Most Christmas picture books are dumb. A few are awesome. Both of these facts are more important than you might think, because vapid books don’t just sucker doting parents and grandparents out of a few bucks, they actually make the world a worse place in which to live.
History and literature remind us that human stupidity causes just as much collateral damage as a few evil dictators or lone gunmen. Why encourage our children to have dumb tastes? Why feed them literary dust bunnies?
On the other hand, human minds respond to the nourishment that comes from good, true, and beautiful books. Sharing gorgeous pictures and well-crafted stories with our children is an excellent way to combat the dehumanizing habits and beliefs that are making our world more shrill, more angry, and more sad.
Fortunately, most of us can tell instinctively which picture books are worthwhile. The good ones are the volumes we can enjoy reading aloud 57 times. They draw readers of multiple ages together. They convey something true and real. They are absolutely worth purchasing.
That’s why I’ve spent the last two weeks borrowing more than 90 different Christmas picture books from the library. It’s part of a quest to sort the dumb from the awesome. After reading through the piles, I’ve assembled a list of awesome ones that suit my ideas of what makes for a good picture book, and I’ve purchased a few for my own family.
I plan to divide them between four bags and let my children choose a new collection to open on each Sunday during Advent. When the Christmas decorations come down, I’ll pop the books and bags into storage for next year.
I hope you, too, will share books with your children—or young relatives, neighbors, or hapless bystanders—this Advent and Christmas. Here is a run-down of the books I recommend.
My Criteria for Good Christmas Picture Books
Of course, taste in picture books is somewhat subjective. None have lasted through the centuries yet. My criteria is as follows:
- The author should (clearly) love the English language. I’m looking for an engaging use of words. I’m looking for good storytelling. When I read a given book, I’m hoping to feel the spark that shines from truly good stories—the spark that makes it fun to share the story over and over again, even right before nap time.
- The illustrations should demonstrate skill and care. It’s shocking how many picture books are filled with boring or downright ugly pictures. Don’t put up with this! You should enjoy looking at the illustrations and want to do so repeatedly. Furthermore, the pictures should make you feel that the world is a remarkable place.
- The books should avoid dumb inaccuracies. I want Nativity stories in which Mary is brunette, angels don’t look like polka-dotted sugar plum fairies, and the Wise Men are male. After all, my kids are learning. Why confuse them with contrived, counterproductive efforts to make the greatest story of all time “better”?
- The books should convey truth, not sentimentality or mush. I dislike stories that are constructed purely to give readers a cheap high of sentimentality. Even if Christmas is a time of warm fuzzies, the fuzzies will last longer if they are built on truths rather than evoked by vague, atmospheric platitudes. I reject any book that uses the phrase, “Suddenly, the spirit of Christmas filled his heart,” because what does that really mean?
Note that the books below are arranged—very roughly—by rank within each category, with my top favorites listed first in each section. I’ve also attempted to suggest the age for which each book is most suitable, but of course children differ, and the best books are enjoyable for the whole family. A few of the following volumes are out of print but obtainable online or from most libraries.
“The Christmas Story from the Gospel According to St. Luke from the King James Bible,” illustrated by James Bernardin. I was determined to find a Nativity picture book in which Mary is not blond, no European woodland animals appear at the manger scene, and the wise men wait to arrive until the historically accurate moment. This book fits the bill nicely. The illustrations are respectful and appealing. Mary and Joseph look Jewish, and the setting is definitely not Europe. Ages 3 and up.
“Who Is Coming to Our House?” by Joseph Slate, illustrated by Ashley Wolff. In this simple story, the animals prepare for Baby Jesus to arrive at their stable. The text is pleasant to read and the pictures are engaging. It’s a lovely little book to share with small children. Ages 1 to 4.
“The Christmas Story,” by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This book pairs the classic biblical text with Medieval and Renaissance artwork from the Metropolitan. Some of the images are more accessible to children than others, but it’s a nice volume for the coffee table. Unlike more typical Christmas books, it also includes the flight into Egypt. For all ages (but more likely to go over well with children who’ve had some experience discussing art).
Stories about Children at Christmas
“Christmas in Noisy Village,” by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Ilon Wikland. In this delightful glimpse of old-timey Sweden, we see how a group of children enjoy the customs and traditions of Christmas-time. Young readers can spend a long time examining the detailed illustrations. Ages 3 and up.
“Alfie’s Christmas,” by Shirley Hughes. My toddler and preschooler love the gentle, perceptive realism of the Alfie books. In this one, Alfie and his little sister, Annie Rose, help their parents prepare for Christmas. Even though Annie Rose ends up needing a nap on the big day, their Christmas is simple and pleasant. Ages 2 to 5.
“Happy Christmas, Gemma,” by Sarah Hayes. In a story with a warm family feeling, a Jamaican-English boy decorates for Christmas and celebrates with his family. Meanwhile, his baby sister makes a series of endearing messes. Ages 2 to 5.
“Christmas at Long Pond,” by William T. George. As a father and son go out to cut down their Christmas tree, they encounter a variety of realistic wildlife. A good choice for young naturalists. Ages 4 and up.
“Night Tree,” by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Ted Rand. I found the illustrations endearing in this story about a boy and his family who go out every year to decorate their favorite tree with popcorn and fruit for the local animals. Ages 3 and up.
“Christmas Farm,” by Mary Lyn Ray, illustrated by Barry Root. Wilma wants to do something different with her summer garden, so she and a young neighbor boy grow Christmas trees. The story gives young readers an idea of the years and work that go into preparing a tree for the Christmas market. It may feel a bit slow to the youngest children. Ages 4 and up.
Historical Fiction Related to Christmas
“The Third Gift,” by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. This one has particularly wonderful illustrations and is one of my top favorites. In the story, a boy works with his father to harvest sap. The sap turns out to be myrrh and is purchased by the Wise Men. Ages 4 and up.
“The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree,” by Gloria Houston, illustrated by Barbara Cooney. Although the Armistice has been signed, Ruthie’s father hasn’t yet returned to their little Appalachian town, and it will be difficult for Ruthie’s family to fulfill the local custom of donating a tree to their church. Fortunately, Ruthie has a courageous mother. Ages 5 and up.
“The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey,” by Susan Wojciechowski, illustrated by P.J. Lynch. When an embittered wood carver makes a nativity set for a young boy, the man is finally forced to make peace with the grief from his past. Admittedly, this story verges perilously near to the plot of a Hallmark movie, but it’s well-done and worked for me. Ages 6 and up.
“The Tailor of Gloucester,” by Beatrix Potter. When a poor tailor is taken ill in the lead-up to Christmas and cannot finish an important commission, a group of mice steps in to help. This little volume contains more text than many of Potter’s stories and involves historical details that need to be explained to younger readers, but Potter fans will find it worth the effort. Ages 4 and up.
“The Christmas Eve Ghost,” by Shirley Hughes. Based on the author’s experience growing up in 1930s Liverpool, this book is aimed at an older audience than most of her work. Young readers will enjoy seeing how the characters help Mam with her work as a laundress but may not grasp the significance of the tensions between Catholics and Protestants. That’s okay, though—sometimes we need time to grow into books. Ages 5 and up.
Cute Animal Stories
“The Mole Family’s Christmas,” by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Lillian Hoban. The story of a near-sighted mole family who learn about Christmas and try to request a telescope from “the fat man in the red suit,” this one’s out-of-print but well-worth hunting down. It’s an example of clever storytelling, delightful wordplay, and satisfying use of characters. Another of my favorites. Ages 4 and up.
“Mortimer’s Christmas Manger,” by Karma Wilson, illustrated by Jane Chapman. It’s hard to find a story about cute Christmas animals that isn’t a mess. This one is actually both cute and well-written. When a little mouse discovers the nativity set, he pushes the figures out and makes himself at home. Eventually, he realizes that the baby who keeps getting in his way is Jesus. Ages 2 and up.
“Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree,” by Robert Barry. In this fun-to-read tale, a comical procession of human and animal characters cut the top off a too-tall tree and discard the excess—only to have the (progressively smaller) scrap taken home by someone else. Ages 3 and up.
“Wombat Divine” by Mem Fox, illustrated by Kerry Argent. In this Australian tale, Wombat wants to take part in the Nativity play but does not initially seem suited for any of the parts. Ages 3 and up.
“The Donkey’s Dream,” by Barbara Helen Berger. A donkey, carrying a heavy load all the way to Bethlehem, dreams that he is carrying a variety of symbolic things. At the end of the journey, he discovers who really rode on his back. The symbols seem meant to apply to the Virgin Mary, but apply very well to Jesus also. I appreciate the gentle, reverent tone of the story. Ages 4 and up.
“The Christmas Day Kitten,” by James Herriot, illustrated by Ruth Brown. Harriot wrote warm, humorous stories about his life as a veterinarian in pre-World-War-II Yorkshire. This realistic tale about a kitten born on Christmas provides younger readers with a nice introduction to the author. Ages 5 and up.
“The Church Mice at Christmas,” by Graham Oakley. As a kid, I relished the wry humor in Oakley’s various stories about a group of British church mice and their feline companion. This one involves attempts at Christmas revelry, a burglar, and a reward. It’s very different from most of the books on this list, but hey, give it a try (especially if you like British humor). Ages 5 and up.
Other Great Christmas Picture Books
“Twelve Days of Christmas,” traditional, illustrated by Jan Brett. It behooves all parents to remind their children that Christmas lasts 12 days. Ages 3 and up.
“The Night Before Christmas,” by Clement Moore, illustrated by Tasha Tudor. If you are going to own an illustrated version of Moore’s poem, please own this one. It is the best. I particularly liked seeing Santa portrayed as small and a bit elven—the perfect companion for his mini Nordic reindeer. If we are to believe that Santa comes down the chimney, he ought to be small. Ages: 5 and up.
“Cozy Classics: The Nutcracker,” by Jack Wang and Holman Wang. All the Cozy Classic board books distill actual classics into a few words, and illustrate them with felted figurines. They’re pretty awesome. Ages 1 and up.