a list of…five worthy versions of the nativity story

What makes a “worthy” version of the story of Jesus’ birth, for me?  Two things:  text and illustrations that adequately reflect the reality and wonder of this event.  Here’s my point:  Do we use little talking mice to tell the story of Martin Luther King, Jr.?  Do Precious Moments children make the march to the sea with Ghandi in our picture books?  Yet boatloads of nativity stories feature talking donkeys, blonde, plastic children, and, pardon me, really sappy text, to describe an event which, if true, is utterly stunning.  Here are five versions of the Biblical account, then, which, from my viewpoint,  don’t diminish the story:

One Wintry Night, by Ruth Bell Graham, illustrated by Richard Jesse Watson

The lengthiest and most thorough book on my list was written by Ruth Bell Graham, wife of Billy Graham, and devotes only two of its eleven chapters to the actual Christmas story.

The book is set as the story of a young boy, caught in a sudden snowstorm in the Smoky Mountains, who shelters in the beautiful log home of a kind, older woman.  While he waits out the storm, she offers to tell him the Christmas story.  She begins by recalling that when the angels came to the shepherds, they called the baby Jesus a “Savior,” which means “rescuer.”  So, she concludes, someone must have needed rescuing.  Who?  She proceeds to set the account of Jesus’ birth in its historical context, jumping all the way back to the story of Creation, the Garden of Eden, and the casting out of Adam and Eve, whom she calls the world’s first homeless people.  Graham then highlights other relevant Old Testament stories, always relating them to the coming rescuer. 

Finally, she fits in the Christmas story, and then, in answer to the boy’s question of how a baby could rescue the world, she continues on with the story of Easter, thus completing the Christian view of the significance of Jesus’ birth.

Richard Jesse Watson’s illustrations for this book are stunning.  Truly, his visual interpretation of these stories and his incredible attention to detail, are nothing less than amazing.  From his gorgeous, multiracial Adam, Eve, and Angel, to his warm stable scene with a young, Jewish Mary, to his resplendent vision of the hosts of angels appearing to the shepherds, these are perspectives you’ve rarely seen painted so effectively. 

This is a book that can be appreciated by a wide range of ages, taken a bit at a time rather than in one sitting.  A beautiful work of art obviously undertaken by both author and artist with love and care, in our family we try to read this through each year.. 

The First Christmas, by Robbie Trent, pictures by Marc Simont

On the opposite end of the spectrum, this is the shortest book on my list, just right for the very youngest listeners.

I was attracted to this title by the illustrator’s name, as Marc Simont is one of my favorite illustrators.  In this book, published in 1948, Simont gives us very, very simple pictures to match the exceedingly simple text.  However, despite the book’s simplicity, it does not lack in artistry.

Rather than narrating a story, each page in this text simply tells us what is pictured.  “This is Mary,” reads page one, and the next page continues, “This is the donkey that Mary rode to Bethlehem.”  Short and to the point, each page is just one quiet sentence long.

Simont’s illustrations are elegant and quiet as well; small cameos in hushed tones set in the creamy white pages.  They aren’t cutesy.  They aren’t vibrant.  They aren’t full of detail.  But they are dignified little portrayals of one concept at at time which I believe respect the reader and the story.  Sized for small hands, this book is, in my estimation, a lovely version for toddlers.

Away in a Manger: Paintings of the Nativity by Boys and Girls Around the World

In the early 1960s, a group called the World Council of Christian Education set up a Children’s Art Project in which they collected paintings of Bible stories done by children around the world.  These paintings were exhibited to wide acclaim in various places, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Junior Museum. 

This book tells the nativity story basically by quoting phrases from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible:  “And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”  Very familiar lines, and nicely, just left to speak for themselves.

The glorious part of this book is the awesome artwork done by children ages 5-13 from all over the world — Holland and India, Japan, Sweden and Uruguay, Nigeria, Austria and the U.S., are all represented here.  Intriguing, exceptional, exciting, colorful, multicultural perspectives on each of the elements in the story fill the pages.  This is not cheesy stuff.  These are earnest, uninhibited pieces of art by experienced and inexperienced artists.  Fascinating, inspiring…I really like this book.  Unfortunately, I am sure it is tricky to find, but I definitely recommend keeping an eye out for this one.

The Story of Christmas, retold and illustrated by Felix Hoffmann

Felix Hoffmann was a Swiss artist who illustrated a number of picture books.  Wonderfully, he did not skimp on artistry when he did his work for children. 

In this book, Hoffmann’s text basically follows the traditional Biblical account, though he retells it in his own words,  making a few alterations.  Hoffmann includes the account of King Herod’s rage and the slaughter of the infants of Bethlehem, the escape to Egypt of Jesus and his parents, and their eventual return to Nazareth.  Everything is told very clearly, in a straightforward manner.

In keeping with the dignified story, Hoffmann provides outstanding, non-saccharine, graphically appealing illustrations.  The pictures have a roughness of texture, a simplicity of color, and a uniqueness of look and perspective, which are very appealing to me.  While the tone of the pictures is consistent, Hoffmann does not attempt to seamlessly place these events in an ancient world.  For example, Caesar Augustus’ proclamation features an obviously Roman guard standing amid very mid-Eastern architecture, while the opening picture of Mary shows her sitting in a short-sleeve shirt on a rush-seated, wooden chair.  The hardscrabble crowd of people preventing Mary’s stay at the inn, is in contrast with a stable which seems to have Swiss overtones  — wooden planks and glass-chimney candle lantern. And…surprise!  The wise men are on horseback! 

I find the complexity of Hoffmann’s illustrations deeply satisfying, in marked contrast with the proliferation of cartoon-esque illustrations lining the shelves of bookstores just now; I much prefer the wonder and mystique and Eastern flavor of Hoffman’s work.  This is a favorite version of mine.

The Christmas Pageant, retold and illustrated by Jacqueline Rogers

I’m quite sure  this would win the vote for Swanson Kids’ Favorite Nativity Story.

The text in this book, again, is a fairly straightforward re-telling of the Biblical account.  For example, “At first Mary was troubled by the angel’s greeting.  But he went on, ‘Fear not, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  You have been chosen to be the mother of His son.  You shall name him Jesus.  He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest, and of his kingdom there shall be no end.'” 

Happily, at appropriate points of the story, Christmas carols are inserted, including the music, written for piano.  There are 6 in all, including O Little Town of Bethlehem (when Mary and Joseph arrive there) and Hark, The Herald Angels Sing (when the angels greet the shepherds.)

The genius of this book is that the illustrations unfold a Christmas pageant, being enacted by the children of a small, snowy, rural town.  The pageant will take place in a large, red barn, and the opening pictures show us the dress rehearsal — children busy painting backdrops, cows and sheep being led in, hems being pinned up, and…a  “Baby Jesus” full of monkeyshine, arriving in his snowsuit and creating a bit of pandemonium!  As the story progresses, the time morphs into the evening performance.  Wool-coated-and- mufflered parents and grandparents crowd the folding chairs to watch the cleverly costumed and directed performance, culminating in a grand grouping around the manger of the whole cast. 

Does “Baby Jesus” come through in the end and cooperate?  You’ll  have to read to find out.

Captivating, charming pictures of very realistic children and their consumately patient director never fail to make us smile.  We do love this story.

Here’s what I could find on Amazon:
One Wintry Night
The First Christmas (1990)
The Story of Christmas: A Picture Book
Christmas Pageant