Holiday High Notes

May your days be merry and bright…and may you enjoy our selection of new holiday books, with reviews written by the Horn Book staff.

storyofhanukkah1 Holiday High NotesThe Story of Hanukkah
by David A. Adler; illus. by Jill Weber
Primary    Holiday    32 pp.
8/11    978-0-8234-2295-1    $14.95
Adler’s straightforward, accessible retelling of the Hanukkah story begins in Judea at the temple “on top of a mountain and called the House of God…inside was a ner tamid, a light that always burned.” The violence against and oppression of Jews following King Antiochus IV’s coronation is detailed, along with triumphant revolt by the Maccabees. The narrative concludes with rebuilding of the temple — and the great miracle that happened there — along with modern-day observances of events; a recipe for latkes and instructions for the dreidel game are appended. Acrylic illustrations richly accented with deep blues and luminous golds recall ancient friezes and ceramics. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

wheniloveyouatchristmas Holiday High NotesWhen I Love You at Christmas
by David Bedford; illus. by Tamsin Ainslie
Preschool    Kane Miller    24 pp.
9/11    978-1-61067-039-5    $9.99
A little girl and her toy lamb prepare for Christmas — making cookies, decorating the tree, wrapping presents, singing in a pageant — while an unknown narrator showers her with love: “When you wrap your gifts / When you tie the bows / That’s when I love you.” The book’s small, square trim size; generous white space on well-composed double-page spreads; and cheerful illustrations full of eye-pleasing colors and patterns combine to make an attractive package for the youngest reader — and the final reveal of the narrator’s identity adds a fresh and funny spin, setting this one apart from the all-too-typical unconditional-love picture book. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

homeforchristmas Holiday High NotesHome for Christmas
by Jan Brett; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Putnam    32 pp.
11/11    978-0-399-25653-0    $17.99    g
Rollo, a “wild” young troll, has not lost his tail yet because he refuses to behave or help out at home. Fed up with his family’s demands, he runs away and spends months living with owls, bears, otters, a lynx, and moose. Slowly he realizes he fits in best with his own family. Just in time for Christmas, Rollo returns from the tundra a changed troll, minus his tail and ready to lend a hand with his Mama, Papa, and Little Sister. Brett’s signature borders surrounding her detailed illustrations of Rollo’s journey enhance the story with images of his family back home doing their chores and missing him, while others highlight upcoming spreads. A visually appealing Scandinavian holiday folk story designed for repeat visits. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

badkittychristmas Holiday High NotesA Bad Kitty Christmas
by Nick Bruel; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Porter/Roaring Brook    40 pp.
10/11    978-1-59643-668-8    $15.99    g
In this parody of “The Night Before Christmas,” Bad Kitty escapes from her owners after ruining an entire alphabet’s worth of Christmas presents and decorations (“The eggnog was ended / The fruitcake was flung / The gifts were all gutted / The holly un-hung”). A kindly old lady takes in the lost and frightened feline. Her rescuer doesn’t have much, but she’s willing to share her home — and her holiday spirit — with Kitty. Once reunited with her family, Kitty returns the favor in a satisfying conclusion. Bruel slyly adapts the familiar poetic structure; Kitty’s over-the-top expressions make her bad behavior even funnier. KATIE BIRCHER

christmasgoodnight Holiday High NotesA Christmas Goodnight
by Nola Buck; illus. by Sarah Jane Wright
Preschool    Tegen/HarperCollins    24 pp.
10/11    978-0-06-166491-5    $12.99
Saying goodnight to all the participants in the Christmas story (“Goodnight to the baby in the hay. / Goodnight to the doves, coo coo. / Goodnight to the sleepy mother. / Goodnight to Joseph, too”) turns out to be the Christmas Eve practice of a little boy with his manger scene before he goes to bed. As the narrative migrates from the nativity to the boy’s snowy rural home, the creative twist in the plot naturally reveals itself. The soothing rhyming text and soft palette of the illustrations is ideal for bedtime read-alouds while also serving as a straightforward introduction to the important characters in the story of that first Christmas. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

lighthousechristmas Holiday High NotesLighthouse Christmas
by Toni Buzzeo; illus. by Nancy Carpenter
Primary    Dial    32 pp.
10/11    978-0-8037-3053-3    $16.99    g
Frances and her little brother worry that Santa won’t be able to find them on their isolated Maine island (their father is the new lighthouse keeper). Storms have even prevented the supply boat from coming, so they’ll have no presents and nothing but beans for Christmas dinner. But when their father must venture out into a nor’easter and needs Frances’s help to keep the lighthouse lamp lit, she begins to accept her situation. The sudden arrival of a small plane dropping gifts and supplies, though based on historical fact, adds one too many elements to an overcrowded plot; but readers looking for a feel-good holiday story will find one here. Carpenter’s homey, old-fashioned illustrations, in the cool colors of a wintry island, are appropriately weathered and windblown. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

moneywellsave Holiday High Notesstar2 Holiday High Notes The Money We’ll Save
by Brock Cole; illus. by the author
Primary    Ferguson/Farrar    32 pp.
10/11    978-0-374-35011-6    $16.99    g
Cole’s blithe illustrations, comfortably crowded with his amusing, expressive characters, set this entertaining holiday story in nineteenth-century New York City. A tiny flat is no place for a live turkey, but when Pa brings one home to fatten up for Christmas (“Think of the money we’ll save!”), the family makes the best of it. Alfred, as they name the bird, proves to be a noisy, scowling glutton, the small tenement apartment now overflowing with “messed on” newspapers in Cole’s cheerfully disheveled-looking pictures. Just as everyone has had enough, Pa announces it’s time to visit the butcher. “We can’t eat Alfred!” shout the children, yet they’re eager to get rid of him. A brilliant solution satisfies everyone, including Alfred, and while the family has only oatmeal for Christmas dinner, Ma gives Pa a kiss, saying, “Ah, but think of the money we saved.” JENNIFER M. BRABANDER

littlestevergreen Holiday High NotesThe Littlest Evergreen
by Henry Cole; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Tegen/HarperCollins    32 pp.
10/11    978-0-06-114619-0    $16.99
Raised on a hillside amongst its fellow pines, the littlest evergreen, Cole’s narrator, is dug out of the earth late one autumn by men searching for Christmas trees. They forgo using their chainsaw on it, believing it “too small to make much of tree,” but a young family purchases it and, after Christmas, replants the pine, which thrives. The tree’s small stature, once thought to be its greatest weakness, is what allows it to escape the fate of curbside pickup and to have a “long and beautiful life.” Through a clear, engaging text and lush yet lively illustrations, Cole celebrates embracing that which makes us unique in a narrative that also focuses on respecting nature. LAURA MARENGHI

christmasevegoodnight Holiday High NotesChristmas Eve Good Night
by Doug Cushman; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Holt    32 pp.
8/11    978-0-8050-6603-6    $12.99    g
As a girl holds a snow globe containing a miniature Santa’s workshop, the rhyming text asks how critters at the North Pole would say good night on Christmas Eve. A reindeer says “Jingle! Jingle!”; a toy robot says “Bzz! Clank!”; the elves say something that looks runic and vaguely Viking (have fun with that, readers-aloud); Santa calls out “Merry Christmas to all! / And to all a Good Night!” The book closes with the girl again, now sound asleep; when readers spot her pointy elf ears, they’ll turn right back to the beginning to see how Cushman’s clever, colorful illustrations disguised her as a human girl. JENNIFER M. BRABANDER

StregaNonasGift Holiday High NotesStrega Nona’s Gift
by Tomie dePaola; illus. by the author
Primary    Paulsen/Penguin    32 pp.
10/11    978-0-399-25649-3    $16.99
In a new picture book by Wilder Award winner dePaola marking the feast days of Italy, Strega Nona is busy cooking, as usual — and sorting out Big Anthony’s troubles, also as usual. (When he can’t resist the delectable treats Strega Nona prepared for the animals on the Eve of Epiphany, he misses out on her gift of a dream about wonderful food, but eventually he makes amends and even gets to be king of the feast.) From the Feast of San Nicola on December 6 to the Feast of Epiphany on January 6, Strega Nona’s Calabrian village celebrates the season. Glowing watercolors in warm Mediterranean colors capture both the details of each feast day and the humor of Big Anthony’s (very human) foibles. Community, piety, ritual, and food: Strega Nona and Tomie dePaola know exactly what Christmas is all about. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

christmastreeforpyn Holiday High NotesA Christmas Tree for Pyn
by Olivier Dunrea; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Philomel    32 pp.
10/11    978-0-399-24506-0    $16.99
Little Pyn lives in a desolate cottage with her father, Oother, a gruff, unsentimental mountain man. Pyn wants a Christmas tree this year — the small family’s first — but Oother, with an “umphf,” replies, “No Christmas tree.” Determined Pyn sets out in a snowstorm to find the perfect tree and gets some surprising help from Oother. Eventually, Oother allows his daughter’s love to warm his tough exterior, and his holiday spirit is revealed. Dunrea’s simple pencil and gouache pictures depict the pair’s differences (both in size and demeanor) and, gradually, their quiet mutual affection. This heartfelt tale is as much about father-daughter bonding as it is about the power of Christmas to melt a cold heart. KATRINA HEDEEN

jinglebells Holiday High NotesJingle Bells: How the Holiday Classic Came to Be
by John Harris; illus. by Adam Gustavson
Primary    Peachtree    32 pp.
10/11    978-1-56145-590-4    $16.95
Based on a true story, Harris’s brisk text uses a liberal amount of invented conversation to embellish the tale of a northern-born songsmith living in 1850s Savannah, Georgia, and longing for a snowy winter. It’s a hot November, and John Lorn Pierpont, Unitarian choir director, is struggling to come up with a new Thanksgiving song for the annual concert when he suddenly thinks of the sound of jingling bells. Gustavson’s accomplished paintings, realistic yet folksy, reveal small dramas not in the text, and each face in the choir and congregation seems to hide an entire character study. An author’s note with photos at the end provides more information. LOLLY ROBINSON

babymousechristmas Holiday High NotesA Very Babymouse Christmas
by Jennifer L. Holm; illus. by Matthew Holm
Primary, Intermediate    Random    93 pp.
9/11    Paper ed.  978-0-375-86779-8    $6.99
Library ed.  978-0-375-96779-5    $12.99
The must-have gift this Christmas? It’s a Whiz Bangtm, and Babymouse feels she simply cannot live without the latest electronic marvel: “It plays video games and movies, it texts, sees into the future, folds laundry, and does homework!” This graphic novel’s single-minded focus reflects Babymouse’s all-consuming obsession, a condition with which readers are likely to be familiar. Her holiday-classic-inspired, pink-hued daydreams allow Babymouse to switch off the mania for a while (though “the Sugarplum Whiz Bangstm” do make an appearance). The sentimental lesson delivered in the end — “Sometimes the best gift is one you didn’t even know you wanted, huh, Babymouse?” — is obvious, but one that fits the season and bears repeating. KITTY FLYNN

listentothesilentnight1 Holiday High NotesListen to the Silent Night
by Dandi Daley Mackall; illus. by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher
Preschool, Primary    Dutton    32 pp.
10/11    978-0-525-42276-1    $16.99    g
Employing the refrain “It was not such a silent night,” this narrative poem relates the nativity through its sounds: the flip, flap, flap of Joseph’s sandals as he and Mary enter Bethlehem; his rap, tap, tap at the door of the inn; the moo! moo! moo! of the stable’s inhabitants; the flut-flut-flutter of descending angels. Mackall’s carefully constructed verse emphasizes that while the first Christmas may not have been the “silent night” the old hymn would have us believe, it was a “miraculous” one. Johnson and Fancher’s peaceful illustrations eloquently capture the range of emotions from Mary’s weariness to the joy of Jesus’ birth. KATIE BIRCHER

elmerschristmas Holiday High NotesElmer’s Christmas
by David McKee; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Andersen    32 pp.
9/11    978-0-7613-8088-7    $16.95
e-book ed.  978-0-7613-8090-0    $12.95
After a day of preparing for Christmas, Elmer the patchwork elephant and seven young elephants sneak away to spy on Papa Red. Papa Red arrives (complete with Santa hat and whiskers) and gathers up the gifts from under the tree. The young elephants are delighted to have seen him, and when they note that Papa Red took all the gifts, Elmer explains that “this is the season for giving.” McKee’s story sends a strong but friendly reminder of the importance of generosity and goodwill during the holiday season. The playful, vividly colored illustrations complement the book’s cheery tone. KAZIA BERKLEY-CRAMER

chanukahlights Holiday High NotesChanukah Lights
by Michael J. Rosen; illus. by Robert Sabuda
Primary    Candlewick    16 pp.
9/11    978-0-7636-5533-4    $34.99
Starting in the temple two thousand years ago, this satisfying pop-up travels around the globe and through the ages (desert tent, kibbutz, tall ship, tenement) to show all the places where menorahs have been lit. On each spread, the background is brightly painted while the pop-up elements are white — except for a cleverly hidden representation of a lit menorah. Rosen’s brief text takes the reader from the first night of Hanukkah (two flames) to the last (all nine flames), ending with a modern city in which a menorah towers above all like art deco skyscrapers with gold triangles at the top. This is a satisfying and even uplifting experience that demands repeat viewings. LOLLY ROBINSON

carpentersgift Holiday High NotesThe Carpenter’s Gift
by David Rubel; illus. by Jim LaMarche
Primary    Random    48 pp.
9/11    978-0-375-86922-8    $17.99    g
During the Great Depression, down-on-their-luck Henry and his father bring spruces into Manhattan to sell as Christmas trees; through some good fortune and a little Christmas magic, kindly construction workers they meet there build the impoverished family a new house. Henry never forgets the wonder of that day or the kindness of those strangers. As an old man, he’s given the opportunity to pay it forward: an enormous spruce tree that he planted all those decades before becomes the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, and its lumber is later used to build a similarly needy family a new home. Rubel’s story of compassion hits all the right holiday notes; LaMarche’s lush, warm illustrations of glowing Christmas trees and smiling, caring characters drive home the central message of charity. KATRINA HEDEEN

hanukkahhop Holiday High NotesThe Hanukkah Hop!
by Erica Silverman; illus. by Steven D’Amico
Preschool    Simon    32 pp.
10/11    978-1-4424-0604-9    $12.99
On the last night of Hanukkah, with all the candles lit, Rachel’s parents host “our first ever Hanukkah Hop!” Extended family and friends gather in the streamer-festooned, latke-perfumed living room. The evening starts sedately, with Hanukkah story-telling and dreidel-spinning. With the arrival of the Mazel-Tones klezmer band, the celebration ramps up: “Biddy-biddy bim-bom bim-bom bop. / Spin! Swing! Sway! / Dive! Jump! Pop! / The party’s going wild at the Hanukkah Hop!” Like the enthusiastic revelers, Silverman’s gleeful text has rhythm. D’Amico’s angular illustrations, with their circa-1950s flair, keep up the pace, as the partygoers overtake all available space in the living room and on the pages. Readers’ toes are sure to be tapping throughout this unabashedly joyful Hanukkah romp. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

christmascoat Holiday High NotesThe Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood
by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve; illus. by Ellen Beier
Primary    Holiday    32 pp.
8/11    978-0-8234-2134-3    $16.95
It’s a harsh winter in young Virginia’s Sioux village on the South Dakota prairie. Virginia longs for a new coat but knows she’ll have to make do with her too-short, too-thin one, at least until the boxes full of donated used clothing arrive from “Theast”; i.e., New England. As the Episcopal priest’s daughter, Virginia always gets last pick, and she can’t help feeling a pang when a flashy fur coat she covets goes to another girl. With its authentic portrait of a Sioux childhood and Christmas traditions (captured in watercolor and gouache illustrations) and its eventual happy ending (a final box arrives containing the beautiful red coat Virginia had dreamed of, a reward for her unselfishness), this is a quiet but affecting picture book. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

perfectchristmas Holiday High NotesThe Perfect Christmas
by Eileen Spinelli; illus. by JoAnn Adinolfi
Primary    Ottaviano/Holt    32 pp.
10/11    978-0-8050-8702-4    $16.99    g
Abigail Archer (from The Perfect Thanksgiving) and her family do Christmas Martha Stewart-style. Holly bedecks the halls, elegant baked goods are tastefully presented, and the attractive relatives are refined and well mannered. Taking a less-manicured approach, the narrator’s family pulls out the old fake tree and the bargain bin decorations, Grandma over-bakes the cookies, and the loud pickup truck-driving relatives are not refined. The rhyming text isn’t always perfectly polished, either, but the jolly collage art ties it all together, depicting each family’s traditions with finesse. A Christmas snowfall brings both families outside “together / laughing and dancing / through the snow.” That’s the extent of the conflict, which might be a refreshing break from too much family-holiday togetherness. KITTY FLYNN

greatestgift2 Holiday High NotesThe Greatest Gift: The Story of the Other Wise Man
retold by Susan Summers; illus. by Jackie Morris
Primary    Barefoot    32 pp.
11/11    978-1-84686-578-7    $16.99    g
In this retelling of a fictional tale, a fourth wise man, Artaban, intends to travel with the three other magi to honor baby Jesus. But when Artaban stops to heal a man in need, he finds himself left behind. After years of helping the distressed during his travels, Artaban arrives in Jerusalem just as Jesus is about to be crucified. Artaban is faced with one final dilemma: try to free Jesus, or release a young girl from captivity. When Artaban frees the helpless girl, the spirit of Jesus thanks Artaban for repeatedly helping His children over the years. The appropriately formal language is accompanied by rich, saturated watercolors that portray Middle Eastern characters and scenery during biblical times. This heartwarming story will remind readers that the holiday season is about giving to those less fortunate. LAUREN KIM

onestarrynight Holiday High NotesOne Starry Night
by Lauren Thompson; illus. by Jonathan Bean
Preschool, Primary    McElderry/Simon    32 pp.
10/11    978-0-689-82851-5    $16.99
“One starry night / a sheep watched over her lamb / I am here.” In Thompson’s poetic, reverent text, two voices tell of the night Jesus was born. Eight animal parents watch over their young; then all gather under the stars with Mary and Joseph to welcome the baby Jesus: “and the world was filled with love / God’s will be done / Amen.” This peaceful ode to parental love is just right for bedtime reading. Bean’s digitally colored pencil illustrations portray the calm nighttime scenes in black, beige, dark gray-blue, and a sprinkling of white. The gentle words are beautifully matched by the strikingly composed art; both are infused with meaning and are powerful in their simplicity. KITTY FLYNN

franklinandwinston Holiday High NotesFranklin and Winston: A Christmas That Changed the World
by Douglas Wood; illus. by Barry Moser
Primary, Intermediate    Candlewick    40 pp.
9/11    978-0-7636-3383-7    $16.99
In December 1941 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill traveled to the United States and spent the holidays with President Franklin Roosevelt at the White House. During his visit, they formed an alliance to fight the Axis Powers and crafted a charter for the United Nations. Wood’s somewhat idealized snapshot of this significant moment in history provides interested readers a glimpse into the lives of these two great men and their Christmas meeting, along with a few humorous anecdotes that add levity to an otherwise solemn text. Moser based his impressive watercolor paintings, a mix of full pages and vignettes, on photographs from the period. His images skillfully capture the likenesses of these iconic figures and the importance of their meeting for the future of the world. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

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  1. […] story of compassion hits all the right holiday notes,” writes the Horn Book. “LaMarche’s lush, warm illustrations of glowing Christmas trees and smiling, caring […]

  2. […] even more holiday books, see last year’s Holiday High Notes. Additional Hanukkah-specific reading is here and […]

  3. […] Please visit Holiday High Notes for publication information on these recommended holiday […]

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