For parents mindful of the importance of seasonal-themed literature, now is the time to return to the library all the books about pilgrims and pumpkins, and check out those about winter and snow, Christmas and Hanukkah.
Of course, there are old, popular favorites like “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “The Polar Express,” and “Madeline’s Christmas.” While my wife and I lived overseas for several years in a country with a large British expat population, we were exposed to a much broader — and often much better — set of Christmas books. Here are some of the authors who have written the best Christmas books you’ve probably never read.
Few Americans are familiar with English author and illustrator Shirley Hughes. Born in 1927, Hughes has written more than 50 books, selling more than 11.5 million copies. She’s illustrated about 200 books, all told.
Several things about her books have endeared my family to Hughes. Her illustrations are beautiful and lifelike, works of art in their own right. The stories, although always interesting and entertaining, are typically about normal events in children’s and their families’ lives, demonstrating how well Hughes is able to contemplate the world from a child’s perspective. Finally, given how long Hughes has been writing, it’s a joy to be able to see her ability to faithfully depict different historical periods in England — the Second World War and the great damage it inflicted on the nation; the 1970s, bell bottoms, long hair, and all; and contemporary, busy, diverse London.
My wife’s favorite Christmas book by Shirley Hughes is “Angel Mae: A Tale of Trotter Street.” It tells the story of a little girl who performs as the angel Gabriel in the school Christmas pageant. Much to her sadness, her parents miss the show — because her mother gives birth to the little sister Mae always wanted.
“Alfie’s Christmas” is a story involving Hughes’ most beloved character, Alfie, and his family. The story is surprisingly simple, narrating all the kinds of normal events children experience at Christmas, including having family visit from faraway places. I especially enjoy the way Hughes weaves church and religious values into the story without being preachy.
Other Christmas stories by the prolific Englishwoman include “The Christmas Eve Ghost,” which takes place in a poor neighborhood in 1930s Liverpool, “Lucy and Tom at Christmas,” “The Thirteen Days of Christmas,” co-authored with Jenny Overton, and, most recently, “Snow in the Garden,” published this year.
Fiona French is another exemplary English author and illustrator, although less well-known and prolific than Hughes. French’s most famous books are “Snow White in New York,” which won a Kate Greenaway medal, and “Little Inchkin,” a beautiful book about a samurai in Japan.
She also illustrated a triad of books based on stories from the Bible, one on the Garden of Eden, another on Easter, and one on the Nativity. The last is titled “Bethlehem” and is a remarkable work of artistic excellence. The narrative is directly from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, explaining the events of Jesus’s birth, images inspired by stained-glass windows from England’s cathedrals.
You actually feel like you are wandering through a Medieval English church as you turn the pages. I have never seen anything quite like it, and never tire of reading it to my kids. One prays French will pick up the brush again and bless the world with more books drawing on other parts of scripture.
MaIte Roche, a native of France, has been writing and illustrating spiritual and religious books for children for more than 20 years. Her works, originally written in French, are extremely popular in France, where she is hailed as an expert at introducing the very young to the beliefs of the Catholic faith.
Yet her books, many of which have been translated into English, can easily be enjoyed by Christians of all denominations. Such is the case with many of her works on Christmas, including “Christmas!,” “Jesus in the Manger,” “My First Pictures of Christmas,” “The Christmas Shepherds,” and “The Christmas Star.” These books — probably best for children ages two to four — are perfect as “first books” for children on Christmas.
Any parent worth his or her salt should know about Tomie DePaola, who has been writing and illustrating children’s books since the 1960s. DePaola is most beloved for his books about Strega Nona, the old Italian woman with magical medicinal skills, and her hapless helper, Big Anthony. Yet DePaola has done a number of Christmas books, all in his classic style, and spanning a number of different Christmas cultural traditions.
“The Legend of Old Befana” and “Jingle: The Christmas Clown” take place in Italy, the country of DePaola’s family of origin. “The Legend of the Poinsettia,” my wife’s favorite of DePaola’s Christmas corpus, takes place in Mexico, and tells the legend of the flor de la Nochebuenao, or poinsettia, with an endearing Christian message.
Another Mexican-themed Christmas story is “The Night of Las Posadas.” “The Birds of Bethlehem” and “The Friendly Beasts: An Old Christmas Carol” are other solid reads. DePaola is also half-Irish, so here’s hoping he finds a good Irish Christmas legend or story to illustrate!
Some of the authors I’ve highlighted above — French, Roche, DePaola — are either Catholics or telling stories in the Catholic tradition. I’ll also give a shout-out to the beautifully illustrated “Saint Nicholas and the Nine Gold Coins,” by Jim Forest and Vladislav Andrejev, and published by Orthodox St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. In a season overloaded with songs and imagery about the Santa Claus popularized by Coca-Cola, it’s a welcome reprieve to remind us of the inspiring historical person of St. Nicholas.
This holiday season, put away whatever overwrought, commercialized bric-a-brac books you own, and pick up some of the gems cited above. You’ll find reading to your kids far more pleasurable, and your kids will be blessed by real aesthetic excellence that elevates their hearts for the holidays.