Jess Racklyeft (illustrator), The First Christmas, Puffin Books, 32 pp., October 2019, RRP $24.99 (hbk), ISBN 9780143796909
This re-telling of the Christmas story for small children uses easily accessible language, the language of the everyday, to make the story easily understood. The illustrations also emphasise the notion of family. The shepherds, who ‘were keeping their sheep safe at night’ are depicted as a family – mother, father, son and daughter. It is, however, only the father, son and daughter who travel to Bethlehem – presumably mother is at home keeping things going there. The stable where they find the Holy Family is occupied not just by Mary, Joseph and Jesus but by pigs, a cat, a dog, hens and other animals. It is Mary who explains that there was no room at the inn for them. The book makes clear, however, that the humble birth place does not in any way diminish the importance of the baby. The wise men, looking suitable kingly, also visit. The penultimate sentence in the book suggests a natural reaction from the bay to all these visitors as he ‘fell asleep’.
The endpapers are bright and cheerful, with leaves, branches, stars and brightly-coloured birds scattered across them. The title page has a vignette of the two shepherd children sitting under a tree and basking in the light of the star which heralded Jesus’s birth. The layout is varied, employing double-page spreads for scenes such as the shepherd family looking down on Bethlehem. The last we see of the baby Jesus is a page where he is the clear focal point, lying in brightly-coloured swaddling clothes in a manger of straw being gazed at in wonder by a cow horse and a hen. The last page has the shepherds, chosen as the ones to spread the news, reuniting with their flock and the children’s mother, and telling her all about what they have seen. There is a certain homeliness about this re-telling which makes it unusual and which will endear it to readers of all ages.
Reviewed by Margot Hillel