Wednesday, December 2, 2009

’Tis the Time Before Christmas and All Through My House, We’re Reading

I love the rituals of Christmas; one that is particularly beloved is reading aloud favorite Christmas stories for children. I don’t know how far back the tradition goes, but I have vivid memories of my parents, my favorite uncle, and various aunts and cousins reading to me. By the time I was eight, I was reading a child’s version of the Nativity story and ’Twas the Night Before Christmas to my younger siblings while my mother baked her Christmas cakes, and when my brother and sister grew too old, there were always younger cousins eager to listen. Later, four little boys in new Christmas pajamas, wriggling with the excitement the holiday awakens in kids of all ages, gathered close to hear those same stories plus some new ones. Now the grands are the listeners. The collection of Christmas stories has grown considerably, and we try to add at least one new book to the collection each year.

Saturday the eight-year-old and the five-year old are spending the day, and I’ve been choosing the first books. They asked Thanksgiving when we could start the Christmas reading, so I know they will be as happy as I will be to begin our holiday reading season. We will read the familiar stories—’Twas the Night Before Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and a child’s edition of A Christmas Carol, but we will be reading some less famous stories too as we begin our celebration of the season. Perhaps we’ll begin with one of these favorites:

1. On Christmas Eve (originally published 1938; 2000 ed. shown)—
Margaret Wise Brown, author; Nancy Edwards Calder, illustrator
Many of you will know Brown as the author of Goodnight Moon, and although On Christmas Eve is for older children (4-8) than the more famous book, it has something of the same feel. Like the child I was and the children I’ve known, the three children in this book can’t sleep on Christmas Eve, certain they hear reindeer. So they creep downstairs just to “touch the tree and make a wish.” They find not only a marvelous tree but also stockings and presents and carolers. Illustrations are important in experiencing children’s books, and Calder’s add to the magic of this book.

2. This Is the Stable (2006)—
Cynthia Cotton, author; Delana Bettoli, illustrator
There are untold numbers of the Nativity story written for children. I love this one because the rhyming couplets appeal to children who love to repeat them and the simplicity of the narrative is perfect for this story of the first Christmas in a “stable, dusty and brown.” Bettoli’s illustrations are so richly colored that our little ones love to stroke them. The characters look as if they belong in this story, and the wise man riding an elephant makes a big impression.

3. Bear Noel (2000)--Olivier Dunrea, author and illustrator
"He is singing. . . . He is laughing. . . . He is jingling his bells. . . . He is coming."
He is Bear Noel, and all the animals in the forest are gathered on Christmas Eve, the one night of the year that they come together in peace and harmony, waiting for the arrival of Bear Noel with his bag full of gifts. The repetition in the story invites participation, and the illustrations create a snow-filled world real enough to evoke a shiver with animals who seem closer to reality than to cutesy cartoons.

4. Santa's Stuck (2004)--Rhonda Gowler Greene, author; Henry Cole, illustrator
Some of these books are sweet, many of them have important things to say, but this one is just for fun. Santa indulges in one too many of those snacks left for him by children, and he gets stuck in the chimney when he tries to leave. The reindeer try to pull him up, the house pets try to push him up, but it takes a clever mouse and a toy bulldozer to get Santa unstuck. Our crew dissolves in giggles, no matter how many times they hear this one, and one of them always begs, “Read it again, please.”

5. The Little Shepherd Girl (2007)-- Juliann Henry, author; Jim Madsen, illustrator
Until the first grand, a beautiful little girl, was born, I never realized that among all the Christmas stories about shepherd boys and drummer boys and littlest angel (boy), it was hard to find a story about a girl. I was jubilant when I discovered this one, written by a pastor and a mother for her daughter. Sarah longs to be a shepherd, but shepherding is a job for boys. Young Sarah is encouraged to weave and bake. It’s “just the way of things,” she’s told. But Sarah is persistent, and she practices the necessary skills. One night she’s allowed to go into the field, and her first night as a shepherd is the very night that angels appear in the night sky announcing the birth of the Christ Child. This story that tells of a shepherd girl loved by both her earthly father and her heavenly one is a terrific story for girls and boys.

6. The True Gift: A Christmas Story (2009)—
Patricia MacLachlan, author; Brian Floca, illustrator
The grands start their lists for Santa in the summer, and despite their tender years (1-10), they have Decembers packed with holiday parties and dinners with family and friends, most of which involve gifts for them. It isn’t easy to teach them that the season is about what we give rather than what we get. Stories do the job better than sermons, and The True Gift makes the point wonderfully. This is a chapter book, so we read it in several sessions, giving us time to talk about Liam, who worries about the loneliness of the White Cow on his grandparents’ farm, and his sister Lily, who worries about the size of the cow that frightens her. Liam’s sacrifice of his cherished books to end the loneliness of a creature and Lily’s gradual involvement in his gift show what a true gift is. The story is lovely, sentimental without becoming cloying, and the illustrations add a wondrous visual dimension to the tale.

This is a new book, and the recommended ages are 9-12. But I’m betting that read aloud in segments, intermingled with conversation, it will appeal to our younger ones as well.

7. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (1972)--Barbara Robinson
This gem of a book begins with these sentences: "The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker's old broken-down toolhouse." It, too, is recommended for ages 9-12, but I’ve read it to much younger children, to teenagers, and even to a Sunday School class of women 70-85—and they have all been captivated by Robinson’s tale of the Herdmans and their response to the Christmas pageant. It’s one I’d read if I were the only audience. The Herdmans may make us laugh in horror, but they end up teaching readers as much as their neighbors what the meaning of Christmas is.

8. Letters from Father Christmas (1995)--J.R.R. Tolkien
I confess I may be cheating by including this one. None of our kids would sit still long enough to listen to all of this collection of letters the famed Tolkien wrote for his own four children over more than twenty years. But they do love listening to a single letter that recounts an engaging account of life at the North Pole where the clumsy Polar Bear climbs the North Pole and falls through the roof of Father Christmas’s house or the one in which the same bear breaks the moon into four pieces, causing the Man in the Moon to fall into the garden. And if you are a Tolkien fan—or even if you think you aren’t—you may find yourself reading the rest after the children are fast asleep.

9. The Animal’s Christmas Carol (2001)--Helen Ward
“The Friendly Beasts” is a favorite carol in our family. This book is based on the carol, and our animal-loving crew adores it. In gorgeous, detailed illustrations, not just the cow, the donkey, the dove of the original carol but also the lion, the peacock, the camels, even the lowly woodworm offer their humble gifts to the baby in the manger. We love it!

10. The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey (1995)—
Susan Wojciechowski, author; P.J. Lynch, illustrator

"The village children called him Mr. Gloomy. But, in fact, his name was Toomey, Mr. Jonathan Toomey. And though it's not kind to call people names, this one fit quite well. For Jonathan Toomey seldom smiled and never laughed. He went about mumbling and grumbling, muttering and sputtering, grumping and griping. He complained that the church bells rang too often, that the birds sang too shrilly, that the children played too loudly...."

Thus begins the story of tormented woodworker whose pain has isolated him and the widow and her son who request that Toomey carve for them the figures of the Nativity to replace cherished ones they have lost. This is a poignant, powerful story about the transformation of three lives. It is, on many levels, a love story. And isn’t love, on many levels, what Christmas is all about?

What are your favorite Christmas stories—or Hanukah stories or Kwanzaa stories—for children?


J.K. Coi said...

My favourite is the Velveteen Rabbit

Amanda said...

I am so excited to read about the Patricia MacLachlan book--my 11 year old loves Sarah, Plain and Tall. She is rather particular about what she reads, but a familiar author is an easy sell.

We do the How the Grinch Stole Christmas and A Christmas Carol too. The kids have a well worn Children's Bible and the nativity story is a huge favorite from it. I still can't get my head around the date. It can't be Dec 4th yet, can it?

MsHellion said...

I FORGOT about the Best Christmas Pageant Ever! I so need to buy that for my shelves and start a Christmas collection! *LOL*

I don't have kids we don't do readings. I wish we did.

But when I was a kid, my sister (15 years older) would get us up early for Christmas and before we could open presents, we'd have birthday cake (for breakfast, for Jesus) and she'd read the Christmas story right out of the Bible. Then we'd open gifts. It was good.

quantum said...

I had a look at the young children's (<~ 12) books in our house and picked out the most tattered, assuming that would correlate directly with popularity. I then asked Mrs Q to select two to recommend here.

We came up with 'Little Grey Rabbit's Christmas' by Alison Uttley
and 'The thirteen days of Christmas' by Jenny Overton.

Its only in the past year that I have revived my interest in children's stories. Partly as a survival tactic for when I'm baby sitting with my 5-year old grand.

I actually tend to make up stories based on characters that she is familiar with, or ones that fascinate me. She then likes to act out the stories, especially if they involve hiding in cupboards.

She particularly liked 'The sleeping princess' where the princess sleeps for 100 years before being awakened by the kiss of a handsome prince. Watching her lying on the floor pretending to be asleep and then the huge smile after I had to peck her on the cheek, was amazing!

I'm rather looking forward to playing with her presents this Christmas!

Janga said...

Kris, we love the Velveteen Rabitt too. It's another of those timeless children's tales that speaks truth to adults as well.

Amanda, all of 2009 has flown by for me. The day I turned the calendar to December, I tried to determine where the year had gone.

I hope your daughter likes The True Gift. I think it's a lovely book.

Janga said...

Hellion, your Christmas morning tradition sounds wonderful. And you should definitely start a Christmas collection. TBCPE would make an excellent beginning. It's one that stands up to unlimited rereadings.

Q, five is such a great age. The magic is still real to them, and their imaginations just soar. And making up stories for them and with them is wonderful fun too. We have an onging series featuring Flannery, the orange bunny who lives on my desk. You'd never know it to look at her, but Flannery lives a most adventurous life. :)

Gannon Carr said...

The Littlest Angel is one of my favorites. We have a beautifully illustrated copy. I always cry when I read it.

Janga said...

Gannon, several years I directed my church's Children's Christmas program, and we did The Littlest Angel. I have great memories of those years.