On a peaceful note

If you’ve ever heard the song “Christmas in the Trenches” by folksinger John McCutcheon, yChristmas in the Trenches by John McCutcheonou will remember it. It’s become part of my Christmas tradition after hearing it on a local college radio station in ’84. In his beautiful picture book Christmas in the Trenches, McCutcheon has adapted his touching song about the Christmas Truce of 1914 for older children. The story’s narrator is an elderly man named Francis, who tells his grandchildren of the unique Christmas he experienced as a young soldier in WWI.  The soldiers in the trenches were bored and homesick on Christmas Eve. Suddenly, they heard German voices singing Christmas carols. The English soldiers decided to join in on “Silent Night,” an act that inspired a German soldier to cross No Man’s Land with a white flag and a Christmas tree. The two sides called a temporary, informal truce. Sorensen’s atmospheric oil paintings highlight the unexpected night of peace with a double-page spread showing the soldiers and the battlefield. Included are an author’s note, music notation, and a CD with the title song and “Silent Night/Stille Nacht,” along with a reading of the story. This sensitive picture book won a 2007 Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People.

For older children who want to learn more about the event, show them Jim Murphy’s Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting (Scholastic, 2009). Murphy gives an accessible overview of WWI and focuses on how peace was briefly restored when troops defied orders and met their enemies in the barren land between the trenches. Archival photographs, maps, and artwork help children understand the events.


A Time for Peace

Share the beauty of this frosty season with peaceful stories meant to be shared aloud.

Climo, Shirley. Cobweb Christmas: The Tradition of Tinsel. Illus. by Jane Manning. HarperCollins, 2001. Ages 6-9. Charming story of a kind old lady who gets to experience a little Christmas magic, thanks to some spiders. Manning’s bright illustrations provide interesting perspectives and a warm spirit.

Cunningham, Julia. The Stable Rat and Other Christmas Poems. Illus. by Anita Lobel. Greenwillow, 2001. Cunningham’s original poems explore the Nativity from the perspective of the animals that gathered there. Lobel’s lovely paintings capture the mystery of the season.

Daly, Niki. What’s Cooking, Jamala? Farrar, 2001. You can’t eat friends! That’s why Jamala decides to save her chicken from going into the pot for the Christmas meal. This delightful Yuletide tale features the same lively South African township characters that populate Daly’s previous Jamala stories.

dePaola, Tomie. The Legend of Old Befana. Voyager, 1989.Why do Italian families exchange gifts on January 6, Epiphany? You’ll know after reading this spirited story of a grandmotherly woman who must “sweep, sweep, sweep” and misses out on seeing the Christ child.

DiCamillo, Kate. Great Joy. Illus. by Bagram Ibatoulline.  Candlewick, 2007. “Where do they go at night?” Frances wonders. Every day she sees an organ grinder and his monkey perform across the street from her home. In the midst of her preparations for her role in her church’s Christmas pageant, Frances decides to stay up late one night so she can see where the man and his monkey go. That’s when she discovers they live on the street. Wanting to help, she invites him to come see the pageant. Anxious during the presentation, she has trouble getting out her lines … until she sees him enter the church. Then she cries out “I bring you tidings of Great Joy!” DiCamillo’s sensitive story, set in WWII, balances optimism and realism and is enlarged by Ibatoulline’s magnificent acrylic gouache paintings.

Medearis, Angela Shelf. Seven Spools of Thread: A Kwanzaa Story. Albert Whitman, 2004. Engaging, original tale of seven bickering brothers in Ghana. When their father dies, his will says they must spin seven spools of thread into gold in one day — with no arguing. When the brothers start to work together, they combine their different-colored spools of thread to create beautiful multicolored cloth, the first their village has seen. They sell the Kente cloth to the king for gold. Along the way, the story weaves in the seven principles of Kwanzaa. Minter’s linoleum block-print illustrations evoke the vitality of African village life.

Potter, Beatrix. The Tailor of Gloucester. Warne. “No more twist!” Meet the mice who save the day for a kind old tailor living in the “time of swords and periwigs.”

Rawlinson, Julia. Fletcher and the Snowflake Christmas. Illus. by Tiphanie Beeke. Greenwillow, 2010. Here’s another lighthearted picture book by this talented duo, featuring the sweet fox Fletcher and his forest friends.

Rylant, Cynthia. Silver Packages: An Appalachian Christmas Story. Illus. by Chris K. Soenpiet. Scholastic, 2001. A special train rumbles through Appalachian coal-mine country, bringing gifts to the children. Will Frankie get the doctor’s kit he’s longing for?

Watson, Wendy. Holly’s Christmas Eve. HarperCollins, 2002. Children love this thrilling adventure featuring the lives of Christmas ornaments. The brave toys must find a way to rescue Holly’s arm after it is gobbled up by the monstrous vacuum cleaner.

Novels to Read Aloud

Don’t miss the wonderful Father Christmas scene in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or, for something hilarious, join the horrid Herdmans in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. For girls ages 8 and older, consider the classic Little Women, in which the March family celebrates a special Christmas.

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