A Christmas Love Story

December 11, 2017 § 4 Comments

I’m pressing pause on my Gift Guide to tell you about something you shouldn’t wait until the 25th to give. There has been a disappointing dry spell in stand-out Christmas picture books in the past few years. Every December, fresh from cutting down our tree, my children squeal with delight when they unpack old favorites tucked around ornament boxes—treasured stories like Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, Little Santa, Fletcher and the Snowflake Christmas, and Shall I Knit You a Hat?. New titles just haven’t brought the same magic.

I’m pleased to report that this year, according to our family, a new classic has been born. Matt Tavares’ Red and Lulu has everything we’re looking for in a Christmas book, beginning with a cover—two bright cardinals soaring through soft snow above the illuminated tree in Rockefeller Center—which is sheer gorgeousness. Is there anything more romantic than New York City in the snow at Christmastime?

Tavares is best known for his historic, often sports-themed picture books (Crossing Niagra and Growing Up Pedro are favorites), so this sentimental story of two cardinals is a bit of a departure for him. As such, it took him five years to perfect it. But do not be fooled: in the end, his careful narrative and visual choices pay off, including several wordless panels which allow us to especially appreciate his exquisite, evocative paintings. It turns out Tavares was in part inspired to write this story by an experience similar to something we’ve witnessed in our own family, outside our own front door.

Years ago, when we moved from downtown Chicago to our Washington DC suburb, we immediately noticed the birds—particularly, a pair of cardinals, who seemed to enjoy hanging around outside the front of our house. The bright red male—Buddy, as we called him—was always the first spotted. As soon as we saw him, our eyes would quickly scan nearby branches for the more brownish-toned female. “There’s Buddy’s mate!” one of my kids would call out. The feminist in me suggested, more than once, that “Buddy’s mate” deserved a name of her own. But perhaps it’s not by chance that no name ever stuck. That cardinals mate for life is what makes them unique in the animal world. Even my children seemed to sense that this love story, playing out daily on our front lawn, was something special.

Red and Lulu tells the story of two cardinals, who live in a “mighty evergreen” in the front lawn of a small suburban house. As the narrator tells us, the tree was the perfect place to call home: “Its shade kept them cool on hot summer days. And its evergreen needles kept them cozy when autumn wind howled.” The birds’ favorite time of year is Christmas, when the family strings the branches of the tree with lights, then invites neighbors to join them in singing “O Christmas tree.” “Red and Lulu loved listening to the people sing about their tree. Sometimes they even sang along.”

Red and Lulu tells the fictional story of two cardinals, but it also relates the real-life story of the Rockefeller Christmas tree, a beloved New York City tradition dating back to 1931. The Afterward explains how, each year, the head gardener at Rockefeller Center searches “far and wide” for the perfect tree. Because the chosen tree is almost always a Norway spruce, not native to the United States, it is usually found and removed from someone’s yard. (Happy tidbit for those sad to see these great trees taken down: after the Christmas season, the lumber from the Rockefeller tree is donated to Habitat for Humanity. More about this in the lovely picture book, The Carpenter’s Gift.)

One day, while Red is out gathering breakfast and Lulu is home in the nest, a crane pulls up to the house, and workmen cut down the tree. Red returns home in time to hear Lulu’s singing coming from inside the tree, as it barrels down the street on the back of an enormous flatbed.

For miles, over New Jersey highways and across the George Washington bridge onto the island of Manhattan, Red follows his tree, occasionally chirping to reassure Lulu that he is close by. Eventually, in the chaos and enormity of the city, he loses sight of the truck.

As Red searches the streets of Manhattan for his love, we see Tavares’ artistry at his best. He contrasts the brilliant saturation of Red’s feathers—the very color of life and love—with the grey concrete and stone buildings of the city. He contrasts Red’s size—vulnerable and dwarfed—with the larger-than-life city, including the stone lions outside The New York Public Library. By the time the bird flies over the nighttime crowds and neon lights of Times Square, our hearts are aching for him.

In the end, it’s Red and Lulu’s love, not just for each other but for Christmas, which writes their happy ending. Red is drawn towards the sound of crowds of people singing “O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree.”

Wait! He could hear the song they loved! Red flew toward the sound.
The voice grew louder and louder.
Then he turned the corner.

As he sees Lulu’s and his tree, magnificently illuminated at the front of the crowd under fat, falling snowflakes, he flies straight for “their favorite branch.” The lovebirds are reunited!

For the next weeks, until Christmas passes and the tree comes down, Red and Lulu remain in their nest in the tree. Then, instead of trying to find their way back to the suburban yard from whence they came, they make their home in Central Park, sharing new trees and birdbaths with the pigeons and other wildlife of the Big City. (One might say they’re city fowl now.)

This way, they’re not far away when the next Christmas comes, when the caroling again beckons them to the most beautiful of plazas, in the most spirited of traditions, with the brightest of trees.

Joy to the world.

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Review copies provided by Candlewick Press. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Gift Guide 2016 (No. 2): For the Doll Lover

December 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

"The Doll People" by Ann M. Martin & Laura GodwinOne of the joys that comes from sharing a special series with your child is that, over the months that it takes you to finish, you come to feel like these beloved fictional characters have in some meaningful way become your friends, are part of your collective consciousness. Not only that, but you start noticing ways in which these stories have altered the way you—or your child—sees the world.

Since this summer, Emily and I have been making our way through all four books of “The Doll People” chapter series (Ages 7-10, younger if reading aloud), by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin. Now that the fourth book is finally available in paperback (plus a new Christmas picture book to boot), I can’t think of a better bundle of books to gift the doll lover in your life. It’s that rare combination of old-fashioned charm and contemporary relevance. Furthermore, the books are so intricately and delightfully illustrated—the first three by Brian Selznick and the fourth (plus the Christmas special) by Brett Helquist—that they are almost too special not to own.

Based on the always popular premise of toys-that-come-to-life-when-no-one-is-looking, Martin and Godwin’s series, set in the present day, stars a family of antique porcelain dollhouse dolls, each hand painted in England over one hundred years ago, who currently resides in the bedroom of an American girl named Kate. In the hands of Kate (or, more dramatically, her rambunctious toddler sister, Nora), the dolls are kept busy enough; but the real draw of the stories are the daring, unpredictable, and at times even outlandish adventures that the dolls have when their humans are out of the house or asleep (not unlike this other favorite series).

"The Doll People" by Ann M. Martin & Laura Godwin

The majority of these edge-of-your-seat adventures are undertaken by Annabelle Doll, the eldest child of the porcelain family, in cahoots with a modern plastic bendy doll named Tiffany Funcraft, who midway through the first book comes to live in Nora’s room with the rest of her family in the (mass-produced) Dream House Model 110. At first glance, the two girls couldn’t be more different—and illustrator Brain Selznick does a fantastic job of juxtaposing Annabelle’s old-fashioned elegance with Tiffany’s blunt, oversized features—but, as we as readers quickly discover: in these books, things are rarely as they seem.

'The Doll People" by Ann M. Martin & Laura Godwin

Woven through every page is a richly imagined doll culture, at the heart of which likes “The Doll Code of Honor,” an oath taken by all “living dolls” to ensure that the human world will never learn of their lives beyond the last place their humans left them. Keeping quiet when you’re dying to relate something to your best friend (but your human is around); remembering to return to the exact spot you were left (before your human catches you absent); not doing anything about your green paint-smeared hair or the itchy sweater your human attempted to knit you (because you might raise suspicion): these are no easy tasks, though failing to heed them carries with it the dangerous consequence of so-called “Doll State” (or, even worse, “Permanent Doll State”), by which a living doll is immediately transformed into an ordinary, boring, non-living doll.

"The Doll People" by Ann M. Martin & Laura Godwin & Brian Selznick

“The thing I keep wondering, Mommy,” my daughter pronounced one night at bedtime about two weeks after we had started the series, “is whether my dolls come alive when I’m not around. I just can’t decide about this.” More than once, I’ve seen Emily slowly peering around the toy room door, as if hoping to catch her dolls in action. It’s funny: I can remember doing this same thing growing up, sneaking sideways looks at the row of stuffed animals that lined a wicker sofa in my bedroom, wondering if I could detect just the slightest movement.

You might wonder how such a premise could sustain originality for four long, meaty chapter books. But if you think Martin and Godwin wrote over 1,000 collective pages rehashing the same squabbles or near misses (there are only so many times you can narrowly avoid falling into the jaws of a pet cat, or wrestle yourself up a human-sized staircase in time to be back in your miniature bed by morning), you’d be wrong. While the first book, The Doll People, is largely concerned with Annabelle and Tiffany’s adventures at large in their humans’ house—specifically with their quest to find Annabelle’s Auntie Sarah, who mysteriously disappeared from the dollhouse back in 1955 and whom the girls suspect to be trapped in the spider-infested attic—the other books find innovative excuses to get the dolls out into the greater world, with the understanding that they must always return to their rightful home in the end.

"The Doll People" by Ann M. Martin & Laura Godwin & Brian Selznick

In The Meanest Doll in the World, the second (and darkest) in the series, Annabelle and Tiffany explore Kate’s backpack one night and inadvertently end up accompanying Kate to school the next morning. Because their curiosity always, always gets the better of them, they climb out of the backpack and discreetly explore Kate’s classroom during the day—and yet, when the time comes for them to climb back into the backpack, they mistake Kate’s for another and end up going home with the wrong girl. Even worse, the dolls in this new child’s bedroom are engaged in an ongoing turf battle to fend off Mean Mimi, a loud, aggressive, arguably deranged doll whose small size belies a dangerous threat to Dollkind. I won’t lie: Mean Mimi will send a few shivers up and down your child’s spine, at the same time potentially unleashing some productive conversations about bullying in your house, before the story comes to a most satisfying end.

"The Meanest Doll in the World" by Ann M. Martin & Laura Godwin & Brian Selznick

In The Runaway Dolls, my daughter’s personal favorite of the bunch, Annabelle convinces Tiffany to run away from their families, an idea which sounds better in theory (doesn’t it always?). When the girls regret their decision and try to wind their way home through the suburban boulevards, they—along with their brothers, who end up coming after them—end up lost inside a dark stretch of forest. When they again reach civilization, they must spend several days with an eccentric cast of toys in a department store—adventures that include a tense run-in with a Doll Hospital—before ultimately finding their way home again.

"The Runaway Dolls" by Ann M. Martin & Laura Godwin & Brian Selznick

In The Doll People Set Sail, the two doll families find themselves in the greatest pickle to date. (Even I had trouble figuring out how they were going to get themselves out of this one.) When Nora and Kate are asked to pack up their bedrooms for a home renovation project, they mistakenly put the box holding both sets of dolls in the donation pile, rather than with the boxes to be stored in the attic. Before the dolls know it, they are aboard a speeding transatlantic cargo ship bound for the UK. If that wasn’t bad enough, a hole in the box proves to be the demise of three family members, who tumble out during the loading process—and whose whereabouts on the ship (assuming they haven’t fallen overboard!) remains unknown. Annabelle and Tiffany must organize a reconnaissance and rescue mission, but even if they can recover their doll family members, how will they get back to the States and home to their beloved humans? (Three cheers for a series about girls and dolls that frequently defies stereotypes of passivity: there is no sitting around waiting for something to happen in these pages!)

"The Doll People Set Sail" by Ann M. Martin & Laura Godwin & Brett Helquist

While adventure and drama abound in these stories, the greatest pleasure in sharing this series with a child comes from witnessing Annabelle’s emotional growth. Annabelle is keenly aware of the limits of her physical being: she is, by definition, fragile. In contrast to Tiffany’s Flexi-Bendy (trademarked) body, Annabelle cannot afford to take the careless physical risks that come so easily to her friend. And yet, Annabelle begins to understand that our appearances need not define our character. Time and time again, Annabelle surprises herself by being the bravest of the brunch: her curiosity about the world (including a fondness for natural science—spiders won’t stop her!), her love of reading, her cleverness, and her fierce loyalty to her family and friends transform her into the kind of quiet but persuasive leader that I would be proud to admire someday in my own daughter.

"The Runaway Dolls" by Ann M. Martin & Laura Godwin & Brian Selznick

Annabelle also learns more than a thing or two about friendship (this is, after all, the Ann M. Martin of The Babysitters Club that we’re talking about). She and Tiffany may strike up an unlikely friendship, but the ups and downs that their friendship takes is anything but unlikely. Learning to listen to one another, to allow for compromise, to quarrel and make up, and to help a friend recognize her best qualities: all of this is in these stories in spades, and I would venture to say that we could all benefit from such thoughtful and thorough musings on friendship.

"The Doll People Set Sail" by Ann M. Martin & Laura Godwin & Brett Helquist

The more time we spend with these dolls, the more we see them as living, breathing characters—people who share the same hopes and worries, confidences and insecurities as we do. There’s little in these wild adventures that can be tossed up to luck: every success is won through a combination of determination, resourcefulness, teamwork, and love. We invite these characters into our hearts and hope that they leave a little piece of themselves there.

On a walk recently, Emily stopped in front of a tree with an especially large knot hole. “Yup,” she said, “that’s what I thought.” She explained that this was the secret gathering place for a few of her stuffed animals during the day, while she was off at school. “Oh yeah? What do they do there?” I asked.

“Oh, you know, plan skydiving trips. Have parties. Use really stinky bathrooms.”

After all, life is a lot more exciting when you start imagining what might be happening under your very eyes.

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Books published by Disney Hyperion. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

A Fresh Take on a Holiday Tradition

November 24, 2016 § 1 Comment

After last week’s "The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipatsomber posts, I am shifting tones to herald one of the most spellbinding picture books of the year, inspired by one of our family’s favorite holiday traditions.

I confess I never liked The Nutcracker much as a kid. I thought the Mouse King was creepy, I thought the dancing was long, and I thought the Sugar Plum Fairy’s castle consistently under-delivered on such a lofty name. Either I was a cranky kid, or I wasn’t seeing the right performances (or reading the right books ahead of time).

Then I became a parent and two things happened. First, beloved British illustrator Alison Jay came out with arguably the sweetest, cheeriest, and loveliest picture book adaptation of The Nutcracker—one that the kids and I have looked forward to unpacking with our Christmas decorations and savoring afresh every year.

Secondly, my husband and I started taking our kids to the Washington Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker at the Warner Theater in DC, a deliciously accessible performance for young children, where twinkling lights and perfect tutus send shivers of excitement down our dressed-up spines (and whose creative liberties involving a Mouse King cast in a Revolutionary War battle scene ensures my son is every bit as enchanted as his sister).

Now that we are Nutcracker enthusiasts—and now that Tchaikovsky’s music officially marks for us the start of the holiday season—I decided that this year we were ready to explore the darker, more mysterious intonations of the ballet.

And, just like that, the Thailand-born British illustrator Niroot Puttapipat launched the most breathtaking children’s edition of The Nutcracker that I have ever seen. Inspired by the sets from Marius Petipa’s original production in Saint Petersburg on December 18, 1892, the sophisticated adaptation not only hearkens back to the origins of the story, but it nudges at our dreamy subconscious in the same way that, say, Grimm fairy tales do. Puttapipat’s book isn’t scary, but it has an element of mystery and magic that feels just the tiniest bit unsettling—and leaves us wanting more.

If Alison Jay’s book is sugary and sweet and makes us want to twirl across the living room, Puttapipat’s keeps us squarely transfixed on the page. My kids and I cannot stop looking at this book. Some of you may already know Puttapipat’s unique artistic style from his previous Jingle Bells and The Night Before Christmas (clearly, I’m late to jump on this bandwagon).

In The Nutcracker, delicate black silhouetted figures—almost haunting in their absence of detail and expression—are set against sumptuous swaths of color. Expanses of black set pieces are juxtaposed with meticulous fine-point detailing, like the embroidery on the Nutcracker Prince’s coat or the ornaments on the Christmas tree.

"The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipat

Think of these like the landscapes of our dreams, where certain things take shape but others are shrouded in darkness.

It’s not just the unexpectedness of these visuals that entices; it’s also the emotion that radiates from every page. There’s no expression on young Clara’s face, yet we feel her heartbreak as she crouches beside her broken nutcracker.

"The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipat

We feel Clara’s worry as she watches the battle between the come-to-life nutcracker and the evil Mouse King (before she chucks her slipper at him to end things once and for all).

"The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipat

The text, which runs along sidebars on each spread, is adapted by Kate Davies and closely based on the original texts by E.T.A. Hoffman and Alexandre Dumas. Yet, rather than feeling stiff or outdated, it too soars with drama and lyricism, aiding and embedding Clara’s magical journey alongside the Nutcracker Prince to the Land of Sweets.

They traveled by swan over gold-flecked oceans and silver-edged cities. Clara held her breath, her eyes wide. As she gazed at the twinkling lights far below, snowflakes pirouetted past. The prince caught one and gave it to Clara. “Try it,” he said.

Clara let the snowflake dissolve on her tongue. “Mmm. Rosebuds and raspberries!” she said.

“Mine is peppermint and honey,” said her prince. “Every snowflake tastes unique.”

"The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipat

The Land of Sweets does not disappoint. While the text describes lemonade flowing from fountains and lollipops growing in flower beds, Puttapipat’s magical picture (it might be my favorite) delivers us a castle whose dark spires stand bold against a shimmering night sky; a moss-draped walking bridge that’s fit for starry romance; and a Sugar Plum Fairy whose wings look like they have been cast in sugary ice. It is enough to make Believers out of the most hardened of us.

"The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipat

Oh, but there’s more. As Clara and the Prince prepare to enter the castle, the page turns to reveal a pop-up spread of cut-paper art that might be one of the most magnificent things I’ve ever seen in a children’s book.  This is a castle that delivers: a castle at once light and dark, at once festive and mysterious. The silhouetted figures that flank the scene are nods to the different styles of international dance that follow in the actual ballet.

"The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipat

What happens inside the castle is largely left to the imagination (until we go to the ballet, that is). The book—somewhat abruptly—concludes on the next page, with Clara waking up back home with the wooden nutcracker in her arms. “What a wonderful dream, she thought. But she could still taste lime and mint…”

And then something happens that is not in the Alison Jay version and which elicited an audible shudder from my daughter (“Ooooh, Mommy, that’s so mysterious!”). I’ll let your children discover that surprise on their own.

Traditions have the best chance of standing the test of time if fresh life can occasionally be breathed into them. Niroot Puttapipat reminds us that our family has only scratched the surface of enjoying this 125-year-old ballet.

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Review copy provided by Candlewick Press. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Finding the Christmas Spirit (in a 1952 Classic)

December 17, 2015 § 4 Comments

"Nancy and Plum," by Betty MacDonaldOne of my favorite memories of last December (read my post here) was reading Winterfrost to my children. Amidst the hustle and bustle and never-ending to-dos of the holiday season, the three of us set aside time each night to savor the enchanting story of a child kidnapped by a nisse (Danish “house gnome”) on Christmas night and the sister who goes off to rescue her.

This December, I wanted to re-create that holiday magic with my children. I wanted something that called us away from the overt materialism of the holiday season, that tapped into feelings of love and togetherness, of gratitude for what we have and generosity of spirit.

I took a stab in the dark and grabbed Betty MacDonald’s 1952 novel, Nancy and Plum (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), off the shelf at the library.

Holy holiday wonderfulness. A BETTER BOOK I COULD NOT HAVE CHOSEN.

Nancy and Plum is not a Christmas story per se, but it begins and ends with the soft snowfall of Christmas Eve. Flanked by two Christmases, the story traverses a year in the life of an eleven and eight year old girl: two poor, orphaned sisters, who reside at a bleak boarding house in the English countryside, under the care of the cruel and calculating Mrs. Monday. Believing themselves worthy of more, the sisters pour every ounce of energy into trying to reverse their fate.

"Nancy and Plum" by Betty MacDonald

As some of you have undoubtedly already recognized, Betty MacDonald is the same author behind the popular Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series, about a Mary Poppins-type figure, who lives in an Upside Down House and provides parents with remedies (part magical, part common sense) for their children’s mis-behaviors. My children went nuts over these books, dying laughing as we listened to them in the car last summer. (For those who missed my recent Facebook announcement, a NEW Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series is in the works for next fall, written by MacDonald’s great-granddaugher in conjunction with award-winning author Ann M. Martin, and with interior art by the illustrious Ben Hatke. OMG YES!)

Nancy and Plum feels more akin to oldies like All-of-a-Kind Family than it does to Mrs. Piggle Wiggle. After all, there is no magic. There are no silly, absurd antics or gross exaggerations. And yet, the same inherent respect for the childhood experience runs through all of these works. The quiet, understated, lyrical narrative of Nancy and Plum tugs at our heartstrings. It has us cursing the injustice of children not getting the care and respect they deserve. It celebrates the power of imagination to find hope and joy in everyday blessings. Above all, it reminds us what it means to love and be loved.

When we meet the sisters in the book’s opening chapter, they are locked outside the boarding house and forced to spend a cold, snowy Christmas Eve alongside the animals in the barn. We quickly discover that the girls’ greatest assets are their feisty, unbreakable spirits. They find humor and adventure in each of their woes. When all else fails, they use their imagination to tell each other splendid, richly detailed stories about the family they wish they had, the meals they wish they were eating, the velvet and silk and dolls and toys they wish they owned. (Lest you think these themes are too girly for your boys, I assure you that my son listened to descriptions about doll clothing with rapt attention—and was later rewarded with plenty of physical comedy, like when Plum tries to recruit a chicken to serve as a courier for a letter she wants to mail. A good reminder not to choose read-aloud books along gender lines.)

"Nancy and Plum" by Betty MacDonald

The girls find intermittent escape from the toils of the boarding house on schooldays, under the benevolent tutelage of Miss Waverly and the warm local librarian, Miss Appleby. Books, too, play an important role in feeding the girls’ spirit (especially Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (referred to by its old title, Sara Crewe), which my children have requested to read next).

"Nancy and Plum" by Betty MacDonald

In the end, however, neither Nancy’s beautiful singing voice nor Plum’s exceptional spelling skills, neither the occasional Sunday School picnic nor the girls’ hilarious fantasies to get even with Mrs. Monday’s horrid tattletale niece—are enough to rise above the menial labor and verbal abuse that they face on a daily basis under Mrs. Monday. In the hopes of tracking down an uncle whom they believe might help them, the sisters escape through an open window one night and run away. (Incidentally, Mary Grand Pre, illustrator of the Harry Potter books, did these fabulous black and white illustrations for the 2010 reprint of this book.)

"Nancy and Plum" by Betty MacDonald

The sisters’ happy ending—indeed, one of the most joy-filled, feel-good endings I’ve ever encountered (there was great clapping and cheering in our house when I closed the book)—comes, not from their uncle, but from the hospitality of a childless farmer and his wife, who find the girls sleeping in their haystack and are immediately smitten with them. At last, we get to watch the sisters be on the receiving end of kind words and gentle touches, of homemade chicken pot pies and velvety party dresses. Of their very first Christmas tree. Right alongside our heroines, our own hearts literally swell to the point of bursting. (Or, as my son kept exclaiming, “The food in this book is making me so hungry!”)

"Nancy and Plum" by Betty MacDonald

For every blessing that Nancy and Plum receive from the loving Campbells, material or not, they display only the sincerest awe and gratitude, a message I hope my children picked up on (!). Not only that, but the girls pay the generosity forward, making sure that those left behind at the boarding house will receive special things on their wish lists, as well as a promise for better treatment in the future.

MacDonald’s writing is as romantic as it is transcendent. At the story’s close—when the snow turns low bushes into “big fat cupcakes” and the “runners of the sleigh hissed” with Nancy and Plum tucked between the Campbells on their way to their holiday pageant—my kids and I couldn’t help but feel a little nostalgic for a time we never knew. Still, we have been touched by Nancy and Plum’s beautiful and true spirit. I’m hopeful that we will carry some of this in our hearts in the week ahead, remembering that if we have love, we have everything.

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The Book That Saved December

December 31, 2014 § 7 Comments

"Winterfrost" by Michelle HoutsReading to our children can sometimes be the best way to slow down and live in the moment; to see the world through the wonder of young eyes and to have our own faith restored. Never has this been truer for me than in the past month. This December, reading threw me a lifeline. And boy, did I need it.

What is normally a time of sweet anticipation (cutting down our Christmas tree! driving the kids around to look at decorations! shopping for the perfect wrapping paper!), felt this year like an insurmountable list of to dos. The word drudgery came to mind on more than a few occasions. With my husband traveling for much of the month, I was exhausted. With every step, it felt like my legs were at risk of crumpling, of reducing me to a cast-aside pile of expired Christmas lights. The rain didn’t help (because who enjoys tromping around a Christmas tree farm in the pouring rain?). No matter how many times I scaled back my expectations (the teachers will get store-bought gifts this year!), I never felt the burden lighten.

I don’t have to tell you what our stress level does to our ability to parent with patience. As my daughter erupted into yet another round of crocodile-tear hysterics (over, at one point, a hypothetical snowball fight with her brother), I began to have fantasies of walking into the neighbor’s mass of giant inflatable Santas and Frostys and never coming out.

And then, one afternoon, I was talking to a friend. She was lamenting her frustration at not knowing what to do with her son while his little sister took a 45-minute dance class. Lately, the son had been unleashing a litany of complaints about having to be dragged along. The mom enlightened me: he has already had a snack, his homework is done, he’s exhausted, and all the toys in the waiting area of the studio are for younger kids.

“What if you brought along a book for you to read to him?” I offered. “You could pick a chapter book—or an anthology of stories—and that could become the special thing you share with him each week while his sister is in class.” I then added, only half-jokingly, “It’s my personal parenting mantra that few problems cannot be solved with a great children’s book.”

And then it hit me. I could solve my December problems with a great children’s book. We had only gotten through half the Christmas books brought down from our attic, normally one of our favorite traditions. Even still, I could feel my seven year old beginning to age out of these holiday picture books. Or maybe I was projecting my own boredom. I needed something fresh. Something juicy. Something that would lift the kids and me out of our holiday funk.

And then I came across a list of Christmas-themed chapter books, from the blog “What Do We Do all Day?” I went straight to the library and came home with the newly-published Winterfrost, by Michelle Houts (Ages 9-12; younger if reading aloud).

This book is pure deliciousness.

Let me start by saying that Winterfrost is much more of a winter story than a Christmas one (so, no, you haven’t missed the window in which to read it). It just happens to open on Christmas Eve—and actually, given the surprising turn of events, no Christmas celebration follows. Which means that if you don’t celebrate Christmas, you and your children won’t feel at all out of place here. It’s a timeless story—one I could easily imagine taking out year after year—and its innocent, transcendent handling makes it appropriate for a wide variety of ages.

The story takes place on a remote farm in Denmark, where twelve-year-old Bettina has been left to care for her almost one-year-old sister, while their parents are called away for a few days on an emergency. Practical, level-headed Bettina feels more than confident in her ability to balance the farm chores with keeping her sister’s nap schedule intact. And then, one morning, Bettina awakens to find the world shimmering and twinkling and quiet under the spell of a rare winterfrost. Soon after, her not-yet-walking baby sister disappears.

Bettina’s grandfather used to tell her that “the most mysterious events occur during winterfrost.” He also encouraged her to believe in what her eyes can’t always see—specifically, in the tiny gnome-like characters known in Danish legends as nisse. These benevolent, mischief-loving creatures secretly watch over a human family all year long, requiring only that a bowl of rice pudding be left out for them on Christmas Eve. (Do I need to tell you that, in the unusual circumstances of this particular Christmas, the bowl of pudding is overlooked by Bettina and her family? Not good. Not good at all.)

As Bettina embarks on a quest through the strange and enchanting nisse world, in order to negotiate the safe return of her sister before her parents discover what has happened, the story offers something for everyone. Have a daughter who is fairy-obsessed? She’ll love the miniature, three-hundred-year-old gnomes, with their tall red hats and their elaborate tree houses with acorn-sized furniture. Have a son who is hankering for suspense? Nearly every one of the 36 short chapters will leave him on the edge of his seat (or, in my son’s case, with the covers over his head, exclaiming, “Keep going! Don’t stop! It’s so intense!”). In a winterfrost, nothing is as it seems, and Bettina must unravel the complicated relationship between the nisse world and the human world.

Throughout Winterfrost, perspectives shift, determination is fierce, new friendships are forged, sibling love prevails—and all of this is cloaked in the wonderment of the natural world. Houts’ lyrical prose soars; it gives chills; it makes you want to snuggle your children close. Like any great book, it holds you tightly in the moment.

This book was such a hit with both of my children that, on several December evenings, I moved up dinner to give us an extra hour of reading time before bed. I got no complaints. The kids and I could not have been more excited to throw on our PJs, brush our teeth, and curl up to immerse ourselves in a magical wintery world. These were the best hours of my December. They grounded me; they returned me to myself; they made me temporarily forget the to dos and then remember why the to dos existed in the first place. Because the world is magical for those who believe. And for those who take the time to pay attention.

“It is the seer, after all, who must slow down enough to take note of the world around her.”


All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

What Was Santa Like as a Kid? (& My Favorite Christmas Books of 2013)

December 4, 2013 § 4 Comments

"An Otis Christmas" by Loren LongWith every holiday season, there is a kind of magic in rediscovering old friends, old traditions, old stories. I have only to see the ecstasy on my children’s faces as we unpack our box of Christmas books each December to remember why I go through the trouble of packing them away in January, as opposed to stuffing them into our already stuffed bookshelves. As a parent, it’s magical for me as well: last night my eldest left us at the dinner table, voluntarily bathed himself, got into his PJs, brushed his teeth, and called downstairs, “I’m ready 20 minutes early so I can get some extra Christmas stories!” No wonder they call it the most wonderful time of the year.

Just because we only read them for one month a year doesn’t mean I can resist the temptation to add to our collection every single year (there are worse addictions, I’ve assured my husband). Last year was Alison Jay’s exquisite Christmastime, where clues of Christmas carols are embedded into a seek-and-find masterpiece. Previous years’ favorites are mentioned here and here. This year’s acquisitions include two new picture books, utterly different in style, but forever entwined in my mind, since my kids and I had the pleasure of meeting both author/illustrators at Hooray for Books (our fabulous independent bookstore) a few weeks ago.

I have twice now (here and here) sung the praises of Loren Long’s books about Otis, the kind tractor who bravely saves the day time and time again on his farm. An Otis Christmas (Ages 3-7) is every bit as endearing as its predecessors, although it has unique bragging rights to a shiny red horn, a newborn foal, and just the subtlest visual parallel to the manger of the First Christmas.

Little SantaThen there’s Jon Agee’s Little Santa (Ages 3-7), which in contrast to the sweeping drama of Otis, paints a quirky story of Santa’s early days as a red onesie-sporting toddler—and the sequence of events involving a sleigh, a flying reindeer, and an elf partnership, which led to him becoming the Santa Claus we know today. In Agee’s characteristically droll humor, we are introduced to Santa’s parents and siblings (who are bent on trading in their life on the North Pole for the sunny beaches of Florida), as well as Santa’s early penchant for sliding down chimneys (where other children might, say, slide down a slide). In a word, awesome.

I’ll admit that, as many times as I’ve attended author events in my professional life, I have never thought to drag my kids along (because “dragging” is exactly what I thought it would feel like to take them down to a bookstore at suppertime on a school night while my husband was out of town). Well, I am here to tell you that you must start doing this, especially with your elementary children. Many of these author/illustrators don’t simply read their books aloud to the audience: they actually draw them right before kids’ eyes. My six year old knows that an author is someone who writes the words to a story, that an illustrator draws the pictures, and that some people do both; but to most kids (and I’m sure to many adults), the entire book-making process feels largely intimidating, inaccessible. These glossy, perfectly colorized illustrations, handsomely bound between hard covers with evenly spaced text around them, feel like something reserved for “real artists” (“I’ll never be a real artist!” I used to cry to my parents every time I couldn’t make my drawings look “perfect”).

So here we are at this event with Loren Long and Jon Agee, and my tentative, watchful JP, initially taking a seat in the last row, begins slowly, over the course of the evening, to make his way further and further towards the front, until he is sitting dead smack in front of the easel, on which Jon Agee is seemingly effortlessly and haphazardly sketching with a Sharpie the scenes and characters of his story as he voices aloud the narrative. When Agee doesn’t like something, he simply crosses it out. Or he draws on top of it. Sometimes all he draws is a single line (to indicate how high the snow was); sometimes he draws five or six scenes on the same page. No fuss, no special tools. Just sheet after sheet of flimsy newsprint and a blue (sometimes red) marker. Emily was amused simply to hear the stories. But for JP, watching these author/illustrators create before his eyes was positively Mind Blowing. And don’t think he didn’t come home and go straight for his markers.

Jon Agee madly sketching from "Little Santa" (wow, was he fast) with Loren Long making sound effects in the background. Such fun!

Jon Agee madly sketching from “Little Santa” (wow, was he fast) with Loren Long making sound effects in the background. Such fun!

Jon Agee gave us an additional gift that day. You see, as excited as I was for the publication of Little Santa, I also knew that, as a parent who gets easily tripped up in discussing the topic of Santa Claus, I would have to confront the inevitable question: “How does that guy know that this is what really happened when Santa was a kid?” Sure enough, a child asked this very question, and Agee’s reply was absolutely perfect: “I actually don’t know for sure. Before I wrote the book, I did a lot of research. I went out and talked to lots of people, many of them kids, and I asked each of them what Santa might have been like as a kid. And a lot of people said some pretty similar things, like that he must have always lived in the North Pole and liked to slide down chimneys. But, at the end of the day, this is just one story. One version of what might have happened. My version.” Christmas, after all, is as much a time for storytelling as it is a time for believing. At the end of the day, the stories we tell make the real magic.

Another 2013 Christmas Favorite
(and one I would buy if I didn’t already own a billion versions of this poem—one has to draw the line somewhere):
The Night Before Christmas, by Clement C. Moore, illus. Holly Hobbie

My Favorite Christmas Books

December 7, 2012 § 4 Comments

ChristmastimeI was recently approached by the wonderful local parenting blog Del Ray Baby about doing a guest post on children’s books. After considering a bunch of thematic possibilities, I kept coming back to one: Christmas books!  When I worked at my old store, the boxes and boxes of holiday books that I’d ordered would start arriving as early as October. We had to wait until at least Thanksgiving to put them out, so we’d sit at our desks in the stockroom with towers of Christmas titles all around us. Those were wonderful weeks for me, filled with anticipation at ushering in another holiday season and the chance to get these magic-filled treasures into people’s hands. Yes, I have a weakness for Christmas books. Read all about my favorites here, and I’m betting you’ll love them as much as I do. And a heartfelt thanks to Del Ray Baby for the opportunity to share my musings with a new audience!

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