Tuesday, December 23, 2014

20 Great Travel or Holiday Games

In Australia it is summer and so school is out for 6 weeks across the nation and many families will be heading for the beaches and waterways to enjoy Christmas in a particularly Aussie way. For some this will involve hours of travel as relatives are visited and exquisite coastal locations sought out. This is always a recipe for children getting bored and frustrated with one another - "...are we there yet!". 

This post is a repeat of some earlier posts, but I hope that it will be useful reminder of some great games that will keep children happily content for hours. I've done posts on travel games for children before and now seems a good time for another. So whether you will be in a car, bus or plane, or just stuck inside on a wet day, these games might just help.

Above: Photo courtesy of the Australian Newspaper

I've included a number of games that we played with our children in the car when they were young, some I used when teaching and a few new ones that I'd love to play with my grandchildren. Some of the newer games are adaptations of some activities from a great resource published by Usborne Children's books, '50 things to do on a journey' (here). This resource has a range of written and verbal activities that cover literacy, mathematics and general knowledge. One thing to note about these games is that you don't have to play every one of them competitively. If you do, you might need to handicap older children.


1. Sound word categories

You start this game by agreeing on 3-5 categories (depending on the age of the children and their vocabularies) for which people will have to be able to think of words that belong to them; for example, an insect, flower, person, country, girl's name, action word. Someone chooses a letter (maybe Mum or Dad to make sure that it isn't too hard) that has to be used by everyone and is applied to each category. The fastest person to quickly name their words earns 3 points, the second gets 2 and the third 1. So for the letter 'f' and the three categories insect, country and girl's name you could say fly, France and Fiona. A parent usually acts as the timer.

2. Top 6 (or 10 if your children get to be good at it)

This activity is a variation on the previous 'Sound Word Categories'. You vary it by choosing a category and then seeing if someone can list 6-10 words that fit the category. For example, think of 10 car names, dogs, books, insects, snakes, footballers etc. The person who thinks of the most words in a category wins.


3. Rhyming words

Pick a word that is easy to rhyme with other real words. Each person takes a turn. The winner is the person who is the last one to think of a rhyming word. For example, heat, seat, meat, bleat, sleet, neat, pleat..... If the children are older they can write the words down simultaneously.

4. Don't say yes

This is a slightly harder game but lots of fun. One person has to answer questions and the others get to ask them questions to which the answer is obviously 'yes', but they must answer every question truthfully without saying 'yes'. If they do say 'yes', or can't answer, the turn ends and the person asking the question earns a point. For example, Karen is asked, "Do you like ice-cream"? To which she might answer, "Most people like milk-based products that are cold." The next person in the car asks a question, but it mustn't be simply the same question. For example, they could ask, "Do you like milk-based products in cones?" To which the reply might be, "Some I like to eat in a wafer case."

5. Spotto......

One of our family's favourite games in the car was 'Spotto windmill'. We lived in the country and often drove for 5-6 hours towards the coast. In key areas there were lots of windmills pumping water for stock. But you don't have to use windmills; you can spot billboards, bridges, trees, birds, and animals, almost anything that is common. The game can be concluded in various ways, such as the first to 30, ending it at a specific landmark or just stopping when you're tired of it or you run out of windmills (or whatever).

6. What's your job

This game starts with someone thinking of a job. Others then guess by trying to find out details about what the person does, where they work, they use tools, what skills you need etc. The skill is in asking just the right questions. Does this person work outdoors? Do they drive something? Do they use special tools? Can they work alone? etc. The aim is to see who can get it right. Every person in the car takes it in turns to ask a question and you keep rotating until someone gets it right. That person gets to pick the next job and it all starts over again.

7. Guess my song

Someone picks a song and they have to hum the first line. Everyone in the car has one guess then the person hums an extra line if no-one gets it after the first round. This continues until someone gets the song.

8. Guess the person

One person in the car thinks of a person everyone knows (e.g. a family member, TV star, book character, teacher, cartoon character, famous person), and then everyone takes turns to ask a question about them. Is it a man or a woman? Are they young or old? Does she have black hair? Does he wear glasses? Is she famous?

9. I Spy..

This is a well-known game. It can be varied for young children by simply asking for categories rather than insisting on letter names or sounds. So the variations can include: "I spy with my little eye, something beginning with" 'p' (letter name) or 'p' (sound name) or even, "that is green". The last variation is a good way to involve very young children and the categories can be very varied. "I spy with my little eye a thing that ...." is black...or, a little thing that bites... or, a person who likes coffee... or, a thing the car has to stop at etc.

10. Back to back words

People think of words that begin the way the last word ends. You will need to demonstrate this a few times and it isn't that suitable for children under 6 years. It might go like this: pot, tree, egg, goat, top, pot, turtle, elf, fog, goldfish. You can make the game harder for older children if you like by asking for the words to fit specific single categories like animals, names, places.


11. Who lives there?

This is a great game. Wait till you stop at traffic lights or you are travelling slowly enough to see a house long enough to remember some details. People take turns adding details to describe who might live there. This can be very creative or an accurate set of predictions. Each player builds (plausibly) on the previous person's clues. For example, first person says, "a mother lives there with her three children". The next person says, "the children are aged 3, 7 and 16". The next person says, "their names are, Sue, Pickle and Wobble.". The next says, "Wobble is named after his Dad (Bobble) who is on a round the world yacht trip" etc. When people run out of ideas you start again. You could vary this by choosing a car. The first person might say, "That car has a family of three children and their parents heading for the seaside".

12. Twenty questions

This starts with someone choosing an object, person, place, country etc that others have to identify. The others in the car have a chance to ask questions (maximum of 20 for each thing chosen). The questions are answered with a 'yes' or a 'no'. When someone thinks they know it they can guess. You can score this different ways (or not all). The person whose word is not guessed can score points as can the person who guesses correctly.

13. Memory game

There are many memory games, but a common one involves thinking of things that are in the car (or the boot/trunk), an imaginary backpack, suitcase, the kitchen at home, the beach where you'll visit. The people in the car add an item to a list and the next person must repeat previous details and add their own. People are eliminated when they forget an item. So it could start like this: "In the car we have a radio", to which someone says, "in the car we have a radio and a steering wheel", which could become "in the car we have a radio and a steering wheel, plus a pesky sister.....". A parent might write them down as you progress to avoid disputes.

14. Never-ending story

This game has two main forms, a single word version and a sentence version. In the word version people in the car take turns adding to a story one word at a time. It might go like this: "It", "was", "the", "first", "day", "of", "the", "monster's", "summer", "camp"....and so on. The members of the game try to make it impossible to add to the story because the last word is pretty much the last word.

The sentence version is slightly more complex but just as much fun.

15. Word association

This game is a bit trickier but can be handled by children 6+. Someone starts with a word and the next person has to add a word that has an association. Using just nouns and verbs is easiest. The game ends when a word is repeated or someone is stuck. You can have winners and losers if you want but it isn't necessary. Here's how it might go. "Dogs", "bark", "bones", "kennel", "growl", "fleas", "wag", "tail", "scratch" etc.

16. Who am I?

The first player thinks of the name of someone who everyone will know then gives a clue about their identity, for example, Big Bird, a relative, a cartoon character etc. The people in the car then take turns trying to guess who it is. If they get it then they have a turn at choosing the identity. For example, if the player chose 'Bob the Builder' they might start like this: "I fix things".

17. Oh no!

This is a great idea for 3-4 people in a car. Someone starts a story with the words "Oh no!" followed by a simple statement. They might say, "Oh no! There's a spider in my pocket." People then take it in turns to add to the story using "but" as their first word to turn a serious circumstance into a not so serious one, and vice versa. They might add, "But it is only plastic". To which someone might say, "but it has dynamite in it". This continues until the players get sick of it or until everyone agrees that an appropriate ending has been found.

18. Special choices
 

This game requires people to choose between two options and give their reasons. Someone has to come up with the choice. For example, "If I had to choose between snakes or caterpillars" might receive the responses" "I'd choose caterpillars because I'm a robin", or "I'd choose a snake to surprise my teacher" and so on.


Above: Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons

19. Twenty-Five
 
The first person chooses a letter or sound at random. Each person then needs to write down (or say) 25 things inside or outside the car that begin with the letter. The game ends either by at the end of set time (say 3 minutes) and the points are tallied. You can score many ways, such as 1 point for every correct word or 1 for each word and 3-5 for each unique word.


20. Teapot 

This game starts with one player picking a verb (action/doing word). The other players in the car then have to ask questions about the verb, but they replace it with the word "teapot." For example, if the word is "swim", the first question asked might be, "Do cars teapot?" Of the course the answer is "No." Players keep asking questions until someone guesses the verb.
'50 Things to do on a journey', Usborne Activity Cards.

'Children's Holiday Activities: 30 simple ways to stimulate learning'.

'Holiday activities: 30 simple ways to stimulate learning'

'Stimulating language, literature & learning in holidays' - Part 1

'Stimulating language, literature & learning in holidays' - Part 2

Friday, December 12, 2014

Great Educational Toys for Children: Ideas & Guidelines

This is my fifth annual post on choosing great toys for kids. That is, toys that teach, challenge, stimulate and encourage creativity and learning.

I've outlined before some basic principles for choosing toys which stress that children don't need expensive toys to learn. We know that play in and of itself, stimulates learning, problem solving, language development, creativity and so on (see for example my post 'The importance of simple play' here). In short, many activities require few or no bought materials.

As well, even a single purpose toy that brings great pleasure, but doesn't teach a lot, can achieve more if adults are engaged to some extent with the activity. For example, a game like Hungry Hippos besides helping with basic counting (and being the noisiest game of all time!), can also help children to learn about turn taking, being gracious as a winner and a loser and so on.

But, if you are planning to spend significant sums of money on toys I would be aiming for toys that offer multiple purposes and varied areas of learning. My test questions for the toys we buy are:

  • Do they stimulate creativity and learning?
  • Do they encourage language use?
  • Do they require varied skills and multiple abilities?
  • Do they encourage the integration of many forms of learning?
  • Do they help children to develop interpersonal skills (if it is a multi-player toy)? 
  • Do they require children to collaborate with and, play well with others?
  • Will the toy last (i.e. not fall apart)?
  • Is the toy good value for money?
  • Is the toy fun, interesting and challenging?
  • Will it sustain your child's attention beyond a few uses?

So, while you don't need bought toys to stimulate children, in this post I will talk about some of the bought toys that I find interesting and which have worked with our children and grandchildren. I'm not trying to be  comprehensive, just offering examples of good toys that meet some of the criteria I outline above.

1. Scientific toys for older children

Here are some examples of the many wonderful scientific toys around for children aged 8+. Most range in price from $20 to $40 AUD.

a) The Museum of Victoria has some wonderful kits. One that I like helps children to explore 'Crystals and Minerals'. The kit helps them to discover the amazing qualities and features of minerals in everyday life. Many of these are available from the CSIRO site (see below).

b) CSIRO Science Kits - The CSIRO has some wonderful kits for children. One I like is 'Biology Madness'. This is a comprehensive science kit with 26 fun and interesting experiments. The kit includes all the main scientific equipment required for the experiments, plus an interactive DVD featuring five filmed experiments, and a 68 page full colour booklet which includes fun facts and further experiments. You can also 'Make Your Own Volcano',  do astronomy experiments using the 'Double Helix Astronomy' kit or build their own 'Solar Powered Planaterium'. There are many kits that come in a range of categories including flight, dinosaurs, chemistry, rocks, construction and more.

c) Geoworld also has many wonderful options including a 'Mammoth Skeleton Dig' kit so you can unearth a museum quality replica approved by Paleontologists, a 'Glow in the Dark Solar Mobile' kit and many more.

d) Green Science also have some interesting kits that allow children to experiment with static electricity that causes lightning, make clouds, and watch air currents that produce wind. They have many other options including 'Solar Robot' that allow children to learn how to make a robot that can move under solar power.

e) Kidz Labs (4M) also has some wonderful science kits. One of my favourites is 'Forensics' which helps children to explore basic techniques like finger printing, handwriting analysis, fibre evidence, making plaster casts of footprints, identifying 'strange' powder. Another great kit from Kidz Labs is the 'Animation Praxinoscope' that allows kids to rebuild a 100 year old optical toy that demonstrates modern animation techniques. 

2. Timeless construction toys

No  family should be without a couple of toys that encourage children to make or construct things. These toys help to develop good hand-eye coordination, encourage creativity and problem solving and can help to develop mathematical and spatial intelligence.  There are many types of construction toys that  children can use from a very young age. Here are a few examples:


Above: Father & son play with Knupferli (see below)

a) Wooden blocks of some type  - at our house our grandchildren still use the same set of blocks in  their original walker that our children did 30+ years ago (suitable for ages 6 months  to 3 years).
b) Lego  - probably all three types/sizes will be useful. Our children's Lego is now  played with by our grandchildren (suitable for age 6 months to 15  years). The themed sets for 'Harry Potter' and 'The Hobbit' are on the top of many kid's gift lists and give hours of creative story-telling fun.
c) Mobilo is one of my grandson Sam's favourite toys

d) Other more challenging connector toys - e.g. Knupferli  Construction materials (see above). I used the soft plastic Knupferli materials when I was in Kindergarten and only just rediscovered them again (ideal for age 5-10  years). You can use them to make a simple necklace or a complex 3D shape.

e) Meccano  - newer meccano sets (see right) are different, but they still combine  all the old skills and interest of the metal Meccano I had as a child  (age 5-15 years).

You can do many things with construction toys. Yes, you can build simply things like towers or shapes. You can make houses, cars, anything (in the case of Lego).

In  combination with other objects (e.g. plastic animals or people) you can  tell stories of all kinds. Imaginary zoos can be created, aquariums, farms, space creatures, aliens and dinosaurs can invade villages etc. In some cases your children can learn how to follow instructions and design plans (e.g. Meccano, Knupferli & Lego).

What's great about construction toys is that they:
  • Help to develop hand-eye co-ordination
  • Encourage creativity and problem solving
  • Can help to develop spatial and geometric skills
Above: A family favourite, 'Zoob'

3. 'Toys' that allow you to create

The following are not all strictly toys, some are materials, but all allow children to be creative. Here are a few of my favourites:

a) Modelling clay  - you can buy cheap multi-coloured modelling clay for $2-3 per pack, or  you can make Play Dough. I've written a post on the creative use of  modelling clay (here). Suitable for all ages.
b) Magnetic learning boards with letters and shapes (age 12 months to 5 years), see picture to the right.
c) Magesketch (or some other variety) of this magnetic sketching board, age 12 months to 4 years.
d) Felt boards - there are many products of this type on the market (many of these are very cheap), age 2-6 years.


4. Model people, animal and objects

There  are many wonderful examples of toys that consist of people, animals,  dwellings, and objects that go with them like dolls houses, castles,  forts, arks etc. These allow children to engage in creative play either  alone or with others for long periods of time. These simple objects can  allow children to amuse themselves in a world of make believe and fantasy at home, in the car, at other people's houses etc. They are a wonderful way for children to create (verbally) their first narratives.

Some of the simplest are perhaps the best:

a) Keep a box of animals  - depending on the child's interests these might be farm animals (under 12 months), African animals, sea creatures, dinosaurs and people - these can be used alone or with other toys (see the shot of Sam above  with his Lego 'zoo').
b) Commercial sets like the Little People series and Sylvanian Families are wonderful for young children - we have a set based on Noah's  Ark to which we've added other animals. This has kept all our  grandchildren engaged for hours (0-3 years).
c) A doll's house  will keep boys and girls engaged in creative play for ages and there are modern variations on  the same theme with medieval castles complete within knights and dragons (age 2 -8).



5. Mathematical or Spatial Skill Toys


a) Perpetual puzzles - these are puzzles designed by Makoto Nakamura. They add a new level of creativity by allowing the child to change the shape of the overall puzzle that is based on continuous and interlocking shapes.
b) Blokus is a relatively new puzzle game with simple rules, but it can keep adults and children stimulated for ages. The purpose of the game is for each player to place his/her 21 pieces on  the board (or at least the maximum number of pieces) in a continuous span unimpeded by other players' pieces. It can be played by 2 or 4 people.
c) M-Tic  

This is a brilliant and simple construction type game that consists of multi-coloured plastic pieces with magnetic ends. The purpose of the  game is to create geometric shapes. It is excellent for developing  geometrical and spatial knowledge. If you can't find this version there are other similar examples at good toy shops (see the picture below).
d) Puzzles of all kinds - puzzles are brilliant for developing memory, patience and a variety of spatial skills. Young children can start with simply puzzles that require them to insert an animal or shape into a single hole. Later they can move to simply 6-20 piece puzzles then much more complex puzzles as they develop their skills.

6. Other categories

There  are many other toys that allow children to have fun, learn, manipulate  and develop fine motor skills. Here are just a few examples that I  spotted at my local Toy Shop this week. If you live in Sydney Monkey Puzzle Toy Store  is worth a look, it's one of the best toyshops I've seen. The owners  know and are passionate about toys. Find a good local toy store where  the owners choose, sell and enjoy toys.

a) Magnetic (Mudpuppy) Dress up Figures - these come in a metal box and the mannequins vary (e.g. sports model, pirate, ballerina, monster, mermaid etc).
b) Chicken Socks craft sets (Klutz) - These are cheap and have a variety of separate packets including 'Crayon Rubbings', 'Fun Felt', 'Simple Sewing', 'Hand Art' etc.
c) Puppets  - every house should have a puppet or two, there are many different  types of puppets including finger puppets, hand puppets, shadow puppets and string  puppets.
d) Card games of all kinds. There are so many wonderful card games today that encourage language and mathematics and also encourage sharing and collaboration. Some recent favourites include 'Rush Hour' and 'Story Cubes'. 

There  are obviously many great toys that I haven't mentioned. In my home I'd  always want to have puzzles, lots of writing implements (crayons,  pencils, chalk, varied papers), toys that teach numbers and letters,  toys that train hand-eye co-ordination (through threading, putting  things in holes etc), percussion instruments, Thomas Trains and cars  (especially for boys), a dress-up box and so on.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Three Simple Picture Books for Preschoolers at Christmas

My last post featured 26 wonderful books to share at Christmas. Within days of completing the post I discovered three more new books that are worth mentioning.  You can read my previous post HERE.

The additional books are for younger children and fit into two of the previous categories that I described. The first is clearly in the 'Books that relate closely to the biblical story of Jesus' Birth' while the other two are stories based on 'Christmas Traditions'.

1. 'The Christmas Rose' by Wendy Blaxland & illustrated by Lucy Hennessy (Walker Books)

This is a beautiful story that tells of the birth of Jesus from the perspective of the fictional daughter of a shepherd, who like the Wise men described in the Bible, witnessed a bright star that announced the coming of the Son of God. Her uncle persuades her to give up her precious orphan lamb for him to take as an offering. Madelon follows her uncle, his men, and the magnificent kings riding on camels. All have gifts for the Saviour, but what will she offer if she sees him? She stands at a distance in tears. Her hot tears strike the ground and a plant springs up. There in the snow a flowering white rose presents itself as a special gift. Mother Mary seems pleased as it is offered and says "a gift of love is best of all'.

This is a delightful use of the story of the black hellebore flower - which blooms in the midst of winter - to help frame the traditional Christmas story for young readers. The crayon drawings are exquisite, with a softness that complements the story well. This fresh telling is a great addition to the many books to be shared at Christmas.  The book is suitable for readers aged 3-6 years.

2. 'This Little Piggy Went Singing' by Margaret Wild & illustrated by Deborah Niland (Allen & Unwin)


This book is only loosely related to the theme of Christmas. It's meant to be a bit of fun that picks up on the trappings of Christmas - gifts, decorating, food and fun. As you'd expect from this pairing of legendary writer Margaret Wild and the illustrative skill and flair of Deborah Niland, it is a gorgeous book. Using the rhyme 'This Little Piggy' as the framework, they produce a fun book that children aged 1-4 years will love having read to them over and over again.

This little piggy went singing
This little piggy stayed home
This little piggy had noodles
This little piggy had none
And this little piggy went
Toot, toot, toot
all the way home

But of course this isn't where it ends, as the piggies go shopping, posting, dining, partying, riding, skating, dancing, visiting and star gazing... all the way home.

3. 'Hey Baby, It's Christmas' by Corinne Fenton (Walker Books)
Like the previous book, this book is also only tied loosely to the theme of Christmas. It uses the sense of expectancy and excitement to present the coming of Christmas. Using a series of very cute photographs of baby animals, and beautifully chosen words to describe them, it builds excitement across every bright and gorgeous page.

Hey baby.
Hold your breath,
hang on tight,
count the sleeps,
Christmas is coming.
In a twitch of a whisker,
a steal of a kiss,
it's coming soon.
Tiptoe through days,
whisper your wishes
or sing out loud....

And so on. Fish whisper, penguins yell out, ducks cuddle close, puppies dream and so on.

Children aged 1-4 years will love hearing this book, predicting the words and thumbing through the pages to experience the emotions and excitement of Christmas as it nears. Corinne Fenton has presented a special and very cute book for preschool readers.

Monday, December 1, 2014

26 Great Children's Books to Share at Christmas

I've done a number of posts on children's picture books for Christmas on this blog. As teachers and families approach Christmas you might like to consider the many books that can be shared. In this revised version of an earlier post I feature 26 books that are quite varied. Some of the books are quite faithful to the traditional Christmas story, while others are based on elements of the Christmas story or themes from biblical teaching on Jesus life, including love, devotion, kindness, forgiveness and sacrifice. Here are some of best examples that you can find. Many of these books can be used even with children aged 8-12 years. The illustration below is used by permission of Walker Books and is from Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' illustrated brilliantly by Robert Ingpen (reviewed in this post).


At the heart of the Christmas story is the birth of Jesus, which Christians celebrate on the 25th December. While for many, the celebration of Christmas has become disconnected from its traditional purpose of remembering and celebrating Jesus' birth some 2,000 years ago, it is told and retold in varied forms each year at this time.

1. Books based closely on the biblical story of Jesus birth

The Nativity by Julie Vivas is a wonderful book. The story is close to the Bible narrative and the illustrations as you'd expect from Julie Vivas are superb.

The Christmas Book, written and illustrated by Dick Bruna. Bruna's delightful and simple telling of the nativity story is special. He manages to tell the greatest story ever told with his typical simplicity. This one is suitable even for preschool children.

Room for a Little One: A Christmas Tale by Martin Waddell & illustrated by Jason Cockcroft

That cold winter's night, 
beneath the star's light... 
...a Little One came for the world. 

First kind Ox welcomes Old Dog, then Stray Cat, Small Mouse, Tired Donkey, and finally the baby Jesus into his stable on the first Christmas night. Delightful story that tells of the momentous event.

A Baby Born in Bethlehem, Martha Whitmore Hickman's retelling is based on the gospels of Luke and Matthew. It begins with the revelation to Mary that she will have a child who will be the son of God and ends with the visit of the Wise Men. The text emphasizes the joy of Jesus' birth. Giulliano Ferri's pencil and watercolour illustrations contribute to making this a great book for four to eight year olds.


The Best Christmas Pageant Ever tells the story of how one of the "worst Kids" in the world finds out about the real Christmas story for the first time as he takes part in the church Christmas pageant. The story itself is very funny but it also manages to communicate the Christian message accurately.

The Baby Who Changed the World by Sheryl Ann Crawford, Sonya Wilson (Illustrator). In this imaginative retelling of the Christmas story, the animals get together and discuss the approaching arrival of a new baby that some say will grow up to be a strong and powerful King. When Mary and Joseph enter the picture and the events of the true Christmas story unfold!

The Christmas Story: According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke from the King James Version by Gennadii Spirin (Illustrator). This telling of the Christmas story begins with Mary's meeting with the angel Gabriel then proceeds to the birth of baby Jesus in a stable, the visit of the shepherds and the three wise men. Spirin's Orthodox Christian faith is reflected in the wonderful art that makes this a special retelling of the story of Jesus (although not all will find the images match their idea of what Jesus might have looked like).

Mary's Christmas Story, by Olive Teresa. There are a number of different retellings of the Christmas Story available in the Arch Books series. Most are told from the perspective of different witnesses to the birth of Jesus or draw more heavily on one of more of the gospel accounts. This one retells the Christmas story from Mary's point of view based on Luke 1:5-2:18.



The Life of Our Lord, by Charles Dickens.

First published in 1934 (64 years after his death), this is the story of the life of Jesus and was written by Dickens for his children. While rarely included in his complete works, it is a delightful retelling of the Bible's account of Jesus birth, life, death and resurrection. Dickens takes the King James (Authorized) version of the gospel of Jesus, and makes it accessible to his children. There are elements of his telling of the biblical tale that some Christians might feel offers only some of the many facets of Jesus character. But, as well as being a beautifully written retelling of the Bible's account, what I love about it is that it offers an insight into the man Dickens writing in the middle of the 19th century. It shows his Christian faith, his love for his children and even some of the family prayers. Lovers of Dickens will enjoy the book, as will children, who will respond well to the story itself, as well as its literary qualities, and the personal nature of the telling. There are a number of editions of the book including the Simon & Schuster (1999) version pictured left that is still available.

2. Books that use the Christmas theme to offer moral lessons

This category of books is quite large. They typically use the Christmas celebration or season as the setting for a human story that teaches something about one or more fine human qualities that are consistent with Christian teaching; for example, love, kindness, generosity, forgiveness and sacrifice.

The Christmas Eve Ghost, by Shirley Hughes (2010)

Walker Books has just published this wonderful book in time for Christmas. It is written and illustrated by one of my favourite English author/illustrators, Shirley Hughes. At 83 years of age Shirley is still producing wonderful books. It is a classic example of books in this category. It doesn't really mention the Christmas story at all but uses Christmas as one of its themes to highlight kindness against the background of sectarian differences between Catholic and Protestant residents of Liverpool in the 1930s (the place and time of her childhood). Without saying it, Hughes offers the message that Christmas is a time when people should connect with one another in love, kindness and service.

The book tells the story of a mother and her two children, living in poverty. The mother cares for the children and earns just enough to survive by washing other people's clothing. On Christmas Eve 'Mam' has to leave the children in bed while she goes off to deliver a batch of washing. The children awake to strange noises (as it turns out they are 'natural' noises) and flee the house in fear straight into the arms of Mrs O'Riley from next door, a person their mother doesn't speak to for reasons not clear until the end. It's a wonderful book with a touching resolution.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, illustrated by Robert Ingpen (2008). This probably deserves to be in a category of its own. The miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is taught the true meaning of Christmas by a series of ghostly visitors. This is essentially a fable that stresses that Christmas should be a time of goodwill towards mankind. There have been many versions printed of this classic story first published in 1843 with wonderful illustrations by John Leech. Published in 2008 this new edition has to be one of the best illustrated versions that I've seen, which isn't surprising as Robert Ingpen is one of the finest illustrators we have seen in the last 50 years. The edition also contains Dickens story Christmas Tree that offers an insight into a Victorian Christmas of the 1850s.

How the Grinch stole Christmas! by Dr Seuss. This is one of my favourites within this category. The Grinch lives on top of a mountain that overlooks Whoville. As he watches the villagers getting ready to celebrate Christmas he comes up with a plot to stop them. But instead of stealing Christmas he learns that Christmas means much more than the trappings such as gifts, decorations and food. I used to read this to my children at Christmas time and now they read it to their children as part of their Christmas traditions (my daughter did a post on this here). You can also watch the video version of this story that has been popular with children for over 50 years (here).

Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, by Susan Wojciechowski and illustrated by P.J. Lynch. This story focuses on Jonathan Toomey who is the best woodcarver in the valley. But he bears a secret sorrow, and never smiles or laughs. When the widow McDowell and her son ask him to carve a creche in time for Christmas, their quiet request leads to a joyful miracle, as they heal the woodcarver's heart and restore his faith.

Wombat Divine, by Mem Fox and illustrated by Kerry Argent. This wonderful story tells of the quest of a wombat to find the perfect part to play in the annual Nativity play. He tries out every part without success until he finds one that he carries off with distinction.

The Nativity Play, by Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen. This is the story of a group of children who put on their own nativity play. There is a much creativity that is needed to get the show on the road.

 

3. Stories based on Christmas traditions

For those who are more interested in Christmas traditions than the traditional Christmas story, there are masses of books that take the Christmas theme in all sorts of directions (some quite strange). However, there are some that have literary merit and are enjoyable stories to read at Christmas and suit the needs of families that are from non-Christian traditions. Some of the better examples follow.

Nine Days to Christmas by Marie Hall Ets and Aurora Labastida

This wonderful Christmas tale from Mexico was written in 1959 and won Marie Hall Ets the Caldecott Medal for illustration in 1960. It is the story of 5 year-old Ceci, who ready for her first Posada. This is a a fourteen day festival (ending on Christmas Eve) in which entire towns participate. There are great things to eat, music, ritual and traditional dress to wear. But for Ceci, she is most excited that she will have her own piƱata to fill with special things that all the village children can share. As well as being about Christmas, this is a wonderful insight into Mexican culture. Marie Hal Ets collaborator was Aurora Labastida who grew up in Mexico and this his her story and her memories of Christmas.

Letters from Father Christmas, J.R.R. Tolkien (edited by Baillie Tolkien)

This book is a collection of letters that Tolkien wrote to his children over a period of 23 years. Every December an envelope bearing a stamp from the North Pole would arrive for J.R.R. Tolkien’s children. Inside would be a letter in a strange, spidery handwriting and a beautiful coloured drawing or painting. The letters were from Father Christmas.

Tolkien shares wonderful tales of life at the North Pole. A reindeer gets loose and scatters presents all over the place, an accident-prone North Polar Bear climbs the North Pole and falls through the roof, Santa accidentally breaks the moon into four pieces and the Man (in the moon!) falls into the back garden and many more. This is Tolkien at his creative best, but what's special is that they are personal communications between him and his children. His last letter is a beautiful farewell from Father Christmas with an underlying message of hope and continuity. If you love Tolkien you will like this collection. It's available in an enhanced eBook format as well, which has a number of other features (see video below). These include audio recordings of many of the letters read by Sir Derek Jacobi and the ability to expand each of the images of the original letters and envelopes
(some never published before).

The Night Before Christmas, Clement C. Moore, illustrated by Robert Ingpen (2010). This is a wonderful new release from Walker Books. Just the mention of Robert Ingpen's name will get me excited, because surely he is one of Australia's greatest illustrators. This is the best illustrated version of the classic Clement Moore poem that I know of. Moore wrote the poem for his children and first read it to them on Christmas Eve 1822.  A friend sent it anonymously to a New York newspaper in 1823 and once published it quickly became well known. Only in 1844 did Moore claim authorship. Many attribute much of our contemporary portrayal of Santa Claus to this poem. Who can forget the start:

'Twas the night before Christmas
when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring
not even a mouse...

Ingpen's depiction of Santa as a mischievous and happy old man sits well with the traditional myth. His usual immaculate line drawings are in evidence, but this time they are softened by a gentle wash that gives an ethereal feel to the drawings. The 'soft' lines also sit well with the traditional northern white Christmas.

Suzy Goose and the Christmas Star, by Petr Horacek (2010).  This is another new release from Walker Books. It is a perfect book for preschoolers or young children up to 6 or 7 years. Suzy and her farmyard friends are gathered on Christmas Eve around their Christmas tree and she notices that something is missing - a star on top of the tree! She cries to her friends, "It needs a star on top....Just like the one in the sky. I'll get it." So she sets off to 'get it' with some amusing episodes along the way before the surprising solution. Young kids will love this book. It is well written and beautifully illustrated by Petr Horacek. Again, it barely mentions Christmas, but parents and teachers could speak more about Christmas using this story as the springboard.

Finding Christmas, by Helen Ward. This slightly mystical book was voted in the top 10 Christmas books in 2004. It tells the story of a little girl in a bright red coat and bright green boots who wanders at dusk from shop to shop looking for “the perfect present to give to someone special.” Things look hopeless until she is drawn to the bright window of a toy shop filled with colourful toys.

All I want for Christmas by Deborah Zemke. What does a skunk want for Christmas? French perfume! What does a spider want? A spinning wheel! Deborah Zemke's wonderful art and great sense of humour makes this a hit. I wonder what they will want?

Emily and the big bad bunyip, by Jackie French and illustrated by Bruce Whateley. It′s Christmas Day in Shaggy Gully. Can Emily Emu and her friends possibly make the Bunyip smile this Christmas? All the animals are in a good mood except the Bunyip. He proclaims, ′I′m mad and I′m mean! Bunyips don′t like Christmas!


Twinkle, Twinkle Christmas Star by Christine Harder Tangvald.

This delightful story is based on the familiar children's rhyme but re-words it to parallel the Christmas story.


'Bear Stays Up' by Karma Wilson & illustrated by Jane Chapman (McElderry Book)

This poor bear has never seen a Christmas because of he hibernates each year. This year, his forest friends vow to wake him up and keep him up for their Christmas celebration. This is a delightful story told in rhyme. Bear's friends give him a wonderful Christmas. They decorate his den, find a Christmas tree, make some decorations and sing Christmas carols. Does Bear stay up?
Mooseltoe by Margie Palatini, Henry Cole (Illustrator). This one is a lot of fun




The Nutcracker by Janet Schulman & E. T. A. Hoffmann, illustrated by Renee Graef. A version of the classic tale.

The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg. A magical train ride on Christmas Eve takes a boy to the North Pole to receive a special gift from Santa Claus. This book won the 1986 Caldecott Medal and of course has been made into a movie.
Summing Up

There are endless books that have written about Christmas. When choosing a suitable book to read to your children try to find one that is faithful to the Christmas story and which is appropriate for your children's age. Even those books that mention only tangentially the real Christmas story can be a good springboard for the discussion of the central meaning of Christmas. 

Parents or teachers who want to share the traditional Christmas story can use one of the many wonderful children's Bibles available for children of varying ages in modern translations. For example, Lion Hudson has published a variety of versions that paraphrase the Bible accurately and with illustrations that children will find meaningful and enjoyable (more information here). You can also use an adult Bible with primary aged children and can simply read the appropriate section from the gospels of Matthew (here) or Luke (here).