In third grade we read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson and it completely altered my perception of the Nativity Story. In this book, a family of dysfunctional children called the Herdmans find themselves cast in the major roles of a church’s Nativity play. The book is worth revisiting! It is a quick and funny read that tells the very familiar Christmas story from a refreshing and eye-opening angle. When describing Mary and Joseph, the narrator relates, “They looked like the people you see on the six o’clock news—refugees, sent to wait in some strange ugly place, with all their boxes and sacks around them. It suddenly occurred to me that this was just the way it must have been for the real Holy Family, stuck away in a barn by people who didn’t much care what happened to them. They couldn’t have been very neat and tidy either, but more like this Mary and Joseph.”
Since reading this slender book about 25 years ago, I have always enjoyed a fresh take on the Nativity story. Below are 10 Nativity picture books that tell the story in a refreshing way.
Little Bible Heroes Storybook by Victoria Kovacs
This Nativity story is part of an anthology of adorably illustrated Bible stories. I love this retelling of the Christmas story because it features the cutest little pregnant Mary I have ever seen. Most illustrations in other books do not even hint at the fact that the poor woman was pregnant and gave birth during this whole holy ordeal. I read this book a lot with my four year old students and they love it!
The Christmas Fox by Anik McGrory
A little fox plays in the snowy woods while all of the other animals prepare for the birth of Jesus. The sheep prepare gifts of soft, cozy wool, the bluebirds sing songs, and the cows bring fresh hay for the baby’s bed. The little fox worries that he has no gift to bring. The donkey finally invites the little fox into the stable and reassures him that his presence is all that is needed. The illustrations are warm and inviting in this sweet little book.
Asleep in the Stable by Will Hillenbrand
Baby Owl awakes in the stable in Bethlehem and notices that a new baby sleeps below him. The little owl proceeds to ask his Mama Owl many questions about the baby—where did he come from, who is his mama, and where are his feathers? A complex story is explained in a very heartwarming way for younger children.
Goodnight, Manger by Laura Sassi
In this retelling, Jesus acts like a newborn and Mary and Joseph look like the sleep deprived parents of a little baby. Jesus cries and can’t sleep when the hay in the manger is too scratchy. Then, once Jesus is finally asleep, Angels loudly sing Hosannas, three Kings visit, and the animals create a cacophony by clinking their horns together. A haggard-looking Mary finally suggests that they all sing a quiet lullaby together to help the newborn Jesus sleep.
Who Built the Stable?: a Nativity Poem by Ashley Bryan
This a beautiful poem written and illustrated by Ashley Bryan. Bryan tells the story of a young carpenter who builds a stable for his animals. When he meets Mary and Joseph wandering through the night, he offers them a place in his stable. The books ends by saying, “The babe would be a carpenter. He’d be a shepherd too.” Bryan dedicates this book to “Sister Sheila Flynn and her Kopanang Women’s Group of Embroiderers, Geluksdal, South Africa.” The colorful and joyful illustrations look like paintings inspired by vibrant embroidery.
Wombat Divine by Mem Fox
Wombat loves Christmas and longs to take part in the animals’ Nativity play. He tries out for all of the main parts: Joseph, the Innkeeper, and even Mary. For each part, he is deemed inadequate. He falls asleep, is too clumsy, or is simply too big. Feeling dejected, Wombat begins to lose hope that he can take part in such a special production. Finally, the animals find him the most perfect part—Baby Jesus. During the play, Wombat even falls asleep, just like a real baby. Wombat shows that, without a divine Jesus, there could be no Nativity play.
My Nativity ABC’s by Ester Yu Sumner
Ester Yu Sumner tells the Nativity story in a fresh, ABC format. Engaging illustrations and rhyming verse entice young readers. This book also introduces children to some longer words and more complex ideas from the Bible using a simple and inviting format. You may want to pair this one with My Nativity 1-2-3’s, a counting book, also by Sumner.
Silent Night by Lara Hawthorne
This book shares the traditional Christmas carol “Silent Night” through exquisite illustrations. Since the song takes place at nighttime, much of the book shows the Nativity story unfolding against a black, star-speckled sky. The dark background makes the trees, animals, and Holy Family stand out in a very eye-catching way. Hawthorne depicts Mary and Joseph as a couple with darker skin and natural hair. This is a beautiful book to share each Christmas!
Song of the Stars by Sally Lloyd-Jones
About two hours before I realized I was in labor with my son, my cat started acting very strangely. She knew well before I did that a baby was about to be born. This story follows the same premise. The book begins by saying, “The world was about to change forever. And it almost went unnoticed…” It goes on to show the wind, animals, and seas reacting to the anticipation of Jesus’s birth. The story ends as Jesus is born and all of the animals gather around his bed in the manger.
The Nativity by Julie Vivas
Julie Vivas illustrates the Nativity story using endearing water color paintings. Throughout the well-known story, she shows the more human side to the Christmas story. Mary hangs laundry on a clothesline while the Angel Gabriel tells her she is pregnant with Jesus. She marvels at her growing belly while holding baby clothes. Joseph even struggles to help a very pregnant Mary scramble onto the donkey’s back. Just like the Herdmans in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Vivas helps us remember that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were people, just like us.
I hope through these recommendations, you can find a Nativity story that tells a very familiar story in a new way.