Lullaby for the King – Nikki Grimes and Michelle Carlos

Lullaby for the King by Nikki Grimes
Published by Beaming Books on October 10, 2023
Genres: Children's, Christmas
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An awe-inspiring Christmas tale from multi-award-winning poet Nikki Grimes.

The caravan traveled through wilderness, uphill and down, for hours that spun into days.

Then at last, glittering diamond-bright, Bethlehem appeared through the haze.

With glittering poetry and stunning watercolor artwork, Lullaby for the King ushers readers into the awe and wonder of the Christmas story. Animals from across the ancient Palestinian landscape lumber, gambol, crawl, fly, and parade toward Bethlehem with gifts worthy of the newborn King. Rare ebony wood, a finely tuned harp, mustard and saffron, a zither, apricot cakes, and other treasures are carried to the manger. The animals bow low and join the music of the angels in a welcoming lullaby.

New York Times bestselling author Nikki Grimes and illustrator Michelle Carlos bring together a captivating tale of awe, wonder, and imagination that is sure to become a holiday classic.

I am very much of two minds about this book. On one hand, it’s absolutely gorgeous. Michelle Carlos’s illustrations are vibrant and lush, imaginative where imagination is required yet realistic when realism is called for. Nikki Grimes’s elegant poetry meanders musically throughout, giving Lullaby for the King a richness and deepness and reverence that’s absent a lot of Christmas nativity retellings.

Yet, that richness comes at an expense. This is no historical (or biblical) retelling. This a full-fledged imaginative and evocative story of the animal kingdom coming to give fealty to its infant king. Think of it as an updated version of The Friendly Beasts, a 12th century French carol that’s been covered by everyone from Sufjan Stevens to Burl Ives. It reads like something out of the Pseudipigrapha—legendary and mythological retellings of historical biblical events.

That imaginativeness isn’t necessarily what conflicts me. I’m fine with an imaginative retelling—though I’m not certain if the animals and gifts chosen are supposed to have any metaphorical significance or not. Nikki Grimes is an NYT bestseller and multi-award-winning poet, so take my criticism for what it is—a personal reflection of a layperson: I don’t know for whom this book was written. Is it children’s literature? The vocabulary doesn’t reflect that. Zither. Gamboled. Wending. Vermilion. Quern. Electrum. A review of the text as a whole using a variety of text readability tests found this to be at a ninth grade or ages 13–15 reading level. Add in the text’s wavering between rhymed poetry and free verse and the end result is a text that is beautifully rich for the well-read, but a struggle for the average person—let alone the average child.

So, take this review not as a criticism, but rather as a statement of fact: Lullaby for the King is a beautifully imaginative work of magical realism filled with lyrical poetry and immersive illustrations. But it’s vocabulary and lack of a tether to the historical nativity story may be a difficulty for some readers. It’s not a cutesy “nativity from the animal’s perspective” type of children’s Christmas book.