(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The American poet Joseph C. Kennedy adopted the pseudonym X. J. Kennedy to separate himself from from the family of Kennedys active in politics in his native Massachusetts. He has written nearly three dozen books of poetry for adults and children, published essays and novels, and compiled anthologies of verse for children as well as college literature textbooks.

The Beasts of Bethlehem comprises nineteen poems spoken by mammals, birds, and insects that Kennedy places in the stable on the night of Jesus’ birth. In keeping with the folktale that holds that the animals could speak on the night Christ was born, each creature voices its individual reaction to the birth. This enables children to engage in the story of the Nativity through the eyes and voices of the creatures who were there. Some of the creatures are benign or even prey, and others are predators who stop their killing for just this night. All are given the opportunity to ponder the mystery of Jesus’ birth and to apply it in some way to their own lives, thus mirroring the experience of Christians.

Kennedy maintains that poetry for children should be intellectually challenging, use language in vivid and memorable ways, and present a means through which children can grasp the relationship of form to meaning. He favors iambic meter, rhyme, and stanzaic variety: twelve poems are rhymed couplets, one is rhyming quatrains, one is unrhymed, and the remainder are cinquains (five lines) or sestets (six lines) with no consistent rhyming patterns. The shortness of the verses with their rhyme and meter or wordplay permit easy memorization, another attribute Kennedy asserts should be present in poetry for younger readers.

Kennedy, who feels that teachers and poets often downplay children’s ability to understand complexities, uses irony, puns, and paradox to emphasize the magnitude of God becoming a person. For example, in “The Bat,” the bat speculates that its part in the stable is to eat the mosquitoes that might bite the infant Jesus. In “The Mosquito,” the insect counters with the epigram: “Who but a blind bat swaddled in his wings/ Could dream that I might bite the King of Kings?” Here Kennedy plays off the idiom “blind as a bat” to challenge the bat’s sense that the mosquito is only out to harm and has no judgment or sense of right and wrong.


(The entire section is 969 words.)

The Beasts of Bethlehem Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Collins, Michael J. “The Poetry of X. J. Kennedy.” World Literature Today 61, no. 1 (Winter, 1987): 55-58. Examines his use of wordplay and attention to couplet form in an analysis of selected poems.

Kennedy, X. J. “’Go and Get Your Candle Lit!’: An Approach to Poetry.” The Hornbook Magazine (July, 1981): 273-279. Presents Kennedy’s ideas on how to write for children and how to teach them to analyze poetry effectively. Includes his definition of poetry as “passionate thought persuaded into form.”

Kennedy, X. J. “Strict and Loose Nonsense: Two Worlds of Children’s Verse.” School Library Journal (March, 1991): 108-112. Discusses two types of nonsense writing for children with a concentration on the contributions of Edwin Lear to the development of nonsense verse.

Morris, Bernard E. Taking Measure: The Poetry and Prose of X. J. Kennedy. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 2003. A full-length study of Kennedy’s work that includes chapters on Christianity and writing children’s verse.

Prelutsky, Jack. “Talking with X. J. Kennedy.” Instructor 102, no. 2 (September, 1992): 26. An interview in which Kennedy discusses his writing process, his favorite children’s books, and the importance of poetry to various readers.