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? « Read the rest of this entry »

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

December 6, 2016 Comments Off on Gift Guide 2016 (No. 2): For the Doll Lover

"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. « Read the rest of this entry »

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. « Read the rest of this entry »

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. « Read the rest of this entry »

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.”

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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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