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Christmas books for children: Long ago and far away – yet here and now 

Reviewed by Sue Careless

HOW MANY STORIES enchant us because they begin “Long ago and far away….”? The birth of our Lord did occur long ago, over two millennia – and, for those of us in the West, far away in the Middle East. Theologically we could take it even further back: Christ’s birth was foretold by the prophets and, pushed further back still, he existed with the Father before all worlds. As for far away, he came down from heaven, from outside our universe, beyond both space and time.

Yet good stories also have an immediacy and touch us wherever we live, speaking to our joys and troubles. So Christ came to us in the Incarnation, he took on our flesh, even our poverty and our helplessness as a newborn babe. And though he was the Prince of Peace and the King of kings he came humbly. Children love stories where there is some royal lineage even if the prince or princess lives (sometimes in disguise) with common folk.

So the Nativity is a story, a narrative that will appeal to any child. Children identify with children and here is a baby. Children love animals and here is a child born amongst animals in a stable. And children are afraid of yet fascinated by the dark, and the Christ Child is born at night, yet with starlight and angels bright.

Children soon become curious about other lands and cultures. Christ came to redeem children from all nations. So children are entranced by how children from other times and places celebrate his birth in their own age and culture. The selection of books below includes portrayals from the Huron nation, Russia, Appalachia and the Arabian dessert.

Good picture books convey these wonders by both text and illustration. And to sit with a child on your lap or by your side as you read or hear her read can be a shared joy. Don’t forget that even when a child can read for herself, it is still a delight to be read to.

Consider some of these books as gifts for your children, grandchildren, godchildren, nieces and nephews, or your church library. A few of these books involve older texts that have been freshly illustrated. We have suggested various age levels but in one sense they are for all ages. 


Board Books for Babies, Toddlers & Preschoolers

These first two books introduce the nativity narrative in rhyme and through the eyes of animals. Even two-year-olds enjoy repeating the catchy rhymes:


Who is Coming to our House? by Joseph Slate and illustrated by Ashley Wolff. (Board Book edition 2013)

Christmas in the Manger by Nola Buck and illustrated by Felicia Bond. (Board Book edition 1998)

The Tale of Three Trees A traditional folktale retold by Angela Elwell Hunt and illustrated by Tim Jonke about three trees that grow up to be Jesus’ manger, boat and cross. Hardcover (1989) and Board Book (2010)

The Nativity by Fiona Watt, illustrated by Rachel Wells. It is a “touchy-feely” board book ideal for the very young. (2005)  There are many different parts to feel on the cover and each page including the donkey’s ears, Jesus’ blanket and the wise men’s cloaks.

Kindergarten upwards

Listen to the Silent Night by Dandi Daley Mackall (2011). Nativity story retold with reverence and whimsy in lyrical prose. A great read-aloud choice. The illustrations by Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson are rendered in muted tones as befitting a story that takes place at night. Ages 4-5.

The Friendly Beasts by Tomie dePaola (1998). Based on the 12th century rhyming English carol, a copy of the music is included at the back. To view all the lovely art work and hear the carol sung see:   Ages 4-5.

A Christmas Story by Brian Wildsmith (2007). Wildsmith tells of the journey to Bethlehem of a little girl Rebecca and a baby donkey. It is their perspective on the Christmas story that gives the book such an intimate, child-centred appeal. In the background you see the main events (the Annunciation, Angelic hosts coming to the shepherds, the wise men and Herod) and the book ends with the two storylines merging. You can preview the book, pictures and all, on an amateur YouTube video as a grandmother reads to her grandkids. See: Wildsmith’s Easter Story is also highly recommended. Ages 4-7.

The Nativity Illustrated by Julie Vivas (2006). The majesty of the King James text is matched surprisingly well with playful, whimsical watercolours. Ages 4-8.

Christmas in the Barn Illustrator Anna Dewdney, best known for her Llama Llama books, illustrates the 1952 rhyming text of Margaret Wise Brown (of Goodnight Moon fame) for a cheerful retelling of the Nativity suitable for young children. Some parents, however, are concerned that the couple is not identified by name as Mary and Joseph, nor the baby as Jesus. A 2007 version was illustrated by Diane Goode. Ages 3 -5.

Mortimer’s Christmas by Karma Wilson, illustrated by Jane Chapman (2005). At Christmastime, a mouse disturbs a nativity set, even settling himself into the manger! But when he hears the Christmas story being told he returns everything to its rightful place and is given a new home. Ages 4-5.

In the 1600s, the missionary priest Father Jean de Brébeuf wrote a carol in the Huron language telling the story of the birth of Christ, set in the Huron world. Three stunning picture books of what has become known as The Huron Carol were created by three different illustrators. Both Frances Tyrrell in 2003 and Ian Wallace in 2013 employ water colours for an authentic depiction of the Huron culture and the Canadian landscape. Children will enjoy identifying the various animals who also come to worship the Christ Child, the “radiant boy.” The sheet music is included in both books. Grand Chief of the Huron nation, Max Gros-Louis, says in the afterword to Tyrell’s work, “We are pleased that this book tells a part of our common history.” Ages 4-10.

In the third book, titled An Aboriginal Carol (2008) Metis author David Bouchard expands in rhyme on the English lyrics of “The Huron Carol.” The amazing art of Moses Beaver, from the fly-in reserve of Summer Beaver, Ontario (Nikinamik), awakens a way to understand the birth of Christ from an Aboriginal worldview. Written in English and in Inuktituk, the book is accompanied by a CD, which includes a reading in both languages and a performance of North America’s first carol by Inuit singer Susan Aglukark. Ages 5-10. (For more background on the actual carol see the essay on p. 4.) 


Early Elementary

The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden (1958) and illustrated by Barbara Coone (2006). Another wonderful version is illustrated by Christian Birmingham (2004). A beautiful story of wishing: of an orphan who longs for a doll and a grandmother; of a doll that yearns for a child’s arms around it; and of a lonely policeman’s wife who wants a child. Ages 5-10.

A Certain Small Shepherd by Rebecca Caudill, illustrated by William Pene Du Bois (1997). The poignant story of a young Appalachian boy, born mute, who speaks for the first time ever to a young couple and their newborn baby, who have taken refuge from a blizzard in a nearby church. Ages 6-10.

The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: An Appalachian Story (1988). The Armistice has been declared, but still there is no sign of Ruthie’s father in their little Appalachian town. So, in accordance with the local tradition, it falls to Ruthie and her mother to bring home the perfect Christmas tree to donate to the town. Ages 4-8.

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey (1995) by Susan Wojciechowski, illustrated by P.J. Lynch. Jonathan Toomey is the best woodcarver in the valley, but he is always alone and never smiles. Then one early winter’s day, a widow and her young son approach him with a gentle request that leads to a joyful miracle. Ages 6-10.

Christmas Day in the Morning by Pearl S. Buck (1955) Illustrated by Mark Buehner (2002).

On Christmas Eve, a man recalls the holiday many years ago when he gave his father, a struggling farmer, a most-appreciated gift: the boy rose extra early to do his father’s biggest chore, the milking. Buehner’s inky, starlit winter skies and rustic barn revealed by lantern light transport readers to a hushed and humble setting. Ages 7-10.

The Third Gift by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline (2011). We meet a boy who is learning his father’s trade: harvesting myrrh in the Arabian dessert. Illustrated with exquisite paintings – the portraiture is astounding, this simple, moving tale of ordinary people involved in an extraordinary event bridges the ordinary and the sacred. Ages 4-9.

The Miracle of St Nicholas by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Judith Brown (1997). When Alexi learns from his babushka that his Russian village church has been closed for sixty years, the resourceful young boy decides to prepare it for a Christmas miracle. Beautiful egg tempera illustrations and a heartwarming story. Ages 7-10.


Middle School Chapter Books

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson (1971). The worst children in town manage to wrangle the best roles in the parish Christmas pageant. Hilarious yet rings true. Skip the 1983 TV film but a 2012 audiobook narrated by C.J. Critt is delightful. Samuel French also sells the script, if you wish to dramatize it. Ages 9-12.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, illustrated by Pauline Baynes (1950). Lewis believed that any book worth reading at ten should be worth reading at fifty. So perhaps it is time to (re)read the first book he wrote in his Chronicles of Narnia. It would fit even better thematically in a list of Easter books. But here we enter a land where “it is always winter but never Christmas” until the rightful ruler returns. While some of the cover art has changed over the years, be sure Baynes’ detailed pen and ink illustrations are still inside. Some of her work has been coloured to good effect but cheap editions contain no art at all. Enjoy the 2005 film after you have read the book. Ages 9-12. 

The Story of the Other Wise Man by Henry Van Dyke (1896)

A moving fable of Artaban, a Persian who sold his house and all that he owned and purchased three beautiful jewels (a sapphire, a ruby and a pearl) to present to the newborn King of Israel. On his way to join the wise men, he stops to aid a dying man and is never able to catch up with them. Artaban spends his life helping others, but always seeking Jesus. Ages 9-12


What Child is This? A Christmas Story by Caroline B. Cooney (1997)

Two foster children, Katie and Matt, learn for the first time what Christmas is all about – and yearn to belong to a loving family. A heart-tugging story with an upbeat ending. Showing her flair for adolescent angst, Cooney allows the main characters to speak for themselves, eventually weaving their lives together into a fitting climax.  A moving, fast-paced novel. Ages 11-15   TAP


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