On Friday we looked at some very popular picture books that you just might find under your tree. Some of them are better than others, but in the spirit of I Cor. 12:31 I’d like to suggest a more excellent way to get the Christmas message across with picture books. So allow me to roll out . . .
In hundreds of thousands of churches all over the English-speaking world this month, the Christmas story will be read aloud in the classic phrases we recognize from our childhood. The text can hardly be improved upon: “In the days of Herod, the king of Judea, there was a virgin espoused to a man named Joseph . . .” Some words may want a little explanation, such as espoused, privily, sore afraid, but the text in combination with the pictures is easily understood.
The illustrations are the selling point. Pamela Dalton is known for her skill in Scherenschnitte, a form of paper-cutting originating in Germany and perfected among the Pennsylvania Dutch. The conventions of Scherenschnitte include symmetrical patterns, flower themes, and stately, formalized human figures tinted in watercolor. The effect is a blend of late-medieval portraiture and west-European primitivism–a style that fits perfectly with the classic rhythms of the KJV. The angels are a bit too tame for my taste—though what artist could depict an actual angel—but they bear the remote countenance that might be expected of a heavenly being, unlike the friendly, blurry angels of much contemporary children’s lit. Joseph is pictured as an old man, in keeping with Catholic tradition, and no character looks particularly Jewish or middle-eastern. In fact, there’s a particularly German, Hummel-esque look about some of the figures.
The text has been cut and pasted between the accounts of Matthew and Luke. Most of the cuts are is understandable, such as leaving out some of the historical and geographical information to help the narrative flow, and omitting the Zechariah/Elizabeth narrative to keep the story simple. A few omissions I don’t understand, such as leaving out “filled with wisdom” from Luke 2:40. There might have been word count restrictions.
But for a straightforward, largely unsentimental version of the nativity story, The Story of Christmas should be a welcome addition to the family library. Children will be fascinated with the scissor technique, especially in regard to angel wings, but their most favorite page spread is likely to be the one depicting the family’s flight to Egypt—a dramatic series of tableaux showing pursuit by soldiers and danger from wild beasts (including a snake: a reference to Gen. 3:25?).
The world was about to change forever. And it almost went by unnoticed . . . But the leaves, that night, rustled with a rumor. News rang out across the open fields. A song drifted over the hills . . .
All nature is a-stir. Over moonlit snow-swept landscapes, in deep green forests and ocean depths, across salty beaches and teeming rivers, deep in the grass and shimmering on the deserts, on jungle savannas and shadowed valleys—every creature that crawls or scurries or bounds or leaps or flies knows one thing: “It’s time!” Even the stars in the heavens gather in anticipation of their “bright and morning star” and the lowly sheep on the hillside get ready to welcome their good shepherd.
What is it time for? Over several page spreads showing various corners of the earth and its creaturely inhabitants, anticipation builds and builds until the focus slowly swings around to one spot: And in a little town in a little shed in a little window a candle flickered in the dark./And a tiny cry rang out in the night air.
Last Friday, we wondered how to get the enormity of the incarnation over to little children. It’s hard enough for us to grasp; how can we get our little ones to lift their comprehension from standard-issue angels in the sky and adorable animals around the manger? Our culture as a whole loves Christmas: the sparkle and anticipation, the dewy connections with childhood memories, the generic hopes of peace on earth. But they don’t love Christ, because they don’t know Him. They don’t have a clue. Song of the Stars opens a little door in a little mind, a glimmer of understanding that this event was promised from the very beginning, even embedded in the earth’s DNA so that all nature waits in eager anticipation (Rom. 8:19) for the glory of God’s sons to be revealed. It all starts with God’s Son: what child is this?
Alison Jay’s illustrations are done in primitive, board-painting style, distinguished by tiny cracks in the surface. Children will enjoy comparing and identifying the animals in their habitats, but it was near the end that my heart stopped. This is the painting of the little baby lying on a bed of straw “wrapped in rags.” The infant’s swaddling bands resemble the loincloth Christ is usually depicted as wearing on the cross, and his hands are at his sides, weak and vulnerable. Few if any children will catch that reference, but they may catch the beautiful paradox of the closing words: The One who made us has come to live with us!
Heaven’s Son sleeping under the stars that he made.
In short: Get this book.
Oh, and a p.s.: Last Friday I reviewed The Crippled Lamb, a Christmas story by Max Lucado. For a realistic if humorous view of sweet little lambs I love Sneaky Sheep, by Chris More, reviewed here. Do you have any recommendations for Christmas read-alouds you can share with us? Please let us know in the Comments section. And tune in tomorrow for an abundance of further picture book recommendations!