a list of…five glimpses of the Nativity Story

Last year I published five of our longtime, favorite Nativity stories which you can see via this link.  This year I went looking for some new titles.  When I look for stories of the Nativity, I look for dignified, artistic portrayals, fitting for a monumental, historical event.  I skip over cartoon drawings and talking donkeys, and steer clear of cutesy, little, blond angels who don’t look like they would frighten a flea let alone a grown, Jewish shepherd.   Here are five fantastic books I found, all of which easily passed muster.

Christmas Is Here, words from the King James Bible, illustrated by Lauren Castillo

This lovely book begins with a few wordless pages as we walk through a pleasant, little neighborhood with a young family to visit a live nativity scene.  Standing next to a tall, stained-glass church,  the simple, wooden stable seems to kneel, quietly, in the snowfall.  The little girl is drawn especially to admire the sweetly sleeping baby…

…and thus we spin off to the Christmas story, with text from the King James Version of the Bible.  We see the shepherds tending their sheep in the night-softened, bleak hills, when suddenly the sky is seared with the blinding radiance of an angel.  Having heard his message, the shepherds run to the manger to find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, sleeping in a manger.

As the brief, Biblical account wraps up, Castillo switches back to view the snowy, neighborhood, where a comfortable huddle of people have arrived at the nativity scene, standing together in a wondering hush under a shining moon.

Tying together the modern experience of this child, and the Biblical story, in a seamless, uncluttered, beautiful story looks simple , but that is because of Lauren Castillo’s genius!  Her artwork, described as ink, watercolor, and acetone transfer, is incredibly appealing — friendly, soft, modern scenes with just enough muted colors to create a holiday feel without any frenzy, and handsome, Bethlehem landscapes rich with hush and awe, with a gentle, warm similarity between the two stable settings.  I love this book.  Perfect for toddlers and up.

The Third Gift, by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline

In the scrubby, arid land of the Arabian Peninsula, live a boy and his father, who collect tears.  Not real tears, but tears of pearly-resin that seep out of myrrh trees under their expert care.  They sell the little bubbles of precious sap in the spice market for good money, for myrrh has many uses –it can cure a headache, flavor wine, and most importantly, honor the dead.

One day, the pair rejoice to find an unusually large tear.  When they take it to the market some weeks later, they are hailed by a spice merchant.  He has visitors in his tent,  looking for an extravagant gift.  When these three, wealthy, foreign men see the beautiful tear of myrrh, they purchase it, adding it to other gifts of gold and frankincense.  These rich gifts, they say, are meant for a baby.

The young boy is puzzled at such a strange gift.  Costly funeral ointment — for a baby?  Yet as he watches the three men mount their camels and ride off across the harsh desert, he feels pleased that their tear is part of the lavish present.

This brief, historical fiction account of the magi of the East, and the humble father and son who supplied them with myrrh, is written by one of my favorite authors, Linda Sue Park.  Many of you have read her Newbery-winning novel, A Single Shard, and know how meticulously she crafts her words.  The illustrations are by another fabulous artist, Bagram Ibatoulline, who has illustrated many books for children, bringing to his paintings a sophisticated, gorgeous style.  These photographically-realistic faces, and the splendid textures and colors of the parched landscape and exotic Arabian marketplace, are stunning.

A lengthy Author’s Note includes intriguing background on the historical record of the Magi’s visit, the use of myrrh in ancient times, and the treatment of this story by other artists.  This splendid book could be enjoyed by kindergarteners, yet has been exclaimed over by each of my highschool students and adult friends who has seen it.  It is that fabulous.

One Starry Night, by Lauren Thompson, illustrated by Jonathan Bean

Beneath a sliver of moon, in the bare, rocky desert, numerous mothers are caring for their young.  A sheep, an ox, a dog…all watch over their young ones.  On this starry night, there is another young one being cared for — a newborn babe.  Mary and Joseph watch over him.   So much love, from all these mothers.  So much love coming into the world, with the birth of this baby.

This is a marvelously simple story.  Each page shows us another mother with her young, and echos the same words.  Meanwhile, the lines of a gentle lullaby peep into the pages, bit by bit, concluding on the very last page of the book.  The sweet, and straightforward, words remind us of the love and care surrounding and originating with the birth of Jesus.

Jonathan Bean, a new-ish and amazingly talented artist, complements the text with delightfully original illustrations.   First, all of the animals named in the text, are drawn as they would have existed as native species in that time and place.  No domesticated, tabby cats; but a mother cheetah and her kitten.  No plump, pink pigs; but a wild boar with her piglet.  If that doesn’t add enough vigor to the scenes, Bean illustrates them in an almost cubist style, his geometric-leaning forms creating a bold, wild countryside.  Colored in starlight-gray, dusty-brown, shadow-black, with glints of white, this is a quiet, strong, earthy picture of a landscape where the real birth of Jesus took place.

Great to share with a preschooler, providing intriguing, new information for inquisitive minds. 

There Was No Snow on Christmas Eve, by Pam Muñoz Ryan, illustrated by Dennis Nolan

In beautiful, lyrical, lines, Ryan contrasts the experience of Christmas in the snowy mountains of New England, with the environment of the real, first Christmas in Bethlehem.  There were no “snowflakes in a flurry dance” there, but instead warm desert winds; no woolen caps and scarves, but flaxen robes and sandals; no comfy, downy quilts for a newborn, but straw.

Spare on words, yet packed with rich, colorful images and textures, the story moves us serenely through the landscape, into Bethlehem’s streets, and right up close to the newly born baby, a tiny person whose birth made angels sing.

Dennis Nolan’s gorgeous watercolors carry us from the purple-cold twilight of a snowy December among muffled forests and icy brooks, to a sun-baked land of palm trees, barefoot children, wrinkly-kneed camels.  The details — shimmering oasis and exotic tassled camel-harness;  the light — sun streaming on brick courtyards, stars twinkling in violet darkness;  and above all the thoughtful face of a young, quiet girl named Mary, are really beautiful.  It’s a lovely, poetic read for kindergarteners and up.

Listen to the Silent Night, by Dandi Daley Mackall, paintings by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher

If the quiet tone of some of these selections doesn’t match your child’s enthusiasm, this may be the book for you.

For, it wasn’t actually such a silent night, after all!  A night owl calls, Joseph’s sandals flap, horses belonging to Roman soldiers neigh, cows moo, roosters crow, angels sing, Mary groans, newborn Baby Jesus cries (contrary to the well-known lyrics)…there was clearly a lot of sound surrounding the miraculous Christmas night.

Each page of this book features one pleasantly-rhyming verse, describing one or more noise-makers on Christmas night.  The sounds and motions described provide great opportunity for wiggle-worms to join in.  In fact, with its clever repetition, imaginative sounds, and satisfying rhythms, this seems like a book which would be readily learned, and recited by children after a few readings.

Johnson and Fancher have provided brilliant,  lush, gem-toned paintings of the familiar Bethlehem scenes, with an emphasis on warmth, beauty, tenderness.  A starlit, amethyst expanse, resembling the shimmery crystals of a kaleidoscope, is the backdrop for a humble journey by donkey through the jostling streets of Bethlehem.  A weary Mary is surrounded by sweet, gentle animals, and a doting Joseph.  A glorious, golden, host of angels greets colorfully-garbed shepherds.  And a very sweet baby nestles in a soft bed (okay, there’s hay, too) to close.  It looks to me like they have used actual fabric pieces to add visual detail on the clothing; whatever the medium, it is a nice touch.   This is a very pretty book, with a sweet familiarity to the illustrations that everyone will enjoy.

Here are Amazon links to these five outstanding stories of the Nativity:

Christmas Is Here

The Third Gift

One Starry Night

There Was No Snow On Christmas Eve

Listen to the Silent Night