Monday, December 9, 2013

Picture Books We Love :: My Top Ten Christmas Books for Littles

I narrowed my list of favorite Christmas books down to just ten to share with you today.  

First, the disclaimers -- These are especially geared to the younger set, so I left out chapter books and longish books like The Story of Holly and Ivy.  I also didn't include Advent favorites (for example, St. Nicholas or Our Lady of Guadalupe selections) or Epiphany favorites (we have several books on the Three Kings that we all enjoy). I'll have to share those another time because there was NO WAY I could fit all of those into one Top Ten list--I mean, I do have my limits! ;)

So here they are, in no particular order.  Maybe you'll see some of your old favorites here--or find some new favorites?

Petershams' The Christ Child

First up: for a more traditional telling of the Nativity, I like to have a well-illustrated version of the Bible text itself.  In that category, we have three favorites: 

All three set beautiful illustrations to the King James translation of the biblical text.  They are quite different in style: Ray's has a decidedly Middle Eastern flair, The First Christmas uses works from the Italian Renaissance masters, and the Petershams' features their simple yet distinctive 1920s style.  I find all three to be suitably lovely companions to the holy words they illustrate.

This is one I don't see mentioned often, but the verses are clever and the illustrations are fantastic: detailed close-ups of animals, rich watercolors decorated with gold leaf.  I love books with this motif of the animals on Christmas night, of which there are many.  This one stands out for a couple reasons: first, because it never shows the Child Jesus--just His light emanating from off the page.  I rather like the mystery.  It also expands to include a wider range of animals, which adds something new.  And did I mention the illustrations? :)

Like I said, I love this motif.  This is actually a double whammy for me because not only does it involve the animals of the nativity, but its text is made up of song lyrics--another genre of picture book that I find absolutely delightful, though hard to do well.  And this one is done well!  I am actually not an unabashed Tomie fan like so many others, but the lyrics to this song seem to fit his rustic style.  A chorus of singers (feels very Greek-drama) sets the stage (literally--it has the look of a play) and then takes us through the song as each animal joins the cast of characters. (And please do yourself a favor and listen to Harry Belafonte's "The Gifts They Gave" while you read!)

Helen Ward's The Animals' Christmas Carol

Good King Wenceslaus by Tim Ladwig
I'm including this one because it's my husband's first choice to read aloud to the children.  He is a Christmas-songs-turned-picture-books lover like I am, and this is his top pick.  Ladwig's illustrations are, as always, realistic while not going off the cliff of Kinkaid-like sentimentality.  And being Catholics, we just love the story of Saint Wenceslaus here!  We save this book for "the feast of Stephen," which is the day after Christmas, and my children are absolutely delighted when we pull it out.

This book takes the first and last stanzas of Christina Rossetti's "In the bleak midwinter" and shows a young girl in two different times and places (as a servant at the stable in Bethlehem and as a modern-day girl with a beloved grandfather) asking the same question anyone would ask in the face of such sacrificial love: "What can I give him?"  We see that her answer in each case is quite similar.  The lesson is told primarily through the illustrations and might go over the heads of very littles, but even my preschooler loves this one.

Unfortunately, this version is out of print, because Cooney's charmingly simple illustrations so perfectly match this text.  We have the Diane Goode rendition, but in my opinion, it pales in comparison to the older illustrations, so I end up checking out Cooney's version every year from the library.  I went to place a hold on it last weekend and was saddened to see it no longer in the system--I'm guessing it was discarded? (Sob.)  So I'll now need to hunt down my own.  I actually love how the Nativity story has been placed by Cooney in what seems to be nineteenth-century American countryside. (I just love the "Star" and "Bright" yokes on the barn wall--Almanzo, anyone?)  It feels very quaint and--not to be overly-philosophical about a children's book!--places the Christmas story outside of time, as it truly is.  Fans of Brown's will notice the similarity between the verses in this book and Big Red Barn, which is another of hers that I enjoy reading aloud, so I don't mind that at all.  There is a soothing, lullaby-like quality to so much of her writing, and that's certainly present here.  Just a wonderful read-aloud to quietly ponder over with the little ones.

Another partnership by this wonderful duo, and another home-run in my book.  There is a version illustrated by Jim LaMarche that is more available (and a pleasing alternative), because I believe Cooney's is sadly out of print.  But hers is definitely worth seeking out anyway.  As for the story itself: I usually eschew sentimental tales, especially when they feel forced.  Is it just me, or is there not a million and one Christmas picture books that seem precisely aimed to make Mom tear up while reading?  ;)  This one is certainly moving, but in a more genuine way than so many of the others.  A wonderful story of miracles in everyday life and how Christmas somehow makes those miracles seem that much more miraculous.  Life-affirming and just plain sweet.

The First Christmas, from the National Gallery in London

This is my personal favorite of the many, many Twelve Days of Christmas renditions we have read over the last few years.  (Lovers of carols-turned-picture-books, remember?)  Jan Brett's and Leigh Grant's are lovely as well--but Grant's has so many pagan references and Brett's is a bit busy for my little ones.  I have a soft spot for Vagin's fun, folksy twist on the illustrations.  I first encountered him in his Peter and the Wolf (which also happens to be my favorite illustrated version of Peter and the Wolf!), and I knew when I saw his name pop up as an illustrator of the Twelve Days of Christmas that it would be a pleasing match.  His illustrations are fun and whimsical yet not irreverent.

And no Top Ten list would be complete without mentioning my all-time favorite Christmas picture books (scroll down to the end).  Sorry to tempt you, as they're not yet available for purchase. ;)

If you have shared your own list of family favorites, please do leave a link in the comments!


  1. These are fantastic, thanks for sharing. I have added them to my never ending amazon book wish list! My 4 and 2 year old absolutely LOVE Ezra Jack Keats' "Little Drummer Boy". It's one of the carols turned into books and I love them too! I just think Ezra's illustrations in this book are enchanting. (and the carol is the sweetest!) If you get a chance, check it out!

    1. Oh yes, we love that one, Sarah! Thanks for mentioning it. It's one of my husband's to read to the kids--they all like to sing along while turning the pages. :)

  2. We have at least a thousand books in this house and many Christmas books. We only have ever read one on your list. I will be checking them out. Thanks for the suggestions.

  3. Thank you for book recommendations I can consider for a gift to my wee nephew!

  4. I was wondering if you have made a list of your Advent or Epiphany favorites? I enjoy so many of your recommendations, so I was hoping to look those up as well.
    Thank you! Krystal

    1. Hi Krystal -- No, I haven't ever written up our favorites, and I do have quite a few! Adding it to my to-write list for next year! Thanks for reminding me as it's something I've been meaning to do. :)