One of the year's most interesting holiday books is Maya Angelou's Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem. The celebrated poet first read this poem at the 2005 White House tree-lighting ceremony, and now it graces the pages of a picture book. The poem isn't an obvious choice for a children's book - it's philosophical, thought-provoking and full of big words like covenant, rancor and apprehension. Yet it is a powerful message - sermon-like - and a good one for children to hear. (The book also comes with a CD, so readers can hear Angelou's majestic voice reading.) Angelou discusses how what she calls the "Glad Season" appears amid "fear and apprehension," bringing people together. She writes: "We, Angels and Mortals, Believers and Nonbelievers, / Look heavenward and speak the word aloud. / Peace." The book's artwork is equally luminous, providing a storylike backdrop for Angelou's verse. Using both fabric collage and paint, artists Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher have created illustrations full of depth, texture and light that blend naturally with Angelou's words. They depict parents and two children walking in a small snowy mountain town at Christmastime. They visit a glassblowing artist and purchase a small, glass Christmas tree. They walk to the townhall for a community candlelighting ceremony, joining with townspeople of many races and ages to celebrate the season of peace. Amazing Peace makes a lovely gift, no matter what your religion or politics. It's an enriching book for readers to turn to year after year, with an all-encompassing message that will never grow old.

A baby's birth

Laura Krauss Melmed's Hurry! Hurry! Have You Heard? is more traditional children's book fare. Her rhyming text tells of a baby's birth in a barn on a winter's night and the animals who come to see him. A sparrow invites the animals to come greet the newborn child, and a delightful menagerie accepts the invitation. Over snow-covered fields and woods come a rabbit, fox, sheepdog, mice, shrew, mole, tortoise, hummingbird and even a parade of insects: spider, ladybug, caterpillar and more. Well-known artist Jane Dyer brings this scene beautifully to life with pastoral yet lively scenes created with gouache paints. She paints bright blue skies, sun-draped evergreens and a baby that you can almost hear cooing. Her animals look realistic, yet storybook-like in a delightful way. The sparrow wears a striped scarf, for instance, and the mice and vole wear little coats. There's no actual mention of religion here, and only the bare-bones of the Jesus story are included: a baby, a mother and welcoming animals. Hurry! Hurry! Have You Heard? is the perfect way to introduce very young children to the Christmas canon.

Riding in Santa's sleigh

Young children will also relish Santa's Little Helper by Angela McCallister. A fluffy little rabbit named Snowball can hardly contain his Christmas Eve excitement. He tries out various hiding spots during a game of hide - and - seek with his siblings. Snowball obviously lives near the North Pole, because he encounters a walrus, polar bear and plenty of snow during his rambles. Eventually Snowball finds a cozy hiding spot, but he's so exhausted and hidden so well that he falls asleep. Turns out he has buried himself among Santa's presents, and he soon ends up aboard Santa's sleigh, helping him during his Christmas Eve journey. Daniel Howarth's illustrations are charming, showing a snow - filled backdrop that bursts into vivid color once Santa is on the scene.

A bear-y Christmas

The Christmas Bears is another intriguing book for young readers. Instead of Santa Claus, there is Santa Bear and his family of young bear helpers from around the world. The endpapers show a world map that locates the habitats of the various bears, which include a brown and black bear, a panda, a koala and a sloth. Chris Conover's rhyming text is slight, telling how the bears get ready for Christmas. However, his richly detailed illustrations remind me of master illustrator Jan Brett and her Christmas bears and reindeer. These are beautiful illustrations, and young readers will delight in spotting the different types of bears.

Yet another Christmas bear appears in Jean Marzollo's counting book, Ten Little Christmas Presents. Ten animals each get a present that's waiting in the snow, and on each page, a present is revealed. Mouse gets earmuffs, Fox gets a poncho and Chipmunk gets a jacket. The secret Santa turns out to be a cute little Santa Bear. Marzollo's simple illustrations are absolutely charming - just check out the fuzzy porcupine or the brown - textured raccoon. An added (and surely popular) bonus is a matching game at the end of the book, challenging readers to remember which animal got which gift.

No laughing matter

When Santa Lost His Ho! Ho! Ho! is an amusing tale written and illustrated by Laura Rader. During a busy Christmas season, Santa is so worn out that he suddenly loses his laugh. His entire workforce of elves is horrified, and all unite to try to get him ho-ho-ho-ing again. He goes to the doctor, watches funny movies and listens to endless jokes. People from around the world try to help, especially the children, who begin a frantic letter-writing campaign. Finally, a little girl named Holly sends a letter and drawing that do the trick. Preschoolers and young elementary students will delight in this energetic story, with fun-filled, busy, cartoonlike illustrations. It's one of the more light - hearted books of the bunch, and a good complement to the somber tones and themes of Amazing Peace.

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