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!

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.

Song of the Stars

Song of the Stars: A Christmas Story
Sally Lloyd-Jones and Alison Jay
Zonderkidz, 2011

Last weekend, I had the treat of actually getting to visit with Haley in person, over the Thanksgiving holiday, at our lake place. The kids were with their grandmothers, and we got to have a long conversation. And of course, on the table, was a huge stack of books!

As we paged through a number of Christmas books and Nativity re-tellings, we lamented the fact that so few of them connect with the larger story of Jesus. There’s a huge demand for Christmas books this time of year, of course, and shelves full of lavishly illustrated stables and shepherds. But few if any bother to place the familiar story within the amazing, cosmic context that the Gospel writers do. (Christian writers and artists: that’s a hint and a plea!)

Then I came home, and found Sally Lloyd-Jones’ newest book, Song of the Stars, waiting for me at the library. And it is a beautiful example of what we were looking for. Hooray!

The book opens far from Bethlehem, as woodland creatures and snow-bound landscapes prick their ears and announce, “It’s time! It’s time!” All of nature, across the entire planet, knows that something enormous is about to happen, and each part of creation joyfully celebrates: “Wild stallions drummed it to the ground…’Get ready! Get ready! Be glad! Be glad!'”  The lion announces the Prince of Peace; the stars sing of the Bright and Morning Star; the sheep joyfully whisper to their lambs that the Good Shepherd is come.

I so love the deeply biblical recognition of exactly who this baby is, and the acknowledgment of his lordship over all creation by creation itself. My husband and I have been studying Isaiah during Advent, and I’ve been particularly struck by the prophet’s contrast of “dumb” nature – which knows its Creator – and Judah, which thinks it can thrive apart from God.  In Song of the Stars, the animals are shown streaming up to the stable in a scene that immediately brought to my mind both Isaiah 1:3 and 2:2-3. And then:

The animals stood around his bed. And the whole earth and all the stars and sky held its breath…”The One who made us has come to live with us!”

I absolutely love this book: the text itself, the art, the deeply biblical and rich depiction of Incarnation. It’s simple enough to read to a three year old, and beautiful enough to make a grownup want to read it again and again. Possibly tearfully, if you’re like me. If you’re looking for a Christmas book that takes the Incarnation seriously and joyfully, this is it. It will be showing up under our tree, and probably under the trees of our family and friends, too!*

*sorry to those loved ones for whom I just blew the surprise!

The Christmas Troll

The Christmas Troll
Eugene Peterson & Will Terry
NavPress, 2004

Christmas is about the Incarnation; we all know that.  But I’m going to venture a guess that gift-giving is part of how your family celebrates Christmas Day.  My family does, at least, and I think it’s a perfectly fine tradition.  As we reflect in gratitude on the Father’s extravagant love in sending his Son for us, it seems right to express our own love for family, friends, and neighbors in tangible ways.

Of course, gifts can become the exclusive focus of Christmas Day (or even the entire month), and we would do well to avoid that pitfall.  With the right perspective, though, giving and receiving gifts can be a very meaningful part of a Christ-centered celebration.  Lucky for us, several years ago Eugene Peterson wrote a book that creatively articulates for children a sort of theology of gift-receiving.  Even luckier for us, the book is masterfully illustrated by artist Will Terry.

The Christmas Troll tells the story of a brother and sister duo who run away from home because their parents won’t let them open any of their presents before Christmas morning.  They escape to a nearby forest and end up meeting, to their surprise, a troll. First, they’re scared out of their wits (well, at least the big brother is).  Then they notice how very ugly the troll is .  In the end, though, he turns out to be quite a nice chap who shows them a good time and in the process turns their attitudes upside down.

As they enjoy the troll’s company the siblings realize the truth of their parents insistence that gifts are not for “grabbing and getting,” but that the best gifts are surprises that are freely given and joyfully accepted.  Here’s my favorite line in the book:

It’s wise to live life expectantly, alert to the surprises of God.

It’s a message that’s clearly ripe for Advent and Christmas.  We need to know how to think rightly about how receiving gifts, not just from one another but also from God.  It’s right to expect that God will give us good gifts, but our posture toward him should never be demanding.  Our attitudes should reflect deep gratitude for his grace, not self-entitlement.

In addition, Peterson wants to help us realize that sometimes God’s gifts don’t look quite like we expect them to.  If we have a very particular definition of what constitutes a good gift, we are going to miss out on many of God’s gifts because we might not recognize them as a gift at all.  Each of us could tell of things in our lives that, like the troll, we almost failed to recognize because our eyes weren’t open to the surprises of God.  Essentially, that’s what this story is about: opening our eyes to God’s surprising gifts.   The beauty of it is the way it can equally teach us about God’s way of working in our lives, Jesus (who was and is unrecognized by many), and how to graciously receive a funky gift from a relative.  I warmly commend it to your family.

Voices of Christmas

Voices of Christmas
Nikki Grimes & Eric Velasquez
Zonderkidz, 2009

Sarah and I have been reviewing theological kidlit for nearly 1 1/2 years now, and we’ve gotten to the point where we have to search a bit harder to find new titles to share with you all.  That is, except for during this time of year!  But while there may be no shortage of children’s Christmas books, it can be tricky to uncover the truly excellent ones. Voices of Christmas is, in my opinion, one worth owning.

There are only a handful of authors who have more than one book we’ve reviewed, and included in that list is today’s author, Nikki Grimes.  I love the way she writes: her words are carefully chosen, truthful, and artful.  As we pointed out in our reviews of When Daddy Prays and At Jerusalem’s Gate, she captures reality beautifully without sugar-coating or sentimentalizing it.  Her contribution to Christmas kidlit is no different.

Voices of Christmas is unique among Christmas books in several ways.  First, it’s more of a series of connected episodes than a seamless narrative.  Every spread features a different character from the early chapters of Matthew and Luke speaking in first person about the events that are transpiring.  A corresponding line from Scripture runs across the top of the page.  The first person perspective is one of my favorite things about the book, actually, because of the way it draws me in and invites me to wonder what it really would have been like to be someone who was there when Christ was born.

This book is also unique in that it includes more characters than the typical Nativity retelling.  The central characters are there, of course, but so are Gabriel, Elizabeth and Zechariah, a neighbor, the innkeeper, Anna, Simeon, and Herod.  Including more characters in the book somehow makes it seem more real than a book that just zooms in on the manger scene and then backs away just as quickly.  Matthew and Luke’s accounts give us more context than that, and I appreciate Grimes’ decision to do the same.

Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention Eric Velasquez’s outstanding illustrations.  His paintings of the biblical characters allow the complexities of their emotions come through and make them seem real (as they are).

If your family is looking for a unique Advent devotional this year, Voices of Christmas might be just the book to consider.  There are 15 episodes, so if you read one every 2-3 days starting the first Sunday of Advent you’d finish right in time for Christmas.  It’s not technically a devotional, but I think it would shine if used in that way.

Dangerous Journey


Dangerous JourneyDangerous Journey

arranged by Oliver Hunkin, illus. Alan Parry
Eerdmans, 1985

It’s almost upon us, friends. Advent begins in less than two weeks, and here at Aslan’s Library we’ve been thinking about books and resources your family might want to use during the upcoming season of waiting and preparation. And let’s face it, most of us are thinking about what we might want to present our children with during our Christmas celebrations, too.

For each of those purposes, let me heartily recommend Dangerous Journey, a version of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress that has been illustrated and abridged for children. Some of you may remember it from your own childhoods: my father-in-law used to read it to my husband and his siblings at bedtime. It has stood the test of time, and is simply wonderful for reading aloud as a family or for older, more advanced readers to explore on their own.

The text itself is Bunyan’s, selected and abridged into short episodes. It retains, then, all of Bunyan’s wit, earnestness, and the careful crafting of phrase that have made the original book such a landmark in English literature. It is the allegory (or “dream,” as Bunyan described it) of the pilgrim Christian and his journey to the Celestial City, and all of the perils that attend him along the way.

For those of you who have never read Pilgrim’s Progress, it is first and foremost an adventure story. Christian’s passage to blessedness leads through the Slough of Despond, the Doubting Castle, Vanity Fair, the Palace Beautiful, and the Valley of the Shadow of Death. There is mortal combat, great beasts, unreliable guides, giants, escapes from captivity, unlooked-for friends, and narrow escapes. And my favorite allegorical character ever, Mr. Worldly-Wiseman. It’s a wonderful presentation of the Christian life as one of danger, excitement, watchfulness, and providential care. And the scene in which Christian passes through the River of Death – over which there is no bridge – is so immensely moving and theologically rich. This is one book that will bear many re-readings in your family.

The text is accompanied by wonderfully witty illustrations. Bunyan himself was a nonconformist who served in the Parliamentary army during the English Civil War; my inner history nerd took great glee in the portrayal of Christian and Hopeful in austere Puritan dress, while the unsavory characters are all corrupt and decaying Cavaliers. In addition the illustrations manage to convey the mood and spirit of each episode: Vanity Fair is bustling and distracting, and the Palace Beautiful exudes peace and repose. The images of the fight with Apollyon and the Valley of the Shadow of Death may be too scary for small or sensitive children.

This is a large-format, sturdy picture book that would make a handsome Advent gift for your family: just as we journey through the darkening days towards the light that dawns at Christmas, we can journey along with Christian towards the Celestial City. Or, if you have an older child, this would make wonderful devotional reading.

Did you read Dangerous Journey as a child? Have you read Pilgrim’s Progress? Any other abridged or illustrated versions that you would recommend?

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve
Carole Taylor & Lezle Williams
Gibbs Smith, 2010

My husband and I have been part of three different church small groups since we’ve been married.  The second of those groups had a tradition of holding a Christmas party every December, and the highlight of the party (to me, at least) was always the Lessons and Carols service we did.   For those of you unfamiliar with Lessons and Carols, it’s a simple service of Scripture readings interspersed with Christmas hymns.  The readings tell the story of the Fall, the promise of the Messiah, and the Incarnation – and there is opportunity to worship through song after each passage is read.

Christmas Eve is a sort of do-it-yourself version of a Lessons and Carols service. Pages alternate between Scripture (KJV) passages, beautiful engravings, and familiar carols.  The musical score is included for each song, but since we don’t have a piano and my husband and I aren’t the world’s greatest a capella singers, I burned a CD that we can play when it’s time to sing.

Lezle Williams’ black and white engravings are striking and inviting of contemplation. Even though they probably won’t appeal as much to a preschooler as, say, Christmas Is Here, I still think that it has a strong place in a family library.  After all, it’s good to give children the chance to respond to beauty in its many forms.  We won’t know what speaks to them until we try lots of different things!

The main content difference between Christmas Eve and the traditional Lessons and Carols format is that this book only includes texts from the Gospels instead of also using texts from Genesis and Isaiah.  The 9 carols are all familiar, and most of you probably already have recordings of all of the songs in your stash of Christmas tunes.

Our family is planning to use this wonderful clothbound book as the template for our own Christmas Eve service on those years we’re unable to attend our church because of travel or weather.  On the years when we spend Christmas elsewhere, we might even read it the evening before we head on the road so we can celebrate Christ’s birth as an immediate family before joining to celebrate with our extended families.  It would be great to have on hand if you’re hosting a Christmas party, too!  Whether you think you’ll read it as a family or small group, Christmas Eve is one of those books that will surely become a much-loved tradition.