Children's Books about Winter and Fall/Winter Holidays.

A Notes from the Windowsill annotated bibliography by Wendy E. Betts. Copyright 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008

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Last Updated 12/14/08

Picture Books

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The Jolly Christmas Postman written and illustrated by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Little, Brown, 1986; 1991 (0-316-12715-9) $17.95

Offering some peeks beyond "happily ever after," the enchanting "Jolly Postman" books let readers enjoy the mail exchanged by various fairy tale characters, as delivered by the Jolly Postman. This book is even more elaborate than the first in the series, with fairy-tale residents receiving fancy christmas cards and presents of a small jigsaw puzzle and a tiny book within a book (which, as the text points out, is also within a book!) The sprightly illustrations are filled with wonderful detail and just about everything is worth looking at closely, including the stamps and postmarks on the envelopes. * (4 & up)

Jesus' Christmas Party written and illustrated by Nicholas Allan. Doubleday, 1991; 1997 (0-385-32521-5) $7.95

Written with a surprising, delightful touch of irreverence, this book succeeds in being both an amusing story and a loving depiction of the Nativity. It's told from the point of view of a grumpy innkeeper who is having a very bad night: first he's disturbed by people wanting lodging, next a bright light wakes him up ("That's all I need," he grumbles), and finally a chorus of heavenly voices sends him out to the stable in a rage. But when he sees the baby that was born that night, he rushes to wake up everyone else in the inn, so that they can see the beautiful baby too. And what with all the singing and rejoicing, "no one got much sleep that night."

This book will be most enjoyed by readers who already know the basic story and can appreciate the humorous perspective. Unsophisticated but very expressive sketches add a lot to the fun, as in the picture of the three wise men, whose crowns are knocked right off their heads by the force of the innkeeper's cry, "AROUND THE BACK!" * (4-8)

Merry Christmas, Merry Crow by Kathi Appelt. Illustrated by Jon Goodell. Harcourt, 2005 (0-15-202651-7) $16.00

A crow darts through busy, snowy streets, picking up trash: "Colored glass/a bottle cap/Fancy gold and silver wrap." Nothing is too useless for the busy crow: "Candy wrappers/Red and brown/A treasure lost, a treasure found." But why? To decorate a glorious Christmas tree, for birds and humans to enjoy. "A magic sight/All hearts aglow/Merry Christmas, merry crow." Soft blues and white dominate the semi-realistic paintings, giving a lovely effect of perpetual twilight, while the verse conveys a feeling of busy mystery that adds to the delighted surprise of the end. (3-7)

Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree by Robert Barry. 1963; Doubleday, 2000 (0-385-32721-8) $15.95

One huge tree provides Christmas trees for a dozen human and animal families in this cheerful rhyming story, now reprinted with all full-color illustrations.

I've Seen Santa! by David Bedford. Illustrated by Tim Warnes. Tiger Tales, 2006 (9781589254114) $15.95; 2008 (9781589254114) $6.95 pb

I really got a chuckle out of this story, though I have no idea whether or not little kids will grasp the subtext. Little Bear is very curious about Santa and decides to try and see him--but what he thinks is Santa turns out to be Big Bear drinking Santa's milk! ("I only wanted a sip," says Big Bear.) Next he catches Big Bear eating Santa's blueberry pies ("I was hungry,") and then spies Mommy Bear putting presents in their stockings. ("I was giving you both a present from me," she explains.) Finally the whole bear family lies down in the living room planning to all see Santa together. Since they all fall asleep, they never do get to see Santa--but Santa sees them!

Illustrated in relaxing browns and greens, with friendly, cozy looking bears, this is the sort of warm, family-oriented story that appeals to younger children--but it might also be enjoyed by older kids who are starting to have a few doubts about the reality of Santa, and will appreciate the surprise of the twist at the end. (3 & up)

Footprints in the Snow by Cynthia Benjamin. Illustrated by Jaqueline Rogers. 1994; Cartwheel, 2003 (0-590-46663-1) $3.99 pb

As winter snow falls and winter wind blows, all kinds of animals hop, run, stomp or swim to their cozy homes, in snow-covered woodland scenes that are naturalistically dreamy. This very easy beginners book also makes a pleasant, short read-aloud. (3-7)

Christmas in the Manger by Nola Buck. Illustrated by Felicia Bond. 1994; HarperFestival, 1998 (0-694-01227-0) $6.95

This unpretentious little book offers a gentle introduction to the nativity story. Simple rhymes give voice to the players of the story, from the star that shines in the east and lights the stable for man and beast, to the baby asleep in the hay, who is the reason for Christmas day. The accompanying illustrations are just as straightforward, almost like coloring book pictures perfectly colored—yet still, a sense of mystery and joy shines through. (3-6)

Harvey Slumfenburger's Christmas Present written and illustrated by John Burningham. Candlewick, 1993 (1-56402-246-3) $15.95

After a long evening delivering presents, Santa Claus is dismayed to discover one present still in his sack, a present for a boy named Harvey Slumfenburger, who lives far away at the top of the Roly Poly Mountain. With his reindeer asleep (and one of them not feeling well) Santa starts off on foot, knowing that Harvey will get no present unless he delivers it. First hitching a ride with a plane, then with a jeep, then with a boy on a motorbike, then with a girl on skis, and finally with a rock climber, Santa pushes on until he at last puts the present in Harvey's stocking, getting home just as the sun begins to rise on Christmas morning.

The inspired premise of this exciting, yet comforting Christmas story overcomes the rather stilted writing. The illustrations of the weary but steadfast Santa are sweet and amusing, especially a quick montage of his trip home, via such conveyances as hot air balloon, donkey, roller-skates and freight-train. (3-8)

Mouse Christmas written and illustrated by Michelle Cartlidge. Dutton, 1996 (0-525-45684-8) $4.99

This companion to Mouse Birthday is another little book about a mouse family, illustrated with delicate but cozy watercolors. As with most of Cartlidge's books, the charm is in the tiny details, like the miniature angel mice which decorate each page. Each page also features something to do or open, like an envelope which holds a tiny Christmas card, or a stocking stuffed with a removable paper teddy bear. The commonplace text hardly makes this a rival for the "Jolly Postman" books, but readers with a love for miniatures (and a fair amount of dexterity) will find it captivating. (3 & up)

Biscuit's Hanukkah by Alyssa Satin Capucilli. Illustrated by Pat Schories. HarperFestival, 2005 (0-06-009469-9) $4.99 board

Biscuit the puppy learns a little bit about celebrating Hanukkah as he helps his little girl make a Menorah for her friends. Then they visit their friends and enjoy watching the candles burn. This is a slight but pleasant story that could be a good gateway for talking about sharing different holiday celebrations. The brightly colored pictures of Biscuit getting into paint and ribbons are amusing, and the final illustration of the children and their dogs gazing at the burning candles genuinely captures some holiday spirit. (2-5)

Where is Christmas, Jesse Bear? by Nancy White Carlstrom. Illustrated by Bruce Degen. Simon & Schuster, 2000 (0-689-81962-5) $15.00; 2003 (0-689-86233-4) $6.99 pb

None of the Jesse Bear series quite lives up to the effortless lyric joy found in Jesse Bear, What Will You Wear?, but this one comes pretty close. Again using a question-answer format, the text asks, "Where is Christmas, Jesse Bear?" and reponds by describing how Jesse Bear sees, touches, smells, hears, knows and feels Christmas around him. The illustrations are full of cute touches suitable for an all-Bear world (like bear angels on Jesse's candle chimes), and the overall mood is one of celebration and peaceful warmth. (2-6)

This is the Stable by Cynthia Cotten. Illustrated by Delana Bettoli. Henry Holt, 2006 (0-8050-7556-9) $16.95

"These are the angels, a glorious throng,
who sang to the shepherds a wonderful song:
'Be not afraid--go to Bethlehem town,
to the quiet stable, dusty and brown.'

These are the wise men, travelers three,
who knew of an ancient prophecy.
They followed the star whose light shone down
on the quiet stable, dusty and brown"
A mellow, lyrical rhyming text that captures the ear with gentle repetitions makes this an excellent nativity for a young child. The story begins and ends with the quiet stable, where the baby boy, "who cooed and cried and looked around with eyes so wide" is tended by cooing doves, the three wise men (meticulously drawn as African, Asian and Middle-Eastern,) and his adoring parents. Watercolor and acrylic paintings use warm and bright colors to bring vivid beauty to simple scenes of shepherds watching their sheep and the mother tenderly holding her child. A lovely book. (2-5)

Don't Need Friends by Carolyn Crimi. Illustrated by Lynn Munsinger. Doubleday, 1999 (0-385-32643-2) $15.95

This isn't precisely a Christmas story, but it has a melancholy, sentimental quality—and a redemptive ending—that make it seem very appropriate for the holidays. Rat lives in a junkyard with his best friend Possum, until one day Possum has to move; the sad and lonely rat decides he's better off alone. "Don't need friends, don't need 'em at all," he grumbles, rejecting any animal that tries to be neighborly. When an equally grouchy dog moves into the junkyard, he and Rat quickly establish their mutual dislike, regularly reminding each other, "don't even think of coming over here!" But when the bitter winter sets in, Rat can't help but notice that Dog is too sick to look for food. And when he finds "the greatest treasure he could have imagined"—a foot-long salami sandwich—he realizes that it's really big enough for two. "Don't need friends, don't need 'em at all," grumbles Rat, but you don't have to be friends to share a sandwich...

Crimi's tart dialogue and Munsinger's expressive watercolors vividly establish the forlorn setting and characters of this story; so vividly in fact, that readers may be really troubled by it, despite the many comical scenes and happy ending. It could be a good opening to talk to children about others who have to make their homes where they can find them. (4-8)

An Early American Christmas written and illustrated by Tomie de Paola. Holiday House, 1987 (0-8234-0617-2) $14.95

This historical story describes how Christmas was celebrated by a family of German settlers in Pennsylvania, with some unfamiliar customs as well as some that survive today. De Paola attractively illustrates the holiday activities: making candles, baking cookies, putting up a manger scene. Adults may be a little perturbed by the ending of the book, in which all the other families in the town, who previously had not celebrated Christmas, gradually begin doing so; I would feel obligated to point out to a child audience that there's nothing wrong with not celebrating Christmas. (4-8)

Alligator Arrived with Apples: a Potluck Alphabet Feast by Crescent Dragonwagon. illustrated by Jose Aruego & Ariane Dewey. 1987; Aladdin, 1992 (978-0-6897-1613-3) $6.99 pb

"A feast for you/a feast for me/A feast that goes from A to Z!" To celebrate Thanksgiving, Pig and Pig II have set the table for an entire alphabet of animal guests, all of whom bring goodies for the vegetarian feast. (Turkey is a guest, rather than the main course.)

Starting with some rather labored verse--"A feast for us/and several guests/A feasting full Thanksgiving fest!"--this book thankfully moves quickly to an alliterative alphabet section, from Alligator Arriving with Apples and Allspice, to Zebra Zipping over with a Zaftig Zucchini. Each animal comes in a different vehicle: Cat looks especially cool swooping in on a hang glider, while Orangutan's broken leg has him in a wheelchair. And after each arrival, Pig and Pig II and the other guests have fun cavorting with the newcomers, sliding down Elephant's trunk and enjoying the juggling of a Jackal from Jerusalem.

There are some textual oddities here that will annoy readers who like strong consistency. A few of the animal aren't named, so you have to check the name cards on the set table at the beginning of the book to identify "Numbat" and "Quetzal." There's no animal (or food) for "X," which isn't too surprising, but also none for "R," which is inexplicable. The very bright and animated illustrations make up for a lot, however, filled with lively scenes to explore. Aruego and Dewey use their usual brightly glowing watercolors, but put the complicated action scenes against simple backdrops, giving a light, airy look that suits the snappy text. (2-6)

Grandma's Latkes by Malka Drucker. Illustrated by Eve Chwast. Harcourt Brace, 1992 (0-15-200468-8) $13.95; Voyager, 1996 (0-15-201388-1) $6.00 pb

The traditional story of the history of Hanukkah gets new life in this simple, enjoyable retelling. As Molly helps her grandmother make the Hanukkah latkes, Grandma explains how the holiday came to be, telling her granddaughter that the burning of the oils was a miracle, "just like the Maccabees beating Antiochus, and just like you, Molly. You're my miracle." The warm atmosphere and conversational style of the narrative help keep the story interesting, while the striking painted woodcuts manage to work equally well in illustrating the ancient and modern sections of the text. (4-8)

This is the Star by Joyce Dunbar. Illustrated by Gary Blythe. Harcourt Brace, 1996 (0-15-200851-9) $16.00; Voyager, 1998 (0-15-201910-3) $6.00 pb

"The House that Jack Built" seems like an odd choice as the basis for a Nativity retelling, but this lyrical text manages to make the familiar format sound wondrous and magical. As the text tells the story of "the manger warm with hay/wherein a newborn baby lay," lush, realistic paintings show the the baby and wise men, the shepherds, and a magnificent vision of the angel, "shining bright." A miniature inset at the end of each page of text strikingly recalls the previous illustration. (4 & up)

The Three Bears' Christmas by Kathy Duval. Illustrated by Paul Meisel. Holiday House, 2005 (0-8234-1871-5) $16.95

Children familiar with the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears will enjoy this retelling, in which the bears find someone has eaten their gingerbread, sat in their chairs... and left presents under their Christmas tree. The text and pictures are sprinkled with little hints of what the bears can expect to find when they come home from their evening walk, inviting reader participation. (3-6)

The First Day of Winter written and illustrated by Denise Fleming. Henry Holt, 2005 (0-8050-7384-1) $15.95

Set, sort of, to the rhythm of "the twelve Days of Christmas," this story describes ten days of winter from the unusual vantage point of a snowman who is being adorned. On the first day, his "best friend" gives him "a red cap with a gold snap." As the snowman gets more and more decorated, birds and animals are attracted by its bright colors and bounty: five birdseed pockets! By the tenth day, the snowman is indeed a thing of wonder... and with ten salty peanuts for its toes, it can even walk away and find a new friend! (I must confess, I find this ending a touch creepy.) Fleming's collage illustrations glow with color and gently implied texture, but the awkward goofiness of the snowman and his boy friend contrast somewhat oddly with the quieter, naturalistic look of the winter animals. (3-8)

Wombat Divine by Mem Fox. Illustrated by Kerry Argent. Harcourt Brace, 1996 (0-15-201416-0) $15.00

An appealing mixture of sweetness and humor, this is the story of a wombat—shown here as a round, lumbering, bear-like creature—who longs to act in a Nativity play. Unfortunately, Wombat seems to be too big or heavy or clumsy for every role he tries. Just when it seems that his dream is crushed, his friend Bilby thinks of the perfect role for him: the most important role of all. Drawn with minimal "humanizing" elements, Argent's friendly-looking animals have expressive faces and soft, cuddly bodies, a likeable introduction to many Australian animals that are probably unfamiliar to American children. The Nativity scenes of the animals gazing soulfully at Wombat, who is peacefully sleeping in the hay, "just as a real baby would," are especially charming. (4-8)

Santa Claus the World's Number One Toy Expert written and illustrated by Marla Frazee. Harcourt, 2005 (0-13-204970-3) $16.00

Frazee's distinctive style, which manages to seem simultaneously light and uncluttered yet brimming with action, works wonderfully in this story about how Santa works furiously to find just the right toys for each child. Scenes of Santa busily trying out each toy, moving boxes around in his warehouse. and selecting wrapping paper from the world's most humongous wrap dispensers are filled with humor and charm, as are the scenes of children trying out their wonderful new toys, which are just right... almost all the time. At the end, with his work all finished, Santa goes home to unwrap the special gift he picked out for himself, which is "almost always just exactly what he wanted." A very appealing book for Santa fans. (3-7)

Waiting for Christmas by Monica Greenfield. Illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist. Scholastic, 1996 (0-590-52700-2) $15.95

A simple poem about the anticipation of waiting for Christmas provides inspiration for warm, gently glowing paintings of a loving family celebration. Each line of the poem is accompanied by a a large, two-page illustration that depicts an ideal (secular) Christmas, with shimmering snow falling past every window. This lovely book is practically a blueprint for creating happy images of Christmas for a young child. (3-6)

The First Night by B. G. Hennessy. Illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. Viking, 1993 (0-670-83026-7); Puffin, 1996 (0-14-054178-0) $4.99 pb

An elegantly simple introduction to the Nativity, this lovely book sets aside most of the details of the story to paint an evocative portrait of a newborn baby, "seeing this world for the first time." Told in short, concrete sentences, the text nonetheless conveys the beauty, warmth and wonder of the story of Jesus's birth. The luminous illustrations, acrylics painted on wood, are filled with tenderness; weathered edges emphasize an atmosphere of long ago and far away. (2-6)

Winter Lights written and illustrated by Anna Grossnickle Hines. Greenwillow, 2005 (978-0-06-00817-8) $16.99

Glowing, twinkling, flaming... the "lights" in this gorgeous book almost seem alive. Brilliantly crafted quilts use shapes and sharp contrasts to turn plain cloth into stars, fire and moonlight. The illustrations are paired with short, evocative poems about all aspects of Winter: the excitement of festive celebrations, the frustration of too-short days, the quiet beauty of shadows on snow. Teachers will like Winter Lights for its inclusion of many diverse Winter holidays and customs, and for its use of several different poetic forms; almost everyone will love its beauty and marvel at its craftsmanship. * (3 & up)

Light the Candles by Joan Holub, Illustrated by Lynne Cravath. Puffin, 2000 (0-14-056757-7) $6.99 pb

This "lift-the-flap" book has a flap for each night of Hanukkah, showing children opening the door to relatives with presents, getting a gimmel while playing with a dreidel, and messily enjoying the chocolate inside their golden coins. Young children will likely enjoy the simple, rather dull rhymes more than the adults reading to them, but there are some nice depictions of family life. A particularly fun visual touch is the many different menorahs the family lights, from a child's menorah or friendly cats to a stylish row of Maccabees. (2-4)

Chita's Christmas tree by Elizabeth Firtgerald Howard. Illustrated by Floyd Cooper. Bradbury, 1989 (0-02-744621-2)

Based on the childhood of the author's cousin, this book offers a glimpse of African-American history: the real "Chita" was the daughter of one of Baltimore's first black doctors. But race isn't an issue in this story, an affectionate look at an Edwardian family's Christmas celebration, which includes baking cookies with Mama, eating creamed oysters and Smithfield ham with the whole family on Christmas Eve, and most importantly, picking out a tree for Santa to bring on Christmas morning. Chita worries that Santa won't bring the right one, although papa assures her that he will find it, because papa carved her name on it. And sure enough, on Christmas morning there is the tree, "its top touching the ceiling, twinkling, sparkling," and CHITA is carved into the trunk. Cooper's muted illustrations have a bit of a one-dimensional look to them, almost like cut-out photographs. For a special treat, see the charming photo of the original Chita on the back of the hardcover. (5-8)

In Wintertime written and illustrated by Kim Howard. Lothrop, 1994 (0-688-11379-6)

A little girl's grandmother tells a story of winter long ago, when she was a little girl in Scandinavia. Appealing details and serenely colorful illustrations help bring a different world to life. A glossary at the beginning is helpful for understanding the foreign words and phrases used. (4-8)

Latkes, Latkes, Good to Eat by Naomi Howland. Clarion, 1999 (0-395-89903-6)

Sadie and her four brothers live outside a tiny village in Russia, in a house so draft, "the wind whistled through it like a train going to Moscow." It looks like Chanukah will be cold and hungry this year, especially when Sadie gives all the wood she had gathered to an old woman. But her generousity is rewarded with a magical gift, a frying pan that fries latkes out of nothing! Each night of Chanukah, the family has more delicious, sizzling hot potato pancakes--until Sadie goes out on the eight night, warning her brothers not to touch the pan, which only she is supposed to use. But can you really trust four hungry children alone with a magic frying pan...?

It's unfortunately unclear whether this is a retelling or an original story (it certainly has many traditional elements,) but it's a lively and amusing tale, with an appeal beyond its Chanukah associations. The Old Russia setting if illustrated with graceful simplicity in gouache and colored pencil. (4-8)

Twelve Days of Christmas written and illustrated by Woodleigh Marx Hubbard. Chronicle, 1996 (0-8118-1264-2) $14.95

Stylized yet exuberant illustrations give a whimsical, punning flavor to this familiar Christmas carol, with 5 cowbells chiming out "Gold Rings," 6 geese "a Laying" in bed, and 11 "Lady" bugs be-bopping on a vine. At the bottom of each page, a rebus-type drawing reminds readers of the verses that went before, should they want to actually sing as they read. Hubbard's jazzy, antic pictures call to mind "adult" art far more than traditional picture book art, but the vivid colors, bold, simple shapes and animal characters cross over quite successfully, for a look that's eye-catching and funny. In an unusually effective marketing gimmick, the book comes with twelve press-out cardboard ornaments, depicting one character from each verse of the song. (3 & up)

In the Month of Kislev by Nina Jaffe. Illustrated by Louise August. Viking, 1992; Puffin, 1995 (0-14-055654-0) $4.99 pb

Illustrated with striking, colorful woodcut-style pictures, this is an engrossing retelling of a favorite traditional story, in which a stingy man sues a poor man because his children were "stealing the smell of his latkes." When the stingy man insists that the poor man pay him a fine, the wise Rabbi asks the townspeople to contribute their Hanukkah money, shakes it in a bag, and tells him, "We have paid for the smell of your Hanukkah latkes with the sound of Hanukkah gelt." Unfortunately the otherwise appealing book ends with an overdone "true meaning of Hanukkah" reformation that simply isn't convincing and may leave readers quite puzzled. (3-8)

The Gifts of Kwanzaa written and illustrated by Synthia Saint James. Albert Whitman, 1994 (0-8075-2907-9); 1997 (0-8075-2908-7) $6.95 pb

James' signature faceless paintings atractively illustrate this simple depiction of a Kwanzaa celebration, with bold, vivid blocks of color creating animated scenes. (3-6)

Marco Flamingo/Marco Flamenco written and illustrated by Sheila Jarkins. Raven Tree, 2008 (978-0-9794462-5-2) $16.95; $7.95 pb

Every year, Marco Flamingo's island paradise is visited by the migratory "snowbirds." Marco is curious and asks them "what's snow?" --but all they'll say is "You don't want to know!" But Marco does want to know, and after spending the night reading up (assisted by some helpful stars and fireflies), he sets off north and discovers a new kind of paradise, one with skating, snow angels, ice fishing and sledding. And he even convinces some of his island friends to come join in.

With its awkward looking, yet ultimately competent and successful hero and a loving depiction of winter, this is a pleasing story that's worth picking up for a unit on winter or for a bilingual read that's pretty much just for fun. The illustrations give attractive natural backdrops for the more goofy looking animal characters, making Marco's first look at a land of snow and ice lovely and satisfying. (4-8)

Also available in English only and Spanish only editions.

Christmas Lullaby by Nancy Jewell. Clarion, 1994 (0-395-66586-8) $14.95; 1999 (0-395-97461-5) $5.95 pb

A simple rhyming poem creates a lovely nativity scene, in which different animals bring gifts to the newborn baby, each giving something personal and precious: "The donkey brought hay for the Baby's bed, the lamb brought fleece to pillow His head." After all the other animals have brought gifts, the cat gives her special present by purring the newborn to sleep. The illustrations, oil painted on wood, combine the plain lines and bold shapes of folk art with brilliant, jewel-like colors; the underlying wood grain patterns give particularly effective backgrounds to each scene. A special and unusually accessible nativity book. * (2-8)

We Love Christmas written and illustrated by Marilyn Janovitz. NorthSouth, 2007 (978-7358-2089-0) $9.95

Two kitten-kids enjoy the pleasures of waiting for Christmas in this happy little story. "We like ice. We like snow. We like making tracks wherever we go." "We like cookies. We like cake. We like eating what we bake." At the end of the book, they get into their Christmassy green-and-red pajamas, saying, "We like green. We like red. We like snuggling into bed. We like knowing Santa's near. Oh, we LOVE Christmas--and it's finally here!" Pen & ink and watercolor illustrations show active but uncrowded scenes that are easy on the eyes--that is, until the kittens go crazy getting into the Christmas ribbon! Toddlers will appreciate the repetition in the bouncy rhyming text, and it's short enough not to get boring for adults. In fact, this book makes me wish I still had a toddler to read to. (1-4)

Snow Sounds written and illustrated by David A. Johnson. Houghton Mifflin, 2006 (978-0618-47310-6) $16.00

Snow Sounds is a livelier story than its dreamy cover, in peaceful shades of blue speckled with snowy white, would suggest. Told entirely in sounds and pictures, it describes a boy's snowy winter morning, which begins with the "swoosh slush smoosh" of a snowplow outside, the only sound and motion around a house completely blanketed with snow. The day gets noiser as the boy gets ready for school ("flush") and more trucks work to clear a path outside for the school bus ("honk honk.") The boy himself has to "scoop scrape" his way from the door to the street. A watercolor speckled effect gives all of the pen & ink outlined pictures an attractive, muted, wintry feel, even in the busiest scenes. (3-8)

The Magic Maguey by Tony Johnston. Illustrated by Elisa Kleven. Harcourt Brace, 1996 (0-15-250988-7) $15.00

Set in a pueblo in Mexico, this is a happy look at the magic in everyday things. Miguel loves the big, beautiful maguey plant that grows in the pueblo. People like to meet there to gossip and chat, children like to play there. Best of all, the old leaves from the maguey can be made into all sorts of things, just like magic. When Miguel hears that the maguey is going to be chopped down, it seems like his Christmas is ruined—until he gets a wonderful idea.

As in her book Hooray, a Pinata! , Kleven's jewel-toned collages seem perfect for expressing the bold gaiety of Mexican art; the patterned clothes and Christmas decorations glow with bright colors. She also does a wonderful job on the faces of the characters: women cozily chatting, the children solemnly decorating the maguey plant with Christmas ornaments, and the entire town serenely enjoying their unusual Christmas tree. (4-8)

My First Ramadan written and illustrated by Karen Katz. Henry Holt, 2007 (978-0-8050-7894-7) $14.95

A litle boy describes the customs of the Muslim holy month Ramadan during the first year that he is old enough to fast. The text is simple: "Daddy leads us in a morning prayer call fajr (FAH-jar.) We pray five times every day. Muslims follow a religion called Islam. That means 'peace' in Arabic." The boy describes going to school and making calendars for Ramadan, washing hands and eating a sweet date before breaking the day-long fast, and the celebration at the end of Ramadan called Eid al-Fitr. (I must confess that I am not at all familiar with Ramadan, but I did a little reading and the facts appear to be accurate; I felt I got a sense of the basic form of the holiday from the book.) Katz doesn't get into any complicated issues: for example, the boy reports that his mother and sister pray in a different room than him and his father, without comment.

Drawn with broad shapes and peopled with round-headed characters wearing bright smiles, the book is decidedly cute, but also manages to maintain a sincere, respectful tone. The colorful scenes are drawn with lots of different textures and patterns, for visual interest. Readers unfamiliar with Ramadan will find the pronounciation guides included within the text a big help. I was also interested by a glimpse of the diversity of the Muslim world, when the family gathers in the town square and sees "Mulsims from Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia, North America, and South America," illustrated with people of different skin tones wearing many different types of clothing. The gathering of extended family for the party at the end of the book also includes a diverse population. (2-6)

The Snowy Day written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats. Viking, 1962; 1996 (0-670-86733-0) $6.99 board book

Winner of the Caldecott medal, this classic is a simple story about a boy discovering the joys of a snow-covered city: making tracks, snowmen and angels and sliding down a "great big tall heaping mountain of snow." The boy is very sad when the snowball he put in his pocket for tomorrow disappears--but luckily, the next day brings new snow, for him to share with his friend. Keats' illustrations are a gentle but vivid mix of broad shapes and interesting textures: the boy's brown face and bright red snowsuit against the snow has become a familiar and unforgettable image for everyone who loves children's books. (3-6)

That's Not Santa! written and illustrated by Leonard Kessler. Scholastic, 1994 (0-590-48140-1) $2.95 pb

It's the day before Christmas and everything is ready for Santa's trip—except Santa, who can't find his red suit anywhere! He tries on different outfits—a cowboy suit, a pirate costume, even a clown—but each time his elves cry, "You can't go out like that. That's not Santa!" Finally Mrs. Claus saves the day, giving Santa a new red suit—and putting on one for herself. Designed for the very beginning reader, this is a simple and repetitious story with colorful, uncrowded illustrations. (4-6)

My Penguin Osbert by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel. Illustrated by H.B. Lewis. Candlewick, 2004 (0-7636-1699-0) $16.99

After a number of misunderstandings with Santa, Joe decides to be very specific in his Christmas letter. And this time, he gets exactly what he asked for: his very own pet penguin named Osbert! But Joe soon finds that life with Osbert isn't just fun and games--it's also freezing baths and cold creamed herring with seaweed jam for breakfast. "I had asked for Osbert and now I had him," Joe reminds himself wryly (a thought that I, as a parent, could certainly relate to.) Expressive pastel illustrations help bring out the humor in this comic story, and a touch of poignancy at the end. (4-8)

Hanukkah Lights, Hanukkah Nights by Leslie Kimmelman. Illustrated by John Himmelman. HarperFestival, 1992 (0-6940-1437-0) $6.95 board book

This simple introduction to Hanukkah shows one aspect of the holiday being celebrated on each of the eight nights: on the third night, the aunts chant the blessings, on the fourth night, the nieces spin their dreidels. The theme is tied together by a menorah at the corner of each two-page illustration, showing the proper number of candles for each night. At first glance this book isn't very exciting visually--straight inked lines give the watercolored characters a prim and dowdy air--but there are some lively little details worth looking at, especially the activities of the familiy's boisterous orange kittens. (2-5)

A Confused Hanukkah by Jon Koons. Illustrated by S.D. Schindler. Dutton, 2004 (0-525-46969-9)$16.99

I'm thrilled to be seeing some children's literature backlash against the Christmasfication of Hanukkah in books like The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming. This "original folktale" makes similar points, with gentler irony and perhaps more accessibility to younger readers.

Set in the traditional Jewish town-of-fools, Chelm, the story begins with the villagers unable to remember how to celebrate Hanukkah while their Rabbi is away. A man named Yossel sets out for a nearby town "to find out what must be done," but naturally, being from Chelm, he goes the wrong way and winds up in the Big City, where he gets some very odd information about "the coming holiday." His fellow villagers are a bit surprised--"Trees? Fat men? I don't remember any of that!"--but conclude these must be the latest modern customs, so they proceed to chop down a tree, decorate it with matzo balls, wooden dreidels and shiny menorahs, and dress the fattest man in town in a fancy suit, calling him "Hanukkah Hershel."

Yet somehow, nothing seems right. "They had never seen Hanukkah Hershel before. And surely, if they had decorated a tree like this in the past, someone would have remembered. But Yossel had told them that other people did these things. And why shouldn't they celebrate the way others did? Still, now it seemed like this wasn't Hanukkah at all."

Luckily, just then the Rabbi arrives home, to tell them the story of Hanukkah and remind them of their true traditions. And "From that day forward it was said that the people of Chelm always remembered how to keep Hanukkah."

Koons doesn't hit us in the face with his point, leaving the silliness of the story to speak for itself about the ridiculousness of mixing up two things that have very little relationship to each other. I would like to have seen a note on the history of Chelm in Jewish folklore and humor, and it would also have strengthened the the book to say more about the significance of the Hanukkah customs--eating foods fried in oil in memory of the oil lamp, for example.

This should go over well at storytimes, especially with a reader who's good with dialogue, which is lively and plentiful. Pen & ink and watercolor illustrations in a slightly caricatured style highlight both the foolishness and the generally goodhearted nature of the people of Chelm, adding to the humor and warmth of the story. (4 & up)

Omar on Ice written and illustrated by Maryann Kovalski. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1999 1-55041-507-7) $13.95

Omar, a bear who loves pictures, is miserable when his teacher thinks that his drawing of his mother is a rock. "I'm just a bad artist," he says, throwing his drawing away. But when the class goes out for a skate, athletic Omar comes into his own, twirling and leaping—and discovers there's more than one way to create a beautiful picture. This book gives a fun surprise twist to a familiar story and illustrates it with some joyous scenes of Omar dancing on the ice. The rest of the light-hued illustrations are more of a mixed-bag: there are some funny bear-as-human touches, but the befrilled and beribboned female characters—apparently only male bears can go bare—look obtrusive and clunky next to the liveliness and grace of Omar skating. (3-7)

Little One, We Knew You'd Come by Sally Lloyd-Jones. Illustrated by Jackie Morris. Little, Brown, 2006 (978-0-316-52391-2) $16.99

Two distinct styles in children's books meet in this unusual nativity book, a pairing I didn't find completely successful. The text, sometimes rhyming, sometimes just consciously poetic, belongs to the distinctly modern school of an adoring parental ode: "By silver stars and golden moon, at break of dawn you came. Kiss your nose, those tiny toes. On the day that you were born." Nothing specifically links it with Jesus' birth; it could be any parents rejoicing in any child. At first glance the illustrations could not seem to be more different: dark, dramatic paintings, embellished with motifs from nature and highlights of shimmering gold, that belong to a much older tradition. Closer inspection shows the artist has eschewed some traditions: the babe sleeping in his mother's arms is realistically drawn and could be any beautiful sleeping baby, if it weren't for the watchful animals worshiping nearby. The olive-skinned, dark-haired Mary is exquisite, with precisely the worn grace of a new mother; all of the figures shown, including a trio of angels playing ancient instruments, convey strength as well as tenderness. They seem to deserve something deeper than the familiar and somewhat confused text, "Kiss and cuddle and love the baby. Scoop that baby up, And softly sing a lullaby, On the day that you were born." (3 & up)

I Spy Christmas by Jean Marzollo. Photographed by Walter Wick. Scholastic, 1992 (0-590-45846-9) $13.95

This book from the "I Spy" series uses the same format as the others: beautifully crafted and photographed scenes of interesting and unusual objects are accompanied by a simple verse suggesting objects for readers to search for. This time the theme of each picture is Christmas inspired and readers who are fond of the holiday will find them particularly nostalgic, evocative and charming. One scene of a small town at night is especially lovely, and readers may be surprised to find that the peaceful town is hiding five jacks, a glove and a silver coin. Another eye-catching scene crowds numerous German glass ornaments on the page. Very entertaining. (4-8)

Santa's Book of Names written and illustrated by David McPhail. Little, Brown, 1993 (0-316-56335-8) $14.95; 1997 (0-316-11534-7) $5.95 pb

A little boy gets a trip in Santa's sleigh and a special wish granted in this warm and pleasant story. When Edward finds the book Santa dropped one Christmas Eve—the book that holds the names and addresses of all the children in the world—Santa asks him to come along and help out by holding the book. But when Santa's glasses fall off, Edward, who has never been able to read, has to try to read the book for him. By morning, Edward can proudly read the new book Santa left him. Sympathetic characters and cozy, beautifully designed illustrations make this an enjoyable family story. (4-8)

Santa Duck written and illustrated by David Milgrim. Putnam, 2008 (978-0-399-25018-7) $16.99

Need a break from serious or sentimental Christmas stories? Here's one about the true meaning of Christmas--getting stuff! When Nicholas Duck finds a cozy coat and Santa hat on his doorstep, he discovers that every animal he meets greets him as "Santa Duck" and starts giving him a Christmas list: a chicken wants all kinds of flying machines, a rabbit wants a carrot cake--the size of a football field--and a cat yearns for "a mouse and a canary and a trout and maybe a couple of nice, plump hamsters. Better bring some egg nog too." Nicholas tries to get rid of the hat, to no avail, finally running away squealing "leave me alooooone!"--and he runs straight into the real Santa. ("No way!" says Nicholas. "Way" says Santa.)

Nicholas gives Santa everyone else's list, forgetting to give his own. But when he gets home, the note on his door from Santa about what a great help he was makes him so proud, he realizes that "getting to help Santa was the best gift he could get." That is, until he finds an awesome "Santa Duck" car waiting for him the next morning.

With its lively characters and slightly iconoclastic attitude, Santa Duck is full of good kid-friendly humor. In a touch parents will appreciate, some of the characters are shown at the end with gifts that aren't quite as ambitious as those on the lists: the rabbit is perfectly happy with an ordinary sized cake. And for those worried about the cat's list, it is shown walking a small animal on a leash, rather than noshing on it. (4-8)

Thank You, Thanksgiving written and illustrated by David Milgrim. Clarion, 2003 (0-618-27466-9) $9.95; 2006 (978-0-618-75243-0) $5.95 pb

Gratitude is expressed with simplicity and charm, as a little girl goes on a Thanksgiving day errand, thanking the birds who sing music to her, the warm boots that keep her cozy in the snow, and the duck that brings her the scarf she left behind. There are funny bits here, like the girl's Hollywood entrance back home: "Thank you, thank you," she gracefully bows, as her family applauds. But the heart of the book is her joyous appreciation of all the small gifts of the day. Chunky, digitally created illustrations have a childlike quality that seems just right for the child's-eye view. (2-5)

Christmas Tree! written and illustrated by Wendell and Florence Minor. HarperCollins, 2005 (978-0-06-056034-8) $15.99

If you were a Christmas tree, what kind would you be? There's some surprising possibilities in this wildly imaginative picture book, which shows Christmas trees for all kinds of purposes: one formed of net is ornamented with fish, for a happy ship's cat; another makes a brilliant revolving light in a lighthouse. Although a few of the paintings seem a little broad and overdone, most are captivating, such as one showing a magnificent Statue of Liberty with a Christmas tree as a torch, and a simply elegant "tree" formed by the space between flying white birds. The short rhyme of the story is an undistracting accompaniment to the pictures, although the end somewhat confusingly forsakes the original premise, saying "the best tree of all is the one that is mine." Huh? (2-6)

Irving and Muktuk: Two Bad Bears by Daniel Pinkwater. Illustrated by Jill Pinkwater. Houghton Mifflin, 2001 (0-618-09334-6) $15.00; 2003 (0-618-35404-2) $5.99 pb

By fair means or foul--usually foul--polar bears Irving and Muktuk are determined to get their hands on the muffins of the annual Yellowtooth Blueberry Muffin Festival, a New Year tradition. Luckily, Officer Bunny is the law in Yellowtooth, and he sees through all their schemes, even when they pose as adorable Girl Scouts taking orders for cookies and accepting muffins as payment. Over-the-top purple prose adds to the delightful goofiness of this story, and the sly expressions of Irving and Muktuk are always good for a laugh. (4 & up)

Songs of Chanukah compiled by Jeanne Modesitt. Illustrated by Robin Spowart. Little, Brown, 1992 (0-316-57739-1)

Very pretty (though unexpected), soft-focus pictures of rabbit-people illustrate this attractive picture book/songbook, which includes both traditional and contemporary Hanukkah songs. Each song is accompanied by text which explains the historical background of Hanukkah and its traditions. Scored for piano and guitar, with Hebrew lyrics included. (3 & up)

The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore. Illustrated by Max Grover. Browndeer, 1999 (0-15-201713-5) $16.00

Grover's colorful acrylics give a modern but cozy setting to the famous poem, along with some rare touches of humor, such as Santa arriving down the chimney in a flurry of ashes. (4 & up)

The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore. Illustrated by Anita Lobel. Knopf, 1984; 2003 (0-375-82414-6) $8.95

This version of the much illustrated Christmas poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" gives it a city setting, with lovely illustrations of 19th century Manhattan at night. (4 & up)

The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore. Illustrated by Ted Rand. North-South, 1995 (1-55858-465-X) $16.95

Oversized pages allow for a lavishly illustrated version of this old favorite, with eye-catching double-page spreads of Santa and his eight reindeer gliding through the air. The very traditional portrait of red-nosed Santa is complemented by the graceful charm of the reindeer and the cozy warmth of the narrator's home. (4-8)

'Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore. Illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith. Houghton Mifflin, 1912; 2005 (0-618-61510-5) $5.95 pb

One of the oldest editions of Moore's classic poem, and arguably the best known, this book now appears charmingly old-fashioned, with its illustrated letters, and meticulously drawn small scenes shown against white backgrounds. (4-8)

Light the Lights written and illustrated by Margaret Moorman. Scholastic, 1994 (0-590-47003-5) $12.95

One of very few pictures books about interfaith holiday celebrations, Light the Lights is the story of a little girl named Emma whose family happily celebrates both Hannukah and Christmas. Hannukah is visiting relatives, playing dreidel and eating latkes, and watching the glowing lights in the menorah, set by the living room window where "all the neighbors up and down the street could catch a glimpse of it." Christmas is singing "Joy to the World" with friends, cookies and hot chocolate, and the beautiful glow of the Christmas tree lights, turned on by Santa Claus as he left the presents. Although neither the text nor the bland, almost textbook-style watercolor illustrations are particularly inspired, in these warm family and neighborhood scenes Moorman has captured some of the essence of what interfaith winter celebrations can mean—not so much the teachings of specific religions as a celebration of comfort, friendship and most of all, light in the darkness, the common thread of all solstice holidays. (3-7)

The Christmas Tree Ride by Mary Neville. Illustrated by Megan Lloyd. Holiday House, 1992 (0-8234-0956-2) $14.95

A contemporary story about a family trip to pick out a Christmas Tree. The first-person narrative almost sings, capturing the high-spirits and excitement the children feel, only faltering for a soppy ending. I didn't much care for the realistic style of the illustrations, except for the very pretty landscapes of trees and snow. (4-8)

The Jacket I Wear in the Snow by Shirley Neitzel. Illustrated> by Nancy Winslow Parker. Greenwillow, 1989 (0-688-08028-6)

This is the prize gem of Neitzel and Parker's "House that Jack Built" collaborations, a hilarious look at the discomforts of being stuck in winter clothes. Each true-to-life description of a new uncomfortable item is freshly funny: "These are the socks, wrinkled a lot, that are pulled over long underwear, bunchy and hot, that is stuffed in the boots, too big for me, that cover the jeans, stiff in the knee..." In a satisfying ending, the discomfort is undone, piece by piece, by an understanding mom. The uncluttered colored-pencil illustrations are repeated, rebus-style, in the text, encouraging listeners to join in with each repetition. Ideal for reading aloud or for beginning readers. (3-8)

Amelia Bedelia and the Christmas List by Herman Parish. Illustrated by Lynn Sweat. HarperCollins, 2003 (0-06-051874-X) $6.99 pb.

This new Amelia Bedelia book (written by a relative of the original author) has a change of format. Amelia Bedelia is Christmas shopping for Mrs. Rogers, and making her standard brand of mistakes with her list—Mr. Rogers wants headphones, but Amelia Bedelia isn't sure how many phones he can put on his head. But on the end of each page is a flap to turn, which reveals a helpful salesperson finding the correct item for her. It's less intricate and less lively than the usual stories but perhaps a good approach to a potentially anxiety-creating situation: little kids may not care if Amelia "draws the drapes" incorrectly, but Christmas presents are something else again! (3-6)

'Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving written and illustrated by Dav Pilkey. Orchard, 1990 (0-531-05905-7); Scholastic, 2004 (0-439-66937-5) $5.99 pb

Thanksgiving, with its intense focus on "traditional" food, is one of the more complicated holidays for vegetarian and vegan families, but this story can add a bit of fun to a turkey-free dinner. Using the familiar strains of Clement Moore's "A Visit from Saint Nicholas," Pilkey spins a comic yet tenderhearted tale of eight children on a field trip to a turkey farm, who are horrified to discover that their new feathered friends are fated to be eaten. But the children are the ones who wind up stuffed, as each sneaks away a turkey inside his coat. That Thanksgiving, the turkeys are guests and "They feasted on veggies/With jelly and toast, And everyone was thankful/(The turkeys the most!)." Exuberant illustrations bring the outlandish story to life. (4-8)

Seven Candles for Kwanzaa by Andrea Davis Pinkney. Illustrated by Brian Pinkney. Dial, 1993 (0-8037-1292-8)

Scratchboard drawings of a contemporary African-American family celebrating Kwanzaa are a comfortable accompaniment to this description of the basic customs and meanings of the holiday. The book does a nice job of relating Kwanzaa to its roots in tradition. In one particularly eye-catching picture, the family is shown exchanging gifts; the following picture shows a traditional African family in the same poses, exchanging gifts in celebration of the end of the harvest. (4-8)

Old Winter by Judith Benet Richardson. illustrated by R. W. Alley. Orchard, 1996 (0-531-09533-9) $14.95

Rummaging through the ice cream freezer at the supermarket, Old Winter overhears some nasty comments about "this rotten winter." Hurt and angry, he stomps into the meat locker for a two month nap, while the town stays frozen, with no end in sight. But when an understanding young woman named Spring comes to town, Winter realizes how important his job is—in its proper time. This lively, imaginative personification of the seasons celebrates both their most attractive and most annoying aspects, with an emotional core that will resonate with young readers. The crowded, cartoony pictures (think "Mad" magazine) are filled with comic detail; I especially like the depiction of the first rain, with Spring sitting on a shop awning with a watering can, and the last illustration of Old Winter, blowing a bag full of snowflakes "onto the feathery grass of the pampas." (4-8)

Chanukah Lights Everywhere by Michael J. Rosen. Illustrated by Melissa Iwai. 2001; Voyager, 2006 (0-15-205675-0) $6.00 pb

On each of the eight nights of Chanukah, a little boy counts lights for the number of candles his family lights. On the first night, "the skinny moon beams like a proud candle flame against the dark sky." On the sixth night, he counts six other menorahs in windows during a walk. On the seventh night, he visits a friend who celebrates Christmas and counts seven lights burning in his windows. And on the eighth night, he finds "all seven stars in the Big Dipper, plus the famous North Star above us, as though God, too, were lighting his own menorah in the sky. Even when Chanukah is over, he sees lights that remind him of their menorah and "I think about Chanukah and about being Jewish in such a wide world of so many other lights."

A sincere, earnest book with sincere, earnest illustrations, Chanukah Lights Everywhere explores themes also seen in Rosen's previous books like Elijah's Angel (see below): respect and appreciation amongst people of different religions. This time it comes across as more messagey than heartwarming, however. There are some playful moments, with lots of cats popping up--one peers out between the narrator's legs in a busy family scene--and the glow of bright lights amid sparkling blue skies in the many night illustrations is warm and satisfying. (3-6)

Sammy Spider's First Hanukkah by Sylvia A. Rouss. Illustrated by Katherine Janus Kahn. Kar-Ben Copies, 1993 (0-929371-46-1)

Young Sammy Spider watches as a family celebrates Hanukkah, lighting candles and giving their little boy a different colored dreidel each night. "Mother, do you think I could have a blue dreidel to spin?" he asks. But each night, his mother replies, "Silly little Sammy, spiders don't spin dreidels. Spider's spin webs." But Sammy gets a special surprise from his mother on the last night of Hanukkah: 8 different colored socks, with a little dreidel spun on each one. Finally Sammy gets to spin dreidels, the way a spider should. This is a cheerful mix of holiday story and concept book, with slightly crude but colorful cut-paper illustrations. (2-5)

The Christmas Alphabet illustrated by Robert Sabuda. Orchard, 1994 (0-531-06857-9) $19.95

Behind twenty-six colored paper "doors" are exquisite paper sculptures, white, wintry images that spring into movement as you reveal them. Each sculpture illustrates a word with a Christmasy spirit, from an ascending Angel to a Santa enjoying some Zzzz's. The animation of the pop-ups is simply fascinating—friendly snowmen wave, a bell rings, the flame of a candle revolves—and the simple outlines of the shapes, contrasting with their colored backgrounds, are as appropriate for young children as for adults. The overall design of the book is a little flimsy—superior production values would no doubt have made it completely unaffordable—and a few of the sculptures in my copy don't move smoothly, but these are fairly minor flaws in such a mesmerizing book. (3 & up)

Wake Up Dormouse, Santa Claus is Here written and illustrated by Eleonore Schmid. Translated by Elizabeth D. Crawford. North-South, 1994 (1-55858-355-6) $5.95 pb

A tender little story about a dormouse who longs to meet Santa Claus and gets his wish when an owl wakes him from hibernation. The Santa Claus of this title is really Saint Nicholas, and this depiction of a quiet, gentle Santa who comes to the forest to give gifts to the animals will surprise and charm American readers who only know the jolly, comical image. Soft-hued watercolors capture the beauty of autumn and the snowy winter night when Santa arrives. (4-8)

Hanukkah! by Roni Schotter. Illustrated by Marylin Hafner. Little, Brown, 1990; 2003 (0-316-77623-8) $6.99 board book

Unlike most books about Hanukkah, this ebullient story is not informative: rather, it tries to capture the spirit of fun and family togetherness created by a Hanukkah celebration. Although the half-rhyming, staccato text is not ideal for reading aloud, and the illustrations are not distinctive, the cheerful warmth of the book is infectious. Winner of the National Jewish Book Award. (2-4)

Winter Lullaby by Barbara Seuling. Illustrated by Greg Newbold. Harcourt, 1998 (0-15-201403-9) $16.00

It's not exactly a lullaby, but this short book does have a soothing quality, and would make excellent bedtime reading. Each two-page spread, illustrated in a glossy, hyper-realistic style, asks a question about animals in winter: "When ice covers the mountain lake like a crust, where do the fish go?" The next spread reassuringly answers in a brief rhyme: "They swim below, where warm streams flow." A nice first introduction to winter facts. (2-5)

Santasaurus written and illustrated by Niamh Sharkey. Candlewick, 2005 (0-7636-2671-6) $15.99

Quirky, chunky-shaped illustrations enliven this simple story of a boy dinosaur named Milo, whose Christmas wish is to ride in the sleigh with Santasaurus and his dinodeer. Naturally, Milo gets his wish. "So, were all the dinosaurs happy? Yesosaurus, they were!" You get the idea: the world-building here is somewhat slapdash, with everything more-or-less randomly prefixed "dino" or suffixed "saurus," and images of dinosaurs everywhere. (Funny, I've never seen humans on a weather vane.) Nonetheless, the whimsy seems to appeal greatly to little kids. (3-6)

Snowbear's Christmas Countdown by Theresa Smythe. Henry Holt, 2004 (0-8050-7244-6)

It's the beginning of December, and Snowbear has something to do for each day until Christmas: going skiing, shoveling snow, setting up toy trains, and snuggling in bed watching favorite holiday movies, when he has a cold. Attractively textured collage illustrations show Snowbear and his friends enjoying the season together, with a pleasing emphasis on merriment, helpfulness and tradition, as well as presents. (2-5)

Peter Spier's Christmas! illustrated by Peter Spier. Doubleday, 1983; Dell Picture Yearling, 1996 (0-440-41285-4) $5.99 pb

This lively wordless book offers a less dreamy, more realistic view of Christmas than most holiday picture books. Crowded, bustling scenes show a family shopping at a mall, making decorations and addressing cards, picking a tree, going to church and so on. After Christmas dinner, we see that the children's bedroom is overflowing with toys, and the kitchen is overflowing with dirty dishes—but the mother and father wash up, and enjoy a cozy evening by the fire. Finally the decorations have to come down and the pine needles get vacuumed up, Christmas lights go on sale, people flock to the "returns" counter, and a mound of trash is left to be collected. But amid the rather sad debris of the holiday, there are reminders that Christmas will come again: new trees are sprouting among the stumps, and the Christmas Club payments begin anew. This cheerful book is a nice conversation starter; it could even spark discussions about good reasons to make holiday celebration more environmentally friendly. (3-8)

Coming Through the Blizzard by Eileen Spinelli. Illustrated by Jenny Tylden-Wright. Simon & Schuster, 1999 (0-689-81490-9) $16.00

Despite a fierce blizzard, both people and animals come to share in a Christmas Eve service. And when a tired and ragged stranger comes to the place of warmth and celebration, Christmas comes too. Lyrical, quiet prose captures the power of the night to draw people out despite the bitter cold; unfortunately, the text is not well-matched by the illustrations, which have an exaggeratededly textured, computer-generated look. (3-8)

Three Pebbles and a Song Eileen Spinelli. Illustrated by S.D. Schindler. Dial, 2003 (0-8037-2528-0) $16.99

In a turnaround of the old grasshopper-and-ant story, this tale shows that being able to make merry is as valuable, in its way, as putting food on the table. Moses, a young mouse, is supposed to be helping his family gather food and warm things, to survive the coming snow. But though he means well, somehow Moses always gets distracted, and when the snow comes, Moses has gathered only, "a dance, a song, and three gleaming pebbles." Luckily his family has gathered enough to keep them all warm and fed... and bored to tears, with nothing to do And that's when Moses' song, dance and pebbles to toss come in very handy. Paintings in muted, wintry hues cozily illustrate the mouse-people family. (3-6)

Merry Christmas, Cheeps! by Julie Stiegmeyer. Illustrated by Carol Baicker-McKee. Bloomsbury, 2007 (9781-599990-064-3) $9.95

I feel a touch ambivalent about this book, not because it's not likable--it is--but because it's come so very far from the world of the first book in the series, Cheep! Cheep! (Reviewed volume 14, number 1.) The family of chicks no longer sleep on a barnyard perch, but have easy chairs, Christmas trees and fireplaces, and their story is not told in a few carefully chosen words but in fairly ordinary rhyme. "Catch a snowflake from the sky... sparkle sparkle wish/Spread our snowy angel wings... flutter flutter swish." There is no real connection to the original book, and no longer anything inspired to make this title stand out amongst other likable Christmas books. Still, the almost-touchable collage illustrations, featuring terry-cloth chicks, continue to have strong visual appeal--and you have to love the chicks in knitted caps and scarves, catching snowflakes, shaking jingle bells and making snow angels. (1-3)

The Twelve Days of Christmas: a Pinata for the Pinon Tree by Philemon Sturges. Illustrated by Ashley Wolff. Little, Brown, 2007 (978-0-316-82323-4) $16.99

The author and illustrator of She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain teamed up to offer another sunny Southwestern spin on a popular song. This time the animal town of Reederville (pop. 43) is preparing for Christmas, and "mis amigos" brings such goodies as eleven Two stories happen simultaneously: a bear prepares Bozochitos (the New Mexico state cookie), while watching the townsfolk decorate a village Christmas tree; a large starred pinata goes on top. At the end of the song, as the gaily dressed townsfolk lower and strike the pinata, the bear displays a tray of finished Bozcohitos, shaped liked the elements of the story. (A recipe is also included.) Throughout, we see numerous details of New Mexico culture, both around the tree and in the bear's home: a lovingly decorated altar is in honor of Sturges, who passed away in 2005.

The changed, still very singable lyrics make this book fun for readers who know the original song, and the wealth of detail in the illustrations has a lot to offer for teachers or librarians covering a Southwestern theme. (Especially if cookie baking is involved.) However, the animal-people illustrations may limit its appeal with older children. (3-6)

The Gift of Christmas by Philemon Sturges. Illustrated by Holly Berry. North-South, 1995 (1-55858-469-2) $15.95

Filled with every good-old-days cliche of Christmas—snow, stockings, sleigh bells—this book already seems oddly dated, but may appeal to those who like their vision of the holiday to be as rose-colored as possible. There's no story, just a rhyming depiction of holiday delights that rarely rises above doggerel: "The tastes of Christmas! So rich and sweet. On Christmas day We eat and eat!" Berry's old-fashioned looking family adds to the dated feeling, but her illustrations are truly very Christmas-sy, richly designed and beautifully "framed" with seasonal motifs. (3-6)

On Christmas Day in the Morning illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Candlewick, 1999 (0-7636-0375-9) $15.95

A different kind of Christmas carol, this cheerful old song tells of a group of animals tending their crops: on Christmas day, a pig went out to dig, a cow went out to plow, and a sparrow went out to harrow—here, whimsically shown pulling a harrowing machine as it flies. Eventually, every beast contributes to a Christmas feast. The rhythmic song is very easy to read or sing aloud, even if you don't know the tune (simple piano music is provided), and the watercolor pictures use an eye-catching technique: one page of each spread illustrates the text with a woodcut-like drawing of an animal, the other, in lively contrast, shows the animal in action on its farm. Sweet dresses the animals in medieval clothes and uses ancient symbols and motifs to honor the song's roots as a harvest ritual, although some modern-looking children sneak onto the last page. I'd like this book more if its creators didn't seem to be trying to find deep meaning in what's essentially a nonsense song—how can it be about seasons and circles when almost every action in it is so outrageously out of season?—but children won't mind or even notice. (2-6)

The Great Santa Surprise written and illustrated by Suzy-Jane Tanner. HarperFestival, 1996 (0-694-00706-4) $5.95 pb

About as mild as a picture book can get, this "lift-the-flap" book tells a simple story about a brown bear Santa delivering presents for various animal-children. When he hears the children coming, he hides behind the tree—but emerges to open a present for him: "A cuddly teddy bear! How thoughtful." Innocuous and unsophisticated, this is pretty dull reading for adults but will appeal to children who like a slow-paced text and straightforward illustrations. The flaps which hide the presents (and Santa) are large and easy to handle. (2-5)

Emma's Christmas written and illustrated by Irene Trivas. Orchard, 1988 (0-531-05780-1) $15.95; (0-531-07022-0) $5.95 pb

This perennial favorite is a sweetly silly version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Emma, an ordinary girl courted by a prince, doesn't want to leave her farm—until the presents the prince sends her every day effectively bring the entire kingdom to her. The animated human and animal "presents" are a charming contrast to the placid Emma, and the matter-of-factly interracial village is an appealing touch. * (4-7)

The Polar Express written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg. 1985; Houghton Mifflin, 2006 (0-395-38949-6) $18.95

When I first saw this Caldecott winner in 1992, I wrote that it already had "all the signs of an enduring classic." It was a pretty easy prophecy: The illustrations are gorgeous, soft-focused and luminescent, and the story is strongly appealing. The description of a boy's trip on a train to visit Santa Claus is a perfect mixture of excitement and security as the children drink "hot cocoa as thick and rich as melted chocolate bars" while they "travelled through cold dark forests, where lean wolves roamed." The ending of the book is particularly lovely, and will stay with readers for a long time. (4-8)

The Nativity illustrated by Julie Vivas. Harcourt Brace, 1988; 2005 (0-15-20591-6) $16.00; Voyager, 2006 (0-15-206085-5) $7.00 pb

A nativity depiction like no other, this book finds an unexpected life and immediacy in the words of the King James bible through its fresh, whimsical illustrations. Exquisitely shaded watercolors combine delicate beauty with comical earthiness: a shaggy-headed Angel Gabriel clumps along in thick, ill-fitting boots, trailing his glowing rainbow wings; a sweet-faced and very pregnant Mary is hoisted by Joseph, with difficulty, onto a donkey. The magic of the book is that it even as it makes the extraordinary ordinary, it makes the ordinary wonderful, through the beauty, tender charm, and refreshing naturalness of the drawings. Not for everyone, but an unforgettable book. * (4 & up)

Little Mo by Martin Waddell. Illustrated by Jill Barton. Candlewick, 1993 (1-56402-211-0) $14.95

When Little Mo first tries stepping onto a frozen pond and falls with a Bump!, she's glad to see the other polar bears, "the Big Ones," coming to help her. But when the Big Ones start to enjoy the ice, gleefully whizzing and racing and jumping, Little Mo's only in their way - Bump! It's enough to make Little Mo not like the ice anymore - and it was all her idea in the first place! But then the Big Ones forget Little Mo and go away; trying again, she goes Bump! once more, but picks herself up and is soon sliding around on the ice all by herself, and loving it.

Anyone who's been a younger sibling will recognize Little Mo's predicament and sympathize with her, rejoicing in her triumph at the end. Jill Barton's lively and expressive watercolors bring the polar bears charmingly to life, as they twirl delightedly around on the ice.

Max's Christmas written and illustrated by Rosemary Wells. Dial, 1986; Puffin, 1994 (0-14-054563-8) $3.99 pb

Starring the popular rabbit-children Max and Ruby, Max's Christmas is a funny look at what Christmas is like with an ever-curious toddler. Max is full of questions as his older sister Ruby prepares him for bed, but when he asks why he can't stay up to see Santa Claus, all she can say is "because!" So Max sneaks down to wait for Santa—and to pepper him with questions when he arrives! The on-target humor of this brightly illustrated book will be enjoyed by children and adults alike. (2-4)

Morris's Disappearing Bag written and illustrated by Rosemary Wells. Viking, 1999; Puffin, 2001 (978-0-1423-0004-6) $6.99 pb

On Christmas morning, Morris is happy with his present of a stuffed bear--until he finds that none of his three siblings wants to trade and let him try their new toys. Then he finds a package that was overlooked--and in it a Disappearing Bag that turns him invisible! Of course, everyone wants to try that!

This is such a fresh, imaginative take on Christmas morning, with an easily recognizable problem and an ingenious resolution. Wells makes it even more fun by frequently reincorporating the theme of the other three toys as they are traded by the siblings--happily disregarding stereotypical sex roles--and by embellishing the cheerful pictures of chunky rabbit-people with lots of little print motifs; Morris, in mistletoe overalls, is especially adorable. * (3-6)

A Kwanzaa Celebration by Nancy Williams. Illustrated by Robert Sabuda. Simon & Schuster Little Simon, 1995 (0-689-80266-8) $11.95

Picture books about Kwanzaa still seem to be stuck in the instructional/didactic stage; I've yet to see one that's just for fun. This pop-up book comes the closest though: accompanying the simple description of the meaning of each day of Kwanzaa are vivid scratchboard-style pictures, whose bold designs and textures and brilliant colors would be eye-catching even without the elaborate, moving pop-ups. But of course it's also very satisfying to see the candles pop-up out of the candleholder (kinara) and to see a mat (mkeka) being woven in three-dimensions. An enjoyable way to explain the basics of the holiday; recommended for parents and teachers. (4-8)

B Is for Bethlehem by Isabel Wilner. Illustrated by Elisa Kleven. Dutton, 1990; Puffin, 1995 (0-14-055610-9) $4.99 pb

More than just an alphabet based on Christmas, this gentle, reverent text gives a very accessible introduction to the story of the Nativity in easy-to-read rhyming couplets. The power of the story is perfectly realized in Kleven's jewel-like mixed-media collages, which combine brilliancy and softness for an effect both beautiful and very tender and human. This is a lovely way to focus on the religious aspects of Christmas, although I was perturbed that the text seems to suggest that all people celebrate the birth of Christ. (3 & up)

  The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski. Illustrated by P.J. Lynch. Candlewick, 1995 (1-56402-320-6) $15.95; 2002 (0-7636-1930-2) $12.99

Christmas is the perfect time for Scrooge stories, and this original tale about a bitter, lonely woodcarver who learns how to care about people again is a poignant, beautifully told variant of the theme. Jonathan Toomey is always called Mr. Gloomy by the village children, for he seldom smiles and never laughs, drowned in the pain of having lost his family. But when he carves a very special set of Christmas figurines for newcomers to his village, the widow McDowell and her son Thomas, Jonathan finds his heart warming in their gentle company. Then he must carve the final figures, Mary and Jesus, but he can't seem to do it—until he takes the picture of his wife and baby from out of its hidden drawer and uses it as a model: "The baby's arms were reaching up, touching the woman's face. The woman was looking down at the baby, smiling." Once again able to remember his family with joy, Jonathan happily goes to the Christmas service with his new friends, and no one ever calls him Mr. Gloomy again. Wojciechowski's rhythmic but comfortably lifelike and homey narrative makes even this very long picture book a pleasure to listen to, as well as to read, and Lynch's rich, carefully detailed paintings sympathetically capture the many complex moods and emotions of the text. * (5 & up)

A Small Christmas written and illustrated by Wong Herbert Yee. Houghton Mifflin, 2004 (0-618-32612-X) $12.95

Sequels to popular pictures books—especially when they're holiday tie-ins—often feel a little forced. The fourth book about Fireman Small is no exception, with rhymes that feel cumbersome compared to the seemingly effortless verse of the original. This is more annoying to adult readers than child listeners, however, who still enjoy the stalwart Fireman Small and his valiant efforts to save whatever needs savings: in this case, naturally, Christmas.

Fireman Small has been busy, helping to prepare the town's large Christmas tree. As usual, he is pretty beat by the time he "closes the curtains, gets into bed, and pulls the covers over his head." And as usual, Fireman Small's much needed sleep is interrupted—by the arrival of an exhausted and filthy Santa Claus in his coal chute! All ends happily, with a special present for Fireman Small from Santa. (3-6)

Benjy Bear's Christmas by Harriet Ziefert. Illustrated by Emilie Boon. Candlewick, 1996 (1-56402-886-0) $7.99

This bland activity/board book has very little plot, just some simple instructions on how to help smiling Benjy hang his stocking and decorate his tree, using reusable vinyl stickers. It's nice that the book offers several sticker choices, allowing children a little variety and decision-making. (2-5)

Older Readers

The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen. Translated by Naomi Lewis. Illustrated by Angela Barrett. Candlewick, 1993 (1-56402-215-3) $16.95

One of Andersen's most powerful and moving stories is told in its entirety in this beautifully designed but slightly disappointing picture book. The translation seems rather more prosaic than I remember it, while the accompanying illustrations are lovely, but almost too pristine and perfect, capturing the coldness and mystery of the tale but little of its warmth and humanity. Still, the story of Kay, trapped with a frozen heart in the palace of the Snow Queen, and of Gerda, the little girl who searches faithfully for him and rescues him with the power of her love, has a haunting magic which makes it unforgettable. The many memorable characters and events should make it possible even for preschoolers to sit through this unusually long story. (5 & up)

Hanukkah Fun by Judy Bastyra. Illustrated by Catherine Ward. Kingfisher, 1996 (0-7534-5011-9) $4.95 pb

This crafts book features somewhat more difficult and sophisticated crafts than others of similar type (and title.) Some of the interesting projects are painted candles, a lamp to use with scented oils and a surprise cake that spills out chocolate coins when it's cut. Even adults might enjoy trying some of these creative ideas. Supervision is required for some projects; safety is emphasized. * (7-12)

An Irish Night Before Christmas by Sarah Kirwan Blazek. Illustrated by James Rice. Pelican (1-800-843-1724), 1995 (1-56554-086-7) $14.95

The familiar story of "the night before Christmas" takes on a decidedly different flavor in this humorous parody of the famous poem. Here Father Christmas arrives in a donkey and cart, dressed all in green and accompanied by seven wee elfs: "Up Sean, up Patrick, Up Kevin and Kerry, Up Colum and Cormac, Up Angus; don't tarry." But though he enjoys stout and plum pudding instead of cookies and milk (and makes such a ruckus the missus of the house orders him out), it's still pretty much the same jolly Santa. Sprinkled with many Irish words and turns of phrase, this is a funny and exotic look (albeit full of stereotypes) at different Christmas customs. The accompanying watercolor illustrations are kind of grainy, but lively and fun. (5-10)

Kwanzaa Karamu by April A. Brady. Illustrated by Barbara Knutsen. Photographs by Robert L. and Diane Wolf. Carolrhoda, 1995 (0-87914-842-9) $17.21 library binding; (0-87614-633-7) $6.95 pb

The sixth day of Kwanzaa is devoted to celebrating the principle of kuumba, or creativity. This useful guide helps young readers get involved in that celebration by showing them ways to prepare a karamu, the special feast held for family and friends on the sixth day.

The first section of the book offers background, describing the history of Kwanzaa and giving an outline of how each of its seven days are celebrated. A particularly nice aspect of this section is that the author shares her own feelings about the seven principles behind Kwanzaa—unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith—and encourages readers to incorporate those principles into their lives throughout the year.

The second section consists of 19 recipes, updated versions of traditional favorites like Hush Puppies and Hopping John. Brady's recipes are clear and easy to understand and she includes a thoughtful list of safety instructions. The third section includes easy instructions for making a paper mkeka, a felt kinara tapestry, a paper-mache bowl or mask and an African headdress and skirt.

Well designed and thoughtfully written, this book will be very helpful to any readers who want to learn more about Kwanzaa and participate in a karamu. (8-13)

Red Ranger Came Calling written and illustrated by Berkeley Breathed. Little, Brown, 1994 (0-316-10881-2) $16.95; 1997 (0-316-10249-0) $6.95 pb

The first of Breathed's children's books not based on his "Bloom County" characters is probably also his very best, a marvelous story about a nine-year-old Scrooge who learns the value of faith and caring in a most bizarre fashion. The "Guaranteed True Christmas Story" is told in the words of Breathed's father, Red Breathed, called that not because of "the thatch of orange debris atop his head that made it look like a freckled ostrich egg on fire," but because of his overriding passion for Buck Tweed, the Red Ranger of Mars, a thirties movie hero. It's the middle of the Depression and young Red Breathed is as depressed as anyone else, longing for an Official Buck Tweed bicycle, knowing he won't get it, and blaming the adults in his life for failing him. But when he discovers a mysterious old man named Saunder Clšs, who has the power to make dogs levitate, if not reindeers fly, it seems that Red may get his deepest wish after all. What happens next is a wonderful surprise, a heartwarming, magical ending impossible to forget. Breathed's rich, surreal illustrations bring out both the sophisticated cynicism and the childish fantasy in the story, playing with textures, dimensions and perspectives for a multiplicity of effects and making the most of the 1930's setting with a barrage of visual references. The text, though, is even better, filled with irony and imagery and a biting wit that keeps its warmth from ever becoming soppy sentimentality. * (8 & up)

The Hanukkah Book by Marilyn Burns. Illustrated by Martha Weston. Macmillan, 1981 (0-02-716140-4)

This nonfiction book is an honest and straightforward examination of the meaning of Hanukkah, with a special section on how Jewish children can examine their feelings about Christmas. Both informative and thought-provoking. (8 & up).

Kwanzaa by Deboarh M. Newton Chocolate. Illustrated by Melodye Rosales. Children's Press, 1990 (0-516-03991-1); (0-516-43991-X) $4.99 pb

This description of Kwanzaa as celebrated by one family is a little long and pedantic, but has a nice emphasis on African-American history, both general and specific. The illustrations show an extended family with realistically different styles and skin tones. (5-8)

Hanukkah, Shmanukkah! by Esme Raji Codell. Illustrated by LeUyen Pham. Hyperion, 2005 (978-0-7868-5179-9) $16.99

Several different threads of Jewish history--the first Hanukkah, immigration to the United States and the fight for unions and better working conditions in sweatshops--are all woven together in a parody of Dicken's "A Christmas Carol" that is funny, touching, and far more grounded in business reality than the original. Cranky old "Scroogemacher" does "not rush out and get a big challah and bring it to the Gersteins" after his visits from the Rabbis of Hanukkah Past, Present and Future, but he does treat his workers a little better and listen to their demands when they go on strike. If reading aloud, you will want to gear up your best Yiddish accent to do justic to the text, which is lavishly sprinkled with phrases like "That farshtunkener butcher sold me bad meat" and "Don't ask me for alms. I put it in the tzedakah box already"; though the book is long, the narrative is so flavorfully constructed, it's hard to stop reading. (A glossary is included.) Illustrations in mostly muted browns, reds and yellows are rather familiar images of Jewish "types," which works in this context. (5 & up)

The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate by Janice Cohn. Illustrated by Bill Farnsworth. Albert Whitman, 1995 (0-8075-1152-8) $16.95

This picture book tells the true story of an inspiring event: when windows with Hanukkah menorahs become targets for rock throwers in Billings, Montana in 1993, thousands of non-Jewish people put pictures of menorahs in their windows, dramatically reducing the number of hate crimes in their city. Although this telling is somewhat dry and didactic—and not helped much by muted, photo-realistic style illustrations—the story itself is so compelling and heartwarming it has its own power. (5-10)

Aunt Eater's Mystery Christmas written and illustrated by Doug Cushman. HarperCollins, 1995 (0-06-023579-9); HarperTrophy, 1996 (0-06-444221-7) $3.75 pb

In four comic vignettes, Aunt Eater tackles several mysteries that turn out to have very mundane explanations. But when a special package is left under her Christmas tree, it's a wonderful mystery indeed. Cushman's long-nosed character, the Miss Marple of easy readers, establishes the mood of the book with her expressive face and body, as she ponders clues and sneaks cautiously around investigating. (6-8)

Christmas Cookies! by Susan Devins. Illustrated by Barbara Lehman. Candlewick, 2003 (0-7636-1632-X) $12.99

There are two things I love about this cookbook: it's spiral bound (big, usable spirals, with no sharp edges) and its pages are laminated, for easy clean-up. What a great idea for a beginner's cookbook! Other than that, it's a well chosen collection of recipes, some classic like Snickerdoodles and Shortbread, others more novel like Rice Krispie Christmas Wreaths and Peppermint Chocolate Bark (really a candy, not a cookie.) Recipes include both imperial and metric quantity measurements. One potential disappointment: the three plastic cookie cutters enclosed (a star, tree and gingerbread man) are too small to use successfully for some of the suggested recipes. (5-12)

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Illustrated by Quentin Blake. McElderry, 1995 (0-689-80213-7) $19.95

Illustrated by an artist most known for his quirky, humorous pictures, this unexpected version of A Christmas Carol uses Blake's usual style of pen & ink drawings (some in color), with seemingly slapdash, erratic lines which are filled with character. Expressive and atmospheric, they succeed in capturing the funny, joyful elements of the story as well as its bitter, gloomy and frightening aspects. This humanizing edition is a breath of fresh air, a welcome reminder that A Christmas Carol is truly an entertaining story, not just a moldy old tradition. * (6 & up)

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Illustrated by Carter Goodrich. Books of Wonder/Morrow, 1996 (0-688-13606-0) $18.00

Abridged by the author himself, this is a shortened version of the classic Christmas story for easier read-alouds or performances, taking around ninety minutes to read. Unlike many other abridgements, this retains the story's original language and exciting imagery. The muted, gloomy illustrations are in the traditional mode and don't add anything new to the book. (5 & up)

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Illustrated by Roberto Innocenti. Harcourt Brace, 1995 (0-15-100200-2) $35.00

This oversized, ornately designed volume illustrates Dicken's tale large, elegant paintings. Nineteenth century London comes vividly to life in realistically detailed crowd scenes and wintry rooftop views. Most of the pictures are wide-ranging in scope rather than intimate, except for a ghoulishly humorous meeting between Scrooge and Marley's ghost and several scenes during the visit of the third spirit which are appropriately filled with grim despair. (6 & up)

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Abridged by Vivian French. Illustrated by Patrick Benson. Candlewick, 1993 (1-56402-204-8) $15.95

This abridgment of Dicken's classic Christmas story seems essentially pointless. It supposedly makes A Christmas Carol short enough for preschoolers--but any preschooler who can sit through 44 pages of full text would be able to sit through the entire story. The magic of Dicken's prose is simply lost through this well-meaning mutilation. If an abridgement is preferred, the one listed above by Dickens himself is a better choice.

Christmas in the Stable selected and illustrated by Beverly K. Duncan. Harcourt Brace, 1990 (0-15-217758-2); Voyager, 1996 (0-15-201385-7) $5.00 pb

This unique, lovely collection of poems looks at the night of the Nativity from the point of view of stable creatures. In "What the Donkey Saw" by U. A. Fanthorpe, a donkey relates how, "in spite of the overcrowding/I did my best to make them feel wanted/I could see the baby and I/Would be going places together." Jane Yolen's "Dog at the Stable" is amazed to see that "a Master" could be so "meek and mild." And in Linda Peavey's "Lives" an arrogant cat marvels that "I, too, feel bound to worship this wee thing/Even a cat can look at a king." Charming, sweet, sometimes even funny, these poems all convey a genuine atmosphere of reverence. Gentle watercolors frame the poems against backgrounds of holiday-associated nature motifs and expressively illustrate the animal narrators. (4-12)

Papa's Latkes by Michelle Edwards. Illustrated by Stacey Schuett. Candlewick, 2004 (0-7636-0779-7) $15.99

In a winter sometime during World War II, Selma and her little sister Dora help their father prepare latkes, for the first Chanukah since their mother died, a few months before. At first Selma is too grief-stricken to eat: "Papa's latkes shouldn't look like this. They should look like Mama's latkes. Chanukah shouldn't be like this. Three people in the kitchen instead of four." But Papa reminds her that, "we can remember Mama. And we can make latkes and we can still celebrate Chanukah. That is what Mama would want us to do." Edwards uses flavorful dialogue to enliven the long, sad story, while Schuett's oil illustrations bring out the sombreness and uncertainty in the faces of the two girls, and the desperate cheerfulness of their father as he tries to make the holiday a happy one. (5-10)

Christmas Countdown by Steve Englehart. Illustrated by Bryna Waldman. Avon Camelot, 1993 (0-380-76842-9) $5.99 pb

Although the subtitle says "a story a day for 25 days," most of the "stories" in this book are actually short, informational articles about Christmas customs and legends. The articles are quite interesting, but I was perturbed that no clear distinction is drawn between historical facts and customary or religious beliefs. The pictures aren't particularly interesting, but are nicely multicultural, including an atypically non-caucasian depiction of Mary. (8-12)

Ben's Christmas Carol by Toby Forward. Illustrated by Ruth Brown. Dutton, 1996 (0-525-45593-0) $15.99

The classic Dickens story is retold here from a mouse point of view, in a tale about a miserly mouse named Ben, his poor friend Tim, and a mysterious white mouse named Jake who shows Ben the error of his ways. Rather than sticking strictly to the original story, this retelling keeps it on a fairly simple, mouse-like level. Perhaps the best thing about the book is a wonderful surprise in the illustrations: as the mice story is told, the dark, haunting pictures also show the story of the original Christmas Carol happening above-stairs. In one of the best illustrated touches, shortly after we see Scrooge accompanied by a ghost, the white mouse Jake is revealed as not just white, but actually transparent. (5 & up)

The Truth About Santa Claus by James Cross Giblin. Crowell, 1985 (0-690-04483-6)

An interesting and readable history of the origins of the Santa Claus myth and how it has changed over the centuries. Includes many intriguing illustrations of old statues, drawings and photographs. A bibliography and index are included. (10 & up)

While the Candles Burn by Barbara Diamond Goldin. Illustrated by Elaine Greenstein. Viking, 1996 (0-670-85875-7) $15.99

Taking an unusual and interesting approach to Hanukkah stories, this collection features eight tales which aren't specifically about Hanukkah, but which express some of the traditional themes and meanings of the holiday. As introductions to the stories point out, Hanukkah is celebrated in different ways by Jews around the world: one of most interesting stories, an original, modern-day tale, is set at a bilingual Israeli/Arab school to express a theme of reconciliation and peace—a part of Hanukkah celebrations in Greece. (This school, Oasis of Peace, actually exists in Israel!) Goldin's smoothly crafted retelling of six traditional tales, plus two original stories, skillfully combine lively details with an atmosphere of reverence. The scratchboard-style illustrations are warm and expressive; an especially nice touch are the eight different Menorahs which decorate the beginning of each chapter—each, of course, holding the appropriate number of candles. * (5 & up)

Gobble: The Complete Book of Thanksgiving Words by Lynda Graham-Barber. Illustrated by Betsy Lewin. Avon Camelot, 1993 (0-380-71963-0) $3.99

This well-researched collection of facts and history about the origins of words associated with Thanksgiving is designed for easy browsing: open it anywhere and you'll find intriguing details about the early lives of the Pilgrims and the meanings of Thanksgiving customs. Having words as the focus of the book lets it touch on lots of diverse linguistic, historical and literary information, which is both educational and entertaining, while the forthright, matter-of-fact style is very readable. (8 & up)

Celebrating Kwanzaa by Diane Hoyt-Goldsmith. Illustrated by Lawrence Migdale. Holiday House, 1993 (0-8234-1048-X) $15.95; (0-8234-1130-3) $6.95 pb

This interesting and informative book is an excellent way to learn about the meaning and traditions of Kwanzaa, an African-American harvest festival celebrated by people of many different religious beliefs. An attractively designed combination of text, sidebars and photographs describe the holiday while explaining its historical and cultural significance to black Americans, as a connection to their heritage and a reminder of important values. Readers are drawn into the text through the voice of a thirteen-year-old girl named Andiey, who describes the seven principles of Kwanzaa (developed by its creator, Maulana Karenga) and explains how her family relates them to their lives. Highly recommended for libraries; a glossary and index are included. (5-8/8-12)

Stories by Firelight written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1993 (0-688-04568-5) $16.00

If this unique collection of poems and stories has a flaw, it's that it's much too short. Although none of the segments (except for a fantastically drawn wordless story) really stand out as exceptional, together they're a wonderful mood piece, complemented by dreamy, impressionistic drawings. Stories by Firelight celebrates the many different feelings evoked by the winter and Christmas, from exultant to wistful; while some of the eerier pieces emphasize, through contrast, the delights of being cozily at home. (5 & up)

The Winter Solstice by Ellen Jackson. Illustrated by Jan Davey Ellis. Millbrook, 1994 (1-56294-400-2)

This brief history gives a very basic idea of how several different civilizations marked the Winter Solstice, including some activities that have passed down into current holiday traditions, such as putting lights in trees and giving gifts. It ends, somewhat randomly, with a retelling of a Cherokee legend. The book is nicely designed, with the text for each section framed in appropriate decorations, but overall it is uninspiring.. A bibliography or suggested for further reading would have been useful. (5-10)

Noelle of the Nutcracker by Pamela Jane. Illustrated by Jan Brett. Houghton Mifflin, 1986; Dell Yearling, 1997 (0-440-41418-0) $3.99 pb

Reminiscent of Rumer Godden's classic doll stories, this is a likeable tale about the special relationship between children and toys. Ilyana, who longs to dance, feels an instant affinity with the beautiful ballerina doll she sees in a toy shop—but the one-of-a-kind doll named Noelle costs $175. To make things even worse, Ilyana's obnoxious classmate Mary Jane is determined to get the doll for herself—and she's enough of a spoiled brat to manage it.

Noelle the doll is unaware of this rivalry: her dreams are all about being a prima ballerina, not about little girls, and she gets her wish when she is purchased to be a prop in "the Nutcracker." But when Noelle is no longer needed for the ballet, she realizes that the best kind of dancing for a doll is in a child's loving arms. Is Noelle doomed to a lonely life in the prop room, with the miserable ghosts of other unloved toys? Will Mary Jane find her, only to toss her in the closet with her other dolls? Or will Ilyana somehow find a way to make both her and Noelle's dreams come true? With its sprightly narrative and satisfying conclusion, Noelle of the Nutcracker is just right for holiday reading. (7-11)

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric Kimmel. Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. Holiday House, 1989 (0-8234-0769-1) $15.95; (0-8234-1131-1) $6.95 pb

Among the endless historical retellings and ubiquitous latkes recipes of most Hanukkah books, Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins stands out like a candle flame, an original and enchanting story about a wily man whose ingenuity saves Hanukkah from the goblins who haunt an old synagogue. Filled with the humor of trickster stories and some genuine horror, Hershel... ultimately demonstrates the true meaning of Hanukkah: freedom. Hyman's Caldecott Honor illustrations are delightful juxtapositions of reality and fantasy, contrasting the carefully drawn Hershel with the absurd yet increasingly chilling images of the goblins. (5-8)

The Magic Dreidels by Eric A. Kimmel. Illustrated by Katya Krenina. Holiday House, 1996 (0-8234-1256-3) $15.95

This playful reworking of an old folk tale gives it a Hanukkah theme. When a boy named Jacob drops his dreidel down a well, the goblin who lives in the well gives him a new one, a dreidel that spins out latkes. But when he shows the dreidel off to Fruma Sarah, the neighborhood busybody, she steals it and gives him an ordinary one in its place. The same thing happens when the goblin gives Jacob a dreidel that spins out Hanukkah gelt. But when the goblin gives Jacob a dreidel that spins out fleas, Fruma Sarah quickly sees the error of her ways! Kimmel's telling is too brusque, but listeners will enjoy this humorous change of pace from more traditional Hanukkah stories. Krenina's watercolor illustrations use distinctive odd, sharp and curving shapes to create an offbeat and appropriately magical atmosphere. (4-8)

A Great Miracle Happened There by Karla Kiskin. Illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker. 1993; HarperTrophy, 1995 (0-06-443426-5) $5.95 pb

A boy describes the first night of his family's Chanukah celebration, shared with his friend Henry, who "always has questions." This is a rather unconvincing narrative which probably would've worked better in the third person, but it has the merit of raising issues not often found in Chanukah books: during her retelling of the Chanukah story, the boy's mother tells them that Mattathias was wrong to kill over the unfair laws, and after the story the whole family discusses whether or not they believe in miracles. The retelling is better than the book as a whole, and its accompanying watercolor illustrations work much better than those for the modern scenes, which are largely dull and expressionless. (5-8)

Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights by Jenny Koralek. Illustrated by Juan Wijngarrd. Lothrop, 1990 (0-688-09329-9)

The Hanukkah story is told here in a solemn, ritualistic style, which is well matched by dark realistic painting. Frames around each picture help give the feeling of actually peering into a captured moment of the past. (6-10)

The Gift from Saint Nicholas by Dorothea Lachner. Illustrated by Maja Dusikova. North-South, 1995 (1-55858-456-0) $15.95

It had been snowing for over a week, and everyone in Anna and Misha's village is snowed in. "Saint Nicholas Day won't be any fun if we can't get out to see Grandfather Gregor or any of our friends," says Misha, so he and Anna wish for Saint Nicholas to blow a path through the snow. When the villagers see a mysterious package in the village square the next day, they all shovel their way though to open it. Nothing is inside but an old teapot—but no one is disappointed after they all meet for tea at Grandfather Gregor's house and get to spend Saint Nicholas Day together after all. A nicely told story, with soft, muted watercolors of the old-fashioned village. (5-8)

Christmas Around the World by Mary D. Lankford. Illustrated by Karen Dugan. Morrow, 1995 (0-688-12166-7); Mulberry, 1998 (0-688-16323-8) $4.95 pb

Every child knows what the ideal Christmas is supposed to be like, with a decorated tree, presents, Christmas nasturtiums, ensalada navidena to eat, a visit from the Christmas gnome... hey wait a minute, that's not right! But if you're an Australian child you might well have nasturtiums blooming for Christmas, a Mexican child would probably eat ensalada navidena, and a Swedish child would wait for the tomte, who lives under the floorboards of the house, instead of Santa Claus. These are just some of the ways in which Christmas traditions differ widely from culture to culture; as this informative books shows, in many places, trees, Santa Claus and even presents aren't part of the celebration at all. This is a well researched and attractively designed book, interesting on its own, but especially welcome as a reminder that Christmas celebrations don't have to be centered around consumption. Several craft projects from other cultures are included. (8-14)

Christmas in the Stable by Astrid Lindgren. Illustrated by Harald Wiberg. 1963; Paperstar, 1998 (0-698-11664-X) $5.99 pb

The nativity story becomes very real for a young Swedish farm girl, as her mother tells her about two cold travellers who once found sanctuary in a stable. As her mother tenderly describes the animals who comforted the travellers, and the shepherds who saw a star burning over their stable, the girl sees the wintry beauty of the Swedish countryside and its people, delicately and lovingly drawn. The religious aspects of the story aren't mentioned, but the reverence is certain. (4-8)

Emma's Magic Winter by Jean Little. Illustrated by Jennifer Plecas. HarperCollins, 1998 (0-06-025389-4) $14.95

A little imagination helps a shy girl named Emma make a new friend in this winning "I Can Read" book. When Emma meets her new neighbor Sally, she's totally at a loss for words. Then she sees Sally's snow boots, just the same as hers, and suddenly knows what to say: "My boots have magic powers... Your boots look just like mine. Are yours magic too?" Sure enough they are, and soon the magic of Emma and Sally's boots has made them best friends, and helped Emma overcome her shyness, too.

Written with warmth and understanding, Emma's Magic Winter can be enjoyed both by readers who take it at face value and those who understand the subtext. The lively pen & ink and watercolor illustrations are equally warm, giving the two girls a sort of coltish exuberance that expresses their joy at being together. (4-8)

Thanksgiving Poems selected by Myra Cohn Livingston. Illustrated by Stephen Gammell. Holiday House, 1985 (0-8234-0570-2)

This title is out of print, which doesn't surprise me too much, because the illustrations have not worn well. But there are such wonderful poems here, many of which were commissioned especially for this book, that it's worth it to search out a copy.

Thanksgiving Poems covers many aspects of Thanksgiving, excluding historical/political controversy. There are harvest poems from an Osage and a Navajo Indian, a selection from the Bible ("Make a Joyful Noise Onto the Lord") and comic poems about overeating from poets like X. J. Kennedy and Jane Yolen. I was most captivated by the poems that concentrate on joy and gratitude, such as the lyrical wordplay of the poem "Giving Thanks Giving Thanks" by Eve Merriam; this is the second paragraph:

giving thanks     giving thanks
for cows and cowslips
eggs and eggplants
stars and starlings
dogs and dogwood

And I was blown away by the simple beauty and sincerity of a poem of thanksgiving by Emanuel di Pasquale, which begins:

I pull a baby crab
off a seaweed-rich rock
and let it run on my hands,
and I see God. I see God
in millions of lights
dancing in the sea and air.

It's a shame that the illustrations, largely black & white drawings with splotches of muted, unattractive colors, have lost so much freshness, seeming tired and dated. I would so love to see this otherwise superb collection reillustrated; even a fresh printing might revitalize it. (4 & up)

The Christmas Visitor by Anneliese Lussert. Illustrated by Loek Koopmans. North-South, 1995 (1-55858-449-8) $15.95

A selfish, greedy man learns the importance of giving in this simple fable, set the time of the the birth of Christ. Exquisite watercolors of snowy woods and brightly glowing lights capture the feeling of a dark, cold winter, as the man travels through the night, giving away more and more of his own clothing to others, to be rewarded by a smile from the newborn infant. The theme of self-sacrifice could be considered overdone, but this is generally a touching religious story, a nice accompaniment to a Nativity tale. (4-8)

Chanukah Fun by Toli Marcus Minelli. Illustrated by Stewart Walton. Tupelo, 1994 (0-688-13560-9) $6.95 pb

This activities book of Chanukah crafts and projects adds a little spice to the traditional celebration, with instructions for creating unusual menorahs, special decorations and Chanukah related games and puzzles. Many pages of stencils and cut-outs are included. Useful and fun. (6-12)

Christmas with Anne by L.M. Montgomery. Edited by Rea Wilmhurst. Delacorte, 1996 (0-385-32288-7) $16.95; Bantam, 2001 (0-553-57100-1) $4.99 pb.

Good-will, generosity and forgiveness are the recurring themes of this collection of holiday stories from the author of Anne of Green Gables. Readers who appreciate Montgomery's special blend of good sense and sentiment will find the Christmas background ideal for the cozy, old-fashioned spirit of these stories. (10 & up)

Good King Wenceslas by John Mason Neale. Illustrated by Christopher Manson. North-South, 1994 (1-55858-321-1) $14.95

The traditional carol about a kindly king's generosity is stunningly illustrated with hand-painted woodcuts, surprisingly expressive and evocative uses of an often stiff and formal medium. The ornamented text is a little difficult to read, but worth the effort; music for the carol is provided at the end. (5 & up)

Hanukkah, Festival of Lights. by Jeff O'Hare. Illustrated by Arthur Friedman and Mary F. Rhinelander. Boyds Mill, 2000 (1-56397-907-1) $7.95 pb

A cheerfully illustrated collection of games and crafts projects, including rebuses, homemade dreidels and menorahs and maccabee bowling. This seems to be an expansion of Hanukkah Fun edited by Andrea Weiss. (see below.) (3-10)

Dragon's Merry Christmas written and illustrated by Dav Pilkey. Orchard, 1994 (0-531-07055-7) $4.95 pb

Four short chapters, each a story in itself, give a warmhearted and funny look at the Christmas spirit through the eyes of the sweetly goofy Dragon. Whether he's "accidentally" bumping the wall because he's promised himself only to eat the pieces that fall off his candy wreath, or giving away his Christmas shopping to needy strangers, Dragon is a loveable character readers can identify with. The spirited, childlike illustrations, with bright, exciting patterns filling the background, are as fun to look at as the book is to read. * (4-8)

The Case of the Christmas Snowman by James Preller. Illustrated by R.W. Alley. Scholastic Little Apple, 1998 (0-590-69125-2; 0-590-69126-0) $3.99 pb each

Readers ready to move beyond Sharmat's "Nate the Great" books will likely enjoy this chapter book mystery, one in a series. Puzzle lover Jigsaw Jones has set up office in his treehouse, where he charges a dollar a day "to make problems go away." With the help of his partner and best friend Mila (she gets fifty percent), he tackles classmate's problems, often using information he's learned in school. Jigsaw narrates in a breezy style that's half late night detective movie and half kid, keeping the book funny even when it feels a bit padded with classroom facts. (7-9)

It's Christmas by Jack Prelutsky. Illustrated by Marylin Hafner. Greenwillow, 1981; Mulberry, 1995 (0-688-14393-8) $4.95 pb

These easy-to-read poems look at some of the funnier aspects of Christmas, such as the snow that melts overnight (right after you get a sled), the Santas on every corner, and the inevitable underwear from Auntie Flo. But don't think it's a cynical look: the overall mood of the collection is lighthearted and even downright mushy at times. Hafner's lively, comical pictures, in pen & ink and understated watercolor, are an excellent fit with the poems. (7-12)

Home for the Howl-idays by Dian Curtis Regan. Scholastic Apple, 1994 (0-590-48772-8) $2.95 pb

For readers who like a little Halloween mixed in with their Christmas, this is a lightweight but enjoyable story. Sam and his stepsister Leesha arrive home from boarding school to find their entire family has turned into monsters--and they've almost certainly next. The premise--that the scary board game invented by Sam's grandfather has somehow taken over the family--is quite clever, and the mix of humor and horror creates some great moments, like the vampire father commenting that his drink is "just the right temperature--ninety-eight point six" The book just skims the surface of its inherent possibilities though, offering more style than substance. (8-12)

Winter Poems selected by Barbara Rogasky. Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. Scholastic, 1994 (0-590-42872-1) $15.95

Winter has become so much a time of holidays that its character as a season is rather neglected. This exquisite anthology of poems deliberately excludes any mention of holidays to concentrate on what winter feels like: when "winter dark comes early mixing afternoon and night," when "the wind howls, hisses, and but stops to howl more loud," when there is "no cloud above, no earth below—a universe of sky and snow!" Even the less traditional pleasures of the west coast winter are here: "This rain is slow, without thunder or hurry: There is plenty of time—there will be months of rain."

Almost free from doggerel, and from the moth-eaten air so many anthologies for children have (from using the same poems all the other anthologies have already used), Winter Poems is a fresh and exciting collection, filled with evocative imagery and diverse, stirring voices. Hyman's beautifully colored paintings match the poems in evocative power, somehow both crisp and soft. The always difficult design question of how to link poems and illustration is approached here in an unusual and very striking way: each poem and accompanying illustration is "framed" by a background picture of a country landscape—always the same place, yet changing with each open page to show the progression of winter, from that first "something" in the air that tells the wild geese to fly, to the "whiff on the wind" that is the first cry of spring. (A more subtle continuity is explained in Rogasky's introduction: the places and people that reappear throughout the illustrations are Hyman's own home and family—including Rogasky herself, starring as "greasy Joan.") A simply beautiful book for homes or classrooms. * (6 & up/8 & up)

Kwanzaa Fun: Great Things to Make and Do by Linda Robertson. Illustrated by Julia Pearson. Kingfisher, 1996 (0-7534-5016-X) $5.95 pb

This attractively designed book combines basic information about Kwanzaa with instructions for crafts and projects. There are ideas for each day of Kwanzaa, though the connection between the symbolism of the day and the craft is sometimes perhaps a bit strained. Except for some recipes, most of these projects can be done without adult supervision, and with easily obtainable tools. I can't comment on how well these projects express the symbols and meaning of Kwanzaa, but they are fun ideas that children will enjoy trying. (6-12)

'Twas the Night B'fore Christmas retold and illustrated by Melodye Rosales. Scholastic, 1996 (0-590-73944-1) $12.95

For this "African-American version" of Clement Clarke Moore's "A Visit from Saint Nicholas," Rosales has rewritten the poem in traditional Black English, using images from plantation culture: the children all snug in their bed are now "Dreamin' of candy/an' sweet short'nin' bread." Much of the poem keeps essentially the same format as the original, but it takes off in wild new directions for the description of St. Nick, who looks "like a conjure man/openin' his sack."

I have to admit, I'm a bit stymied about how to evaluate this book. The line between truth and stereotype can be blurry and what seems like a cultural tribute to some can seem deeply offensive to others: my moderately positive review of a similar book, An Irish Night Before Christmas, met with some disapproval last year. But I don't think that's really a judgement I can make, so I'll just say that the book does seem successful in what it's trying to do: the poem is fun to read, and the paintings are bold and expressive, although too exaggeratedly realistic for my tastes. If the concept of this book appeals to you, chances are good you'll like this rendition. For a less controversial Christmas book featuring an African-American family, see Monica Greenfield's Waiting for Christmas.(4 & up)

Elijah's Angel: a Story for Chanukah and Christmas. By Michael J. Rosen. Illustrated by Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson. Harcourt Brace, 1992 (0-15-225394-7) $13.95; 1997 (0-15-201558-2) $6.00 pb

There are few children's books that manage to meaningfully connect Christmas and Chanukah; this is one of them. Based on the author's relationship with Elijah Pierce, a barber who won international renown for his wood carvings, it is a deeply personal and moving story about a true friendship that crossed age, racial and religious barriers.

Michael Rosen, as a young, white, Jewish boy, never thought it was strange to be friends with a 84 year old black man who was also a devout Christian. But when Elijah gives him a Christmas present, a carving of an angel, Michael is troubled. How can he keep a Christian symbol—even worse, a graven image—in a Jewish home? With his parent's help, Michael finds the perfect resolution to his dilemma, one which shows that friendships have room for all kinds of differences.

This first-person, reminiscent narrative has a voice which is warm and true. The bold, colorful paintings by Aminah Robinson—another friend of Elijah's—are sometimes too oddly proportioned to be appealing, but the visual drama they bring to the story nicely completes this loving tribute. (6 & up)

Crafts for Kwanzaa Kathy Ross. Illustrated by Sharon Lane Holm. Millbrook, 1994 (1-56294-740-0) $5.50 pb

The design of this crafts book is so bright and inviting, it almost had me picking up glue and markers in February. Each step of each craft is amply illustrated and a separate section shows exactly what you'll need to get going. The crafts themselves are both practical and fun, including homemade bead necklaces, several different kinds of decorative wrapping paper, and a nifty greeting card that lets you "light the Kwanzaa candles" by pulling a piece of yarn. (5-12)

The Night After Christmas written and illustrated by James Stevenson. Greenwillow, 1981; Mulberry, 1993 (0-688-04590-1) $4.95 pb

It's the night after Christmas, and an old doll and a teddy bear have wound up in the trash, replaced by newer toys. Rescued by a stray dog named Chauncey, the two raggedy toys are safe and warm, but miserable with no children to play with--until Chauncey finds a way to bring them together with children who will treasure them once more.

Although it has some bright moments, the overall tone of this story is pretty dismal and the happy ending is so subtle, it may not provide the feeling of resolution most young readers need. (The last illustration, in which Chauncey seems to no longer be a stray, is also unexplained and rather confusing.) The mournful illustrations add to the generally depressing atmosphere.

175 Easy-to-Do Christmas Crafts edited by Sharon Dunn Umnik. Illustrated by various artists. Boyds Mill, 1996 (1-56397-373-1) $ 6.95 pb

This no-nonsense crafts book is tightly packed with ideas for Christmas crafts, such as a paper-plate Christmas tree, a diorama of Santa's house and a shoe box creche. Each item includes a list of materials, numbered instructions and a photograph of the completed project. There's a materials index, but unfortunately no table of contents. Motivated children could certainly use this book, but aside from safety instructions it isn't designed to be especially child-friendly and will probably be most useful as a source book for people working with children aged 5 & up. (8 & up)

  Nate the Great and the Crunchy Christmas by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat and Craig Sharmat. Illustrated by Marc Simont. Delacorte, 1996 (0-385-32117-1) $13.95; Dell Yearling, 1997 (0-440-41299-4) $4.50 pb

In one of his more implausible—but funny—adventures, detective Nate the Great solves the case of the missing Christmas Card, with help from two of his weirdest, animal-loving friends: Annie, who dresses her dog Fang up like an elf, and Rosamond, whose tree is decorated with tuna fish cans and live cats. Meanwhile the authors get in some amusing digs at out-of-control Christmas hoopla, with Nate commenting on bizarre Christmas catalogs with his usual deadpan bemusement. Interestingly enough, although the focus of this story is primarily on Christmas, Nate himself apparently celebrates Chanukah; in one of the book's most amusing touches, Nate changes his traditional pancake snack to potato pancakes, with applesauce and sour cream of course. (6-8)

Irene Jennie and the Christmas Masquerade: The Johnkankus by Irene Smalls. Illustrated by Melodye Rosales. Little, Brown, 1996 (0-316-79878-9) $15.95

Based on African-American plantation culture, this is the story of a slave girl whose Christmas just won't be complete without her absent mama and daddy, even with the magnificent Johnkankus parade to watch. Thankfully, there's a special surprise waiting for her at the end of the parade. This sympathetic story is visually stunning, with exuberant paintings that give the Johnkankus dancers a dazzling, Mardi Gras look— feathers flying, ribbons waving. The historically faithful, matter-of-fact acceptance of slavery depicted in this book will leave children with lots of questions, but it will also give them an intriguing look at how African-American slaves made the most of whatever was available to them, in order to enjoy themselves and celebrate Christmas. (4 & up)

Cantsee: The Cat Who Was the Color of the Carpet written and illustrated by Gretchen Schields. Gulliver/Harcourt Brace, 1996 (0-15-20547-1) $16.00

When kindly Mr. Blue befriends a homeless kitten on Christmas Eve, he acquires an unexpected problem: the chameleon-like cat, Cantsee, somehow blends right into whatever it's sitting on. When Mr. Blue pours cream into his teacup, it magically disappears—right into Cantsee's stomach. And when he tries to read the paper, the letters look all jumbled—because they're really on Cantsee's fur. The exasperated Mr. Blue decides he'd better give Cantsee away—but when burglars arrive, he discovers that having an invisible pet can be downright useful. Aside from the overused resolution, this is an unusual story which lends itself well to Sheilds's ornate, brilliantly colored watercolor illustrations. The text is wordy and a bit pedantic, but the whimsical details give the narrative an offbeat appeal. (4-8)

Crafts for Kids: Winter Holiday Book by Greta Speechley. Photographed by Martin Norris. Gorolier, 2003 (0-7172-5765-7)

Despite the inclusive title, the craft examples shown in this book focus pretty exclusively on Christmas (except for the rather odd "Monster Lanterns," which seem a leftover from Halloween.) Big colorful pages show crafts such as a "candy tree," "glowing beakers" and decorative swizzle sticks. It's an attractive book--indeed, my 3 year old constantly asks me to read it to him--but seems designed more for looks than use. The instructions aren't laid out sensibly (I would find it infuriating to discover during a project that just one part of step 1 was "let the spray paint dry") and only the craftiest kids will be able to obtain the kind of results pictured. (6-12, adult help and supervision required.)

There's No Such Thing as a Chanukah Bush, Sandy Goldstein by Susan Sussman. Illustrated by Charles Robinson. Albert Whitman, 1983 (0-8075-7862-2)

An important and often ignored consequence of celebrating Hanukkah is explored with realistic humor in the short chapter book. "It isn't easy being Jewish at Christmas time", thinks Robin—and when your entire school is making ornaments and singing carols, it sure isn't. Robin is torn between despising Sandy Goldstein—a Jewish classmate who has a "Chanukah bush"—and envying her. Her longing to be part of the Christmas experience is satisfied when her grandfather tells her, "There's a difference between celebrating something because you believe in it, and helping friends celebrate something because they believe in it"—making it okay for her to spend Christmas day with her friend Heather, after Heather has celebrated Hanukkah with her.

Not surprisingly, the book ducks some of the more complicated, philosophical issues about public celebrations of Christmas, and I disliked the implication that the heavy focus on it in school is okay. And, of course, Robin's solution to the problem is not for everyone. But it's an enjoyable book, as well as a fairly honest one. (7-11)

Maria: a Christmas Story by Theodore Taylor. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992 (0-15-217763-9 $13.95

A simple yet thought-provoking novella about a girl named Maria, who impulsively enters her family's farm in a competitive Christmas parade contest. As the first Mexican-American--and poor--family to enter, the Gonzaga's have to cope with covert racism that mocks them for aspiring to something they can't possibly afford to do. But in the end they prove--to themselves as well as their wealthy neighbors--that they can produce something special with their own resources. On the surface a fairly light-weight story, Maria left me thinking seriously about differences, standards and values.

Maria begins and ends as a historical tale; unfortunately, Taylor does not make it clear whether or not it is a true story.

The Little Book of Christmas selected by Caroline Walsh. Illustrated by Sophie Allsopp. Kingfisher, 1996 (0-7534-5017-8) $7.95

Poems, carols and excerpts from favorite stories make up this nicely designed Christmas reader. The poems range from Christina Rosetti to Ogden Nash, the excerpts from Dickens's Christmas Carol to Dylan Thomas's "A Conversation About Christmas," but they all work together to create a warm, surprisingly fresh atmosphere. The watercolor illustrations keep themselves appropriately in the background, never overpowering the poems, but contributing to the mood by incorporating traditional, old-fashioned images with an interesting mix of different styles, depicting silhouettes, a cloth painting, a shadowbox and a stained glass window, among others. (5 & up)

The Story of Kwanzaa by Donna L. Washington. Illustrated by Stephen Taylor. HarperCollins, 1996 (0-06-024818-1) $14.95; HarperTrophy, 1997 (0-06-446200-5) $5.95 pb

To give background on Kwanzaa, this book offers a very simplified introduction to the history of African Americans, from the beginning of slavery to the civil rights movement. "In 1966 a man named Dr. Maulana Karenga was one of the people involved in the civil rights movement. As part of his fight for African America he created a festival. He called this festival Kwanzaa." The book then explains the basics of the Kwanzaa celebration. Each page features a colorful segment of an African design and faces an illustration; although most of the pictures are straightforward depictions of the text, some make interesting uses of symbolism. But overall, this isn't a very engaging book and its description of Kwanzaa is pretty limited: for example, all it says about the fourth day, ujamaa is "this means that we support African-American businesses." One craft project and recipe at the end of the book seem like afterthoughts. (6-10)

Hanukkah Fun edited by Andrea R. Weiss. Illustrated by Mary F. Rhinelander. Boyds Mill, 1992 (1-56397-059-7) $4.95 pb

Handy for parents or teachers, this crafts booklet offers some easy ideas for Hanukkah decorations, games and homemade gifts. Along with the familiar projects like dough menorahs (and 3 other kinds), there are some more unusual suggestions, like a "star of David" glitter mobile, a Hanukkah jigsaw puzzle and a dreidel note pad. Actually, one of the things I noticed about this book is how easily many favorite crafts can be tailored to a Hanukkah theme. Some of the projects require adult assistance or supervision for younger children. (5-12)

The Birds' Christmas Carol by Kate Douglas Wiggin. Houghton Mifflin, 1886; 1999 (0-395-89110-8) $4.95 pb

In this short book by the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, an ailing little girl gives the gift of a wonderful Christmas to her poor neighbors as her last act on earth. It's not quite as soppy as it sounds (although plenty soppy enough); as in many 19th century children's stories, the unblushing sentimentality is leavened by a dose of down-to-earth humor, as when Wiggin writes about her angelic heroine: "... Carol had her way, as she generally did; but it was usually a good way, which was fortunate, under the circumstances." Some will find this book maudlin, but there is a genuine charm in its portrayal of the atmospheric mores of another time and the expression of Christmas spirit. (6-12)

It's a Gingerbread House written and illustrated by Vera B. Williams. Greenwillow, 1978; Mulberry, 1996 (0-688-14980-4) $5.95 pb

Part story but mostly craft project, this easy-reader has very thorough instructions for making a gingerbread house, just like the one Carrie, Benny and Sam happily consume in the story. Excellent for kids who want to make their own gifts. (6-10)

Sing Noel selected by Jane Yolen. Arranged by Adam Stemple. Illustrated by Nancy Sippel Carpenter. Boyds Mill, 1996 (1-56397-420-7) $17.95

This collection of 34 favorite Christmas songs—some traditional carols, some secular—features historical notes by Yolen on each song and its composer and lyricist. Old-fashioned watercolor scenes illustrate the corners of the music, which is printed on attractive, softly colored backgrounds. Scored for piano, with guitar chords.

The Flying Latke by Arthur Yorinks. Illustrations by Willim Steig; photo illustrations by Paul Colin and Arthur Yorinks. Simon & Schuster, 1999 (0-689-82597-8) $16.95

A decidedly weird, and occasionally very funny story, in which an arguing family accidentally turns an ordinary latke into a UFO circling the earth. Photo collages of typical--or even stereotypical--members of a large Jewish family are staged against a background drawn by Steig (with some odd cameos by famous illustrators Vladmmir Radunsky, Maurice Sendak and Steig himself.) Be sure not to miss the back cover, for the hilarious "players" credits. (5 & up)

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