storms round the back himself, to complain about the racket, he sees a lovely little baby, and finds that he isn’t grumpy anymore.
My favourite serious picture book the tear-jerking American pioneer story, The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, by Susan Wojciechowski. This award-winning book will appeal to children and adults, and might be especially appreciated if Christmas is a bittersweet time for you or someone you know.
‘Christmas is pish-posh,’ grumbles the hermit-like wood-carver. But he accepts the commission to replace a widow’s lost nativity set. Seven-year-old Thomas is desperate to watch him work and promises to sit very still.
While Mr. Toomey carved, the widow McDowell poured tea. She touched the wood-carver gently on the shoulder and placed a cup of tea and a bun next to him. He pretended not to notice, but soon, both the plate and the cup were empty.
Thomas tried to eat the bun quietly. But it is almost impossible to eat a warm sticky raisin bun without making various smacking, licking, satisfied noises.
When Thomas had finished, he tried to sit quietly. Once, he almost hiccuped, but he took a deep breath and held it till his face turned red.
After a very long time, Thomas whispered, “Mr. Toomey, excuse me, may I ask a question?”
“Is that my cow you’re carving?”
Nod and grunt.
“Mr. Toomey, excuse me, but I must tell you something. That is the most beautiful cow I have ever seen, but it’s not right. My cow looked proud.”
“That’s pish-posh,” growled the wood-carver. “Cows cannot look proud.”
“My cow did. It knew that Jesus chose to be born in its barn, so it was proud.”
One night, when Jonathan is sitting at home alone, sketching the final pieces – Mary and Jesus – we see what has made him so sad, and he finds a new way to be happy. I defy you not to bawl, but I hope you’ll also feel a lot better for reading it.
My favourite angel is in Julie Vivas’ illustrated Nativity, which takes an adapted text of the King James Version of the Bible. Gabriel has glorious, coloured wings, spiky red hair and funky work boots. The more time he spends on earth, watching the Christmas story unfold, the more ragged he looks, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
Follow the link and make sure you ‘look inside’ and see what I mean. The art is delightful, and carries as much meaning as the text, from pregnant Mary’s burgeoning belly to the nappies on the line.
One of the great things about the Christmas narrative for younger kids is the role animals play. Put an animal in a book about pretty much anything and you’ve caught most kids.
Room for a Little One, by Martin Waddell, follows the story from the point of view of an ox in a barn, welcoming cold, lonely animals one by one: ‘There’s always room for a little one here.’
The text is poetic and simple, and the illustrations are rich. The last animal welcomed into the stable is a donkey, carrying a pregnant woman. The last page tells us:
That cold winter’s night Beneath the star’s light… …A Little One came for the world.
Lastly, a sophisticated picture book starring a trafficked and miserable cat. Robert Westall’s The Witness has layers of theology and history for families who want to spark discussion with kids who know the Baby Jesus story well already.
An Egyptian thief snatches a cat to smuggle as a mouser into occupied Judea. She is used to being treated as a god, fussed over and watched for signs and oracles. Disoriented and pregnant in her new home in Bethlehem, she gives birth to two kittens at the same time as a certain little human baby is born.
There’s a lot to love about this book, especially for people familiar with the Biblical story and keen for new insights. There are thought-provoking evocations of life in Egypt and Israel, clever observations from a cat’s-eye view, and best of all, overheard conversations between Mary and Joseph.
What do you think happens when the Egyptian god-cat offers a rat as sacrifice to the God-baby? How much did Joseph and Mary know about Egypt when they decided to flee there for safety from the murderous king? And what does an angel smell like?! Check out The Witness for some imaginings.
So, what have I missed? What are your favourite Christmas books that tell the story of God moving into the neighbourhood as a little baby? Please leave a comment with your recommendations – I’m always on the look-out for more!