Holiday High Notes 2019

It's the most wonderful time of the year.
Grab a candy confection
and read our selection
of books filled with cheer —
new or just
reissued from
yesteryear.*

*with apologies to lyricist Edward Pola

 

My Baby Loves Christmas
by Jabari Asim; illus. by Tara Nicole Whitaker
Preschool    HarperFestival    20 pp.
9/19    978-0-06-288462-6    $7.99

In this cozy board book, Asim (Preaching to the Chickens, rev. 11/16) lists, in rhythmic rhyming text, what a baby girl loves about Christmas: "Baby loves candy canes wrapped in a bow. / Baby loves jingle bells. / Baby loves snow." Throughout the comfortingly round-edged, digital-looking cartoon illustrations, the wide-eyed girl displays a sense of wonder and delight as she explores (accompanied by her pet cat) the holiday flourishes within her home: Mom plays piano, Dad bakes gingerbread, and family photos are everywhere. Details around the house reinforce the family's love and pride in their culture — for example, a Black Santa figurine sits on the mantle, and a brown-skinned doll is waiting under the tree alongside a soccer ball and toy train. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

Long Ago, on a Silent Night
by Julie Berry; illus. by Annie Won
Preschool    Orchard/Scholastic    40 pp.    g
9/19    978-1-338-27772-2    $17.99

In direct-address text, a modern-day mother compares the details of the Nativity story to the relationship she has with her own baby. Berry’s soothing, lullaby-like rhyme begins: “Long ago, and far away, / A baby was born on Christmas Day. / Shepherds knelt and angels sang / Till the night sky with rejoicing rang. / This wonder was seen by a lucky few. / I see a miracle in you.” Won’s lush, vibrant, evocative illustrations alternate between the two parallel — and perhaps overlapping, if the endpapers and copyright page are any indication — narratives, highlighting a loving cast of characters, both past and present, with a variety of skin tones. This timeless story of infants’ effect on those who love them is full of tender sentiment. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

The Great Santa Stakeout
by Betsy Bird; illus. by Dan Santat
Primary    Levine/Scholastic    40 pp.    g
9/19    978-1-338-16998-0    $17.99 

Freddy Melcher (a joke for you long-timers) is more than a little ho-ho-hung up on Santa, and he doesn’t limit his obsession to December. He wears his red suit at the drop of a hat, no matter the occasion, and his Santa paraphernalia collection is beyond compare. “But there was one prize Freddy desperately wanted”: a selfie with the man himself. And obtaining that is going to require the skills of a sleuthing mastermind. Santat’s (SANTAt’s?) gleeful mixed-media illustrations are in cahoots with the rollicking text, which has Freddy devising and implementing an elaborate, almost perfect plan to detain the big guy — but Saint Nick is no fool. He is still Santa, though, so Freddy isn’t left empty handed or defeated. “There’s always next year!” KITTY FLYNN

Bad Kitty: Searching for Santa
by Nick Bruel; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Roaring Brook    24 pp.
8/19    978-1-250-19843-3    $9.99 

Kitty wants to give her wish-list letter directly to “Santa” at a nearby store. On the way, she encounters so many Santa-costumed charity workers (plus one dog and…an octopus?) that she becomes frazzled. Arriving at the store to find it closed does nothing to improve Kitty’s mood, nor does opening a bunch of packages containing ugly sweaters. Happily, Santa — or whoever read the letter — pulls through. As usual in this series, Kitty’s “bad” behavior, communicated entirely in the bright and expressive cartoon illustrations, is relatable as well as funny. The offstage narrator’s droll tone and the smart pacing of page-turns and occasional panels heighten the humor. KATIE BIRCHER

Christmas Cheer for The Grouchy Ladybug
by Eric Carle; illus. by the author
Preschool    Harper/HarperCollins    32 pp.
9/19    978-0-06-293226-6    $9.99 

The durable little grouch gets a new catchphrase for the season: “Bah, humbug!” Undistracted by the (determinedly secular) motifs of the season — bells, snowmen, candles — the bug flies blithely, bitterly onward until the last page turns that frown upside-down. Why? Friends. Carle fans will enjoy this Christmas souvenir in bold, clean collage. Don’t miss the handsome endpapers. ROGER SUTTON

Vegetables in Holiday Underwear
by Jared Chapman; illus. by the author
Preschool    Abrams Appleseed    40 pp.
10/19    978-1-4197-3654-4    $14.99 

A giddy pea dons teal-colored undies and a Santa hat for “holiday underwear season!” The pea lays it all out with the help of some skivvies-wearing vegetable pals: “There’s cozy underwear and scratchy underwear…And underwear for Santa!” The silly premise, gussied up for the season, will be familiar to fans of Chapman’s Vegetables in Underwear (rev. 5/15), as will the colorful, rotund characters sprouting thin black-line arms and legs. “Santa” turns out to be three diaper-wearing baby veggies in disguise. Bursting with good cheer, the pea welcomes the panty-party crashers: “Holiday underwear is for everyone!” KITTY FLYNN

 The Shortest Day
by Susan Cooper; illus. by Carson Ellis
Primary    Candlewick    32 pp.    g
10/19    978-0-7636-8698-7    $17.99 

“So the shortest day came, and the year died, / And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world / Came people singing, dancing / To drive the dark away.” Thus begins Cooper’s powerful celebration-of-the-solstice poem, performed each year at the Christmas Revels. As Cooper’s text delves into humankind’s profound relationship with Earth’s cycles, so, too, do Ellis’s stunning gouache paintings, with images of ancient peoples, gods, and monsters, but (like Cooper’s poem) always connecting past to present. For example, a double-page spread of long-ago villagers emerging from a stone house to fight “the dark” is later echoed by contemporary children heading outside to celebrate the season. An author’s note tells more about winter-solstice renewal rituals through the ages, the Christmas Revels, and founder Jack Langstaff; and the poem’s full text is printed at the back. “Welcome Yule!” — as well as this superb picture book. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

The Little Fir Tree
by Christopher Corr; illus. by the author; from an original story by Hans Christian Andersen
Primary    Frances Lincoln    32 pp.    g
10/19    978-1-78603-662-9    $17.99

A little fir tree in the forest envies his full-grown neighbors, who get to be cut down by lumberjacks and become cabins and ships. A stint as a Christmas tree seems like a dream come true — until Christmas ends and the tree is moved to a shed, where he comes to realize how good he’d had it back in the forest. Though the Andersen original ends unhappily, this appreciate-what-you-have tale ultimately gives the tree the chance to do so with a return to nature before the cycle begins again with a new tree grown from his pinecones. The bold, naive-style paintings go beyond a typical Christmas-tale palette, with plenty of blues, yellows, and purples. SHOSHANA FLAX

Merry Christmas, Little Elliot
by Mike Curato; illus. by the author
Preschool    Godwin/Holt    30 pp.
9/19    978-1-250-20984-9    $7.99 

Originally seen in picture-book form (rev. 11/18), this board book follows the holiday adventures of polka-dotted elephant Little Elliot, who isn’t feeling the Christmas spirit, and friend Mouse, who’s helping Elliot search for it. Discovering a girl’s letter to Santa finally leads to a merry Christmas for everyone. Curato’s nostalgic pencil and digital illustrations effectively enlist the yesteryear setting and New York City’s classic seasonal activities to amplify the tale’s sentiments. The story line is somewhat choppier in this truncated version, and some of the humor is lost, but the warmth shines through. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

Tomie dePaola’s Christmas Tree Book
by Tomie dePaola; illus. by the author
Primary    Holiday    32 pp.
9/19    978-0-8234-4238-6    $17.99 

Originally published in 1980 as The Family Christmas Tree Book (rev. 12/80), this informational picture book provides (undocumented) facts about the history of and customs surrounding this symbol of Christmas. Framed unconvincingly but benignly as a story in which a mom and dad share with their two kids historical tidbits about Christmas trees, lights, and ornaments, the book allows readers to see the family’s progress from cutting a tree down through setting a star on its top. Modest dimensions and a subdued palette make this one a refreshingly low-key offering for the season. ROGER SUTTON

Kugel for Hanukkah?
by Gretchen M. Everin; illus. by Rebecca Ashdown
Primary    Kar-Ben    32 pp.    g
9/19    978-1-5415-3464-3    $17.99
Paper ed.  978-1-5415-3471-1    $7.99 

Each night of Hanukkah, our pet-desiring narrator receives a gift that makes little sense on its own: “a hard metal lamp,” “a squeezy-squirty spray bottle.” It all adds up to a (living) surprise, while the family members’ gifts to Grandma add up to a different surprise that gives the former its name. (Hint: those weary of latkes may be relieved to find an appended recipe that matches the book’s title.) The implied guessing game should keep readers turning pages, while increasingly creative latke varieties after each candle-lighting add some eight-nights-is-a-lot humor. Pastel-toned illustrations create a sense of happy family celebration. SHOSHANA FLAX

Barnyard Bubbe’s Hanukkah
by Joni Klein-Higger and Barbara Sharf; illus. by Monica Gutierrez
Preschool    Kar-Ben    12 pp.
9/19    978-1-5415-2215-2    $5.99 

“On the first night of Hanukkah, / what did Barnyard Bubbe see? / One sack of meal. / ‘Oh, my. Who has left this for me?’” A hoof in the illustration and a neigh in the text hint at the answer; on the next night (and on the facing page), two cups of oil are left with an oink, and we’re off. The pattern, with animal sounds as well as knock knock knocks and the like, invites noisy audience participation in this delicious counting book. Illustrations focusing on the door where the gifts arrive give way to the cheerful reveal: the whole mishpachah, er, menagerie enjoying Bubbe’s latkes. SHOSHANA FLAX

Ho Ho Homework
by Mylisa Larsen; illus. by Taia Morley
Primary    Harper/HarperCollins    32 pp.
9/19    978-0-06-279688-2    $17.99 

For weeks, Jack keeps wishing for snow. In the days leading up to Christmas, he and his classmates (a racially diverse cast) have a new substitute teacher, Mr. Clausen, who acts suspiciously like…well, you know. Jack is skeptical, but eventually does the homework: write a wish on a homemade paper snowflake. His gradual coming-around imbues the tale with holiday wonder, culminating in a Christmas-morning surprise: a snowy day. Morley’s textured mixed-media illustrations in bold colors have an old-fashioned look and feel. Instructions for making paper snowflakes are appended: “Your snowflake wish can be a new family tradition!” JEANNIE COUTANT

Peanut Butter & Santa Claus: A Zombie Culinary Tale
by Joe McGee; illus. by Charles Santoso
Primary    Abrams    32 pp.
10/19    978-1-4197-3634-6    $16.99 

“CHRISTMAS IS CANCELED!” The zombies, humans, and extraterrestrials of Quirkville are distressed to discover that an unexpected storm may ruin the holiday by keeping Santa away from town. Never fear: Reginald, Zarfon, and Abigail Zink (Peanut Butter & Brains, rev. 9/15; Peanut Butter & Aliens) save Santa — and Christmas — from what turns out to be a marshmallow blizzard. (Their solution involves sandwiches.) Funny sound effects (“SPLOINK”; “JINGLE JINGLE”), Zarfon’s non-verbal speech balloons, and larger-than-life comedy work together to deliver a sweet-and-salty tale. KATIE SMITH

Francesco Tirelli’s Ice Cream Shop
by Tamar Meir; illus. by Yael Albert; trans. from the Hebrew by Noga Applebaum
Primary, Intermediate    Kar-Ben    32 pp.
8/19    978-1-5415-3465-0    $17.99
Paper ed.  978-1-5415-3474-2    $7.99 

In the winter of 1944, Francesco Tirelli (a real person) helps Jews find hiding places from the Nazis, many of them in the back room of his closed-for-the-season Budapest gelateria. While in hiding, teenaged Peter — identified in an epilogue as the author’s father-in-law — creates a menorah using a chocolate mold and cooking oil. The illustrations’ initial rosy tones give way to shadowy blues, which allow the menorah’s light to stand out. The gentle, smoothly translated text doesn’t spell out many details of the Holocaust, but should work well as a discussion starter. A hopeful tale of kindness, resourcefulness, and comfort in Hanukkah traditions. SHOSHANA FLAX

Nutcracker Night
by Mireille Messier; illus. by Gabrielle Grimard
Primary    Pajama Press    40 pp.
11/19    978-1-77278-091-8    $19.95 

A little girl’s experience of attending this quintessential Christmas ballet is told through its sounds: “Voof! go the velvet curtains.” “Snap! goes the doll.” Soft mixed-media illustrations full of golden tones depict the girl and her father making their way through New York City to Lincoln Center and into the theater, then capture vignettes of the production (and even intermission). Some of the onomatopoeic choices are odd — “Zoombando! go the flamenco dancers”? — but overall this is both a good primer to complement a child’s first time seeing The Nutcracker and, for those familiar with it, a fresh take on a classic. KATIE BIRCHER

Christmas Is Coming!: Celebrate the Holiday with Art, Stories, Poems, Songs, and Recipes
by the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Intermediate    Abrams    160 pp.
10/19    978-1-4197-3749-7    $24.99 

This weighty compendium of Christmas stories, songs, poems, and recipes is lavishly illustrated with art from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. With entries by such stalwarts as Louisa May Alcott (paired with paintings by James Jebusa Shannon and Abraham Rademaker), Clement Clark Moore (Arthur Rackham’s art), and Mark Twain (lithographs by Mela Koehler and Josef Diveky), the volume has decidedly old-fashioned appeal. Original poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, Alma Flor Ada, Lee Bennett Hopkins, and others (and a few new recipes) add a touch of modern sensibility. Author and artist biographies, credits, and an index are appended. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

Christmas Is Awesome!
by Sabrina Moyle; illus. by Eunice Moyle
Preschool    Abrams Appleseed    24 pp.
10/19    978-1-4197-3427-4    $7.99 

The sisters behind the board books My Mom Is Magical, My Dad Is Amazing, and Super Pooper and Whizz Kid: Potty Power! (and Hello!Lucky greeting cards) present a bright, energetic board-book spin on Christmas. Rhyming text describes, mostly in two-words-per-line couplets, what “Christmas is”: “twinkling lights, / silent nights…writing letters, / ugly sweaters!” Stylish neon-hued, digital-looking illustrations depict a variety of creatures displaying their holiday spirit (e.g., an elephant sports reindeer antlers), with an entertaining visual subplot about a Grinchlike personified lump of coal. The enthusiasm is infectious, and the hot pink pops. At the end: “Joy and kindness, love and fun… / Christmas is for everyone!” Even that mischievous piece of coal is won over by a gift-bearing Santa: “For me?” ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

One Wild Christmas
by Nicholas Oldland; illus. by the author
Primary    Kids Can    32 pp.
9/19    978-1-5253-0203-9    $16.99 

Their sixth entertaining adventure (most recently Walk on the Wild Side) focuses on the bear, the moose, and the beaver at Christmastime. After sculpting self-portrait snow creatures, they head indoors to start decorating — but who brought the tree? No one, it turns out, so the trio heads back out into the forest in search of one. They find a great option, but the tree-hugger bear protests (he didn’t realize their plan was to chop it down), leading, eventually, to a creative solution. Spare digital illustrations, with few background details, focus mainly on the friends and allow the silliness to come through; the buck-tooth beaver’s facial expressions are especially humorous, and the bear’s earnestness is endearing. And don’t miss the puns in the illustrations: “I X-MOOSE,” says guess whose apron. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

The Night of His Birth
by Katherine Paterson; illus. by Lisa Aisato
Primary    Flyaway    32 pp.
9/19    978-1-947-888-12-8    $18.00 

Originally published in a Presbyterian magazine, subsequently in Paterson’s Christmas story collection A Stubborn Sweetness, and here adapted, this is a lyrical meditation on Christ’s birth, told by His mother Mary as the newborn sleeps in her arms. “Can you believe it? God’s anointed one upon my breast, with milk, just there, at the corner of his tiny mouth.” Although unduly ponderous for a picture-book audience, the text reads aloud beautifully, and the watery, speckled illustrations convey the humble humanity of mother and Child alike. ROGER SUTTON

Between Us and Abuela: A Family Story from the Border
by Mitali Perkins; illus. by Sara Palacios
Primary    Farrar    40 pp.
9/19    978-0-374-30373-0    $17.99 

María, her brother Juan, and their Mamá take the city bus to the U.S.–Mexico border in San Diego. Once a year, in December, is La Posada Sin Fronteras, when friends and family members come together to celebrate the birth of Jesus, albeit on different sides of the border fence. The subdued, warm-hearted, sand-and-sea-toned illustrations show the family members able to see each other and touch hands through the links — and María longs to give her abuela the gifts she and Juan brought. But: “We can’t let anything through the fence,” says a border guard. María comes up with a clever solution, one that may stretch the laws of physics (and readers’ credulity regarding tolerance for rule-bending at the border), but allows for a heartwarming, culturally specific, and hopeful family holiday story. Perkins’s lyrical text, with occasional words in red or blue for emphasis, incorporates some Spanish words and phrases. An informative author’s note adds context. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

The Bear and the Star
by Lola M. Schaefer; illus. by Bethanne Andersen
Preschool, Primary    Greenwillow    40 pp.
9/19    978-0-06-266037-4    $17.99 

The first spread of this vaguely allegorical Christmas story tells us: “It was time.” But for what? After “a new star” appears, a solitary bear searches for a majestic tree “that would be the center of all to come.” He finds it, then calls forth animals as well as people from all over for a special celebration. “It was time… / for peace.” A quiet and, yes, peaceful text delivers a message of unity and reverence for our world. Andersen’s oil paintings match the calm tone of the story, with friendly creatures and people of many skin tones reveling together on snowy, star-lit landscapes. KATRINA HEDEEN

How to Hide a Lion at Christmas
by Helen Stephens; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Godwin/Holt    40 pp.
9/19    978-1-250-23079-9    $17.99 

In this welcome companion to How to Hide a Lion (rev. 1/14), Iris is sad that she must leave her golden-yellow (and VERY large) lion behind when the family leaves town to visit her aunt on Christmas Eve. When the lion follows Iris, he has many adventures, including falling asleep in a train’s luggage compartment, inadvertently frightening some village carolers, meeting Santa on a rooftop, and being buried in snow. Girl and lion’s eventual happy reunion is satisfying but not pat: the lion eats Christmas dinner (but…there’s always pizza!). The deadpan humor in the art is balanced by its warmth and coziness; the pace is lively, with spot art set against white space mixing with full-page and double-page-spread illustrations. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

Dasher
by Matt Tavares; illus. by the author
Primary    Candlewick    40 pp.
9/19    978-1-5362-0137-6    $17.99 

Long ago, a reindeer family in a traveling circus and menagerie lived, unhappily, far from the North Star and that magical place where “the air was crisp and cold, and the ground was always covered with a cool blanket of white snow.” Echoes of these soothing phrases repeat throughout as youngest reindeer Dasher escapes; helps Santa and his horse, Silverbell; and finds a new home for her family at the North Pole. While Tavares leaves some details to readers’ imaginations (what magic makes the reindeer all-of-a-sudden fly?), Dasher’s personality is clearly conveyed through her fervent wish for a better life, and her love of her family...and of carrots. Tavares’s painterly watercolor, gouache, pencil, and pastel illustrations reflect the pleasantly nostalgic tone used throughout this Santa’s-reindeer origin story. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

Who Says HO HO HO?: A Highlights First Christmas Book
Preschool    Highlights    16 pp.
10/19    978-1-68437-646-9    $7.99 

This Christmas-themed board book directly engages its audience, asking, “On Christmas, does Baby say MEOW MEOW MEOW?” “No! On Christmas, Kitten says MEOW MEOW MEOW!” The pattern repeats, with different animal sounds and new “No!” answers: not Baby but Puppy, Bird, Frog, and Fish. Pages are visually spare, keeping young viewers’ attentions on arresting photos of the diverse cast of adorable babies and their animal friends. The holiday feel is accentuated by the use of bright red and green type. In the end, we learn that what Baby says on Christmas is “HO HO HO!” (pictured: a chubby cutie in a Santa hat). Clean, simple, developmentally appropriate, and sweet. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah?
by Jane Yolen; illus. by Mark Teague
Preschool    Blue Sky/Scholastic    32 pp.
9/19    978-1-338-33032-8    $7.99 

How Do Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas?
by Jane Yolen; illus. by Mark Teague
Preschool    Blue Sky/Scholastic   32 pp.
9/19    978-1-338-33043-4    $7.99 

Now appearing in board-book form, Yolen and Teague’s mischievous dinos (How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night?, among many others) tackle winter holiday traditions and observances — first modeling bad behavior (blowing out the Chanukah candles, un-decorating the Christmas tree), then demonstrating decorum. Bouncy rhymes and humorous illustrations of vivacious large-scale dinosaurs alongside staid humans combine for cheery and welcome holiday-book entries; the new slightly-taller-than-usual board book format is an apt match for the stories’ outsized protagonists. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

The Tree That’s Meant to Be
by Yuval Zommer; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Doubleday    32 pp.    g
9/19    978-0-593-11967-9    $17.99 

A crooked little pine tree doesn’t measure up to its peers: “While other trees / grew poised and tall, / I lagged behind. / Looking different. / Feeling small.” With the first snowfall, the tree watches as all the others are brought home for Christmas. “‘I-I-I-is anyone there?’ / I stuttered into the night” and, gloriously, someone is! Forest animals gather and dress the tree with berries, feathers, and more until the “clearing rang with Christmas cheer.” The narrator’s eventual self-acceptance — thanks to new friends — underscores the message that Christmas is about companionship and togetherness. Zommer’s illustrations capture piney textures and manage to imbue the scraggly arboreal underdog with heart and personality. KATRINA HEDEEN

From the November/December 2019 Horn Book Magazine. Also read our Five Questions interview with Susan Cooper about The Shortest Day and browse past Holiday High Notes recommendations.

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