Picture books help children (and all of us) learn about the world around us – past, present and potential. And oh how children love to learn! Any new experience will inspire questions and ideas, and books support these questions – as well as the parents who are desperately trying to answer them against the repetitive ‘why? Why? WHY?’
When children start school they enter into the beloved tradition of the nativity play. Whether it follows the traditional route or is a more modern affair with lobsters and space aliens, there is always a central story and one that is often told through song. The crazy rehearsals, learning of lyrics and staging (and the lobsters) don’t often leave room for explaining the actual story. This year my daughter was in her first nativity play and we have had Questions. Oh so many questions. We are not religious at all but are trying to explain the nativity story in a way that sates her curiosity, fulfils her need for a story and allows her to form her own opinions. Not easy. Out come the books. Twitter pals are consulted. Off we go to the library. As most parents go through the nativity play experience in one form or another I am doing a quick overview of the books we’ve been recommended, stumbled across and hunted down. Yes it’s too late for this year, but next year you might thank me for the heads up.
The book that has the most accessible story – for those who really want to understand the basic story and learn what is going on behind the tea towels and the tinsel – is Usborne’s The Very First Christmas by Louie Stowell and Elena Temporin.
The text is child friendly, simple but warm:
‘When they arrived, it was nearly dark. Joseph knock-knock-knocked at the door of an inn. “I’m sorry,” said the innkeeper, “but we don’t have any room.” So Joseph knocked at another door, and another and another. But no one had any room for them.’
The illustrations give children a real sense of time and place, working beautifully with the text to enhance children’s understanding of the story. This book is the perfect introduction to the story, characters and concept. The story is pitched at a high enough level to remain easy to follow but with enough detail to answer all the questions arising from tea towel rehearsals. Brilliant.
The Lion, the Unicorn and Me by Jeanette Winterson and Rosalind MacCurrach (Scholastic) is my absolute favourite and went down beautifully with my 4 yr old. I admit that I’m biased as Ms Winterson is my favourite grown-up-book author. If you know her adult work you will feel at home with this as her style and voice shine through. But I’ll also admit that what I find beautiful might make the book a bit too much for younger children – the language use may go over their heads a little. But that’s no bad thing – it just might lead to yet more questions!
‘The kings came inside even though there was no inside left now that we were blown inside out, time past and future roaring round us like a wind, and eternity sitting above us, like angels, like a star.’
The Lion, the Unicorn and Me tells the nativity story from the point of view of the donkey and revels in the celebration and joy and extraordinariness of the story. Using the donkey’s perspective to tell the story in first person brings a delicious immediacy to the story. It is also funny- quirky and a bit bonkers – which is sure to catch a child’s imagination:
‘My master Joseph was an optimistic man. He knocked at the door. The innkeeper opened it, and the boy who had been sleeping in the letterbox fell out. “No room,” said the innkeeper…”Listen,” said the innkeeper, “you think I’m joking?” He pointed upwards, into the beams, where five spiders were looking gloomily at six infants whose father had knotted the webs into hammocks.’
The illustrations are delicate and magical and I love that they show a range of skin colours. Hurrah!
I love The Lion, the Unicorn and Me for it’s fresh perspective, giving children a different experience of the story and using language to show them the excitement and the magic.
The Fourth Wise Man (Lion Hudson) is great for linking the nativity story to children’s experience of life. It approaches the story from the point of view of a fourth wise man. It tells a relatively traditional story whilst linking it beautifully with the creation of Santa.
The four wise men are gazing at the stars when they see a special star signalling the birth of a great king. The fourth wise man is younger and is immediately shown to be a bit different – dreamy and whimsical. The wise men travel to find the king and along the way the fourth wise man tries to find a suitable gift to give him. He can’t find anything that seems right so when they arrive at the stable he waits outside and brings water for their camels. The special star is reflected in the water, it is so beautiful that he rushes inside to give it to the baby. The next day he is so filled with joy that he uses the coins he didn’t spend on a gift to buy presents for all the market children. ‘And somehow, there was still some money left in the bottom of his purse. ‘I shall buy gifts to make children smile,’ he said.’
The Fourth Wise Man is a gorgeous book and a lovely way to link the nativity story with children’s understanding of Christmas. The illustrations are rich and soaked in colour, making the book feel exotic and magical.
Brian Wildsmith’s A Christmas Story (Oxford) is perfect for children who have got the hang of the story.
It tells the story of the donkey’s baby who is left behind when it’s mother takes Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. He misses his mother so much that Rebecca, who is taking care of him, decides to travel after Mary and Joseph. Their journey follows the story and children who know the nativity tale will be able to spot the elements in the illustrations. The new edition released this year (2013) has beautiful gold additions in the illustrations and a pull out nativity scene to make.
For older children, or those familiar with the story, The First Christmas (Puffin) by Jan Pienkowski is visually stunning. Available in small gift book format with a metallic silver cover, this is a book to stroke and cherish.
Jan Pienkowski has joined the text from the King James Bible with modern fairy tale silhouettes to create a beautiful book to share with children. Again, because the text is taken from the bible the language will create more questions than it will answer but for a visual treat, The First Christmas is a must.
And for a slightly different perspective, 1989’s Nativity Play by Mick Inkpen and Nick Butterworth (Hachette), and it’s contemporary partner The Christmas Show by Rebecca Patterson (MacMillan) show the children (and let’s be honest- the parents) what a nativity play is all about. The highs and lows, the butterflies, the wardrobe malfunctions, all are reproduced here.
And while you’re here, why not have a look at these books for a little nativity rehearsal relief. For the kids, the teachers and you!
Source: The Very First Christmas; The Fourth Wise Man; Nativity Play borrowed from our lovely local library.
The Lion, the Unicorn and Me; The First Christmas; A Christmas Story bought for our bookshelves.
Special thanks to Loll at Storyseekers for the recommendations.