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!
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
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
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
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: 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)
(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
DREIDELS ON THE BRAIN
By Joel ben Izzy
(Dial BYR; $17.99, Ages 10 and up)
When I adore a book, and I did adore Joel ben Izzy’s Dreidels on The Brain, I tend to read every last word from the dedication to the acknowledgements. In doing so I happened to find this gem at the bottom of the copyright page:
“This is a work of fiction… and of friction–the kind that filled the author’s childhood. Although much is based upon actual people, places, and events from his life, he has taken great liberties in all these realms–as well as spelling–to recount a story set over the course of the eight days of Hanukkah, 1971.”
There’s more, but you’ll just have to get a copy to read on.
Ben Izzy is a renowned storyteller and Dreidels on The Brain is his first foray into fiction for kids, middle grade readers to be precise, and I hope he writes more. His ability to convincingly convey time, place, character, conflict and voice was not lost on this reader who grew up in that era. Dreidels on The Brain is so much more than a Hanukkah story. It’s a heartwarming coming-of-age novel filled with memorable laugh out loud moments and it seems to have fun with itself and the reader who will quickly catch on to all the zany things Izzy’s included. He’s spelled Hanukkah a ton of different ways and, when he gets the opportunity, does the same with ketchup. On top of this there are lots of jokes, insight into magic tricks, great cultural references, and just the right amount of Yiddish words added to an already winning mix.
As mentioned above, Dreidels on The Brain is set in 1971, Temple City, California, just east of Los Angeles with no temple to be found. The main character’s Jewish family (whose last name shall not be revealed here) actually attends a temple or synagogue in nearby Rosemead. Joel, the self-proclaimed funny-looking main character, is short, has braces, wears glasses, and is the odd man out as the school’s only Jewish student.
Nine chapters take readers through Joel’s eight days and nights of Hanukkah. Ben Izzy has managed to seamlessly weave magic, miracles, matzoh balls, and music from Fiddler on The Roof into an unforgettable story of a boy, on the cusp of adulthood according to the Jewish religion, wanting to be anyone, but himself. This all plays out over the Hanukkah holiday while touching upon faith, family, friends, and one particular female named Amy O’Shea. Readers will find it easy to root for the lovable protagonist and, like him and the message of his dreidel game, wish that a great miracle could happen there.
Joel, a tween with soon-to-be teen angst, is questioning his belief in God as he navigates his role as school dork, token Jew, and the youngest son in his family of five including two older brothers. His parents are struggling financially, but his mom never gives up hope for better times ahead. His dad, unemployed, is always on the verge of creating the next must-have invention, all while coping with his debilitating arthritis. Although it’s clear there’s much love in Joel’s family, as seen through the eyes of this twelve-year-old boy, there’s not much to be desired about his life. For example, he never gets a Hanukkah present as it’s simply not affordable. Joel does manage to make some spending money by performing magic tricks at parties, but when classmate Amy suggests they team up because an assistant will add to a magic show’s appeal, Joel finds himself falling for this girl he considers to be way out of his league.
The plot lines center around Joel having to perform a magic show at his grandma’s nursing home, his dad needing surgery over Hanukkah, and an invitation from the principal to present the Hanukkah story to the entire school at a special assembly. Will everything go according to plan convincing Joel that miracles can happen? “All I can do is answer the way Jews always do–with another question. Why not?”
- Reviewed by Ronna Mandel for #Readukkah
When your children seem especially eager for Christmas to come, then it’s time to reach for Brenner and Christy’s gentle, sequential countdown story AND THEN COMES CHRISTMAS. In a lovely lyrical style, Brenner follows a When/Then narrative that evokes all the special sights, sounds and smells of the season. “When the days barely start and they’re over again, and red berries blaze against green shrubs, and bare branches rake across the sky … Then hang boughs of fir or spruce or pine, dotted with cones and bits of holly, welcoming winter.”
In a snowy setting that looks vaguely like rural New England, two siblings engage in holiday traditions at school, at home and in the community. Brenner introduces wonderful imagery (“Wrap yourself in layers and tumble out of doors to romp in snow as smooth as bedcovers”) and accessible yet descriptive vocabulary (blaze, cling, dwindle) to set a joyous anticipatory scene. Visiting Santa, selecting a tree, baking goodies and making gifts are just a few of the holiday highlights.
Interior spread from And Then Comes Christmas by Tom Brenner with illustrations by Jana Christy, Candlewick Press ©2014.
Christy’s illustrations balance cool, snowy outdoor landscapes with warm, cozy interiors. The blotted, misty edges add to an overall dreamy glow with lots of child-like appeal. The sister and brother are a cheery pair of role models, cooperative, considerate and connected. Parents will certainly hope young listeners feel inspired to recreate the satisfying scenes with as much seasonal spirit as these two do! Following the family’s lively little black dog throughout the book will be a fun attention-keeper for little ones.
AND THEN COMES CHRISTMAS is a well-paced picture book that highlights many of the special down-to-earth holiday moments that children savor. It is a lovely choice to add to your family’s Christmas reading traditions!
– Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey
Where Obtained: I reviewed a promotional copy of AND THEN COMES CHRISTMAS and received no compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.
WINTERFROST written by Michelle Houts
(Candlewick, $16.99, Ages 8-12 )
Michelle Hout’s WINTERFROST brings readers to the forests of Denmark for a sweet fantasy adventure that is perfect for the holiday season.
The Larsen family Christmas celebration takes an unexpected turn when the parents are called away, leaving 12-year-old Bettina in charge of the farm and her 1-year-old sister, Pia, for a few days. Bettina, a mature and responsible girl, is undaunted by the challenge. She’s confident that she can manage alone, especially since nothing ever happens on the sleepy island of Lolland in mid-winter.
But in the hustle and bustle of preparations, the family forgets to leave a bowl of warm, bubbling rice pudding in the barn on Christmas. Just as many families leave cookies for Santa, the Danes leave rice pudding for the nisse, tiny kind and clever elves who tend the livestock and stoke the fires. Klakke, the Larsen’s young and curious nisse, is hurt and resentful of the family’s forgetfulness, so he steals baby Pia from her carriage as she naps in the sunshine.
Bettina begins a frantic hunt for the baby until darkness falls. Unable to sleep, she finds a long-forgotten book belonging to her grandfather entitled How to Care for and Keep Your Nisse. From the book, Bettina learns that a disgruntled nisse might resort to mischief. Suddenly, she realizes that the forgotten bowl of rice pudding may have been the indirect cause of Pia’s disappearance.
Bettina’s belief in the nisse tenuously restored, she heads into the forest to look for Pia and enters a fantastic world of mythology and Danish folklore. Fans of tiny people stories like The Borrowers or The Littles will delight in the details that Houts incorporates, such as walnut shell chairs, firefly lanterns, and thistledown socks. The creative and unusual setting is a charming springboard for Bettina’s nisse adventures, following her as she flies on the neck of a goose, then a seagull, seeking a way to free her sister from a long-standing nisse family feud.
Hout’s unique, imaginative tale is a whimsical read for those just stepping into chapter books. The Nordic setting adds a fun twist to the fantasy adventure, and the brave, clever Bettina is an engaging heroine who thinks on her feet. Wrap up WINTERFROST as a perfect gift for young readers to enjoy during a snowy winter school vacation!
– Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey
Where Obtained: I reviewed a promotional copy of WINTERFROST from the publisher and received no compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.