Holiday High Notes 2020

’Twas the holiday issue, and all across Boston...
the remote-working Horn Bookers were writing reviews
of recommended new and reissued Thanksgiving, Hanukkah,
and Christmas books. (See also Marjorie Ingall’s article
“What Makes a Good Hanukkah Book?” in the
November/December 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.)

 

Jack and Santa [A Jack Book]
by Mac Barnett; illus. by Greg Pizzoli
Primary    Viking    80 pp.    g
10/20    978-0-593-11398-1    $9.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-11399-8    $9.99

“But, Santa, can’t you just let Jack be Jack?” And as revealed in this holiday-themed entry in Barnett and Pizzoli’s easy-reader series, the answer to that question is nope. Why should Santa reward the bratty behavior Jack (along with readers) has reveled in over the course of six books? It’s a lump of coal for you, kid. Will Jack see the error of his ways? Just when we think he might…nope again. Vigorous lines, a mock-scoldy tone, and a cheerful Christmas palette provide a seasonal treat for fans (but don’t start newbies here; go back to Hi, Jack!, rev. 1/20). ROGER SUTTON

Christmas Parade
by Sandra Boynton; illus. by the author
Preschool    Little Simon    32 pp.    g
9/20    978-1-5344-7806-0    $7.99

This is one of those rare occasions where the board book edition is an improvement on the (beloved) original picture book (rev. 11/12). Boynton has selectively collapsed and expanded spreads, tweaked color schemes, reversed the band’s direction so they’re marching left to right, made slight text enhancements (including using numerals), added a second pig child protagonist watching the parade pass their house, and appended a new final bedtime spread. All her trademarks remain, including a range of animal musicians, plenty of humor, a dynamic array of fonts, and pleasing read-aloud-ready sound effects (“BOOM-biddy BOOM!”). A Christmas parade worth watching and listening to all year long. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

My Very Merry Ugly Christmas Sweater: A Touch-and-Feel Book
by Jeffrey Burton; illus. by Julia Green
Preschool    Little Simon    12 pp.    g
9/20    978-1-5344-7678-3    $9.99

In board book form, Burton and Green make merry about that Christmastime fashion staple, the ugly sweater. The brief (and slight) rhyming text, spoken by a handful of creatures, describes each one’s look. Some lines are descriptive: “My Christmas sweater is merry and bright,” says a reindeer sporting a green-and-red turtleneck festooned with ornaments and tinsel. Some employ wordplay: “My Christmas sweater is fa-la-la-llama-y,” says a llama in understated red stripes, tangled up in lights. Per the jacket, this book is a “touch and feel” (but un-felt in the digital e-galley); the spirited illustrations, with their lightly textured backgrounds, are enough to put viewers in the party spirit. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

The Very Hungry Caterpillar’s 8 Nights of Chanukah
by Eric Carle; illus. by the author
Preschool    World of Eric Carle/Penguin    18 pp.    g
10/20    978-0-593-22608-7    $9.99

This board book has a spread for each night of the holiday, with a lit menorah keeping count while the Very Hungry Caterpillar and friends engage in various holiday activities: “We eat!…We play with dreidels!…We eat again!” The book is informative with a fair amount of detail — there’s even some Hebrew and Yiddish vocabulary — though the background provided is understandably brief (and miracle-focused). Each spread, illustrated with Carle’s signature cheery collage with plenty of white space, shows the Caterpillar exploring the holiday landscape (don’t try shinnying up a lit shamash at home!). A friendly, helpful introduction. SHOSHANA FLAX

Happy Narwhalidays [Narwhal and Jelly Book]
by Ben Clanton; illus. by the author
Primary    Tundra    72 pp.    g
9/20    978-0-7352-6251-5    $12.99
e-book ed.  978-0-7352-6253-9    $7.99

According to Narwhal, ’tis the season when the Merry Mermicorn spreads “sheer cheer and pure awesomeness wherever she goes!” “The Mira-miny-what-a-corn?!” questions skeptical Jelly, who seeks the perfect present for Narwhal before learning that Narwhal’s gift to his jellyfish friend isn’t the six new mittens Jelly discovered…did the Merry Mermicorn leave them? Accessible, pun-tastic chapters in this fifth graphic novel for transitional readers feature entertaining supporting character cameos, humorous underwater holiday song adaptations, “Cool Facts” about the ocean and its creatures, and a silly original story by Narwhal and Jelly. Clanton’s expressively drawn characters, and an additional splash of holiday red in the blue, yellow, and gray palette, provide extra cheer. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

The Christmas Feast
by Nathalie Dargent; illus. by Magali Le Huche; trans. from French
Primary    Eerdmans    32 pp.    g
8/20    978-0-8028-5537-4    $17.99

Fox, Weasel, and Wolf decide to steal a turkey for their Christmas feast — but things don’t turn out as planned. Turkey scolds and bullies her “captors” into straightening up the burrow, wiping their paws before they enter, gathering materials for Christmas decorations, etc. Meanwhile, though the hapless trio claims they are waiting to fatten her up before they turn her into dinner, she’s cooking delicious meals and making their house into a home — which, it turns out, they enjoy. While decidedly not a new story, this one is notable for the liveliness of its telling and the humor (particularly in the body language of bossy Turkey and cowed trio) and child-pleasing detail in its illustrations. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

Hurry, Santa!
by Tomie dePaola; illus. by the author
Preschool    Little Simon    14 pp.    g
9/20    978-1-5344-6405-6    $7.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5344-6406-3    $7.99

In the briefest of board books (originally published as a board book in 1996 as Get Dressed, Santa!), Santa gets all suited up for his big Christmas Eve trip, only to discover he forgot to do something first. “Oh no! He’s got to GO!” So, off comes the raiment for a trip back to the bathroom. Phew. That’s the whole story, but I’m guessing toilet trainees will find it hilarious every time. DePaola was the holiday’s biggest fan, and his festive Christmas colors and bouncy rounded shapes are just right. ROGER SUTTON

The Story of the Three Wise Kings
retold by Tomie dePaola; illus. by the author
Primary    Simon    32 pp.    g
9/20    978-1-5344-6652-4    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5344-6654-8    $10.99

DePaola distills the Nativity story of the Three Wise Men in this gorgeous book first published in 1983, the sumptuous acrylic paintings glowing with blues, greens, and pinks. A brief text follows kings Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar as they discover and follow a new, unfamiliar star; consult with the malign Herod; proceed to Bethlehem to deliver their gifts to the baby Jesus; and then, having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, return to their home countries. An informative note describes the evolution of the story, beginning with its first, detail-less written account in the Gospel of Matthew (the names and number of the Wise Men were added later). A welcome reissue of another title in dePaola’s copious Christmas oeuvre. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

Pearl and Squirrel Give Thanks
by Cassie Ehrenberg and Ryan Ehrenberg; illus. by Ryan Ehrenberg
Preschool, Primary    Orchard/Scholastic    32 pp.    g
9/20    978-1-338-59209-2    $14.99
e-book ed.  978-1-338-67602-0    $9.99

Pearl (a dog) and Squirrel (self-­explanatory) live “inside a box beside the old corner store.” After hot-dog vendor Stan tells them about Thanksgiving, they note things they’re thankful for (playing fetch, a cuddly nap spot), and then are not-so-thankful for a storm — but it all ends with a generous act that gives them a big reason to be thankful. This sweet story, with inviting cartoon illustrations in an autumnal palette, can serve as a seasonally appropriate discussion starter about giving thanks and helping others. SHOSHANA FLAX

5 More Sleeps ’til Christmas
by Jimmy Fallon; illus. by Rich Deas
Preschool    Feiwel    48 pp.    g
10/20    978-1-250-26647-7    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-1-250-81093-9    $9.99

“Just FIVE more sleeps ’til Christmas. / Can you believe it’s here? / I know that Santa’s coming soon, / ’cause I’ve been good all year.” The late-night comedy host’s protagonist narrates five late nights in well-metered rhyme — how can anyone sleep when there are snowflakes to watch and toys to envision? The pajama-clad child paces frenetically through pages of spot illustrations, which alternate with full-bleed illustrations in night-blue tones. If the text is a smidge overlong and repetitive, there are worse ways to pass the time while you wait for sleep — and Christmas. SHOSHANA FLAX

Happy Llamakkah!
by Laura Gehl; illus. by Lydia Nichols
Preschool    Abrams Appleseed    26 pp.    g
10/20    978-1-4197-4314-6    $14.99
e-book ed.  978-1-68335-788-9    $13.49

The book’s funny premise — llama plus Hanukkah equal Llamakkah — pays off with an entertaining story of a llama family celebrating the Festival of Lights. Brief, peppy rhymes describe Hanukkah customs and activities, with a joyous holiday-centric refrain: “Singing so sweet. / Donuts to eat. / Gelt for a treat. / Happy Llamakkah!” Pastel-hued illustrations with cheerful patterns and blue-and-gold flourishes depict the dreidel-spinning, candle-lighting fun. An appended author’s note tells more about the holiday; and for a Jewish take on the traditional Christmastime ugly sweater (see review above of My Very Merry Ugly Christmas Sweater: A Touch-and-Feel Book), web-search “happy llamakkah sweater.” ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

Meerkat Christmas
by Emily Gravett; illus. by the author
Primary    Simon    32 pp.    g
9/20    978-1-5344-7679-0    $19.99

Desert-dwelling meerkat Sunny (­Meerkat Mail, rev. 1/08) wants Christmas to be perfect “just like in his magazine”—but with no snow in the Kalahari, he seeks chillier climes. Sunny’s voyages take him around the globe, landing in his dream spot “with all the trimmings.” But something is missing — or rather a dozen or so someones. An assist from Santa brings Sunny back home just in time for presents. The funny ­juxtapositions — meerkats wearing scarves, for example, and a penguin in the desert — in the watercolor paint and pencil illustrations enhance this zippy, warmhearted tale. Cards (unseen) written by Sunny appear beneath liftable flaps throughout, and endpapers include craft activities with details about desert creatures. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

12 Days of Christmas [The Christmas Choir]
illus. by Lara Hawthorne
Preschool, Primary   Frances Lincoln    32 pp.    g
10/20    978-0-7112-4540-2    $16.99

With a similar look and sensibility to her Silent Night (rev. 11/18), Hawthorne presents a homey, folksy version of the carol (written in the 1700s per a conversational appended note) that’s not old-fashioned. The folk art–style illustrations, in digitally edited gouache, depict a verdant rural scene; as our narrator contemplates her ever-more-crowded home, gifts spill out of doors and into the surrounding countryside. A creamy background provides the white-of-the-page, while spreads are filled nearly to the brim with subdued hues and patterns galore. A lively cast of players winds in and out of scenes — culminating with the narrator’s “true love” (another woman) pictured amidst flourishes of hearts and stars beneath that pear tree. A search-and-find spread concludes the book. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

Mistletoe: A Christmas Story
by Tad Hills; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Schwartz & Wade/Random    40 pp.    g
9/20    978-0-593-17422-5    $17.99
Library ed.  978-0-593-17443-2    $20.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-17444-9    $10.99

Mouse Mistletoe felt Christmassy as she trekked through snow to elephant friend Norwell’s house to invite him on a walk, but he thinks it “looks cold out there.” This inspires Mistletoe to make Norwell a very special, very big Christmas present to wear outdoors: a rainbow-striped knitted onesie. The cheerful digital illustrations’ mix of spot art, full pages, and spreads helps Hills pace his engaging narrative, especially when emphasizing the passage of time as Mistletoe knits and knits with all that yarn until Christmas Eve. This sweet friendship tale reminds readers that “a truly special gift comes not only from the heart but also from the hands,” a message that should keep us all as “toasty and warm” as Norwell. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

The Eight Knights of Hanukkah
by Leslie Kimmelman; illus. by Galia Bernstein
Primary    Holiday    48 pp.    g
9/20    978-0-8234-3958-4    $17.99

“A dastardly dragon named Dreadful” threatens Hanukkah, but never fear: eight knights (a casually diverse company) are ready to “fix things with some deeds of awesome kindness and stupendous bravery.” And so they do: Sir Alex carves a dreidel to replace a scorched one, Sir Margaret picks apples for applesauce with her presumably fireproof lance, and Sir Rugelach and Sir Isabella roam the countryside in search of…what turns out to be a not-so-dreadful dragon. (Fire-breathing, after all, can be a useful skill around a menorah.) The faux-medieval silliness is complemented with old-timey illustrations and heavily adorned initial caps on a parchment-white background. Back matter briefly explains the traditions of Hanukkah. SHOSHANA FLAX

The Hanukkah Magic of Nate Gadol
by Arthur Levine; illus. by Kevin Hawkes
Primary    Candlewick    40 pp.    g
9/20    978-0-7636-9741-9    $19.99

Levine’s appended note reveals the story’s inspiration — “I have often wished that we could build up a bit more [Hanukkah] mythology” — and to that end, he invents Nate Gadol, a larger-than-life, Paul Bunyan-esque figure who “in answer to people’s prayers…made things last as long as they needed to.” We follow Nate’s relationship with the Glaser family, eighteenth-century European emigres. As the Glasers struggle to make a new life in America, provide for their children, and assist their neighbors, the O’Malleys, Nate watches over them, and even helps invent the concept of Hanukkah gift-giving (Santa makes a cameo appearance; he and Nate go “way, way back”). Hawkes’s painterly acrylic illustrations help deliver a setting both realistic and wondrous. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

The Night Before Christmas
by Clement C. Moore; illus. by Anita Lobel
Primary    Wiseman/Simon    32 pp.    g
9/20    978-1-5344-6967-9    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5344-6968-6    $10.99

First published in 1984, Lobel’s interpretation of Moore’s classic poem is soothing and peaceful. Dramatically moonlit views of a snow-covered city streetscape give way to richly colored, cozy interior scenes of a turn-of-the-twentieth-century brownstone. We get glimpses of family members sleeping snug in their quilt-covered beds; we see family portraits (one of which bears a strong resemblance to Arnold Lobel) on the walls; a fireplace hung with stockings; a Christmas tree adorned with candles. The only face shown is Santa’s, as that traditionally portrayed gent goes about his toy-delivering business. A gorgeous aerial view of the Brooklyn Bridge completes the book. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

The Night Before Christmas
by Clement C. Moore; illus. by Loren Long
Primary    Harper/HarperCollins    40 pp.    g
9/20    978-0-06-286946-3    $18.99

Long’s inclusive take on Moore’s poem focuses on four different families in four diverse dwellings: a country farmhouse, a city apartment, a trailer home, and a house in the tropics. As the poem unfolds, Long alternates among these locales, showing the various preparations the families make for Christmas Eve, their responses to Santa’s arrival, and the aftermath of his visit. Details in the warm and expansive acrylic and colored-pencil illustrations clearly delineate each setting as well as draw viewers in and keep them riveted: the various treats left for Santa (freshly baked cookies in the farmhouse, a Keurig all set up in the trailer); the well-chosen presents the children receive; the reactions of each household’s pets to seeing Santa. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

Milo’s Christmas Parade
by Jennie Palmer; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Abrams    40 pp.    g
10/20    978-1-4197-4499-0    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-64700-157-5    $15.54

Opossum Milo enlists his family’s aid in building a float so he can fulfill his dream of joining the Christmas parade. Not all goes smoothly, but when Santa needs help, Milo is at the ready. Footnotes allow the well-paced text to give asides that go beyond a Yuletide-enthusiast-opossum’s frame of reference. Cheery mixed-media illustrations on white backgrounds culminate in a vertical spread showing the bustling festivity of the parade. In an author’s note, Palmer recalls her time creating parade floats for Macy’s. SHOSHANA FLAX

The Ninth Night of Hanukkah
by Erica S. Perl; illus. by Shahar Kober
Primary    Sterling    40 pp.    g
9/20    978-1-4549-4088-3    $16.95

Family members unpacking their new home don’t unearth their ­Hanukkah supplies in time — the muted ­illustrations show boxes everywhere. They enlist assistance from neighbors: Mrs. Mendez provides birthday candles for their hastily homemade ­menorah; Joe, the super, shares his French fries, which are almost like latkes. On night nine, the family introduces a new post-­Hanukkah tradition, named for the candle that helps light the others: Shamash Night, to thank their helpful new neighbors. Tales of welcoming others into holiday traditions are always welcome; this one about improvising when things are not the same might especially resonate this year. Back matter gives information about Hanukkah and advice on celebrating one’s own Shamash Night. SHOSHANA FLAX

The Twelve Birdies of Christmas
by Jennifer Sattler; illus. by the author
Preschool    Sleeping Bear    26 pp.    g
8/20    978-1-5341-1094-6    $8.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5341-6750-6    $20.99

The classic “Twelve Days of Christmas” song (appended here) mentions many birds, but this original board book’s humorous spin devotes every day to them. Instead of a “partridge in a pear tree,” a red-spotted green “birdie in a Santa Claus beard” is the first zany gift. Each subsequent day the corresponding numeral and matching number of birds are pictured for youngsters to count. Mainly white backgrounds keep the focus on the avian antics (the “4 calling birdies” are talking on cellphones; the “8 birdies a-milking” are drinking milk); the birds themselves are very expressive and a colorful collection of shapes and sizes. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

Santa Baby
by Jonathan Stutzman; illus. by Heather Fox
Primary    Holt    48 pp.    g
9/20    978-1-250-25561-7    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-1-250-80527-0    $9.99

Feeling old (“ho ho oww”) and lacking holiday spirit four days before Christmas, Santa Claus makes a wish to be young again. He doesn’t specify how young, though, and magically reverts to infanthood. Thankfully, Santa Baby rallies the elves to help him save Christmas Eve. He also rediscovers the “wonder of Christmas” — and his former, full-of-life self. Stutzman’s lighthearted — and appropriately juvenile — text provides plenty of laughs (when being tested by the elves for Santa’s essential skills, Santa Baby “chewed his list. He chewed it twice”) and is playfully complemented by Fox’s child-friendly illustrations. Dynamic speech balloons and a varied page layout add to the book’s cartoon vibe. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

A Very Quacky Christmas
by Frances Watts; illus. by Ann James
Preschool    Doubleday    40 pp.    g
9/20    978-0-593-17377-0    $17.99
Library ed.  978-0-593-17378-7    $20.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-17379-4    $10.99

While Samantha Duck gets ready for Christmas, tortoise Sebastian keeps trying to persuade her that “Christmas is not for animals.” But eventually her doubting friend agrees to help make presents for animals around the world. With assistance from the other farm animals (“‘Giving is what animals do best,’ said the cows”), Samantha and Sebastian are ready to distribute the gifts on Christmas Eve. As the repetition in Watts’s story builds to its climax, viewers will gladly suspend disbelief and be convinced, like Sebastian, that their delivery cart will fly. James’s relaxed-line watercolors (à la Betsy Lewin) enhance the liveliness of this endearing holiday tale. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

From the November/December 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Past Holiday High Notes recommendations are available here.

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