Tag Archives: children's books

Ten Favorite Christmas Books

This year we’ve had piles and piles of Christmas books out from the library.  All year the Christmas books stay hidden in the basement and they’re always the first thing to come out.  This list probably reflects more about our favorites in the moment than all time, but that’s okay.  In no particular order, a few of our Christmas favorites:

The Twenty Four Days Before Christmas by Madeline L’Engle
I wrote about this book before.  In some ways, I think it is the most perfect Advent story for children ever written.  Depending on the edition you get, it’s either an extremely long picture book or a very short chapter book.

Great Joy by Kate DiCamillio
Kate DiCamillio is one of the most magical writers to emerge in the last decade.  This longish picture book captures something about the spirit of charity at Christmas in such a gentle, touching way.  The illustrations are also enchanting.  They’re traditional, but manage not to seem old fashioned.

Cranberry Christmas by Wende and Harry Devlin
We somehow weren’t able to get Cranberry Thanksgiving during its rightful season, but I did snag this one from the library and we’ve read it several times over.  It’s a completely secular tale, for anyone looking for such a book, but still manages to get the spirit of giving and family.  I love how the Cranberryport books have humor and story both captured perfectly.

The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
This classic hardly needs a description.  We’re not a Santa family, which is to say that while we all love to play the game of Santa, the kids know it’s just a fun pretend exercise.  Therefore, this book’s message about faith and belief in regards to Santa always makes me a little uncomfortable.  However, Van Allsburg’s illustrations and the general beauty and imagination of the story help make up for any misgivings I might have.

Christmas Tree on the Mountain by Carol Fenner
This mostly unknown book from the 1960’s is written in melodic blank verse and was published in a tall, narrow format, which highlights that it’s a poetic little story.  Three children climb a mountain by their house to find the perfect Christmas tree and encounter a few adventures along the way.  The pen and ink illustrations are nothing special, but the language, with many repeated phrases and beautiful turns of phrase is worth the time.  I was glad to discover it.

Morris’s Disappearing Bag by Rosemary Wells
I love this short picture book that shows the bunny cousins of the more famous Max and Ruby.  Morris has a disappointing Christmas until he manages to reimagine his gift.  As a side note, Rosemary Wells really gets what it’s like to be the ignored child, doesn’t she?  If BalletBoy makes the husband read him this one again I think he’s likely to lose it.  I told BalletBoy he could read it himself easily now, but apparently it’s not the same.

When Santa Fell to Earth by Cornelia Funke
I read this one last year to the kids and I think we did it a little too soon because they didn’t appreciate how awesome it is.  It’s a funny little chapter book tale that imagines a world full of Santas as just another piece in the fantasy landscape.  Cornelia Funke, as always, uses great imaginative language.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson
We read this one to the kids for the first time this year.  The Herdmans are such terrible children that I think Mushroom and BalletBoy could hardly conceive of them.  However, that final chapter, where the Herdmans bring a sense of realness to the Christmas story is one of the most touching and hilarious things in children’s literature.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
Yep.  It’s on my list of favorites too.

Dream Snow by Eric Carle
Like many of Carle’s simple stories, my kids sort of outgrew this one this year so I wasn’t terribly upset when I couldn’t find it at the library this year, but I still mark it as one of my favorites, especially for younger kids.  The illustrations are Carle’s style at his best.

Childhood Rhymes

If you’re interested in children’s literature and children’s culture, then I hope you know the work of the Opies.  Their seminal work is The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren. Peter and Iona Opie attacked the subject of schoolyard chants like anthropologists studying a mysterious tribe.  They interviewed children as well as digging through old literature and references in order to follow jump rope songs and common taunting rhymes among British youngsters over literally centuries of change.  Iona Opie also gathered fairy tales and nursery rhymes.  One of her best known collections is I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild’s Pocket Book.  It was illustrated by Maurice Sendak and is still widely available.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I found a number of amusing treasures among my mother-in-law’s diverse collection of children’s books.  One was the book Favorite Rhymes from a Rocket in my Pocket compiled by Carl Withers.  This book was a thin paperback that was similar to I Saw Esau but with a much more contemporary American flavor.  It was published in the 1970’s, so as a child of the 70’s, I felt very at home with most of the rhymes it contained.  As I read through them, I found I knew the vast majority of them.

Forgive the image quality. I only had my phone with me over Thanksgiving to capture this.

One of the things I wonder about is how, in this age of media, schoolyard chants and teases get conveyed.  I think they still must exist.  Are they more likely to come from television shows?  Do they begin as internet memes?  Do parents just teach them to kids?  I also wonder how much of their existence depends on having the sort of large community that comes with school.  Do homeschooled kids know these sorts of rhymes or pass them along?

Fables Ruined Me for Other Fairy Tale Retellings

Do you know the graphic novels series Fables by Bill Willingham?  It’s not for kids.  It’s a grown-up (or older teen) graphic novels series about characters from fairy tales who have fled their homelands and taken up residence in New York.  If you’re the sort of person who can appreciate graphic novels and can appreciate a premise like that, then they’re excellent.  In the near decade they’ve been coming out, the stories have run the gamut from funny to snarky to dark to emotionally touching and even thought-provoking.  In fact, they’re so excellent that they’ve ruined me for reading all these other modern takes on fairy tales.  Every time I try one, all I can think is, “Fables already did that and they did it better.”

Seriously, I’ve now seen two different middle grades series with similar themes to the grown-up Fables and not been able to appreciate them because Fables just did it better.  Usually, I find that children’s books tackle subjects in ways that I often find more interesting or at least as interesting as adult books.  But apparently not this time.  First, The Sisters Grimm series by Michael Buckley.  I read Fairy Tale Detectives and I tried to read The Unusual Suspects, but honestly, I just kept thinking about how they’d stolen Fables‘s idea.  The premise of this series is that there are refuges from the fairy tale world who are living in, honestly, I think it’s upstate New York.  If you’ve read Fables, they’re not allowed to leave their town, making it oddly reminiscent of the Farm.  Like in Fables, Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk same is the same Jack from all the tales and is a rapscallion who isn’t to be trusted.  The Big Bad Wolf has reformed and acts as the local legal enforcement.  It’s a funny series and reasonably well-written with lots of action and plenty of appeal.  I wanted to like it, but alas.  The trappings were just so similar.  I spent half the time wondering if Buckley had actually read Fables and thought, gee, what a great idea if you could make it for kids!

Now, I’ve just finished reading Shannon and Dean Hale’s Calamity Jack.  This is part of a graphic novel series from Shannon Hale, who has written several more traditional YA fantasy novels with fairy tale themes.  However, this fairy tale retelling, which begins with Rapunzel’s Revenge, has a very steampunk, early American feel to it.  Again, I can’t help but be reminded of Fables.  The character of Jack, while nowhere near as heartless or womanizing as in Fables, is still thrown into a similar setting as his spinoff comic series and is still the same brand of rogue.  It’s fine.  The art is pretty good.  The attitude is fun.  I would even recommend it to kids looking for graphic novels.  Yet, I just couldn’t enjoy it.  The husband, when he saw it on the side table, actually asked if it was somehow connected with Fables.

Now in the last year, I’ve also seen two Brothers Grimm themed quirky fairy tale books come out: The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman and A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz.  It must be in the ether.  Both look interesting.  Both have gotten decent reviews.  Yet, I’m afraid to read them.  What if Fables really has ruined me for modern takes on the fairy tales?