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Holiday High Notes 2017

We have a little section
of books this time of year.
They’re new (and some reissued),
and filled with winter cheer.

Nutcracked
by Susan Adrian
Intermediate    Random    234 pp.
9/17    978-0-399-55668-5    $16.99
Library ed.  978-0-399-55669-2     $19.99
e-book ed.  978-0-399-55670-8    $10.99

During each rehearsal for her role as Clara in The Nutcracker, Georgie finds herself — like the ballet’s heroine — magically transported to a fantasy world. The Nutcracker Prince has been captured by the Mouse King; and Georgie must free him not just from his prison, but also from a spell that forces the toys to reenact their battle every Christmas. Narrative parallels to the ballet’s plot somewhat undercut the potential for suspense in this fantastical story line, but real-world subplots concerning Georgie’s complex family life, her changing friendships, and the origins of her special Nutcracker toy add emotional depth. An engaging adventure for believers in magic as well as for fans of the ballet. KATIE BIRCHER

The Steadfast Tin Soldier
by Hans Christian Andersen; retold by Tor Seidler; illus. by Fred Marcellino
Primary    Atheneum    32 pp.
9/17    978-1-4814-7662-1    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-48147663-8    $10.99

Andersen’s classic doomed-toy love story, as re-imagined by Seidler and Marcellino (Harper, 1992), is back in print in an attractive hardcover edition. Marcellino’s lush, hyperrealistic illustrations, in colored pencil on charcoal paper, are from unusual angles that heighten the weirdness and melancholy of Andersen’s original tale, ably retold (and abbreviated somewhat) by Seidler. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

A Christmas for Bear
by Bonny Becker; illus. by Kady MacDonald Denton
Primary    Candlewick    48 pp.
9/17    978-0-7636-4923-4    $16.99

Although he’s decked the halls for his first proper Christmas, Bear (A Visitor for Bear, rev. 2/08; and sequels) is bah-humbug on presents. Incredulous, Mouse hunts for hidden loot, but Bear is immovable: Christmas means “a long and difficult poem,” gingerbread bears, and, oddly, pickles. Mouse brightly persists; Bear stubbornly resists; and so it goes until Bear begins reciting “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” emphasis on the stockings. The stockings are indeed hung by the chimney with care — proof that the Scrooge routine is (mostly) an act. This odd couple’s banter is evergreen in their sixth book. Cozy illustrations are full of good cheer. KITTY FLYNN

Ninja Claus!
by Arree Chung; illus. by the author
Primary    Holt    40 pp.
10/17    978-1-62779-552-4    $17.99

In his note to Santa, young ninja Maxwell (Ninja!, rev. 6/14) claims he doesn’t want anything this year, but “make sure you sit on this RED CHAIR! P.S. I hope you can’t read minds.” (Always a tell.) Chung’s sly comic-panel illustrations reveal what the nimble text doesn’t — Maxwell’s stealthily rigged traps around the red chair. His snares are effective, but not on his intended victim. “Papa? Those are Santa’s cookies!” (Uh-oh.) Mama swiftly gets everyone back to bed; Ninja Claus silently springs into action. Christmas morning brings surprises that not even young Maxwell could have anticipated. Ninja Claus for the win! KITTY FLYNN

Rory the Dinosaur Needs a Christmas Tree
by Liz Climo; illus. by the author
Preschool    Little, Brown    32 pp.
10/17    978-0-316-31523-4    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-316-43709-7    $9.99

Rory and his dad (Rory the Dinosaur: Me and My Dad and sequel) have made cookies and hung their stockings and are now looking for the perfect Christmas tree. When they can’t find one that’s quite right, the disappointed little dinosaur heads home with Dad to begin a tree-less celebration. With help from his friends (and a Christmas morning surprise from Dad) Rory realizes that “Christmas isn’t really about the tree.” Digital illustrations with lots of blues and greens make good use of white space and add humor — especially in those illustrations of Dad as Christmas tree! — to the simple story line. KATIE SUTTON

The Legend of Old Befana: An Italian Christmas Story
by Tomie dePaola; illus. by the author
Primary    Simon    32 pp.
11/17    978-1-4814-7763-5    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-4814-7764-2    $10.99

In a tale based on Italian legend, first published in 1980 and here reissued, Old Befana spends her days baking and sweeping her house and front steps. When a splendid procession led by the three Wise Men passes by, a boy invites her to come along to Bethlehem to meet the Baby King; she initially refuses, but then changes her mind and attempts to catch up. She never does — but is transformed into a visitor who at Christmastime leaves gifts for all children and sweeps their rooms clean. After all, she never knows “which child might be the Baby King of Bethlehem.” DePaola’s ink and watercolor illustrations use flowing lines and glowing colors to propel the story and attract the eye; rustic details help define the Italian-village setting. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas
by Pamela Ehrenberg; illus. by Anjan Sarkar
Primary    Farrar    40 pp.
10/17    978-0-374-30444-7    $16.99

It’s almost Hanukkah, and Sadie’s bicultural family is preparing its traditional dosas. The story’s narrator, Sadie’s older brother, explains that his sister’s habit of constantly climbing might be less than helpful to family members making dosas. But when the family gets locked out of the house, Sadie’s climbing skills save the day (and the dosas). Sarkar’s vibrant illustrations focus on the entire family — mom, dad, kids, amma-amma — and work with Ehrenberg’s accessible text to highlight Jewish and Indian cultures. Though the prose is slightly awkward in spots, it inventively blends elements of two traditions (e.g., “I had a little dosa; I made it out of dal”). Recipes for dosas and sambar are appended. EMILY DAY

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street
by Karina Yan Glaser; illus. by the author
Intermediate    Houghton    298 pp.
10/17    978-0-544-87639-2    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-1-328-82902-3    $16.99

The biracial Vanderbeeker family — five happy siblings and two loving parents — loves its close-knit Harlem neighborhood, minus grouchy, misanthropic landlord Mr. Beiderman. Then “the Beiderman” announces he wants the family out by New Year’s. The intrepid siblings decide to give their parents the “Best Christmas Present Ever” by making him change his mind. Predictably, but nonetheless amusingly, their various schemes tend to backfire — until the inevitable change of heart. Glaser’s third-person narration weaves individual characters’ plot threads and a palpable sense of place through the larger family story in the tradition of Jeanne Birdsall, Sydney Taylor, Elizabeth Enright, and Hilary McKay. MONICA EDINGER

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas
by Russell Hoban; illus. by Lillian Hoban
Primary, Intermediate    Doubleday    48 pp.    g
10/17    978-1-5247-1457-4    $14.99
Library ed.  978-1-5247-1458-1    $17.99

In this welcome reissue of the Hobans’ 1971 story (which inspired Jim Henson’s 1977 TV special of the same name), widow Mrs. Otter and her son, Emmet, live along the river near Frogtown Hollow, both doing odd jobs to get by. Each hopes to surprise the other with a store-bought musical instrument for Christmas, and desperate times call for desperate measures. Emmet puts a hole in Ma’s washtub in order to join a jug band, and Ma hocks Emmet’s tool chest to buy material for a dress, each secretly entering the local Christmas Eve talent show hoping to win the cash prize. The Hobans’ creative spin on “The Gift of the Magi” avoids sentimentality. Colorful illustrations of the close-knit animal community contain plenty of warmth. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

Santa Rex
by Molly Idle; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Viking    40 pp.    g
10/17    978-0-425-29011-8    $17.99

If you believe the text (which, as usual for Idle’s Rex books, is spare and on some spreads completely absent), four visiting dinos make their young human friends’ Christmas preparations quick and easy. But behold in the varied colored-pencil illustrations: chewed curtains, disappearing cookies, a toppled tree. “If you don’t have a fireplace,” the text calmly advises after an unfortunate fireplace/triceratops encounter, “you can hang [stockings] anywhere you like.” There’s a solution to the destruction, of course, one that brings gatefold-sized glory to the celebration. The more closely you look, the funnier this book gets, and its ending is merry and bright. SHOSHANA FLAX

Jingle Bells
by Susan Jeffers; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Harper/HarperCollins    40 pp.
9/17    978-0-06-236020-5    $17.99

The brief text of this picture book is provided by the song we all know; the pictures tell a different story. Two modern-day kids (along with their adorable Westie) enlist a cute little pony and sleigh to deliver a freshly wrapped present through the snow and the woods. But the group is surprised by woodland creatures and the sleigh tips over, the dog takes off after a rabbit, and a fox takes after the dog. The song has puzzlingly little to do with the story, but I suppose it might be fun to sing while watching the pictures’ high jinks ensue. Jeffers’s watercolor-and-ink art is as precise and gentle as always, providing sly counterpoint to the antic goings-on, and a closing shift into Christmas fantasy is amusing. ROGER SUTTON

The Little Reindeer
by Nicola Killen
Preschool, Primary    Wiseman/Simon    24 pp.
9/17    978-1-4814-8686-6    $15.99
e-book ed.  978-1-4814-8687-3    $10.99

When reindeer-obsessed Ollie (check out her room décor) is woken up by a “jingle, jingle, jingle” on Christmas Eve, she can’t help but follow the sound to the woods. There she meets a friendly reindeer who takes to the sky and flies her home. The next morning Ollie finds a gift from a special someone by which to remember the reindeer. Killen’s inky illustrations in a muted palette of black, white, and red are sophisticated and warm, with well-placed die cuts that encourage page-turns. JULIA TYLER

The Nutcracker Mice
by Kristin Kladstrup; illus. by Brett Helquist
Intermediate    Candlewick    324 pp.    g
10/17    978-0-7636-8519-5    $17.99

In 1892 Saint Petersburg, Irina’s father is chief custodian for the Mariinsky Theatre, tasked with solving the theater’s mouse problem before the Nutcracker’s Christmastime debut. While her mother sews costumes, Irina makes clothes in miniature for her doll. Meanwhile, under the stage, the Mariinsky mouse corps de ballet members, including plucky Esmeralda, are rehearsing their own Nutcracker. At Esmeralda’s urging, the show has been reworked without all the mouse-bashing, and for the first time will include costumes (remember Irina’s doll clothes?). Irina’s and Esmeralda’s story lines are individually engaging, and their overlapping moments are warmhearted. Copious illustrations (seen only as sketches) enhance both mouse and human worlds. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

Little Red Ruthie: A Hanukkah Tale
by Gloria Koster; illus. by Sue Eastland
Primary    Whitman    32 pp.    g
8/17    978-0-8075-4646-8    $16.99

Ruthie dons her red cape and sets off through the woods to her grandmother’s house. Along the way she encounters a hungry wolf: “Little girl…I am going to…eat you up!” Ruthie fools the creature and escapes, but the wolf makes his way to Bubbe Basha’s house and lies in wait. Bubbe’s running errands, and to kill time the wolf tries on her clothes — not that this fools clever Ruthie, whose quick thinking and latke-making skills solve her wolf problem. The cartoony illustrations and lighthearted text incorporate Hanukkah details and motifs; e.g., twice Ruthie is described as “brave as the Maccabees,” and Bubbe hands the overstuffed villain a jelly donut for the road. A latke recipe is appended. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

Waltz of the Snowflakes
by Elly MacKay; illus. by the author
Primary    Running    32 pp.
10/17    978-0-7624-5338-2    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-7624-6227-8    $9.99

In this mostly wordless book, multilayered mixed-media panel illustrations in grays and blues reflect a young girl’s reluctance to brave a rainy night and attend The Nutcracker and, at the theater, to sit next to a boy. Then a full-page close-up captures the girl’s wonder as the overture’s first strains sound. The ballet unfolds in glorious full color with dreamily gauzy backgrounds; sepia-toned insets and panels highlight the action through the entranced children’s reactions. By curtain call, a new friendship has been forged; the walk home becomes a joyous dance through gently falling snow. Both ballet and framing story feature welcomely diverse casts. KATIE BIRCHER

Little Santa
by Yoko Maruyama; illus. by the author
Primary    Minedition    40 pp.    g
10/17    978-988-8341-46-7    $17.99

When Santa breaks his ankle on Christmas Eve, his child, our narrator, takes his place. At the end of the night the child has delivered all the presents but, confoundingly, still has one last house to visit. The girl who lives there wishes for a white Christmas. Santa’s stand-in is stumped; fortunately, the man himself arrives with a sack full of snow from the North Pole. Although the plot of this Japanese import goes a bit off the rails, the art — textured and atmospheric, in a mix of evocative landscapes and cozy domestic scenes — is gorgeous; the narrator’s voice is affecting; and the closeness between father and child may bring a lump to one’s throat. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

The Nutcracker in Harlem
by T. E. McMorrow; illus. by James Ransome
Primary    Harper/HarperCollins    32 pp.
9/17    978-0-06-117598-5    $17.99
Library ed.  978-0-06-117599-2    $18.89

McMorrow’s atmospheric Nutcracker re-visioning is set in Harlem’s Sugar Hill in the 1920s. This version’s Marie receives a drummer boy nutcracker at a Christmas Eve party where she feels everyone else has musical talent, and finds her own voice through a dream (or is it?) in which her drumming halts a mouse battle. Ransome’s watercolors, full of rich dark blues and reds, ably transition from bustling party scenes to Marie’s exciting dream to the hushed nighttime world. An author’s note cites the transformative power of music and dance during the Harlem Renaissance and in the Tchaikovsky ballet as well as identifying the real-life counterparts to the story’s party guests Uncle Cab (Cab Calloway) and Miss Addie (Adelaide Hall). SHOSHANA FLAX

The 12 Days of Christmas
by Greg Pizzoli; illus. by the author
Preschool    Disney-Hyperion    56 pp.
9/17    978-1-4847-5031-5    $16.99

The traditional carol’s lyrics provide the framework for a boisterous telling in which a little elephant and its caregiver receive presents from a well-meaning friend over the Twelve Days of Christmas. As the house fills with French hens, turtle doves, and more, the thrilled little elephant’s beleaguered caregiver is increasingly — and humorously — overwhelmed by the growing menagerie. Pizzoli uses a Christmassy color palette (mostly red, green, and white) to eye-catching effect, while comical changes in facial expression convey the parallel emotions of the child’s increasing delight and the grownup’s mounting frustration up until the happy resolution. RUSSELL PERRY

The 12 Sleighs of Christmas
by Sherri Duskey Rinker; illus. by Jake Parker
Primary    Chronicle    40 pp.
10/17    978-1-4521-4514-3    $16.99

Two weeks before Christmas, the elves are expecting to do a quick tune-up on Santa’s sleigh…but someone has totaled the thing (the last spread provides a clue as to who, though when remains unclear). The gear-loving elves have a contest to see who can provide The Big Man with a souped-up replacement. Rinker’s no stranger to vehicle books (Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site; Steam Train, Dream Train), and her rhyming text revels in imaginative detail. Parker’s digitally colored brush pen illustrations are up to the task of picturing “a DRAGSTER sleigh that really squeals,” “a tricked-out semitruck that flies,” etc. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

Nativity
by Cynthia Rylant; illus by the author
All Ages    Beach Lane/Simon    40 pp.
9/17    978-1-4814-7041-4    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-4814-7042-1    $10.99

Rylant uses the most humble of painting techniques to illustrate a picture book that is half Nativity, half Beatitudes. Adapted and abridged from Matthew and Luke, the medley isn’t particularly coherent, with the text skipping over the Wise Men as well as the next thirty-some years to segue into the Sermon on the Mount. But the pictures, setting bits and blobs of naively conceived sheep and people against expansive landscapes rendered in broad strokes, are homely in the best sense, providing some calm and quiet to the season. ROGER SUTTON

Red & Lulu
by Matt Tavares; illus. by the author
Primary    Candlewick    40 pp.
9/17    978-0-7636-7733-6    $17.99

Two cardinals, Red and Lulu, love their evergreen-tree home in the country. When the tree is cut down — with Lulu still in it — Red follows the delivery truck to New York City. After searching high (the Empire State Building) and low (the NYPL lions), Red finally finds his home — transformed into that year’s famous Rockefeller Center Christmas tree — and is joyously reunited with Lulu. The couple, now enamored of the city, decides to settle in Central Park. Tavares’s realistic watercolor and gouache paintings make the most of dramatic birds’-eye perspectives, while the story provides a child-friendly backstory for an annual NYC holiday attraction. LOLLY ROBINSON

A Child’s Christmas in Wales
by Dylan Thomas; illus. by Trina Schart Hyman
Primary, Intermediate    Holiday    48 pp.
10/17    978-0-8234-3870-9    $14.95

“One Christmas was so much like another…that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.” Trina Schart Hyman’s illustrations for Dylan Thomas’s Christmas classic seem to have grown organically from the text, so fitting and evocative are they. Jewel tones in most interior scenes create a warm, cozy, intimate atmosphere; whites and grays for most exterior scenes (including that “unending smoke-colored snow”) transport readers of this small volume — here reissued with a bit more glitz, but not excessively so — to the Welsh seaside town of Thomas’s childhood. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

Pick a Pine Tree
by Patricia Toht; illus. by Jarvis
Preschool, Primary    Candlewick    40 pp.
9/17    978-0-7636-9571-2    $16.99

“Pick a pine tree / from the lot — / slim and tall / or short and squat.” So begins this picture-book enumeration of the jolly steps involved in turning a tree into a Christmas tree, from getting it home to finding a spot in the living room to hanging ornaments to “At last, it’s time / to make it SHINE! / Plug in lights / along the floor. / LOOK! / It’s not a pine tree / anymore.” Toht’s rhyming text is greatly illuminated by Jarvis’s mixed-media illustrations, which imbue each step in the process with holiday warmth and capably capture that satisfying, twinkling glow of Christmas decorations. KATRINA HEDEEN

Paper Chains
by Elaine Vickers
Intermediate    Harper/HarperCollins    294 pp.    g
10/17    978-0-06-241434-2    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-241436-6    $7.99

Alternating third-person narratives focus on friends Katie and Ana as tensions rise in both of their families during the holiday season. Katie worries about her adoptive parents’ reaction to her expression of gratitude for her birth parents on the final link of her “Thankful Chain” (a countdown-to-Christmas family tradition). Meanwhile, Ana’s Hanukkah (respectfully portrayed, though with a minor dreidel-related error) is marred by her father’s absence and her prickly grandmother’s visit. The novel is honest about how difficult changes, internal and external, can be, but is ultimately reassuring: traditions, even beloved ones, are allowed to evolve. SHOSHANA FLAX

The Message of the Birds
by Kate Westerlund; illus. by Feridun Oral
Primary    Minedition    32 pp.
10/17    978-988-8341-51-1    $9.99

An old owl speaking to a rapt audience of young birds describes how Baby Jesus bestowed upon them a “special song of blessing, of joy and good will.” “‘Why don’t we sing it anymore?’ asked the robin. ‘People don’t listen,’ said the partridge.” The young birds decide to restore the hope and promise of their song by singing it to the world’s children: “Hear us, hear the message…Let there be peace. Peace on Earth!” Delicate naturalistic illustrations capture the hush of winter and the transformative powers of friendship and love. The word peace translated into several dozen languages appears on the last page. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

From the November/December 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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