Every year I look forward to adding a few gems to my family's collection of Christmas books, and my latest is Patricia Polacco's An Orange for Frankie. This moving tale of days gone by reminds me of another holiday favorite, Cynthia Rylant's Silver Packages, both books that feature trains, sacrifices and boys named Frankie.

Polacco's 10-year-old Frankie based on the childhood of her own great-uncle lives in a Michigan farmhouse, the youngest boy of nine children. Pa has gone to Lansing to get the precious oranges the family enjoys each year for Christmas, but this year a blizzard hampers his efforts to return home. While everyone anxiously awaits his arrival, Frankie learns heartfelt lessons about giving (he gives his sweater to a needy old man) and honesty.

Readers can revel in the flurry of activity in this wonderful household, as Polacco shares an up-close glimpse of an old-fashioned holiday. Her descriptions of Frankie's life are riveting, and readers will lap up the many details, such as depression-era hoboes jumping off trains to get food handouts, horses and buggies, and bacon and salt pork sizzling on the woodstove.

The author frames this tale at beginning and end with short historical notes, adding that the Christmas she describes was sadly to be Frankie's last. No doubt, though, this young character will live on in the hearts of Polacco's legion of devoted fans, and deservedly so.

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU ASK FOR
Another sweet selection is Elizabeth Cody Kimmel's My Penguin Osbert, a picture book brimming with humor. Narrator Joe begins by explaining: "This year, I was very specific in my letter to Santa Claus." He has to be, because in the past he and Santa have had "a few misunderstandings," such as the time Joe asked for a fire-engine red racecar and got one, but it was only three inches long. Joe now asks for a real penguin from Antarctica, "one foot tall, white and black with a yellow beak, and his name should be Osbert." Joe gets what he asks for, but after playing with the penguin in the cold and snow, sharing hours in the cold bath, and eating herring and seaweed jam for breakfast, Joe starts growing tired of his pet. He's a trouper, however, and does what needs to be done, repeating, "But I had asked for Osbert, and now I had him." The book's watercolors and pastels are deftly drawn by H.B. Lewis, oozing personality and charm. An artist for Disney, DreamWorks and Pixar, Lewis pours his heart into his wide-eyed hero and his fish-eating comrade, who in the end figure out the perfect arrangement for coexistence.

WAKE UP
Another animal with a big personality is Bear, the sleepy-eyed hero of a best-selling series of books by Karma Wilson, including Bear Snores On and Bear Wants More. Her hibernating fellow has a new challenge in Bear Stays Up for Christmas. His good friends Mouse, Hare, Badger, Raven, Mole, Wren and Gopher give him an ultimatum: "We won't let you sleep through Christmas this year." The group keeps him busy picking out and decorating a tree, hanging stockings and wrapping. In the end, only Bear manages to stay up the rest are too exhausted. Bear, however, is so busy wrapping presents that he doesn't see Santa arrive. Jane Chapman's illustrations are a delight; her Bear a huge, cuddly hero. All his friends radiate charm and personality, and Wilson's simple yet gently compelling text is the perfect accompaniment. Bear Stays Up for Christmas is bound to be a bedtime favorite for young readers.

GIFTS FOR A PRINCE
Next is an animal tale with a slightly different twist on the traditional Nativity story: Bartholomew's Blessing by Stephanie S. Tolan. When Bartholomew the mouse awakens one night to much commotion, an angel informs him that the Prince of Peace has been born and is about to bless the animals. Feeling small and unworthy, Bartholomew struggles to reach the stable, bearing three special gifts: barley, a golden stone and an icicle. An icy cold stream nearly stops him, but he perseveres and is rewarded with a smile from the newborn child. While this is obviously a religious story, the name Jesus is never mentioned he's simply called the "Prince." Margie Moore's illustrations give readers a look at Bethlehem from a mouse's perspective and help to make this book a charming holiday read-aloud.

A CHILD-SIZED CHRISTMAS HERO
Going from sacred to secular, adult best-selling author James Patterson has written SantaKid. Young Chrissie, the narrator, lives at the North Pole, the daughter of S. and Mrs. Claus. Her world glistens, thanks to the stellar digital artwork of Michael Garland. She rollicks with the reindeer and frolics with the elves. All is well until the evil Warrie Ransom flies in and announces that his company, Exmass Express, is going to buy Christmas. Everything changes, and now the elves have to make weird toys and duds designed to fall apart on the 315th day of each year. Of course, it's up to young Chrissie to save the day, so she dons a red suit and delivers presents herself. She even makes a delivery to Warrie Ransom's house, melting his heart in the process. Christmas is saved, thanks to SantaKid. Children will eat up the nail-biting drama, and all will enjoy Garland's luminous illustrations.

THE SCOOP ON SANTA
Do your kids ask those pesky questions about Santa, such as how he manages to deliver all of those toys? Just hand them Alan Snow's How Santa Really Works, similar in style to his previous books, How Dogs Really Work and The Truth About Cats. Snow launches into his trademark style of detailed diagrams showing everything from the North Pole underground toy factory to the workings of the Christmas College for Elves. Who knew, for instance, that there's a Christmas Intelligence Agency (CIA) to determine who's been good and bad? This is a fun and funny book for Christmas-lovers of all ages. 

So, do I believe? Of course! Just as I wrote these last words, I looked out my window, and staring at me was a young deer, no doubt a reindeer gearing up for the season, or perhaps a CIA operative!


Alice Cary writes from Groton, Massachusetts.

 

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