Allison's Book Bag

QUICK TAKE: Christmas in the Barn by Margaret Wise Brown

Posted on: December 26, 2012

Christmas in the Barn by Margaret Wise Brown is about an ancient barn and the baby who was born there. Any guess as to what familiar religious story is being told? If you guessed “the birth of Jesus,” you would be correct. So why doesn’t Brown ever directly acknowledge this? And why do the illustrations (in both the original and updated version) show snow? What in the world is going on?

Although Jesus is never mentioned, Christmas in the Barn is clearly about his birth, and as such it has many problems. With regards to the artwork, the scenes look American. Every picture contains snow, a rarity in Bethlehem, the town where Jesus was born. The houses and trees don’t look like anything in my Bible encyclopedias. Also, Jesus was born in a town, not on a farm. Yet the landscape clearly depicts a hilly and spacious farmland. Maybe the story is a modern version? Apparently not, given that Brown uses the word “ancient” to describe the barn and the field. Perhaps the illustrator goofed in her artwork? That might be, but that unfortunately downgrades the book’s integrity.

With regards to the text, it also takes too many liberties. Mary and Joseph did not lose their way; there simply was no room for them in the inn. Could they have wandered after being turned away? Okay, I’ll grant Brown that concession. But scripture tells us that the wise men visited Jesus when he was older and in a house not a manger. Yet tradition has it that wise men came to visit Jesus after the shepherds left and so I suppose I could forgive Brown for this inaccuracy too. But because these are the only two departures from the original Christmas story, they stand out too much.

Yet do all of these mistakes really matter? Some reviewers suggested they were not flaws at all but were part of Brown’s attempt to present the Christmas story in a non-obtrusive way. Personally, there are so many references to the real Biblical story I don’t think anyone will be fooled. Brown refers to lack of room in the inn, one great star, and visiting shepherds and wise men. Moreover, she quotes lines from familiar religious carols such as: “What child is this?” and “Away in a manger, no crib for his bed.” How do all these descriptions make sense if Brown is simply telling a story about a couple who gets lost and then have a baby in a barn? Why not treat her tale as a contemporary re-imagining and do away with the references to “ancient” landscape? Or why not stick to the Biblical version, use Jesus’ name, and explain the significance of the story? You can see my confusion.

On a less important note, some reviewers considered the rhythm as good while others found it less than smooth. I liked parts of it but other times lines felt too long. Also, while I found the first half of Christmas in the Barn acceptable, Brown’s habit of throwing in lines from other sources disrupted the cadence of the second half.

The story and pictures of Christmas in the Barn are cute enough. However, I’d suggest checking out better books by Margaret Wise Brown and especially better retellings of the Christmas story.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?

Your Turn:

  • What has been your experience with picture books which retell Biblical stories?
  • Which are the best and the worst you have found?

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