This post is by Hanna Schock, a CEF member and the creator of Picture Book Theology. She is also the writer of Manna & Mercy: An Elementary Curriculum based on Daniel Erlander’s popular book for adults. Because of her training as a teacher and school psychologist, Hanna is passionate about Christian education that is easy to relate to, is rich with meaning, and leads to deep learning.
Advent, a time of waiting, hope, and giving can also involve a journey and a surprise. These are themes in secular picture books that I feature on my blog www.picturebooktheology.com and want to encourage you to use in ministry. “Why not use a picture book about an Advent story?” Such picture books are hard to find and sometimes saccharine and shallow. Instead, give your faith family a well-written story that is relatable and has depth. Help them make connections to an Advent story and their own feelings. I believe such wider, deeper learning across these three contexts leads to more meaningful learning. Consider these 4 picture book possibilities:
Brown Bear’s Wonderful Secret by Caroline Castle (illustrations by Tim McNaughton) is a silly story young children will love. Brown Bear’s wonderful secret is that she is pregnant, but this surprise isn’t revealed until the end. She tries to tell her animal friends, but they don’t listen. When spring comes, Brown Bear’s delight and surprise is revealed and all agree it is wonderful. Attach this story to Mary’s pregnancy and her journey from isolation to joy. Ask your children about having a secret or wanting to tell news but not being heard. Help explore, in age-appropriate ways, changes that pregnancy brings. Talk about Mary’s surprise. Likely, Mary will be more real to them during Advent because of this picture book and your conversation.
Hope is an Open Heart by Lauren Thompson is a picture book that many people will enjoy. Here you have a photographic essay demonstrating the universality of hope by offering various inspiring photographs of children from around the world. Hope is one of those concepts that is difficult to define, but we know it when we see it. These photographs will give groups of all ages images to enjoy. Encourage them to explore this important Advent concept. Tie these photographs to the hopes that your faith community has during Advent or to the Messianic hope the Jews had at the time of Jesus’ birth until today. What might it mean to have an open heart? Have your listeners hypothetically imagine photos taken to demonstrate Advent hope. Then encourage them to talk about how Jesus’ story offers hope during the Advent season and beyond, for themselves and for others around the world.
Shoebox Sam by Mary Brigid Barrett (illustrations by Frank Morrison) will be fun for elementary children. This story of generosity involves two children spending a Saturday with Sam in his shoe repair shop. Sam is known for welcoming those who are homeless and offering them food and new shoes. One elderly lady, who is likely homeless, surprises them all with a specific desire, the prized ballet shoes that are on display. At first reluctant, Sam gives in to her yearning. Her pleasure is his reward as she tenderly wraps her new treasure and exits. Help your children connect this delightful tale to the delight God must have when we are given just what we want. Then talk about Sam’s generosity and hospitality, spiritual practices that are most evident during Advent. Explore why giving is such an important aspect of our journeys toward Christmas.
Going Home by Eve Bunting (illustrations by David Diaz) is a picture book about two Mexican children who have immigrated to America. Their parents take them back home to Mexico for the Christmas holidays but the children struggle because their very American expectations aren’t met. The little village doesn’t feel like home to them. As the visit progresses, the children expand their understanding of home since they’ve been lovingly welcomed and reminded that they are family. Initially connect this story to Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, their village of origin. They later became immigrants in Egypt. Explore the common feelings across stories, but also contrast these journeys. The Bethlehem journey was fraught with danger and hardship. Point out how people in both literary contexts made the travelers feel welcome and remind your listeners that home and family can be created anywhere if relationships are grounded in love. Wrap up by talking about feelings immigrants might have during Advent and Christmas.