Review by Susanna Quaile Cover

A brisk walk through a bookstore this time of year is a feast for the eyes. Gorgeous photography and abundant glitter sparkle on the season’s latest Christmas books, meant to dazzle the child who unwraps them under the tree. I love Christmas magic as much as anyone, but some of our family’s favorites have been found in humble and unexpected places like thrift stores and library book sales. We have found these to stand repeated readings, and they convey some glimpse of the truth of the Story, through excellent art and storytelling, to children as well as the grownups who read to them. (Remember to check for used copies of out-of-print Christmas books after the holiday season, when prices will be much lower.)

Many books offer fresh illustrations with the familiar words of St. Luke, but perhaps none do it as well as Jane Ray’s The Story of Christmas (Dutton, 1991). The pictures are folksy and tender, brightly colored and highlighted with gold. The ornate (but shortened) King James text pairs well with the intricate pictures, and together they glow.

Another genre is the contemporary, or slightly nostalgic, tale of children learning the true meaning of Christmas. One of our favorites is The Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve (Holiday House, 2011). On a South Dakota reservation, young Virginia dreams of a beautiful, well-fitting winter coat from the donation boxes, but as the daughter of the local Episcopal priest, she has to offer others first choice, and ends up with nothing, or so she believes. In the end, she learns compassion for a challenging classmate and finds her needs met beyond expectation, and the reader catches a glimpse into Christmas traditions in a Sioux mission community. Our family especially loves seeing the sacrifices and humor of another clergy household.

Oh the newborn squish of Little One, We Knew You’d Come, by Sally Lloyd-Jones (Little Brown, 2006)! This is such a great nativity poem for families who have had a baby in the past year or are expecting one. It could be read as a welcome to any child, but the stunning paintings depict the different figures who welcomed baby Jesus, particularly his mother. As with so many of the best Christmas books, this one brings the biblical story into the emotional register of family life.

Štěpán Zavřel | Melgar | Wikimedia Commons

Looking ahead to Epiphany, I always turn to They Followed the Star by Štěpán Zavřel (Scroll, 1969), which retells the Magi’s journey with just a little storytelling embellishment. The art is striking, evoking the exotic flavor in this tale of strangers from afar, through the lens of an Eastern European visual tradition. Epiphany is the perfect occasion for reading books that narrate the nativity through other world cultures. The Night of Los Posadas by Tomie dePaola (Puffin, 1999) and The Huron Carol, illustrated by Frances Tyrrell (Eerdmanns, 2003) are also lovely choices.

No Christmas reading stack is complete without a book about someone bringing Jesus the humblest of presents and being welcomed as royalty. A Dozen Silk Diapers by Melissa Kajpust (Hyperion, 1993) is more than a little quirky, but I am so glad I rescued it from my library book sale. Maybe we are all pudgy little spiders wearing wimples like medieval Madonnas, but our gifts that we offer back to the Christ child can be transformed into unexpected and surpassing beauty. I love pondering how the mama spider’s diapers woven from her silk were just as suitable for the Savior (and arguably more useful) as the gifts of the Magi.

My absolute favorite Christmas book is the most readily available, and rightly so. Who Is Coming to Our House? (Penguin, 1998) by Joseph Slate is a sweet rhyming-board book, its woodcut illustrations depicting various farm animals preparing their stable for a Guest. It captures the eager bustle of holiday preparations, familiar to all small children participating in family baking and decorating and cleaning the guest room.

It expresses the weary doubt that the long-awaited moment will ever arrive. But the tiny mouse never loses confidence that his hope will be fulfilled. May we also long for the glorious Advent of our Lord, preparing together with our children for his slow but nonetheless certain arrival. Come, Lord Jesus. “Welcome, welcome to our house.”

Susanna Quaile Cover, formerly a books editor in Chicago, teaches Sunday school at Trinity Church in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.