Light the fire, grab a mug of hot cocoa and cozy up with the kids for some holiday reading. You’re sure to find magic in a fine Christmas picture book—the best of which will earn a place in your heart and become a treasured part of your family traditions.

That special magic is brilliantly captured in The Christmas Wish, a family project that involved photographer Per Breiehagen, his wife Lori Evert and their young daughter, Anja. Just imagine the warmth and Nordic charm of Jan Brett’s The Wild Christmas Reindeer. Now envision a book that uses breathtaking photographs instead of illustrations to tell its story, and you have The Christmas Wish.

Breiehagen grew up in the mountains of Norway, and a photo he took of Anja with a reindeer inspired his stylist wife Evert to write this holiday story. The result is an exciting tale about a Scandinavian child who dreams of becoming one of Santa’s elves. We first see Anja in her cozy home and at school, tackling holiday chores while contemplating her heart’s desire. One day she simply whooshes away on skis to head to the North Pole, fearlessly plunging into the deep wilderness snow.

Breiehagen’s photographs take readers on a journey up and down mountains, through Northern Light vistas, past frozen waterfalls and across the northern tundra. Along the way, Anja is guided by a cardinal, a giant horse, a musk ox, a polar bear and a reindeer, until she finally reaches the North Pole and sees the big man himself. This unique tale makes readers feel like they’re a part of Anja’s exhilarating journey.

POOR LITTLE SANTA

Children will also enjoy Jon Agee’s Little Santa, an amusing tale about Santa’s childhood. In contrast to the photographic opulence of The Christmas Wish, this story features minimalist illustrations that spin a yarn about a down-on-their-luck family living a dreary life at the North Pole. Young Santa lives in a drab cabin with his parents and six brothers and sisters, all of whom hate the winter chill and dream of moving to Florida. Santa, on the other hand, adores winter fun and can’t stop baking gingerbread cookies and sliding down their chimney.

Just as the family prepares to move, a blizzard buries the house and traps the Claus family. Santa is sent up the chimney to get help. He encounters a buried reindeer, and together they fly to a house that happens to be jam-packed with elves.

Little Santa is a lively romp in which elves say things like “Holy Snowflake,” and young Santa saves the day, meeting a gang of friends who will obviously become his North Pole mainstay.

TRACTOR TROUBLE

Kids will clamor for An Otis Christmas, Loren Long’s fourth story about a spunky little tractor who lives on a hillside farm. Everyone there is happily preparing for Christmas, and Otis is thrilled when the farmer presents him with a shiny new horn on Christmas Eve.

Otis’ sense of holiday cheer quickly turns to dismay, however, when Doc Baker is desperately needed for a horse in labor. Unfortunately, a blinding snowstorm makes his arrival seem impossible, until our trusty tractor sets out bravely into the dark, stormy night, “with snow up to his chin.” Plenty of excitement awaits as Otis chugs up a steep hill and comes to the edge of a cliff, shining his headlights into the abyss.

Long’s gouache-and-pencil illustrations are full of heartfelt charm, yet never stoop to cutesiness. His wonderful Otis series provides a classic new option for vehicle and adventure lovers alike.

CHRISTMAS CATS

I’m not a cat person, but Fuddles completely wins me over. A Very Fuddles Christmas is the second book about this charismatic cat, written and illustrated by Disney animator Frans Vischer and based on his family’s pampered, fat cat. Spoiled “endlessly,” Fuddles thinks Christmas is just for him. He lights up at the sight of a fancy turkey dinner, a gingerbread house and a twinkling Christmas tree. He has a rude awakening, however, when he knocks the tree over and flees in dismay, only to find himself stranded outside in the cold.

Vischer adds humor every step of the way, both to text (“Like a pioneer frontiersman, Fuddles bravely faced the elements”) and to his endearing depictions of Fuddles’ escapades. His illustrations practically leap off the page with energy and imagination. Rest assured that Fuddles does find his way back inside, arriving via a dramatic holiday route.

On a very different note, Maryann Macdonald was inspired to write The Christmas Cat when she saw Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing “La Madonna del Gatto,” showing young Jesus holding a cat. What if Jesus had a cat, she wondered. In Macdonald’s fresh take on the Nativity story, she begins: “Jesus was beautiful, like all babies. And like all babies, he cried.” Baby Jesus is inconsolable, in fact, until a curious kitten begins to nuzzle him and purr.  Thus a friendship is born, and later, when Mary, Joseph and Jesus flee Bethlehem to escape into Egypt, this faithful kitten saves the day when danger is near. Softly evocative illustrations by Amy June Bates enhance this gentle biblical tale.

MOVE OVER, GOLDILOCKS

After watching polar bears frolic at the Central Park Zoo, Maria Modugno went home and wrote Santa Claus and the Three Bears, a Yule-themed take on Goldilocks. These three polar bears live in a Nordic cottage filled with Scandinavian decor, and everything is picture-perfect until a hungry, sleepy Santa drops in and makes himself at home.

After all is said and done, Santa, of course, has the last word of the day, saying: “Sorry about the chair. I’ll bring you a new one next year.” Preschoolers will relish this festive spin on a beloved tale, illustrated by award-winning artist Jane Dyer and her daughter Brooke Dyer.

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