Neville Kirby on choosing books to help celebrate a Christian festival
Each year teachers and parents are faced with a new flood of titles in what most publishers must hope will be a lucrative market. How to choose between the offerings; how to sort the gold from the dross in the Christmas bran tub? These become urgent questions.
The first step is to recognise that the books fall roughly into three categories:
those which try to tell, or retell, the traditional New Testament stories.
those which tell fictional stories which, though they are related to the New Testament stories, are not attempts to retell those stories themselves. Such tales may or may not be set in first-century Palestine.
those which deal with customs associated with Christmas. These may be about such things as trees, cards, carols, Santa Claus and so on. They often suggest activities for children.
The first category produces the most failures because it presents the greatest problems. And also because many writers and publishers have the popular but quite mistaken idea that the biblical material itself is story written for children; that it is some kind of simple narrative of events. The task of representation is not impossible but it does require a good understanding of the Jewish roots of this particular kind of story and also a clear grasp of the post-crucifixion and post resurrection perspective from which the stories appeared in their present form. To explain the Jewish connection would require an article to itself but on the Christian issue it may be sufficient here to draw attention to the obvious religious nature of the stories; that the home of the stories is in the Christian tradition and that their meanings lie not wholly within these particular stories but within the total Christian worldview; furthermore that the meanings can only be properly understood from within the Christian community. Ask, for instance, ‘How does the Christmas story end?’ and the answer must be ‘With the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and what followed’. Unfortunately it seems that only rarely (or perhaps by accident) do attempts at representation of the stories meet these conditions. All too frequently they reduce the stories and their meanings to either a sentimental other-worldly fairy tale or a platitudinous this-worldly mediocrity, either of which begs to be rejected by a child as he grows in experience and thoughtfulness.
In the second category there are from time to time some notable successes. Stories are written which are not only good reading or telling in themselves but which also convey something of the Biblical meaning. (Two well-known examples are Dickens’ Christmas Carol and Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch who stole Christmas.) Fortunately too, unlike the multitude of unsuccessful rehashes of the biblical stories, when they are slender on meaning they do not run the same risk of impairing children’s potential for understanding by encouraging them to throw out the baby along with the tinsel wrapping.
In the third category there is altogether far less risk and the choice between books can rest on more everyday judgements about accuracy, aesthetic quality, clarity, appropriateness and the like. These books can make a substantial contribution to children’s understanding of the nature of the Christmas stories and indeed of all key religious stories by helping them to see them in the context where they really belong, that of celebration.
A simple rule of thumb then for assessing Christmas books is:
If it is a version of the New Testament story/stories, be very circumspect. If it is fiction with a Christmas flavour, judge it as you would any other story and also, if you wish, judge it on the extent to which it carries Christian meaning. Finally, Christmas custom books should be judged on their accuracy and their appropriateness for the children in mind.
Books in the first category
Borje Svensson (illus.), Kestrel. 0 7226 5764 1, £4.50
An even more ingenious pop-up book which reproduces via water colours the eighteenth-century Neapolitan Creche now in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Unfortunately the reproduction of the original three-dimensional terracotta heads in two-dimensional cut-outs in no way matches the impact of the original. One should also ask whether the eighteenth-century style is appropriate to children today.
The Story of Christmas
Felix Hoffmann. Dent, 0 460 06778 8, £3.25
This is a collection of delightful, atmospheric pictures which, despite the coolie hats worn by Joseph and Mary (are they meant to suggest halos?), are reasonably true to the nature of the stories. The text however, is another matter! It is inaccurate and it is confused as to intended reading age. Inaccurate, for example, in that the shepherds are said to disbelieve the angels but believe when they see the baby and then go on to spread the news far and wide –compare this with the text of the Gospel according to St Luke. As to reading age, spasmodic attempts are made to simplify the language though these attempts sometimes achieve the reverse effect to that intended. For example the title ‘Saviour’ is substituted for the original’s ‘King’: at other points obvious archaisms which could easily have been simplified are left untouched: ‘swaddling clothes’ and ‘sore afraid’. Even a well-known mistranslation ‘… goodwill towards all men’ remains uncorrected. This is a possible book for the non-reader. In other situations the liberal use of snowpake on the text is advised.
Jesus of Nazareth – The Christmas Story
Collins, 0 00 107178 5, £1.00
Compiled, as the cover says, from the text of the Good News Bible and with illustrations from the Lew Grade/Zefirelli film, this inexpensive soft-cover book reprints a scholarly text and, although it shifts back and forth from the Matthew and Luke accounts, clearly identifies chapter and verse. The film which provides the pictures went so far in avoiding the excesses of the supernatural typified by Cecil B. deMille, as to lose all sense of that other-worldliness which is an essential part of the stories.
The Christmas Book
Dick Bruna, Methuen, 0 416 24170 0, £2.95
Here is a lively text admirably suited to infants and with the familiar Dick Bruna colourful line drawings. There is an appropriate touch of ‘this world’ and ‘that world’ and a compelling final page. Experience tells that this is a much-loved book.
The Children’s Picture Bible – The Childhood of Jesus
Christopher Lawson and R.H. Lloyd. Usborne, 0 86020 517 7, £2.99
This is one of a series published together as ‘The Story of Jesus, a strongly didactic work with prep. school connections and bearing the imprimatur of the Bishop of Westminster. Two-thirds of the first volume deals with the Christmas stories in a restrained strip-story format. The double column per page text is a little confusing at first but the plethora of illustrations by Victor Ambrus keeps the interest alive. The stories are filled out with reliable background information (this is a great step forward from the more frequently found fictional additions: we learn about Jewish weddings, grinding corn, the Mezuzah and much else). In an otherwise scholarly work, though, it is disappointing to find stories collected together without regard to their New Testament context. Equally disappointing is the illustrator’s evident inability to deal with the supernatural elements of the stories – his angels would hardly overawe anyone. Given the shortage of sound books in this field, some at least of the separate volumes would fill a gap.
Christmas in the Stable
Astrid Lindgren, Hodder & Stoughton, 0 340 03266 9, £3.50
This author side-steps charges of inaccuracy by retelling a Christmas story as told to a little girl by her grandmother. The text is set opposite full-page impressionistic pictures and is pleasingly spaced. The only vague hint of anything extraordinary is a star over the stable, otherwise this is nothing more than a story of a birth which happened somewhere far away at the first Christmas long ago. Here is an example of ‘platitudinous worldliness’.
Books in the second category
Why a Donkey was Chosen
Christopher Gregorowski, Ernest Benn, 0 510 09505 4, £3.25
A donkey called Reuben reflects on his own insignificance and unimportance only to find himself chosen to carry Mary and the unborn Messiah to Bethlehem. A slender, well-told and well-illustrated (by Caroline Browne) tale which has much to commend it, not least for its implicit and unspoken reference to the biblical donkey ride – through palms to Jerusalem and thus to the Crucifixion.
The Shepherd’s Tune
Max Bolliger, Macdonald, 0 354 08134 9, £4.25
This is a rare gem. An old shepherd passes on his hopes of a Messiah to his grandson who then imagines the story to come and practises at his flute to prepare a special tune with which to greet the king. Doubts afflict the grandfather and disbelief the boy when he sees the manger. Beautifully told, superbly illustrated – the device of ‘imagining the story’ gives the artist Stepan Zavrel opportunity to handle the `other-worldly’ element in a thoroughly convincing way.
Books in the third category
Countdown to Christmas
Lesley Cox and Leslie Foster, Macmillan Ed., 0 333 29136 0, £2.95
A book full of information, ideas and things to do which seems uncertain about the age and role of its intended reader. Here and there are inaccuracies and guesses presented as fact: mistletoe is actually a saprophyte not a parasite (p50); ‘religious’ is not the opposite to ‘feast’ and ‘ceremony’, despite Oliver Cromwell (p16/17); no one knows that the Wise Men came from Babylon (p7); the Church of England is not the whole of the Church as implied by a reference to Advent (p19). These examples indicate that although the book would provide teachers with many ideas for use in class it nevertheless does not have the factual reliability one might expect. Teachers seem the obvious, users even though the text is directed at (junior/middle?) children: ‘Go and find a recording of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.’ You wouldn’t want a set. Perhaps one in the library?
The Christmas Book
Susan Baker, Macdonald, 0 356 05914 6, £2.95
Addressed directly to children, this has stories, information, games and other activities. Its sentimental version of the first Christmas is best passed over but the rest offers useful celebration material for a young family.
The Oxford Christmas Book for Children
Roderick Hunt, OUP, 0 19 278104 9, £5.95
This is a book very much about celebration. It is packed with information, stories and ideas. But what a pity that the compiler wasn’t better served by the designer. Inside the covers it looks old-fashioned, stuffy and, well, boring. Granted that cost is a factor it is nevertheless the case that celebration must include extravagance and a mere 16 colour pages out of 160 is hardly that. A good choice for older children (if you can persuade them past the outward show) and for teachers.
Christmas is Coming
Diana Groves, Macdonald Ed., 0 356 07540 0, £2.95
Intended for a small child, this offering has cut-outs, songs, an Advent calendar. It’s doubtful whether this could live up to its claim to occupy children during the busy weeks before Christmas. The seven-inch record of children singing which is included is a curiosity – enough to bring tears to the eyes of any musician!
Follow the Star
Mala Powers, Hodder & Stoughton, 0 340 26696 1, £4.95
If you are not immediately put off by the artwork you may find your eyes glistening with tears of joy and gratitude as you wade through the 24 infusions of the essence of love and joy topped with creamy angels. Then again you may not! Such a book from the States could explain why many Americans want to continue the ban on Religious Education in State schools. Fortunately RE does not have to be like this.
The Rev. Neville Kirby is involved full-time in teacher education and is an adviser and consultant on Religious Education in schools.