One of the best parts of the Christmas season? Pulling out the themed picture books, of course! Like so many things about the holidays, these beloved books are made even more special by the fact that their time in the bookshelf rotation is limited – and that we return to them year after year. I can remember the coziness of my whole family sitting around and flipping through Christmas books the day we brought the holiday boxes down from the attic each year, and I know my children feel the same way.
Today, I thought I’d share some of our favorite Christmas picture books, and a few winter-themed books, as well. A pro tip: go ahead and request Christmas books from your library now. Borrowing is an excellent way to fill out your collection and try new titles, but if your library is anything like ours, the holiday shelves will be bare by the time December rolls around.
Favorite Christmas picture books:
First, here are some of the Christmas picture books in our permanent collection – the ones we own and lovingly pull from the attic year after year! Most of these are favorites from my childhood.
— Christmas in the Manger| A simple board book for the littlest ones that introduces different characters (including animals!) in the Christmas story.
— The Jolly Christmas Postman by Janet & Allan Ahlberg | A truly delightful book with envelopes, letters, riddles, and games folded in. Good for slightly-older kids because of the delicate construction!
— Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree by Robert Barry | One of my very favorites from childhood! It traces the journey of a Christmas tree from the original home to smaller and smaller animals with delightful rhyme.
— The Nutcracker, illustrated by Valeria Docampo | This story is based on the NYCB/Balanchine version, so it’s Marie, not Clara, but it’s a great introduction if you’re going to see the show! The illustrations are memorable and a bit surreal.
— The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg | A magical, dreamlike story (with illustrations to match) of the first gift of Christmas. This one chokes me up at the end, no matter how many times I read it.
— Silent Night by Lara Hawthorne | This is literally the lyrics to the beloved Christmas carol, which makes it interesting to read aloud, but I love having it in our collection for its beautiful, diverse, and unique illustrations.
I add one Christmas picture book to our permanent collection each year – this year, it’s this one! Here are some others we’ve already snagged from the library and tucked away until we get home from Florida.
— The Christmas Pine by Julia Donaldson | Based on the true story of the people of Norway gifting a Christmas tree to the British people in thanks for their support during World War II. Julia Donaldson is a gem (The Gruffalo is a favorite in our house!) and this one is no different.
— The Christmas Wish by Lori Evert | Magical! A husband-and-wife team reimagined a classic Nordic tale with photos starring their daughter on her journey to the North Pole. This is a new one to us and I think my children are going to love it.
— Decorate the Tree! by Amanda Jane Jones | This is a brand-new book from someone who’s career I’ve watched for a long time. Our kids will love the interactive elements!
I read Hunt, Gather, Parent almost a year and a half ago, and the fact that I’m still motivated to chat about it after all these months should tell you something! While it did take me some time to move this post to the top of the queue, it’s not for lack of enthusiasm. This is one of the most interesting, unique, and actionable parenting books I’ve read in awhile, and one I still think about often in our daily interactions as a family. And it’s one I regularly reference in conversation, so this post feels like a natural extension!
A brief summary for the unfamiliar: the author, Michaeleen Doucleff (with her three-year-old daughter!), visits three of the oldest cultures in the world: the Maya in the Yucatan Peninsula, Inuit families in the Arctic Circle, and Hadzabe families in Tanzania. All have found success raising happy, helpful, well-adjusted children, and her mission is to understand why by living with families – and applying their techniques to her own daughter along the way. She shares her findings (including lots of practical takeaways) with the goal of resetting the American paradigm, restoring sanity to parenting, and creating better outcomes for our kids.
The Maya culture, with their unusually helpful, generous, and loyal kids, is the one that inspired Michaeleen to write the book. It’s the section I got the most out of, too – when I went back to look over my notes to write this post, I had far more starred and underlined ideas than I had room to share!
Here are five that have particularly stuck with me:
1. Quit entertaining and instead invite. This starts from the beginning and continues until the teen years. “Toss out the idea that you have to ‘entertain’ the baby with toys and other ‘enrichment’ devices. Your daily chores are more than enough entertainment,” Michaeleen writes from her time with the Maya. I loved this insistence on inviting the child in to the work of the family from the youngest ages (and reminding us that toddlers find it terribly exciting to be invited in). She also describes how Maya parents never discourage a toddler who wants to help, even when they seem rude (like pulling a broom out of the parent’s hand).
“On the flip side, if you constantly discourage a child from helping, they believe they have a different role in the family,” Michaeleen writes. “Their role is to play or move out of the way. Another way to put it: If you tell a child enough times, ‘No, you’re not involved in this chore,’ eventually the child will believe you and will stop wanting to help. Children will come to learn helping is not their responsibility.”
Something else that stood out to me: the Maya continue to do chores alongside the child long after Westerners often want children to do a chore alone. For Westerners, the goal is often to get kids to the point of independence with a chore, but for the Maya, “the invitation is always for together, for doing the chore together.” Of course, the kids will eventually become independently competent. But personally, this freed me from a lot of the frustration of feeling like the goal should be to hand off a task. That’s no longer my immediate goal.
2. Make small asks. Michaeleen describes how the Maya fold in “small, quick, easy tasks that help another person—or the whole family. These are requests performed alongside the parents for a common goal. They are often subtasks of a larger one (e.g., holding the door open while you take the garbage out). “And they are often tiny,” Michaeleen notes, “I mean tiny, tiny (e.g., putting away one pot in the cabinet that’s across the kitchen, grabbing a bowl from the cabinet), but they are real. They really help.”
I loved this takeaway and implemented it immediately. It’s small ((Michaeleen recommends 3 or 4 requests a day) and perhaps obvious, but I hope it will make a big impact long-term. I think it’s a continual reminder to my children that their time is not only their own, that we are all a part of the work of the household and that they are needed and wanted.
3. Try activation. “Instead of explicitly telling the child to do a task, activate their help by telling them you’re starting a chore or by giving a hint that a chore is needed,” Michaeleen describes. By pointing out things like, “it looks like the dog’s water bowl is empty,” or “time to take the trash out,” or “the laundry just dinged,” we’re teaching kids to notice without nagging. Of course, they won’t always respond as we hope, but they’re learning, little by little.
4. Ditch the child-centered activities. Maya parents structure their family’s time to spend the majority of it together, living daily life alongside one another. They do very few, if any, child-centered activities, and Michaeleen also comes away recommending ditching almost all toys. This will feel radical (and even mean!) to some parents.
But in their place, she writes, the Maya parents give their children an even richer experience, something that many Western kids do not get much of: real life. “Maya parents welcome children into the adult world and give them full access to the adults’ lives, including their work,” she notes. Kids are nearby when adults work around the house, take care of the family business, or maintain the family garden. “And young children actually love these activities,” she notes. “They crave them. If we get kids involved in adult activities, that’s play for kids. And then they associate chores with a fun, positive activity.” A virtuous cycle!
While we haven’t thrown away all of our toys or ditched all child-centered activities, I think about this often. This perspective has given us extra freedom to say no to things like kids’ birthday parties that split our time and drive us apart, and instead spend our leisure time doing things we all enjoy together, like going for a bike ride, hiking, swimming at the pool, or playing a board game.
5. Answer misbehavior with more responsibility. We have found this to be incredibly effective with our children. Is one of them whining? Complaining? Harassing a sibling? Throwing toys? We invite them to come work alongside us or direct them to a job that needs doing. While my initial instinct is to get frustrated, speak sharply, or try to make a quick patch of the situation, inviting them in instead of sending them away is often much more effective. Again, at its best, it shows them we need them and we want them in the family, giving them the value and attention they’re seeking in a healthy way. It recalls them to their best self.
There is SO MUCH MORE I could say on this first section alone (let alone the other sections – parenting with calmness! Practicing silence! Child-child teaching! Telling family stories!) but I want to leave you with just enough to whet your appetite for more :)
I’ll end with this. At the beginning of the book, Michaeleen goes to great pains to make the point that the communities she visits are “just like us,” and I get it—on the surface, they might seem different (remote locations, unfamiliar traditions), and she wants to forestall her readers brushing off their advice as irrelevant. In the end, though, I loved that they are different, and unencumbered by many of the beliefs, expectations, and traditions that American culture is saddled with. This book was a neat opportunity to relearn the value in some ancient wisdom that, indeed, American culture generally does find irrelevant or backward. I’ve found it helpful and thought-provoking, and if you decide to read this book, I hope you do, too!
Now, I’d love to hear: If you’ve read Hunt, Gather, Parent, did you have a favorite takeaway? If not, have I motivated you to pick up a copy? : ) Any thoughts about these takeaways?
If you hang out in the same corner of the internet as me (and hi, if you’re reading this, you probably do) then you have certainly seen Habits of the Household recommended. I’m here to say it’s with good reason! With chapters covering Waking, Mealtime, Discipline, Screentime, Work, and more, this book is packed full of actionable and simple ideas for implementing purposeful family habits in even the smallest moments. After reading two of his books (and preordering the newest one!), Justin Whitmel Earley has earned his spot on my list of trusted authors and I am jazzed to discuss Habits of the Household today.
To keep things organized (because I could truly go on and on), I’m going to give you four reasons I loved this book, four takeaways, and three suggestions. Let’s go!
Four Reasons I Loved Habits of the Household
1. The writing. For me, Justin’s passionate yet elegant writing makes this book. He is earnest and genuine, and his heart for what could be a dry topic comes through so clearly. He wears the dual roles of relatable dad and thoughtful expert beautifully: with a wife, four young boys, and a full-time legal career, it’s clear he is living the struggles and triumphs right alongside his readers. This work matters to him – and he has so many anecdotes and experiments to share – because he’s in the thick of it, too.
2. The practicality. For as beautifully written of a book as this is, it is extremely practical. It’s also meticulously organized – easy to read and apply even as it packs in a ton of information and ideas. I love how the ten chapters move chronologically, covering habits from Waking to Bedtime. Each chapter offers thoughts on the significance, opportunities, and potential pitfalls of an aspect of the household, presents some ideas for character- and family-forming habits, and then neatly sums everything up at the end of the chapter with the main idea, key takeaways and images, things to try, sample scripts, potential boundaries or expectations, and further resources.
3. The reminder of grace. If you struggle with legalism (the idea that your good works alone can ingratiate you with Jesus), then you might approach a book about habits of faith with apprehension. Justin heads that off by including the above reminder in the summary of every single chapter, and I think it’s perfect in its concision and clarity. He’s relentless in his belief that good habits are worth developing and equally relentless in his insistence that they don’t replace relationship.
4. The epilogue. He really brings it home at the end, touching on several of my pet themes: time, intentionality, the big picture (the family-age chart exercise is eye-opening, isn’t it?). And then he goes and references one of my favorite lines of scripture in a passage I’ve highlighted and starred in my copy:
I love this. I love it. I love that he speaks to the weight of our role without weighing us down. I love that he takes our duties as parents seriously, but remains lighthearted. I love that he points to the finitude of time without panicking. And I love how he closed with memories of his dad, tying it all back to Jesus in the most beautiful, affecting way.
Four takeaways from Habits of the Household
This is a book I will be returning to over and over, and I imagine I’ll take away something new each time as our kids move through different stages. But here are four favorite takeaways I had on my first read-through: either new practices we implemented, or particular encouragements to keep on our current path.
1. WAKING | The waking chapter was one of my favorites, and resulted in two of my most tangible new habits: a short kneeling prayer at the side of my bed first thing in the morning (I literally roll out of bed onto my knees, ha) and the family blessing before leaving for school/preschool/work. When we were first establishing the habits, post-it notes on my bedside table and on the wall near our front door served as helpful cues.
My favorite part about the blessing is that – just as Justin says – it noticeably changes my heart posture towards the kids in the moments leading up to it. It’s hard to snap at someone to PUT ON THEIR SHOES when you know you’ll have to hold hands and pray together ten seconds later :)
2. SCREENTIME | This chapter did not disappoint – I was nodding along with every page. Though I loved his thoughts on curation and many of the habit suggestions (like watching through the end of the credits!), what stuck with me most was the idea that setting screen time and curation limits is a way for the parent to take on pain now so that their kids don’t have to later.
As a parent, it’s often much easier (in the moment) to allow more screen time. It is much harder to say no, to enforce limits, to create the conditions for solo or group play away from screens. “We aid our children’s formation in character, wisdom, emotional intelligence, and creativity,” Justin says, “by intervening as parents and taking the inconvenience of saying, ‘Yes, this is going to mean I get fewer breaks and have to be more involved and have to manage constant requests, but this is for their formation, which means it is a fight worth fighting well.” This chapter gave me words for and even ennobled what can feel like a never-ending slog.
3. WORK | I loved this chapter so very much – it had many echoes of Hunt, Gather, Parent, and bolstered my belief that kids would almost always prefer to be doing something alongside a parent, invited into their work, than shunted off to the side or occupied with an activity designed for kids. For Shep, especially, we have noticed that one of the best ways to deal with any miscreant behavior is to redirect it into helping us in some way – drawing him closer and putting him to work instead of sending him away.
This chapter also encouraged me to just talk about work more, especially at the dinner table. Just as we ask our kids about their days, we can tell them about ours and actually include some real details.
4. PLAY | The opening of this chapter is beautiful – all about the importance of a playful Christian imagination, how “in Christianity, you won’t get very far without a healthy imagination.” And that is not because the story of God is made up, but because it is so very real: “the world is so much more than meets the eye. This is the wisdom of all fairy tales and of any good kids’ movie – that things are more than they seem. Extraordinary things are patiently waiting, right here in this reality, to be discovered … Play is thus a way to reenchant a disenchanted world.”
This chapter had echoes of Sally Clarkson for me, and I loved it. It gave me encouragement to keep on the track we’re on, ensuring plenty of margin and scaffolding for imaginative play and curating life-giving imaginative stories.
Three Suggestions for Reading Habits of the Household
1. Start small | It’s hard for me to imagine someone having a complaint about this book, but if they did, I imagine it would be that there are too many good ideas to choose from and it feels overwhelming to know where to start. I suppose in some ways this didn’t seem like an obstacle to me, because I write about habit formation and goals as a career, but I also get it – there are a LOT of really great ideas packed in here!
The encouragement I’d give you is this (the same advice we liberally dole out at Cultivate and that Justin underlines, too): start small. Pick 1-3 things you’d like to try and just try them. If they stick? Great! If you find they’re not quite right for your family, that’s okay. Go back and pick something else. And once you’ve mastered those, you can move on to something else. This is a long game, and it’s okay to go slow.
2. Don’t worry about your kids’ reactions | Perhaps my children are just used to my *interesting* ideas and experiments when it comes to their household and routines, but in general, I think kids are extremely adaptable. They’ll accept most new things without batting an eye! And even if there’s initial skepticism or resistance, it’s okay! Keep going! They’ll adjust – they really will. I was a bit worried about how to introduce the morning blessing and whether our kids would think it was weird, but they just rolled with it.
3. Read with a friend | Earlier this year, a friend invited me to read Habits of the Household alongside her. I was flattered and excited, and immediately said yes – but I had no idea how good it was going to be. Our two-person book club has met several times over the last few months – usually while walking or bike riding – to discuss a handful of chapters at a time. We share our favorite parts, what stuck out to us, what felt hard to swallow. We talk about new things we’re trying and swap practices that have been successful in our families.
I cannot recommend this approach to the book more. It is GREAT accountability for actually implementing new things, it will be an encouragement to you in the good work you’re doing of leading and shaping your family, and it will absolutely bring you closer to your friend. Highly, highly recommend. Grateful for you, Elisha!!
Friends, we get to decide the culture in our homes, and that is a great responsibility and a great privilege. We can form our children in God’s love. We can train them in meaningful relationships. And, as Justin says, we can create homes that are missional lights in a dark world. Habits can help, and so can this book. If you decide to pick it up, I hope you really love it! And if you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your favorite part!
If you have a voracious reader at home, you know at this age it can practically be a part-time job to keep him or her in books: chatting with friends about recommendations, scanning book lists, vetting new titles, making requests at the library (or sometimes putting in a materials request!), picking up holds, returning piles of completed books, oh my. It can be a lot to keep up with, but as a lifelong reader who hopes to kindle the same in her kids, it’s also a true joy.
To hopefully make one part of the process a bit easier for you, I present to you 12 book series for kindergartners and first graders that June has loved. (I’m planning to do another post in the future on her favorite individual books at this age, but series are an excellent time saver so we’re starting here!) Where I could, I’m sharing a picture of the interior pages – hopefully that will make it easier to see if a particular title is the right fit for your little reader.
These are all series that June read independently and loved in kindergarten. She still reads and enjoys most of them now, having just completed first grade!
The Magic Treehouse series by Mary Pope Osborne | A brother-sister pair travel back in time to ancient Egypt, the Civil War, Pompeii, Imperial China, and just about everywhere else in time and space. This is apparently the number one bestselling chapter book series of all time, and with 38 titles to choose from, there’s lots to explore.
The Princess in Black series by Shannon and Dean Hale | Perfectly-pink Princess Magnolia has a secret, monster-defeating alter ego. Funny, action-packed, and with colorful illustrations throughout, there are 10 books to enjoy.
Magic Treehouse on the left and Princess in Black on the right
ThePuppy Place series by Ellen Miles | This was the first chapter book series June latched on to, and she’s read most of them (there are currently 67!). These are formulaic, a la The Babysitter’s Club of yore; in each book, a brother-sister pair foster a puppy and ultimately find it a home. Prepare to hear about lots of different dog breeds :)
The Adventures of Sophie Mouse series by Poppy Green | Sweet and gentle, Sophie Mouse is the perfect beginning chapter book series: big type, short chapters, and illustrations on almost every page. These are cheerful little stories about Sophie and her animal friends’ kindness and everyday adventures. 20 books in this one!
The Critter Club series by Callie Barkley | Another great beginning chapter book series (26 currently) that’s very similar to Sophie Mouse. Four friends have pet-centric adventures as they care for all kinds of animals. June blew through three of these in an hour last week.
Puppy Place on the left and Critter Club on the right
The Lighthouse Family series by Cynthia Rylant | In a lighthouse by the ocean, Seabold, a dog, and Pandora, a cat, live with their three little mice children. Most of the 8 books in this series by a Newberry Medalist author find the family helping some creature that’s washed ashore. Sweet, peaceful, and perfect for ocean lovers.
The Tales from Deckawoo Drive series by Kate DiCamillo | Fans of Mercy Watson (or illustrator Chris Van Dusen!) will love this funny and heartfelt spin-off series focusing on a different character on the street in each title. 7 books!
Boxcar Children on the left and Anne on the right
These are all books June read for the first time in first grade, but depending on your reader, some could definitely be good for a kindergartner (or a second grader!), too!
The Anne series by Kallie George | As an Anne with an E lover myself, I was delighted to see these charming early-reader adaptations. Plucking episodes from the original books and combining them with vintage-esque illustrations, they’re the perfect introduction to Green Gables and a great prelude to reading the real thing. There are five books in the series so far!
The Boxcar Children series by Gertrude Chandler | With 164 books to dive into, the original Boxcar Children books seemingly never end on the shelf. I adored these four siblings and their adventures when I was younger and love that June is enjoying them, too. Like many parents before me, I love that Henry, Jessie, Benny, and Violet show love, resourcefulness, and kindness as they work together and care for each other.
Heartwood Hotel on the left and Craftily Ever After on the right
The Craftily Ever After series by Martha Maker | A diverse cast of four friends crafts its way through elementary school while surmounting your typical 8-year-old challenges. The eight books in the series have lots of illustrations, easy-to-understand language, and sweet resolutions. Very similar to Critter Club!
The Heartwood Hotel series by Kallie George | If June was challenged to choose a favorite series from this list, I think it would be this one – there are four books so far, and she’s desperate for Kallie to write more. “Courage, kindness, and adventure abounds” in these books with details that delight (acorn souffles, moss-lined beds). These are a step up in difficulty from the early-reader picks but still very approachable.
The Missy Piggle-Wiggle series by Ann M. Martin | While June has panned the original Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books (for now!), she loves this spin-off series featuring her niece. Missy has inventive cures for all sorts of childhood misbehavior that had June laughing out loud. There are three books so far.
This should take care of your resident early-elementary-schooler’s summer reading, right? :) I’d love to hear what books the kids in your life are loving these days, or if you’re also a fan of any of the books I’ve rounded up here!