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Holiday High Notes 2012

Deck the halls, spin the dreidels…
and enjoy our annual selection of new holiday books, 
with reviews written by the Horn Book staff.

Daddy Christmas & HanukkahDaddy Christmas & Hanukkah Mama
by Selina Alko; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Knopf    32 pp.
9/12    978-0-375-86093-5    $16.99
Library ed.  978-0-375-96093-2    $19.99
Sadie, happily ensconced in two cultures, describes her family’s December holiday traditions. Daddy Christmas makes latkes for Santa while Hanukkah Mama hangs stockings by the fireplace, and neighborhood caroling involves both Christmas and Hanukkah songs. Upbeat gouache, colored-pencil, and collage illustrations give the illusion of texture and fabric, adding a handmade quality reminiscent of a scrapbook—appropriate for a story about the stitching together of cultural influences and traditions. DEVON JOHNSON

The Count's Hanukkah CountdownThe Count’s Hanukkah Countdown
by Tilda Balsley and Ellen Fischer; illus. by Tom Leigh
Preschool, Primary    Kar-Ben    24 pp.
8/12    978-0-7613-7556-2    $16.95
Paper ed.  978-0-7613-7557-9    $6.95    g
e-book ed.  978-1-4677-0694-0    $13.95
Sesame Street
mainstays Grover and the Count star, with new Israeli friends Avigail and Brosh, in this Shalom Sesame celebration of Hanukkah. Eight friends and family members—“the perfect Hanukkah number,” by the Count’s refrain—come together to light the menorah, feast on latkes and sufganiyot (jelly donuts), and listen to Uncle Joe’s retelling of the Hanukkah story. Bright, familiar-from-Sesame Street illustrations complement the text, which features a successful imitation of Grover’s signature singsong cadence, while bold-face numbers emphasize the Count’s favorite pastime. ALLISON E. COLE

Santa from CincinnatiSanta from Cincinnati
by Judi Barrett; illus. by Kevin Hawkes
Primary    Atheneum    48 pp.
10/12    978-1-4424-2993-2    $16.99
Who says Santa is supernatural? According to Barrett and Hawkes, he’s just an ordinary guy from Cincinnati blessed with a “jovial disposition,” an “obsession with toys,” a mind for invention, and a generous nature. The story follows the lad from babyhood through his early schooling and then to college (“where they let me major in toys and minor in business”), married life, and beyond. Santa’s first-person narration is plainspoken with an occasional, apt touch of folksiness. Hawkes’s vibrant acrylic and colored-pencil illustrations capture both the simpler-times Midwestern family sensibility and the winking, tall-tale elements of this satisfying origin story. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

Just Right for ChristmasJust Right for Christmas
by Birdie Black; 
illus. by Rosalind Beardshaw
Primary    Nosy Crow/Candlewick    32 pp.
9/12    978-0-7636-6174-8    $15.99
On Christmas Eve, a king asks his sewing maids to make a cloak for the princess from a beautiful cloth, “so red and soft and Christmassy.” Scraps from the cloth are left at the back door, where the castle’s kitchen maid finds them and makes a jacket for her mother. A badger named Bertie then uses the maid’s leftover scraps to make a hat for his pa, and the cycle continues as the fabric is put to use by tinier and tinier kingdom inhabitants. On Christmas morning, each gift “felt just right… / just how Christmas should feel.” Well-paired with Beardshaw’s jovial, wintry mixed-media art, Black’s story of thoughtful gift-giving—part Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, part Joseph Had a Little Overcoat—embodies the selflessness of true holiday spirit. KATRINA HEDEEN

Christmas ParadeChristmas Parade
by Sandra Boynton; 
illus. by the author
Preschool    Little Simon    32 pp.
10/12    978-1-4424-6813-9    $14.99
“Run to the window! / Pull up the shade!” A little pig in bunny slippers watches a Christmas parade pass by. An elephant keeps the beat with a bass drum (“BOOM-biddy / BOOM-biddy”); he’s followed by bassoon-playing chickens, pigs with balloons and a glockenspiel, hippo drummers (“and one drummer cat”), confetti-tossing reindeer, and a rhino dressed as Santa. Two cows, three mice, four ducks, and “the tiniest bird” add even more music and merriment. The band struts across richly colored monochromatic backgrounds that seem to make the wide-eyed animals march right off the pages. Boynton’s recognizable menagerie and up-tempo rhyming text brim with holiday cheer. KITTY FLYNN

Who Built the Stable?Who Built the Stable?: A Nativity Poem
by Ashley Bryan; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Atheneum    40 pp.
10/12    978-1-4424-0934-7    $16.99
“Who built the stable / Where the Baby Jesus lay? / Was it built of bricks, / Was it built of clay?” Bryan’s child-centered verse involves readers from the very start as it tells the Nativity story from the point of view of the young shepherd/carpenter’s apprentice who built that iconic stable. Lush illustrations offer a controlled tumult of verdant flora and fauna (on one spread multicolored elephants, lions, monkeys, and giraffes coexist with the more typical lambs and oxen). The book ends with the boy welcoming Mary and Joseph to his stable and then communing with Baby Jesus: “The boy looked in / The infant’s eyes and in his heart he knew: / The babe would be a carpenter. / He’d be a shepherd too.” MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

The Birds of BethlehemThe Birds of Bethlehem
by Tomie dePaola; illus. by the author
Primary    Paulsen/Penguin    40 pp.
10/12    978-0-399-25780-3    $16.99
Peaceably sharing the gleanings of the autumn harvest, a dozen birds are also discussing the news. The blue pair has seen a couple being led to the stables; the red birds have seen an angel in the sky; the brown ones have heard the heavenly host; etc. There isn’t any surprise or tension here, but the acrylic paintings of the birds and Holy Family (its members left unidentified) are theatrically composed on spacious spreads. The colors of the birds (each, as they are in nature, a different shade from its mate) are a refreshing contrast to the holiday’s usual hues. ROGER SUTTON

The Santa TrapThe Santa Trap
by Jonathan Emmett; 
illus. by Poly Bernatene
Primary    Peachtree    32 pp.
10/12    978-1-56145-670-3    $15.95
Bradley Bartleby is a menace—“he’d been born bad.” As his antics grow worse throughout the years, his parents cater to him (“because they were terrified”), but Santa does not: every Christmas Bradley receives only socks from jolly Saint Nick. So Bradley hatches a plan to capture Santa—using an absurdly intricate trap that includes dynamite, vicious tigers, a guillotine, and more—and make sure “the fat fool” gets exactly what he deserves. In a humorous twist ending, it’s Bradley who’s served his comeuppance (and another pair of socks). Bernatene’s digital illustrations bring the troublemaker’s beastliness to life in this cautionary tale disguised as a holiday romp. KATRINA HEDEEN

Christmas WombatChristmas Wombat
by Jackie French; 
illus. by Bruce Whatley
Preschool, Primary    Clarion    32 pp.
10/12    978-0-547-86872-1    $16.99
Wombat, whose sedentary lifestyle mostly revolves around eating carrots, embarks on an eventful Christmas Eve journey that transforms the creature from homebody to world traveler overnight. Wombat repeatedly stumbles across its favorite snack (“my carrots!”), stares down some reindeer, and curls up to catch naps on the back of Santa’s sleigh. As in Diary of a Wombat and Diary of a Baby Wombat (rev. 9/10), succinct sentences and episodic pacing allow Wombat’s adventures to speak for themselves. In the illustrations, spare backgrounds accentuate Wombat’s expressive eyes and rotund body, further playing up the character’s personality and the warmth and humor of this holiday tale. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

Becoming a BallerinaBecoming a Ballerina: A Nutcracker Story
by Lise Friedman; 
photos by Mary Dowdle
Primary, Intermediate    Viking    48 pp.
10/12    978-0-670-01392-0    $18.99
Friedman begins with a tantalizing glimpse backstage on opening night of the Boston Ballet’s annual Nutcracker season. From there, this photo-essay, told in the voice of young Boston Ballet student Fiona, jumps back several months to follow along as she auditions for the coveted role of Clara, wins the part, and prepares for her performance. Dowdle’s crisp color photographs document the ballet company onstage and behind the scenes. Young dancers will be entranced by the fascinating details of rehearsals, costuming, and staging, while Nutcracker fans will treasure this intimate view of a beloved holiday tradition. KATIE BIRCHER

Jeremy's DreidelJeremy’s Dreidel
by Ellie Gellman; illus. by Maria Mola
Primary    Kar-Ben    32 pp.
9/12    978-0-7613-7507-4    $17.95
Paper ed.  978-0-7613-7508-1    $7.95    g
e-book ed.  978-1-4677-0060-3    $13.95
Jeremy and his friends are enjoying the dreidel-making workshop at their local Jewish Community Center, especially since the children are being encouraged to be creative and put their own, er, spins on their designs. Jeremy decides to make a Braille dreidel for his blind father, which occasions the provision of much information about how blind people communicate and get around. But there is much info as well about Hanukkah and its miracles; and directions for making the featured dreidels, rules for playing with them, and the Braille alphabet are all appended. The illustrations are a little washed out but agreeably homey. ROGER SUTTON

Christmas TimeChristmastime
by Alison Jay; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Dial    32 pp.
11/12    978-0-8037-3804-1    $16.99
At first glance it’s a simple Christmas vocabulary concept book (“candle / holiday card / stocking”), but Jay’s jewel-toned, folk art–like paintings tell a different story (several intertwined ones, in fact) in this visually appealing volume. Incorporating scenes from familiar carols, Bible passages, and secular Santa lore, the pictures show two children traveling to the North Pole, meeting Santa, and returning home, where objects seen on their journey appear as toys under the tree. Sharp-eyed viewers will find much to enjoy throughout. An appended key identifies specific pictorial references to Christmas songs. LOLLY ROBINSON

Our Very Own ChristmasOur Very Own Christmas
by Annette Langen; 
illus. by Marije Tolman
Primary    NorthSouth    32 pp.
10/12    978-0-7358-4088-1    $17.95
Young siblings pretend to be Mary and Joseph journeying to Bethlehem. Small, colorful figures in expansive scenes of snow, the two children perform this Nativity play all for themselves, big sister gently reminding little brother of his lines (“Mary whispers to him softly. And little Joseph exclaims with feeling, ‘Oh, woe! Oh, woe!’”). Illustrator Tolman has thoughtfully included a flock of curious sheep and various woodland animals to keep the kids company. After Mary shouts, “Joseph, our baby, baby Christ is here!” they greet the three kings—a smiling mama and, perhaps, grandparents, looking bemused by the children’s gratitude for the “gold, franklin sense, and something else.” Langen’s story is sweet, but never cloying, and ends cozily, with everyone tucked up in a sled, towed behind a snowmobile, and headed toward a brightly lit house and sheep barn. JENNIFER M. BRABANDER

Pete the Cat Saves ChristmasPete the Cat Saves Christmas
by Eric Litwin; illus. by James Dean
Primary    Harper/HarperCollins    40 pp.
10/12    978-0-06-211062-6    $17.99
When Santa comes down with the flu on Christmas Eve, groovy blue cat Pete saves the day in his vintage red minibus pulled by eight reindeer. A rhyming text based on Clement C. Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas” moves the story along at a brisk pace while a refrain about perseverance brings things back down to earth: “Give it your all, give it your all. / At Christmas we give, so give it your all.” Dean’s casual, somewhat naive paintings show a world inhabited by cats (even Santa) except for the reindeer and a yellow bird who is Pete’s sidekick. LOLLY ROBINSON

Christmas at the Toy MuseumChristmas at the Toy Museum
by David Lucas; illus. by the author
Primary    Candlewick    32 pp.
9/12    978-0-7636-5868-7    $15.99
On Christmas Eve, the inhabitants of the Toy Museum are disappointed to find that there are no gifts waiting for them under the tree. Then wise old cat Bunting shares an epiphany: “Friends! Toys! Puppets!…Why don’t we all give one another ourselves?” They eagerly wrap each other up in boxes and paper (since everyone’s already wrapped, Bunting must tend to himself) and wait until morning. In a somewhat contrived ending, an angel who has been watching over events rewards Bunting for his selflessness with a wish. Lucas’s cozy ink and watercolor illustrations play up both the old-fashioned-looking toys’ well-loved-plaything qualities (e.g., a stuffed bear is missing an eye) and their human ones of kindness, sharing, and community. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

The Christmas TugboatThe Christmas Tugboat: How the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Came to New York City
by George Matteson and Adele Ursone; illus. by James E. Ransome
Primary    Clarion    48 pp.
11/12    978-0-618-99215-7    $17.99
A young girl narrates this absorbing account (based on a true story) of the long-ago year she helped her New York Harbor tugboat captain father deliver the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree to New York City. The tugboat’s journey—up the Hudson River to pick up the barge containing the enormous tree and downriver again—is described in child-friendly detail: what they ate; how loud the engines were; how Dad navigates the river at night; where the family slept. Jewel-toned paintings at times focus on the tugboat’s inhabitants as they work, taking the job very seriously; other spreads capture wider views of the city (including a faint outline of the Twin Towers), the river, and the towed barge’s unusual, festive cargo. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

Pancho ClausPancho Claus
by José-Luis ; 
illus. by Ashley Wolff
Primary    Dial    32 pp.
10/12    978-0-8037-3756-3    $16.99    g
On Christmas Eve, Spanish-speaking family members cook a holiday meal, complete with “tamales, nachos y tostadas,” and decorate their tree with “adornos navideños.” The next morning—“Ay, qué sorpresa!”—they discover that Pancho Claus has visited, bringing plenty of joy and “regalitos.” Inspired by Latino Christmas traditions and incorporating lots of Spanish words (glossary appended), Orozco adapts “The Night Before Christmas” in a text that begs to be read aloud. Wolff’s warm gouache and pastel illustrations emphasize family, while small details steadily build anticipation for Christmas Day. SUSAN GRAHAM

Fa La LaFa La La
by Leslie Patricelli; illus. by the author
Preschool    Candlewick    28 pp.
9/12    Board book ed.  978-0-7636-3247-2    $6.99
Patricelli’s baby character of indeterminate gender with the single corkscrew curl returns, here excited that Christmas is on the way: “It’s almost Christmas. I LOVE Christmas!” Among other holiday activities, our narrator describes picking out a tree, hand-crafting some gifts (e.g., a Scotch Tape necklace for Mommy), caroling, and eagerly awaiting Santa’s arrival. As with all of Patricelli’s board books, perfectly pitched to toddlers’ sensibilities, the straightforward text tells only part of the story. The illustrations—acrylics using simple shapes and bold black outlines against vibrant monochromatic backgrounds—fill in the rest by adding lots of personality and humor that can be appreciated both by squirmy kids and holiday-harried parents. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

Dinosaur Vs. SantaDinosaur vs. Santa
by Bob Shea; illus. by the author
Preschool    Disney-Hyperion    40 pp.
9/12    978-1-4231-6806-5    $15.99
The rambunctious little red dino previously tackled bedtime (rev. 9/08), the potty (rev. 1/11), and the library. Now Dinosaur’s getting ready for Christmas—writing Santa a letter (“ROAR! DRAW! SCRIBBLE! ROAR!”), decorating, making presents—and triumphing in each small battle (“Dinosaur wins!”). Temptation (in the form of a gingerbread cookie) almost bests him while he’s “being extra good,” but Dinosaur’s greatest challenge is “falling asleep on Christmas Eve.” The dynamic dino stands out amongst the bold holiday colors, thick lines, expressive type, and minimal mixed-media illustrations. Shea’s lively sense of humor and relatable-to-preschoolers scenarios will make this a holiday read-aloud hit. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

Adventures in Cartooning: Christma Special!Adventures in Cartooning: Christmas Special
by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold, 
and Alexis Frederick-Frost; 
illus. by the authors
Primary, Intermediate    First Second/Roaring Brook    
64 pp.    9/12    Paper ed.  978-1-59643-730-2    $9.99
Dismayed by the “digital age,” Santa decides a comic book is the perfect Christmas present for gadget-addicted kids. He enlists the Magical Cartooning Elf to help write and deliver it, but when the pair runs into trouble, a knight and dragon (two characters from the previous how-to book Adventures in Cartooning) save the day. The comic they create is such a hit that it inspires kids to “turn off their screens” and draw cartoons of their own. The book’s amiable cartoon-panel art and meta elements invite readers to giggle at old-fashioned Santa (with his insistence on a “Night Before Christmas”–style cadence) alongside his tech-savvy elves. KATIE BIRCHER

The Christmas Quiet BookThe Christmas Quiet Book
by Deborah Underwood; 
illus. by Renata Liwska
Preschool, Primary    Houghton    32 pp.
10/12    978-0-547-55863-9    $12.99
This pleasing companion to The Quiet Book and The Loud Book! explores quiet times of the season, such as “Snow angel quiet.” Liwska’s illustrations of gently rounded, softly furred animal-children extend Underwood’s brief text. Quiet doesn’t necessarily equal sedate, though; both words and pictures also incorporate winter-themed humor. “Knocking with mittens quiet” shows two rabbits at a door, one of whom clearly needs to pee; for “Nutcracker quiet” half an audience is engrossed in the ballet while the other half snoozes; for “Mistletoe quiet” a wide-eyed lamb faces a porcupine, a sprig of mistletoe atop its spiky head. Young audiences will relate to the emotions, from a Nativity play’s “Forgotten line quiet” (followed by “Helpful whisper quiet”) to “Hoping for a snow day quiet” (two bunnies riveted to the radio) to “Listening for sleigh bells quiet” (pictured on the cover of this issue of the Horn Book). JENNIFER M. BRABANDER

A Pirate's Twelve Days of ChristmasA Pirate’s Twelve Days of Christmas
by Philip Yates; illus. by Sebastià Serra
Primary    Sterling    40 pp.
10/12    978-1-4027-9225-0    $14.95
“On the fourth day of Christmas, a gift was sent to me: / 4 cacklin’ hens / 3 black cats, 2 cutlasses, an’ a parrot in a palm tree.” Sure, it’s a mouthful (and there are eight days to go!), but this pirate crew is having such a grand time you’ll get into the swashbuckling spirit in no time. Back for their second holiday high-seas adventure (A Pirate’s Night Before Christmas, rev. 11/08), the Black Sark buccaneers plan twelve days of Yuletide surprises for their cabin boy. The pirate lingo and raucously detailed color-rich illustrations add seafaring flair to this holiday standard. KITTY FLYNN

How Do Dinosaurs Say...?How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah?
by Jane Yolen; illus. by Mark Teague
Preschool, Primary    Blue Sky/Scholastic    32 pp.
9/12    978-0-545-41677-1    $16.99

How Do Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas?
by Jane Yolen; illus. by Mark Teague
Preschool, Primary    Blue Sky/Scholastic    32 pp.
9/12    978-0-545-41678-8    $16.99
Yolen and Teague’s mischievous dinos (How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? among many others) tackle holiday traditions and observances. Both books first depict the dinosaurs (with their human parents) modeling bad behavior. Chanukah shows the creatures peeking at presents, blowing out candles, and hoarding dreidels. Christmas finds the dinos un-decorating the tree, licking candy canes, and feasting on Santa’s cookies. By mid-book, in each case, the dinosaurs have settled down to demonstrate proper decorum. Bouncy rhymes and humorous illustrations—the images of vivacious large-scale dinosaurs alongside the staid, rather Rockwellian humans are consistently funny—combine to make welcome entries in Yolen and Teague’s Dinosaurs series and in holiday book collections. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ



  1. ROGER–I am so co-opting mistle-tov as a Chanukah-mass greeting!

    Jane Yolen

  2. Thanks very much for that. My son is dinosaur crazy, and I hadn’t come across Jane Yolen’s books before. And even better, I can get them from Amazon in the UK!

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  1. […] It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmakwanzukkah around here: Cindy and Martha have put up a Charlie Brown Christmas–sized tree by the Mag office and we’ve just posted our annual Holiday High Notes list. […]

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