Advent is almost here, and I’m preparing by getting our 2019 Christmas books wrapped and organized for our book-a-day Christmas countdown! This year, one of the new books we’ll be unwrapping is Thomas William’s recently published book The First Christmas. Williams’ charming poem is accompanied by vibrant, unique illustrations by Frank Fraser. Together, poem and illustrations make this a perfect addition to any Catholic family’s Christmas collection!
Illustrations that tell a story
My children were captivated by the illustrator’s fascinating juxtaposition of different styles to emphasize the story. On the one hand, there are the exaggerated, almost cartoonlike, depictions of the bored townsfolk and wealthy men who don’t notice, or don’t care, that the Messiah is born. On the other, there are the serenely beautiful and luminous pictures of the Holy Family, angels, shepherds, kings, and little children who recognize their Savior. This contrast in artistic style really forces the reader to reflect on Jesus being born into a world which largely didn’t recognize Him.
The Theology major in me loved the Biblical references interwoven into the poem. Williams explains how the coming of the Messiah is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies in Isaiah and Hosea. There are also New Testament quotes and paraphrasing from Luke.
Little Children Leading the Way
Throughout the book, if you look closely you’ll notice that it is the children who recognize and welcome Jesus most readily. Young readers will love imagining themselves as the girl who cheerfully waved to Mary as she traveled to Bethlehem, or the shepherd boy who smiles at the angel as the older shepherds stare in fear and awe. The First Christmas really does a stellar job trying to draw young readers into the story of Jesus’ coming.
A Wonderful Explanation of the True Meaning of Christmas
Overall, this is a beautiful book that does a noteworthy job of explaining the true meaning of Christmas. With its lyrical verses, this poem is a great alternative Christmas poem to replace or complement the secular poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. With its focus on the true Christmas story, this picture book is really a great gift or addition to any Christmas collection.
As Catholic parents, we make sure our children are well-prepared for their First Holy Communion, Penance, and Confirmation. We discuss vocations and catechize about Holy Orders and Matrimony. But since Baptism is usually received at such a young age, it can be easy to overlook explaining the its importance to young children. If you’re looking for a beautiful, informative picture book to help your young children understand more about the symbolism, character, and rite of Baptism, check out When You Were Baptized, a new book from Liturgy Training Publications.
Written directly to Catholic Children
My little children were immediately captivated by this beautifully illustrated picture book which speaks directly to the child. Written in the second person, When You Were Baptized methodically moves through the rite of Baptism, highlighting each symbol and action. Children learn what each oil symbolizes, why the priest blesses the holy water, what the white garment signifies, and more.
Simple Explanations for the Littlest Listeners
Note that this picture book does not event attempt to touch on the depths of symbolism behind each part of a Baptism. In a message for parents at the conclusion of the book, the author explains that very young children (under age 6) are not yet old enough for moral considerations. Therefore, this book is focused on the more natural symbolism involved in Baptism versus the moral and Biblical implications.
It’s apparent that the author’s Catechesis of the Good Shepherd background influenced the scope of this book. In the Catechesis, the first years are focused on cultivating wonder and love for God. This book with its simple explanations and overarching tone of welcoming the child into God’s family is true to the Catechesis vision.
A Great Baptismal Gift
This lovely picture book would be a wonderful gift for a godparent to give at a Baptism, or even to commemorate the Baptismal day of an older child. It also makes a wonderful addition to any Catholic family’s picture book library. See further information here on the Publisher’s website.
For more great books about Catholicism, the saints, sacraments, and more, check out this book list!
If they haven’t yet, believe me, they will! Why does a loving God allow us to suffer? This is a question that has been repeated and pondered throughout the ages. In The Seed Who Was Afraid to be Planted Anthony DeStefano takes on the question of suffering with a simple story that even young children will be able to understand. DeStefano seamlessly weaves together several Bible verses into a parable about a fearful seed whom a wise gardener insists on planting. Planted in a dark hole, the terrified seed feels abandoned and alone. But then the tiny seed begins to grow into a magnificent tree which helps others and experiences a beauty and freedom it had never dreamed possible.
This book is so helpful in explaining suffering to children.
Like the seed, we feel forsaken and afraid when God allows us to experience suffering, death, loss, and pain. Like the seed, we don’t want to go down to that dark place and feel abandoned. In this parable of a tale, we are reminded that God only allows us to suffer to bring us to a more beautiful, wonderful place than we could imagine. Whether we see the fruit of walking through darkness in this life, or don’t know the why until heaven, this story reminds us we can trust that God has a perfect plan to bring us to true freedom and peace.
The Seed Who Was Afraid To Be Planted can also be helpful in explaining death.
This world is all we know, so leaving it can be a scary thought. Like the seed, we like our drawer, our little box of known experience. Like the seed, some kids find the idea of being buried a terrifying thought. This story helps ease those fears with the reminder that dying is just the beginning of a new, better life, beyond our wildest dreams of beauty and freedom.
What is freedom?
The seed tells the gardener not to plant him: “I’m scared to be planted, I want to be free.” For the seed, freedom is being allowed to do what he wants: stay in his drawer. But by the end of the book, the seed realizes true freedom is found by following God’s (the gardener’s) plan and allowing himself to die so he may live. In the end of the story, the seed, now a tree, has found peace, freedom, and a life without fear.
The whole family will enjoy The Seed Who Was Afraid To Be Planted.
Although this story is written for younger children, the high quality illustrations and timeless parable-like story will make it a favorite with all ages. Our entire family enjoyed this book with its reminder that God always has a perfect plan for us. Although many other great books on suffering have been written targeting adults, this simple story is perfect for explaining to children why God allows suffering.
Each volume features a dozen saints, mostly well-known heroines of our faith like Saint Rose of Lima, Saint Kateri, Saint Agnes, and Saint Gianna. These books do not include dates or feast days, instead focusing on details about the saints’ lives that little ones are more likely to grasp and retain, such as family relationships, feeding the poor, and miracles. This makes these books great for a cursory introduction, but if you are looking for more in-depth information about the saints, consider the Life of a Saint series from Ignatius,or other saint biographies featured inMy Book Lists.
Each saint page concludes with an inspiring quote from each saint about following Jesus and living a strongly Christian life. For example, the quote from St. Claire of Assisi is: “Totally love Him, who gave Himself totally for your love.”
What makes these books shine are the beautiful original paintings for each saint which will capture the attention of young children. Each painting contains a special symbol the child can associate with the saint. Some symbols are the traditional ones, such as the lamb of Saint Agnes. Others are original, such as green seeds to show the seeds of faith Saint Kateri sowed in the New World.
There is also a brother book, Boy Saints for Little Ones. This book features a dozen inspiring male saints such as Saint Augustine, Saint Maximilian Kolbe, and Saint Patrick.
The Happy Hollisters by Jerry West (Andrew Svenson) is the first in a completely charming series of books featuring a joyful, adventurous large family. In each book in the series, the Hollister family is confronted with mystery and adventure. Working together, the children and parents find solutions and bring justice. Svenson wrote 33 volumes about the Happy Hollisters, which makes this a great series for voracious readers!
A Different World
Mr. and Mrs. Hollister and their brood of five children live an idyllic life by a lake with Dad working a flexible schedule at his hardware store and Mom staying home with the children. The girls wear dresses, and the boys say “Gee, whiz!” Yes, these books are a bit archaic in terms of dress, speech, and gender roles. They were first published in the 1950’s, which rightfully feels like a different century to our 21st century sensibilities.
Despite the book’s old-fashioned trappings, children today will still love reading about the Hollister family adventures because the essential things in the books are timeless. There are still bullies, and the difficulty of moving to a new town, and sibling relationships to navigate, and nature to explore. Children today will also enjoy the parts of the book all children wish would happen to them: a mystery, an adventure, and a chance to save the day.
Mystery and Adventure
The Happy Hollisters captivates young readers quickly because of it’s cliffhanger style chapter endings. Each chapter brings a small adventure such as a lost child, a bear sighting, a parade, or a contest. Meanwhile, the book as a whole builds up the overlying mystery of why a strange man keeps breaking into the Hollister’s house.
In future books in the series, the family travels a good deal, finding adventure wherever they go. Through this, the reader gets some great geography exposure as the Hollister family explores the United States and beyond.
Wholesome and Inspiring
The best part of The Happy Hollisters from a parent’s perspective is its focus on encouraging virtue. The Hollister children model a variety of positive character traits such as responsibility, kindness, fairness, and generosity. When they fail to choose the best course of action, their parents are always nearby to correct them. Overall, the Hollister books are full of beneficial messages about protecting smaller children, being kind to animals, obeying your parents, and sticking up for your siblings.
Full of Fun Illustrations
One reason my children love The Happy Hollisters is the plentiful illustrations in every single chapter. The illustrations give faces to the characters and depth to the stories. There are over 70 illustration in this book, which is only 187 pages, so you get a half of page of illustration for every 2-3 pages. This really helps children hold the interest of younger children when reading aloud. The wealth of illustrations also helps retain the interest of reluctant readers who struggle with chapter books.
Who would enjoy The Happy Hollisters?
As far as intensity of adventure goes, these books are gentle enough for 6-12 year olds. Some 4-5 year olds will also enjoy this as a read-aloud, though very sensitive little ones may find the cliffhanger style story-telling too anxiety-producing. These books really do make a great read-aloud, since the range of ages in the Hollister family make these books relatable for children ages 4-12.
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From ancient times onward, parents and grandparents have passed on their wisdom to the next generations through fairy tales, tall tales, fables, and cautionary tales. Each culture has its own special stories, such as the American tall tales, while other stories such as Cinderella are told by many cultures with their own variations. Here are some of my favorite picture book versions of fairy tales, fables, and tall tales both old and new, renowned and little known, from around the world.
I love the gorgeous illustrations and Medieval manuscript letters in this beautiful version of Sleeping Beauty!
In this version of The Princess and the Pea, the queen and king get a slightly larger role than usual. The side banter between the queen and her son is amusing, and the illustrations take pride of place.
This beautiful version of Rapunzel is so vividly illustrated the witch may scare you! I think it uniquely captures the mixed love and hate the witch has for Rapunzel.
We enjoy this Spanish American version of the classic Cinderella story. Little Gold Star brings a Catholic flavor to this familiar favorite with Marian intercession taking the place of the fairy godmother.
My other favorite retelling of the Cinderella story is Jan Brett’s imaginative chicken-themed version: Cinders. The accurate depictions of a brood of bantam hens are amazingly detailed and gorgeous.
But, if you want the classic, simple Cinderella story, Marcia Brown’s Cinderella is what you’re looking for!
The charming illustrations in this edition of Little Red Riding Hood contrast with this rather dark cautionary tale. True to the original Grimm fairy tale, the wolf eats Red Riding Hood and her Grandma. But in the end, the woodsman cuts them out and saves the day!
E. Nesbit’s fanciful chapter books are favorites of mine, so I am happy to include her retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk on this list. She omits some of the more grisly details of the original tale, but adds in her unique touch with explanations of details such as why Jack’s shutters don’t work.
With The Firebird, you have at once a fairy tale and a ballet (by Igor Stravinsky). This version of the fairy tale contains both a depiction of the ballet and a gorgeous fanciful illustration on each page. Caveat that the evil wizard villain in the story is quite disturbing looking and might terrify very young children.
Another Russian fairy tale of the quest genre, the The Golden Mare, the Firebird, and the Magic Ring has some of the most magnificently done illustrations. This tale is about an exciting quest and the winning of a princess, yet also raises questions about listening to your conscience versus blind obedience.
A third Russian folk tale we enjoy is The Magic Nesting Doll. On her deathbed, Katya’s grandma bequeaths her a magic nesting doll which contains animals that will help her break the spell which binds her kingdom in a dark, icy winter. This story has a touch of Narnia and a touch of Sleeping Beauty.
The Legend of the Bluebonnet is a sad but beautiful story of self-sacrifice. A little Indian girl gives up her one cherished toy to save her people from famine.
The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush is an old folk tale about finding and pursuing your own particular calling. A young Indian boy feels more drawn to painting the scenes around him then joining in usual hunting activities of his friends.
We love our American Tall Tales, especially Steven Kellog’s fun editions of Paul Bunyan, Mike Fink, and Johnny Appleseed. His detail-rich illustration style brings a wealth of amusing tidbits to these already entertaining tales.
Stone Soup is an old French folk tale about some smart soldiers who outwit a village of selfish people. A lesson in sharing.
Tikki Tikki Tembo has a fun rhythmic cadence that children love. An old Chinese folk tale, it cautions against giving children very, very, very long names.
The Ugly Duckling is a favorite fairy tale from Hans Christian Anderson. The theme of not judging someone by their outward appearance has a timeless appeal, and Jerry Pinkney’s gorgeous illustrations bring this story to life in a powerful way.
The Pancake Boy is a fun Norwegian version of the tale Americans recognize more readily as “The Gingerbread Man.” In the Norwegian version, a pig devours the gullible Pancake Boy in the end!
Speaking of Gingerbread Baby, we love Jan Brett’s version of this favorite folk tale.
Honey… Honey… Lion! has all of Jan Brett’s trademark attention to detail and beautiful illustrations. In this African tale, Honey Badger learns the hard way not to be selfish and hog all the honey!
The 3 Little Dassies is an African-themed version of the classic Three Little Pigs tale. Jan Brett uses vivid colors and a variety of desert creatures to bring this story to life in a new way.
Speaking of old tales, The Classic Treasury of Aesop’s Fables is a beautiful version of the traditional fables from the ancient world. Each fable has a wonderful painting to accompany it which captures children’s eyes while a parents reads the fable.
Though a pricey investment, My Book House contains an amazing array of folk tales, fairy tales, and legends from around the world.
Have an emergent reader in the family? By definition, the text in an easy reader has to be very simple, but that’s no reason for the illustrations to be poor quality! Here are some great options of both readers from programs and fun, simple books which combine short and sweet stories with good quality illustrations. We use a combination of both types of books to provide plenty of practice for our young readers.
The All About Reading beginner readers are favorites at our house. There are several books in the series such as Run, Bug, Run!, The Runt Pig, and Cobweb the Cat. These are quality hardcover books which each include a whole collection of funny stories. Note that some older, used editions may be in black and white, so opt for a newer version if you want a color edition.
Seton Press has reprinted the Faith and Freedom Readers, a series of beautiful readers beginning with This is Our Family. These charmingly illustrated stories are sight-word style reading, which I find helpful to include along with the phonics-based books we typically use. Cheapest place to buy is from Seton directly: This is Our Family.
Speaking of sight words, remember Dick and Jane? Here is a great set of four beautiful hard-cover reprints of the classic Dick and Jane stories. These short, simple stories quickly inspire confidence in young readers.
The Little Angel Readers are part of a phonics based program available at Stone Tablet Press, but they can be used independently of the program for simple practice. They feature short, easy stories ranging from retellings of folk and fairy tales to Catholic-themed stories.
We love The Princess Twins Series with their sweet illustrations, simple stories, and marvelous messages. Each story highlights a different virtue which Princesses Emma and Abby learn to model.
We all laugh at the adventures and misadventures of Charlie the Ranch Dog in these easy readers inspired by the Ree Drummond books.
I dislike the illustrations in many of the Dr. Seuss beginner books, but others like these two by Mike McClintock are actually quite charming: Stop that Ball! and A Fly Went by .
Biscuit. Okay, yes, it is ironic that the title character’s name is not actually an easy word to read. But otherwise, these adorable books are very, very basic on the vocabulary with big font and only a sentence or two a page. We love the sweet illustrations in these stories.
Cynthia Rylant has written several great series of easy readers. Our favorites are the Mr. Putter & Tabby stories. Not only do these books offer lessons about friendship and kindness, they show children that elderly people can be funny, happy, sad, or lonely too. You will love kind-hearted Mr. Putter and his fine cat Tabby, and smile at his eccentric neighbor Mrs. Teaberry and her crazy dog Zeke.
We also find Cynthia Rylant’s Poppleton stories funny and enjoyable.
Have a facts-oriented child? Consider the DK Eyewitness Readers. They feature high-quality photos and four different levels of difficulty to choose from, and are available on a multitude of subjects. Most libraries have lots of these!
Thinking about Easter yet? Or concentrating on participating in Lent to the fullest? Here are some wonderful books to assist all ages in entering into these seasons of penitence and rejoicing.
The Story of Easter is a sweet little board book for the smallest children. It ties together spring, new life, and Jesus rising from the dead neatly, stressing that Easter is really about Jesus loving us through his death and resurrection.
The Easter Cave tells the Easter story in a simple, rhythmic style inspired by “The House that Jack Built.”
In The Easter Swallows, children see the Passion and Resurrection through the eyes of two kind little swallows.
There are many great versions of the Stations of the Cross for Children. Here is wonderful one for ages 5-10 from Word Among Us Press: Walking with Jesus to Calvary: Stations of the Cross for Children. For each station, there is a description of what happened, then a personal prayer to encourage the child to speak straight to Jesus.
Little Colts Palm Sunday is the perfect story to read on Palm Sunday. The author fancifully imagines Palm Sunday through the eyes of the colt that carried Jesus into Jerusalem.
Also perfect to begin on Palm Sunday, The Easter Story Egg is a book and nesting egg. Each day between Palm Sunday and Easter, your family opens an egg and reads the accompanying Bible verses and meditation.
Looking for the Easter story as recounted in the Gospels? Fiona French’s beautiful book Easter may be the perfect fit. She uses colorful pictures inspired by stained glass windows to bring the Passion and Resurrection to life in a luminous way.
Little Rose of Sharon is a poignant story which explores themes about true beauty and self-sacrifice. A vain little rose eventually chooses to give up all her beautiful petals to keep an egg warm, thus imitating the total self-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
In this folktale retold, three trees dream about their future. Each tree finds its dreams achieved, but in a different way than they ever could have expected.The Tale of Three Trees is a lesson in divine providence and self-sacrifice.
Rechenka’s Eggs is a story about giving, friendship, and how eggs are a sign of the miracle of new life.
What Should Danny Do? is the first book in the new Power to Choose series by husband and wife team Ganit and Adir Levy. I love so many things about this book, starting with the fact that “Danny” is inspired by their nephew, the real Danny. Ganit and Adir have four children themselves, and their experience as seasoned parents shows clearly throughout this clever story.
What Should Danny Do? is such a neat concept: a story which engages young readers by offering them choices which change the course of the story. One book with a very basic plot about the ups and downs Danny experiences on one summer day. But kids are fascinated with this book because every few pages, they get to choose what Danny does. And each choice changes the story completely. In essence, this is a story about free will explained in such simple terms a four or five year old gets it.
Danny loves superheroes, so his dad tells him he has a special superpower: the Power to Choose. As he goes through the day, he has many opportunities to use his superpower. Will he yell about not getting his favorite plate or ask politely if he can have it tomorrow? When his brother drops his snow cone, will Danny gulp his own down or choose to share? Your children get to choose for Danny and then flip to the page number corresponding to the choice to see the result.
I appreciated how the authors portrayed Danny’s parents. They are proactive and intentional in trying to teach Danny virtue. His Dad makes him a special cape to help him remember his power to choose. At the end of a bad day, they encourage him to think back on how his choices impacted his day. His mom suggests he sets up a lemonade stand to earn his own money to buy a skateboard.
Overall, our whole family loved this creative book. Though probably not intended to be Catholic, I think the concept of teaching young children about their power to choose, or free will, is in essence a very Catholic concept. I would judge this book is best for ages 4-8, though our 2 year old actually enjoys it too.
I remember enjoying listening to my parents reading If You Give a Mouse a Cookie when I was young. So I bought several of the “If you give…” books by Laura Numeroff sight unseen. I was quite disappointed when I began reading them to my own kids.
I will admit that my little ones were instantly captivated by these books. Something about the short phrases on each page, the simple, sequential story, or the animals’ antics amuses children. However, I reluctantly had to conclude most of this series needed to disappear in the night from our bookshelf.
The original If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is tolerable in my opinion (though not handsome enough to be a favorite for me). The illustrations are not as realistic and beautiful as I might ask in an ideal world, but do have a certain cuteness. The story line is actually helpful in explaining sequences and causes to very little children. And I appreciate how the little boy tries so hard to clean up after the mouse throughout the story. Of course, the deeper theme about desire following desire in a cyclical fashion is way over the intended audience’s head.
I could nitpick about Numeroff’s later books. For example, the illustrations move from cute and calm to sometimes frantic, as in If You Give a Cat a Cupcake Also, does it bother anyone else how though cookies and milk is an American combination, apple juice and donuts just don’t really go together?
Observe the sweater. (Or is it a bolero?) Take note of the daisy.
Notice the stance. This is a moose who carries a clutch purse. This moose is … a girl, right?
But no. “If you give a moose a muffin, HE’LL want some jam to go with it.” (My italics)
So, we have a male moose wearing a girly sweater with a daisy in the pocket, standing like a girl, carrying a clutch. Am I the only one who prefers my milk and cookies, or muffins and jam, unaccompanied by a homosexual or transgender normalizing agenda?