Author Ben Harris shares some thoughts on how to bring the Christmas story to life this Christmas
How do we share the gospel in a relevant way? How do we ensure that all ages will engage with what we’re saying? Ben Harris offers some advice about how we can do this by using the example of writing his new children’s book The Christmas Swallow.
The prominent place of children
There were a number of things, we’re told, that made Jesus really mad. One of the most eye-catching examples was the outer courtyard of the temple in Jerusalem being given over to profiteering. Jesus’ indignant reaction is described in all four Gospels, and he in turn provoked strong reactions from those who saw him upend the traders’ stalls and scatter their money across the ground. But it is only Matthew (chapter 21 verse 15) who describes the reaction of the young children present. Unselfconsciously living out Psalm 8:2, they started to cheer: “Hosanna to the Son of David!”
So although they might not have been the Gospel writers’ primary audience, we have a clear suggestion here of a precedent for children and infants having genuine insight and making spiritual discoveries of their own. Jesus himself appears to encourage as much. All three of the synoptic Gospels record him overruling his disciples so that there is no obstacle to prevent parents and carers from bringing their young ones forward to him for blessing: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven [or God] belongs to such as these” (Matt. 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16).
Make our message relevant to all
Such an encounter with Jesus would have been an unforgettable experience as much for the parent or carer as for the child. And perhaps that was the point. After all, Jesus went on to declare: “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17).
The task for a story designed to communicate something of the Christian gospel to children must surely be to reach those two audiences – the adult and the infant – simultaneously. A narrative that appeals to the (grand)parent, older sibling, aunt or uncle, teacher, etc on story-time duty is much more likely to stand the test of time than one that doesn’t.
If the child is absorbed by what they see and hear – starting to read the story for themselves through the combination of word and picture – there can only really be positive outcomes.
How do we actually do this though?
So much for the theory. To explore what this might look like in practice, let me turn to the 32-page picture book I have written retelling the story of the Nativity for today’s 3- to 5-year-olds. The Christmas Swallow is “exquisitely illustrated” (in the words of Countdown’s Susie Dent) by Estelle Corke and published by Lion Children’s Books.
As far as the text itself is concerned – with its consciously rhythmic style, the deliberate repetition of words and phrases across the different scenes, and the regular invitations to the listener to join in with actions and sounds – I have attempted to draw upon the giants of the genre, not least Julia Donaldson, whose iconic The Gruffalo I translated into classical Latin verse for Macmillan Children’s Books some years ago.
The narrative of The Christmas Swallow is carried along by a bird who happens to have a nest high up inside a stable and witnesses the arrival of a man and his heavily pregnant wife. In the rest of the first half, shepherds act upon an angel’s announcement and arrive to complete the scene for the book’s big reveal: the identity of the baby boy who has just been born. The second half then tracks Magi navigating their way via a star, and who arrive (much later, of course!) with three gifts that help explain the newly identified baby’s importance.
One of the key features of The Christmas Swallow is the repeated use of signal words (indicated by the book’s typographical design) that invite the audience to participate in the events unfolding before their eyes – whether it’s a “Hush…” of anticipation, the “WHOOSH!” of the questing swallow in flight, or a “WAIT!” borne out of surprise and astonishment.
Choose what we say and how we say it
There are, I think, two principal tasks that go hand in hand when it comes to planning a book of this sort. Firstly, the selection of the material that will go into the retelling and secondly, the structure of the narrative that will shape the retelling. Both of those tasks are governed by the book’s format and audience.
In terms of material, there are certain indispensable ingredients, of course, which must reflect the Gospel records and be faithfully represented. So, to the probable regret of some, I found no room for an innkeeper (principally because there seems to have been no inn). But more importantly, elements that are central to the Gospel story won’t be faithfully represented if they are not described in terms that are meaningful to the audience – for example, how to manage the three gifts that are offered in homage to Jesus by the Magi.
Gold is arguably an easy enough concept not to cause a problem, but what about frankincense and myrrh? They are, after all, crucial to understanding the person of Jesus and his work. This is where the framing of the narrative comes in. By following the events derived from the Gospels via a third party – in this case, the inquisitive swallow – the reader and listener are offered a lens through which to observe the story as it unfolds. So as each of the gifts is about to be produced, the swallow is already asking the question the audience itself is likely to be asking: what is the gift going to be?
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And on each occasion the answer to the question is revealed in three incremental stages: i) the giver conjures up a vivid impression of his particular gift (eg “Mine is as sweet as a rose in full bloom”); ii) the familiar name of the gift is revealed (in this instance, “FRANKINCENSE!”); and iii) an observation is made to guide the audience’s understanding of the gift’s significance (“Priests burn that fragrance in temples”).
When it comes to the final gift, there is no shying away from its associations with death, but the three-part sequence attempts to sensitively reflect the intellectual and emotional sophistication of the audience: i) “Mine is a balm for anointing the dead”; ii) “MYRRH!”; iii) “The child hugged his mother tight”.
Of course the real test for any book or message is the authenticity of the author’s voice. If that voice fails to convince, then no selection of material or narrative structure, however accurate or imaginative, will make a difference. But if it does ring true for the audience – child and adult alike – then the possibility opens up for readers and listeners to move – with the swallow in this instance – from interest to acclaim and from inquisitiveness to jubilation. And we are back in the irrepressibly joyful realms of the temple again: “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise” (Matt. 21:16).
Ben Harris is editorial consultant for the University of Cambridge School Classics Project, translator of the Latin edition of Julia Donaldson’s modern classic, The Gruffalo, and has published articles on the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles in Evangelical Quarterly.