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Reviewing the Children’s Picture Books for Christmas

December 19, 2012

Nicole Lantz:

‘Tis the season for lessons and carols, wax melting on little fingers, pageants, and the Hallelujah chorus, both the traditional and Veggie Tales versions. Christmas. Amazing that the holiday named for the Savior of the world can be a difficult time to focus children’s attention on Christ. Thankfully, many adornments of the season, rich in biblical imagery, can bring young and old back to the reason for the season, nativity sets being one of the best. It’s no wonder that the nativity’s strength as a pictorial presentation, its appealing doll-like pieces, and its multiple characters make it an ideal topic for a children’s picture book and is adopted as such by several award-winning authors and artists this year.

A picture book is naturally adept at telling the Christmas story: the pause at each page turn builds anticipation, particularly appropriate during Advent, and the illustrations inspire imaginations to visualize and step into a text. Not only its format, but also its ability to materialize a story as a tangible object in the hands of readers, commends a picture book for conveying the Incarnation. All this to say: this year’s collection of nativity picture books is worth investigating.

Tomie de Paula, award-winning author and artist best known for Strega Nona, offers a re-telling of Christ’s birth through a perspective not often heard. Animal narrators are common in children’s literature due to children’s affinity for and easy identification with an animal’s role in a story—think of E. B. White’s classics Stuart Little or Charlotte’s Web as well as the many times you’ve probably seen a child pretending to be the family’s cat or dog.

What makes de Paula’s Birds of Bethlehem unusual is not its animal narrators but rather the absence of omniscience; in the manner of true eye-witnesses, the birds in the story are rooted entirely in the present, relating the events they’ve seen without any reference to ancient prophecies or their effect. Each bird pair, a distinguished block of color against a serene backdrop of rolling hills, provides a different piece of the story. One pair sees a long line of people traveling to Bethlehem, another sees a young couple turned away from an over-crowded inn, while another witnesses the angelic announcement to the shepherds. This format means the story is told in very short, simple segments, described with growing excitement by the birds as “unusual” and climaxing with “spectacular.”

While helpful to remember what it was like for historic residents of Bethlehem, who would have been piecing together the events of Christ’s birth much like the birds do over their breakfast, the story’s strict adherence to only superficial events deflates the story’s denouement. “In the stable was a young mother, her husband, and their newborn baby.” With no further thought, the book ends and denies readers a sense of the magnitude and immensity of what has just taken place. While beautifully depicted with de Paula’s signature style, Birds of Bethlehem lacks the exciting climax towards which it builds.

Continuing in the animals’ perspective of Christmas, illustrator Anna Vojtech and Christian music artist Rebecca St. James adapt an old English Christmas carol into book form in The Friendly Beasts. The book’s end-pages charmingly depict families gathering to sing, preparing readers to step into the carol in the coming pages. In her lovely and familiar Australian lilt, St. James narrates on the accompanying CD what each animal in the manager gives to Christ. (And for those concerned about such things, an Australian accent works quite well, this one in particular, performing a traditionally English carol.)

The contributions of each animal help explain their part in the story: the donkey carries Mary to Bethlehem, the camel brings a wise man’s gifts to the stable, and a cow gives up his manger to be Jesus’ cradle. Like “The Little Drummer Boy,” this carol may cause hearers a moment of pause: God has just left the riches of heaven to manifest himself as a man; what gift can really compare with that? Friendly Beasts, however, is a wonderful reminder of how believers respond to God, particularly during a season of materialism: here’s all I have; please take it.

Children will enjoy the interpretation of this old carol. And though one of Vojtech’s spreads verges on the humorous, as each animal with tongues and teeth exposed leans in to the manger as though to eat Jesus instead of worship him, her illustrations of long-lashed beasts and Bethlehem’s families gathering to the stable to see Christ, are warm and beautiful.

Award-winning author and illustrator Ashley Bryan departs from the muted colors and arid scenes of the Middle East to re-tell the birth of Christ through an African context using bright, bold colors. Who Built the Stable? was inspired by one of Bryan’s trips through the African bush, the bumpy ride causing him to wonder about Mary’s travels to Bethlehem and consequently the question he addresses through his book. Bryan’s ponderings are wonderfully child-like. Adults who’ve heard the Christmas story for years quickly head it without pause, but children, like the Herdmans in Barbara Robinson’s classic The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, hear the story with fresh ears and stop to ponder aspects and minutia like those addressed in Bryan’s tale. “Was it built of wooden sticks,/ Was it built of sod?/ Was it made by human hands,/ Was it built by God?” Bryan’s rhyming couplets provide an engaging, imagined answer: a young shepherd boy, apprenticed as a carpenter, builds the stable.

The book comes to a satisfying conclusion when the young boy observes, “The babe would be a carpenter./ He’d be a shepherd too.” The parallel, which highlights Christ’s identity with men while also implying that Christ is so much more, is beautifully wrought. Who Built the Stable? embraces the refreshing wonderings of a child and will remind young readers that the Christmas story is celebrated in different cultures around the world.

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