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Holiday High Notes 2016

’Tis the season…to read and enjoy our annual selection of new (and reissued) holiday books.

arnold_fly-guys-ninja-christmasFly Guy’s Ninja Christmas
by Tedd Arnold; illus. by the author
Primary    Cartwheel/Scholastic    32 pp.
10/16    978-0-545-66277-2    $6.99    g

On Christmas Eve, Buzz and his pet fly read a book about ninjas. Then Buzz explains Christmas to Fly Guy: “Santa comes, and we give each other presents.” “PREZENTZZ” sound good to Fly Guy, but he worries that he doesn’t have a gift for Buzz. As he flies to the living room to look for one, Santa arrives, but Fly Guy mistakes him for an intruder and knocks him — and the Christmas tree — down (“NINJAZZZZ!”). After the mess is sorted and Fly Guy learns the stranger’s identity, “Zanta” helps Fly Guy with his present-for-Buzz problem. Readers will appreciate the personal nature of the gift (it’s Fly Guy himself) and will be happy that the Christmas bounty also includes ninja costumes for both friends. All the hallmarks of the long-running easy-reader series return, with the familiar bug-eyed characters; the clean design, with its plentiful white space; and, of course, all those ZZZZZZZs. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

baas_pied-piper-of-hamelinThe Pied Piper of Hamelin
by Thomas Baas; illus. by the author; adapted by Marine Tasso; trans. from the French by Noelia Hobeika
Primary    Little Gestalten    48 pp.
10/16    978-3-89955-767-1    $19.95

Baas sets the traditional cautionary tale at Christmas (thus occasioning the book’s red-and-green color scheme) and in 1283. But while the architecture of the beleaguered town looks medieval, the clothing of its inhabitants is twentieth-century; the Piper himself eschews his traditional red and yellow for an elegant black cloak and swooping hat. The book uses its tall, narrow format effectively to convey the creepy atmosphere, most dramatically in a double-page spread of the rats converging on — and devouring — a boxful of poison that is no match for the “clever and hearty” creatures who “savored the poison as if it were candy.” In this version, the Hamelinites don’t much care for children, who seem happy enough to leave. For that child on your list of whom you’re secretly afraid. ROGER SUTTON

ben-izzy_dreidels-on-the-brainDreidels on the Brain
by Joel ben Izzy
Intermediate, Middle School    Dial    317 pp.
10/16    978-0-8037-4097-6    $16.99    g

The story, set during Hanukkah in 1971 and loosely based on the author’s childhood, is divided into nine chapters, one for each night of the holiday (“The First Candle: Chopped Liver”; “The Fifth Candle: Schlemiels and Schlimazels”) plus the shammes. Twelve-year-old narrator Joel, a budding magician and the “only Jew in my class,” humorously describes life in suburban L.A. It’s not always a laugh riot — his father suffers from severe arthritis and spends much of the story in the hospital — but Joel’s offbeat perspective leavens darker moments. Two of the running gags are particularly good: Joel’s endless variations on the spelling of “Hanukkah” (try: “Chanayhayah” or “Khanukhaya”) and the eventual reveal of his last name. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

brett_gingerbread-christmasGingerbread Christmas
by Jan Brett; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Putnam    32 pp.
10/16    978-0-399-17071-3    $18.99    g

Problem: the Gingerbread Baby doesn’t have a group of musicians with whom to perform in the Christmas Festival. His (human) friend Matti’s solution: bake a band! New problem: the band looks dangerously delicious. Will gingerbread be gingertoast? As usual in Brett’s work (The Mitten, rev. 11/89; The Hat; and many others), there’s lots going on visually, and to focus only on the central story is to miss much of the peripheral action. Expressive figures and faces made of candy in the side panels, for example, are a highlight of the watercolor and gouache illustrations. So is a foldout Christmas tree that doubles as a search-and-find puzzle. If you like your stories simple, this one may not be for you, but if you enjoy perusable pages, this is a gift that keeps on giving. SHOSHANA FLAX

burton_calico-the-wonder-horseCalico the Wonder Horse
by Virginia Lee Burton; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Houghton    64 pp.
10/16    978-0-547-57572-8    $14.99    g

While Calico, first published in 1941, always was a Christmas story, the publisher has amped up the holiday appeal by dropping the kid-pleasing subtitle (“Or, The Saga of Stewy Stinker”); adding a new red-foil-accented jacket; and replacing Burton’s innovative range of paper colors with just red and green. The tale of a horse who leads a stampede to thwart a holdup and save a stagecoach full of gifts remains delightfully loopy, as do the pictures. ROGER SUTTON

cohn_twelve-days-of-dash-and-lilyThe Twelve Days of Dash & Lily
by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
High School    Knopf    217 pp.
10/16    978-0-399-55380-6    $17.99
Library ed.  978-0-399-55381-3    $20.99    g
e-book ed.  978-0-399-55382-0    $10.99

It’s been a year since the two teens met and fell in love in New York City (Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares, rev. 1/11), thanks to a red Moleskine notebook and its scavenger hunt clues. Now it’s Christmastime once again, but, at “a balmy seventy degrees,” it sure doesn’t feel like it. Lily blames global warming for her bah-humbug mood, but she’s had a rough year, what with Grandpa’s heart attack and subsequent operations, so it’s up to Dash to bring on the holiday cheer. This sequel isn’t quite the carefree, flirtatious romp that the first book was. There are plenty of lighthearted, silly moments, but the stakes are higher now, as Lily begins contemplating mortality, change, and what it really means to love and be loved. TANYA D. AUGER

duvall_great-spruceThe Great Spruce
by John Duvall; illus. by Rebecca Gibbon
Primary    Putnam    40 pp.
10/16    978-0-399-16084-4    $17.99    g

A great, tall spruce his grandpa had transplanted from the forest to the family’s land before Alec was born is the boy’s favorite to climb, and every year he and his grandpa decorate it for Christmas. When men from the city arrive to cut it down for the town’s annual celebration, Alec springs into action: he convinces the city to borrow the tree instead (to his grandpa’s pride: Alec was clearly listening to his tale of transplanting). It’s both a green and a festive solution that underscores the compassion of Christmas. (And for those who find it credulity-stretching, an author’s note mentions the brief history of Rockefeller Center using live spruce trees and replanting them.) Gibbon’s cozy acrylic-ink and colored-pencil art accentuates the tree’s grandeur in both its idyllic country home and its big-city home-away. KATRINA HEDEEN

george_lost-giftThe Lost Gift: A Christmas Story
by Kallie George; illus. by Stephanie Graegin
Preschool, Primary    Schwartz & Wade/Random    40 pp.
10/16    978-0-553-52481-9    $17.99
Library ed.  978-0-553-52482-6    $20.99    g
e-book ed.  978-0-553-52483-3    $10.99

A group of forest-animal friends embarks on a quest to return a gift to its rightful owner: the present that dropped from Santa’s sleigh is for the “New Baby” (though not that new baby) at a nearby farm. “Santa would want us to deliver it,” says Rabbit, and the friends set off, cheerfully — at first. As they trudge along, tired and hungry, thoughts of Santa (who is also journeying through the cold, dark night) urge them forward. Listeners and readers will empathize with the characters’ emotions, captured in friendly, digitally colored pencil-and-ink-wash illustrations. The writing is simple yet expressive. And for those readers hoping to land on the “nice” list, the story’s last line may resonate the most: “Santa always knows.” SIMRAN P. GUPTA

godwin_this-first-christmas-nightThis First Christmas Night
by Laura Godwin; illus. by William Low
Preschool    Feiwel    32 pp.
9/16    978-1-250-08102-5    $16.99

Godwin’s direct-address text pulls listeners into this super-simple yet lyrical retelling of the Nativity story: “See this small gray donkey, / this long, dusty road, / this promising star…Hear these angels singing. / Welcome this tiny baby boy.” Illustrations perfectly match the text, evoking the humble setting yet also reinforcing the sense of reverence and import. Despite some liberties taken with the standard biblical sequence of events (i.e., the Wise Men arriving on the night Jesus is born), this is a moving and memorable Christmas story. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

gomi_presents-through-the-windowPresents Through the Window: A Taro Gomi Christmas Book
by Taro Gomi; illus. by the author; trans. from the Japanese by Tadashi Yoshida
Preschool    Chronicle    40 pp.
9/16    978-1-4521-5138-0    $15.99

Forget Rudolph, and who needs a chimney? In this Japanese import, diminutive Santa — with a white mustache but no beard, and dressed in pink — touches down on Christmas Eve in a helicopter, and runs from house to house. He peeks through each bedroom window and thinks he knows who is sleeping inside (“A zebra definitely lives here. / I’ll leave him a scarf to match his stripes”). Unfortunately, he’s almost always wrong, leading to some humorously confused recipients on Christmas morning. Santa deserves some slack, though, since it’s the wittily placed die-cuts in Gomi’s jewel-toned illustrations that lead to the mix-ups. That sure does look like a zebra…until the page-turn reveals the eye-pleasing (and brain-teasing) surprise. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

haig_boy-called-christmasA Boy Called Christmas
by Matt Haig; illus. by Chris Mould
Intermediate    Knopf    236 pp.
11/16    978-0-399-55265-6    $16.99
Library ed.  978-0-399-55266-3    $19.99    g
e-book ed.  978-0-399-55267-0    $10.99

Ever wonder how Santa became Santa? This novel has an answer. It seems that he was born in Finland and named Nikolas (but called Christmas, because that was his birthday). Running away from his horrid aunt to search for his father in the Far North, he arrived in the village of Elfhelm — and the rest is holiday history. Well, there’s more to it, but it’s no surprise when, in the end, generous Nikolas grows that famous beard and embraces his gift for giving. Spindly black-and-white illustrations feel merry even in their simplicity, and readers who are beyond the usual Yuletide picture books should find the same fanciful sweetness in this confection. SHOSHANA FLAX

holm_little-babymouse-and-the-christmas-cupcakesLittle Babymouse and the Christmas Cupcakes
by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm
Preschool, Primary    Random    40 pp.
10/16    978-1-101-93743-3    $17.99
Library ed.  978-1-101-93744-0    $20.99    g
e-book ed.  978-1-101-93745-7    $10.99

It’s Christmas Eve, and Babymouse (here a preschooler in cute red sleeper jammies, in her picture book debut) has eaten all of Santa’s cookies. Typical. Not wanting to jeopardize her chances of getting a suit of armor on Christmas morning, Babymouse decides to “do something different!” and makes Christmas cupcakes (with Mom) for Santa instead. This wouldn’t be a Babymouse book without a wild, exciting, pink-tinted fantasy; this time Sir Babymouse battles a fire-breathing dragon, is victorious, and celebrates with a medieval cupcake banquet. Oops. The graphic-novel series’ offstage narrator is here, too: “Well, if you want to earn that armor…” Animated panel and full-page illustrations (in full color) expand on the text’s humor and give little Babymouse and her antics plenty of room to grow. KITTY FLYNN

huddy_christmas-eve-treeThe Christmas Eve Tree
by Delia Huddy; illus. by Emily Sutton
Primary    Candlewick    40 pp.
9/16    978-0-7636-7917-0    $16.99

Huddy’s romanticized story is the tale of a “scraggly” fir tree that begins life in a Christmas-tree forest and is cut down and taken, tangled up with a healthier tree, to the city. The little fir brings cheer to a homeless boy on Christmas Eve, unites the city in song, and ends up being planted in a park where, “against all odds” (and against the rules of botany — must be that seasonal magic!), it flourishes. Sutton’s fine-lined watercolors, with their subdued hues on creamy paper, nod to the text’s wistfulness without veering into nostalgia or melancholy. The “Magic of Christmas Eve Was Everywhere” spread, especially, captures the holiday glow. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

mader_stowaway-in-a-sleighStowaway in a Sleigh
by C. Roger Mader; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Houghton    32 pp.
10/16    978-0-544-48174-9    $17.99

“It was the darkest hour of night when Slipper heard strange footsteps in the house.” Following her instincts, the small cat goes exploring and finds “Mr. Furry Boots!” Mr. Furry Boots sits for a while, sharing his milk with Slipper, then delivers his presents and continues on his way, oblivious to the little stowaway now hiding inside his toy sack. When he arrives home, Mrs. Furry Boots lets the cat out of the bag. But it isn’t long before Slipper begins to miss her home. A spare text narrates Slipper’s journey (away and back again), while the lush, atmospheric pastel illustrations capture the endearing protagonist’s feline nature and mannerisms. This simple story should amuse readers and listeners who have love for Santa, cats, or both. SIÂN GAETANO

mcgrory_christmas-foxThe Christmas Fox
by Anik McGrory; illus. by the author
Preschool    Knopf    32 pp.
10/16    978-1-101-93500-2    $16.99    g

The other animals try to persuade a little fox to visit a newborn baby in a stable, but the fox would rather play, especially since it’s without a gift. As night falls, even the stars whisper, “Come.” Finally, a donkey convinces the fox that its presence is gift enough (though it does offer up an acorn it has dug up out of the snow). McGrory’s loosely painted but carefully rendered characters are placed within a snowy landscape, following the fox’s day from dawn until dusk. The full-bleed double-page-spread illustrations are done in what appear to be watercolor washes, with intentional smudges of paint and sketchy charcoal outlines. This homey take on the Nativity story delivers a warm tale of love and humility for the holidays. MADOKA FUKAI

newman_hanukkah-delightHanukkah Delight!
by Lesléa Newman; illus. by Amy Husband
Preschool    Kar-Ben    12 pp.
8/16    978-1-4677-9353-7    $5.99

In lines with simple meter that all rhyme with the second word in the title, this board book runs through the high points of Hanukkah (“Dreidels spinning through the night / Chocolate gelt — come take a bite”) during a friendly eighth-night gathering at a rabbit family’s house. The pastel-toned mixed-media illustrations show the visiting “friends and neighbors” as a congenial assortment of animals, and they include accurate holiday details such as a row of dreidels with correctly ordered Hebrew letters. A very first introduction to blessings, candles, and latkes as well as holiday joy: “Hanukkah — a wondrous sight!” SHOSHANA FLAX

nycb_nutcrackerThe Nutcracker
based on the New York City Ballet production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®; illus. by Valeria Docampo
Primary    Little Simon    40 pp.
9/16    978-1-4814-5829-0     $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-4814-5830-6    $10.99

Given that its basis is choreographer Balanchine’s famous adaptation of The Nutcracker, this picture book appropriately places ballet front and center. Dancers portraying ethereal snowflakes and those representing delicious treats from other lands (including “spicy Spanish hot chocolate” and “mysterious Arabian coffee,” the latter shown problematically, if not atypically, as a pale-skinned, blonde dancer), along with the virtuosic Sugarplum Fairy and her cavalier, welcome Marie and her Nutcracker prince for a night of celebration in the Land of Sweets. Docampo’s dramatic illustrations — in a sugar-sweet palette and stylized with ballet-attenuated lines — underscore the magic of the story and the beauty of the ballet. A spread of “Fun Facts” about The Nutcracker in general and Balanchine’s production in particular is appended. KATIE BIRCHER

nichols_maple-and-willows-christmas-treeMaple & Willow’s Christmas Tree
by Lori Nichols; illus. by the author
Preschool    Paulsen/Penguin    32 pp
10/16    978-0-399-16756-0    $16.99    g

In their fourth book, sisters Maple and Willow are overjoyed to pick out their first real Christmas tree. Once they bring their perfect tree into the house, though, Maple cannot stop sneezing, so the tree gets moved outside. Willow blames her older sister for the loss of the tree and lashes out (“I wish you weren’t allergic to Christmas”), but her anger and Maple’s hurt feelings are short lived, and the story’s resolution is creatively festive. Nichols’s digitally colored pencil-on-mylar drawings highlight the emotions and energy of these spirited siblings. COURTNEY BURKE

sabuda_christmas-storyThe Christmas Story
by Robert Sabuda; illus. by the author
Primary    Candlewick    14 pp.
9/16    978-0-7636-8326-9    $35.00

Sabuda is no stranger to holiday pop-up books (Chanukah Lights, rev. 11/11; The 12 Days of Christmas, rev. 11/96; etc.); this treatment of the biblical first-Christmas story is rather modest, for him. Pastel-colored pages unadorned except for text provide the backdrop for the pop-up scenes — in all white, with gold and off-white accents — of the Nativity story. A giant glinting moon soars high above the hills as, far below, a tiny Joseph and Mary journey, with donkey, to Bethlehem. On a subsequent spread, as we look down from above, we see the backs of sheep and kneeling shepherds as angels announce the birth of Jesus. The paper engineering is, as always, impressive, and comparatively sturdy as well. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

stein_hanukkah-with-mazelA Hanukkah with Mazel
by Joel Edward Stein; illus. by Elisa Vavouri
Primary    Kar-Ben    32 pp.
9/16    978-1-4677-8171-8    $17.99
Paper ed.  978-1-4677-8176-3    $7.99    g
e-book ed.  978-1-5124-0936-9    $6.99

Artist Misha doesn’t have much, but he has enough milk to share with the cat he finds in his barn, whom he names Mazel (“luck”). He can’t afford candles, but he has paint and talent enough to add flames to a menorah on a canvas and share a bright Hanukkah with his new friend. But what happens when that new friend’s old friend knocks at the door? Stein’s voice echoes the cadence of Jewish folktales (the story is similar to Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Parakeet Named Dreidel, picture-book version rev. 11/15), and Vavouri’s rich-hued illustrations, particularly those of Misha’s own paintings, are reminiscent of Marc Chagall’s work. A hamish, warm, old-fashioned Hanukkah story. SHOSHANA FLAX

ungar_yitzi-and-the-giant-menorahYitzi and the Giant Menorah
by Richard Ungar; illus. by the author
Primary    Tundra    32 pp.
9/16    978-1-77049-812-9    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-1-77049-814-3    $10.99

After the people of Chelm receive a giant menorah from the mayor of nearby Lublin, they spend Hanukkah seeking a way to thank him instead of celebrating. Since Chelm is famous in Jewish folklore for being a city of fools, the townspeople’s plans never quite work out. (A gift of snow? What could go wrong?) It makes for a frustrating Hanukkah for the Chelmites — if an amusing one for readers — until young Yitzi finds a simple, festive solution. The text’s conversational storytelling style invites readers (or listeners) to settle in, while wildly bright watercolor monoprints, often balanced by black-and-white spot art on facing pages, reflect both the Chelmites’ confusion and their sense of wonder. An author’s note gives background on the holiday (though, somewhat foolishly, not on Chelm). SHOSHANA FLAX

wheeler_christmas-bootThe Christmas Boot
by Lisa Wheeler; illus. by Jerry Pinkney
Primary    Dial    32 pp.
10/16    978-0-8037-4134-8    $17.99    g

Hannah Greyweather, old and poor but content, finds a single sturdy boot while out gathering kindling on Christmas morning; much to her surprise, its mate shows up the next morning by her bed. And that’s only the beginning of the holiday magic. With Santa Claus showing himself two days after Christmas, the storytelling is a little too loose to be completely satisfying, but the air of Christmas mystery and coziness is successfully maintained thanks to Pinkney’s snowy pencil and watercolor illustrations of a country Christmas and a heroine who is satisfied with what she has and happy with what she gets: a puppy. ROGER SUTTON

From the November/December 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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