One Night in Bethlehem

One Night in Bethlehem

One Night in Bethlehem
Jill Roman Lord & Paige Keiser
Ideals, 2011

Today’s book is a board book and a touch-and-feel book and a theologically meaningful Christmas story.  Triple whammy for the under-3 age group!

One Night in Bethlehem tells the story of a boy who imagines himself present at the first Christmas.  Here’s how the opening page reads:

Each time I see the manger scene
I try with all my might
to dream of what I might have done
if I’d been there that night.

The boy goes on to explore how he would have reacted to the birth of Christ if he was a lamb, cow, angel, shepherd, star, and wise man.  In each of these roles, he can barely contain his excitement!  He speaks of singing the loudest, running the fastest, and offering the most precious gift he can think of.  I absolutely love how the author makes clear the reality of the Christmas story by helping us imagine ourselves being present – the birth of Christ was a historical event, and we could have been there!  This imagining isn’t just an interesting thought exercise, though, because the boy in the story leads by example in creatively and jubilantly praising God.   This isn’t a sit back and relax kind of book, it’s a kind of book that is going to get you and your children truly excited about Jesus’ birth!

I never thought I’d say that a rhyming touch-and-feel book would lead me into worship, but there you have it.  Needless to say, One Night in Bethlehem is a wonderful choice for the youngest children in your life.  My own son might even find a copy in his stocking this year (shhh!).

Little One, We Knew You’d Come

Little One We Knew You'd Come

Little One, We Knew You’d Come
Sally Lloyd-Jones & Jackie Morris
Little, Brown and Company, 2006

It’s a rare thing to find a book about the birth of Christ that’s an Advent book instead of a Christmas book, by which I mean a book that focuses on the joyful expectancy surrounding the Messiah’s birth.   Most Christmas books for kids, even the majority of the theological ones I’ve seen, tend to skip over all of the waiting and land instead right in the middle of Jesus’ birthday party celebration.  There’s obviously nothing wrong with celebrating Christ’s birth!  But the way that we do so with barely a thought given to the centuries of longing endured by God’s people is perhaps not helpful to our spiritual lives.

Sally-Lloyd Jones to the rescue!  (She’s getting good at that!)  Everything about Little One, We Knew You’d Come makes it a perfect choice for Advent reading.  Its poetry makes clear that the world had been longing and praying for this special baby for quite some time.  The refrain “we knew you’d come” speaks volumes about the trust God’s people have in their ever-faithful God.  The evocative images of Mary and Joseph simultaneously capture feelings of somber yearning and deep peace; their eyes and faces are wrought with meaning.  The text on its own doesn’t actually speak of Jesus (on its own it’s pretty close to what every new parent whispers to their newborn), but the illustrations make perfectly clear which Baby we’re talking about: Christ the Savior has come into the world!

I’d love to find more books that capture the traditional themes of Advent – oh, how I would love to have a book about longing for the Second Advent!   While I wait for that (pun intended), I’m grateful that Sally Lloyd-Jones has ensured that there is at least one great Advent book available to us.  If your family distinguishes between Advent and the 12 Days of Christmas, you’re going to want to check this one out.

The Story of Christmas

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The Story of Christmas
Jane Ray
Puffin, 1998

Lately my 3-year-old daughter and I have been reading everything our library has to offer by Jane Ray.  The Dollhouse Fairy and The Apple Pip Princess are more than delightful (they’re both on her current wish list) and several others that I haven’t seen yet look equally wonderful.  Her stories are incredibly captivating, and – lucky us! – she has also penned several theological books.  Sarah reviewed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden back in 2011, and today I want to share her version of the nativity story with you.

When you’re talking about Jane Ray, it’s hard to know whether to gush first about her storytelling or her artwork.  The Story of Christmas exclusively uses Scripture (KJV) as its text, though, so I’m afraid she doesn’t get the amazing storytelling credit for this one.  The artwork, however, is simply marvelous.  There’s a luminous quality about the images that somehow make this book (and all of her books, really) seem extra special.  There is so much to look at – and yet nothing detracts from the central storyline of the Messiah’s humble birth.  There is also a beautiful juxtaposition of holy and ordinary in many of the scenes.  Mary, for instance, is clearly someone special, but in nearly every scene after Jesus’ birth she is shown breastfeeding.  This depiction is particularly poignant for me as a nursing mama, and I often find myself wondering at the mystery of God incarnate: God was once a baby who needed his mother’s milk as often as my son needs mine.  Amazing.

One of the things I like best about this particular nativity book is that the story doesn’t stop at the birth of Jesus.  Jane Ray uses selected passages from the books of Matthew and Luke, starts at the Annunciation, and follows the biblical account all the way until Mary, Joseph, and Jesus return to Nazareth after their flight to Egypt.  Sometimes nativity stories have an almost fairy-tale like quality to them, but this book makes it clear that the story of Christ’s birth doesn’t start or stop with a baby in a manger.

The Story of Christmas may very well be my very favorite nativity picture book to date, and I hope you’ll be able to track down a copy to share with your family.  Sadly, it’s out of print and used copies aren’t cheap, so it might be a good one to hunt down at the library.  While you’re there, pick up some of Jane Ray’s other books and you’ll take home a treasure trove!

The Little Drummer Boy

Drummer Boy

The Little Drummer Boy
Ezra Jack Keats
Puffin, 2000

We’ve been a bit light on book reviews lately, I know, but I’m hoping to make it up to all of you faithful readers with five posts this week!   Yep, that’s right: come back every day through Friday for reviews of my newest favorite Christmas books.  Sound like a deal?  Advent has been busy this year, so it will be a small miracle if I can pull it off, but I’m very eager to share the stack of books sitting next to me right now so I’m going to give it my best shot.

The first book in line this week is Ezra Jack Keats’ The Little Drummer Boy, which became a favorite of mine over a year ago when I discovered it on our library’s shelves.  It fits perfectly alongside our other Advent and Christmas books because of its artwork as well as its thematic content.

If you’re familiar with Keats’ more famous books like The Snowy Day or Whistle for Willie you already know the appeal of his artwork and how his characters easily engage young children.  Paired with the Christ-honoring lyrics to “The Little Drummer Boy” it’s a winning combination!  In between lots of rum-pa-pum-pums there’s a powerful message awaiting young readers (and singers):

I have no gift to bring
That’s fit to give the King…
I played my drum for him
I played my best for him
Then he smiled at me, me and my drum

This carol really has it all:  Baby Jesus is the King and he deserves our worship.  We ought to joyfully offer him the very best of what we have, even if it seems like a small token, and he is greatly pleased when we do so.  When I read this book  to my daughter I find myself drawn into the little boy’s story.  I feel his momentary sadness when he thinks he has nothing to give and then I share his delight when he realizes he does have something to give the Christ child.  As I turn the last page I always find myself thinking about the nature of worship and about what I have that I can offer to Christ.  The Little Drummer Boy is definitely a book I want my children to know and love, and I bet you’ll feel the same way.

Don’t forget to drop by tomorrow for a review of another beautiful and theologically rich Christmas book!

Glory

GloryGlory
Nancy White Carlstrom and Debra Reid Jenkins
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2001

“Glory be to God for dappled things,” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins in “Pied Beauty,” a paean to the unchanging God who is nevertheless author of “all things original, counter, spare, strange”. Creation, in its dazzling multiplicity, calls us to praise in all our varied ways the one “whose beauty is past change.”

Nancy White Carlstrom’s picture book Glory gives an explicit nod to Hopkins’ poem. Each verse in this short poetic book begins “Glory be to God for — ” and proceeds to describe the wild and amazing profusion of animal life that He created. It’s simple and elegant: birds, sea life, wild animals, pets and farm animals all appear, and we are called to notice how “all creatures by their being praise their Creator’s name.” It’s an appeal to pay attention, to notice God’s glory in the things we think we know – and a reminder that “if these were silent, the very rocks would cry out.”

This is just the sort of book I love to look through with my almost-two-year-old son on my lap. The text is spare, the illustrations are lively and bright — and appropriately enough, dappled. It’s simple but rich, and worth checking out.

Let the Whole Earth Sing Praise

Let the Whole Earth Sing Praise
Tomie DePaola
Putnam Juvenile, 2011

This Christmas my daughter was given a copy of one of Tomie DePaola’s most recent books, called Let the Whole Earth Sing Praise, and after a single reading I knew I wanted to review it here.  It’s a wonder that we haven’t reviewed more of DePaola’s books, actually: he’s written dozens of great books in both theological and non-theological genres.

Let the Whole Earth Sing Praise is a simple, Scripture-inspired book that calls for all of creation, from the sun and moon to people everywhere, to praise the Lord.  Thematically, we’ve already reviewed quite a few books that are similar.  What strikes me about DePaola’s version, though, is how well it would work with a very young child.   The words and illustrations are both simple (though profoundly meaningful) and when you turn the last page you can hardly keep from following the book’s advice and bursting into praise.  In fact, I think that perhaps the ideal reading of this book would be as a final bedtime story for a 2-3 year old, followed by the Doxology or a favorite hymn.

I can’t imagine that most of you aren’t already well acquainted with DePaola’s works of kidlit fiction and theology, but if you’re not – oh my!  Head straight to the nearest library and do yourself a favor by checking out whatever they have, including this one.

We Three Kings

We Three Kings
Gennady Spirin
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2007

As Sarah wrote last week, Epiphany is the season between Christmas and Lent in which Christians through the ages have traditionally pondered Christ’s identity and mission.  So, while I did intend to review this particular book two weeks ago (oops), I gave myself permission to go ahead and review it today because because Epiphany does officially last for another entire month!

So as I was saying… Epiphany is a season in which we are invited to think deeply about Jesus’ identity and mission.  The story of the wise men is one of the traditional texts used as a launching pad for those themes.  And no wonder!  From the wise men, who were certainly Gentiles and probably Arabs, we learn that the good news is for all people everywhere.  From the gifts that they offered to the Christ child, we catch a glimpse of who Jesus is and what the ultimate purpose of the Incarnation is.

We Three Kings is the first true Epiphany book that we’ve shared here on the blog, and let me just say how happy I was to find one that I really like!  I am rather particular about not wanting authors to add non-Biblical details when they write about Biblical stories, and oh boy, books about Epiphany are often driven by such details.  You can imagine my delight when I came across Gennady Spirin’s take on the classic Epiphany carol.  It combines beautiful illustrations with familiar text that actually does a pretty good job of explaining, but not going beyond, the account of the wise men from Matthew 2.  The artwork is perfect for the carol’s text, and I love how the verses explain the meaning of the wise men’s gifts (gold points to Christ’s kingship, frankincense to his deity, and myrrh to his coming sacrificial death).  The last verse, displayed on the final pages of the book, is a fantastic bridge between Christmas and Easter.  There is much here to be pondered, discussed, and just plain enjoyed.

Once upon a time I didn’t like books based on hymn lyrics, but after finding several outstanding examples of them I now deeply appreciate them.  They’re fun to sing together, they give the artwork a chance to really shine, and often there is a richness of language and message that’s absent in other author-created books.  I love that this one includes the refrain after every verse instead of just once; we all know that little kids love repetition and I found that the chorus pages were my daughter’s favorites.  Yes, the angel illustrations (as usual) drive me batty, but you can’t have it all, right?  If you’re weary of Epiphany tales that focus too much on stars or camels, I encourage you to check out We Three Kings.

The Nativity

The Nativity
Julie Vivas
Gulliver Books, 1988

I’ve been thumbing through a handful of nativity story books for the past few weeks, agonizing over which one to review first.  It’s a tough decision (they really are all quite good), but I finally decided on Julie Vivas’ excellent book, The Nativity.

Many nativity books seem to use excerpts of Scripture (usually KJV) as their text, so what sets them apart (or not) is their illustrations.  The Nativity is no exception – Passages from Matthew and Luke form the text and Vivas’ artwork is wonderful!  There are so many different ways to visually represent the Christmas story that I don’t mind having quite a few of them in our collection, but this version is one of my very favorites.

One of the things I love most about this book is how the characters seem so real.  They’re down-to-earth human beings, not people who come across as so entirely different from you and me that we end up having a hard time relating to them.  For instance, Mary looks very large and uncomfortable when she’s 9 months pregnant, and right after she’s given birth she looks like she really needs a nap.

Am I just appreciating those aspects of the book because I happen to be with child at the moment?  Well, maybe.  But even my non-pregnant self would love how Vivas captures the fact that the miracle of the nativity story took place among men and women just like us.  Books like this (as opposed to, say, books where Mary is oddly serene and the shepherds are quintessentially quaint) make me enter into and wonder about the story in a new way.  It points us back to the glory of Emmanuel, God with us.  Us, ordinary people that we are.

Alrighty, now for a few cautions.  First, I do feel the need to mention that baby Jesus is depicted in his full birthday suit on one page, should that bother any potential readers.  I’m also not thrilled with Mary being called Joseph’s wife instead of his betrothed or espoused wife.  And have I mentioned before that I tend to have issues with how angels are illustrated?  I do.  It may just be my own idiosyncrasies coming through, but as much as I like Mary and Joseph being depicted as down-to-earth I’d prefer that angels look a bit more, I don’t know, majestic or something.  No book is perfect, though!  What I love about The Nativity definitely outweighs these few issues, so if you’re looking for a new nativity story to share with your children this is a great one to consider.

In Your Own Words

A couple of weeks ago I had a wonderful conversation with a friend about what kinds of theological books work well with 2 1/2 year olds.  I mentioned that we weren’t having luck yet with The Big Picture Story Bible and I was wondering if she had any suggestions for Bible story books that resonated with her three children when they were my daughter’s current age.

She reminded me of Read Aloud Bible Stories (which, for some odd reason, I hadn’t yet introduced), but then the conversation turned from the topic of books to the topic of storytelling.  My friend suggested, especially at this young age, not relying exclusively on books to teach children the stories of the Bible.  Instead, she encouraged me to tell my daughter Bible stories in my own words.

My first reaction was theological anxiety: what if I got it wrong?!  I wouldn’t want to mess up my daughter’s understanding of God just because my own biblical literacy isn’t quite up to par with that of a professional scholar.  From my perspective, one of the beauties of books is that I can pre-read them and give them some thought before sharing them.  If the book is a winner, I can just sit down and (without worry) enjoy the reading experience with my daughter.  Telling Bible stories in my own words seems like it would require accuracy in and depth of biblical knowledge – not to mention quite a bit of skill in the art of storytelling.

Or does it?

When I related my worries to my friend, she said I had misunderstood her suggestion.   She didn’t want me to think about telling Bible stories in my own words as formal theological education at all.  Instead, she was encouraging me to share my love of God to my daughter directly from my heart to hers.  She was encouraging me to tell her in my own words what it is about Jesus that moves me and makes me want to follow him.  “What do you love about Jesus?” she asked me.  “What do you think of when you think of  him?”  Those are the kinds of storytelling prompts that she thinks are most helpful.

The more that I think about this conversation, the more I’m convinced that my friend is right.  After all, we can’t theologically educate anyone into the Kingdom.  Following Christ isn’t just about believing all the right things in your mind.  Your heart has to be inclined to the beauty of the Trinity, too, and letting children catch a glimpse of what that looks like in your life has got to be one of the best ways to inspire that trait in them.   (Well, that and a lot of prayer!)  It’s not that right theology doesn’t matter; not at all.  It’s just that if we start to think about Christian education just in terms of a transfer of theological facts, we’re probably veering off course just a bit.

If any of you have experience in storytelling with your kids (particularly in reference to spiritual things), please comment and share your wisdom with us!  Once I’ve gotten more practice in it I’ll be sure to report back, but I’d love to learn from you all.  I’m particularly curious about any differences in children’s responses or follow-up discussions to reading Bible storybooks than to hearing you speak in your own words from your heart.

All Things Bright and Beautiful

All Things Bright and Beautiful
Ashley Bryan (and Cecil Francis Alexander)
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010

For some strange reason, it took me a long time to warm up to the idea of songs-as-picture-books.  Earlier this year, though, I found one that I loved, which made me think that maybe there might just be a few others out there that are worth checking out.  And I was right!   Last week Sarah reviewed a song-book and today I’ve got another one to share.

All Things Bright and Beautiful, unsurprisingly, is a book illustrated to the text of the hymn by the same name.  (Note that two verses of the verses are left out.  One of them is left out for good reason: check out the complete lyrics to see what I mean.)  It’s a lovely hymn, and one that is very appropriate for young children who are beginning to notice and be enthralled by nature.

The artwork in this book is done entirely in paper collage, and the pages are great fun to pore over.  Bright colors, attention to detail, and a variety of textures will surely make this book a favorite of many children.  In addition, if you or your children are inclined to creating your own artwork, I’m guessing that it will make you want to pull out some scissors and colored paper to try paper cutting and collage for yourself.  (If you do, send me a picture!)

My favorite line in the book is the last stanza of the hymn: “He gave us eyes to see them, and lips that we might tell, how great is God Almighty, who has made all things well.”   What great fodder for discussion – and what a beautiful way to pray for our children.  May we all see creation as the handiwork of God and have mouths that would freely praise him for his creativity and grandeur!