A Santa’s sack of winning picture books awaits choosy buyers this holiday season. Some are overtly religious, some are secular and some are a bit of both. Magic is a common thread throughout the books: the magic of the original Christmas story, of Mother Nature, anticipation, gratitude and most especially the miracle of new life.
All are in the same basic age range, which is limitless if you admit that reading aloud (and being read to) is a magic we never really outgrow.
Christmas all year long
Who Would Like a Christmas Tree?, written by Ellen Bryan Obed and illustrated by Anne Hunter, is a refreshingly different holiday picture book: an exploration of the flora and fauna of the Christmas tree. “Who would like a Christmas tree in January?” it begins, and the surprising answer is a black-capped chickadee, which eats “moth eggs and little spiders hidden under the bark,” and also roosts in the dense branches. Month by month, animal by animal, from aphids to wild turkeys, the whole year of a Christmas tree’s prolific usefulness is revealed. The book remains story-like enough for the very young and meaty enough for the older reader (and for the adult reader, who will learn much).
A baby on the way
Kids too excited to sleep as Christmas approaches will enjoy the lovely lullaby book Nighty Night, Baby Jesus by Molly Schaar Idle. The combination of gentle, rhyming text; soft, curvy illustrations; and the always welcome opportunity to make animal noises should please readers and listeners. The author/artist is a former illustrator at DreamWorks, and the influence is evident in her stylized forms (think Prince of Egypt) and cinematic treatment of light, as it originates from or above the baby and filters down and around the stable scenes. Each animal greets the newborn babe in turn and in character, until they are hushed by the mother’s gentle cooing. “Sweet dreams,” she murmurs to her son, and sweet dreams may well be likely for all who read it.
What’s Coming for Christmas? is another charmer from author Kate Banks and illustrator Georg Hallensleben, a duo known for conjuring intimate little worlds of word and image. “Something was coming,” the story begins, and the unnamed something heralds itself in marvelous ways: the way the snow whirls or the way icicles drip, or in the “flutter of paper snowflakes” or the “hiss of scissors cutting ribbon.” Centered on one cozy house and farmyard, the story is a survey of sounds, smells, sights and flavors that quietly builds into a gentle but insistent urgency, alerting even the smallest mouse. Happily, neither text nor picture comes right out and tells us what every tree, critter and kid is anticipating, even after it arrives. By paying us the compliment of letting us use our intuition and senses, the book sustains its spell even beyond the last page.
The fun begins
When Sam McGuffin sneaks onto Santa’s sleigh, it’s the North Pole workshop he’s after. What he finds instead is The Secret of Santa’s Island, a tropical paradise where the elves, reindeer and Mr. and Mrs. Claus unwind after the Christmas rush. “Unwind” may be the wrong word: they party hearty at a custom amusement park wilder than the dreams of most folks, but well within the extraordinary range of author Steve Breen, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning (and creator of the picture book Violet the Pilot). The secret island boasts life-size chocolate Christmas trees, an elvish rollercoaster and dodgeball games on flying reindeer. The best secret is revealed on the last page, deftly ratcheting the take-home message from just fun to just fabulous. Sam turns out to be the “McGuffin” (the name of a plot-enabling device in filmmaking) that puts us right where the author intends. Never didactic, the book slyly promotes the rare virtue of gratitude.
Stick Man might seem a random title in this lot, but note the best-selling team behind it: Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, whose works include The Gruffalo and one of my favorite read-aloud Halloween books, No Room on the Broom. Stick Man is, well, a stick, but quite an appealing one, and he’s on an odyssey to boot. Separated from his family tree (wherein dwell “his Stick Lady Love and their stick children three”), he faces peril after peril in romping rhyme: a game of fetch, a sand castle in need of a flagpole, a snowman in need of an arm, many inventive children and finally, worst of all: a fireplace. Can he make it past these sticky dangers to get home for Christmas? Will there be a tender or tinder ending? Stick around and see.
Cozy Christmas chores
The Christmas Magic by Lauren Thompson, illustrated by Jon J. Muth, is nothing less than magical. “Far, far north, where the reindeer are, there is a snug little house with a bright red door,” begins a tale so perfectly phrased anyone can sound like a proper storyteller reading it aloud. In only three or four cozy lines per gorgeous page, we watch Santa readying his reindeer, his sleigh, his boots, his list of children and his sack of toys, our senses vicariously alive to the textures and sounds. The sequence of the perfectly ordinary chores of this perfectly extraordinary character builds our anticipation: “Is the magic here?” the music of the reindeer bells seems to ask as Santa carefully polishes each jingle. Muth’s pastel and watercolor images of Santa’s spare, Shaker-like house and the endless horizons of snow seem to slow the story: Santa is in no hurry and neither should we be. This is a book to savor. When the magic finally arrives, making the night “thrum,” it feels just right: more shivery and intimate than ho-ho-ho, and far more satisfying.
Have you heard the news?
A welcome twist on the traditional nativity storybook, The Christmas Baby demands to be read aloud to a group of enthralled children—or just to a single, special one. Written by Marion Dane Bauer and illustrated by Richard Cowdrey, the story is set in a “tiny town” in a “faraway country” on the night of Jesus’ birth. “Have you heard?” is asked again and again—by the father-to-be looking for room in an inn and by the stable animals—“have you heard a baby is coming?” The question is used like a refrain in a carol, building anticipation with each repetition, and then changing key when the baby arrives. “Have you heard? He is here!” cry the beasts and the angels, at once answered by the shepherds and kings. The excitement feels genuine. What could easily be cloying simply isn’t, even the surprise ending correlating the birth of the Christmas baby and the miraculous birth of every baby: “Now . . . every time a baby is born, stars and angels sing . . . ‘Have you heard?’ ” Only a grumpy innkeeper could miss the joy in this sweet tale.
Joanna Brichetto is grateful that part of her job involves reading aloud to children.