Purpose of this Blog...

You may have noticed that not all books are equal in capturing children's imaginations and in cultivating those innocent, tender souls. My goal is to help you find the ones that do!
(Painting by Mary Cassatt: "Mrs Cassatt Reading to her Grandchildren" -1888)

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Friday, December 30, 2011

12 days, 12 books, 12 illustrators

one - jan brett
 two - jane ray
 three - laurel long
 four - louise brierley
 five - robert sabuda
 six - gennady spirin
 seven - brian wildsmith
 eight - joanna isles
 nine - ilonka karasz
ten - don daily
eleven - rachel griffin
twelve - little golden book

Which illustrator is your favorite?
I hope you're enjoying these "12 Days of Christmas", which end on January 6th, with the celebration of Theophany, or Epiphany.

Thursday, December 29, 2011


Herod was wroth and sent men to slay all the infants of Bethlehem and the parts there about, from two years old and under, thinking that with them he would also certainly slay the King Who had been born.
Appropriate to the theme of today's remembrance of the Holy Innocents, I am posting some thoughts about childhood innocence and why I am so passionate about "good books for young souls"...
"Blessed Are The Children", artist: Vasili Belyaev
St. Petersburg, Russia [source]
My husband and I saw many beautiful sights on our recent trip to St. Petersburg, Russia. In gazing up at this beautiful mosaic in the Our Savior of the Resurrection Church-now-turned-museum [the fate of many churches after the Soviet takeover - see photo and note below], I couldn't help but think of this pertinent quote for my blog from The Diary of a Russian Priest by Fr. Alexander Elchaninov:

"Why are childhood impressions so important? Why is it essential to fill a child's mind and soul with light and goodness, starting from the very earliest stages of its life? In childhood we find a natural gift for faith, simplicity, gentleness, a capacity for tenderness, compassion, imagination, an absence of cruelty and hardness. Now this is precisely the kind of soil that yields a harvest thirty-fold, sixty-fold or an hundred-fold. When, later in life, the soul has become hard and dry, a man can be cleansed anew and saved by the continuing presence of his childhood experience. That is why it is so important to keep children close to the Church--it will provide them with nourishment for their entire lifetime." 

Book recommendation - DRITA: An Albanian Girl Discovers the Faith of Her Ancestors. This is a story about a young Albanian girl whose family has lived for years under repressive communist rule. After decades of religious oppression, Drita is finally able to discover the faith of her ancestors. As she experiences God’s love for her through the example of her grandparents and the teachings of missionaries, she turns her heart toward Christ. At the story’s joyful conclusion, Drita is baptized and lives in an Albania where all are now free to openly worship, praise, and glorify God in His Church.

My husband and I outside this
beautiful Russian church, December 2011
History of Our Savior of the Resurrection Church in St. Petersburg:
Construction began in 1883 under Alexis III, as a memorial to his father Emperor Alexis II, who was mortally wounded on the sight (which is why the church is also sometimes referred to as the "Church of the Savior on the Spilt Blood". Work progressed slowly and was finally completed during the reign of Nicholas II in 1907.

Funding was provided by the Royal family with the support of many private investors. The church's construction ran well over budget, having been estimated at 3.6 million roubles but ending up costing over 4.6 million.

In the aftermath of the Revolution, the church was ransacked and looted, badly damaging its interior. The Soviet government closed the church in the early 1930s.

During World War II, the church was used as a warehouse for vegetables, leading to the sardonic name of "Savior on Potatoes." It suffered significant damage during the Siege of Leningrad and after the war, it was used as a warehouse for a nearby opera theatre.

In July 1970, management of the church passed to Saint Isaac's Cathedral (then used as a highly profitable museum) and proceeds from the cathedral were ploughed back into restoring the church. The church was reopened in August 1997, after 27 years of restoration, but has not been resanctified and does not function as a full-time place of worship. It is now one of the main tourist attractions of St. Petersburg.
[source and more pictures]

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Good King and the Feast of St. Stephen

One of the statues we came across of Wenceslas
 in Prague, Czech Republic.
John M. Neale, an Anglican priest, wrote the words to "Good King Wenceslas" in 1853 to inspire children to be generous on St. Stephen's Day (today - Dec. 27). The lyrics of the song are based on events that occurred in the tenth century... about a kind-hearted king and his page who set out to help a poor man on a cold winter's night and how they experienced a miracle along the way. (If the incident is merely legend, the hero most certainly is not.)

Wenceslas was born into a royal family in Bohemia, which is now part of the Czech Republic.  My husband and I just had the pleasure of taking a trip to the city of Prague to see our son, who is on a student exchange program there.  We saw statues and tributes to Wenceslas all over the city.

Wenceslas was raised by his grandmother to be a devout Christian.  Since his father was killed in battle when Wenceslas was only thirteen years old, he became Prince of Bohemia just five years later, at the young age of 18.  He ruled the land fairly, as he sought to spread Christianity throughout Bohemia and give aid to those in need.  

In 935 he was killed by his brother in a political coup. As a result of his pious life and untimely death, Wenceslas is venerated by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches as a martyr and a saint. (The Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously conferred the title of King to Wenceslas.)

At the suggestion of one of my readers, I'd like to add a third picture book about  Good King Wenceslas to the two I posted about last year.  This particular book has wonderful pictures by Tim Ladwig that help introduce the story and illustrate the text of the song.  There is also a historical note at the back of the book.

To read my previous about this Good King, GO HERE.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Christmas Pondering from C.S. LEWIS

Nativity Icon (source)
     "It seems then," said Tirian, smiling himself, "that the stable seen from within and the stable seen from without are two different places."
     "Yes," said Lord Digory. "Its inside is bigger than its outside."
     “Yes,” said Queen Lucy. “In our world too, a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.” (from The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis)

Thursday, December 22, 2011


I remember the first time I read Little Women, and the impact I felt while reading Louisa May Alcott's description of the March sisters bravely celebrating Christmas, struggling to be happy though their father was away at war.
Jessie Wilcox Smith's Little Women
I'm a bit choked up even now as I re-read the opening words of Chapter Two:  about how Marmee, with her steadfast determination, is wisely trying to raise her girls to become generous and loving human beings.  I recall wondering if I could have given up my Christmas breakfast the way these Little Women did...

Jo was the first to wake in the gray dawn of Christmas morning. No stockings hung at the fireplace, and for a moment she felt as much disappointed as she did long ago, when her little sock fell down because it was crammed so full of goodies. Then she remembered her mother's promise and, slipping her hand under her pillow, drew out a little crimson-covered book. She knew it very well, for it was that beautiful old story of the best life ever lived, and Jo felt that it was a true guidebook for any pilgrim going on a long journey. 

She woke Meg with a Merry Christmas, and bade her see what was under her pillow. A green-covered book appeared, with the same picture inside, and a few words written by their mother, which made their one present very precious in their eyes. Presently Beth and Amy woke to rummage and find their little books also, one dove-colored, the other blue, and all sat looking at and talking about them, while the east grew rosy with the coming day...

"Merry Christmas, Marmee! Many of them! Thank you for our books. We read some, and mean to every day," they all cried in chorus.

"Merry Christmas, little daughters! I'm glad you began at once, and hope you will keep on. But I want to say one word before we sit down.  Not far away from here lies a poor woman with a little newborn baby. Six children are huddled into one bed to keep from freezing, for they have no fire. There is nothing to eat over there, and the oldest boy came to tell me they were suffering hunger and cold. My girls, will you give them your breakfasts a Christmas present?"

Other childhood favorites that come to mind are O. Henry's Gift of the Magi (which I blogged about HERE last year) and the family Christmas recollections penned by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I was about five when my mom read aloud Little House in the Big Woods to me, and I remember Laura getting her first doll, made of rags, who she named "Charlotte".  In subsequent books, Laura was always given simple, yet greatly appreciated gifts, such as something homemade by her mother and a candy stick, or copper penny.  It made me thankful for my own presents, which seemed fit for a princess in comparison to Laura and Mary's gifts!

Here are a few more Christmas stories with beautiful messages.  Did I leave out your favorites?

The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden with illustrations by Barbara Cooney, is about expectation, love, generosity, and finding a home. A little orphan girl wishes for a family, and for a doll like the one she sees in a shop window. The doll, in turn, wishes for a little girl who can take care of her. There is also a sad couple who wishes for a family. You can probably guess what happens in this sweet and sentimental story, ages 5 and up

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey (click title to read my post), ages 5 and up.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever! by Barbara Robinson (click title to read my post), ages 9 and up.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Greeting:  Buon Natale, ("Good Christmas")
St. Nicholas Tradition: San Nicola (more information)
Highlighted Custom: Presepio (Manger Scene)

Throughout the Christmas season in Italy, hundreds of different presepi, or manger scenes, are displayed. (The word presepio comes from the Latin word praesaepe, meaning "enclosure", "crib", or "manger".  In large cathedrals, visitors can view life-size scenes and many include animated figures of camels, horses, and everyday people who might have had an opportunity to bring gifts to the Christ Child.

This life-sized Nativity scene and Christmas tree in the Piazza san Pietro mark the Vatican's annual Christmas celebration outside of St. Peter's Basilica. Photo by Joe Beynon.
In homes, families also display presepi, many that are treasure handed down in the family for generations.  Some families traditionally gather before the manger scene for prayer each night during the nine days before Christmas - the time it is said to have taken Mary and Joseph to make the journey to Bethlehem.  This custom may have originated with St. Francis of Assisi, who is said to have built the first nativity scene in a cave (which is more historically accurate than a stable) over seven hundred years ago.

There's a sweet children's book, Room for a Little One: A Christmas Tale, by Martin Waddell, that gently tells how, one after another, Kind Ox tells homeless animals who are passing by to come inside because "there is always room for a little one here".  Finally the tired donkey arrives with Mary and Joseph and is told the same thing when Mary asks, "Where will my baby be born?" The illustrations by Jason Cockcroft are incredibly detailed and luminous.

Children and Christmas: Children write letters to their parents, extending wishes for a wonderful Christmas celebration and promises that misbehavior will cease.  The letters are read aloud at the dinner table and then are allowed to be carried up the fireplace chimney, in the heat of the crackling flames. As they watch their letters disappear, the children chant these words to the mythical character, Befana:
Befana, Befana,
You are my lady,
You are my wife.
Throw something down to me - 
A little orange or a pefanino
Or a small pice of pecorino.

The pefaninio is a small cookie shaped like Befana. Pecorino is a special kind of cheese. Befana was an old witch woman who refused to go with the Three Kings to Bethlehem because she was busy sweeping her house.  Finally, after completing her work, she went to find the Christ Child and lost her way.  The legend says she continues her search to this day for Baby Jesus, and on January 5, the night before Epiphany, Italian children leave their shoes by the fireplace, in hopes that Befana will come down the chimney on her broomstick and leave gifts for them.
The Legend of Old Bafana, written and illustrated by Tomie dePaola

Italian children also receive gifts on Christmas Day.  Some believe the gifts are from Bambino Gesu, or Baby Jesus.  Other think them from Babbo Natale, or Father Christmas. (In some areas of Italy, San Niccolò, or St. Nicholascomes on December 6th and that is a day for gift-giving to children. Grandfathers dress up like the saint, giving presents or coal made of sugar if the children have not been good.)

Christmas Eve dinner: In an Italian home, this festive dinner may include baked eel, which might be up to four feet long!  Of course, pasta will be served as well.  A capon or small chicken stuffed with chestnut dressing is another option.  For dessert, a loaf-shaped Christmas cake, panettone, is made with raisins and citron.  If you're like me, you may have received a panettone and not known if your children would like it.  Click here for a yummy panetton french toast recipe (with apples and cranberries).

Sources for my Christmas Around the World posts:

St. Nicholas Center: www.stnicholascenter.org

Monday, December 19, 2011


If you're familiar with Pamela Dalton's work, you'll know why I was so excited to find out she's published a Nativity book.  Her collaboration with Katherine Paterson, Brother Sun, Sister Moon: St. Francis of Assisi's Canticle of Creatures, has already made it into the NY Times Book Review's "10 Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2011".  Watch the YouTube clip below to see how she works at creating her stunningly detailed paper cut images.

Pamela Dalton's The Story of Christmas (with text from the King James Bible) is one of the most striking renderings of the Nativity story that I have ever seen.  Using this medium of paper cutting, which is rooted in the Pennsylvania-German folkart of Scherenschnitte, Pamela's intimate appreciation of medieval and Renaissance Italian art captures the profound, yet simple beauty of the Nativity story.  Her artwork is at once stunning, yet reverent, delicate, yet alive with color against a black backdrop that evokes the cold and solitude Mary and Joseph faced in finding lodging for the night of her expected birth.  I'll let the illustrations speak for themselves...

Friday, December 16, 2011


Greeting: Joyeux Noel ("Joyous Christmas!") Noel comes from the phrase "les bonnes nouvelles", translated "Good News", and refers to the Gospel.
St. Nicholas Tradition: Saint Nicolas on December 6, and gift-giver, Père Noël ("Father Christmas"), who comes at Christmas.
Highlighted Custom: La bûche de Noël (Yule log cake)

In eastern and northern France, the Christmas season begins on December 6, la fête de Saint Nicolas, (the Feast of St. Nicholas) is one the most important holidays of the Christmas season. Children are given gifts of this day, instead of on December 25.

Bakeries offer spiced gingerbread cookies and mannala, brioche shaped like the good saint.. In school, children learn St. Nicolas songs and poems.  They also draw and paint St. Nicolas pictures and crafts. Saint Nicolas visits nursery schools, giving children chocolates and sometimes even a little present.

Nearly every home in France displays a Navity creche (manger scene), which is filled with little clay figures called santons or "little saints." Living crèches in the form of plays and puppet shows based on the Nativity are commonly performed to teach the important ideas of Christianity and the Christmas celebration.
On Christmas Eve in southern France, children put their shoes in front of the fireplace (this is done on December 6 in the northern areas), in the hopes that Père Noël , "Father Christmas", will fill them with gifts.  In some regions there's also Père Fouettard, who gives out spankings to bad children (sort of the equivalent of Santa Claus giving coal to the naughty).

A couple of French-inspired picture books:

Babar and Father Christmas, by Jean de Brunhoff. King Babar's children in Celesteville hear of the wonderful Father Christmas who brings toys to all the children in Man Country on Christmas Eve. The children write a letter to Father Christmas in the hopes of inviting him to Celesteville but when their letter goes astray, King Babar goes into Man Country to search for him personally...

The Clown of God, by Tomie dePaola. Many, many years ago, in Sorrento there lived a boy named Giovanni who had no mother and no father. He dressed in rags and begged for his food and slept in doorways. But he was happy, and he could do something wonderful. He could juggle. This is how the French legend begins. Your heart will be warmed with the miracle at the end of the story as Giovanni does his last performance before a statue of Our Lady and the Christ Child. Author-illustrator Tomie dePaola has done an excellent job, retelling this old story as close to its original version as possible.

Although fewer and fewer French attend la Messe de Minuit (the Midnight Mass) on Christmas Eve, it is still an important part of Christmas for many families.The Mass is followed by a huge feast, called le Réveillon (from the verb réveiller, to "wake up" or to "revive"). Le Réveillon is a symbolic awakening to the meaning of Christ's birth and is the culinary high point of the season, which may be enjoyed at home or in a restaurant or café that is open all night. Each region in France has its own traditional Christmas menu, with dishes like goose, chicken, capon, turkey stuffed with chestnuts, oysters, and boudin blanc. 

A yule log-shaped cake called the buche de Nol, (Christmas Log) is served as dessert after le Reveillon. In Southern France, a real yule log is still burned in people's homes from Christmas Eve until New Years Day. A long time ago, part of the log was used to make the wedge for the plough as good luck for the coming harvest.

The Christmas season ends on Fête des Rois (Feast of the Magi), January 6.  Galette des Rois (or "Three Kings Cake") is a round cake which is cut into pieces and distributed by a child, known as le petit roi or l'enfant soleil, hiding under the table. Whoever finds la fève - the charm hidden inside - is King or Queen and can choose a partner. That child receives a couronne (crown). The other children say “Vive le roi (ou reine)!"

Source for St. Nicholas information: www.stnicholascenter.org

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Greeting: Merry Christmas
St. Nicholas Tradition: "Father Christmas"
Highlighted Custom: Christmas cards & Christmas "crackers" (not the kind you eat!)

Following the intense scrutiny by the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell, Christmas celebrations in Great Britain were in decline. At the same time, the Industrial Revolution allowed workers little time for the holy days.  But Christmas celebrations began to make a comeback in the mid 1800's, in great part due to Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and... Charles Dickens!

Many of the Victorian-age Christmas traditions are still practiced today.  In 1841, Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, made popular the custom of decorating Christmas trees after he brought the idea to the British Isles from his native country of Germany.  Victorian trees were candle-lit and decorated with fruit, nuts, candy, and roses.
from "Godey's Ladys Book", December 1860

The first Christmas card made its appearance in the 1840's, designed by English artist John Calcott Horsely. If you love vintage Christmas postcards and heartwarming  stories, have I got the book for you...  

It's Aunt Olga's Christmas Postcards, by Kevin Major and it's truly one of my favorite Christmas treasures. Anna’s Great-Aunt Olga has collected Christmas postcards all her life (she’s ninety-five years young). Aunt Olga takes advantage of a holiday visit from her favorite niece to share her memories and collection of antique postcards - she received her first from her brother when he was a soldier during World War I - and we, as readers, get to delight in her collection too! Decked out in red, Aunt Olga is ready for fun as she teaches Anna how to write her very own Christmas rhymes. Written with warmth and slightly quirky humor, this unique story shows how sweet a loving relationship can be between a youngster and an oldster.

Finally, it was in large part due to the works of Charles Dickens, specifically his masterpiece A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, that the joys of Christmas were rekindled in Great Britain. Below is Dicken's self described "Carol Philosophy":

"a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys."

English poet Christina Rossetti was the author of many Advent and Christmastide poems.  Her most famous, A Christmas Carol became a favorite Christmas hymn entitled In the Bleak Midwinter after it appeared (posthumously) in The English Hymnal in 1906, with a setting by Gustav Holst (and later by Harold Darke).  It has been performed by choirs and soloists ever since, including the Robert Shaw Chorale, Chanticleer, Julie Andrews, Sarah Mclachlan, and most recently, James Taylor (who sings my favorite modern rendition). Click HERE to read my post about Christina Rossetti and listen to two beautiful settings of this hymn.

The tradition possibly most enjoyed by English children - Christmas "crackers" - was developed in 1844 by Thomas Smith, an English candy maker who visited France and saw cosaques ("crackers") there.  The French versions were sugar-coated almonds wrapped in squares of colored paper with each end tightly twisted.  Upon his return to England, Smith began making crackers that contained candy, jokes, mottoes, and riddles.  Still popular today, a cracker is placed beside each plate at the Christmas Dinner, ready for its tabs to be pulled as the anticipated "pop'' sound is followed by the emptying of its contents (trinkets, a paper crown, and riddles) by an eager child.
Illustration of children pulling a cracker
from ‘The Graphic Christmas’ 1878. [Image Source]

What's for dinner?  Turkey (first sent over by colonists from North America in the 1600's), cranberry sauce (which must still be imported from the U.S.), mashed potatoes, brussell sprouts, and a baked plum pudding. The pudding is traditionally prepared with 13 ingredients to represent Christ and His Disciples. Every member of the family takes turns to stir the pudding with a wooden spoon from east to west, in honour of the Three Kings.  A foil-wrapped coin is baked inside, for good luck.

Children send letters to "Father Christmas", which are tossed in the fireplace.  Legend has it that the smoke from them burning letters gets carried up the chimney directly to the jolly man in the red suit!  J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a book about Letters from Father Christmas, that I posted HERE last year.

"Boxing Day", celebrated the day after Christmas, marks the beginning of the Christmas pantomimes (plays, such as "Cinderella" or "Peter Pan", which are performed for children).  Boxing Day was originally a public holiday on which church alms boxes, filled with donations for the poor, were opened and the money inside was distributed. Today, people still give gifts of money to servants or other people such as postal workers, police, and newspaper vendors, who serve the public during the year.