Amidst all the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, it’s very easy to for the days to fly by lickety-split. But, in the run-up to Christmas, as jolly as the parties and the festivities often are, it’s often the quiet moments that tend to be savored and enjoyed the most. That first weekend morning when it snows and you make pancakes (or poached eggs!) with bacon and sausage on the side, the crackle of the first fire, the ritual and excitement of opening the advent calendar, or that day when you build a snow fort and then, red-cheeked and nippy-nosed, come inside for a hot bath and a cup of cocoa (or glögg!). Pride of place among these homey delights, has to be curling up on the sofa or tucking into bed with a good book. And, if you have wee ones in the house, even better.
Books tend to make for wonderful gifts - they can be reread countless times, passed on to younger siblings and, in time, to the next generation. As we kick off the Christmas season, I thought I’d do a little round-up of some of the children’s books that I have read and enjoyed over the years - either as a child myself, or as an adult, reading to youngsters. Hopefully it includes one or two books you have not yet discovered, books that will help you and yours perpetuate the magic of Christmas in book form too:
- The Polar Express - If there is such a thing as an instant classic, this book had to have been one. Published in 1985, it won a Caldecott medal in 1986 and in the years afterwards, sales numbers continued to climb. It has been made into a feature film and has inspired themed train rides all over the country. Sometimes hype like that can be a case of the Emperor’s new clothes, but in this case, nothing could be further from the truth. This truly is one heck of a Christmas tale. What child wouldn’t want to get on a marvelously special train headed to the North Pole and visit with Santa? And, I wonder what percentage of adults are able to finish reading this with a dry eye? It’s hard to match its ability to evoke the childhood wonder of Christmas time. At the risk of overdoing it with a silly pun, all I can say is, I highly recommend jumping aboard this train if you haven’t already! Recommended for 4 years old and up.
Red Ranger Came Calling - This book was given to me as an adult but was no less enjoyed because of that. I read it one sitting and, I warn you now, it’s a tearjerker. It had such a wonderful ending and, like The Polar Express, really speaks to the magic of Christmas. The young protagonist in this, “guaranteed true Christmas story,” is author-illustrator Berkeley Breathed’s father, a nine-year old boy called “Red” - not, as one might think, because of his red hair, but due to his admiration for movie hero Buck Tweed, the Red Ranger of Mars. The story takes place at Christmastime, but it’s 1939 and there’s no money to spare. Red is staying with his Aunt Vy for the holidays on Vashon Island and all he wants for Christmas is a Tweed bicycle. I will tell you no more of the story than that, as I do not wish to spoil the surprise. As well, I simply could not do it justice as Breathed’s spectacular illustrations immeasurably add to the richness of this tale. Final note: there is a picture for every page spread, but there is a bit more text than with some picture books, so this is perhaps best suited for 4 or 5 year olds - and, of course, anyone older than that!
Miracle on 34th Street - I still remember the day I received this book. I sat down at the kitchen table and was so transported by Valentine Davies’ tale that I’m pretty sure I read it from cover to cover in one sitting - perhaps with a brief break for dinner. It’s a truly exceptional story of Christmas magic restored and is suitable for slightly older children, perhaps from ages 7 or 8 and up - who are already independent readers. The copy of the book that I was given had lovely illustrations by Tomie dePaola and if you can secure this edition, I highly recommend it. There are a couple of film adaptations of Davies’ story - I have seen the 1947 version starring Maureen O’Hara and Natalie Wood - it is very enjoyable but, as is so often the case, the original book just cannot be beat! Side note: for pasta loving little ones, Mr. dePaola has also written and illustrated a book called Stregna Nona which is about a magical pasta pot and is geared to a younger audience than Miracle on 34th Street. It’s not Christmas related but is worth checking out.
The Snowy Day - Ok, I admit it. This isn’t technically a Christmas book, but it’s definitely a winter book and a delightful one at that, celebrating the thrills of a snowy day. Moreover, it’s one that has stood the test of time. Ezra Jack Keats won a Caldecott medal in 1963 for this story. It is a board book geared towards pre-K audiences and the bold colors, memorable pictures, and entirely relatable experience of enjoying a day in the snow make for a wonderful read. Side note: this story and its illustrations are so iconic that the United States Postal Service just issued stamps using the illustrations from this book.
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey - In the village where he lives, Jonathan Toomey is known as Mr. Gloomy. For good reason - the master woodworker lost both his wife and daughter to illness some years before and has effectively withdrawn from society. This picture book tells the story of how he begins to reconnect again and how joy, bit by bit, starts to make its way back into his life. The narrative is centered around the carving of a wooden crèche and is certainly a Christmas story - but one that has year-round relevance. Rich illustrations by P.J. Lynch serve the narrative well. Indeed, Mr. Lynch exhibits a marvelous ability to capture different kinds of light - from daylight, to candlelight, to firelight, creating a lovely, intimate atmosphere for this tale. Final note: the narrative is a little longer than some other picture books and, as such, is perhaps geared towards the attention spans of children 6 years old and up.
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas - If I had to pick my absolute favorite Christmas story, this might be it. Partly because it is closely associated with my own childhood, yes, but mainly because it is such a beautiful poem. It’s not terribly long and so perfectly captures the delight, the magic and joy of Christmas as children tend to experience it. There are many editions of Clement Clarke Moore’s classic on the market, but my go-to is the edition illustrated by Tasha Tudor. Ms. Tudor remarkably captures the “visions of sugar plums” that “danced in [the children’s] heads.” As for Santa, he is perfectly depicted as a “right jolly old elf,” and, last but not least, a shout out for the way she managed to incorporate into her illustrations the line, “not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse,” by depicting an alternative mouse life happening beneath the floorboards. Reading this poem has become a wonderful family tradition and I highly recommend it for all ages.
The Story of Holly & Ivy - As children’s stories often are, this is the story of an orphan. In this case, a young girl named Ivy. She has a decidedly independent streak and is in desperate need of love and care. Holly is also looking for love, but she is a doll in a toy shop window. Throw in a policeman, his wife, and a shop assistant and you’ve got yourself a heartwarming Christmas story. This tale is a fair bit heavier on text than some other picture books, so I recommend this for an audience that’s not too, too young - perhaps ages 5 and up. That said, for the right age (especially those who might be hoping Santa brings a doll), this is a grand tale of happy Christmas coincidences!
The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree - Gloria Houston’s Christmas tale was originally published in 1988, but I read it for the first time only recently. It is an extremely welcome addition to my family’s roster of holiday stories, with an exceptional storyline and gorgeous illustrations by Barbara Cooney. One doesn’t usually associate archival research with picture books, but Ms. Houston has done her homework and it shows. The book is set in Appalachia and, although it is the author’s home turf, because the narrative is set a century ago, during World War I, she found it necessary to consult various archives and individuals to make sure she captured the lingo and culture of the times. This due diligence, combined with a truly heartwarming story, make for a real Christmas delight. It is at first a story of father and daughter - then, a story of mother and daughter and their combined strength in overcoming adversity. It ends though as a story of the whole family and manages to capture so much of what we tend to be thankful for on Christmas Day. I believe few will regret giving this book to a little one (or two!) - best suited, I think, for ages 4 and up.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas! - Dr. Seuss was such a master of his craft that one could easily argue that each and every one of his books is a children’s classic. Certainly, this book, I imagine, would brook no argument on that front. The Grinch is much like Ebenezer Scrooge in his abhorrence of Christmas, his disgust for the trappings of the season and the spirits of comity, caring and charity that accompany it. However, whereas Scrooge behaved begrudgingly, the Grinch takes things even further, determined to proactively spoil Christmas by stealing the gifts and decorations belonging to the Whos of Who-ville. But, at its core, Christmas isn’t about material things and, as the Grinch comes to realize this, he experiences a change of heart. This book is a delight for all ages thanks to Seuss’ signature illustrations and his catchy rhymes. Perhaps it is especially suitable though for those children too young yet for Dickens’ classic, introducing similar ideas in a rather jolly, child-accessible way!
- A Christmas Carol - A list of books for Christmas would not be complete without Charles Dickens’ classic tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, his redemption and the restoration of joy to his life. Young children might not yet have the patience for a non-picture book story, in which case Dr. Seuss’s tale of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! might be an excellent introduction to similar concepts - or, I hazard to guess that Mickey’s Christmas Carol, the Disney cartoon version with Mickey Mouse playing the role of Bob Cratchit, would bring much delight. For older children though and for teens, this story is perfect fare for fireside reading and I recommend sourcing the print version - made eminently affordable thanks to the Dover Press. For family gatherings and community events, it’s worth keeping in mind that Dickens also published a condensed version of the tale. It was the version he used for his own (many) readings of the story and was printed several times in the 19th century. Needless to say, originals of those editions can come a bit dear. Fortunately, though, since the copyright has expired, there are services based in India that are selling reprinted copies, both in ebook and print format, for less than $10 a piece and, what’s more, shipping is included for the printed copy. I cannot personally speak for the ebook version, but I ordered a printed copy from S N Books World in Delhi and am very pleased with the results. Final note though: if you opt for the condensed version and go the reprint route, do allow plenty of time for the packet to wend its way to you from India to avoid Christmas disappointment. I placed my order on October 21 and received the booklet on November 8.
What are your favorite Christmas stories for young audiences? Please do jump in and share them in the comment section. I am always on the lookout for solid new additions to the bookshelf and, I imagine, fellow readers of this post may well be too!
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