The Best Children’s Books That Capture the True Spirit of Christmas

Part of the magic of Christmas is telling and sharing stories. Christmas picture books offer the opportunity to share the Christmas message with the children we love. The images and language in these special picture books convey the beauty and emotion of the season.

Year after year, I seek out and collect children’s books that capture the true spirit of Christmas. My collection began when my first child was born, which was also the first year (of 25 or so years!) that I volunteered to teach Sunday School at my Presbyterian Church. As I read these books to my children and my students, I learned to love these stories. Repeated readings have made me appreciate the powerful language and illustrations that accompany these stories of deep faith and lessons for living.

On Christmas Eve, our family gathers to discuss the past year and to talk about our dreams for the coming year. Then we read a story and appreciate the emotions the book taps into… from remembering the wonder we felt as children to the spiritual messages that speak to our current lives.

I have put together a collection of these must-read books that address the spirit of Christmas for your bookshelf, from cherished classics to modern masterpieces, arranged by ages. Put yourself in the holiday spirit with these Christmas books, perfect for adults and children to read together this season.*

For Preschool and Early Elementary:
Who is Coming to Our House? by Joseph Slate, Ill. Ashley Wolff
Who is coming to our house? “Someone, someone,” says Mouse.
A modern Christmas classic with lovely woodcut illustrations shows how the animals prepare a cozy welcome for the baby Jesus. While Mary and Joseph are on their way to Bethlehem, Pig makes room, Lamb cleans up, Goose stacks the hay, and Duck lines the crib with eiderdown. All the animals are eager to welcome baby Jesus to their home. A warm, lyrical book your family will cuddle up with for years.

The Donkey’s Dream by Barbara Helen Berger  “Come. See what you and I have carried all this way, you and I.” It was only a tiny child. Yet, when the baby opened his eyes, the cave was full of light. The donkey blinked… and suddenly, the donkey was not tired anymore.
A beautifully illustrated story of the Nativity. As the donkey makes the long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, he carries a pregnant Mary. Along the way he dreams he is carrying a city, a ship, a fountain, and a rose. Finally, he dreams he is carrying a lady full of heaven. Barbara Helen Berger’s glowing artwork and lyrical text perfectly convey the beauty and majesty of the story of the Nativity.

Room for a Little One: A Christmas Tale by Martin Waddell, Ill. Jason Cockcroft
“Come inside,” Kind Ox said. “There’s always room for a little one here.”
In the stable next to an inn, Kind Ox is just settling in for the night when Old Dog comes into the stable. Kind Ox makes room for Old Dog, who in turn makes room for Stray Cat, who then makes room for Small Mouse–and each time, the larger animal making room for a smaller animal. Finally, the tired Donkey comes by, carrying Mary, who asks “Where will my child be born?” Kind Ox replies, “There is always room for a little one here.” And so, Jesus is born in the stable with the animals all around Him.

The Nativity, ill. Julie Vivas
“In the days of Herod the King, the Angel Gabriel was sent from God to the city of Nazareth. To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, and the virgin’s name was Mary.”
The biblical story of the Nativity with text taken straight from the Bible is one about faith, love, and a miracle. It is a down-to-earth and humorous imagining of the events with a scruffy Angel Gabriel delivering the news, a clearly uncomfortable Mary on the exhausting journey to Bethlehem, and at last the deliverance of the baby Jesus.

Jesus the Little New Baby by Mary Edna Lloyd
Gray Donkey stood very still. One long gray ear was up. One long gray ear was down. That day he had walked and walked and walked. He had carried someone on his back.
This sweet nativity story, published in 1951, with its simple pencil drawings, and child-friendly text capture the innocence and simplicity of the Christmas story for young children. Although it may be out-of-print, the book is a wonderful introduction to the nativity story.

For Elementary Grade Children:
Santa’s Favorite Story by Hisako Aoki, Ill. Ivan Gantschev
“No, no, no,” said Santa in a kindly voice, “Christmas hasn’t got anything to do with me. Sit down and I’ll tell you the story of the first Christmas.”
The true meaning of the holidays is revealed as Santa Claus retells the story of the first Christmas in this picture book. When Santa Claus tells the forest animals that he is tired of delivering heavy packages, they are worried there won’t be a Christmas. To help the animals understand Christmas would still come even if he didn’t deliver presents, Santa tells the story of the first Christmas, and everyone, including Santa, learns lessons about the meaning of this special holiday.

The Legend of the Poinsettia retold and illustrated by Tomie dePaola
A hush fell over the church. Voices began to whisper. “Look! Look at the weeds!” Lucida opened her eyes and looked up. Each weed was tipped with a flaming red star. The manger glowed and shimmered as if lit by a hundred candles.
This retelling of a Mexican legend tells how the poinsettia came to be, through a little girl’s unselfish gift to the Christ Child. Caldecott honor-winning illustrator Tomie dePaola’s distinctive illustrations highlight the Christmas traditions of Mexico. The book captures the excitement of the children preparing for Christmas as well as the hope of Lucida, who comes to learn what makes a gift truly beautiful.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.
Maybe Christmas… perhaps… means a little bit more?
Although this classic has been commercialized in recent years, it remains the ultimate book about the real meaning of Christmas. This heartwarming story about the Christmas spirit will touch even the smallest of hearts. Like mistletoe, candy canes, and caroling, the story of the Grinch is a mainstay of the holidays.

The Wild Christmas Reindeer by Jan Brett
Teeka was excited. And a little afraid. This year Santa had asked her to get the reindeer ready to fly on Christmas Eve.
Little Teeka is firm with the reindeer to get them ready for Santa’s important flight, but her yelling only gets them tangled up. She learns that kindness and love solve problems better than any firm hand. The beautiful, intricate illustrations draw on Swedish folk art and require readers to look closely to see all the details.

The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
What I wanted more than anything was one silver bell from Santa’s sleigh. When I asked, Santa smiled. He stood, holding the bell high above him, and called out, “The first gift of Christmas!”
Skip the movie and take a ride aboard the Polar Express in this classic holiday picture book. A boy, lying awake one Christmas Eve, is welcomed aboard a magical train to the North Pole. The Polar Express makes its way to the city on top of the world, where the boy will make his Christmas wish. This is a story for all who believe in the spirit of Christmas and those who treasure the sound of a reindeer’s silver bell. The Polar Express is the 1986 Caldecott Medal winner and reading the story together is a beloved holiday tradition held by generations of families.

For Older Children:
The Fourth Wise Man retold by Susan Summers, Ill. Jackie Morris
Dark ledges of rock rose around him like the bones of ancient monsters. Shifting hills of treacherous sand blistered the earth … by night jackals prowled and barked in the distance. But he pressed on, faithfully following the bright new star…
Long ago a man named Artaban and three companions observed a new star in the night sky. They knew it signified the birth of a child who would bring change and hope to the world so they decided to follow the star. But along the way, Artaban stopped to help those in need. He never makes it to the stable to pay homage to the baby Jesus. Beautifully written and stunningly illustrated, this Christmas story is unlike any other. It focuses on one man’s lifelong commitment to doing good. The Fourth Wise Man truly captures the real meaning of Christmas.

Christmas Day in the Morning by Pearl Buck, Ill. Mark Buehner
The thought struck him like a silver dagger. Why should he not give his father a special gift, too, out there in the barn? He could get up early, earlier than four o’clock, and he could creep into the barn and get all the milking done…. Milking for once was not a chore. It was something else, a gift to his father who loved him.
Rob wants to get his father a gift that shows how much he loves him. But it’s Christmas Eve and he doesn’t have any money to spend. Then, Rob thinks of the best gift of all. The acclaimed author Pearl S. Buck captures the spirit of Christmas in this elegant, heartening story about a boy’s gift of love. Originally published in 1955, this timeless, nostalgic story shares a long ago, beautiful Christmas morning.

Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien
For over twenty years the children of J.R.R. Tolkien got letters from the North Pole—from Father Christmas himself and from his remarkable assistant, the North Polar Bear, and his secretary, the elf Ilbereth.
Dear John, I heard you ask daddy what I was like and where I lived. I have drawn me and my house for you. I am just off now for Oxford with my bundle of toys- some for you. Your loving Father Christmas.
Every December an envelope bearing a stamp from the North Pole would arrive for J.R.R. Tolkien’s children. Inside would be a letter in strange, spidery handwriting and a beautiful colored drawing or painting. The letters were from Father Christmas. Tolkien’s love for his children and his vivid imagination is central to the wonderful tales of life at the North Pole. You’ll be charmed by Tolkien’s inventiveness and love in this holiday book.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson, Ill. Judith Gwyn Brown
The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down tool house.
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever follows the Herdman siblings, or “the worst kids in the history of the world.” The siblings take over the annual Christmas pageant in a hilarious yet heartwarming tale. In this laugh-out-loud middle-grade novel, Ralph, Imogene, Leroy, Claude, Ollie, and Gladys Herdman show up at church for the free snacks and take over the Christmas pageant. It’s obvious that they’re up to no good, but the Herdmans, who have never heard the Christmas story before, reimagine it in their own, wonderful way.

*Thanks to amazon.com for providing great information about the books, including publishing information and synopses. I used amazon.com as a starting point for this blog.

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