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December 2006
‘Tis the Season for Holiday Books
by Mary Quattlebaum

‘Tis the busiest season of the year, a-bustle with holiday baking, decorating, shopping and visiting. Take time for a quiet snuggle with your family by sharing books just right for Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

Eleven-year-old Emma can’t believe her Christmas is about to be ruined by her doctor-mother’s summons to a birthing. From past experience, she knows it can take many hours for a baby to come — hours she has to spend waiting while Mama helps the laboring mother. But to alleviate the anxiety of the new baby’s two young siblings, Emma creates a holiday that all will remember. In Elizabeth Van Steenwyk’s Prairie Christmas (Eerdmans, 2006, ages 5 and up, $17), Emma forgets her own troubles by helping Hansie and Will decorate their bare tree with silver strands of horsehair, cooking a delectable cinnamon-flavored porridge and giving her own woolly scarf as a baby blanket. Warm-toned watercolors by Ronald Himler bring to life these and other homey details of late 19th-century America. A child-centered story about the true spirit of Christmas.

In Bear Noel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000, ages 2 to 6, $5.95 pbk.), the forest animals eagerly await their own Santa Claus. Wolf and hare whisper the news first to fox, then to boar and hedgehog. Soon the north woods echo with their words, which repeat each time a new animal is greeted: "He is coming … Who is coming … Bear Noel." Little ones will chime in happily on this refrain even as they turn the pages to catch a glimpse of the next new creature. Finally Bear Noel arrives on the scene, with jingling bells and a sack full of nuts, seed balls and red berries to festoon a forest fir. Author/illustrator Olivier Dunrea does a masterful job of matching luminous, snow-dusted landscapes and lively animals to his lyrical text. Young readers may well catch the generous impulse from the title character and want to prepare goodies for the hungry birds and animals in their own backyards.

Acclaimed singer/songwriter John McCutcheon pens what’s sure to be a classic in Christmas in the Trenches (Peachtree, 2006, ages 6 and up, $18.95). In answer to his grandchildren’s question about his favorite Christmas, Grandpa Francis launches into a reminiscence of one memorable night during his time as a World War I soldier, surrounded by other young soldiers "lonely and frightened, trying to be brave." Deftly, McCutcheon sets the mood: "The skies were clearing and frost covered No Man’s Land, the field that separated us from the German soldiers…. Between the bombs and the battles, war is mostly waiting. Waiting to see who will make the next move." That’s when the Germans start singing a Christmas carol, and the allies respond by singing their own. Soon soldiers from both sides are clambering from their trenches, mingling in No Man’s Land, sharing candy, playing ball — till dawn sends them "back to the trenches. Back to the waiting." Back to the war. Author’s and historical notes describe McCutcheon’s careful research into the Christmas Truce of 1914. Henri Sorensen’s powerful watercolors portray the loneliness and dreariness of war, while managing to convey the joy to be found in unexpected acts of kindness and connection. With our country now at war, this is an especially timely tale.

In Chanukah Lights Everywhere (Harcourt, 2001, ages 3 to 7, $6 pbk.), a little boy notices the lights not just on his family’s menorah but all around him. On the first night of Chanukah, he helps to light one candle and reflects on the moon "like a proud candle flame." The second night brings two lit candles and the two car headlights of Grandpa’s car and so on through the seventh night when the boy notes his Christian friend’s house with seven Christmas lights in the window and the eighth night full of stars "as though God, too, were lighting his own menorah." The text ends with the boy thinking beyond the holiday season "about being Jewish in such a wide world of so many other lights." Melissa Iwai’s light-filled illustrations beautifully match the tone of playful wonder informing Michael Rosen’s text. Kids will get a kick out of finding the many cats in the pictures, from a paw-washing tabby to a white snow-cat to a little girl dressed in a kitty snowsuit.

Jacqueline Jules and Katherine Kahn team up for another delightful tale of a wacky bird in The Ziz and the Hanukkah Miracle (Kar-Ben/Lerner, 2006, ages 3 to 7, $17.95). The author-illustrator team puts a whimsical spin on the traditional tale of miraculous oil by having the lamp oil first belong to the Ziz. Like any tot with a favorite toy, though, the Ziz is loathe to share the light from his lamp, either with other animals shivering in the darkness or with Judah, who needs the oil for the menorah at the Holy Temple. But after chatting with God (who comes across as a very patient figure), the Ziz discovers that his gift of light to the menorah serves to bring more light to him. This lesson in sharing never swerves to the didactic, though, thanks to Jules’s humorous touch and Kahn’s energetic pictures. The final pages find the Ziz in the midst of a cozy slumber party, with all his animal buddies enjoying his lamp. A happy ending, indeed, for the preschool set.

Kwanzaa brings a chance to reflect on the Seven Principles or, in Swahili, Nguzo Saba, of African culture that can help contribute to the building of family, community and culture. Nobody Gonna Turn Me Around: Stories and Songs of the Civil Rights Movement (Candlewick, 2006, ages 6 and up, $19.99) exemplifies the principles of unity and self-determination. In the face of loss and fear, African-Americans fought steadfastly in the late 1950s and ‘60s for the rights accorded all Americans under the Constitution. By including lesser-known figures with heroes, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks, author Doreen Rappaport emphasizes the importance of everyone who participated. Powerful, indeed, were 8-year-old Sheyann Webb, marching in Selma, Alabama, and Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper who lost home and job trying to register to vote and went on to work for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Rappaport, who taught in a Mississippi freedom school in 1965, punctuates her text with the freedom songs that served as a rallying force, whether sung in jails, in churches or during protest marches. Illustrator Shane Evans bears eloquent testimony to the struggle with images that range in mood from the grief of mourners at the open casket of murder victim Emmett Till to the determination of women organizing boycotts of segregated buses to the vibrant courage of marchers with upraised fists on the front cover. A compelling rendering of a turning point in American history.

Fifteen poems give a unique spin to music history in Jazz (Holiday House, 2006, ages 8 and up, $18.95). Acclaimed author Walter Dean Myers opens with a title poem that speaks of the African origins of jazz and "[d]rumming in tongues along the Nile," then swings to an exuberant tribute to Louie Armstrong in which that legendary trumpet player spanks a bad tune "like a naughty boy." The rhythm and word-play of poems such as "Be-Bop" and "Three Voices" will have kids bouncing and repeating lines like "[a] bippety-bop snake can’t bite my style" and "[t]hum, thum, thum, and thumming/I feel the ocean rhythm coming." Illustrator Christopher Myers brings the intensity of fluid lines and saturated color to his portraits of the jazz world. Fittingly, this creative father-son team dedicates their book, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, to "the children of New Orleans," birthplace of jazz. A wonderful book to celebrate Kwanzaa’s principle of creativity.

Holidays bring family together, and Ninety-Three in My Family (Abrams, 2006, ages 3 to 7, $15.95) reminds us how funny that experience can be. In rollicking rhyming verse by Erica Perl, a little boy dutifully recites for his teacher all the denizens of his home, including 27 owls, 10 cats, a gerbil named Ed and a pygmy hippo rejoicing in the moniker Bernice. Mike Lester’s exuberant illustrations ratchet up the humor with depictions of pop-eyed pizza-eating dogs, pajama-wearing frogs, shampoo-guzzling cats and, my favorite, Ed with his name emblazoned on a gerbil-sized T-shirt. Kids will have a great time finding and counting all the critters on each page, especially when the list grows to include two tigers, three armadillos, five gophers and six goldfish. The book ends on a delightful surprise note: Bernice presenting the family with its 94th member.

Mary Quattlebaum is a mother and the author most recently of Sparks Fly High (picture book) and Jackson Jones and the Curse of the Outlaw Rose (middle-grade novel). You can contact her at her website www.maryquattlebaum.com, which has information on her 15 award-winning children’s books and school presentations.

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