A look at some holiday books for children
Four jewels help to make the season bright
SANTA’S NEW JET
By David Biedrzycki
Charlesbridge, 32 pp.
Ages 4 and older, $16.95
David Biedrzycki’s “Santa’s New Jet’’ puts a new turbo spin on Santa and his reindeer, without ever losing the essential sweetness of the original. Told in the first person by Mr. Claus himself we learn that the old “sleigh needed work - a lot of work.’’ As for the reindeer, “They were out of shape . . . really out of shape.’’ It takes Orville the elf to design the new Super Santa Sleigh 3000 Jet - in cherry red, with a convertible top, and all kinds of fancy gadgets.
Santa is in for more than he’d bargained - a jet that flies too fast, makes too much noise, and spills toys everywhere. Meanwhile, the reindeer are back home at the North Pole working out on the Prance-o-Matic and getting ready to save Christmas. Biedrzycki inserts touches of humor into every image: overweight reindeer eating cotton candy; Santa sending out a Ho Ho Help! S.O.S. His palette is Christmas-bright but with soft touches of sky blue, puffy white snow, pale greens, and golds. It’s not easy to take an old chestnut and make it new, but that’s exactly what happens here. The result is a sweet and funny holiday lark.
THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER
By Barbara Robinson
Illustrated by Laura Cornell
Harper, 40 pp.
Ages 4 and older, $16.99
“The Best Christmas Pageant Ever’’ by Barbara Robinson has been for almost 40 years quite possibly the best children’s Christmas novel ever, and now it’s here in a condensed, picture-book form, just as lovable as one remembers. The comic genius of Robinson’s original story - a Christmas pageant that goes so wrong somehow it all comes out better than right - is aided and abetted by Laura Cornell’s distinctive wild and expressive cartoony style. She makes the six little roughnecks of the story - and their crazy one-eyed cat - irresistibly touching as they draw moustaches in the Bible, boss everyone around, and give new meaning to the old Christmas story of a family with no place to go. “Hey! Unto you a child is born! He’s in the barn!’’ Like all great comedy, this one has the crucial touch of pathos, as Imogene Herdman, the terror of the school, plays Mary “with her veil all crooked, and Ralph, with his hair sticking out, as if they had slept in their clothes, out in the barn. Just like in the real story.’’
“The Best Christmas Pageant Ever’’ makes a surprisingly sharp and funny, complete work of art as a picture book.
I WILL COME BACK FOR YOU:
A Family in Hiding During World War II
By Marisabina Russo
Random House, 40 pp.
Ages 5 and older, $17.99
I’ve only ever fully fallen in love with one Hanukkah book, which is Eric Kimmel’s “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins.’’ But Hanukkah, I’ve always been taught, is a story of defiance and survival in the face of persecution. That, to me, makes “I Will Come Back For You: A Family in Hiding During World War II’’ by Marisabina Russo an apt and touching choice for the holiday. It begins with Nonna’s charm bracelet, the “one bracelet she always wears’’ - with a donkey, a piano, a bicycle, a piglet, a spinning wheel, and a boat for charms. Each of these figures plays a part in the story of how one Italian Jewish family escaped into the mountains, with the help of brave and clever neighbors; a concoction of cigar leaves and hot water; a plate of spaghetti and two bottles of wine; a bicycle; a basket; a donkey; and some baby piglets.
Russo’s artwork stays deliberately simple, in a folk naïf style, to highlight the drama of this story. It is, as she tells in an afterword, “based on a story I often heard as a little girl. It is all true - the detainment; the visits; and the cigar drink, bicycle escape, and piglets.’’ I can’t think of a better book to share with children, or one that better highlights the essential meaning of Hanukkah.
THE CARPENTER’S GIFT: A Christmas Tale about the Rockefeller Center Tree
By David Rubel
Illustrated by Jim LaMarche
Random House, 40 pp.
Ages 5 and older, $17.99
“The Carpenter’s Gift: A Christmas Tale about the Rockefeller Center Tree’’ may be my favorite holiday book this year. Perhaps that’s because it follows Emily Dickinson’s dictum to “tell all the truth/ but tell it slant.’’ The angle here is through the lens of the Great Depression, when on Christmas Eve in 1931 young Henry and his unemployed father spend a long hard day selling Christmas trees in the middle of New York City. At the end of the day, they give away their few last trees to nearby construction workers, and one of those trees becomes the first of a series of Rockefeller Center Christmas trees. One kindness leads to another, and on Christmas morning those same workers have a wonderful surprise in store for Henry and his family.
Children’s historian David Rubel, working in collaboration with Habitat for Humanity, puts this tender and moving story in a context modern readers can appreciate - the importance of kindness in hard times, and the idea that neighbor can always help neighbor. Jim LaMarche, one of my favorite illustrators, contributes lush soft illustrations that cast a dreamy timeless glow over the scenes, each one growing in brightness till the last image of the famous Rockefeller Center tree blazes with golden lights. As with Russo’s book, “The Carpenter’s Gift’’ beautifully melds fiction and history. An afterword offers more background material on the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, and the ongoing work of Habitat for Humanity International.