Liesbet Slegers lives in Belgium. She has written and illustrated many books for very young children. Her themes touch on daily rituals, such as going to school and going to sleep, as well as the changing seasons. With The Child in the Manger, she introduces children to the story of the birth of Jesus.
Why was it important to you to tell the story of the Nativity for very young children?
I had noticed that there were not many books for young children about that subject. And I like updating an old story with a new, modern look. That’s a challenge for me.
All of the elements of the story are here, but you state them so simply. For example, you portray the Three Kings with their “precious gifts” without stating what they are. How do you choose which details to leave out?
At the time that I wrote the book, I did not have children yet. So I went often to a school to test my ‘book to be.’ Now I have two young daughters, so it is easier to know what children can understand at what age. But I also follow my intuition. For example, ‘myrrh’ and ‘frankincense’ seemed too difficult. So I used the term ‘precious gifts.’ I think that young children would understand that better.
So often the story of the birth of Jesus is portrayed in quiet, earth-toned colors. Your palette is so vibrant and joyful!
That’s because I always use those colors. I think it’s important to paint it the way I like it myself. Children like those colors too, I have noticed. They can enjoy an old story when it looks very up-to-date.
We liked the way you show Mary and Joseph discovering the stable, with the horse and cow looking out, and then on the next page, Mary and Joseph holding the baby Jesus between the horse and cow. You suggest with those pictures that the animals are “sharing” the stable with Jesus.
That’s true, when I introduce the horse and cow in one picture, it is nice for the children that they are still there on the next page. They also like animals, and this makes the illustrations more attractive. You can indeed say that the animals share the stable with Jesus. You can see that the animals and people are friends in my book. The animals also have an expression, or smile like the sheep.
We also liked the joyful feet above the part of the story when the shepherds begin to look for Jesus, and then the two shepherds and their two sheep look like they’re dancing toward Bethlehem.
It’s true that my characters mostly are very happy and cheerful. The shepherds are characters in this book, but I wanted to give them the quality of a regular person living today. So the children can recognize themselves in the shepherds.
We loved the way you bring everything back to the child on Christmas morning. Did you have that ending in mind when you started the book?
I wanted to have an ending that every child would recognize. Christmas is the day that Jesus was born. So it’s his birthday, and we give Christmas presents. And that’s the same for all people: The day that you were born is your birthday, and you also get presents then. That is something that children can understand very well, and in this way, the story becomes more alive for them. Of course, presents are not the most important thing on a birthday, but being together with your family. The same with Christmas.