Saturday, December 21, 2013

Our Favorite Christmas Books 2013

I'm going to give you a little more notice than my Thanksgiving book post which, published the day before Thanksgiving, didn't give you much time to make use of my book suggestions.  But less than a week before Christmas, this is probably one of those posts that's only going to be useful if it pin it for next year.

What can I say?  Lucia just turned two so this is the first year we're really reading Christmas books and there was no way I was on top of things enough to check out Christmas books before December in order to be able to select my favorite books.  No way I was even thinking about it.  Although if I had thought about it early enough, I would have been able to get more books, because Christmas books go like hotcakes at our library.  And here are the best gooey, buttery, delicious hotcakes this year.

Board Books

 Room for a Little One: A Christmas Tale by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Jason Cockcroft
Kind Ox welcomes animals in from the cold saying, "There's always room for a little one here." The last of these animals is Tired Donkey who brings with him the Holy Family. There is a simple beauty and richness is the story.  Beautiful illustrations. One of my favorite toddler-level books this year.

The Story of Christmas by Patricia A. Pingry, illustrated by Rebecca Thornburgh
Explains the story of the first Christmas in simple language for little ones.

Stable in Bethlehem: A Countdown to Christmas by Joy N. Hum, illustrated by Dan Andreasen
A sweet rhyming book that counts down from 12. 12 drowsy doves, 11 cows, ...8 shepherds,. ..3 wise men, etc.  Another favorite for the youngest crowd, especially because the rhymes are true rhymes. (I have a problem with some of the "reaching rhymes" of children's literature.)

  A Child is Born by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
The prose of this one is beautiful, reverent, but simple enough for little ones.  Reminds me more of lyrics to a lovely Christmas song than the words to a children's book.
This book wasn't what I originally expected.  While each picture features the animals that would have seen the various events of the nativity, the words are a simple retelling of the biblical story.  (I had thought it would have been written from the perspective of the animals, but I liked it much better this way.)  The illustrations are beyond gorgeous.

Picture Books
I wasn't familiar with this carol and was delighted to encounter a old, very traditional sounding carol.  Lucia and I enjoyed looking up the carol and singing along with it while we looked at the pictures.  

The Donkey's Dream by Barbara Helen Berger
Our favorite this year.  This is the epitome of children's literature filled with symbolism and poetic beauty, showing that something understandable by a child can at the same time be complex.  I don't want to say more than that, because I feel like reading it for the first time without knowing exactly what to expect enhanced my surprise at the beauty in the pages.

The Birds of Bethlehem by Tomie dePaola
Every morning, the birds of Bethlehem gather in the fields for breakfast. On the morning of the first Christmas, they tell of the marvelous things they have seen. This picture book is simple enough for toddlers with engaging pictures. 

Song of the Stars: A Christmas Story by Sally Lloyd-Jones, illustrated by Alison Jay
All the animals and plants of the world announce, "It is time! He is come!" A refreshing Christmas book that isn't yet another retelling of the nativity but the more broad story of salvation.

Waiting for Noel: An Advent Story by Ann Dixen, illustrated by Mark Graham
Noel was born on Christmas Day.  As her family lights the Advent candles each week and prepares for Christmas, her father shares the story of the year that they prepared for her birth as well.  I've always found the parallels between the Advent and pregnancy/expecting a child to be beautiful insightful and this book beautifully expresses that parallel through poetic prose.

Four Friends at Christmas by Tomie dePaola
This book is a purely fun one about Mister Frog who usually sleeps through the winter but stays up this year to celebrate his first Christmas.  Lucia loved it, so it's toddler-approved.

Merry Christmas, Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola 
Strega Nona is much loved in our home, so I couldn't pass up the opportunity to read her Christmas tale.  I found it to be surprisingly reverent and beautiful.  Strega Nona refuses to use magic at Christmastime because "Christmas has a magic of its own." Instead, she busies herself lighting the Advent candles and preparing her home (and heart) for the Christ Child.  Tomie DePaola is the only children's author I know who writes wonderful, mass-appeal children's literature that effortlessly weaves in elements of the Catholic faith. 

The Legend of Old Befana by Tomie dePaola
I first heard about Befana few years ago from a friend, but didn't know much about it other than it's an Italian tradition for Befana to bring treats to children on the eve of the Epiphany (similar to St. Nicholas on his feast day or Santa Claus on Christmas).  After reading this book, I'm thinking Old Befana may be leaving Lucia a little something this Jan 6th.

An Early American Christmas by Tomie dePaola
As a history major, I can't pass up this book that tells the story of the introduction of Christmas celebrations into towns where many Christian denominations avoided the observance of the holiday.  This was completely new information to me and I enjoyed reading with Lucia about the paper ornaments and popcorn balls and traditional cookies that marked early 19th century celebrations.  Toddlers can read history too! 

This is the only book we've read this year that I remember reading as a child.  This was one of my favorites.  Probably more for an older child than Lucia, I made her undergo the torture of sitting through it to please mama.  I'm sure she'll do better in a few years. 

For Every Child a Star: A Christmas Story by Thomas Yeomans, illustrated by Tomie dePaola
Way too advanced for my toddler, I read this one myself and loved it.  A beautiful story of a lonely old man that is tangential to the nativity story.  Would probably be best for school aged children or older.  

Looking over a list, I have a few observations about this year's choices:
  • All but one are pretty explicitly religious.  This wasn't intentional.  While we do like to focus on Christ during this season, I think there is space for some more secular Christmas stories as well.  I reserved a ton of books from the library based on a variety of recommendations, without knowing what many of them were about.  Several books I didn't reserve because the wait list was too long and I'm still on the wait list for many others - and I'm guessing that many of those were non-religious because they appeal to a wider variety of folk?
  • A huge chunk of these books are by Tomie dePaola.  Also not intentional.  It's not my fault that one of the best children's book authors and illustrators loves Christmas and writes all the Christmas books!
  • Children's Christmas books, especially those for toddlers, are obsessed with animals, especially the animals present at the nativity.  Kids do love animals, but if you can write a good story about people, they like those too!  
  • I was kind of sad to see that several of this books seem to not be currently in print.  (I couldn't even find a decent picture of For Every Child a Star.) We would love to have any and all of these books in our book collection, but I'm grateful they are at least available at the library.

Next year we'll probably request a few of our very favorites and then try our hand at finding some new favorites (and there were several books that we got that didn't make the cut for this list and will not be in rotation for future Christmases).  When you look at my list, are there any books that are obviously missing?  What do I have to keep in mind for next year?


  1. This is actually perfect for us next year. My little one will be 2 next year and will enjoy these a lot more than he would have this year :-) Thanks for sharing!

  2. I love it when people list out their favorite books! Thanks for doing this! I just ordered some (great for next year as we unwrap a Christmas book each day in Advent)…I'm especially excited for The Legend of Old Befana! I think a treat on January 6th will be a new tradition for us too. Thanks again!

  3. Aww thanks for the link! My mom actually bought me that La Befana book last year because I kept asking about the history behind the tradition.


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