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.
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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.
Need more book suggestions than you can find here? Here are some other great blogs, lists, and books about books which focus on appropriate reading for Catholic children and teens.
Michael O’Brien’s A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind has been integral in forming my views on literature. In the first half, O’Brien discusses the importance of books in forming a child’s imagination and soul. The second half is O’Brien’s lengthy list of recommended reading for Catholic children and teenagers.
Jessica at Shower of Roses Blog is a Catholic blogger who suggests Catholic books for nearly every feast day imaginable! She has her lists divided by month so it’s easy to look for books for upcoming feast days.
I agree with most of the book choices on the Mater Amabilis book lists. Mater Amabilis is a Catholic version of Charlotte Mason, an independent learning program. Both programs value self-paced learning with lots of reading, so have lengthy lists of great book suggestions.
I also like the book suggestions used for each grade of Mother of Divine Grace homeschool’s curriculum. These tend to have more suggestions for history and social studies.
Seton Home Study school has even more extensive lists by grade, though these are hard to find on their website. Your best off searching them online by grade: for example “Seton Fifth Grade Reading List” to find the list for fifth grade.
Did you know many Catholic saints were princesses? Sadly, in recent years, the word “princess” has become synonymous with a spoiled or arrogant girl. But for centuries, the word “princess” connoted a young lady who exhibits beauty both interior and exterior, grace, kindness, wisdom, and self-control. I am a proponent of resurrecting the image of the virtuous princess as a positive role model for our daughters. Because what little girl doesn’t instinctively admire a princess? So let’s read them stories about the type of princess we want them to emulate. Here are some great stories about real princesses for girls of all ages.
St. Elizabeth of Hungary is a Catholic saint and queen who truly exhibited charity through her great love of the poor. Roses in the Snow is a beautiful picture book about this beautiful soul.
The Princess and the Kiss is a wonderful story about cherishing the gift of purity. I love how the king and queen in the story guide their princess to develop virtues! Also check out the sequel, The Three Gifts of Christmas, which describes how the princess is cured of her selfishness.
I was thrilled to discover the Twin Princess series at our local library recently. These sweet little easy readers offer great lessons for little girls. In The Princess Twins and the Tea Party, Princess Abby learns a lesson in humility as her sister Princess Emma reminds her: “Only God is perfect!” And in The Princess Twins and the Puppy, Abby learns a lesson in trusting God.
The Queen and the Cats is a retelling of little known legend about St. Helena, Queen mother of Constantine and finder of the true Cross. After finding the Cross, legend has it that Helena visited Cypress and helped save their churches from the rats.
Once upon a Time Saints offers the stories of some lesser known saints who also happened to be princesses such as Alice, who trusted God and married two different kings. And Elizabeth of Portugal who was a great peacemaker and patron of the poor.
M. M. Kaye’s The Ordinary Princess was a favorite princess story of mine as a girl. Princess Amy’s godmother bestows on her the gift of being ordinary. At first this seems like an impossible gift to burden a princess with, but eventually Amy finds a prince who likes her exactly as she is- especially her ordinariness.
FOR TWEENS TO TEENS
The Princess and the Goblin and its sequel The Princess and Curdie are two classics from master storyteller George MacDonald. Princess Irene explores labyrinths with a magic ring, avoiding malicious Goblins with the help of Curdie, a simple miner boy.
The Light Princess is another George MacDonald story. A princess loses her gravity: both her ability to stay on the ground and her ability to be serious. She is insipid and carefree, and utterly selfish. Will even the prospect of her suitor dying rouse any compassion?
Catholic author Regina Doman’s series of fairy tale princess retellings are fun books with good themes for Catholic girls, if not necessarily memorable for their great prose. The Shadow of the Bear, the first book, is a retelling of Snow White and Rose Red. (Parental Warning: mention of date rape)Black as Night is a creative take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs featuring friars as the dwarfs. Waking Rose is Sleeping Beauty retold, and the final book in Doman’s initial trilogy, which I would consider appropriate for about 14 and up. The Midnight Dancers is a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses with a timeless theme about teenage rebellion, modesty, and obedience. (Parental Warning: mention of unwanted sexual advances, a torture scene, drug and alcohol use)Alex O’Donnell and the 40 Cyberthieves is Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, of course. Note that Doman’s latest book, Rapunzel Let Down, is meant for a much older audience.
FOR OLDER TEENS (18+)
Helena is Catholic author Evelyn Waugh’s biography of Saint Helena. This is a story of Helena’s quest for meaning, for love, for eternity. Also it an inspiring story of a woman who suffered many humiliations with great graciousness and channeled her sufferings into a search for eternal love.
Queen Hereafter is a great historical fiction novel, also about Saint Margaret of Scotland. Author Susan Fraser King does a fantastic job with the historical details of this story, while also portraying Margaret as a believable, flawed woman striving to pursue virtue despite a difficult life.
Rapunzel Let Down is Regina Doman’s latest book, intended for a much older audience than her previous novels aimed at high schoolers. This is a very dark story of temptation, sin, and selfish love, juxtaposed to forgiveness, true love, and second chances. Only for readers over 18.
We were stunned that such a small child noticed McCloskey’s distinctive illustrations and correctly identified all the other McCloskey books we owned. Small children notice more than we think about picture books. The story is important, but so are beautiful illustrations! As St. John Paul II wrote in his Letter to Artists: “beauty is the visible form of the good.” Here are five authors who grasp this and personally pour effort both into crafting their story and creating artwork to accompany it.
1. Shirley Hughes is one of my absolute favorite children’s authors/illustrators. Not only are her distinctive illustrations carefully executed, they contain so many small details that little children delight in studying them. Her stories are always simple and engaging on the surface, but underneath they invariably present an age appropriate lesson. For example, Alfie Gets in First is a cautionary story about locking your parents out of the house. Moving Molly encourages children who are moving that there will be good aspects of their new homes. In Alfie and the Big Boys, Alfie exemplifies that even a small child can offer comfort and help to an older child. And Dogger is what I consider Hughes’ masterpiece: a tear-jerking tale of sibling love and sacrifice. Hughes also wrote one of my favorite book of children’s poetry:Out and About: A First Book of Poems.
2. Jan Brett‘s highly realistic and detailed illustrations are extremely popular right now, and I like most of her stories, though not all. One of my favorites is Fritz and the Beautiful Horses , a lovely story about a pony who realizes that being gentle and kind is more important than being physically beautiful. We also enjoy Annie and the Wild Animals, Town Mouse, Country Mouse and Cinders: A Chicken Cinderella. While I enjoy the illustrations in her Christmas themed books, I do not recommend them since she sadly promotes a heavily secularized view of Christmas.
3. Jane Hissey‘s endearing illustrations fittingly accompany the gentle adventures of a gang of stuffed animal friends in The Old Bear Collection. We love all her stories about Old Bear, Jolly Tall, Little Bear, Rabbit, and Bramwell!
4. Nick Butterworth is another English author whose stories we read with great appreciation. His stories, such as The Secret Path , star Percy the Park Keeper, a sweet-natured gardener who makes friends with all the animals in the park. The largest collection of Percy’s adventures, Percy the Park Keeper: A Classic Treasury, is out of print but can often be found in used condition quite cheaply.
5. To return to the anecdote I began with, my children all love Robert McCloskey‘s stories and illustrations. We also appreciate that not only does he draw illustrations for his simplest picture book, Blueberries for Sal, but he also includes fun illustrations in his chapter books like Homer Price.
You may not be surprised that I’ve taken a book-based approach to teaching my preschoolers the ABC’s. This method is super simple: you just make sure to regularly read your toddler or preschooler several ABC books, pointing to the letters and making the sounds before reading the text on each page. My kids have learned letter sounds and recognition easily this way without any formal teaching needed. Here are some of our favorite alphabet books!
Alison’s Zinnia is one of my children’s favorite alphabet books, and mine too! Each page has a detailed illustration of a flower beginning with a particular letter. This is a wonderful way to learn flower and letter recognition at the same time. Also, I really appreciate that even the difficult letters like X have a flower beginning with that letter!
Albert’s Alphabet is a wonderfully creative alphabet book by Leslie Tryon. There is almost no formal text, but my children and I always enjoy narrating our own story about Albert’s clever use of materials to build a super-sized alphabet on the playground.
Little Bear’s Alphabet is written and illustrated by one of our favorite picture book authors, Jane Hissey. Children who already love Old Bear will enjoy this introduction to the alphabet which features Jane Hissey’s cast of stuffed animal friends.
We all enjoy the incredibly realistic illustrations in A to Z of Animals, a Wildlife Alphabet. This is one you have to buy used, but so worth it! It also includes a section at the end of the book with information about each animal featured.
The Construction Alphabet Book by Jerry Pallotta was a big hit with my oldest son at about age 3. He memorized most of the book in no time, and we both learned a lot of the appropriate technical names for large machines!
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?