by Elizabeth Hunter

Picture books offer a way for adults near and far to share a faithful story or conversation with a child, especially this year when distance or the COVID-19 pandemic may prevent us from being together. Grandparents, godparents, Sunday school leaders and others can send a simple picture book as a gift through the mail or read it aloud to children via free online video-conferencing services (Zoom, GoogleMeet, Skype, FaceTime). Here are some picture book favorites, from retellings of the Christmas story to contemporary stories that help us talk with young people about both justice and joy, as we await the coming of Christ into the world.

Between Us and Abuela: A Family Story from the Border (Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2018; Ages 4 and up) is a 40-page picture book written by Mitali Perkins and illustrated by Sara Palacios.

During Advent and the festival of Las Posadas (commemorating Mary and Joseph’s search for where Jesus can be born), Maria, her little brother, Juan, and their mom take a bus to visit their abuela (grandmother) along the US-Mexico border. The children carry Christmas gifts drawn and knitted especially for their abuela. Limited to a 30-minute visit, the children talk with her through the fence, listen to the story of Jesus’ birth and sing. When little Juan’s gift is too large to fit through the fence, Maria uses her creativity, a little Holy Spirit wind and her knitting skills. Earthtoned mixed-media illustrations
by Sara Palacios help even the youngest readers follow along as Maria knits, purls and looks for loopholes.

Possible gift pairings (depending on the child’s age and interests): a sketchbook and crayons, a beginner’s knitting set or a kite-making supplies.

Not My Idea: A Book about Whiteness (Dottir Press, 2018, 64 pages, Ages 7 and up) is a picture book by author and illustrator Anastasia Higgenbotham that helps adults talk with kids about racial justice and white privilege. It’s so good that many adults will want a copy for themselves.

In Not My Idea, a girl begins noticing racial injustice and boldly asks questions of the adults around her. When she asks her mother about the murder of an unarmed Black man by a white police officer, her mom will only say: “Our family is kind to everyone. We don’t see color.” Because she knows everyone really does see color, the girl is puzzled. The collage illustrations communicate messages as well, such as when the mom decides to lock the car door, which child is watched suspiciously by a store’s security guard, how the girl’s aunt dismisses televised news of racial injustice, how the love and labor of Black women have been exploited, and much more.

Congregations may also want to use this book for intergenerational study groups. It can be read alongside the biblical parable of the good Samaritan, where Jesus challenges our beliefs about how we are to see and treat neighbors. This book leads people of all ages to consider how tribalism can be a habit as hurtful as any addiction, how good people often choose to look the other way, and yet, how childlike perspectives and questions can lead us toward Christ’s way.

Possible gift pairing: A children’s Bible or an adult Bible such as Lutheran Study Bible (Augsburg Fortress) or Eugene Peterson’s The Message (NavPress).

The All-I’ll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll (Schwartz & Wade, 2007, Ages 4 and up) is a 40-page picture book written by Patricia C. McKissack and illustrated by the Caldecottwinning Jerry Pinkney. During the Depression, a family can only afford to give their daughters one Christmas present—a doll all three girls must share. Of course, it leads to a fight. Thanks to some parental wisdom, by the end of the story all the girls learn that no toy can compare with the companionship and love of family.

Possible gift pairing: A shareable gift, such as a board game, construction toys, art set, etc.

A Child is Born (Jump at the Sun 2003, ages 0 to 5) is a gorgeous 22-page board-book retelling of the nativity story, written by the late Margaret Wise Brown (author of Goodnight Moon) and illustrated by award-winning illustrator Floyd Cooper. It’s hard to find a new copy of this book for purchase, although many used bookstores and libraries have it. So consider, as part of an email Christmas greeting, sending young friends and family a link to this wonderful YouTube reading by the Rev. Silvia Miller-Mutia, at It’s a gift that takes less than a minute.

Possible gift pairing: A charitable gift, made in the recipient’s honor.

The nativity must have been noisy, according to Goodnight, Manger (ZonderKidz 2015, ages 0 to 5). Author Laura Sassi has Mary and Joseph try to get Baby Jesus to fall asleep amid many friendly animals and joyous visitors. Sassi writes: “Mama’s frantic / In a tizzy / Who knew stables / Were so busy?” Humorous illustrations by Jane Chapman show animals adding straw and feathers to Jesus’ bed, angels singing and playing instruments, sheep leaping and more. Finally, Mary gets the group to sing a quiet lullaby and Jesus falls asleep.

Possible gift pairing: A soft toy that is just a little bit noisy.

The Worst Christmas Ever (Flyaway Books, 2019, ages 3 to 7), written by Kathleen Long Bostrum and illustrated by Guy Porfirio, shares the story of Matthew, whose family moves across the country to a California town where it doesn’t snow, his dog (not on a leash) gets lost, and the pastor at the family’s new church mixes up his name. After his family volunteers to be in the outdoor nativity, things begin to change.

Possible gift pairing: An interesting nativity set.

Elizabeth Hunter is editor of Gather.

This article is from the December 2020 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.