In need of some merriment? Then look no further. These picture books for little ones will fill your household with marvelous doses of holiday cheer.
TWO NOVEL NATIVITIES
Every holiday season brings a fresh crop of nativity books and one of my new favorites is Linda Sue Park’s The Third Gift. This book was sparked by Park’s childhood curiosity about myrrh, one of the nativity gifts from the three wise men. Her beautifully written tale follows a father and son who collect this myrrh from trees in the Arabian desert.
Bagram Ibatoulline’s truly masterful illustrations are rendered in earthen tones, all suffused with a majestic golden glow that transports readers to another time and place. Father and son are so perfectly painted that they almost seem to have been photographed, as the boy learns his father’s trade and extracts one special “tear” of myrrh. Next, they go to the magical world of the spice market, where three reverent wise men are looking for a special gift to take to “a baby.”
The tale ends with an illustration of the wise men on their camels as they approach the holy family and a detailed, historical author’s note. Regardless of your religious beliefs, this is a rich, wondrous book.
A more lighthearted look at the nativity for younger readers can be found in Sally Lloyd-Jones’ Song of the Stars: A Christmas Story. Instead of focusing on the well-known journeys of Mary, Joseph and the three Wise Men, this book focuses on the excitement felt in the natural world, especially by creatures around the globe.
Lloyd-Jones’ spare text works perfectly with the luminous illustrations of Alison Jay, who works with quick-drying oil paint on paper and then adds crackle varnish for a centuries-old look. In this celebration of nature, Jay shows squirrels and owls listening to the wind’s message, whales diving, sandpipers darting, wild stallions galloping and a host of triumphant angels filling the sky.
HOLIDAY FUN TIMES THREE
Whether your household is naughty or nice, you’ll enjoy Nick Bruel’s latest romp, A Bad Kitty Christmas. In case you’re not familiar with Bruel’s popular feline, Bad Kitty is a curmudgeonly cat depicted in alphabetical rhymes like this one:
Our Yuletide looked Yucky!
My Zeal had been Zapped
When I had found Kitty
In the shreds where she napped!
“Oh, Kitty! Bad Kitty! I’m filled with
You’ve ruined our Christmas!
Just look at this mess!
Bad Kitty has mangled the Christmas tree and gifts and ends up running away in anger. Alas, she finds herself lost in the city, but is rescued by a lonely old woman who teaches Kitty the real meaning of Christmas. As always, Bruel fills both story and pictures with energetic doses of magical mayhem.
For many, Christmas isn’t complete without a holiday tale (or two or three) by master writer and illustrator Tomie dePaola, and fans will be delighted by Strega Nona’s Gift. The book features two of his classic characters, who live in an Italian village and are perfect foils for each other: the magical cooking wizard Strega Nona and the dimwitted blunderer Big Anthony.
Strega Nona is cooking up a holiday feast for her animals, and she asks the starving Big Anthony to deliver the treats—but Big Anthony can’t be trusted and things go awry.
DePaola takes readers on a wonderful village tour during a holiday season filled with celebrations, from the Feast of San Nicola on December 6 until the big feast of Epiphany on January 6 (dePaola explains them all briefly in a helpful note).
Like Strega Nona, dePaola has a magical way, creating a snappy story with illustrations painted in transparent acrylics that resemble watercolors with their soft tones. He gets everything right, from Big Anthony’s stubby blond moptop to a Christmas Eve sunset that is stunning in its simple beauty.
Next is Eileen Spinelli’s The Perfect Christmas, which spins a warm tale of two very different families. At the Archers’ home, treats are served on three-tiered trays and relatives are dropped off by their chauffeurs. Next door to the Archers, however, holidays are a happy but haphazard affair, with macaroni reindeer decorations and home-baked cookies so hard that they can break a toe.
No matter which style of celebration you prefer, you’ll enjoy peeking in on these two families, courtesy of JoAnn Adinolfi’s fun-filled illustrations. Don’t miss details like the mouse wearing a hard hat as Grandma’s cookies fall off the tray, or the refrigerator covered with magnet snowflakes, a math test and, of all things, a postcard from Tijuana.
David Rubel’s The Carpenter’s Gift has everything you want in a children’s holiday story: historical drama, superb illustrations and a meaningful message. Young Henry is used to waking up shivering in his family’s shack, but the chill wears off on Christmas Eve, 1931, when he and his out-of-work father borrow a truck, cut down some spruce trees and head to New York City to sell them. There they meet a kind man named Frank. At the end of the day, Henry and his dad leave an unsold tree for Frank and some other workers to enjoy.
On Christmas morning Henry is awakened by the toot-toot of several car horns: Frank and friends have come to build a brand-new home for Henry’s family. Henry grows up to become a carpenter himself and plants his own spruce tree, which many years later ends up being used as the Rockefeller Christmas tree.
Jim LaMarche’s illustrations are perfect, with faces full of emotion and outdoor scenes that capture the warm light of the many special moments in this story. The author’s notes at the end of this book explain the history of the Rockefeller tree and the intriguing search to find it each year.
Enjoy another historical adventure with Frances and Peter, who live on a small New England island where their father works as the lighthouse keeper in Toni Buzzeo’s Lighthouse Christmas, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter. Their mother has died and they’re waiting for a boat to Aunt Martha’s house on the mainland for a festive holiday celebration.
A raging snowstorm prevents Frances and Peter from traveling to Aunt Martha’s. Frances then has to keep the lighthouse lantern lit while her father rescues a shipwrecked mariner. With supplies running low, the celebration seems destined to be bleak.
Thankfully, the “Flying Santa” saves the day, dropping a sackful of presents onto the island. The Flying Santa Service began in 1929 to honor lighthouse keepers and their families in Maine. Buzzeo, who lives in Maine, explains in a historical note how the lovely tradition has spread and continues.