a list of…five poetic versions of the Nativity

This year, I again went searching for accounts of the Nativity which present the events with artistic excellence.      I thought I might not find five more to add to the blog, but happily, I was wrong.  Here, then, are five poetic glimpses of the Nativity.  You can find more lists of favorite Nativity stories from previous years here and here.  Enjoy!

Who Built the Stable? A Nativity Poem written and illustrated by Ashley Bryan

The stable where Jesus was born is a central piece of the story, of course.  In this poem, Ashley Bryan wonders aloud about who built it, and imagines a possible scenario.  He ascribes the work to a shepherd boy who has been apprenticed to a carpenter.  This small shepherd knows his animals need shelter, and as a carpenter, he sets to work to provide that.  So it is that when Joseph and Mary arrive in need of a refuge, he is able to offer them his stable.  Bryan beautifully concludes his poem by drawing a comparison between this gentle shepherd-carpenter, and the  small baby who would grow to be a carpenter and shepherd as well.

Ashley Bryan is one of our most beloved illustrators, and here his work again sings with his signature exuberant color and line.  Bryan tells us that the inspiration for this book came to him “while riding through the hills of Africa,” and he dedicates the book to the Kopanang Women’s Group of Embroiderers in South Africa, so it is only natural that he sets the story in an African landscape as well.  It’s deeply satisfying to see an alternative to the heavily-European sense of so much Christmas material,  a gorgeous counterweight to all those oh-so-fair-haired baby Jesuses.  Tangible joy pulses in these pages.  I bet many of you will fall in love with this one.

Little One, We Knew You’d Come, by Sally Lloyd-Jones, illustrated by Jackie Morris

The anticipation of birth is the focus of this quiet story.  Mary is recollecting the days of waiting and longing, the night when she knew this birth was imminent, the moment when she greeted her tiny baby, the rejoicing and enjoyment of him, and the sweet remembrance year after year of those events.  These are presented in brief snatches of thought.

Mary’s words do not actually mention anything uniquely tied to this birth.  Her musings could be shared by millions of mothers about their own babies and births over time.  In this way, Lloyd-Jones reminds us of what is universal and familiar in the birth of Jesus.  Meanwhile, Jackie Morris’ gorgeous watercolor paintings, accented with gold leaf, set the story firmly in Bethlehem, with a trek across desert lands, a rough stable, majestic angels, hurrying shepherds, and caravans of wise men.  I especially love her bulky figures of Mary with child, her face marked with weariness and lost in thought, and the very newborn look of Jesus, the postures of those who hold and greet him.  Really beautiful interpretations.  There’s lots more I’d love to say about her exquisite work, but you just need to see it for yourself and turn the pages s-l-o-w-l-y.  At any rate, it’s an interesting juxtaposition of word and illustration.

Some books require a bit more out of the listener; I’d recommend this one especially for 4-years and up who are able to engage with these maternal contemplations.  Others may need something with a bit more of a storyline.

This is the Stable, by Cynthia Cotten, illustrated by Delana Bettoli

Here the familiar story is told in a modified accumulative story.  I say modified because I was so very happy and relieved that Cotten  breaks up the numbing repetitiveness that often occurs in these house-that-Jack-built riffs; I confess I tire of these easily, so if you’re anything like me and tend to avoid accumulative stories, fear not.  This one is very nice.  Cotten’s text strikes a wonderfully pleasing balance between the repetition children love, and some just-right variation.

Page by page we meet the stable, star, cow and donkey, Mary and Joseph, shepherds, angels, wise men, and baby Jesus, all introduced in satisfying couplets.  The text is written with simple, genial, warmth.  At the same time, Delana Bettoli’s arresting illustrations will guarantee no one wants to turn the page ahead of time!  So, so beautiful!  Radiating, jewel-like hues, stunning faces and skin tones, grandeur and mystery,  homely tenderness… it’s all packed into these pictures.

This is a beautifully-crafted book that I think would be hugely appealing to young children, ages 2 or 3 and up.

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

Beginning with the quiet, icy beauty of a northern Christmastime scene, where snowflakes drift and twirl and twilight settles early, Ryan reminds us that the first Christmas in Bethlehem was nothing like this.  Instead, desert sands and Mideastern architecture, dusty robes and heaps of straw were the setting, and the quiet, young mother was greeted generally by quiet, humble people, though above the earth, angels sang.

This is another very simple story.  It is written like free verse, in short, evocative sentences.  In that way it resembles Lloyd-Jones’ book, yet this is more accessible to children, in my opinion.  I love the way it quietly brings our attention to the realities of that first Christmas.  Dennis Nolan’s watercolors are fantastic.  His version of a young Mary is incredibly poignant, as well as the snowy wonderlands in the opening pages, the sun-baked streets of Bethlehem, the purple starlit skies…the entire book conveys an awed hush.   I do love this one.

Song of the Camels: A Christmas Poem, by Elizabeth Coatsworth, illustrated by Anna Vojtech

Elizabeth Coatsworth is known to many of you as one of the most talented children’s poets and authors.  In this brief poem, she narrates the journey of the camels bearing the wise men.  The tone of the poem is noble, exotic, hushed, as these great beasts stride  across the vast, silent desert sands.  We feel the Oriental splendor, the other-ness that characterizes these austere visitors.  We sense their worshipfulness, their humility before this small child.  We gaze after them as they exit the land and disappear into anonymity.  The poem ends with a veiled foreshadowing of the future of this child, at once glorious and dangerous.

That’s a lot to pack into a brief poem, but Coatsworth is a brilliant poet and her evocative words accomplish this beautifully.  Be assured — there is no sing-song here!

Anna Vojtech’s oil paintings exquisitely capture the story line and textures of the poem.  Luminous golden sands, marked by emptiness; vast midnight skies, strewn with distant stars; regal robes and trappings; doting Mary and Joseph.  Overall there is a great stillness to this book, and a sense that we are off-stage, watching an enormously intriguing drama play out before us.

Accessible to preschoolers, this book is wonder-filled for any of us with a moment to be quiet and ponder.

Here are Amazon links for these poetic treatments of the Nativity story:

Who Built the Stable?: A Nativity Poem
Little One, We Knew You’d Come
This Is the Stable
There Was No Snow on Christmas Eve
Song of the Camels