Christmas wordsong…a list of five rich and lovely poetry books for your holidays

manger cover imageManger, poems selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins, illustrations by Helen Cann
published in 2014 by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

An old legend imagines that midnight of Christmas-Eve brings the gift of speech to animals. If that were true, what might they say?

Iridescent-feathered rooster and wool-thick sheep, dappled horse and marmalade cat, itsy mouse, sleek dog, bulky cow, downy wren …all greet the Baby in the manger in this elegant collection of poems. An old owl and some swishy fish, a spider,  llama, goat, and  donkey join in, too, heralding, wondering, welcoming, soothing, some so struck with awe, they can hardly set thoughts to word despite this miraculous hour.

Sheep's Whisper amy ludwig vanderwater illustration helen cann

These short and very-short poems sparkle with wonder, each one exquisitely crafted by a talented poet, some commissioned just for this book by editor Lee Bennett Hopkins. Each can be appreciated by a child as young as 2, yet appeal to adults as well.

The illustrations by UK artist Helen Cann are stunning, composed of rich, deep colors of cobalt and emerald, wheat and crimson. Handsome animals in starlit settings, these are so splendid, you will want them as prints for your walls. Oh my gosh. Just check out her website for more gorgeousness. Even the endpapers are lovely. Just an all-around beautiful book, new this year.

celebration song cover imageCelebration Song, A Poem by James Berry, illustrated by Louise Brierley
published in 1994 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Your born-day is a happening day,” Mary sings to a one-year-old Jesus child, “a caller with good news, a day of celebration, a day of jubilation…All, O, all say, welcome!”

Set in the tropical heat of the Caribbean, where golden sands and aquamarine waters kiss the earth so warmly, this poem sways with the lilting rhythms of Jamaica.

It’s Jesus’ first birthday, so Mary recounts to him his own own birth story full of strange happenings, unknown messengers, and shepherds hurrying to his side. Beyond remembering the remarkable, though, Mary reveals some celebration song james berry louise brierley frontispiece 001misgivings — his born-day makes bells ring now, yet what will happen when he is grown, and what will happen when her mothering is long done? Will your day still be one long long celebration day?

Calypso patterning and exuberance mark this unusual poem from Mary’s motherly perspective. Louise Brierley’s watercolor illustrations radiate warmth, flow and billow with the jasmine breezes and mango sweetness of the islands. Her strong, noble Mary curves in a protective embrace around her beloved baby. These are deep, handsome portraits which bring a balancing hush to the hurrah of the celebration. Share this thought-provoking book with children ages 4 and up, or just get it for yourself.

carol of the brown king cover imageCarol of the Brown King: Nativity Poems by Langston Hughes, illustrated by Ashley Bryan
published in 1998 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Here are six brief nativity poems — five written by Langston Hughes, one translated by him from the Spanish as it was found on a Puerto Rican Christmas card.

In the title poem, Carol of the Brown King, Hughes simply yet meaningfully identifies with the one Wise Man who was a brown man.
Three Wise Men,
One dark like me —
Part of His Nativity
Hughes writes. In the other poems, race is not spoken of, yet happily, Ashley Bryan has illustrated all of them with predominantly African-American portraits.

carol of the brown king langston hughes ashley bryan illustration 001

Bryan’s eye-popping colors burst from the pages in vibrant African fabrics, undulating, tropical plants, confetti-colored hilltowns and blazing stars. His dignified faces grace the pages with strength, while his brilliant, patterned borders contribute to an overall sense of radiant joy.

This is a brilliant pairing of poet and artist which will bring a richer, wider, multiracial sensibility to your Christmas reflections. Ages 2 and up.

under the christmas tree cover imageUnder the Christmas Tree, poems by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
published in 2002 by HarperCollins

Celebrated poet Nikki Grimes has given us 23 poems, meandering among the sights, sounds, tastes, secrets, excitements, silences, wonders, longings and love of Christmas.

Some are a wisp of a thought, just the sparkle of a snowflake long. Some are lengthier, musing about the grand opening of the Christmas decorations box, the quiet thrill of a traditional candlelight service, or the family’s penchant for kissing under mistletoe. Her kind, generous father appears, delivering packages to neighbors, as do under the christmas tree nikki grimes and kadir nelsonneighborhood friends pelting one another with snowballs. Grandma cooks up a scrumptious Christmas dinner, and in probably my favorite poem, Rhythm Brown, the blind sax-man, hushes urban shoppers with his sweet music. Grimes writes in a wide range of mood, form, and subject matter.

To all this, add the beautiful paintings of Kadir Nelson — rich, handsome, subdued paintings that softly glow with familial love and the magical warmth of the season. Almost entirely African-American, his subjects occupy the pages with strength, security, and easy affection. Warm, amber notes flow through all the illustrations, bringing a coziness to the book even amid the chilly city nights.

It’s a winsome collection to dip into again and again, for ages 4 and up.

all for the newborn baby cover imageAll for the Newborn Baby, by Phyllis Root, illustrated by Nicola Bayley
published in 2000 by Candlewick Press

Phyllis Root tells us in her Author’s Note that her inspiration for this original “cradle song” was the same legend found in Manger (at the top of the post today.) Searching in carols and stories from around the world, she discovered many “Christmas miracle tales” which she wove into this tender lullaby, all centered around animals at Christmas.

The warm breath of the oxen, a tiny wren softly lining the manger with her feathers, and fireflies glimmering like merry stars, are just a few of the animals appearing in her verse. Swift glimpses in gently rhyming lyrics lilt along, one on each two-page spread.

Nicola Bayley is our third UK illustrator of the day and her whisper-soft watercolor illustrations are exquisite! Displayed on rich, marbelized backgrounds and featuring botanical themes, her artwork is bordered by gold frames resembling Renaissance altarpieces. Within these frames are magnificently soft, detailed paintings, sunny portraits of a merry little Jesus,all for the newborn baby illustration nicola bayley 001and utterly gentle Mary and Joseph. Along with these paintings are shadowbox style collections of flowers and insects. Poppies and butterflies, buttercups and bumblebees, leaflets and ladybugs, elegantly enhance the page like a Victorian nature notebook. I only wish there had been an Illustrator’s Note explaining her thought process behind these incredible illustrations.

The whole book feels like an enchantingly-decorated music box. Breathtaking. Enjoy it with children ages 3 and up, or give it to a new mom this Christmas. Then follow me directly to the library and check out all Nicola Bayley’s other books 🙂