Leah’s Star by Margaret Bateson-Hill and Karin Littlewood
This tender retelling of the Nativity story manages to convey the beautiful message at its heart and allow the reader to witness the event through the eyes of a child. The text is accompanied by the most stunning watercolour illustrations and this has become my favourite picture book version of the gospel story.
What makes this retelling so special for me is the way in which both the text and the illustrations capture Leah’s wide eyed wonder as the events unfold. Little touches such as Leah preparing the manger and adding a blanket of her own capture a child’s desire to please, to help and of course the excitement of the experience for her. Mary is also depicted as young and vulnerable yet kind and understanding towards Leah. It is important to note that the family are more accurately depicted as people of Middle Eastern origin rather than the European style so frequently used in picture books in the past. The illustrations throughout are stunning and the use of light adds to the overall effect. Leah equates the star shining down on them to her own mother watching over her and the golden glow of warmth from the stable seeps out over the pages in a comforting manner.
The conclusion of the story is particularly beautiful, I think, as Leah comes to realise the importance of the tiny child and is overcome with a feeling of love. It is perfectly executed.
Refuge by Anne Booth and Sam Usher
This poignant retelling of the Nativity was published in 2015 in response to the refugee crisis sweeping the world. A donation is made from the sale of each book to the charity War Child. At the time of publication the book felt both timeless and timely and sadly later it is as relevant now as it was then.
The story is told from the point of view of the donkey and from the first words on the opening pages we know that this is the journey made by Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. The illustrations by Sam Usher show tiny figures looking vulnerable as they make their way to the distant city. The sensitivity of the text and the simplicity of the illustrations combine beautifully to make this a short read but one with a big impact. The family scene in the stable is both loving and movingly poignant. The visitors arrive as we expect, first the shepherds and then the kings but there is no heavenly choir of angels and it feels very much like the kindness of friends recognising and celebrating the significance of a baby’s arrival.
The threat of danger means that the little family must flee to safety and as the mother prepares to leave, the baby nuzzling at her neck, the story has a sense of reality to it. So the little donkey and the family set off through the night “hoping for the kindness of strangers.” A subtle but telling reminder that Jesus was a refugee too. As they progress the illustrations change and the family are depicted in a warm orange glow. This biblical family find refuge, kindness and a warm welcome. The reader is left wondering whether or not they would receive the same response now in our 21st century world.
The Nativity by Jane Ray
Jane Ray has won many awards for her fabulous picture books including The Story of Creation. In this sumptuous book, she retells the Christmas story, with a fold-out Nativity scene and stand-up characters as an added bonus.
During my time as school librarian this glorious book had pride of place in the library at Christmas time with the fold out Nativity scene displayed where all the children could see it. Frequently it aroused comment from both teachers and pupils partly because of its beauty but also because, unlike many children’s versions of the Nativity, the characters rather than being European in appearance did look as though they came from the Middle East.
The illustrations are stunning, highlighted in gold and with rich colours used throughout the book. There is a sense of drama and dignity to the overall feel which I find particularly fitting and which makes this book one that readers want to linger over.
Unfortunately I think that this version is no longer in publication but it is possible to find a second hand copy in good condition online. It would definitely be worth it as among the many versions I have shared in the school library this one has had a lasting impact.