Little Santa by Jon Agee
Christmas books are tricky. They are often too sugary and sparkly or simply dull. Happily, each year there are little holiday gems. This is one of those. It is the story of a young Santa and how he grew up and became the Santa everyone loves. Santa grew up at the North Pole along with his large family. While he loved it there, everyone else in his family hated it. They planned to move to Florida instead. But just when everyone was packed and ready to leave, a huge blizzard hit. It was up to Santa to figure out how to save his family. He set off to look for help and along the way found a flying reindeer and a group of elves. Soon it was Santa to the rescue! The elves, reindeer and Santa made such a great team that the rest is history.
Agee keeps far away from anything too tinsel-filled or cute. He uses his trademark simple illustrations to keep a straight-forward tone to the book that is very refreshing in the crowded Christmas market. He also manages to be a bit sly and silly along the way, adding a bit of zest into this Christmas treat. The writing is clear and crisp, perfect for sharing aloud.
Grab a cup of cocoa with plenty of marshmallows and get ready to share a stellar new Christmas gift. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
Dusk by Uri Shulevitz
On a snowy December evening, a boy, his dog, and grandfather talk a walk. They stop to watch the sun sink over the river and then they head into the city. There people are in a great hurry. There are people shopping for gifts for their children, others heading home to feed their cats, and even an alien speaking its own language. As darkness falls, the lights in the city start to turn on. First just a few, then more, and finally the boy and grandfather are downtown near the large shop windows and it is revealed that this is a holiday book with different windows celebrating Christmas, Hanukah, and Kwanzaa.
It took until that final reveal to realize that I was reading a holiday book, and that is a wonderful thing. Instead of centering on the holidays, this book is about quiet moments and time spent together just looking at the changing light in the sky and in the city. The text is so simple, then becomes dancing complexity when the people start to talk, then returns to the simplicity again. Readers will be jolted by the change, just as if their own quiet walk at dusk was interrupted.
Shulevitz’s art is so beautiful. He captures the setting sun with colors that will make readers linger alongside the characters in the book. He plays throughout the book with shadows, light and darkness. As the lights come on in the book, the light is warm against the winter darkness and pools in liquid on the ground. In the reveal of the holiday windows, the illustrations become detailed and honeyed. Again, a place to linger and bask in that holiday mood.
A top holiday pick, this book is a lovely companion to Snow and stands on its own too. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The Christmas Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Renata Liwska
The duo who created The Quiet Book and The Loud Book have returned with a holiday version. This simple picture book follows the same format as the earlier books, celebrating the small moments of the day that are quiet. Here they are all Christmas themed with quiet moments like “Star on top quiet” and “Luminaria quiet” and “Listening for sleigh bells quiet.”
As always, Liwska’s illustrations add a softness and warmth to the book that entirely suits the theme. Her rabbits, owls and bears are all huggably fuzzy. Their expressions are perfect for each of the moments, from the shock of a broken ornament to the bliss of gliding on ice to the horror of the mistletoe.
A wonderful Christmas read for the entire family, this celebrates all of those moments between the hustle and bustle of the holiday. It will get all of you thinking about your own Christmas quiet times. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
Daddy Christmas & Hanukkah Mama by Selina Alko
Sadie celebrates both Christmas and Hanukkah in her house. Their family celebrations are a delightful mix of the two holidays. Latkes are on the mantel waiting for Santa to come, he’s a big fan of the family recipe. Carols are sung about dreidels and mangers. Gelt is spread under the Christmas tree. Food is a huge part of both traditions and then stories are shared from both as well. This is as warm and joyous a celebration as anyone could wish.
Alko nicely draws both holidays together, mixing them into something that is even more lovely and amazing than either of them alone. It is a testament to how families that come from two different faiths can honor both of them and also create something uniquely their own. My only complaint is that there isn’t an author’s note discussing the two holidays in more detail.
Alko’s illustrations are done in collage. She combines the detail and texture of textiles with paint and paper cutouts. The incorporation is done in a subtle but effective way, the different types catching your eye and adding depth.
A great pick for the holidays, this book will reach families who are themselves creating new traditions from old. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Knopf.
Who Built the Stable?: A Nativity Poem by Ashley Bryan
Dazzling art meets an equally vibrant poem in this Christmas book that focuses on the shepherd boy who built the stable where Jesus was born. Award-winning illustrator and author, Ashley Bryan has crafted a story of the young boy who built the stable, a boy who is also a shepherd and a carpenter. It is a story of craft and devotion, also one of diversity and acceptance. Told in rhyming verse, this is a Christmas story that celebrates children and all they have to offer at the most joyous time of the year.
While the poem has gentle rhymes, it also has a beautiful strength of story at its core that makes it very appropriate for the celebration of the Nativity. Creating a story of another child whose own service echoes that of Jesus’ own is a powerful statement about how we can all have a role no matter how young we are.
The art here is simply spectacular. It reminds me of stained glass with its thicker outlines and brilliant colors. Filled with swirls of colors, the images fairly dance on the page, creating a new vision of the holiday that is much more than green, red and white. Beautiful!
Add some real beauty to your holiday with this bright, vibrant book that speaks to the true meaning of Christmas. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
The Christmas Wombat by Jackie French, illustrated by Bruce Whatley
The original Diary of a Wombat returns in all of his carrot-munching glory with a Christmas title. The book starts in a familiar way with a day spent sleeping, scratching, sleeping again, and eating. But then, a Christmas ornament bops him on the nose. The wombat gets rid of them. Then the wombat meets Santa’s reindeer who also like carrots. They fight a great battle and the wombat wins and after munching more carrots, curls up on the back of Santa’s sleigh. The wombat meets Santa, discovers snowmen with carrot noses, and continues to eat carrots across the world. The book ends with the same simplicity as the beginning, and with a well-deserved nap.
French has an exquisite sense of timing in her text. When I read the first book to my son, it quickly became one of his all-time favorites. Finding a Christmas book with that same feel and humor to it was a highlight of our holiday season so far. I enjoy reading the books with an Australian accent, since that’s how a wombat would talk, right? And they are a delight to share aloud. The timing of the humor is naturally conveyed in the writing.
Whatley’s illustrations are great. They show the pride of the wombat, his unwavering courage even when facing much larger animals, and plenty of humor themselves. With their larger format and white backgrounds, this picture book can merrily be shared with groups of children.
A great pick for a twist on the regular holiday picture books, this one may call for carrots to be shared afterwards. Carrots… Carrots… Carrots… Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Santa Trap by Jonathan Emmett, illustrated by Poly Bernatene
Bradley Bartleby was born bad and as he got older, he got even more bad. Bradley’s parents were immensely rich and gave Bradley everything he wanted because they were scared of him. Every year, Bradley would make an enormous list for Santa Claus but Santa knew about how bad Bradley was and never looked at the list, instead giving him a small token gift of socks. Even though Bradley’s parents gave him everything he had put on his Christmas list, Bradley hated that Santa himself didn’t give him what he wanted. So Bradley decided to build a trap for Santa. He worked on it for a year, until by Christmas Eve his parents had moved out of the house because it was so dangerous. Now all it would take was Bradley to stay awake and watch the trap work. But staying up and waiting for Santa on Christmas Eve is notoriously difficult to do.
Emmett has created a holiday picture book with a lot of edge, plenty of weaponry and some pretty spectacular explosions. This is a holiday book that will appeal to children who feel a bit too old for elves and reindeer. Happily though, at the heart of the story there really is a Christmas spirit about what the real meaning of Christmas should be. Emmett though does not let that ruin the fun, delighting in turning Christmas on its ear in this picture book.
The art by Bernatene works so well here. It has plenty of zing and pop with its bold colors and modern feel. One just has to look at the cover to know this is not your normal holiday book. The illustrations were done digitally, adding to the modern feel, but they are also made warmer by brushstrokes showing on the images.
A dynamic and very funny holiday book that will work particularly well for elementary-aged children who will delight in the weaponry, the trap, and the twist at the end. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from ARC received from Peachtree Publishers.
Grace at Christmas by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright & Ying-Hwa Hu
On the 20th Anniversary of Amazing Grace, Hoffman has written a holiday addition to the series. Grace loved Christmas even more than her birthday. She loved acting out the Christmas story and spending time with her family. This year, they were going to be joined by some new people for their holiday. The granddaughter of a family friend and her daughter were going to come and stay for a bit. The daughter was just Grace’s age, but Grace was worried about having them stay. It didn’t get any better once they arrived and the girl seemed so quiet and shy. Slowly the two girls become more friendly, and Grace learns that sometimes it’s the unplanned parts of Christmas that bring the most magic.
Hoffman writes with such confidence here. She knows Grace and her family so well that the stories are sure footed and adept. The characters too have a sense of reality and place that is the hallmark of a well-written series. The growth that Grace shows throughout the book is equally well written and the story arc is clear and makes sense both for the sake of the story and the characters.
The art in the book follows the same style as the rest of the series. It is realistic, colorful, and warm: an inviting mix. The book celebrates Christmas but the color palette is definitely not limited at all to holiday hues.
A great holiday addition to a beloved series, this book belongs in all public library collections. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Dial Books for Young Readers.
A Christmas Tree for Pyn by Olivier Dunrea
Little Pyn dreams of having a Christmas tree of their own, but her gruff Papa (who insists that she call him Oother) refuses to have one. While her father works outside in the woods all day, Pyn tidies up the house. Through it all, she thinks about a Christmas tree. When Oother continues to say no to a tree, Pyn decides to handle matters herself. She waits until her father heads out to work and then dresses herself in warm clothes and takes a small hatchet along with her. But before she gets far at all, she is up to her waist in snow with more tumbled down and burying her. Oother rescues her at once, sweeping her up onto his shoulders. Together the two of them find the perfect tree and bring it home, where Pyn decorates it with all sorts of natural treasures she has saved. Oother too has something to add to the tree, that speaks to the memory of Pyn’s mother.
Dunrea has managed to create a gruff bear of a father who has trouble expressing his love for his tiny daughter, but that children will understand easily. There is a palpable love between the two characters though both have trouble voicing it. It is the warmth in the story, the glue of their small family. Towards the end of the book, the sorrow of the loss of Pyn’s mother is tangible too. It is almost achingly there, a physical presence that explains the strained relationship and the reason a Christmas tree is vitally important to them both.
Dunrea’s art is beautifully done with his signature white backgrounds upon which his characters build their lives. The book is filled with small touches that show the snugness and warmth of their home. The huge stone fireplace, the cozy slippers, and the steam rising from pots and bowls. It all creates a family and home.
This book speaks to the heart of the Christmas season, where families grow closer, memories are shared, and a tree becomes more than it could ever seem to be. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Penguin Young Readers Group.
Strega Nona’s Gift by Tomie dePaola
In the small Italian village where Strega Nona lives, everyone is busy preparing for the holidays. They stretch from December 6th and the Feast of San Nicola to January 6th and the Feast of Epifania. This picture book looks at the various Italian feasts, focusing mostly on the Eve of Epifania where animals are said to be able to get the power of speech. So all of the people in the village made delicious food for the animals to keep them happy. However, when Big Anthony realizes that he is eating a simple meal of pasta and not the beautiful food Strega Nona has cooked for the animals, things start to go wrong. Big Anthony eats the food that was meant for the goat, so she is left with just hay and oats. Strega Nona uses her magic to send everyone dreams of food that night, but Big Anthony misses out because the goat ate his blanket and he cannot sleep. In the end, Big Anthony makes everything right again but it takes some holiday luck to make that happen.
dePaola manages to weave the feasts into the storyline deftly, creating a book that shows how some cultures have an extended holiday filled with different sorts of celebrations. The relationship between Big Anthony and Strega Nona is a large part of the success of this picture book. Their unique ways with one another adds the spice to the holiday story that it needs. There is a gentle humor about the story that works well.
As always, the illustrations are simple, humorous and completely appealing. This is the Stega Nona we have all grown to love, showing her care for her village through her cooking and magic. It is a quiet sort of Christmas book, one that shows the depth of the holiday season and speaks to more than Santa and gifts.
For families looking for a book that explores a different holiday tradition, this book will be great fun to share and informative too. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Penguin Young Readers Group.