Best Children’s Books for Christmas and the Holiday Season – Part Three

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BEST CHILDREN’S CHRISTMAS BOOKS
A ROUNDUP – PART THREE

 

Here’s the third of our kids’ Christmas books roundup. There’s really something here for everyone from ages 3 to 12 (we’ve even included some board books for the littlest ones). So please take a look, buy the books at your local independent bookseller then let us know which ones ended up being your family’s favorites. Merry Christmas!

 

Nativity by Cynthia Rylant Cover ImageNativity
Written and illustrated by Cynthia Rylant
(Beach Lane Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Cynthia Rylant’s Nativity combines the story of Jesus’ birth with well known passages from His ministry in beautiful text adapted from chapters of the Book of Matthew and the Book of Luke. Rendered in acrylic paints, Rylant’s colorful and straightforward illustrations allow young readers to experience the poetry of the King James translation of the Holy Bible.  

The story begins on the cover flap:  “A child is born…” which brings us to a pastoral setting. The animals are white and cloudy; human figures are faceless but, ironically, it’s the simplicity of their forms that communicates the scene: shepherds with staff in hand guarding their flock. As we follow their visit to the Baby Jesus, we notice familiar features, such as the star and wise men, absent from this Nativity scene. As a result,  the presence of shepherds are highlighted all the more; they dominate over half the book — a fact I thought was interesting and appropriate, considering Jesus called Himself the “good shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10: 11). Shepherds are spreading the news of Jesus’ birth to passers-by; in the privacy of their homes, they are wondering “at those things which were told them” by “the angel of the Lord.” Young readers may not understand the deep theological matters raised with the coming of Christ, but they can grasp its contemplative effect in the simple and humble bow of a shepherd’s head.

In addition to such quiet gestures, bold colors also help children connect with Scripture. As the angels proclaim peace on earth and “good will toward men” the sky is illuminated with a rainbow of warm, exciting colors-the colors of pure joy. My personal favorite is the way purple is used to illustrate the most poignant points of the story. Against a backdrop of rich purple, Mother Mary “kept these things” she witnessed “and pondered them in her heart.” The color appears once more when the story shifts to show Jesus as a grown man preaching His famous words (taken from the Sermon on the Mount): “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” Both these scenes express powerful and profound principles that invite reflection and meditation. The depth of the color calls readers to pause and wonder about the mystery of God and the peace of His Presence. If you’re looking for a traditional Christmas story, this is a book I’d highly recommend.  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

Ninja Claus book cover imageNinja Claus!
Written and illustrated by Arree Chung
(Henry Holt and Company, $17.99, ages 4-7)

Every child hopes to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus placing presents under the Christmas tree or filling their stockings with candies and trinkets on Christmas Eve. Most share the tradition of putting out cookies and milk for the jolly old fellow. There are however, probably a lot fewer who, like Maxwell, a mischievous young ninja, in Ninja Claus!, set traps in an attempt to capture Santa. Utilizing nets, a fishing pole, ropes, hula hoops, and his best ninja tricks, Maxwell manages to capture his dog and his father nibbling the cookies, but he’s swept off to bed by his mother before he can capture Santa.

Arree Chung has written and illustrated yet another Ninja picture book, his third in the series, that is bound to be a hit. With his deft use of acrylic paint and Adobe Photoshop, Chung sets the tone of the night before Christmas, with only the lights from the tree illuminating the pages. And his writing? He had me holding my breath and praying that Christmas wouldn’t be ruined for little Maxwell. And then came the big exhale. The greatest ninja of all, Santa Claus, came and went unnoticed. Hands down, this book is a delight.  • Reviewed by MaryAnne Locher

The Nutcracker in Harlem book cover imageThe Nutcracker in Harlem
Written by T.E. McMorrow
Illustrated by James Ransome
(HarperCollins; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

In The Nutcracker in Harlem, Tchaikovsky’s ballet comes to life in the dreams of a Marie growing up in a musical family during the Harlem Renaissance. I love the illustrations, by multiple award-winner James Ransome, most of all. In the opening pages, author McMorrow and illustrator Ransome invite us into a bright and boisterous living room, crowded with happy people enjoying music and each other. The clothing and hats in bold blues, greens, and reds transport us to the 1920s. A Christmas party is underway. Marie’s uncle is playing the piano, her parents are dancing, and Miss Addie is singing. Everyone encourages Marie to participate, but she hangs back, shyly watching and listening. The atmosphere is so real and wonderful it makes me feel nostalgic for a party I never attended. When the story shifts to the world of Marie’s dream, the deep, vibrant watercolor illustrations keep the mood warm and happy even when what could be more frightening elements — such as an army of mice — dance into view. By the end, the dream, combined with the magic of Christmas, gives Marie the courage to join in the jazzy celebration.  • Reviewed by Mary Malhotra

Red and Lulu by Matt Tavares book cover imageRed and Lulu
Written and illustrated by Matt Tavares
(Candlewick Press; $17.99, Ages 3-7)

Thank you, Matt Tavares! As a former New Yorker who experienced the majesty of the Norway Spruce at Rockefeller Center most years of my childhood, I was transported by Red and Lulu to Manhattan, not unlike the tree in this simple yet very moving story about love lost then found again during Christmastime. Red and Lulu, cardinals inspired by those in Tavares’ own backyard, make a massive evergreen their home. It’s there the pair see the seasons change in all their glory while always remaining close to the shelter that nature has so kindly provided.  “Once a year the people who live nearby string lights on their tree and sing a special song: ‘O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree.'” Then, while Red is away, the tree is cut down and Lulu clings to it not understanding what is happening. Written with few words that speak volumes and powerful and poignant illustrations, the story follows Red as he tracks the tree on its journey. Unlike adult readers sharing the story with their children, Red doesn’t realize the significance of his home being transported to New York City. He searches high and low to find Lulu amidst the twinkling lights, falling snow, skyscrapers and crowds. As carolers sing their special song, O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, Red’s determination is rewarded as the magic of the song, the holiday season and the Yuletide spirit in this famous city help reunite the cardinal couple and fill young (and old) readers’ hearts with joy. Don’t skip the back matter which includes facts about the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree tradition and an author’s note. Visit the Candlewick website to see a book trailer, some interior artwork and order the book for a 25% discount using the code CANDLEWICK at checkout.   • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Weird but True Christmas from NatGeoKids cover imageWeird but True! Christmas: 300 Festive Facts 
to Light Up The Holiday
(National Geographic Kids; $8.99, Ages 8-12 )

Here’s another great stocking stuffer for fans of outrageous facts. There are dozens of paper back books in the Weird but True! series and it’s no surprise since they are so entertaining. This one is no exception. Just when they think they’ve read all the facts, they’ll want to dive back in to share them and spread the holiday cheer. Included are some whammies such as “One family passed down the same fruitcake since 1878,” or “A whole sheep’s head is considered a  holiday delicacy in Norway.” Do your children know that “In India people decorate banana trees for Christmas,” or that “During the Australian gold rush, people baked gold nuggets into their Christmas pudding for good luck?” As can be expected from any National Geographic book, the photographs included are fantastic as are the added illustrations. The 208 page count should not put off any child since the info is written in large font and the graphics are bold and bright.Weird but True! Christmas can be read quickly to get a general overview then returned to when specific facts require further study. If your tweens cannot get enough of all these fun facts, they can download the National Geographic Kids Weird but True app for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad!    • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Other Recommended Christmas Books This Year Include:

This Little Reindeer
Written by Aly Fronis
Illustrated by Luke Flowers
(Little Bee Books; $5.99, Ages 2-5)

 

 

Christmas Eve
Annie Auerbach
(Barron’s Children’s Books; $6.99, Ages 1-4)

 

 

Don’t Push The Button!: A Christmas Adventure
Written and illustrated by Bill Cotter
(Jabberwocky Kids; $8.99, Ages 2+ )

 

 

 

Christmas Books for Children Roundup – Part One

Christmas Books for Children Roundup – Part Two

Holiday Gift Books Guide

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The Most Wonderful Thing in the World by Vivian French

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The Most Wonderful Thing in the World
Written by Vivian French
Illustrated by Angela Barrett
(Candlewick Press; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

 

TheMostWonderfulThinginTheWorld
Starred Reviews: Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus Reviews

Sometimes the very thing we are searching for is right before our eyes. And sometimes, if we’re fortunate, we get the opportunity to discover this truth through beautiful picture book stories like The Most Wonderful Thing in the World.

A retelling of illustrator Angela Barrett’s favorite childhood story, The Most Wonderful Thing in the World starts with a royal problem. An over-protective king and queen of a picturesque kingdom with “sky-blue water and golden bridges” must find a proper husband for their only child, Lucia. Unsure of how to find the right man, they write to “Wise Old Angelo” for advice on what to do. In response, Angelo advises them to find the man who can show them the most wonderful thing in the world. And, alas, the parade of suitors who visits the king and queen bring one bizarre item after another: “mysterious magical beasts and a piece of frozen sky,” a “mammoth tusk” and “wind machine”—“even [a] mermaid in a tank.”

In the meantime, clever Lucia finds a way to avoid the madness. Her quiet defiance enriches the storyline as do the illustrations of the city, done in soft colors and lush detail. Lucia’s parents intend on sheltering their daughter. Ironically, their decision to send her away while they choose her future husband provides Lucia the independence she needs to choose for herself.

Away from her parents’ watchful eyes, she befriends Angelo’s grandson, Salvatore, who gladly fulfills her request to show her the city, ancient and romantic—like Venice with an Edwardian twist. Through piazzas, busy markets, and “marble arches” they visit the central spaces but also the hidden gems of the city “where the grand never [think] to go.”

This middle section is my favorite part for the tone feels modern and old at the same time. The story comes alive, as if what we are reading may have actually taken place. In pictures, we see the classic architecture of the buildings juxtaposed with the fairly modern attire of the characters. While Lucia and Salvatore roam the city, the items the suitors bring, too, showcase modern technology. As a side note, I like how some of the illustrations are done in a film reel kind of lay out which may help younger readers follow along more easily.

In words, Vivian French also balances this magical space of old and new. Most powerful for me is the opening line, “Once, in the time of your grandmother’s grandmother.” While fairy tales tend to take place in a time and place centuries old, often foreign and unreal, French’s language gives readers the feeling this tale might be true—or at least the possibility of being real, like it’s just within our reach. After all, as French reminds us, “[Our] grandmother’s grandmother would remember it.”

In the end, it’s Salvatore who reveals the most wonderful thing in the world to the king and queen who realize the answer they’ve been searching for has been in plain view all along. Married, Salvatore and Lucia gracefully rule their kingdom with a deep love for their people. And while the historical details of the story are debatable, one fact is certain: love is the most wonderful thing in the world.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

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Little Critter: Just a Special Thanksgiving by Mercer Mayer

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LITTLE CRITTER: JUST A SPECIAL THANKSGIVING
Written and Illustrated by Mercer Mayer
(Harper Festival$4.99, Ages 4-7)

LittleCritter_JustaSpecialThanksgiving

One of the very first picture books I ever bought for my son was by Mercer Mayer. I love Little Critter’s character:  rambunctious, sweet, and fun-loving – someone who kids of all ages can relate to. Much like other series books I enjoy (The  Berenstain Bears and the Froggy series), Little Critter’s books give us an opportunity to see the central character in different snippets of life. In Just a Special Thanksgiving, we celebrate the holiday alongside Little Critter and learn that, though Thanksgiving activities and events may not go as planned, realizing the spirit of the holiday is what matters.

From the get-go we feel that exciting sense of “Thanksgiving is in the air.” In the classroom, Little Critter and his friends are drawing pilgrims and turkeys. When school is out, he must rush home to change into his turkey costume for the Thanksgiving play. While you can probably guess what his lines are, poor Little Critter forgets them and opts to sing a song.

At the “big Thanksgiving Day Parade” early next morning more surprises from Little Critter are in store for all participants.  Tired from marching, our hero hops on a float proudly waving to his parents who, along with law enforcement and other parade goers, have become quite irate by his actions.

I love how Little Critter’s innocence tugs on our heartstrings and how blissfully unaware he is of the commotion his actions cause. What’s even more touching is the way he tries to “right” his wrongs (particularly in the scenes at the grocery store) which lead to even more disaster. Kids will enjoy the humor implicit in Little Critter’s goof-ups. At the same time, parents will be reminded that, no matter how bad things may seem, our children’s intentions are good; their hearts are in the right place. Little Critter’s excitement with helping cook and serve the meal at the community center reminds us what’s at the heart of the Thanksgiving holiday.

A great book to curl up with your little one-perhaps while the turkey is roasting in the oven! (Includes 20 stickers).

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

Shop Indie Bookstores

Good Reads With Ronna is proud to be an IndieBookstores Affiliate. Doing so provides a means for sites like ours to occasionally earn modest fees that help pay for our time, mailing expenses, giveaway costs and other blog related expenses. If you click on an IndieBound link in a post and buy anything, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Your purchase supports our efforts and tells us you like the service we’re providing with our reviews, and for that we sincerely thank you.


Maple & Willow Apart by Lori Nichols

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MAPLE & WILLOW APART
Written & illustrated by Lori Nichols
(Nancy Paulsen Books; $16.99; Ages 3-5)

Starred Review – Kirkus Reviews

 

Maple & Will Apart by Lori Nichols

Maple & Willow Apart, the follow up to author/illustrator Lori Nichols’ Maple and Maple & Willow Together, will draw in fans new and old alike as they witness Maple and Willow’s growing sisterly bond.

Done in pencil and digitally colored, the illustrations emphasize the two central characters. The background is simply white with just enough detail to hint at the setting.  At center stage of the book is the sisters’ relationship.

When a major change in their routine takes place, both girls feel this relationship may be in jeopardy. Maple, now old enough to attend “big-girl school,” will be away from home, and her younger sister Willow, for most of the day. While the two pretend this fact doesn’t bother them, their actions speak louder than words.

From Monday through Wednesday, Maple returns home sharing the thrill of her new school life–perhaps a bit too forcefully. Speaking in what seems like a mile a minute, she narrates with open arms, expressive eyes, and a dazzling smile. In true sibling rivalry fashion, Willow subtly strikes back with her own tale of adventures with an imaginary forest friend. In this game of one-upmanship,or rather one-upgirlship, each sibling creates a more fantastic story than the other.  

Though underneath the theatrics lie real emotions:  the fear of separation and the longing to express it. By Thursday morning, the siblings have toned down their contest of words allowing for the natural bonds of sisterhood to take over and heal their friendship. First in pig Latin, then in more candid conversation, Maple shares how she “miss[es] playing at home” with Willow who admits to sharing the same feelings. While younger, Willow finds a way to stay connected with her sister even when Maple is away at school.  

For families who are experiencing a similar change or for parents looking to open a more general discussion of separation, I highly recommend Maple & Willow Apart. The inherent presence of love between family members ensures that no change is too scary to face.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 


In a Village by the Sea by Muon Van

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In a Village by the Sea
Written by Muon Van
Illustrated by April Chu
(Creston Books; $16.95, Ages 4-8)

Starred Reviews – Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly
Junior Library Guild
selection

InaVillage1

 

Inspired by the author’s own life as the daughter of a fishing family in Vietnam, In a Village by the Sea is the story of yearning for the safety and security of home. Told in a circular fashion, Van uses few but poignant words to guide us from the open ocean, to a home atop a hill, and back to the ocean once more. Chu’s beautiful illustrations elicit powerful, conflicting emotions.  

VillageInterior

Interior artwork from In a Village by the Sea by Muon Van with illustrations by April Chu, Creston Books ©2015.

We see fishermen casting their nets amidst choppy waves.  Dark storm clouds gather in the distance; solemn expressions foreshadow the dangers to come.  Details like these are lush in each spread.  In a Village by the Sea is the  kind of book a child would spread out on the floor slowly studying and absorbing each image, like the gentle mist above the mountains where a family dog guides our eyes to a home, the home belonging to one of the fishermen.

Colors here are warm. Reds, yellows, and oranges from the lanterns hanging on the front porch and in the fire roaring beneath the “steaming noodle soup,” as well as the tender eyes of the faithful dog remind us of the things home symbolize. Though the contemplative stare of the central character of the home (the fisherman’s wife) jars our sense of security. Juxtaposed to her serene surroundings, the wife’s gaze is heavy with worry as she awaits the return of her husband.

A particularly breathtaking spread is on pages 16-17 in which we get an aerial view of an orderly and organized home where there’s a place for everything and everything has a place for itself. Every detail is intriguing: the sandals neatly placed right outside the door, prepped vegetables in baskets ready for cooking, a sleepy baby in a bassinet. Even the cricket that lives in the home is appropriately placed-in a “dusty hole” underneath a mat.

VillageInterio

Interior artwork from In a Village by the Sea by Muon Van with illustrations by April Chu, Creston Books ©2015.

Through this extraordinary cricket, we are privy to another layer of Chu’s artistic skills (fully revealed on the last page of the story). “Humming and painting,” the cricket, we come to find out, is the master creator of this story. He is drawing the scene of a “sudden storm,/ roaring and flashing” where the fisherman’s “white boat,” helplessly “crash[es] and roll[s].” As one of the cricket’s hands draws the stormy gray clouds, you can see the pressure point of his brush. It’s as if the story itself is happening in the moment we are reading it, as if we’re experiencing the moment of creation itself. Chu reminds us that, like the fisherman’s dangerous journey, reading involves risk. We readers, too, are at the mercy of fate, unaware of what’s to come next.

Open skies, calm waters, and cheerful yellows at the final pages tell us the end is hopeful.  The fisherman will arrive safely back to his home.  In fact, the cricket’s final creation on the last page ensures it’s just so.

Readers of all ages will undoubtedly connect with In a Village by the Sea. In a world of certain uncertainty, the reassurance of family and love bring all of us home.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 


Mr. Happy & Miss Grimm by Antonie Schneider

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Mr. Happy & Miss Grimm
Written by Antonie Schneider
Illustrated by Susanne Strasser
(Holiday House; $16.95, ages 4-8)

 

MrHappyMissGrimm-cvr.jpg

 

First published in Germany as Herr Glück & Frau Unglück, Mr. Happy & Miss Grimm shows us how kindness, unstoppable and contagious in its nature, can soften even the hardest of hearts.  

As his name suggests, Mr. Happy is happy. All the time. Morning to night time. Rain or shine. His belongings, too, have an air of cheerfulness and comfort to them. On the day he moves to his new home, Mr. Happy brings with him a big cushy chair, lots of books, a teapot, friendly pets, plants, and a ladder we come to find out he uses to climb up to light the moon’s lantern. As we read the stickers on his luggage of the countries he has visited, we know Mr. Happy has spread his cheerfulness to all corners of the earth.

Moving next to neighbor Miss Grimm, however, proves to be a challenge and a nuisance-that is, for Miss Grimm. From her “bleak little” unit #13 home to her drab clothing and suspicious disposition, Miss Grimm seems to take morbid curiosity in Mr. Happy’s everyday tasks. Mr. Happy plants flowers and trees. He “greet[s] the rain when it rain[s], the snow when it snow[s], and the wind when it bl[ows].”  The more annoyed Miss Grimm is with her neighbor, the more lush Mr. Happy’s garden grows and the more friendly her and Mr. Happy’s pets become with each other. Like children innocent of adult prejudices, the animals take an immediate liking to each other, thus beginning the slow transformation of Miss Grimm’s home.  

It first starts with the small plant on Miss Grimm’s windowsill, lifeless at first, but after Mr. Happy arrives it springs to life almost overnight. Soon enough, too, the neighbors’ roofs share a wire. Strasser’s mixed media, monoprint, crayons, and digital collage produce an Alice in Wonderland effect for Mr. Happy’s side of the spread, while, on Miss Grimm’s side, sudden bursts of color and texture highlight her gradual change. Readers will enjoy flipping the pages back and forth to mark how and when these changes take place.

Despite her every effort to remain her mean old self, even slamming the door in Mr. Happy’s face, Miss Grimm is not the same person.  Like the way the wind carries Mr. Happy’s seeds or the way his garden thrives, love grows simply because it’s there–simply because it has its own set of rules that change us to become a better version of ourselves.  

– Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 


The Song of Delphine by Kenneth Kraegel

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The Song of Delphine
Written & Illustrated by Kenneth Kraegel
(Candlewick Press; $15.99, ages 5-8)

TheSongofDelphinecvr.jpg

Starred review – Booklist

A gentle tale of healing, friendship, and forgiveness, Kenneth Kraegel’s The Song of Delphine unfolds an orphan girl’s journey from pain to peace.

The story begins “[i]n the far reaches of the wild savannah” where “the palace of the great queen Theodora” stands. Against this backdrop of grandeur, lives little Delphine, a servant girl faithful to her daily chores but deeply saddened by loneliness. As she sings by the arched frames of the palace windows “to let some of the loneliness out,” she finds solace. When a niece of Queen Theodora comes to stay at the palace, Delphine naturally reacts with excitement, hopeful she may forge a friendship. Princess Beatrice, however, proves to be anything but a friend, deliberately sabotaging Delphine’s hard work on a daily basis. The princess even breaks a centuries-old mirror and threatens to put the blame on Delphine. That night alone in her room, a hopeless Delphine sings her most soulful song yet.

Then something incredible happens (my favorite part of the book). Friends pop their heads through her bedroom windows, friends who have been listening to her songs all along, at nearly every page turn from the beginning of the story. They pick Delphine up and take her “out into the wild night air.” The double page spread (pages 18-19) that follows gracefully illustrates her healing. A full moon, stars shining in a dark sky, animals gathering at the watering hole, distant mountains sheltering the open grounds, the acacia trees-in times of sorrow, we find comfort in the simple rhythm of everyday life and in knowing that in the depths of despair, we are never alone.

But before the night is over, doom seems certain once more for the terrified servant girl when Delphine’s friends mistakenly return her to Princess Beatrice’s room. Princess Beatrice calls the guards and threatens to tell the queen of Delphine’s transgression.  Noticing a picture of the  princess’s late mother on the night stand, Delphine realizes they do have one painful fact in common. Delphine shares her song with Beatrice who is so moved by the servant’s voice she asks Delphine for forgiveness and convinces Queen Theodora to promote Delphine to a new position, the queen’s singer.

The seeming simplicity of the illustrations (done in watercolor and ink) and the quiet strength of the main character merge to show us the majesty of kindness, a powerful virtue that can transform pain into beauty.  This theme is what I love most about The Song of Delphine.

– Reviewed by Armineh Manookian