Tag Archives: must-reads

From Russia with Love

I’m savoring these precious days with our new baby girl… spending all my hours nursing, changing and holding the baby while wondering how to make the laundry do itself.

And I’m watching the Olympics! We love the Olympics in this house! I won’t spend hours telling you about all the great picture books about Russia; there are plenty of lists online.  But I will spotlight my three very favorite (excluding Christmas themes, that is) stories based in Russia from our collection:

  I am especially fond of The Littlest Matryoshka by Corinne Bliss right now because my daughter finally has a sister!  And this story captures that special relationship between sisters just beautifully.  The tiniest little sister gets lost and goes through a series of adventures before finding her way back to her home with the other matryoshka sisters.  Lovely gentle art throughout…

 No one captures pastoral Ukraine or Russia like Patricia Polacco and Rechenka’s Eggs is one of our very favorite books to bring out toward the end of Lent and close to the Easter season.  It’s a great kickstart to any kind of pysanky projects one might want to delve into.  Another variation of this folktale can be found in the lovely book: The Birds’ Gift: A Ukrainian Easter Story by Eric Kimmel.

 Lastly is A Symphony of Whales by Steve Schuch.  A couple years ago, I based an entire unit study on this book.  I am so in love with everything about it:  it’s  based on a true story of villagers saving some beluga whales from ice entrapment, it’s richly illustrated in oil paintings, and the story is based in a unique geographical area that doesn’t usually get much attention: the Chukchi Peninsula.  It is truly a living book if ever there was one.  In fact, I need to replace my paperback copy to get it hardbound.


“Little by little, one travels far…”
-Tolkien
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The Christmas Motherload: Ten “Top 10” Booklists

So I’ve been working on this post bit by bit, over the last several weeks. I exhausted my library with holds several times (had my own CART next to the holds shelf at one point) and I even visited my family in another city and had my sister get another armload of Christmas books that my own library system didn’t carry.  I was also able to make a few book purchases (of stories I was CERTAIN we’d love) for upcoming Christmas gifts. And finally I was happily surprised to randomly find a few YouTube video readings of a couple of these title too! So through it all, I’ve compiled my very favorites. Maybe only 50% of these were ones I already knew and loved. The other 50% were looked at for the first time by me… gleaned from ideas on message boards and booklists I had seen as well as plenty from rabbit trails from internet searches. What an inundated book genre!!!

Why did I do it?  It’s not like I pretend to be the voice of expertise in children’s literature; there are dozens of picture book blogs out there and many other well-read folks who can offer counsel on Christmas books too. Frankly these are just my opinions. And my opinions are formed on an appreciation of living, loving and breathing children’s books for a dozen years now. I blog about children’s books because I have to write about something.  I don’t write about my own life and kids anymore, either via blogs or Facebook… it’s too much of a temptation for me in a number of ways. And I write for Soul Gardening but that doesn’t take care of wanting to share my obsessions and opine about books all the time! So I have this blog… and it’s a fix for me. And these lists are basically for my own records really… and to sate my own obsession with categorizing things. This blog is for my children to find someday and remember and smile… and maybe even roll their eyes (with affection I hope). But I digress.

Many Christmas books are just plain not worth your time. And many, many more fall solidly into the “good” category. And on top of that, there is the GREAT category! And even that’s full! I couldn’t have possibly put it into one Top Ten list; who could?! So I broke it up into TEN different categories of Ten. And even that was hard! This doesn’t even include my Advent or Epiphany picks! Anyway, I’m such a nerd; I loved every minute of my ‘research’!  Enjoy these opinions of just one mama/biblio-zealot. Know that there are dozens and dozens more EXCELLENT Christmas stories out there and I’m sure I’ll be finding new treasures all the time!  I wanted to be a purist to the number 10, so I limited it.  My comments will be brief; I’ve got 100 books to tell you about and many of you probably know about many of these already! But my very special favorites are in bold.

2014 modifications are in magenta; the year introduced me to new books and ‘new-to-me’ old ones!  
Best Actual Nativity Stories

  1. The Nativity: Six Glorious Pop-Up Scenes: A very special treat to pull out on Christmas Eve.  Truly a delight for your eyes! If only it were back in print!
  2. Bethlehem: Fiona French’s stained glass illustrations to the simple Bible words of the Nativity.
  3. The Story of Christmas: Jane Ray does outstanding, vivid illustrations (love that Mary and Joseph look ethnically believable) and surprise… baby Jesus was breastfed!
  4. The Christmas Story: Here’s one for cheapskates! The classic, basic, no-frills-but-still-sweet Golden Book version of the Nativity, illustrated by one of my favorites— Eloise Wilkin.
  5. The Christmas Story: The beautiful, biblical text illustrated by the incomparable Gennady Spirin.
  6. The Story of Christmas: Pamela Dalton takes the words from the King James Bible and masterfully weaves intricate, beautiful paper-cut illustrations into it. My husband calls Dalton’s people “hobbits” but I don’t fault her for that. I like hobbits! I do however bristle at the 80 year old, balding Joseph in the story. (Mary was a teenager after all; I can handle middle aged Joseph depictions—though I prefer envisioning younger, strapping man… but the great-grandfatherly representation? Not my favorite.) Anyway, if you liked her Brother Sun, Sister Moon, you’ll love this.
  7. The Nativity: Completely scriptural, this is better for slightly older children, or to be used as an actual family reading on the night of Christmas Eve. I love how the wise men show up (accurately) at the Holy Family’s HOUSE, rather than stable.
  8. The Nativity: Mary Remembers: What I like best about this is its first person perspective from Mary. This helps to give a fresh insight on some of what happened that blessed night.
  9. The Christmas Story: This is the very simple Bible story presented again; it gets a spot on this list for the beautiful few, full-page spreads of Christmas night… and the end picture of Jesus who “grew in grace.”  I do wish illustrators made the Holy Family a little more Middle Eastern looking but we take what we can get I suppose.
  10. The First Noel: A Christmas Carousel: This isn’t exactly a story… it’s a novelty book that serves as a stand-alone centerpiece.  The book folds out and can be tied together to form a 3D standing star. Gorgeous paper-cut, pop-ups highlight the five major scenes from the Nativity.
  11. The Christ Child.  Perfect. I’m so happy to have found this for 50 cents at the thrift store. It is simple, biblical and timeless.  I love it, a new favorite!
(other books I want to check out in this category: The Christmas StoryChristmas in the Barn —the original version, The First Christmas, My Son, My Saviour: The Awesome Wonder of Jesus’ Birth)

Best Light Reading or Funny Stories

  1. Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree:  My children cheer whenever we open up this book.  Light, amusing and completely satisfying!
  2. The Christmas Cookie Sprinkle Snitcher:  Much like the Grinch story. Will Christmas be the same without cookie sprinkles?!
  3. Too Many Tamales: Sweet story about a careless child.  Makes me want to have the patience and grace of the mother when dealing with children’s mistakes… also makes me want to have a ton of tamales!!!
  4. The Lump of Coal: So clever. This is a hilarious little book that will delight older children especially and the adult reading it with them.
  5. Cranberry Christmas: Back in print! Vintage, cartoony in the right kind of way and fun as always!
  6. Who’s That Knocking on Christmas Eve?: Jan Brett dials up another beautiful book and this one is sure to win the hearts of polar bear lovers!
  7. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Is there ANY Christmas book list complete without this one?!
  8. Mortimer’s Christmas Manger: Karma Wilson’s best book since Bear Snores On.  Great fun, vibrant pictures, a satisfying ending… excellent all around.
  9. Christmas Alphabet: I generally avoid pop-up books. But I can’t be a complete scrooge and what better time of year to really allow a special, magical book be enjoyed (gently!) by children?!
  10. The Night Before Christmas. This was just released again this year and of ALL the editions of this famous rhyme, this one is my very favorite. There is something perfect about a vintage poem paired with vintage illustrations. And the dimensions of the actual book are kind of a fun novelty too.

(other books I want to check out in this category: Christmas Around the World: A Pop-Up BookShall I Knit You a Hat?: A Christmas Yarn, One Thousand Christmas Beards)

Best Reverent Christmas Stories:

 

  1. Father and Son: A Nativity Story: This is an excellent and novel book offering perspective on St. Joseph’s Christmas night… he ponders the irony of being father to the Master of the Universe.  So good!
  2. All for the Newborn Baby: I’m so in love with this book!  I love the sweet text, the lovely illustrations and the little details of nature/botany in the margins!
  3. Song of the Stars: A Christmas Story: This isn’t the usual, classic, elegant book one would expect in this category but I really love it.  All of creation readies for the newborn Savior: “It’s time!” Really nicely done…
  4. A Small Miracle: Two of my sons’ favorite Christmas book of all time!  This one’s wordless so it’s great for non-readers too. So lovely…
  5. There Was No Snow on Christmas Eve: A very simple story that begs to be read slow and somber… great reminder for folks who live where there is no snow and may feel disenfranchised from all the traditional Christmas scenery.
  6. The Donkey’s Dream:  Hands down, my very favorite Christmas book of all time. Enough said.
  7. The Miracle of St. Nicholas: Of all my Christmas books, this absolutely would be in my Top Three. I love the art. I love the story. I love the reverence and focus on the season. And I especially love the mini history lesson that can happen with this story.
  8. The Little Boy’s Christmas Gift: A little poor boy follows the procession of people bringing beautiful gifts to the newborn Jesus.  His is merely one of the first examples we see of “up-cycling”in a picture book. Beautifully illustrated.
  9. The Legend of the Poinsettia: Lucida searches and frets over having the perfect gift for the baby Jesus but feels like she’s coming up short. Little does she know how God will reward her best of intentions. Another version of this story is also done really well in The Miracle of the First Poinsettia.
  10. A Christmas Story: Brian Wildsmith never disappoints with his artwork and this little story about a girl trying to reunite a donkey with his mother is very sweet.  Not quite as memorable/glorious as Wildsmith’s Easter Story but still worth picking up!
(other books I want to check out in this category: One Small Lost SheepThe Shepherd’s Christmas StoryMary’s Song)

Best Christmas Stories Specific to Already Famous Literary Characters:

  1. Petunia’s Christmas: Petunia gets married!  But not before having some very funny and touching adventures in saving her beloved gander…
  2. Merry Christmas Big Hungry Bear: In the same type of narration and spirit as the original; Wood’s pictures never fail to delight.
  3. An Otis Christmas: Bright, vibrant and always fun— Otis saves the day and a new baby (calf) is born!
  4. Merry Christmas, Strega Nona: Good old Strega Nona gets ready for Christmas Eve… makes for great Advent reading too!
  5. Carl’s Christmas: Carl lovers won’t be disappointed in another adventure filled (wordless) day spent with Carl on Christmas Eve. (Try to overlook the fact that the baby is left alone in the care of a dog…)
  6. Merry Christmas, Curious George: Just what we’d expect from this mischievous monkey: curious bumbles and a happy ending.
  7. Minerva Louise on Christmas Eve: My daughter’s very favorite chicken confronts the jolly, red “Mr. Farmer” up on top of the roof.
  8. Merry Christmas Ernest & Celestine: Ernest and Celestine are new to me just this year but this duo has been around since the 1980s!  Belgiun author Gabrielle Vincent is a splendid watercolorist and I love the warm, cluttered pictures shown in these lovely, very simple stories.
  9. The Jolly Christmas Postman: The jolly postman is back delivering special Christmas letters (real letters included in pockets!) to nursery rhyme and fairy tale characters. Very fun! Would make an excellent gift!
  10. The Cowboy’s Christmas: This is everything I hoped it would be; it’s especially appropriate for the Advent season.  The Cowboy books are so, so dear! Know that his imaginary friends don’t make much sense in this story unless you have the context of his first book. I hope to collect all these books for my son. He adores them!
Best Emotionally Evocative Christmas Stories:

  1. The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey: Probably on everyone’s Christmas list of favorites… for good reason.  P.J. Lynch is a masterful artist and the story is a delight. The movie is pretty worthwhile as well; we check it out from the library each year.
  2. The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: A classic. An excellent story illustrated by my beloved Barbara Cooney really sets the spirit of family and life in Appalachia: so great.
  3. Light of Christmas: Beautifully staged high in the mountains, this is the story of a young boy giving up his wish to see the Christmas torch lit, to help an old man in need.  He is rewarded… and the message is a reminder to all of us adults today: “In your hurry to keep Christmas, you have forgotten Christmas.”
  4. Angela and the Baby Jesus: This is a bit like the Grinch in that it is both funny and evocative… only the former book is more light reading and this latter book is more sentimental reading. My mischievous but well-meaning daughter relates very much to Angela’s antics in this story.
  5. Christmas Day in the Morning: An excellent story to raise up men of virtue!  A boy offers up the most precious gift of all to his father.  So great…
  6. Prairie Christmas: A book on what the “spirit of the season” is really about, a sweet story on the transformation of one girl’s heart.
  7. A Christmas Gift For Mama: I absolutely love O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi… but I always remember feeling like it was just a bit too “mature” for lack of better word. There are no children in the tale; the selfless devotion is between a man and his wife. Well, A Christmas Gift for Mama is essentially the same tale, only between a girl and her widowed mother. It’s told and pictured in a lovely way and I feel like it’s more relevant to children today. Very nice story…
  8. An Orange for Frankie: Based on a true story and very, very sweet. A lovely book…
  9. Why the Chimes Rang: Told in the way mid-century stories were often told… this is a genuine and lovely tale that captures what it’s all about. Free to read at the Baldwin Project!
  10. Apple Tree Christmas: Like titles 5 and 7, this is another perfect book to embody what it means to give a truly thoughtful Christmas gift.  Beautiful illustrations…

Best Toddler Board Book Christmas Stories:

  1. Gingerbread Baby: Jan Brett shines again in the fun book! Be prepared to have children beg to make a gingerbread man (or baby!)
  2. The Crippled Lamb: This is a lovely tale about a lamb finding his place…
  3. Bear Stays Up for Christmas: Wilson’s rhyming doesn’t lose its cadence or charm in any of her books!  Here’s another sweet one from this author.
  4. Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend: Get real with your kids on who’s who regarding Santa/St. Nick. Nicely done retelling of one of the St. Nick legends.
  5. Who is Coming to Our House? The barn animals all get ready for “Someone” to come… toddler perfect.
  6. Snowmen at Christmas: Bright, vibrant illustrations and rhyming make this delightful for little ones; a sequel to the very popular Snowmen at Night.
  7. Christmas in the Manger. Simple, easy… nothing grand except that it’s child-pleasing.
  8. B Is for Bethlehem: My very favorite toddler book for Christmas-time!  Pure eye candy…
  9. Night Before Christmas: The Classic Edition: There are many editions of the famous poem on the market; the rich illustrations by Charles Santore make this one stand out.
  10. Tonight You Are My Baby: A nice perspective of the human side of Mary just savoring her newborn here: “Tomorrow you’ll be my king, tonight you are my baby.”
(other books I want to check out in this category: Christmas Carols, and Merry Christmas, Baby)
Best Historical Christmas Stories:

  1. Christmas in the Trenches: The neat, true story about the Christmas truces called on the Western Front during WW1.  It leaves you feeling bittersweet though… knowing how each side can recognize and celebrate the dignity of the other while commencing to kill anyway… the ugliest sides of war are carefully avoided though.
  2. Lighthouse Christmas: Very cool history about the Flying Santa Service: a pilot delivers Christmas packages to an isolated lighthouse keeper and his family. Circa 1929.
  3. Silent Night: The Song and Its Story:  Beautiful, beautiful book that brings you right to the circumstances surrounding the serendipitous creation of this famous song in 1818.
  4. Christmas from Heaven: The True Story of the Berlin Candy Bomber: I’m so happy to have new, fresh Christmas books still being produced year after year!  This one is brand new and an excellent choice for boys, World War II studies, and entire families in general. Really cool history photos thrown in among the story too.
  5. A Gift from Saint Francis: The First Creche: A very nice and matter of fact story of how the very first crèche came to be in 1223. There are two other books on this exact story look promising that I didn’t get a chance to look at personally: Saint Francis Celebrates Christmas and The Living Nativity.
  6. A Christmas Like Helen’s: Included because I’m in love with Mary Azarian.  And in love with the nostalgic rural lifestyle of yesteryears that I’ll never know. A beautiful book.
  7. The Christmas Tree Ship: This is “historical fiction” telling the story of the ship that brought Christmas trees to Chicago in the early 20th century.  Really lovely illustrations here…
  8. A Christmas Tree in the White House: A fun, true story from the Roosevelt era. This offers a good look at the “inside life” of a president and his six rascally children.
  9. The Carpenter’s Gift: A Christmas Tale about the Rockefeller Center Tree: A family is just trying to survive the Depression. In so doing, they contribute to the beginning of a national tradition.  A beautiful, beautiful book; Jim La Marche was the perfect illustrator for this story.
  10. Shooting at the Stars. This is another version out this year just like the first title on this list. A bit less sober and a bit more simplified than the other title but the same story, just a preference of versions if you had to choose one. I ended up buying this for my son to complement our WW1 studies.
(other books I want to check out in this category: The Littlest Cowboy’s Christmas, Christmas on the Mayflower

Best Christmas Stories Based on Songs:
  1. The Little Drummer Boy: Very sweet illustrations to accompany the song’s lyrics.  I admit this has a soft spot for me since I remember The Little Drummer Boy as being my mother’s favorite Christmas song and Ezra Jack Keats renders it beautifully.
  2. The Twelve Days of Christmas by Gennady Spirin is pure loveliness. But tied for first place is the version done by Laurel Long, which is just a visual feast on every page. Another good one (that I like in the board book format) is The Twelve Days of Christmas by Jan Brett.  Collectors of all things Brian Wildsmith should know that he also has a beautiful one and so does Jane Ray.
  3. The Huron Carol: Illustrated lyrics to the famous carol that St. Jean De Brebeuf wrote to explain the Christmas story to the Hurons. There is another in print version by another illustrator available too; you really can’t go wrong with either.  Haunting and beautiful.
  4. Good King Wenceslas: There are a few versions of picture books set to this song.  One that is story form (rather than just lyrics) and very nice is Stephen’s Feast.
  5. Silent Night: Just what one would expect from the sentiment this song evokes.
  6. Ding Dong! Merrily on High: Oh how I love Francesca Crespi!  Here is a gorgeous collection of carols accompanied by her outstanding pop-ups…
  7. Frosty the Snowman: Frosty the Snowman is probably the easiest Christmas song to sing along to a book. This one has bright, fresh illustrations to the classic song. And it comes with Kenny Loggins singing it!
  8. Away in a Manger: I never exactly jumped on the Thomas Kincade bandwagon but even I have to admit that the “painter of light” is perfectly suited to illustrating Christmas themes.
  9. The Nutcracker: Not exactly lyrics to a song of course as it was a ballet, but I had to include the most famous Christmas fairy tale of all and Susan Jeffers does it best.
  10. White Christmas: Good song. Bright, fantasy illustrations complete with snow fairies that look like munchkins from the Land of Oz… what else could one want? (Maybe an accompanying CD of Bing Crosby.) Michael Hague has a bit of a cult following and they can find more of his signature illustrations in his Treasury of Christmas Carols.
(other books I want to check out in this category: Away in a MangerO Come, All Ye Faithful,  Nutcracker)
Best “Just Sweet” Christmas Stories:

  1. Mousekin’s Christmas Eve: Mousekin is a Charlotte Mason-ers delight with all the beautiful depictions of the natural world. All of these books need to come back in print!  Here is a lovely analogy about the one place we can all find a home: at the foot of the manger.
  2. The Mice, the Monks and the Christmas Tree: I bought this blindly, without knowing or hearing a single thing about it. This is a rare move for me. But after hearing the title and seeing the cover, I could not resist!  Since info on it is hard to find online, I’ll post more about it separately.
  3. Santa Mouse: (What is it about mice and Christmastime?!) This is a light and fun little story about Santa’s new helper. Little children will like it but what gets it on my list is the darling vintage, Richard Scarry-esque artwork by Elfreida De Witt.
  4. A Wish to Be a Christmas Tree: An old goat of a tree is sad that he never gets picked to be a family’s Christmas Tree.  But animals all around get together to show him how much he matters to them right where he is.
  5. The Christmas ABC: Eloise Wilkins shines her vintage Christmas artwork here. The girl reminds me of my god-daughter which is why I bought this for her this year!
  6. The Little Drummer Mouse: Mercer Mayer’s lavishly illustrated book about a little, unappreciated mouse being the one who is able to make baby Jesus happy.
  7. Cobweb Christmas: The Tradition of Tinsel: The sweet legend of why we decorate Christmas trees with tinsel… it might be enough to convert spider-haters.
  8. The Spider’s Gift: A Ukrainian Christmas Story: Eric Kimmel always does a great job with fables and legends. What I especially like is that all the emphasis isn’t just on spiders leaving a miracle on the tree, but that Christ’s birth is still emphasized and celebrated.
  9. The Candymaker’s Gift: The Legend of the Candy Cane: The lovely story behind the favorite candy that is full of symbolism and meaning.
  10. Drummer Boy. Loren Long nails these illustrations. This is the classic, lost-and-found-toy storyline. I love when sweet books are able to have a subtle hint to the true meaning of Christmas without forcing it.

Top 11 Out-of-Print Christmas Stories that I Haven’t Seen (Yet)… But Would Love to Get My Hands On!

  1. The Christmas Angel: Joan Gale Thomas wrote the very dear If Jesus Came To My House (not to be confused with the newer version with “updated” illustrations) and “A” Stands for Angel which I love (and is also highly Christmas-relevant!)  I’m certain this Christmas story from her has got to be just as lovely as all her work!  She also did If I’d Been Born in Bethlehem which I’d love to see too.
  2. How Six Found Christmas: Something is drawing me to this…
  3. The Dolls’ Christmas: Tasha Tudor and Christmas go together like peanut butter and jelly.
  4. An Edwardian Christmas: I have an affection for wordless books and this looks lovely.
  5. Bright Christmas: An Angel Remembers: It’s on everyone else’s lists of great Christmas books, so it must be good!
  6. The Secret Santa of Olde Stonington: I love small town mysteries and legends…
  7. Penny’s Christmas Jar Miracle: Published very recently, this book became a big hit and I’m disappointed it went out of print so quickly!!!
  8. The Christmas Cake in Search of its Owner. I went on a Roger Duvoisin appreciation kick this year and want to see more!
  9. The Christmas Forest. Same reason as above!
  10. Mother Makes Christmas.  Anything that includes Lois Lenski illustrations is a must-see in my opinion—they are so full of “the good old days” charm.
  11. A Christmas Alphabet. I love alphabet books! I love Joan Walsh Anglund! It must be a delightful pairing…
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The Jesse Tree in Picture Books

**** updated: 06/2015, new comments in RED****
Be sure to check out the alternate and more concise version of this list here.


I had an ambitious project in mind this year before Advent begins. Normally we do our readings for each day of the Jesse Tree straight from a Children’s Bible.  But I wanted to up our game. So I did some initial browsing online to see if it was even possible. It was. I could find a picture book for every individual Bible reading for each of the days of Advent! Mind = Blown.

I got many of my initial title inspirations from this kind mama where she lists a book for each of December’s days. But in our home, we do Jesse Tree a bit differently so I adjusted quite a bit for our purposes.  First of all, we observe Advent for the full 21-28 days depending on the year. Some folks keep it simple and just do Jesse Tree readings beginning Dec. 1st. Secondly, I wasn’t willing to find a picture book just to have a picture book of a certain story.  It had to be good, which means most serial Bible story sets need not apply. Third, beginning on December 17th, we switch completely to the Antiphons. So the last Bible story we read about is the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth before going to the beautiful Messianic titles of Christ (heard in the song “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”). It would have been far too difficult to find picture books for THOSE, so we just go back to the simple Bible verse and prayer until Christmas Eve when we will read over the original Nativity story (picture book or straight from the Bible) itself.

So in reality, I needed a full 21 individual stories (28 – 7 Antiphons = 21 stories for the longest year of Advent.) On shorter Advent years, we may read more than one story a night (i.e. all the Moses readings work nicely to combine or separate) or skip one altogether.

The downside to this project is that finding picture books—quality picture books—for the stories I wanted to include was a big challenge. Huge actually. There are a myriad of cheap, saccharine-looking Bible story books on the market. But with enough hunting and scavenging and library holding… it was just about possible to find worthy books for my tastes! There are only a couple stories with which I’m not 100% satisfied, so my hunt continues.  Now, I had a couple of these titles already; many others were found at the library. Others were purchased at cheap out-of-print prices. Only one was splurged on at full price. So doing the Jesse tree with picture books is possible! But I admit that its a bit of a luxury; maybe start by acquiring just a few titles a year to supplement your regular readings.

Here’s what we have going on for a full 28 day Advent. This year, 2013, the season is only 24 days so we’re doing Moses all in one day and Joseph all in one day. I’ll probably skip Elijah altogether. I recently found a couple more stories that are NOT on this particular compendium but you may want to substitute in somewhere if you happen to have an easier time finding them than some of these others:

BALAAM’S ASS: I didn’t realize there was a good picture book version of this drama-comedy until I stumbled upon The Donkey’s Story by Barbara Cohen, thinking it must be a Christmas story at first. But I was pleasantly surprised.  Then I found another one I liked even better in  The Angel and the Donkey! There is a third story on this which I haven’t seen but it is part of an old vintage series that I would LOVE to have in its entirety: Balaam and his Ass .

JOSHUA: Joshua Crosses the Jordan is a reader book but it looks like it could be pretty good.  It’s done by the same pair who did the Elijah title below. 

 

Jesse Tree Booklist

Day 1: The Story of Creation. The best I found on this is Gennedy Spirin’s Creation. I’m looking forward to Archbishop Tutu’s yet to be released Let There Be Light (update 11/14: I’ve seen it now and not really a fan.). But so far, Spirin’s story is both the most simple, most beautiful (well God does look a little bit intimidating but I can overlook that) and most faithful to the original Bible text.
Day 2: Adam & Eve and the Fall. I am currently using Fiona French’s Paradise for the story of the Garden of Eden. I previewed a few others and either didn’t like the text or was uncomfortable with the full, frontal nudity. I loved everything about Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden except for the overt nudity and as my three oldest are boys… I just would rather avoid that ogling temptation. Other families might feel differently. The nudity is in context after all, and one good mama suggested that she has no problem employing the Sharpie marker to lengthen Eve’s hair or some-such in these situations. But this particular Jane Ray book was a library one… and I wasn’t willing to purchase something that needed at least two pages of obvious modification. In French’s book, there are two pictures of Eve’s breasts; they are pretty benign considering the art is clearly stained glass-style unreal.
(I thickened an arm shadow to cover the nipple on one page and had the audacity to draw in a blackbird on Eve’s arm for the other page!  It might be a little ridiculous… my kids probably won’t notice the alterations at all. But I feel better anyway.) I wish the story went a little more into detail about Eve tempting Adam and the confrontation; it also ends on a somber note of simply the Garden being closed.  In short, it’s not perfect but I do like most of it…
Day 3: Noah and the Ark. Despite the many versions of this story, the clear-cut winner is hand’s down Jerry Pinkney’s Noah’s Ark(update 6/15: Wait, wait! Pinkeye’s is awesome but even better, EVEN BETTER is the new, GORGEOUS book of art Noah’s Ark)
Day 4: The Tower of Babel. I was very happy to see that a great and vibrant story exists on this: (albeit, out of print…) You can read my review on it at amazon. The Tower of Babel.
Day 5: The Promise to Abraham. I ran into some trouble here. I settled on a typical series-version book for the stories of Abraham and Isaac but it’s not anything worth writing about.  I really wanted to get my hands on Sarah Laughs but wasn’t able to budget it in this year… (update 11/14: got it and love it) and it still left me with the problem of…
Day 6: Isaac and Abraham. There IS The White Ram: A Story of Abraham and Isaac but I thought it strayed too far into the fanciful and I really want to keep our readings focused and reverent. So, until I find some better options, I’ll be reading from our mediocre story book for Abraham and Isaac.
Day 7: Jacob and Esau. Done very well in this book: Jacob and Esau.
Day 8: Joseph.  This is one of those stories that can be broken into two days: the early story of The Coat of Many Colors and the later story involving his brother” reconciliation in Benjamin and the Silver Goblet or you find the whole story done well in Joseph.
Days 9 & 10: Moses. This covers the individual stories of the baby in the basket, the 10 plagues and parting of the sea, and the 10 Commandments. We can read it in sections. There are a few different options that have the whole Moses story but the one I liked the most was done by Margaret Hodges and Barry Moser: Moses. I may also throw in parts from Wildsmith’s Exodus just to change it up a bit.
Day 11: Ruth.  I finally got The Story Of Ruth and think it’s a necessary addition to the Jesse Tree. I’ll be shortening the Moses stories to include this one!  It’s a great lesson in fidelity and devotion.
Day 12: Samuel. I was surprised to find The Story of the Call of Samuel! It’s a pretty well done version of the story. I just wonder why there aren’t other decent picture books on even more interesting Bible figures like Samson, Joshua, Elijah, and others…
Day 13: David and Goliath.  The best version I was able to find was David and Goliath.
Day 14: Esther. I really, really love the Esther book we use for this day! Queen Esther Saves Her People is just sooo good.  If you can’t borrow or purchase this one, there are other decent versions out there. I’d settle for The Story of Esther: A Purim Tale if it weren’t for the other one.
Day 15: Solomon. I wasn’t thrilled with the couple of books I previewed on Solomon’s riddles and such. I wanted a general idea of his kingship and justice.  So I bought the compilation picture book: Kings and Queens of the Bible and am pretty happy with it. Alternately, you can find a lovely tale of his testing by Queen Sheba in The Wisest Man in the World, complete with illustrations by the excellent Anita Lobel.
Day 16: Elijah.  I desperately wanted to find a good picture book on Elijah because I think he’s an important prophet and his story is neat enough to visualize.  Instead I found Journeys with Elijah: Eight Tales of the Prophet at the library which is a collection of legends.  The book is nice but the only useful part to me for my purposes is the introduction which tells the actual story of Elijah. So I’m still on the hunt for a stand-alone picture book on this man. (update 11/14: There is a wonderful and excellent story to be found in Elijah and the Fire from Heaven but it is “very” out of print and used copies in good shape are hard to find. I’ll write more about this in a separate post. I did notice a reader book called Elijah and King Ahab but haven’t had a chance to personally preview it yet.  It is cheap though and looks like “inoffensive” art; I’d buy it if I didn’t have the other one.)
Day 17: Jonah.  I was really, really pleased with Jonah and the Whale. I looked at a few different versions of this story but was really discouraged by the twaddle and the unfaithful retellings out there.  This one is really good…
Day 18: King Belshazaar and the Writing on the Wall. I admit that this wasn’t my first pick on stories to include in our Jesse Tree traditions but I wasn’t able to identify any good books for the stories I DID want.  So this will suffice.  I found this story in the Kings and Queens of the Bible book again.
Day 19: Daniel in the Lion’s Den. I only got to see a couple story books with this tale in it (indeed there are only a couple) and the best one out there is definitely Daniel and the Lord of Lions.
Day 20: The Annunciation and Visitation. I have the book Mary by Brian Wildsmith but de Paola’s Mary: The Mother of Jesus is pretty great too. (also, let’s not forget the strange and wonderful book by Inos Biffi The Life of Mary to use for these stories also.) 

Days 21-27: The Antiphons

Day 28 (Christmas Eve): The Nativity.  There are a number of decent versions of the Nativity told in picture book form. I like ones that use the actual words from the Bible. I’m using Francesca Crespi’s The Nativity because I already had it and it’s a nice, special, pop-up touch to the end of the Advent season for my kids. Other worthy titles are: The Christmas StoryBethlehem, and Christmas Story.

Happy reading!


*Addendum

Why do the Jesse Tree at all?  For us, it’s to give the FULL Christmas story… to remember the beginning of salvation history. I love this thought from then-Cardinal Ratzinger (1986):
     “Advent is concerned with that very connection between memory and hope which is so necessary to man. Advent’s intention is to awaken the most profound and basic emotional memory within us, namely, the memory of the God who became a child. This is a healing memory; it brings hope. 
     The purpose of the Church’s year is continually to rehearse her great history of memories, to awaken the heart’s memory so that it can discern the star of hope.…
     It is the beautiful task of Advent to awaken in all of us memories of goodness and thus to open doors of hope.”

 

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Saint-Saens’s Danse Macabre: November Perfect

In the Catholic faith, we are asked, during the month of November, to reflect on The Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. In the picture book world, I like the idea of using the first part of this month to read darker, haunting or semi-macabre stories (think fairy tales). In having a healthy respect for the supernatural while living as best one can in the state of grace, I really think we have no reason to fear darker themes. And when you treat things in their proper place and have a good understanding of all things ghoulish… kids I think, will too. I mean, my children and I are fascinated by the Martyrs of Otranto for example and on my “money-is-not-a-factor bucket list”, I hope to see their shrine someday, complete with the skulls on display. There is no “creepiness” in death really and ideally, it’s a glorious passage… but I digress.

I was checking to make sure that Anna Harwell Celenza hadn’t produced a book on Mozart (whom we are studying this term) and was reminded with happiness that she had just put out Vivaldi’s Four Seasons this summer… but my eye caught another new title I hadn’t seen before—produced just this August! And that was Saint-Saens’s Danse Macabre. We love Celenza’s books in this house (and accompanying CDs) and have purchased four of them now… to supplement our studies of composers.

To be honest, I don’t know anything about the Danse Macabre or much about Camille Saint-Saëns either, but I was intrigued by the cover and read up a bit about the history of that piece in particular.  I learned a lot about the Dance particularly

here. ApparentlySaint-Saëns actually went a-loitering in the catacombs to get inspired for this piece! Anyway, during November, before settling down with the comforting, festive Thanksgiving stories, this would be an excellent book to read and composition to study. I unfortunately, have maxed out both my book budget for the month as well as my request for materials to be purchased at the library right now… so I don’t have a first-hand review of the book to offer yet.  But I’m certain, like all of Celenza’s books, it’s excellent…

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And What About Halloween?

I’ll be honest, I’m not particularly thrilled with most Halloween books out there. They generally fall to two extremes: the much too-scary ghoulish books or the cutesy little stories that are explicitly twaddle.  Maybe it’s because there’s nothing really in the spiritual realm to bank this holiday on… with the exception of All Saint’s Day on November 1st—for which there are of course many good saint books.  But Halloween as it’s popularly known today? Pretty barren for the literature world. There are of course, a couple gems, generally related to pumpkins in general: Pumpkin Moonshine by Tasha Tudor is probably my only “must have” for this specific holiday. But Too Many Pumpkins is another fun one worth picking up.  And if you are able to find a good copy of Mousekin’s Golden House for under $20 you’d be lucky, but chances are slim. There are probably others, but I’ve stopped searching for great Halloween specific books. I turn to other sources to get into the spirit of things.

Ed Emberley is single-handedly responsible for encouraging my children to become little artists.  Whenever I used to try and get them to draw a scene from a story or just be creative, they would whine that “they didn’t know how.”  So I first bought Ed Emberley’s: Make a World to see if they would be motivated to try. Would they ever!  Suddenly, the whole world was opened up to them! They just needed to realize how easy it was to break down basic figures into manageable parts to draw, and Emberley was the first to show them how. Lately the boys have been drawing from two of his very Halloween oriented titles: Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book of Weirdos and Ed Emberley’s Big Orange Drawing Book (unfortunately out of print right now) . Both books are excellent for inspiring fun, not-too-scary-but-just-scary-enough drawings. We currently have expanded our How-To-Draw ______ books but still have a good half dozen of Emberley’s titles.

Another alternative to traditional Halloween stories are to explore picture books that really embody mystery and suspense… not necessarily fear. Chris Van Allsburg comes to mind with books like The Stranger or the fun and macabre (a great combo) alphabet book The Z Was Zapped.

Finally, this a great time to avoid the commercial Halloween fare altogether and bust out the old, creepy fairy tales like Hansel and GretelRumpelstiltskin, or the modern but delicious Heckedy Peg. Search through many picture books to find one that gives a fair rendition of classic fairy tales or just save yourself the pain and invest in a good, quality anthology of originals.  Enter Andrew Lang’s Colored Fairy Book Collection if you want to do the piecemeal approach like I do.  Otherwise there are complete anthologies like Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories.

Please note that not all fairy tales were written for children and some can be quite gruesome and morbid.  Use your best discretion in previewing these tales… but know that this is what they looked like before Disney came to popularize and trivialize them.


“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”-Albert Einstein 
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Appreciating Arnosky

Today I dug into our October basket (yes, our “seasonal” rotation of picture books has now grown into a “monthly” rotation of books!! I include all our picture books in this rotation (excepting non-fiction) so as to ensure we are getting a chance to read and appreciate all the good ones we have.  Otherwise, treasures get buried and forgotten in the surplus.) and pulled out Every Autumn Comes the Bear by Jim Arnosky.

I was reminded again of how much we love this author.  Is it the brilliance of the text?  Not so much.  The glory of the illustrations?  Not exactly.  I think what it is has to do with the perfect marriage of text and imagery Arnosky offers in all of his books.  He writes simple story lines… easy enough for a 2 year old to sit through, yet engaging enough for an 8 year old to appreciate.  And he doesn’t fictionalize things or  indulge in anthropomorphism like so many other popular kiddy books do— I have no problem with talking animals, believe you me… but all things have their place.  And animals in Arnosky’s books are simply stars in the natural history story he has to tell. And they are excellent.

Crinkleroot
Tom Bombadil

We own Grandfather Buffalo and Coyote Raid In Cactus Canyon also but I’m starting to get the itch that tells me I need to purchase more of his titles… so loved they are and so seasonally appropriate they can be.  On my shortlist are Rabbits & Raindrops or Raccoons and Ripe Corn and Armadillo’s Orange (get a load of those used prices! Ha!). And we can’t forget Crinkleroot and his series… which are very basic primers to different aspects of nature; kids love them. As a side-note, Crinkleroot reminds me of how I envision a simpler version of Tom Bombadil. If you get that reference, it’s a strong indication you might be awesome.

Anyway, Jim Arnosky provides good stuff all around!  Go get some books!

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Top 10 Books about Books

Here is a non-typical list of Books About Books.  Most of the lists I’ve read of this nature have to do primarily with literature selection and include extensive booklists. Well this list isn’t entirely like that since I don’t have 10 whole books about booklists that I agree with 100% and would call EXCELLENT.  Instead this is simply books about books in the general sense. So read my comments carefully before putting all these books in your shopping cart; they may not be what you are looking for! These are simply my 10 favorite books about some aspect of BiblioZeal and it was quite challenging to narrow this BROAD subject down, once the topic got opened up past simply literature selection lists. So in no particular order:

 Honey for a Child’s Heart by Gladys Hunt.  This is one of the most oft-recommended resources for parents who are looking HOW to choose the best picture books for children…  and for good reason. It was one of my first books specifically about picture books that I ever read and includes detailed lists.

 How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler. Best title ever that succinctly describes what’s in it.  All educated people should read this really well-laid-out book on how to make the most of their reading, whether it be for scholarship or delight… especially before going to college!

 Making Handmade Books by Alisa Golden. A highly inspirational book to savor. This is one that is fun to let sitting about for middle-aged children to find and be encouraged in. This discusses all that you need to know in creating your own beautiful masterpieces. Could be an excellent source for gift-making. Writers aren’t just published people!

 The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. This is an absolute must-read for all parents in my opinion. It discusses WHY reading aloud is so very important in families and classrooms, examines some pretty startling statistics about what that can do for a child and will completely convict parents to NOT overlook reading aloud to even older children. I like many of the books in Trelease’s extended booklist… but don’t agree 100% about all his recommendations for quality literature. So get this book for the informational content, not for the lists in the back!


 A Picture Perfect Childhood by Cay Gibson. Now this is a book with which I CAN agree 100% on the lists included! And they are sorted in many useful ways, from great picture books for months of the year, countries of the world, virtues to teach, etc. All this plus many great notes on the goodness and importance of picture books in general make this a must have for Biblio-Zealots.

 How Picture Books Work by Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott. I admit that most of you will want nothing to do with this book. It must of been written for a college course I think because it is pretty technical, thick reading. On picture books of all things! Still, I found it fascinating to explore different concepts of what makes some picture books successfull classics and not others. All the details about the relationship between writer and illustrator and publisher, text to picture placement, font choice… etc. There is so much going on in great picture books that the average reader doesn’t usually perceive. I would liken it to a book on cinematography… what makes a movie brilliant is the coherence of scripting, acting, camerawork, soundtrack, and on and on. The trick for successful artists and writers is to make it look simple and beautiful and enjoyable.  This book is interesting for nerds like me to pore over.

 A Landscape With Dragons by Michael O’Brien. This was the first “book about books” I ever read a good 10 years ago or so. It was really great that I found it before I really started my children’s library. O’Brien is known for his position on the importance of how Evil and Good need to be treated in literature, movies and pop-culture: everything in its proper place. When deciding on whether a story is good for children, one has to examine how things like magic and dragons and witches are treated. I love the booklists in the back of this book but many of the titles are out-of-print and hard to find. Still, it’s a good place to start when trying to define what kinds of things you’ll allow your children to be entertained by.

 For the Love of Literature by Maureen Wittman. This is an incredibly useful book and I reference it often as I’m choosing books to supplement our schooling subjects. In all subjects (even math!) , there are great books for children of all ages to learn with and while I can and do make use of online resources that include much of this same information, Wittman’s book is a staple on my shelf for how it’s organized and for being… well… printed! I hate having to run to the computer every time I want an idea or resource, so this helps remedy that!

 Minders of Make Believe by Leonard Marcus. I found this book fascinating also… it’s really a history of where we’ve come as a culture in the development and publication of children’s books. I have learned a LOT by reading this and find it really interesting how many things and authors and ideas we take for granted without knowing from whence they came. Highly recommended for lovers of both children’s literature and lovers of history.

 Who Reads What When by Jane Williams. Really this compact little book is probably my favorite for a very straightforward and trustworthy resource on booklists. You can look up ages to start authors or series… or simply read the titles for each age listed. Its great appeal is in its simplicity and I enjoy having this on my shelf!

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    Loving Lessac

    Lately, I’ve been enjoying the work of a wonderful author and illustrator—Frané Lessac.  Her style is deceptively childlike: at first you see her paintings and think Psssh! My 8 year old colors like that! I guess anyone can illustrate children’s books. Then you look a little closer or turn a few pages and realize that her folk art is absolutely filled with thoughtfulness and detail… color and feeling.  This is more than what most children can do— Lessac has a bright ability to make stories come alive with innovative attention to detail.  And every new book I see illustrated by her, I inevitably love.

    She spent part of her life living on the Carribean island of Montserrat and this has influenced her work heavily.  The story My Little Island  was the first encounter I had with her and I was struck with how fitting her style is with summery, beachy, island themes, similar I guess to the way that Jan Brett really shines brightest in her Scandinavian themed books.  The flavors of island life practically jump from the pages in My Little Island.  And they do this as well with Drummer Boy of John John which is a fun story about the upcoming festival of Carnival featuring lots of foot stomping, hand clapping onomatopoeia.

    The next time I stumbled across Frané was when I picked up On the Same Day in March at the thrift store.  What a gem! I really love LIVING social studies books and this one immediately went into my homeschooling basket for my 2nd grade and under crew. It examines different parts of the world at the exact same time of year.  It is so fun to see the differences in weather and lifestyle!

    Next I found Monday on the Mississippi at the library and marveled at how beautifully the text and pictures complemented each other.  This book takes the reader from the headwaters all the way to the Gulf of Mexico… I immediately pegged it as a great companion to Minn of the Mississippi and any other studies of this river or rivers in general.

    I really loved Lessac’s illustrations in Queen Esther Saves Her People by Rita Gelman also.  I think it can be a challenge to translate many Bible stories into children’s books while retaining the story element. But this one absolutely brings the fantastic story alive and wonderful to kids while remaining faithful to the story of Esther.

    Lastly, I want to highlight the best World War I picture book I’ve seen so far: The Donkey of Gallipoli: A True Story of Courage in World War I.  How do you bring the horrors of war into a picture book without horrifying young children?  I think the answer to this is in the art of storytelling and the way the pictures fill in the blanks.  For example, while Patricia Polacco’s highly acclaimed Pink and Say is a moving story taking place during the Civil War, I removed it from our collection.  I just had an aversion the graphic depiction of blood even if it was couched in beautiful sentiment.  But the Donkey of Gallipoli is balanced beautifully.  There are war scenes to be sure and the story doesn’t avoid the topic of death.  Yet, the folk style of Lessac really helps to soften the harshness of what is being read and the lovely story really is one that all children will enjoy.  The ending leaves us thoughtful and hopeful… not scared or disturbed.  Highly recommended!

    Frané Lessac is a wonderful artist whose style is a refreshing and quirky change on my bookshelf of classic artists.  There are many other books she’s collaborated on not listed here which I am eager to get my hands on… and I understand she has many more in the works so keep your eyes open for her vivid bursts of delightful art.

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    The difference between good and great

    Last night, the children picked a couple story books before bedtime. Two of the books chosen last night struck me for two different reasons. I wouldn’t classify either of these books as “must have” literature… they were picked up probably at a garage sale or some such for a quarter a piece in my efforts to rely less on the library and more on our own shelves for read-alouds (these overdue fines are killing me!)

    The difference in good and great text in a picture book is sometimes very subtle.  It’s an attention to quirky details or a particular knack for speaking in a child’s language.  We read Babar Visits Another Planet and in the story Babar loses a shoe on the sticky surface of the planet.  Read this next part:

    The concept of an elephant being conscious of dignity in footware is wonderfully fresh and thoughtful for a reader to stumble upon.  This is partially why Laurent de Brunhoff has been successful in furthering the Babar series that his father—the famous Jean de Brunhoff— created in 1931.  I tend to love the originals by Jean best… this visit to another planet thing doesn’t amuse me as much as my boys but I really did appreciate this little line. 
    The next book we read was the wonderful The Giant Jam Sandwich.  Fun rhyming, a superbly inventive concept… what’s not to love?!  But just try to imagine what this book would look like with illustrations like digital, bright, generic cartoon characters.  *shudder*  The magic would be gone.  John Vernon Lord hits a home run here because of his wonderfully detailed images:

    Just look at this last one!  There is a photographer down the road, a morose looking man along the parapet, three children chasing each other on the horizon, and a bunch of women laying out the blanket in the field.  But the text is only about the horses pulling the bread to the site. This is how illustrations should be: not just showing a visual of what the words say… but filling in the idiosyncrasies of a tale and doing half the tale-telling themselves. This book illustrates (Ha! Punny.) that concept so well it is no wonder that Vernon Lord is a lecturer on the art of illustration!  Delicious!
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    a brief scholarly detour

    … to engage those brain muscles of yours. This only tangentially relates to picture books, but I stumbled on this bit by C.S Lewis on the importance of reading old books.  It’s more than intellectual snobbery or biblio-aesthetics… read the whole thing when you get a minute, or at least read until he starts talking specifically about the book he’s introducing if that doesn’t interest you.


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