One-Minute Book Reviews

November 29, 2008

A Good Christmas Story for Children — ‘Father Christmas and the Donkey’

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A holiday tale broadcast on the BCC has an enduring appeal

Father Christmas and the Donkey. By Elizabeth Clark. Illustrated by Jan Ormerod. Viking, 32 pp., varied prices. Ages 2 and up.

By Janice HaraydaFather Christmas and the Donkey (Picture Puffin)

The story of the birth of Christ is at once poignant and joyful, and great Christmas stories – including Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol – reflect both aspects. One of the rare picture books that does this is the exquisite Father Christmas and the Donkey.

A donkey – old, lame and abandoned – finds his life transformed by helping Father Christmas deliver the last of his gifts in this timeless fable. The plot could have devolved into treacle. But Elizabeth Clark invests the story with real feeling by showing, in the subtlest of ways, how the old donkey yearns to be needed: “The sack was heavy, but donkey’s back was strong, and though his leg was stiff, it was wonderful how little it hurt.” And Jan Ormerod’s pictures enhance the deft blend of realism and magic that helps to make the story so appealing. Ormerod begins by using mainly tones of blue, gray, black and white accented with silver. As the donkey’s life begins to change, she adds others until full color appears in the last page.

More than a decade ago, the BBC broadcast Father Christmas and the Donkey, and it has had a well-deserved afterlife. Like The Polar Express, this is a picture book that many children will enjoy long after they have started reading longer works of fiction.

Published: 1993. Father Christmas and the Donkey first appeared in the collection Twilight and Fireside.

Furthermore: Elizabeth Clark (1875–1972) was a well-known author, storyteller and lecturer in Britain and the United States. In the 1920s she was a broadcaster on the BBC Children’s Hour program. Born in Australia, Jan Ormerod is a well-known illustrator of children’s books. Her first book, Sunshine, won the Australian Picture Book of the Year Award and other honors. She lives in England.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 8, 2006

Julie Vivas’s ‘The Nativity’: The Best Version of the Christmas Story for Preschoolers

And the critic said, “Fear not, for this book takes its text from the Gospel of Luke, which shall be found in the King James Version of the Bible.”

The Nativity. Illustrated by Julie Vivas. Voyager Books, 36 pp., $7, paperback. Ages 4–8.

By Janice Harayda

It’s a miracle: For once I agree with the American Library Association, which named The Nativity a Notable Book of the year after its first American publication in 1988. I haven’t seen every version of the Christmas story for preschoolers. But as a former Sunday school teacher, I’ve seen a lot. And take it from somebody who knows how to make remarkably convincing angels – well, sort of convincing — by folding back the handles of coffee cups and glue-ing on ping-pong ball heads: This book is the best for its age group.

The Nativity has several big advantages over most other picture books about birth of Christ and the arrival of the shepherds and wise men. One of these is that it tells the story through the rich and resonant text of the Gospel of Luke from the King James Version of the Bible, dropping only a phrase or two here and there for clarity or space. (“Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” becomes “Fear not, I bring you tidings of great joy.”) Another advantage of the book is that the characters have no fixed race, so all kinds of families can identify with them. A third is that Vivas provides dynamic but offbeat and deglamorized watercolor illustrations — no gilt halos, no foil star, no flocked sheep. So The Nativity is more accurate than many of the books that have a Jesus, Mary, and Joseph who might have come straight from a DreamWorks casting call.

Then what’s not to like? For many families, nothing. But The Nativity has a painting that shows baby Jesus in what Hollywood calls “full frontal nudity.” I can only image the reaction of the mother who once wrote me angry letter after I praised a book by Maurice Sendak with similar anatomical detail. “Why on earth would I want to buy my child a book with pictures of naked babies?” she asked. And although The Nativity is widely available in bookstores, it’s so popular that it may sell out well before Christmas. My local bookstore had only one copy, much upstaged by newer titles. I snapped it up. Go thou and do likewise — this weekend – if you’d like to read The Nativity this season.

Best line: All.

Worst line: None.

Recommended if … you believe that a child who can sing “Baby Beluga” can understand: “And she brought forth her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn.”

Published: 1988 (first U.S. edition), 2006 (Restored Voyager Books edition).

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Check back for more reviews of books for preschoolers in the Children’s Corner, which appears every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. Or read all the reviews archived in the Children’s Books category on

This blog was created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor and critic of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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