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!
November 24, 2016 § 1 Comment
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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!
December 17, 2015 § 4 Comments
One 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.
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.)
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).
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.)
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!”)
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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December 31, 2014 § 7 Comments
Reading 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!
December 7, 2012 § 4 Comments
I 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!