Tag Archives: nativity

The Beasts and Children, Day 11: A Christmas Goodnight

A Christmas Goodnight

A Christmas Goodnight, by Nola Buck, illustrated by Sarah Jane Wright (2011)

BoyChild was disappointed that “all it had was goodnight!” I think that’s because he is at the age where he prefers a story with a plot, and this cute book would be a great bedtime book for toddlers and preschoolers at Christmas time!

The book opens with a semi-typical depiction of the nativity scene, different only in that they are pictured in a cave (a more likely traditional setting for a stable than a wooden structure). Like usual (and inaccurate to the Biblical account), the Wise Men are there at the birth with the shepherds. (Just getting my beef with many nativity-based stories out of the way!) From that point, the story is more implied than told, and you don’t really fully understand what’s been happening until the end of the book! The book is, as BoyChild said, a series of goodnights. The words and pictures show a goodnight to (among many others) “the baby in the hay” and “the sleepy mother,” a variety of animals, the angels, and the rest of the nativity story characters. The very next page starts with goodnights to the moon and the cold air (with an appropriate image of a rural nightscape), then moves into a house where we see a family with a young child saying goodnight “again, sweet baby” to the baby Jesus from their nativity set, then finally, “Goodnight–God bless the whole wide world, for tomorrow is Christmas Day!”

If you have very young children, you know that going to bed can involve a lot of goodnights to people and inanimate objects; this story seems to tap into that tendency. My understanding is that the whole story is actually part of the child’s nighttime routine at Christmas: say goodnight to all the pieces in the nativity set before saying goodnight to his own surroundings and the world (with one more goodnight for the baby). The pictures help move the text along in that they start with close-ups of all the characters in the nativity story, then zoom out to show some of the surrounding area, then move away from Bethlehem into the fields. They then transition to the snowy outdoors scene, then to the farmhouse window, then inside the home where you see the parents and child with the nativity set. The very last picture, with the words “for tomorrow is Christmas Day” shows a wide view of a snowy Christmas morning on a farm with a small village in the distance. The publisher’s recommended ages are 4-8, but I think that skews a little old for such a simple bedtime book (at least one that hasn’t become tradition for the child) and would suggest starting a little younger. It is a really adorable book for small ones!

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The Beasts and Children, Day 8: Wombat Divine

Wombat Divine

Wombat Divine, by Mem Fox, illustrated by Kerry Argent (1995)

I had to pick this up since the juxtaposition of “wombat” and “divine” was too sharp to ignore! My family went to Australia when I was ten, and I recognized many of the animals in this book from that trip!

Wombat loves everything about Christmas, especially the nativity play, and he is finally old enough to audition. He finds that his physical attributes and sleepy tendencies make it impossible for him to take any of the parts he so willingly volunteers to try. Each time he proves to be a vital mismatch somehow, the animal who is chosen instead comforts him with a gentle touch and kind words and encouragement: “Don’t lose heart! Why not try for a different part?” When all the parts have been given out, Wombat struggles not to cry in disappointment, and all his friends look on with concern. Then Bilby (one of BoyChild’s new favorite animals from the Plum Landing game on pbskids.org) has a sudden inspiration: Wombat is perfectly suited to play Baby Jesus! After his convincing performance on the night of the play, his friends congratulate him on the “best Nativity ever,” and Emu, the director, says, “You were divine, Wombat!” And Wombat is suitably pleased.

The illustrations are semi-realistic (for a book about anthropomorphic Australian animals auditioning for a Christmas play!) and expressive. You can see how bad Wombat’s friends feel that he isn’t able to participate the way he wants to, and they aren’t as happy about their own parts because of how unhappy their friend is. There are no bad friends or meanies or ungracious winners or sore losers in this book, so there are no bad behaviors to discuss away. Wombat Divine is simply a sweet book about a hopeful wombat with theatrical aspirations and his strong, caring support system! A very cute read-aloud or independent reading book for preschool to middle elementary, particularly those with a Wild Kratts-level of love for Australian animals! (Oddly enough, there is another book about a wombat and Christmas by a different author (of Diary of a Wombat fame) and with a very different focus: Christmas Wombat, by Jackie French.¬† I’ve not read this one!)

 

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The Beasts and Children, Day 4: The Christmas Pageant

The Christmas Pageant

The Christmas Pageant, by Jacqueline Rogers (1989)

I didn’t realize when I picked this book up that the author/illustrator is the woman who provides the cover art for the new Ramona reprints and for Calvin Coconut (a series I discovered in the school library recently). The style is very different from those books–much more realistic–but it’s clear that she has varied talent!

This book shows the story of the dress rehearsal and performance of a rural Christmas pageant (performed in a barn surrounded by snowy hills and not much else!), and the text represents the contents of the pageant (matching up with the scene the pictures illustrate), including songs with sheet music! The picture story begins with final preparations of costumes and set pieces. From there, we see the angel Gabriel making his announcements to Mary and then Joseph (while set work continues in the background). Then Joseph pulls a wagon (with a donkey cut-out taped to the front and Mary perched on a box inside) across the stage, and we see the toddler (a little girl, according to the cast list on the title pages) who is playing Baby Jesus pestering an innkeeper behind the inn set while another child leads some real animals into the barn for the performance. Mary and Joseph have some trouble keeping the “baby” in the manger once she sees the cow and sheep on stage, and one of the sheep chews on a shepherd’s head covering while the angel appears to proclaim the birth. Then an angel choir (with appropriately mixed behavior) sings as the shepherds make their way to the stable (where Jesus sucks on a pacifier and tries to pull off the head covering of another shepherd). The real program begins at this point of the illustrations as the costumed wise men (one carrying the camel cut-out) trek through the snow on the country road leading to the barn where cars fill the plowed out area that is serving as a parking lot. They track snow across the stage while the audience looks on with pride. The faux Jesus has actually fallen asleep for this evening performance, and Mary and Joseph smile as they place her in the stage manger. Then all the cast gathers around the sleeping child for the final song (“Joy to the World”) and curtain call. As the performers and their families file out of the barn after the performance, snow is falling, delighting the children.

With as much charm as a real performance of a Christmas pageant, the text of the book could actually be used as the basis for a production (with directors reminded by the illustrations of what pitfalls exist with child performers!). It is not verbatim text from the Bible, but it summarizes and condenses much like any Christmas pageant would (and, like most pageants and nativity sets, features the wise men–inaccurately–at the birth for the purpose of seamlessly including their part of the account.) The characters in the illustrations are actually based on real people, credited by the author/illustrator on the page facing the title page. While the director’s hairstyle, outfit, and glasses might give away the 1989 publication date, it’s not jarring (or prevalent) enough to distract from the art, and the kids look like any kids from any time in the late 20th to early 21st century. (The biggest hint of the publication date might actually be that none of the audience is holding up a cell phone to record the performance!) This book would make a great read-aloud for preschoolers, and readers in middle elementary grades could probably handle it independently.

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The Beasts and Children, Day 3: Merry Christmas Mr. Mouse

Merry Christmas Mr. Mouse

Merry Christmas Mr. Mouse, by Caralyn Buehner, pictures by Mark Buehner (2015)

This is another one that BoyChild really enjoyed. Part of the fun of this is the built in hidden pictures–but we still haven’t found the cat, T-rex, and rabbit in all of the illustrations! (And I really wish I knew the backstory behind the dedication: “For Mr. Joe, who’s as handsome as a bus and as clever as a tractor”!)

Mr. Mouse hears that there is a spot available for sale under a kitchen stove, so he and his family (a wife and seventeen small mice) move in. As Mr. Mouse is exploring the human house one day, he discovers an evergreen tree covered with lights has been brought in and notices all kinds of new smells and new activities going on. He and his family observe and wonder the reason for all the festivities, so Mouse creeps upstairs and overhears the nativity account and the story of Santa being told. “All that fussing upstairs is for Christmas, and Christmas means joy, and love,” he reports back to his wife. She decides it would be a good idea to decorate and celebrate, too. Mr. Mouse goes around borrowing small items to recreate the decorations he has seen upstairs while Mrs. Mouse makes pajamas for everyone, and they wrap the gifts in scraps of colorful paper. Crumbs of gingerbread and bits of candy cane serve as their treats. Then they gather the whole family for the celebration with games and music, treats and gifts, and a retelling of the Christmas story. They each hang a tiny stocking before bed, just in case. To Mr. Mouse’s surprise, they awaken to find a small gift for each parent and a chocolate chip and a bit of cheese for each little mouse. Mr. and Mrs. Mouse decide that Christmas is worth celebrating every year.

The story is told in rhyming verse (ABCB pattern), but it’s not overly rhythmic, so it doesn’t feel too forced. The illustrations, in addition to the hidden images in each one, feature rich, vibrant colors, and the contents of the Mouse home, in particular, are creatively made using regular household items (much like in The Borrowers, a childhood favorite of mine). Small readers can try to figure out the origins of all the items, from the paperclips and buttons on the sprig tree to the chili powder can they use as a fireplace and the dominoes, Tinker-Toys, and blocks they use as seats for the children. (There’s even the little Scottie dog from a Monopoly game as a table-top decoration and birthday candles used for light!) (In an added twist, I recognized the cover of another Christmas book I’ve reviewed, Christmas Day in the Morning, on the page where the mouse is listening to the humans share Christmas stories–because the illustrator of this book is the one who illustrated that one!)

Even though it’s not heavily emphasized, it’s easy to take the central message of the book and apply it in the lives of our little readers–“Mouse learned that on that night long ago/was born the Lord of the earth,/and the lights and the songs and the giving/were to celebrate His birth.” Great for preschool and early elementary read-alouds.

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BoyChild Chooses: The 12 Reviews of Christmas 2015, Day 2–A Gift for the Christ Child

 

Product Details
A Gift for the Christ Child, by Tina Jähnert, illustrated by Alessandra Roberti, translated by Sibylle Kazeroid (2004)

BoyChild wanted to do “the book about Jesus” next! I sometimes struggle with recommending books that alter the Christmas account found in the Bible, but this one does an okay job of keeping things in a historical fiction kind of strain rather than adjusting the whole thing or adding fantasy elements (like talking animals and the like). I explained to BoyChild which significant parts were different (we’ll have to review the Luke 2 account to give him a frame of reference now that he is able to remember things more clearly–I’m sure he’ll be able to point out the differences then!); we’ll address the whole traditional detail versus Biblical account thing later!

This book tells the story of Miriam, the very young daughter (I’d guess four or five years old based on the illustrations of her size) of an innkeeper in Bethlehem. She envies her older brother, Malachai, and her parents for their important work–she’s always told she’s too little to help! Miriam, red comfort blanket in tow, finally tells her mother how she feels, and her mother is quick to assure Miriam that she is important to her mother and to all who know her simply “because you are you–unique in the whole world.” However, she agrees to try to find ways Miriam can help because she is so eager to do so. The opportunity arises quickly; Miriam is asked to lead a man and young woman on a donkey down to the stable because they need a place to stay and there is no more room available. Miriam does her job diligently, but she is surprised that the young woman seems grateful for her accommodations, thanking God for the solitude and comfort. Miriam wakes in the night and finds that there is a light glowing in the stable, and she goes to see if their guests need something. When she finds that there is a baby newly arrived, she immediately lays her own blanket down in the manger for the child and tells the mother, “I would like to give this to the little baby,” and she is overjoyed to see her gift being wrapped around the infant. Very shortly, shepherds arrive, and they exclaim over the news that they had heard from angels: “Jesus Christ, the son of God, had been born to save the world.” Miriam, soon joined by her family, listens in wonder and they all praise God. When Miriam’s mother notices the red blanket, she offers gentle praise to her daughter for her sweet gift, and Miriam feels “big and tall and proud” because she knows she is important not just to her family and friends, but to the Child and, therefore, to the whole world.

The illustrations in this book are soft and muted, the scenery is mostly in browns and tans and shows hilly, somewhat barren terrain and simple block structures, the clothing fits the traditional depictions of Biblical scenes (with the somewhat unusual but historically likely inclusion of hoop earrings on the innkeeper’s wife), and the people are illustrated with natural proportions if simplified features. (I still feel like I should take an art class where I can learn to identify and name all these different styles of illustrations and techniques!) The full-page illustrations have rich color and a good bit of texture but feature simplified details so the pages don’t appear cluttered or too busy. There are also a few focused illustrations of characters in a kind of color haze on an otherwise open white space on a page. BoyChild says his favorite illustration is the one where Miriam is playing with the lamb and her doll because he likes to play, too. I just love the way the illustrations show Miriam’s expressions, looks I’ve seen on the faces of my own young children and find very sweet and open.

While the Bible doesn’t include anyone but the shepherds visiting Jesus in his improvised cradle, the events of this story are plausible, and they don’t alter the original account in any significant way. That a young child struggles with feelings of inadequacy and insignificance is certainly relatable, and a young child’s insistence on helping is, too. Her mother’s reassurance of her importance is perfect, but it is even more beautiful that such a young child is able to discover her importance to the son of God himself! While our children certainly can’t personally lend Jesus a blanket to keep him warm, we are reminded that whatever we do “for the least of these” is done for him (Matthew 25:40), and a heartfelt, sacrificial gift to someone in need may be just the opportunity your child needs to realize his or her importance in the eyes of God.20151201_204616~2

A family Christmas tradition my parents started with us when we were young helps illustrate this concept for little ones. My dad built a small wooden manger and my mom filled a basket with strands of straw-colored yarn and placed it next to the manger. The three of us were allowed to place one strand of the hay in the manger every time we did something nice for someone or resisted responding inappropriately to our parents or siblings. (We weren’t allowed make a point of putting the “hay” in the manger so that there was no bragging about good deeds or significant glares while we walked “virtuously” away from a potential argument–that would kind of defeat the purpose!) On Christmas morning, we would find Baby Jesus (a swaddled baby doll reserved just for this purpose) lying in a manger made soft by our good choices and loving acts, and we strove all December to make that makeshift bed as welcoming as we could! As we grew and matured, it became less necessary, so my parents retired it, but I brought it home this year for my own children to use. While they’re still so young (four and seven), it might still be necessary to tell them when they should put in a strand and to give them a second chance to make a better choice and have the opportunity to put one in, but I’m hoping it will both be an incentive to help them cope with the irritability that often comes with anticipation and busy seasons and realize that what they do for each other, they are also doing for God!

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Bright Christmas: An Angel Remembers, by Andrew Clements, illustrated by Kate Kiesler

Bright Christmas: An Angel Remembers

Bright Christmas: An Angel Remembers, by Andrew Clements, illustrated by Kate Kiesler (1996)

To start off this year’s twelve reviews of Christmas, why not pick up right where we left off…with Andrew Clements!

The story is told from the point of view of an angel who clearly remembers this one special night, the night that “the great truth came to the earth once and for all.” He looks back at other things angels have announced, remembering how they were pieces of the revelation, pointing toward this one amazing night. He speaks of the star, of Joseph and Mary, of the shepherds, and of the light shining in the darkness–Jesus. The illustrations are done in oil paint and are soft but realistic (the illustrator put effort into making sure the setting was archeologically accurate to the time period and location). The perspective of the illustrations changes between what the angels might have seen to the point of view of someone who was watching the whole story unfold. The angels seem to be depicted in the form of white birds, mostly out of focus or shadowed in darkness or shining so brightly that their shape is unclear. The one clear image is represented by a single white feather lying on the ground next to Jesus in the manger, a reminder that an angel was there.

As I read this book to my kids, I couldn’t help thinking about what a great performance piece it would be. For very young children, someone dressed as the traditional image of an angel (white robe, wings, you know) could read the story aloud and share the pictures as part of a Christmas story time or before a Christmas party. It would also be a beautiful monologue for a Christmas performance at church (given the right permissions were sought), and although it would be difficult to project the original artwork that would help to tell the story, there might be possibilities for actors to present tableaus to represent the different scenes. (Its focus on how the Christmas event is part of God’s revelation throughout history reminded me strongly of Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus by The Skit Guys. It’s available for purchase with licensing information and all that and could maybe be used as part of the same production as a performance of this book.)

BoyChild’s Reaction: BoyChild ran to get our Little People Mary and Jesus figures and compared them to the pictures in the book as I was reading. I like that he’s making the connection (and learning that the visual representations of the characters aren’t always going to be the same because no one knows exactly what they looked like), but I do wish he’d stop saying “Baby Moses” every time before he corrects himself (or I correct him) to “Baby Jesus”! He was more than happy to sit through a second reading of the book, and I bet he would ask for it again if we didn’t have to return it to the library because our renewals have all expired!

GirlChild’s Reaction: GirlChild loved the book, too. I think reading it aloud first is the best choice because of the first-person point of view and the performance aspect of it, but I’m sure she would have enjoyed it reading it independently as well. GirlChild, as always, was tuned in most to the emotions of the book and focused on the page about Mary. The text never specifically said that Mary was happy (and that illustration was the least enjoyable to me–I don’t think it quite conveys the spirit of the text because she looks a little…confused), but that is what GirlChild got out of the description of Mary anyway, and that was the intent. Considering both of their interaction with the text, I would go ahead and recommend this book for preschool to elementary as a read-aloud or performance piece. I’m so glad I found it!

 

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A Baby Born in Bethlehem, by Martha Whitmore Hickman, illustrations by Giuliano Ferri (Day 11)

A Baby Born in Bethlehem, by Martha Whitmore Hickman

A Baby Born in Bethlehem, by Martha Whitmore Hickman, illustrations by Giuliano Ferri (1999)

This retelling of the nativity story combines information from Matthew and Luke to make one seamless narrative.

From the angel’s announcement to Mary to the visit of the wise men, this story tells a selective, embellished version of the birth of Jesus. The author often uses recognizable paraphrases of dialogue from what seems to be the King James Version of the Bible as well as some pretty direct quotations from Luke 2. She also follows the chronological progression of the narrative accurately (including the arrival of the wise men much later), while leaving out portions less directly related to the birth story (like Mary’s trip to visit Elizabeth and the birth of John the Baptist) to make the retelling more streamlined. (She also leaves out the visit of the wise men to Herod–a story for another time, perhaps.) There is a good amount of imagination applied to the characterization of Mary and the dialogue between characters to move the action along, so there’s quite a bit of this book that isn’t strictly Biblical, but it isn’t contrary to the text either; as always with retellings of Biblical passages, it’s a good idea to read and be familiar with the original. The art is somewhat atypical of children’s books, as well. I wasn’t surprised to find that the illustrator is actually from Italy as the art has what I consider a Mediterranean flair. This is one of the few nativity books I’ve seen where other travelers are depicted on the road to Bethlehem or where Jesus has aged between his birth and the arrival of the wise men (as he should have).

I like this retelling because it addresses all the parts of the Christmas story that everyone seems to recognize and compiles them into a cohesive, more accurate whole than I think other retellings have done. (None of the animals talk, and I kind of consider that a bonus for this particular topic.) There is a relatively sizable amount of text on each page (along with large, colorful illustrations), but I think that even preschoolers could enjoy listening to this retelling with the right reader and circumstances (probably not in a large group, but an animated reader could make that a possibility, too). Readers in elementary school–possibly as young as kindergarten, although the amount of text on a page and some of the vocabulary might be intimidating–can enjoy this independently because the storyline is both familiar and reasonably simple. A good addition to a home library that needs more religious Christmas books that are accessible to children.

Additional titles:

Then I Think of God, by Martha Whitmore Hickman(by the author)

A Star in the Holy Night(by the illustrator)

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