Author: Marion Dane Bauer
Illustrator: Richard Cowdrey
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Books
Age Range: 3 -7
This is a beautiful book to hold and read, but unfortunately there are some major problems with it from a Catholic perspective. Most Christian reviewers have not liked it, and I can see why. I’ll include it here among my Christmas reviews anyway, and highlight its positive qualities, but I’ll also point out the problems too. The choice to buy or not buy this book is, of course, ultimately yours.
The book begins as a wonderful picture book – in large, luscious illustrations, Saint Joseph is telling everyone he meets (even the donkey) that a baby is coming. Meanwhile, Mary (not named as Mary) sits quietly with head bowed in quiet contemplation on the donkey – beautiful. Initially, Saint Joseph is referred to in the text as “the man” rather than Saint Joseph. His joy and excitement are perfectly captured in Richard Cowdrey’s drawings.
Indeed, Richard Cowdrey is a master at drawing animal characters. Wonderfully cheerful double page spreads depict all of the animals making joyful noises. Cherubic angels are portrayed singing “in satin voices”. There is a detailed and authentic representation of the stone buildings in the town of Bethlehem. I can’t imagine a child not loving the glorious illustrations in this picture book.
The wise men come to visit the baby. The Shepherds come. So far, so good, I thought as I continued turning the pages. But then something strange happens. The whole story seems to change direction.
“God has given us a baby” the text reads.
No mention of the Saviour, a promised Messiah, no mention of the name of Jesus or the Son of God. Not even a newborn King. Cryptically, the author writes that the baby smiles with “God’s own smile”, which I felt was ambiguous. The remainder of the book focusses on how the birth of every baby is a joyful event, and extended family members gather around a crib like the animals crowded around to see Baby Jesus – only Baby Jesus is not named.
There are several problems with the book – firstly, how it abruptly changes direction towards the end; the reader is set up for one type of story and it becomes something else. Secondly, that Jesus is not named or identified as Jesus. “God has given us a baby” is ambiguous.
Thirdly, the birth of all babies is compared to the birth of Jesus – yes, they are joyful occasions. Do the Angels sing every time a baby is born? In this story, the birth of any baby is elevated to the birth of Jesus. This is indeed a secularized version of the Christmas story in which the joy of Christmas is attributed to the birth of all babies. There is no mention of Jesus, Christ the King, the Son of God or our Saviour.
On the other hand, you might argue that this is a pro-life story that exults the birth of every baby to a sacred level. All life is sacred. But the problem remains that this Christmas picture book started out as a retelling of the Christmas story and ended up with babies smiling with “God’s own smile”. This Christmas book does not specifically tell the story of the birth of Jesus, although it is implied through the (almost) telling of the Biblical account of Jesus’ birth. Very confusing. Not recommended.
What a shame that this picture book fell short – it is indeed a beautifully illustrated book. But I cannot recommend it as a Catholic story for children. It is a strange book that is probably geared towards mainstream, secular libraries and classrooms, co-opting the Christian story, sanitizing it of Christ and inserting a new meaning about the joy that every baby brings to the world.
There are better Catholic books you could be buying for your children or classroom; give this one a miss.