Have yourself a merry little read-through of our annual selection of new holiday books, with reviews written by the Horn Book staff.
When Santa Was a Baby
by Linda Bailey; illus. by Geneviève Godbout
Primary Tundra 32 pp.
10/15 978-1-77049-556-2 $16.99
e-book ed. 978-1-77049-558-6 $10.99
In the tradition of Agee’s Little Santa (rev. 11/13) and Krensky’s How Santa Got His Job, here’s another Santa origin story. This child is Santa from the word go, booming “HO, HO, HO!” in the cradle, delivering presents to other children as a toddler, training hamsters to pull a makeshift miniature sleigh. His proud, adoring parents speculate about his future: his insistence on wearing red might mean he’ll be a firefighter; his interest in the chimney’s soot, a scientist; etc. Young readers, who know better, will enjoy watching Santa grow up to be exactly who he is. Warm, textured pastel and colored-pencil illustrations on generous double-page spreads enrich this gentle, humorous, love-suffused tale. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO
Is It Hanukkah Yet?
by Chris Barash; illus. by Alessandra Psacharopulo
Preschool, Primary Whitman 32 pp.
10/15 978-0-8075-3384-0 $16.99 g
This quiet rhyming picture book begins with a wintry outdoor scene: “When frosty winds blow and snow’s all around / And there’s no sign of green on the trees or the ground… / Hanukkah is on its way.” Two children eagerly await the holiday, first frolicking outdoors with the friendly forest animals, then playing inside. Anticipation builds as the trappings of Hanukkah appear — decorations, guests, a menorah, dreidels — until finally: “Hanukkah is here!” Warm, soft-hued illustrations of smiling, rosy-cheeked people and creatures resemble those on old-fashioned holiday greeting cards. JENNIFER TAYLOR
Comes to America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers
Created a Holiday Tradition
by Chris Barton; illus. by Cathy Gendron
Primary, Intermediate Millbrook 40 pp.
9/15 978-1-4677-2151-6 $19.99
e-book ed. 978-1-4677-8848-9 $19.99
Barton’s folksy, direct-address text introduces three brothers from Utah, all dancers, who eventually teamed up at the San Francisco Ballet to present the first full production in the United States of The Nutcracker, on Christmas Eve 1944. Tchaikovsky’s music had become popular by then, but the general public didn’t know his ballets. The vaudeville-trained Christensen brothers knew a good thing when they saw it. Gendron’s art effectively reproduces traditional ballet poses and makes the most of the book’s large trim size. This is a good book to share with children after seeing a performance of The Nutcracker. LOLLY ROBINSON
Cork & Fuzz: Merry Merry Holly Holly
by Dori Chaconas; illus. by Lisa McCue
Preschool, Primary Viking 32 pp.
10/15 978-0-451-47501-5 $16.99 g
In their first picture book, easy-reader best friends Cork (a deep-thinking muskrat) and Fuzz (a happy-go-lucky possum) roam the snowy landscape, wondering why the day feels so special. Cork keeps looking for a quiet place to think, while Fuzz distractingly sings ditties (“Merry, merry, holly, holly, ho-ho-ho!”) and shakes a jingle bell. Finally, as darkness falls, they come upon a lighted fir tree, and Cork realizes why the day is special. His conclusion is not the expected one — yet it may feel just as Christmas-y as an overt recognition of the holiday. Expansive watercolor illustrations evoke a beautiful winter’s woodland day but keep the focus tightly on the two friends. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO
Click, Clack, Ho! Ho! Ho!
by Doreen Cronin; illus. by Betsy Lewin
Preschool, Primary Atheneum 40 pp.
9/15 978-1-4424-9673-6 $17.99
e-book ed. 978-1-4424-9674-3 $10.99
It’s Christmas Eve, and Farmer Brown (Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, rev. 3/00) is putting the final touches on his holiday decorations. When he hears a “pitter-patter on the roof,” he runs off to bed, believing Santa has arrived. But the pitter-patter isn’t Santa: Duck is attempting his own Santa-like entry. When Duck gets stuck in the chimney, the sheep, cows, pigs, and rest of the farm animals arrive to lend a hoof, paw, or webbed foot. Lewin’s watercolor illustrations, with their slapstick situations and expressive animal body language, work beautifully with Cronin’s humorous (“Ho! Ho! Uh-oh”) text: a smattering of expertly placed wordless spreads allows Duck’s stealth antics to do the talking. SIÂN GAETANO
by Kristyn Crow; illus. by Molly Idle
Primary Bloomsbury 40 pp.
9/15 978-1-61963-640-8 $16.99
e-book ed. 978-1-61963-810-5 $9.99
Zombie-girl Zombelina is overjoyed to win the coveted part of Clara in the Nutcracker ballet, but she’s sad for Lizzie, cast in a minor role. Zombelina comforts her friend: “You’ll have your big moment someday.” That moment comes sooner than expected when Zombelina’s ghostly grandpa causes mischief during opening night and Zombelina lends Lizzie her (detachable) legs to take over the performance while Zombelina handles Grandpa. Colored-pencil illustrations perfectly capture the dancers’ graceful movements — check out that friendship duet after the casting announcement — and supplement the punny rhyming text (“everyone needs a leg up”) with visual humor. Part Nutcracker primer, part supernatural comedy, part friendship tale, and an all-around bravura performance. KATIE BIRCHER
Time for Cranberries
by Lisl H. Detlefsen; illus. by Jed Henry
Primary Roaring Brook 32 pp.
9/15 978-1-62672-098-5 $17.99
Detlefsen’s story follows a boy named Sam, who is finally old enough to participate in his first fall cranberry harvest on his parents’ farm. With waders donned, the family gets to work. From the flooding of the cranberry marshes to the booming, corralling, suctioning, cleaning, and delivering, details of the harvest throughout are educational and informative. The illustrations’ reds, yellows, and oranges create a vibrant and cozy fall setting as the family works together in a labor of love (and commerce), and the payoff comes at the end, with cranberry pie for Thanksgiving. Recipes, an author’s note, and a glossary are appended. WILLA ZHANG
The Knights Before Christmas
by Joan Holub; illus. by Scott Magoon
Primary Ottaviano/Holt 32 pp.
9/15 978-0-8050-9932-4 $16.99
Brave Knight, Polite Knight, and Silent Knight are “guarding the castle / for their illustrious king” on Christmas Eve. Too bad they didn’t get the memo about Santa’s visit. When the jolly old elf tries to deliver presents, these well-intentioned protectors of the castle take a defensive stance: “Dash away, dash away! / Invader, get out!” A fierce (not really) battle plays out with Santa catapulting (via a Christmas tree) sugarplums and more as he “storms” the castle. This rousing, ridiculous medieval “Night Before Christmas” parody jingles with castle- and holiday wordplay. Cheeky digital illustrations brim with good cheer. KITTY FLYNN
Bea in The Nutcracker
by Rachel Isadora; illus. by the author
Preschool Paulsen/Penguin 32 pp.
10/15 978-0-399-25231-0 $16.99 g
“Here is Bea. She is excited because her ballet class is going to perform The Nutcracker. She will be Clara!” Bea (Bea at Ballet, rev. 7/12) and her diverse group of classmates put on an all-little-kid rendition of the famous Christmas ballet, gently introducing listeners to a simplified version of its story while providing a warmly humorous glimpse of life on the stage (Bea to a mouse-costumed classmate: “You forgot to put on your tail!”). The main text follows the action; word balloons allow the kids to interject their enthusiasm. Textured oil-painted paper collage adds traditional Christmas reds and greens as well as the production’s candy-hued pastels to the friendly black-and-white line art. KATIE BIRCHER
Miracle on 133rd Street
by Sonia Manzano; illus. by Marjorie Priceman
Primary Atheneum 40 pp.
9/14 978-0-689-87887-9 $17.99
e-book ed. 978-1-4814-2892-7 $10.99
Mami rues having left Puerto Rico when the Christmas Eve roast won’t fit in the family’s tiny New York City apartment’s oven. Little José jokingly suggests they use a pizza oven instead. “That’s not a bad idea!” says Papi, and the two head out, carrying the roast through their snowy neighborhood to Regular Ray’s Pizzeria. Nearly everyone is curmudgeonly along the way — neighbors (“I thought someone’s television was being stolen!”), kids bickering outside — until the roast’s aroma knocks some holiday cheer into them and they all parade back to José’s family’s fourth-floor apartment to celebrate together. It’s a cheerful Christmas story notable for its nonchalantly multiethnic cast and its vibrant urban setting, brought to high-spirited life in Priceman’s bright, swirling gouache and ink illustrations. KATRINA HEDEEN
Sharing the Bread: An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving Story
by Pat Zietlow Miller; illus. by Jill McElmurry
Primary Schwartz & Wade/Random 32 pp.
9/15 978-0-307-98182-0 $17.99
Library ed. 978-0-307-98183-7 $20.99
e-book ed. 978-0-307-98184-4 $10.99
As Thanksgiving dinner approaches, everyone in this industrious nineteenth-century family — from Grandma and Grandpa down to Baby — takes part in preparing for the feast. “Mama, fetch the cooking pot… / Brother, baste the turkey well… / Uncle, swing the cider jug…” The little-boy narrator, meanwhile, checks in on all the preparations until the family is finally seated around the table to say grace and enjoy the fruits of their labor. McElmurry’s gouache illustrations, in a textured palette of browns, oranges, and dark blues, are imbued with quiet energy. Miller’s patterned rhyming text has the cadence of a folk song and captures just how joyful (and exhausting) Thanksgiving feasts can be. J. ALEJANDRO MAZARIEGOS
The Night Before Christmas
by Clement C. Moore; illus. by David Ercolini
Primary Orchard/Scholastic 32 pp.
10/15 978-0-545-39112-2 $16.99 g
In this laugh-out-loud version of Moore’s famous poem, the 1823 text is unchanged, but Ercolini’s deadpan acrylic illustrations scream modern-day America. Here, the house in which “not a creature was stirring” is the most over-decorated one in the neighborhood — or possibly the world. A huge neon “WELCOME SANTA” sign points to the blazing-with-lights house; an enormous inflatable Santa adorns the roof. Inside, every possible inch of space is devoted to Christmas (while Dad peruses Home Decor magazine for yet more ideas). Santa himself is jolly, gluttonous, and fond of playing with remote-control toys. Myriad details invite repeated readings, and the subplot involving the resident dog, cat, and (yes) mouse adds even more humor and goofy charm. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO
The Gingerbread Man
Loose at Christmas
by Laura Murray; illus. by Mike Lowery
Preschool, Primary Putnam 32 pp.
10/15 978-0-399-16866-6 $16.99 g
This jolly book, in addition to bringing us another entertaining Gingerbread Man escapade (The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School, rev. 9/11; The Gingerbread Man Loose on the Fire Truck, rev. 7/13), serves as a sort of pre-origin story for our hero. He may have been baked in the oven by schoolchildren, but where’d they get the recipe? Over the course of this book the students dash around town spreading cheer to community helpers. At the story’s climax, the Gingerbread Man meets his maker (don’t worry, it’s just in the literal sense; though there is some actual cookie-peril along the way). Lowery’s festive illustrations of cookie and co., done in “pencil, traditional screen printing, and digital color,” are a treat, while Murray’s rhymes are continually surprising and satisfying. She can make you work, but the payoff is there: “Next came a garbage man picking up trash, / so we dropped off some goodies to stash on his dash.” ELISSA GERSHOWITZ
A Shiloh Christmas
by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Intermediate Atheneum 246 pp.
9/15 978-1-4814-4151-3 $17.99 g
e-book ed. 978-1-4814-4154-4 $10.99
This is a Christmas story, but first Marty and Shiloh and their family must get through a new-school routine, Halloween, and Thanksgiving, not to mention a drought and subsequent wildfire. As in the three previous books centered on the now-iconic dog Shiloh, the rural West Virginia setting and the relationships among its inhabitants are warmly but unsentimentally drawn. The story is episodic, with through-lines provided by a new girl in an unhappy home and the continuing (and believable) rehabilitation of Judd Travers. The Christmas Day conclusion provides the best kind of heartwarming: earned. ROGER SUTTON
Hanukkah Is Coming!
by Tracy Newman; illus. by Viviana Garofoli
Preschool Kar-Ben 12 pp.
9/15 978-1-4677-5241-1 $5.99
e-book ed. 978-1-4677-8837-3 $5.99
The family from Shabbat Is Coming! and other board books in publisher Kar-Ben’s series about Jewish life eagerly awaits the start of Hanukkah. “Winter is near. / Long nights are here. / Hanukkah is coming.” The yarmulke-wearing dad, pigtailed big sister, and strawberry-blondies mother and son — plus cheerful dog — light candles, fry latkes, sing songs, spin dreidels, and pretend to be Maccabees, all shown in warm digital-looking illustrations. The timeline is a titch confusing (are these scenes all in flashback? Is the family doing prep work? Are they imagining what Hanukkah will be like this year?), since it’s not until the last spread that “Hanukkah is here!” But the “Hanukkah is coming” refrain, coupled with simple, child-friendly rhymes, is reassuring, and effectively builds anticipation for the Festival of Lights. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ
Dear Santa, Love,
by Amanda Peet and Andrea Troyer; illus. by Christine Davenier
Primary Doubleday 40 pp.
10/15 978-0-553-51061-4 $17.99
Library ed. 978-0-553-51062-1 $20.99
e-book ed. 978-0-553-51063-8 $10.99
Rachel Rosenstein is bummed to be the only kid in her decorated-to-the-hilt neighborhood who doesn’t celebrate Christmas. When her pleas for twinkly lights and a tree go unheeded in her Jewish household, Rachel takes matters into her own hands, festooning the living room with homemade decorations on Christmas Eve and waiting for the big guy to arrive. There’s lots of humor in the text (“Dear Santa…I know that you are a fair person and will not mind that I am Jewish. After all so was Jesus, at least on his mother’s side”) and in the lively, scribbly, colorful illustrations. But the authors wisely don’t gloss over Rachel’s feelings — which can be common for anyone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas that time of year, a notion that steers the text toward a happy, multi-culti ending. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ
Samurai Santa: A Very Ninja Christmas
by Rubin Pingk; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary Simon 40 pp.
9/15 978-1-4814-3057-9 $17.99
e-book ed. 978-1-4814-3058-6 $10.99
It’s hard to be a ninja when no one will join your snowball fight for fear of landing on Santa’s naughty list. There’s only one thing for Yukio to do: trick his fellow ninjas into chasing the “bright red intruder” away. They think they’re successful when the interloper disappears — but here comes a snowball-fighting samurai, complete with snowman army, and the desired snowball fight ensues after all. No points for guessing the samurai’s identity, but major points to Pingk for his digital art, with its simple, bold limited palette and seamlessly integrated red or white lettering that can render any scene “EPIC!!!” SHOSHANA FLAX
How to Catch Santa
by Jean Reagan; illus. by Lee Wildish
Primary Knopf 32 pp.
10/15 978-0-553-49839-4 $17.99
Library ed. 978-0-553-49840-0 $20.99
e-book ed. 978-0-553-49841-7 $10.99
You know you’d like some face time with Santa to ask your burning questions and maybe slip the poor guy a nose warmer. But how will you catch him? Reagan and Wildish’s (How to Babysit a Grandpa) latest how-to guide warns would-be Santa-snatchers not to get too crazy: no lassoing, for instance. Instead, listen for sleigh bells, lure him with cookies and riddles, and leave out carrots for Rudolph. Letters to Santa on the endpapers fit right in with digital illustrations that look almost hand-drawn, creating a sense that it’s all up to the kids — even if alert readers notice the parents winking in the background. SHOSHANA FLAX
Oskar and the Eight Blessings
by Richard Simon and Tanya Simon; illus. by Mark Siegel
Primary, Intermediate Roaring Brook 40 pp.
9/15 978-1-59643-949-8 $17.99
In 1938, the last night of Hanukkah coincided with Christmas Eve, and for a young Jewish refugee in Manhattan, both holidays provided blessings. Following Kristallnacht, Oskar’s parents had put him on a boat to New York with just the name and address of his aunt; his walk from the harbor takes him more than a hundred blocks up Broadway. Along the way he encounters friendly and helpful strangers, Macy’s Christmas windows, and Count Basie and Eleanor Roosevelt (whose historical presence in the city that night is confirmed in an author’s note). The changing light of the day and developing snow are beautifully conveyed in the illustrations, an engaging blend of large and small panels paced to echo the starts and stops and blessings of Oskar’s (successful) journey. An appended map of Manhattan details the route and visually reprises the gifts Oskar receives along the way. ROGER SUTTON
The Parakeet Named Dreidel
by Isaac Bashevis Singer; illus. by Suzanne Raphael Berkson
Primary, Intermediate Farrar 32 pp.
9/15 978-0-374-30094-4 $17.99
In this short story (from The Power of Light: Eight Stories for Hanukkah, rev. 2/81) repackaged as a picture book, a mysterious Yiddish-speaking parakeet flies to a Jewish family’s window on Hanukkah and promptly earns the name Dreidel. Though the narrator is an adult — with an unusually mature voice for a picture book — the art emphasizes his son David, who is a child for most of the story (and, when he’s older, benefits from Dreidel’s matchmaking skills). This feels like a story a reminiscent zayde might share. Lots of golden light in the cheerful, loose-lined illustrations creates a sense of Hanukkah’s warmth. SHOSHANA FLAX
From the November/December 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.