The 12 Best Christmas Picture Books
I often say that picture books are a very useful tool for parents to teach their children about life. Sometimes they teach a profound life lesson, but sometimes they teach kids in a different way - by exposing children to more experiences and developing their imagination and wonder. I believe that Christmas books have both of these types of lessons for our children - and you’ll definitely find some examples in this list of our favorite Christmas picture books.
There’s no doubt that a good Christmas book has great potential for teaching a profound life lesson. I think that’s because the true meaning of Christmas has many parallels with the true meaning of life. Just ask yourself this one question - what is the true meaning of Christmas? What makes it so special to you? The first words that come to mind for me are family and love. It’s no surprise that Christmas provides artists with a pretty good starting point for teaching children about what’s important in life.
But, even though I’m a huge proponent of teaching children the importance of things like love and empathy, I must admit I’m an even bigger fan of simply celebrating their childhood imagination and creativity through good storytelling. Lucky for me, good Christmas books are some of the most magical, mysterious, and wonderful stories ever written.
I think the entire Christmas/Santa Claus mythos is deeply intertwined with the concept of belief. Belief is certainly a common theme in Christmas stories. Unfortunately, so is growing up and losing your belief. Sadly, “belief” can all too often be replaced with words like imagination, creativity, and zest for life. For that reason, perhaps most important of all, let’s all use Christmas stories like these for their very best purpose - building the absolute strongest childlike wonder in our children that we can. So strong it’ll take many, many years to dissipate - if it ever does.
Disclaimer: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. The links of book titles and images will lead you to view the books' listings on Amazon.com.
Written by Lori Evert with Photographs by Per Breiehagen
The highlight of this children’s book is the stunning photography from Per Breiehagen of the Norwegian wilderness. It’s impossible for me to read this book and see the beautiful pictures of a little girl talking to a reindeer and riding on the back of a polar bear without thinking of some of my favorite fantasy literature - books like The Golden Compass.
This little girl goes on a trip to find Santa Claus because she wants to be one of his elves. This simple wish leads to her setting off on an epic journey through beautiful landscapes. What makes it special is the beautiful, real-life photography. It really makes the whole thing more relatable, believable, and magical. Here’s a little girl that wants to go see Santa, and, look, she’s really making the trip.
She runs into many majestic animals along the way, and the photography makes the magical trip a one-of-a-kind experience. Best of all, the message is really on point. I absolutely love the back cover with the girl riding on a polar bear and only the tagline: “Be Brave. Be Kind. Believe.” It’s hard not to get on board with a message like that.
Written by Pearl S. Buck and Illustrated by Mark Buehner
Christmas Day in the Morning is a story about true love and the true meaning of Christmas. Understanding what it means to truly love somebody is an important lesson for anyone, but as a father I’m very grateful to have this story to share with my children. And my voice cracks a little when I read it out loud.
This story was originally published by Pearl S. Buck in 1955, and it was paired with the illustrations of Mark Buehner in 2002. In some ways Buehner’s illustrations remind me of the dreamy, atmospheric artwork of Chris Van Allsburg - and that’s certainly a feeling I enjoy.
In the story, a boy comes to the sudden realization on Christmas Eve that he wants to do something special for his father, instead of buying him another meaningless tie. Just this realization alone is a beautiful thing. I don’t want to give away what the boy ends up doing that night, but the emotion-filled reactions of the boy and his father absolutely fills my heart to the brim. Buck perfectly captures the anticipation you feel when you know you’re doing something special, and the magical feeling of giving a gift of true love.
Adapted from the story by Hans Christian Andersen and Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
If being bummed out on Christmas isn’t your thing, stay far away from The Little Match Girl. I’m not going to lie, this classic story from Hans Christian Andersen is incredibly depressing. But stay with me here. It’s hard to explain, but somehow it’s stunningly and hauntingly beautiful as well. I simply can’t shake off how much this story haunts me and weighs on me.
It’s certainly debatable how old your children should be before you share this story with them, and I would definitely read it alone before deciding to read it to your kids. But I can’t help but think about how powerful this story is - and how important it can be to stop and think about its implications.
If you’re unfamiliar with the tale by Hans Christian Andersen, a little girl is selling matches in the cold winter streets - unsuccessfully. After sunset she sits in an alley and begins striking the matches to warm herself. With each match she strikes she sees a beautiful vision. You might think it’s a stretch to call this book a Christmas story, but one of her visions is a warm home with a huge Christmas tree surrounded by beautiful clothes and toys - “all the things she had seen only in shop windows.”
I’m not going to sugarcoat it. This one is a blubberfest. The short film by Disney is a must-see as well, but this picture book illustrated by Jerry Pinkney is equally powerful and thought-provoking.
Adapted from the story by Charles Dickens and Illustrated by Brett Helquist
A Christmas Carol is certainly one of the best Christmas stories ever written. I recently wrote about our favorite film adaptations because I love the story so much. As far as picture book adaptations go - I think the version that is paired with the art of Brett Helquist is the frontrunner for me. Helquist is best known for his collaborations with Lemony Snicket - and his art pairs perfectly with this classic.
The adaptation itself hits a sweet spot. This abridged version is not so short that it loses the atmosphere and some of the most important famous quotes from Charles Dickens’ original text. It tries to maintain just the right amount of faithfulness and original charm without becoming too long for a picture book. It succeeds in including just about everything I could want. I personally love that the book starts immediately on the endpapers with:
MARLEY WAS DEAD. There was no doubt whatever that Old Marley was dead as a doornail. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Suffice it to say that the atmosphere is on point - and Helquist’s illustrations have a lot to do with that. Quite frankly, I’m just a sucker for anything that adeptly explores the meaning of life, and it doesn’t get much better than A Christmas Carol for that.
8. Home Alone
Adapted from the story by John Hughes and Illustrated by Kim Smith
Home Alone made the list of the 25 movies I’m most excited to show my kids, because when we read this book two Christmases ago, my son became absolutely obsessed with setting booby traps. Next thing I know we were constantly tying strings to laundry baskets and setting Mom’s favorite food underneath to catch her.
This book by Kim Smith is truly a remarkable adaptation of the film and the perfect way to introduce your little ones to the classic story. The adaptation hits on every important part of the movie - even finding time to highlight the important character of lonely Old Man Marley.
The illustrations are fantastic - my son particularly enjoys the spread of Kevin’s battle plan map and loves explaining all of the different traps Kevin has prepared. And, of course, Home Alone is just as surprisingly sweet as you remember. Scary Old Man Marley discovers the importance of family (the back endpapers have a heartwarming surprise for you) and Kevin realizes that all he wants for his Christmas is his family back. It all serves to remind you that Home Alone is truly an excellent Christmas story.
Written by B. G. Hennessy and Illustrated by Jody Wheeler
Attention: Do not ignore this book. If you’ve never read this one - I know what you might be thinking. You probably have about seven Corduroy spinoffs sitting around the house. The ones that feature that cartoony Corduroy and his animal friends - the ones that have absolutely nothing to do with the famous original book. I can’t stress this enough - this is not one of those books.
A Christmas Wish for Corduroy is very true to the spirit of Don Freeman’s original Corduroy - both through the storytelling and through the classic art. In fact, it’s actually a direct prequel that leads you right into where the original picks up. In this story, Corduroy sets off in the familiar department store at night to find Santa and ask if he knows of any girls or boys who might want a bear for Christmas.
If you’re a fan of the original, A Christmas Wish for Corduroy is a necessity for your collection. It explains more of Corduroy’s history in a very sweet and satisfying way. From now on it’s impossible for me not to combine this book with the original to create what I consider to be the complete history of Corduroy.
Written and Illustrated by Tim Burton
Obviously I consider The Nightmare Before Christmas to be both a Halloween book and a Christmas book, but I suppose I’m slightly more fond of it at Halloween. Jack is the Pumpkin King after all. That’s why it ranked slightly higher on our list of the best Halloween picture books.
But you certainly can’t ignore the heartwarming message of Jack’s infatuation with Christmas. We all know there’s something special about Christmas, but it might be easy to take it for granted. “What’s This?” is my very favorite song from the movie, because Jack discovering and falling in love with Christmas is a reminder to us all. There’s simply something magical about Christmas, and it’s hard to put our bony fingers on.
In case you didn’t know, the book is an original poem with illustrations by Tim Burton - written far before the film. It’s a wonderfully imaginative piece of art, and it actually includes a parody of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. I say you can’t blame Jack for falling in love with Christmas - and nothing is better than Santa bringing Christmas to the land of Halloween in the end.
Adapted from the story by Charles M. Schulz and Illustrated by Vicki Scott
How did the Peanuts gang become such a vital part of every holiday? It’s hard to say for sure, but it definitely, undeniably happened. I simply can’t picture any of the major holidays without quickly thinking of Charlie Brown.
A Charlie Brown Christmas has the perfect combination of sincerity and comedy. A big part of the charm is how accurate and appropriate the social commentary is. Charlie Brown is confused about the meaning of Christmas. The commercialism is bothersome to him, and instead of being happy, he actually feels depressed. He chats with his psychiatrist about it, and he brings it up with his Linus as well. As Linus points out:
“You’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem. Lucy’s right. Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest.”
But, as we all know, Charlie Brown’s point is actually a fair one - and his noble search for meaning is what makes this story such a heartwarming classic. So much so that an incredibly sad, tiny, scrawny tree with a single red ornament will go down in history as a universal symbol of appreciating what you have and finding the true meaning of Christmas.
“I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really. It just needs a little love.”
4. The Snowman
Written and Illustrated by Raymond Briggs
I admit it might be a slight stretch to consider The Snowman a Christmas story. Raymond Briggs’ famous wordless picture book has no mention of Christmas, although a trip to the North Pole and a visit with Santa Claus is a big part of the fantastic short film. At this point it’s hard for me to separate the spirit of the two works of art in my mind. Anyways, I’m ranking these books based off of the feelings they give me, and The Snowman gives me the feeling of pure Christmas magic.
The Snowman is my favorite wordless picture book - beating out other greats like Tuesday and Good Dog, Carl. It’s a wonderful celebration of the magic of childhood and wintertime, and reading it really makes you run the gamut of emotions. The fact that I’m a sucker for the magic of Christmastime really gives it an edge. And works of art that adeptly explore disappointment, sadness, and loss can be hard for me to forget.
If you’ve never seen the short film, please watch it with your little ones this year too! It has the added bonus of the most beautiful music. Our local symphony plays along with the film every year for a very memorable experience. The combination of Briggs’ art and the music is perhaps my favorite Christmas magic of the year.
Written by Dylan Thomas and Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman
A Child’s Christmas in Wales is a story that has been a part of Christmas for me ever since I can remember. I think of it just as fondly as the classic A Christmas Story.
I make that comparison because A Child’s Christmas in Wales similarly tells the tale of Christmastime from the point of view of a young boy and his friends. I particularly love the boy’s assessment of “useless gifts” like toys vs. the dreaded “useful gifts” like scarves and socks.
I personally find the dialogue to be hilarious - like this moment when a neighbor’s house is on fire and the boys are asked to help:
"Do something," he said. And we threw all our snowballs into the smoke - I think we missed Mr. Prothero - and ran out of the house to the telephone box.
"Let's call the police as well," Jim said. "And the ambulance." "And Ernie Jenkins, he likes fires."
And, if you know anything about me, you know that many bonus points will be awarded for a good spooky moment, and A Child’s Christmas in Wales has a great one. The boys are out caroling, and they stop at a spooky, old house to sing “Good King, Wenceslas”:
“And then a small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time, joined our singing: a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small, dry voice through the keyhole. And when we stopped running we were outside our house.”
Ultimately, it’s a tale of nostalgia and a celebration of a simpler time. And it’s a good reminder that Christmas is a very special time for a child.
Written and Illustrated by Dr. Seuss
One of my family’s Christmas traditions is watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas on Christmas Eve. It’s definitely one of those classics that became a classic for obvious reasons. In fact, I think the book is under appreciated considering how brilliant and original the story is.
Charles Dickens may have given us the most famous character in history who hated Christmas, and such a character certainly makes a good foil for teaching the meaning of Christmas. Dr. Seuss followed a similar formula, but he took it to an entirely new level. He gave us the Grinch - a character who hates Christmas so much he’s going to actively destroy it and steal it and stop it from taking place at all.
My two favorite moments are the opposite ends of the spectrum in the story. First of all, the Grinch is at his absolute worst when he lies right to the face of Cindy-Lou Who while dressed as Santa Claus.
“Santy Claus, why,
”Why are you taking our Christmas tree? WHY?”
“Why, my sweet little tot,” the fake Santy Claus lied,
”There’s a light on this tree that won’t light on one side.
”So I’m taking it home to my workshop, my dear.
”I’ll fix it up there. Then I’ll bring it back here.”
What a monster! But it’s just about the best monster ever created. And it all sets us up well for my second favorite part of the story, when Christmas comes just the same, and the Grinch is forced to realize that he’s misunderstood everything the entire time.
Written and Illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg
I said before that “belief” is a big theme for Christmas art and the entire Christmas/Santa Claus mythos - and The Polar Express is the king of belief. For many children, Christmas and everything that comes with it is one of the most exciting and magical things about childhood. Unfortunately, on the flip side, losing that belief in Santa is one of the most poignant reminders that childhood magic is ever-fading.
Like many good Christmas stories, The Polar Express certainly explores lessons like the true meaning of Christmas. The boy was chosen to receive the first gift of Christmas, and he could have chosen anything he wanted. But he only wanted a small token of this magical experience - and a reminder that Santa Claus really exists.
The Polar Express wraps all of these feelings into one neat little package and creates the most beautiful work of Christmas art that’s ever been made. It certainly contains all of the exciting, mysterious elements and the beautiful illustrations that Chris Van Allsburg is known for. And the most wonderful thing about this book is what happens after Santa gives the boy the reindeer sleigh bell. He and his sister hear the most beautiful sound, but his parents think it's broken.
"At one time most of my friends could hear the bell. But as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I've grown old, the bell still rings for me. As it does for all who truly believe."
Want even more great suggestions? Check out this Christmas book list from Some the Wiser.
Do you agree with our picks? Did we miss your favorite? What is your family’s favorite Christmas book? Share it with us in the comments. And Merry Christmas from our family to yours!