It has been interesting to observe the changes in my family’s dynamics this year. It seems as if, all of a sudden, we don’t have a house full of “little kids.” Instead, we seem to have a stair-step assortment of various ages and stages. The advent books I have selected this year reflect the assortment of children in my house. Hopefully, there will be something here for everyone in your house.
We became devoted fans of Anne of Green Gables and the other Anne stories by L. M. Montgomery this year so it was with great joy that I reviewed Christmas With Anne And Other Holiday Stories, edited by Rea Wilmshurst. The book is a collection of short stories by Montgomery published in magazines in the early 1900’s and two stories from the Anne of Green Gables series. Like the books in the series, the stories can be a bit overly-sentimental but there is something so compelling and good about Montgomery’s characters and plots that the sweet is satisfying instead of sickening. If your children haven’t met Anne, this book, read aloud, is a lovely introduction. If they know her well, the two Christmas stories will be remembered fondly and the others will be fresh fodder for the devotion that Montgomery inspires in her young readers.
I have been writing reviews of advent books for several years and sometimes I wonder if there will be anything fresh to read. The message of advent and Christmas can get a little worn when the book box is brimming and they all begin to look the same. I read Papa’s Angels by Collin Wilcox Paxton and Gray Carden in one sitting, with tears streaming down my face. It brought to mind a dear friend who has experienced the loss of both her parents this year and the hope and joy that I pray her children will bring her this Christmas.
Papa’s Angels is a book for older children. It is a quick and easy read but it is deep and thoughtful and at times, dark and haunting. Told through the eyes of Becca, a gifted twelve-year-old writer who lives with her father and four younger siblings in Appalachia, it is the story of the immense grief of a young father who has lost his dearly beloved wife to an illness just before Christmas.
As Papa retreats more and more into his sorrow, the children become increasingly hopeless that they will ever again hear him sing or see him laugh. Their grandmother keeps alive the flickers of hope that seem to be every child’s birthright and gently guides them to see how they can help their father stir from his misery. Interspersed throughout the book are lovely songs that Papa has composed in happier days to celebrate his family and express the sweet, pure, lasting love he has for his wife. In the end, it is music, the wisdom of children, and the spirit of love that triumphs over loss and brings the father back to his children.
Jotham’s Journey by Arnold Ytreeide is an advent storybook with one installment for every day of Advent. The story is very compelling and my children frequently begged for more after one day’s devotion was read. Ten-year-old Jotham travels across Israel, searching for his family and facing great danger and breathless adventure. Ultimately, his journey takes him the Infant in Bethlehem. While the author uses this book as a bedtime story, some adventures are rather intense and I prefer to read it to my children during the day. We liked this one so well last year that I’ve ordered it for my godchildren this year.
Bright Christmas: An Angel Remembers comes highly recommended by my six-year-old who does not want to return it to the library. The nativity story is told from the perspective of an angel-- not really an original story line. What sets this book apart is the ability of the author to discuss the interaction of the supernatural world with the natural world and to shake off the constraints of time and embrace eternity. The supernatural and eternity are not usually within the grasp of children but this book makes them so. Readers young and old gain a greater appreciation of how the earth was made ready for the glorious night when Jesus was born. The pictures are lovely and add depth and warmth to the ethereal quality of the story.
I freely admit that I bought All for the Newborn Baby by Phyllis Root solely because of its title. This book lies 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.
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.
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. Lunch. 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.
Another 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.
A gift book to give a musical family is Silent Night. 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.
One book in our box which is so tattered and well-loved that I would like to replace it in hardback is The 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.
My children’s favorite last year was 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 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.”
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.
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.
A Christmas Story by Brian Wildsmith was well-received in our house. My children are fond of other books he has illustrated. Wildsmith’s unique illustrating style is at its best in this book. The story is a simply told rendition of the nativity story, from the perspective of Rebecca, a little girl whom Mary leaves to care for a young donkey when the donkey’s mother carries the Blessed Mother to Bethlehem. The young donkey misses his mother and Rebecca ends up in Bethlehem, too. The paintings are anything but simple. They are richly textured with brilliant color and lovely accents of gold. We stopped and looked carefully every page. This book begged to be followed by an art project, where gold paint was readily accessible.
My favorite book to give new mothers is When It Snowed That Night by Norma Farber. My children really don’t sit still very well for this one. I read it more for me. It is so easy in the weeks preceding Christmas to get caught up in the busy-ness of life. There is so much for parents to do. What we forget is that often what our children need most is not that we do but that we be. They need us to be available to them to talk or rock or read or just sit in comfortable silence when the story is finished. This book remains in our Christmas box to remind me to slow down and just be with my children. Reading aloud is a wonderful vehicle for doing that.
The book is composed of poems from many of the creatures who went to greet the Christ child. At the end of the book, the queens come. They are late, having left their children with sitters, and they don’t stay long because:
“Their thoughts are already straining far—
Past manger and mother and guiding star and child aglow as a morning sun—
toward home and children and chores undone.”
They are distracted because they are going in too many directions. There are so many worthy causes—particularly during advent and Christmastime.
I don’t want to be like the queens, giving little bits of myself to lots of people and all of my heart and soul to no one. Instead, I want to serve my Lord with my whole heart—caring tenderly for the children he has entrusted to me and guarding carefully my time so that I don’t over-commit and neglect my home and family.
We are given opportunities every day to bring into our children’s lives those things which are true and beautiful when we read aloud to them in our homes. We have the opportunity to be like the last creature in Farber’s book, who identifies with and emulates the Blessed mother:
I never got to Bethlehem,
someone, I thought, should (day and night)
be here, someone should stay at home.
I think I was probably right.
For I have sung my child to dream
far, far away from where there lies
a woman doing much the same.
And neither of our children cries.
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 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.
Tomie dePaola Advent/Christmas Unit
Copyright 2002 by Elizabeth Foss. All rights reserved.