Sunday, December 4, 2011

Four Books for Christmas

The thing I love most about Christmas is the reminder that there is more to life than the day to day attention to our own affairs, which is such an easy mindset to slip into. Christmas tells us that we are all here together, that we are united in suffering and darkness, and that our great hope is the one who came into the world to embody and fulfill the two great commandments: to love God with all we have in us, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. Even the secular stories point to this theme. I don't like a Christmas to go by without seeing "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas," and the morning scene from "A Christmas Carol."

Here are four books for children and their families that point readers away from everyday preoccupations and towards allowing God's love to flow through us.

Red Parka Mary
by Peter Eyvindson

Illustrated by Rhian Brynjolson
Pemmican Publications, 1996, 38 pages

Red Parka Mary is about the fears that keep us apart from one another...and the joy of new friendships.

The narrator is a boy who walks past the home of an elderly neighbour each day. Someone, sometime, told her he should be afraid of her...and so he is.

But one summer day she calls to him to bring a pail of chokecherries to his mother, and they begin to visit after school. Mary tells him about herself, and the boy listens, and comes to appreciate her hospitality and friendliness. He also sees that she has needs too. She wears three sweaters all the time, and is cold all winter, except when she bakes bread in her wood stove.

Close to Christmas time, the boy notices a parka that would be just right for Mary in a store window, and asks his parents to help buy it for her. In return, she tells him she has the biggest and best present for him in the whole world. What could it be, the boy wonders...and the answer brings us back to what really matters.

(Note: this book can be ordered directly from the publisher for a reasonable price, and may also be available in your public library.)

An Orange for Frankie

by Patricia Polacco
Philomel Books, 2004, 48 pages

Frankie is the youngest son in a family of eight children on a farm during the depression. They are all eagerly anticipating Christmas and the return of their father, who has gone to get oranges for the family - it's their traditional Christmas treat. The hallmark of this family is generosity - as the story opens they are getting ready for Christmas, and feeding breakfast to railway workers and hobos who are passing by the farm. Mother says that they have had a good harvest, and should share what they have. In fact, the very next thing Frankie does is give a hobo who has no shirt the sweater his sister gave him for Christmas last year, leaving him with a problem when she announces she's giving him a matching muffler this year and wants to see how well it goes with the sweater. After his father comes home he manages to lose his Christmas orange. Two problems that could make Christmas less enjoyable for everyone...but his wise parents manage to smooth things over and turn the day into a specially memorable one, centered on forgiveness and love.

Great Joy
by Kate DiCamillo
Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
Candlewick Press, 2007, 32 pages

"The week before Christmas, a monkey appeared on the corner of Fifth and Vine. He was wearing a green vest and a red hat, and with him was a man, an organ grinder, who played music for the people on the street."

Young Frances looks down from her living room window and notices the pair. She wonders where they goes at night - a question which is not encouraged by her mother. But she wonders and worries anyway, and watches for him in the night, discovering that he sleeps on the street, even in the snow. Her mother brushes off her concerns and declines to invite him to dinner.

On her way to the Christmas pageant, Frances invites the organ grinder to come, and inspired when he enters, she" recites her single line:

"Behold! I bring you tidings of Great Joy!"

Great joy indeed - Frances knows better than her mother what the message of Christmas means for all of us. And perhaps her mother comes to understand too.

Christmas is Here
Words from the King James Bible
Illustrated by Lauren Castillo
Simon & Shuster Books for Young Readers, 2010, 32 pages

My final selection is a simple and also profound one. Lauren Castillo has pictured a family coming upon a nativity scene as they busily go about their Christmas shopping. As they take a moment to look, they are drawn into the story by the words of Luke from the King James Bible. There is a moment of peace and awe in which we all can contemplate the great love which our God has for us.

The illustrations for this book are beautiful and subtly done. Readers who have hesitations about visual depictions of God and angels will like this book. The author uses perspective and light in ways that subtly suggest the holiness of the incarnation. It's a lovely book to use with children and to enjoy as a family.

May the joy and peace of the season be with you all!

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