Sunday, December 14, 2008

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things...

...or rather, a few of my favorite books. Specifically, Christmas books. Even more specifically, children's Christmas books. I'd like to tell you all about this short list of my faves, and the great thing is: you don't have to be a kid to appreciate them.

Let's start with The Christmas Ship, by Dean Morrissey. The absolutely lovely paintings that illustrate this book will pull you in first: beautiful colors, emotions depicted so clearly you can feel them yourself, and technique so realistic you would swear they were photographs. Start reading the story, and you'll fall the rest of the way under the spell of this story of Sam, the village toy maker who learns on Christmas Eve that his shop is being closed down by the mayor. But when Sam is visited that night by his close personal friend, Father Christmas, he soon finds this will be no ordinary Christmas Eve. A beautiful story of the power of the Chrismas spirit.

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, by Susan Wojciechowski, is a picture book that no one should be without. P.J. Lynch illustrates with deft use of light, shadow, and emotion. The author doles out this touching tale little by little, keeping the reader drawn in right to the very last word. Mr. Jonathan Toomey is a woodcarver, about whom the village people know little. He "seldom smiled and never laughed." One day, in December, the widow McDowell and her son Thomas, new in town, show up at his door and ask him to carve them a new nativity set, as theirs - a special set carved by the widow's grandfather - was lost during their move. Mr. Toomey gruffly agrees, then shuts the door. The next week, Thomas' mother expresses his wish to stay and watch Mr. Toomey work. He grudgingly agrees once again. As Thomas and his mother visit each week, the reader finds out more and more about the guarded Mr. Toomey. And slowly, surely, a relationship grows. It is touching, and sweet, and heartbreaking, and joyful. Keep the tissues handy.

Even if you've seen the movie, treat yourself to a copy of The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg. A man tells the story of many years ago, of the boyhood Christmas Eve when he lay in bed contemplating what a friend had told him - that there was no Santa. But he believed his friend was wrong. While he lay there late that night, listening for sleigh bells, what he hears instead is "hissing steam and squeaking metal. I looked through my window and saw a train standing perfectly still in front of my house." He runs outside, and the conductor tells him the train is destined for the North Pole. The boy takes the conductor's hand and is pulled aboard. What follows is a magical adventure, full of thick and rich hot cocoa, traveling through woods and over mountains and across "a barren desert of ice," and finally, finally - to the North Pole, and to Santa himself. What happens when he meets The Big Man? What happens on the way home? And what does he find under his tree upon his return home? A fantastic story of a little bit of magic, and the power of believing.

For all us believers, Santa Claus, written by Rod Green and illustrated by Jon Lucas and Carol Wright, is the ultimate guide to the magic of Santa and the North Pole. This book is full of big, fold-out pages, lift-the-flaps, mini-booklets, even a recipe for "Mrs. Claus's Christmas Cookies." Readers will be privy to life at the North Pole and a sampling of its secrets: Santa's House, what life is like for the elves, the workings of Santa's mail room, a peek at Santa's workshop, a glimpse into Mrs. Claus's kitchen, an explanation for how those reindeer fly, some tidbits about Santa's magic snowsuit, specs and special features on Santa's sleigh, a few deets about his Christmas Eve journey, and even info on Santa sightings. Even more is in store for the curious reader than I have room to list here. The kiddos will be entranced. 

Santa Calls, by William Joyce, is the story of Art Atchinson Aimsworth, his little sister Esther, Art's friend Spaulding Littlefeets, and their Christmas of 1908. One day, they find a huge box outside their prairie labratory, marked with a large S.C. and bearing a note: "Open the box. Assemble the contents. Come NORTH. Yours, S.C." What follows is a fantastic adventure as they find themselves traveling to the North Pole, battling through the Dark Elves and their villainous Queen, then meeting Santa Claus himself. But Art wonders why everyone is so happy to see them. Mrs. Claus gives a cryptic response: "Some secrets are better left unsolved, young man." Soon after, Esther is captured by the Dark Queen. Who will save her? And why did Santa call for them? All is revealed at the end, with a surprising and sweet twist. Definitely a book not to be missed.

Red Ranger Came Calling, by Berkeley Breathed, is based upon a story told to the author by his father every Christmas Eve of his childhood. It is Christmas, 1939, and all the nine-year-old Red wanted in this world was an Official Buck Tweed Two-Speed Crime-Stopper Star-Hopper bicycle. Being the Great Depression, that wish was surely destined not to be fulfilled. Then one day, after mooning over the bike in town, Red headed home. He stopped at the lighthouse of old Saunder Clos - rumored to be none other than Santa Claus himself. And then a small man hurried up the path, pausing to stop and raise his hat to the boy, revealing...pointy ears! Well, that wasn't going to sway this nine-year old skeptic. So, later that night he pays a visit to old Saunder Clos, intending to prove the man a fake. However, his journey takes a turn he hadn't anticipated. Sweet, witty, and bitingly funny, this is a story with an unexpected twist at the end that will cause even the most die-hard skeptic to rethink their position...

Last, but not least, we have The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, written by Barbara Robinson, illustrated by Judith Gwyn Brown. Take a gander at this opening paragraph, and you get a perfect feel for the book: "The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker's old broken-down toolhouse."

The tale is told by Imogene's classmate, as she imparts story after hilarious story of the things the Herdmans get into. When the narrator's brother Charlie gets frustrated with Leroy Herdman stealing his dessert from his lunch, Charlie fibs that he doesn't care because in Sunday School they get all kinds of tasty treats. So the Herdmans - all six of them - show up in church the next Sunday. And then, they muscle their way into getting all of the important parts of the Christmas pageant. Suddenly, this pageant - which is exactly the same year after year - is turned upside down. Riots of laugh-out loud situations are dutifully reported by the narrator, all from her own point of view. As the Herdmans bull their way through pageant practices, they demand to hear the Christmas story -which they've never heard before - start to finish. Their own (loudly proclaimed) take on it raises more than a few eyebrows and prompts several outraged phone calls. Then, when Imogene reacts in an absolutely unexpected way on the night of the performance, it's not the unexpected way everyone expected. And they all came away feeling that this year's Christmas pageant was different somehow...

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And there you are. Seven of my favorite Christmas kid's books. Some are funny. Some are sweet. Many are funny and sweet and sad and laugh-out-loud funny. But they are all books that pull you into the magic and the wonder that is Christmas. I hope you find them and read them. And I hope they touch you as they have touched me.

If you have any Christmas favorites of your own, I'd love to hear what they are. Drop me a comment or email, and tell me all about them!