AnnAliese Harry describes this year's must-reads for your children's Christmas book collection.
These days, I feel like my family struggles through books. One kiddo or another is bouncing around and getting into things, drawing attention away from the story for the rest of the family. If I’m being honest, I currently cringe when asked for a story.
So, when I was offered a couple stories to review in time for Christmas, I had to seriously consider whether or not I would review them. Ultimately, I am glad I said we, as a family, would review the books.
Here are my top three picks for building to your children’s (or, grandchildren’s) book collections this upcoming Advent and Christmas seasons.
The Grumpy Old Ox by Anthony DeStefano and illustrated by Richard Cowdrey.
My initial concern as I leafed through the pages at the dinner table were the number of words and the whole, “I’ve got to get my kids to sit through all of this?!” But, from their various spots at the table, questions began firing at me, “What’s that? Can I see? Will you read it to us?” After dinner, as dishes were being collected, the 4-year-old grabbed the book, marched up to me, and asked, “Is it time, yet?!”
As the title suggests, the story centers on a grumpy old ox, whose life’s work sets him in the time and place of our Savior’s birth. As a mom who has worked with and seen the direct impact abuse makes on children and adults, I had a hard time reading the two pages where we are initially introduced to this Grumpy Old Ox – his outlook on life is quickly understood by the social worker in me. Thankfully, however, my children were oblivious to that concern. The Grumpy Old Ox focuses on the change the ox undergoes by being a direct observer and participant in the Manger Story.
Simply, this story carries a powerful moral for adults, as well as children. My 8-year-old’s take-away lesson was the same as mine, “When [the ox] met Jesus, he changed! When we meet Jesus, we change.”
The pictures were captivating, with my 2-year-old eagerly asking, “What’s that?” or stopping the story to point out, “The baby! The baby night-night! The mommy [insert inaudible chatter]…” As much discussion centered on the illustrations as they did on the words on the pages. But, just as he did with Our Lady’s Wardrobe, DeStefano again displays his mastery of captivating young children’s attention with the flow and ease of the words – something which initially made me skeptical to read the book.
At the conclusion of the story, I had to stop my 4-year-old from squirreling away the book to some unknown hiding spot. It has also been requested as a re-read a couple extra times since the initial reading.
The Spider Who Saved Christmas by Raymond Arroyo and illustrated by Randy Gallegos
This particular book has become the prevailing bedtime story book for the past week. My initial concern was the same one voiced previously – I worried attention spans would not be captivated, because, quoting my 4-year-old, “all the words!”
However, my skepticism was laid to rest as I watched all three of my kids peruse the pictures, with my 8-year-old emphatically exclaiming, “Mom, you have to read this to us!”
This story focuses on the Holy Family’s Flight to Egypt when the Baby Jesus was just days old. During their flight, the weary Holy Family seeks refuge from Herod’s men in a cave. In that cave, an unsuspecting mother – a Golden Silk Orb Weaver named Nephilia – is able to provide safety for our Savior, His mother, and His earthly father. At the end of the book, our family was introduced to culture of other Catholics around the world who have a golden spider they place on their Christmas tree. This tale woven by Raymond Arroyo was easy to read, and captivating for young minds with old souls.
The illustrations, themselves, were their own masterpiece. Several times, I found myself catching my breath as we turned from one page to the other. My 4-year-old gleefully shrieked in my ear, “Look, Mom! It’s so pretty,” when we turned to a page with the golden spider and her golden web masterpiece.
The8-year-old was intrigued by the pictures featuring soldiers inspecting the spider’s web.
And the 2-year-old happily spent the entire book crawling his fingers along my arm, enticing me to crush, “The spider’s on you…”
The Gospel Told by the Animals by Bénédicte Delelis and Éric Puybaret
We received this book right around the New Year last year, after having spent Advent reading Jotham’s Journey: A Storybook for Advent by Arnold Ytreeide. Each featured content in The Gospel Told by the Animals references a particular Gospel story, so rather than reading the book cover to cover in one sitting, I tried something different. Using the concept from Jotham’s Journey, I used The Gospel Told by the Animals as an introduction to the Bible for my (then) 7-year-old. Each day, we would find the Gospel story, mark it in his Catholic Children’s Bible by St. Mary’s Press, read the page associated in this book, and then read the Gospel story and talk about how things were similar or different in the two stories.
Because this is the stories of the Gospel coming to life through various animals featured, the overarching premise centers on the Good News – the story of our Savior seen through the eyes of 12 different animals. If done correctly, each animal could feature on the first twelve days of Christmas. The story begins journeying with a shepherd and his dog to the Nativity of our Lord; it ends with a dove overseeing the final scene of Christ being recognized by Mary. At each pivotal moment in Christ’s life, as presented in the Gospels, an animal is present to give an intimate perspective. This year, our goal is to start Christmas Day with the first day, in the same manner as last year – and, truly make the story the first twelve days of Christmas, in a page each day.
As an adult, I find the illustrations of the book thought-provoking and certainly enhance the story. However, my (then) 7-year-old wasn’t as engaged with the pictures, and I think it is because of the muted, earthy tones of the artwork. The other two children were not engaged by either the story or the imagery, but I chalked that up to their ages. This year, I expect my 4-year-old to be helping me search for various elements within the picture, and since she is my budding artist, I suspect she will be willing to try her own hand at replicating pictures she sees in this book.
The publisher recommends The Gospel Told by the Animals for ages 5 and up. The artwork and the smaller font give a feel that the book is for an older audience, and I would say maybe for children ages 9 and older. But, tweaked the way our family did, and will do again, this book is certainly appropriate for the younger ages.
The unique perspective of seeing the Gospel through the eyes of an “unsuspecting” animal allows for conversations to be held reminding each of us – adults and children alike – that even the smallest among us have value, worth, and a story to tell. Ultimately, this book deserves a place in everyone’s Christmas collection, to grow with the family through the years.
Three different books, three amazing additions to the family Christmas collection. Powerful stories that set the stage for young readers and their minds of how important each one of us is, how knowing Christ challenges us to change for the better, and no matter how little, each of us are important in God’s plan. In a time in which so much seems out of control for so many, these three stories have the power to remind us of God’s love story that He wants to have with each of us. These books hold the power to not only captivate the senses but capture our hearts in one great bear-hug from our Creator. And, this year, perhaps more noticeable than previous years, we need all the hugs from God that we can get!
Let yourself soak up some love from God through these tales this upcoming Advent and Christmas season!
Copyright 2020 AnnAliese Harry
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About the Author
AnnAliese Harry is a proud Army wife to her husband Chris, and a mother to their young children. She has a BA in History, a Masters in Social Work, and has worked with disabled veterans, troubled teens, and in early childhood intervention therapy. AnnAliese volunteers with several military chapel communities and serves as a lector, EMHC, Adoration coordinator, and Catholic Women of the Chapel (CWOC) chapter president and vice president. She blogs about Catholicism, parenting, and military life at A Beautiful, Camouflaged Mess of A Life. Follow her on Twitter, on Instagram, or on Facebook.