Rabbi Benjamin’s Buttons by Alice B. McGinty, illustrated by Jennifer Black Reinhardt
In the fall, the congregation gave Rabbi Benjamin a vest in honor of the new year. It was yellow with four bright silver buttons down the front and it was a perfect fit. Rabbi Benjamin wore his vest to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, which also involved a lot of food. Each family offered their own special food for the holiday, and Rabbi Benjamin’s vest was a lot tighter by the end. During Sukkot, Rabbi visited each of the families and again had lots of food and his vest grew even tighter. Until on the last day of Sukkot, one of the silver buttons popped right off his vest. Chanukah came and Rabbi Benjamin ate lots of latke, and he lost a second silver button. Spring came along with Passover, and the rabbi lost the last two buttons that had tried to stretch across his growing belly. He was very upset about how he had ruined his special vest. So he changed a few things. He got out and moved more along with his congregation. And when he tried on the vest for Rosh Hashanah, it was far too big to wear. But don’t worry, Rabbi Benjamin had a loving congregation ready to help him again.
This book has a wonderful radiance about it. The heart of the book is really the love felt between the congregation and Rabbi Benjamin. He is unfailingly kind and giving as are they, perhaps a bit too giving when it comes to the food! At the same time, the story is a smart and very enjoyable way for readers to learn about the various Jewish holidays throughout the year and the traditions associated with them. The book has an index of the holidays at the end, including recipes for each holiday. There is also a glossary of Jewish words.
Reinhardt’s illustrations also capture the loving community on the page. Rabbi Benjamin almost glows on each page, not only due to his shining yellow vest but also with his popping and vibrant personality. The diverse ethnicities of the congregation is also appreciated.
A cheery look at Jewish holidays and the bounty of friendship and community, this book will be appreciated by people of all faiths. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Message of the Birds by Kate Westerlund, illustrated by Feridun Oral
The old owl tells the story of Christmas to a gather of birds. He tells the story of Jesus in the manger and the birds above in the rafters. The birds heard a song in the baby’s voice, a special song that they would carry through the world. The robin asked why the birds don’t sing that song anymore, and the partridge explained that people don’t listen. The little robin suggested that even if they don’t know the language anymore, their hearts could understand it. The birds talk about whether the message would be heard and understood, and then the robin realizes that children are the most likely to hear the message. So all of the birds sing the song, spread the message, particularly to children. And something amazing happens.
I’m never sure with any Christmas book what level of Christianity I’m going to find in them and then what type of message it is going to be communicating. When this book’s second set of pages had the manger scene, I thought I was in a very traditional Christmas book. What followed though, was a delightful surprise as the book immediately turned from the traditional Christmas tale to one that is universal, a story of peace. Westerlund tells the story with a pacing right out of folktales. Her wise older owl, the inventive young robin are characters that are traditional in the best sense of the word.
Oral’s illustrations have a soft beauty to them. Throughout his images of the birds, there is thick snow in the air. The colors are consistently subtle and wintry, tawny browns, creamy whites and deep browns are punctuated only with the colors of the birds and the green of the trees.
A lovely addition to Christmas stories, this book is beautifully written with rich illustrations. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore, illustrated by Christine Brallier
Following the classic Christmas tale, this version of the story is made special by the illustrations. Brallier has created fifteen stained glass illustrations for the book. They range from holiday mantles to close ups of the reindeer and of course Santa Claus. Santa does not wear a red hat here but instead has the robes of an English Santa Claus. It makes the feel all the more timeless and special.
Throughout, Brallier has small touches that are worth finding. I was entranced by her use of smaller mosaic pictures on the walls as art. She also includes decorations on blankets and tassels as well as snowflakes in the snow and stars in the sky. Though the art is done in such a hard medium, there is no feeling of the limitations put on the art by that. In fact, the depth of color and the texture of the mosaic glass add much to the book.
My only quibble would be that I’d love to have had an illustrator’s note at the end of the book about her process in creating the illustrations. I’d love to have a sense of their scale. Happily, details like this are available on the author’s blog.
A gorgeous new version of a Christmas classic, this one is worth sharing as a holiday treat. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from copy received from the illustrator.
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.
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.
Two Christmas books and one Hanukkah title are my first picks for holiday titles this year.
Duck & Goose: It’s Time for Christmas by Tad Hills
Another winner from Duck & Goose, this board book takes a quietly funny approach to the holidays. Duck is in a hurry to get somewhere, but Goose wants to linger a bit. Goose wants to catch snowflakes, slide down hills, build a snow fort, and much more. It isn’t until the very end of the book that readers learn where Duck was headed in such a hurry. The illustrations are clever and very inviting, especially to fans of other Duck and Goose books. The gentle humor and great friendship is exactly what we have come to expect from Hills. With its short text and board pages, this book will appeal most to children aged 1-3.
It’s Christmas David! by David Shannon
Around Christmas time, everyone always said, “No David!” whenever he tried to do anything! No peeking at presents, no stealing cookies, no playing with ornaments, no opening presents early. And then he also had to be patient in lines, be polite at the dinner table, and go to sleep on time. Of course, David does get into some funny trouble in the book with a reprise of one of the most popular scenes from an earlier David book that is sure to delight young readers. A grand and very funny look at the holidays that children are sure to relate to. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Hanukkah: a Counting Book by Emily Sper
This was a favorite picture book of mine a few years ago, and it is a real joy to see it released as a board book. The thick board pages work beautifully with the cut outs of the candles. Turning each page leads to another candle being added to the menorah. Each page features text in English, Yiddish and Hebrew. Children can count the candles and also another object related to the holiday. Young listeners will enjoy the bright colors and simplicity of the book. Appropriate for ages 1-3.
All books are reviewed from books received from the publishers.