Like a lot of families with young children, Kathy and Jack Stockman were looking for ways to create a memorable family tradition during the holiday season when their daughter and son were young. And like a lot of families, they turned to a homemade craft project to bring the message of Christmas to their children.
Unlike most families, however, the Stockmans took that handcrafted project and turned it into an entrepreneurial endeavor, using it to share their message with thousands of families worldwide.
The Stockmans paired their strengths and skills and created The Advent Book to make the message of the Christmas season a daily part of the holiday season at their home. Whether it was Jack's skills as an illustrator or Kathy's ability to turn Bible stories into children's stories, the book not only became a family tradition, it turned into their life's mission — and business.
The first book
They created their first Advent Book almost three decades ago when their daughter was a toddler and their son an infant. At the time, Jack was busy working as an illustrator for commercial campaigns and didn't think he had time to create a traditional Advent calendar for the kids. Kathy came up with the idea of making one large painting of a house and using greeting cards as doors that could be opened on each day leading up to Christmas. She went so far as to buy a large piece of foam board, but the ambitious idea proved too much that season.
"The big piece wasn't going to be ready in time," Kathy recalls, "so we decided to just do it in a paper book. Jack painted really simple doors: 25 doors with 25 interior paintings. I went through the Christmas story from the scriptures, part from Luke and part from Matthew, and pulled it out and condensed it."
The Stockmans hoped to pass along the wonder of the original Christmas story to their children, so they started reading it nightly with their daughter, starting with the first door every night and adding one more throughout Advent, so that she heard the story from the beginning each time.
Kathy says they treated it just like any other children's book.
"We noticed that starting at the beginning each night kept it in context for her, and she memorized the story as children will memorize any book they hear over and over again."
Through the years, the book became a family heirloom and as visitors to their home also enjoyed the book, friends and family urged the Stockmans to share their idea.
They took their homemade version to speaking engagements and taught people how to make their own version of The Advent Book. As more and more people were exposed to the concept, they began urging the Stockmans to publish a version of their book. Jack was working as a children's book illustrator at that point and his connections to the publishing industry enabled them to explore what it would take to turn their homemade book into something more.
It didn't happen overnight. Kathy says it took more than 10 years from the time they made their homemade book to the time they got The Advent Book published.
"It was an expensive project," she notes. "The book uses 50 die-cut pictures, and we wanted the book to be a significant size so that everybody could see it if you were reading it together as a family."
The Stockmans laid out the book so there is one page for each day in December leading up to the big day. The book's pages consist of a series of doors that open to reveal an image from the Christmas story. On the front of each door, Jack included a Christmas decoration and an animal, which makes reading the book fun for children too young to read the words.
Much of the inspiration came from Oak Park.
"Most of the doors, I made up," Jack says, "but door number four was on my jogging route in Oak Park. Another one was inspired by the art glass doors of Frank Lloyd Wright. One door is modeled after a door at the St. Giles' rectory, and another is from our apartment building on Washington Boulevard."
The drawn characters also came from the Stockmans' circle of friends and family in the area. King Herod is a professor friend of the couple, and one of the three kings is an artist friend. One door opens to reveal a portrait of four people, portraying a picture of the Stockman family from 18 years ago.
They originally published through Crossway Books in 2000 but now have regained the rights and are publishing it themselves. It is available both through their website, www.adventbook.com and Amazon.com. They travel for speaking engagements with church and family groups around the country and estimate that during the past 14 years, they have sold over 60,000 books. They will be giving a presentation in Florida in March, a favorite destination, not only because of the warm weather. It allows them to visit their son and his wife.
Jack and Kathy's kids, Kaidrea and Shea, "still maintain that the handmade version they used throughout their childhood is the 'real' Advent book," according to Kathy. "With Shea and his wife Becky living in Florida, we don't get to read the book together very often anymore, but when our family is together at Christmas, we enjoy 'doing Advent' together again, complete with all the rituals and the hot chocolate and cookies. On Christmas Eve, Shea and Kaidrea do consent to reading the published version, but only if we also read our family book. The wording, which they have well-memorized, is somewhat different in our original version. Shea and Becky received a first edition copy of the published Advent Book and a handmade Advent wreath from us when they got married and they really look forward to continuing the tradition with their (future) children."
Today's version is an heirloom quality book, meant to be passed down within families. The book weighs upwards of 3 pounds, is tied with a ribbon and the pages have gilded edges. Each book contains an inscription page, and the Stockmans sign every book with a personal message.
While a professional publisher now prints the thousands of books that sell each year, the Advent Book is still very much a home-grown effort. The Stockmans turn their home into a shipping center every holiday season. They personally sign each book, wrap them, prepare them for shipping and drive them to the post office. They answer every email and phone call themselves.
"It's a mission and a labor of love," Kathy says, "not a get-rich scheme. We are amazed at how it's moved on from us to others. It's their tradition now. It sinks in sometimes that there are literally thousands of families all over the world using this book."