Holiday High Notes 2013

O come, all ye faithful Horn Book readers… behold our annual selection of new holiday books, with reviews written by the Horn Book staff.

Little Santa
by Jon Agee; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary     Dial     40 pp.
10/13     978-0-8037-3906-2     $17.99     g

It’s easy to distinguish Santa from his parents and six siblings (Larry, Mary, Willy, Millie, Joey, Zoe). They’re all much older, and depressed as only Agee grownups can be; Santa’s the happy little one in the brick-red romper who loves nothing more than sliding down the chimney. The Clauses have decided to hang it up and move to Florida when a blizzard snows them in, and it’s a good thing Santa can go up the chimney as well, as he escapes and brings a reindeer and some hardworking elves to the rescue. The Clauses still move to Florida, but Santa stays behind with his new friends, “and you know the rest of the story.” Agee makes this origin story seem right and true, and the North Pole setting was made for his particular genius with white space. Crisp storytelling, bold lines, and expert page turns make the book ideal for group sharing — and kids will be asking for it all year round. ROGER SUTTON

Everything Goes: Santa Goes Everywhere!
by Brian Biggs; illus. by the author
Preschool     Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins     24 pp.
10/13     Board book ed. 978-0-06-195817-5     $7.99

The latest board book in Biggs's transportation-celebration series features a winning formula: Santa, vehicles, and silly preschool humor. The festive spreads showcase Saint Nick and his reindeer copilot traveling in style on land, over water, and in the air. The old standards are here: bus, bicycle, helicopter, sailboat, motorcycle, airplane. Santa also branches out, speeding across the pages on a snowmobile, in a canoe, and on water skis. The pictures pop with color; the animated scenes are detailed but not too busy for the intended audience, who will delight in the visual jokes. This stocking stuffer will get a lot of mileage. KITTY FLYNN

Hanukkah in Alaska
by Barbara Brown; illus. by Stacey Schuett
Primary     Holt     32 pp.
10/13     978-0-8050-9748-1     $16.99     g

In this Alaska-set story (a version of which appeared in A Hanukkah Treasury, edited by Eric A. Kimmel [Holt, 1998]), a girl has the winter blahs. For one thing, it’s dark all the time. For another, there’s a moose living in her backyard and eyeing her swing. Not even Hanukkah gifts can cheer her up — until the aurora borealis lights up the night (“our very own Hanukkah Festival of Lights,” as her dad calls it). The text incorporates some facts about Alaska, the northern lights, and moose behavior (though do they really love latkes?). Luminous acrylic and gouache paintings reflect the “rainbow on black velvet” that is the aurora borealis. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

The 12 Days of Christmas
adapted by Jane Cabrera; illus. by the adapter
Preschool, Primary     Holiday     40 pp.
7/13     978-0-8234-2870-0     $16.95

“On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me… / a party in a pear tree.” A page turn reveals a tree full of reveling birds, thus beginning this festive and playful rendition of the traditional carol. Here, a boy gives a girl twelve days of presents, including four magic mice, seven skiing squirrels, and ten singing snowmen. The vibrancy and warmth of Cabrera’s textured acrylic paintings and the jovial rhyming lines make this a welcome picture book adaptation of the classic song. Sheet music is appended. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

Deck the Walls!: A Wacky Christmas Carol
by Erin Dealey; illus. by Nick Ward
Primary     Sleeping Bear     32 pp.
9/13     978-1-58536-857-0     $14.99    g

“Feed the dog our peas and carrots. / Fa la la la la la la la la! / Food tastes better when you wear it. / Fa la la la la la la la la.” Th e lyrics of the familiar Christmas carol have been rewritten to capture the essence of a chaotic holiday family gathering, with a houseful of rowdy cousins and harassed, overworked grownups. The  illustrations are a bit too tame and pale for all of the bedlam described herein, but this reworking of an old chestnut is fresh and funny. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

The Christmas Wish
by Lori Evert; photos by Per Breiehagen
Primary     Random     48 pp.
9/13     978-0-449-81681-3     $17.99
Library ed. 978-0-375-97173-0     $20.99
e-book ed. 978-0-375-98156-2     $10.99

A little girl named Anja, who lives “so far north that the mothers never pack away the wool hats or mittens,” dreams of becoming one of Santa’s elves. She hops on some skis and sets off through the tundra. Along the way, she meets a cardinal, horse, musk ox, polar bear, and reindeer who guide her to Santa. Th e story takes place “long, long ago,” but the book’s illustrations — large, clear photographs of a Swiss Miss lookalike in a knit red cap — evoke the digital age, with Photoshopped images showing Anja up-close-and-personal with her animal friends. It’s a neat effect— especially with backdrops including the northern lights and a glacier — that points to both the timelessness and the otherworldliness of a child’s Christmastime wonder. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

The Family Christmas Treasury: Tales of Anticipation, Celebration, and Joy
Preschool, Primary     Houghton     288 pp.
10/13     978-0-544-09249-5     $18.99

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s new Christmas-themed collection includes series-book favorites such as Tacky the penguin, Lyle the crocodile, and Ollie the duckling as well as classics such as the Jessie Willcox Smith illustrated version of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas. Though the volume’s content makes it well-suited for cozy family holiday storytimes, the large, square format unfortunately standardizes the layouts of these eight reprinted tales, to the detriment of some of them. Interspersed between the stories are eight songs beautifully illustrated by H. A. Rey from the book Curious George Christmas Carols. A bonus CD of holiday music rounds out this gift anthology. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

Who Stole New Year’s Eve? [Chickadee Court Mystery]
by Martha Freeman
Intermediate     Holiday     184 pp.
8/13     978-0-8234-2750-5     $16.95

When all the ice sculptures intended for the town’s annual Ice Carnival are stolen, eleven-year-old Alex Parakeet and the rest of the kid sleuths on Chickadee Court follow clues (water containing volatile chemicals; a dog that doesn’t bark) to solve the case. Adding even more interest is Alex’s newly complicated personal life, as best friend Yasmeen is threatened by Alex’s friendship with newcomer Eve — and Alex realizes that “the mystery of girls” is one he can’t as easily solve. This fifth mystery in the series is solid and satisfying, set against a background of holiday celebrations and enhanced with much humor and intrigue. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

Boris and Stella and the Perfect Gift
by Dara Goldman; illus. by the author
Primary     Sleeping Bear     32 pp.
9/13     978-1-58536-859-4     $15.99     g

Bears Boris, a Russian musician, and Stella, an Italian baker, are in love. When the eighth night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve, each sells his or her most treasured possession (Stella, her pine tree; Boris, his dreidel collection) for money to buy the other a special gift. Goldman brings a new angle to “Th e Gift of the Magi” story by having the characters of different faiths celebrate each other’s traditions. The illustrations express the warm glow of the holidays, with gentle visual humor throughout. RUSSELL PERRY

Princess Posey and the Christmas Magic
by Stephanie Greene; illus. by Stephanie Roth Sisson
Primary, Intermediate     Putnam     80 pp.
10/13     978-0-399-16363-0     $13.99
Paper ed. 978-0-14-242734-7     $4.99     g

In her latest easy-to-read adventure, first grader Posey worries that Santa won’t come to her house this year: she has failed to tell her mom the whole truth about an incident involving her baby brother and the Christmas tree. A full confession (as always, made easier by donning her empowering pink tutu) eases her guilt. Meanwhile, she helps Gramps become a more confident dancer and draws a special picture for a neighbor. A warm family story told in ten brief, generously leaded chapters, with a likable, kindhearted protagonist. Art not seen. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

When Christmas Feels like Home
by Gretchen Griffith; illus. by Carolina Farias
Primary     Whitman     32 pp.
10/13     978-0-8075-8872-7     $16.99

Eduardo moves with his family from a village where the kids play fútbol to Sleepy Tree Lane, where the kids play football, ride school buses, carve jack-o’-lanterns, eat Thanksgiving turkey, and put up Christmas trees. Homesickness aside, Eduardo’s immigration experience is conflict- (and drama-) free; but warmly colored, comfortably rounded illustrations do a wonderful job with the change of the seasons and the happy anticipation that the wait for Christmas can provide. ROGER SUTTON

The Twelve Days of Christmas
by Susan Jeffers; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary     Harper/HarperCollins     40 pp.
10/13     978-0-06-206615-2     $17.99

Jeffers reimagines the traditional song in a contemporary setting with a magical element. On Christmas Eve, Emma furtively unwraps a delightful present: a partridge in a snow globe. She trips and breaks it, then cries herself to sleep and dreams of Santa whisking her away — escorted by two turtledoves, three French hens, and all the rest in a joyous parade — to his North Pole workshop to repair her gift. The watercolor and ink illustrations swell from panels in the framing story to lush, detailed double-page spreads during Emma’s twelve days with Santa. The miraculous Christmas-morning ending comes as no surprise but is satisfying nonetheless. KATIE BIRCHER

Hanukkah Bear
by Eric A. Kimmel; illus. by Mike Wohnoutka
Preschool, Primary    Holiday     32 pp.
7/13     978-0-8234-2855-7     $16.95

Th is new edition of The Chanukkah Guest (Holiday, 1990), with different illustrations and revised text, stars “a very clever bear,” “a very foolish Bubba Brayna”…and a very confused rabbi. Ninety-seven-year-old Bubba Brayna, known far and wide for her delicious latkes (but not for her eagle eyes or keen hearing), is expecting the rabbi for dinner. When a hungry latke-seeking bear stumbles into her home, she mistakes the creature for the rabbi and treats it like an honored guest (Bubba Brayna: “I’ll light the candles. Will you say the blessings?” Bear: “Rrrumph”). The silliness of the folkloric setup plays out well in the vivacious acrylic illustrations with nary a rough edge in sight. A latke recipe is appended. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

Sadie’s Almost Marvelous Menorah
by Jamie Korngold; illus. by Julie Fortenberry
Preschool, Primary     Kar-Ben     24 pp.
9/13     978-0-7613-6493-1     $17.95
Paper ed. 978-0-7613-6495-5     $7.95
e-book ed. 978-1-4677-0051-1     $6.95

The kids in Sadie’s class are excited to make their own menorahs. While they mold and shape and paint, their teacher, Morah Rachel, tells them about the holiday. On Friday Sadie is thrilled to take home her special pink and blue creation, but she trips, shattering the menorah into “a million, zillion pieces.” Luckily the shammash remains intact — a Hanukkah miracle! — and a new tradition begins. The family from Sadie’s Sukkah Breakfast and Sadie and the Big Mountain again demonstrates how kindness and creativity can overcome small (but they seem huge) setbacks. Illustrations filled with Hanukkah cheer capture both the bustling and the quiet times of Sadie’s classroom; light-infused pictures of the family at home radiate warmth. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

The Christmas Cat
by Maryann Macdonald; illus. by Amy June Bates
Preschool     Dial     40 pp.
10/13     978-0-8037-3498-2     $16.99     g

Mary, Joseph, and the stable animals try to soothe a crying baby Jesus on the night of his birth. But it is a small ginger-and-white kitten, who nuzzles the babe’s neck and emits a “calm, contented purr,” who finally stops Jesus’ tears. The child and the cat become steadfast companions, and an author’s note speculates about the possibility of such a relationship based on legend and drawings by da Vinci. Bates’s textured watercolor, gouache, and pencil illustrations in soft hues of blue, green, brown, yellow, and white add a peaceful quality to a sweet Nativity story appropriate for Christmas Eve bedtime readings. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

Dear Santasaurus
by Stacy McAnulty; illus. by Jef Kaminsky
Primary     Boyds Mills     32 pp.
10/13     978-1-59078-876-9     $15.95

On January 1st, young dinosaur Ernest B. Spinosaurus begins writing letters to Santasaurus thanking him for recent Christmas presents and vowing to stay on the nice list for the whole rest of the year. Subsequent letters are filled with wish lists and confessions of progressively outrageous mischief. Despite his many transgressions, Ernest eventually receives the gift he desires most on Christmas Day, and the letters begin again on the following January 1st. Visual irony augments the comedy: illustrations clearly show that Ernest doesn’t always tell Santasaurus the whole truth about his troublemaking. Bold black outlines and vibrant colors mark Ernest as a fitting cartoon stand-in for unruly but well-intentioned children. SHARA L. HARDESON

Santa Claus and the Three Bears
by Maria Modugno; illus. by Brooke Dyer and Jane Dyer
Preschool, Primary     Harper/HarperCollins     32 pp.
10/13     978-0-06-170023-1     $17.99

In this “Goldilocks” variation, Santa arrives at the cottage of three polar bears while they are out taking a walk on Christmas Eve. There’s not much drama, since when Santa is finally discovered (after eating all of Baby Bear’s Christmas pudding and breaking Baby Bear’s chair), he is of course a welcome visitor. But the story is well paced, with the folkloric repetition (“Somebody has been sleeping in my bed!”) spiced up with varied typography. The art is appealing in the extreme, the Scandinavian setting evoked in warm watercolor and gouache paintings that are both cozy and full of motion. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

The Night Before Christmas
by Clement C. Moore; illus. by Holly Hobbie
Preschool, Primary     Little, Brown     40 pp.
10/13     978-0-316-07018-8     $18.00
In Hobbie’s treatment of the beloved Christmas poem, a toddler and a father in striped pajamas look on as Saint Nick pays a visit to the family’s comfortable rural home and goes about his work. The watercolor, pen-and-ink, and gouache illustrations successfully tell the story visually, and they capture light wonderfully — the cool dimness of the snow-covered landscape, the stark moonlight, the warm glow of the Christmas tree. Notes on Moore and the origin of the poem as well as on Hobbie’s artistic interpretation add depth. KATRINA HEDEEN

Giving Thanks: Poems, Prayers, and Praise Songs of Thanksgiving
edited by Katherine Paterson; illus. by Pamela Dalton
All Ages     Handprint/Chronicle     56 pp.
10/13     978-1-4521-1339-5     $18.99

Paterson divides this collection of brief prayers, poems, and meditations into thanks for food, life, spirit, and community. Her selection is catholic and spans the centuries, from the Bible to Julian of Norwich to Emily Dickinson to the Dalai Lama, along with much folk material (“Pueblo Blessing,” “Native American Proverb”), albeit unsourced. Cut-paper silhouettes, occasionally embellished with watercolor, decorate the pages; while the art is attractive and certainly well made, too much of it makes some spreads crowded and contributes to the giftbook look. Short autobiographical essays by Paterson introduce each section and give the volume a welcome personal touch. ROGER SUTTON

The Smallest Gift of Christmas
by Peter H. Reynolds; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary     Candlewick     40 pp.
9/13     978-0-7636-6103-8     $14.00

Diminutive Roland is “not impressed” with the tiny wrapped present awaiting him on Christmas morning. So he wishes for a bigger gift, then an even bigger one, and so on until he finally sets off in a red rocket ship to search the universe for a gift large enough to please him. But soon Earth is just a tiny dot in the distance, and Roland realizes he misses his home, “that tiny speck — the smallest gift.” Red- and green-heavy digital illustrations in Reynolds’s signature nimble style with plentiful white space propel this predictable tale of appreciating the small, simple things in life, especially around the holidays. KATRINA HEDEEN

Toddler Christmas
illus. by Katie Saunders
Preschool     Barron’s     48 pp.
10/13     978-0-7641-6631-0     $9.99

This holiday-themed grab bag of toddler diversions is divided into five sections; tabbed pages make the somewhat random organization a little bit easier to navigate. The preschooler-friendly fare includes search-and-find and spot-the difference pictures; outdoor scenes to contemplate; alphabet, counting, color, and shape exercises; lyrics to three songs; Clement Moore’s Christmas standard; and (somewhat prosaic) retellings of the Nativity story and The Nutcracker. A “Christmas Activities” section features seven seasonal projects, all of which require adult help, a fact clearly indicated alongside the step-by-step directions. The sweetly childlike illustrations have a homespun charm, and there’s plenty for pre-readers to pore over on their own. KITTY FLYNN

Tallulah’s Nutcracker
by Marilyn Singer; illus. by Alexandra Boiger
Preschool, Primary     Clarion     48 pp.
10/13     978-0-547-84557-9     $16.99

Dancing in The Nutcracker is not what Tallulah expected: rehearsals are tiring (and a bit boring); she misses out on pre-Christmas activities; and her mouse costume is not at all “elegant.” Worst of all, on the big night, a stage fright–stricken Tallulah inadvertently causes a pile-up of mice and toy soldiers. Backstage, her teacher, the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Clara regale her with their own performance mistakes and remind her of what being a dancer is all about. Gentle text and warm watercolor and gouache (mixed with egg yolk) illustrations together offer an un-sugar-coated, but humorous, portrayal of life in the theater for young dancers — and an encouraging example for any reader. KATIE BIRCHER

Esther’s Hanukkah Disaster
by Jane Sutton; illus. by Andy Rowland
Preschool, Primary     Kar-Ben     32 pp.
9/13     978-0-7613-9043-5     $17.95
Paper ed. 978-0-7613-9044-2     $7.95
e-book ed. 978-1-4677-1638-3     $6.95

Esther, a purple gorilla, tries to be a good friend for Hanukkah, but the gifts she picks out are all spectacular failures, from huge socks for her diminutive monkey pal, Sarah, to a jogging suit for slow turtle Josephine. Esther feels terrible — until on the last night of Hanukkah she throws a party at which everyone swaps his or her earlier present for one that suits them perfectly. Vivid mixed-media illustrations filled with amusing details (see the shopping list on Esther’s fridge) accompany this silly and engaging story. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

A Very Fuddles Christmas
by Frans Vischer; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary Aladdin/Simon 32 pp.
10/13     978-1-4169-9156-4     $15.99
e-book ed. 978-1-4424-3511-7     $12.99

Fat and spoiled as ever, Fuddles the cat is back (Fuddles, 2011) in this comical holiday sequel. Fuddles can’t help but investigate the many holiday decorations and treats that surround him. When he accidentally knocks over the Christmas tree, he bolts through an open door and finds himself locked out in the snow. A rowdy squirrel chase sends him tumbling down the chimney and back inside, safe with his family. The digitally rendered illustrations capture Fuddles’s frantic feline physicality, as well as his contented expressions. SHARA L. HARDESON

From the November/December 2013 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
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