Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Advent List 2011

Preparations for Christmas are upon us. Sadly, most preparation rituals do not seem to have much to do with the coming of a bearded prophet who recalled to us the poor, the outcast, the refugee, the dispossessed, the imprisoned, the widow and the orphan. Instead, we are bombarded with tinny carols, silly plastic evergreen wreaths strung from the light poles as the Australian summer begins to sizzle, and exhortations to buy buy buy.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about developing some small non-commercial rituals for Christmas with my kids; and, as I am story crazy, they of course involved a pile of picture books. So then I put together a list of some of the books we will read during the four weeks leading up to Christmas; you can read the list here.

However, many of the books on the list are out of print and hard to get. Meanwhile, since then I have found lots more wonderful stories, so I have drawn up a new list, adding the new stories and letting go of some of the old.

These are not Santa stories. Nor are most of them explicitly Christmassy, let alone Christian. Instead, they are stories which honour and celebrate hope, joy, generosity, gratitude, sacrifice, community and love. In particular, several focus on welcoming the stranger into our midst, which has always been a central calling to both Jewish and Christian peoples and would seem particularly appropriate as some of us, at least, prepare to welcome in the form of a baby the most strange and wonderful human the world has ever seen – and a refugee, to boot.


In the Small, Small Night

So let’s start with that. Jane Kurtz has written a lovely book about immigrant children, In the Small, Small Night. Kofi and Abena have recently arrived in America, but Kofi is so worried that he will forget his family in Ghana that he cannot fall asleep. So his sister Abena, recalling the village storyteller so far away, recounts two traditional stories from home: Anansi and the pot of wisdom; and the turtle and the vulture. As Kofi listens to the stories, he is soothed back to sleep.

The story is told without a hint of mawkishness, yet it is very touching as these two young children, so far from home, talk about their fears and what they have left behind. What is just as moving is the way Abena has brought the gift of storytelling with her from Ghana. The wisdom contained in the stories will sustain them as they start at a new school, in a new culture, where everything is different.

The Arrival

Sean Tan’s The Arrival charts the journey of another immigrant. This book without words is for all ages, as the story is told through hundreds of eerie sepia-toned illustrations. The Arrival will raise all sorts of questions about why people flee and resettle, questions which may be extended to the Advent stories or to the refugees in our midst.

Nail Soup

Nail Soup is a retelling of a traditional folk tale which reminds us to welcome in the stranger. A traveller, denied all but the meanest of shelter and sustenance, convinces his host that he will make soup out of a nail. As the 'soup' bubbles away, the host is gradually persuaded to add ingredients that turn it into a generous meal they can share, demonstrating that a little hospitality leads to a rich bounty for all.

The Happy Prince: From the Fairy Tale by Oscar Wilde

Welcoming in the refugee and the traveller is all well and good, but we are also to care for the poor in our midst. In The Happy Prince, Jane Ray retells Oscar Wilde's tale in which the statue of a prince gives all it has – its ruby eyes, its gold leaf – to the city’s poor via an obliging swallow. Ray’s richly detailed illustrations add greatly to the story.

The Quiltmaker's Gift

The Quiltmaker's Gift is similarly themed, as a fabulously wealthy and utterly miserable king yearns for the one thing he cannot have: a patchwork quilt from the famed quiltmaker, who gives her quilts only to the poor. The quiltmaker tells the king that she will only make him a quilt once he has given everything away, and he gradually learns that joy is found not in material objects, but in self-sacrifice and caring for others. The detailed illustrations, which include dozens of quilt squares themed to the story, are absorbing.

The Mousehole Cat

Thinking of self-sacrifice recalls The Mousehole Cat, a tale from Cornwall. When winter storms close the harbour and bring a Cornish fishing village to the brink of starvation, Old Tom and his cat Mowser find a way out and brave the wind and the waves to catch fish for the town, knowing that there is a good chance that they will never return.

Amelia Ellicott's Garden

Old Tom reasons that there is nobody left to grieve for him; it frees him to risk his life to feed others. In Amelia Ellicott's Garden, a more passive older person feels abandoned by Time. Amelia struggles to maintain her beautiful garden and longingly remembers when she had people to share it with. It is not until a great windstorm blows her garden, her chickens and even Amelia over the fence that she discovers the host of neighbours – from all over the world – living in the flats next door who long to share the garden, and their lives, with her.

Rose Meets Mr.Wintergarten

Getting to know one’s neighbour, the first step to love, also features in Rose Meets Mr Wintergarten. In this lovely book by Bob Graham, a young girl moves into a new neighbourhood. When she loses her ball over the fence, her openness and her fairy cakes disarm the miserly neighbour who has terrified the area’s children for decades.

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge is a good neighbour, too. He lives next door to an old people’s home and is particular friends with Miss Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper, who has four names just like him. Miss Nancy has lost her memory, and Wilfrid Gordon sets out to find it for her.

Hop Little Hare

Margaret Wild’s Hop Little Hare is a simple story, also showing the love between the generations. It is not until Little Hare spies sheep nibbling at a curative boffle bush, which will ease his grandfather’s rheumatism, that he feels sufficiently motivated to hop!

Now One Foot, Now the Other

A more complex gift giving between young and old features in the classic, Now One Foot, Now the Other. Bob teaches his grandson to stack blocks, tell stories and walk. When Bob has a stroke, it is the little boy who patiently teaches his grandfather to stack blocks, tell stories and walk again, using the same loving words his grandfather once used with him.

Love You Forever

Love handed down between the generations is also found in Love You Forever, by Robert Munch, which he wrote in homage to his two children who were stillborn. In this story, a mother sings a special song to her son as he moves through the life stages; and as she ages and nears the end of her life, her son takes up the mantle and begins to sing it to his daughter.

A Child's Garden

Of course, we are called to love not just our family, our neighbour, the poor, the traveller, or the refugee; we are called to love our enemy, too. A Child's Garden tells of hope in oppressive circumstances. A boy tends a vine which throws out seeds on either side of a high barbed wire fence; the next season, vines grow on both sides of the fence and intertwine, symbolising hope for a future peace.

For All Creatures

The story of the vine recalls, too, that we are to love the earth and everything in it. For All Creatures uses gliding alliterative language to describe and celebrate all manner of things that creep and crawl, run and jump, slither and slide upon the earth. ‘For spirals, shells and slowness, smallness and shyness, and for scribbled silver secrets, we are thankful.’

Owl Moon

This celebration of the natural world is also seen in Owl Moon, in which a young girl goes out late one night with her father to see an owl. Owl Moon is a hauntingly beautiful children’s book, drenched in awe. A good book to read quietly late at night, just before bedtime.


In Jeannie Baker’s Belonging, like so many of her books, we are shown one way to be partners in the creation: and outside our very own back window! Like The Arrival, it is told entirely in pictures, making it a book that people of all abilities can pore over.

The Nativity

Let’s finish with two books about Christmas. The first is a lively rendition of The Nativity by Julie Vivas. Drawing from the gospel writer Luke’s account, she illustrates the story in her singular style: the angel Gabriel is a ragged punk and shares a cuppa with Mary; the naked newborn, hands outstretched, is still attached to the umbilical cord; shepherds loom, peering into the cot; and in the final scene, Mary pegs out nappies. In Vivas's interpretation, the Christmas story is not a far-off super-spiritual event, but something immediate, physical and real, that happens even now. I particularly love that Mary is enormously pregnant, pendulous breasts and all, rather than a skinny medieval nymph.

Wombat Divine

Finally, what would an Australian Christmas be without a reading of Wombat Divine? Wombat desperately wants to be in the Christmas play, but he is too short, too clumsy, and too heavy for any of the parts. At last, Emu finds him the perfect role and Wombat is, quite simply, divine.

As are all these stories. Read, prepare, enjoy.

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