One Wintry Night, by Ruth Bell Graham, illustrated by Richard Jesse Watson (1994)
Starting with the modern day in the Appalachians, this story takes a literary time machine (by way of a storyteller) through the Bible to the beginning of time to the Christmas story and beyond.
Zeb Morris, a boy of about ten, goes out for a hike in the mountains a few days before Christmas despite his grandfather’s warnings about the weather. While he’s out, the weather and a sprain get the better of him, and he finds refuge in an old home his grandfather had helped build. The elderly woman living there takes him in and helps treat his ankle (after calling to let his grandfather know where he is), and she tells him the Christmas story, starting back long before the first Christmas, back to the Garden, to the moment in time when the need for a Savior arose. As any storyteller does, she fleshes out her paraphrase of the Biblical account with imagination to help her listener picture the events she’s retelling, picking milestone events throughout the entire Biblical timeline to summarize the progression from perfection to confusion to hope and finally to redemption.
The story is interrupted on occasion by interactions between the boy and the woman, but those interludes typically serve either to break up the long story or to bring attention to a significant development or idea in the narrative. The illustrations, done in egg tempera, are breathtakingly detailed. One of my favorites illustrates the appearance of the angels to the shepherds, but instead of the the typical pastoral scene, you see a startled shepherd pulling back in awe in one corner of the page with a background of deep blue dotted with stars, but the majority of the page is filled with a representation of “the glory of the Lord [that] shone round about them” (Luke 2:9, NKJV), and it looks like rays of the sun exploding into shattering glass in bright yellows and oranges and subtle geometric patterns…amazing! Without a strong familiarity with the stories being recounted, it might be hard to tell what is artistic license and what is strictly Biblical detail, but I didn’t notice any glaring details that were contrary to the message of the passages being retold, so I don’t believe that is a serious negative in regards to the contents.* The main message is clear: God has been working throughout time to try to bring us, His most loved creation, back into a relationship with Him, and Jesus’ arrival that we celebrate at Christmas was a pivotal and necessary moment in our salvation history.
Although the book looks like a picture book and definitely features a large number of beautiful illustrations, it is not a book for early readers or very young listeners. I haven’t tried reading it yet to GirlChild, but I know that if I did, I’d have to break it up into several readings (perhaps one chapter at a time) because of the amount of text and the depth of the content. I would recommend this for a read-aloud for children from perhaps second or third grade on (perhaps a part of family devotions during advent), but it could also be enjoyed by independent readers with good Biblical background knowledge; others probably would need the support of an adult to fully understand the story being told. No matter what the reader’s background knowledge, I do recommend that an adult share with the reader the Biblical passages being retold so the child can develop a good understanding of what is just storytelling and what is purely Biblical in the book. This is definitely the most comprehensive retelling of the nativity story that I have ever read due to its massive amount of back-story to explain the why of the nativity instead of just the what…something I think many of us forget at this time of year. Let us do as Mary did and treasure up all these things and ponder them in our hearts (Luke 2:19) so that we can attempt to grasp the magnitude of the sacrifice God made on our behalf at Christmas.
*(Perhaps the most notable variation from–rather than addition to/elaboration on–the Bible passages is the author’s use of the term “Testing Tree” instead of “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” and that it was placed there specifically to test their obedience; that is not explicitly stated in the Bible, but a test of their obedience is what happened in relation to the tree, so I can see how the author justifies that change. As with all of the passages recounted, I would recommend reading the Biblical version to supplement the story being told in this book so the child knows the difference.)