Holiday High Notes 2021

Season’s greetings from the Horn Book staff! Here’s our annual list of recommended holiday books. (See also the reviews of Hanukkah/Christmas story Red and Green and Blue and White and The People Remember for Kwanzaa in the November/December 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.)

Leah’s Star
by Margaret Bateson-Hill; illus. by Karin Littlewood
Primary    Kane Miller    32 pp.    g
12/21    978-1-68464-224-3    $12.99

Author and illustrator imagine a small addition to the Nativity story: young Leah, who meets Joseph and Mary, arriving in Bethlehem for the census, after getting an unfortunate kick from their donkey. Leah’s father is the innkeeper who finds room for the family in the stable. Otherwise, the story ­proceeds according to the Gospel of Luke, with Leah a helpful but theologically unobtrusive presence. Realistic watercolors capture both tenderness and drama. ROGER SUTTON

Jan Brett’s The Nutcracker
by Jan Brett; illus. by the author
Primary    Putnam    32 pp.    g
11/21    978-0-593-10982-3    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-10983-0    $10.99

Brett (whose many other Christmas titles include The Twelve Days of Christmas; Home for Christmas, rev. 11/11; and The Animals’ Santa, rev. 11/14) pulls out all the stops for this lush and faithful retelling of ­Hoffmann’s tale and Tchaikovsky’s ­ballet, guiding readers through the story with clear visual references to the latter’s music and the dances. Detailed watercolors on double-page spreads carry the plot, while narrative-filled borders show pertinent musical instruments and scraps of the score. Brett sets the story in a Russia filled with snowy exteriors and sumptuous scenes of the ballet’s ­Christmas party, the dramatic ­vanquishing of the Mouse King, and the rest of Marie’s magical adventures with the Nutcracker-turned-real-boy. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

The First Christmas
by Phillips Brooks; illus. by Will Moses
Preschool, Primary    Wiseman/Simon    32 pp.    g
9/21    978-1-5344-7878-7    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5344-7879-4    $10.99

Folk artist Moses (Grandma’s great-grandson) uses the first two and a half verses of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” as the text for his depiction of the ­Nativity story. The homespun quality of the oil paintings serves the tale well, with the manger a warm and comfortably crowded birthplace for the Baby Jesus. Although the carol gets a little abstract from the third verse on (all four verses are appended, along with a ­simple choral arrangement), Moses ­follows the Holy Family on their ­successful journey out of Bethlehem, the star still shining above. ROGER SUTTON

The Snowflake
by Benji Davies; illus. by the author
Primary    Harper/HarperCollins    32 pp.    g
9/21    978-0-06-256360-6    $17.99

A new snowflake falling from the clouds wonders, worriedly, where she’ll land. The wind carries her past an elaborately adorned Christmas tree (“Oh, to be the star on that glistening little tree!”), which a little girl, Noelle, also sees and wishes were hers. Instead, with her grandpa, Noelle decorates a small branch and places it outside their modest home, hoping it will “soon be covered with real snow.” A storm that night brings girl and snowflake together, giving each exactly what she desires. Davies’s petite white (anthropomorphized) snowflake stands out against the blues of the frosty winter scenes; the loving intergenerational human relationship radiates warmth. Varied page layouts effectively propel this sweet and quiet tale. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

Joy to the World!: Christmas Around the Globe
by Kate DePalma; illus. by Sophie Fatus
Primary    Barefoot    40 pp.    g
10/21    978-1-64686-297-9    $17.99

DePalma and Fatus joyfully highlight some rituals, customs, and foods that Christians around the world enjoy at Christmastime. Each spread features one of thirteen countries (­including Colombia, Ethiopia, Serbia, and Iceland) and contains four simple lines of pleasing rhyming verse (plus occasional pronunciations in small print). The vibrant, textured mixed-media illustrations show families and friends celebrating together, because “though we might gather in different ways, / Christmas for many brings meaningful days.” The extensive back matter offers additional fascinating details perfect to share at holiday festivities. For example, did you know the holiday season lasts almost five months in the Philippines? One plane ticket, please! CYNTHIA K. RITTER

Bulldozer’s Christmas Dig
by Candace Fleming; illus. by Eric Rohmann
Preschool    Dlouhy/Atheneum    40 pp.    g
9/21    978-1-5344-3820-0    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5344-3821-7    $10.99

It’s Christmas Eve, and Bulldozer is worried: “He didn’t have any presents for his friends. Not one.” He sees an old tire sticking out of the snow: “I wonder what other treasures are under there?” With his playful cat friends from Bulldozer Helps Out (rev. 7/17) as company, he digs and digs, amassing an impressive pile of salvage. He’s discouraged at first, then inspired: “Through the swirling, whirling, / twinkling snowflakes, he thought he saw — / Was it? / Could it be?” Poking, pushing, nudging his creation into shape, Bulldozer brings his vision to life. A string of lights and a large gearwheel at the top complete the surprise. Fleming’s warmhearted story and Rohmann’s bold relief block print illustrations are both full of treasures. KITTY FLYNN

The Christmas Mitzvah
by Jeff Gottesfeld; illus. by Michelle Laurentia Agatha
Primary    Creston    40 pp.    g
9/21    978-1-939547-94-1    $18.99

Gottesfeld (Twenty-One Steps, rev. 3/21) tells the story of real-life mensch Al Rosen, a “Jewish man who loved Christmas.” Rosen became locally famous in Milwaukee, beginning in 1969 and for several decades, by ­covering celebrants’ Christmastime work shifts. Per the straightforward text, Al ran a newsstand, pumped gas, sorted mail, shined shoes, and much more. Cheerful digital illustrations show him gamely going about the tasks; a colorful bartending scene, complete with rainbow-hued spillage, reads, “Some jobs he did better than others.” Near the end of his life, and at the end of the book, everyone whom Al had helped — “all the folks easy to dismiss in a world that mistakes wealth for worth” — gratifyingly comes together to celebrate Hanukkah with his family. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

Super Santa: The Science of Christmas
by Bruce Hale; illus. by Guy Francis
Primary, Intermediate    Harper/HarperCollins    32 pp.    g
9/21    978-0-06-298363-3    $10.99

This super-entertaining book reveals the science behind Santa’s Christmas Eve magic. Holly, part of a team of tech-savvy elves, takes us on a tour of Santa’s workshop (which must produce over a billion presents a year); garage (run by Mrs. Claus, where they’ve built a sled equipped to carry a million tons of toys and stop in the space of a single roof); and loading dock (where Santa dons a special suit designed to handle the g-forces of traveling 730,000 miles per hour). Flying from east to west across the International Date Line, he’s able to complete all his deliveries and — jangling jingle bells! — make it back to the North Pole to start the process all over again. Double-page spreads full of bustling activity and humorous details add to the appeal. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

Carla and the Christmas Cornbread
by Carla Hall with Kristen Hartke; illus. by Cherise Harris
Primary    Millner/Simon    40 pp.    g
11/21    978-1-5344-9469-5    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5344-9470-1    $10.99

Chef and Food Network star Hall ­presents an affectionate ­food-and-family story. Young Carla, her sister, and their mother take their customary festive drive to the girls’ grandparents’ house on Christmas Eve. Of all the delicacies on offer there, Carla is most excited for Granny’s cornbread: “my favorite.” After dinner, disaster strikes: Carla mistakenly takes a bite out of the cookie left out for Santa. What other sweet (and savory and starchy) treat might Santa — and readers, too, if they follow the appended recipe — enjoy? Acrylic and digital illustrations provide details that are culturally specific (nighttime hair rollers; Black Santa ornament); period-setting (roll-up car windows, antenna TV); and mouth-watering (cinnamon butter!). ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

Santa Jaws
by Bridget Heos; illus. by Galia Bernstein
Preschool, Primary    Holt    40 pp.    g
10/21    978-1-250-24462-8    $18.99

“While kids write notes to Santa Claus, / Sharks line up for Santa Jaws.” In this silly sea-sonal tale, readers and listeners meet a great-white-shark Santa, hammerhead reindeer, and (what else?) elfin-shark elves. ­Bernstein’s clear, cartoony illustrations bring the creatures’ big personalities (and their big mouths) to life as they belt out carols and prepare toothsome treats. Heos’s rhymes bounce right along, and by the end Santa’s work is done. “Waving a fin, he roars a good night: / FISHY CHRISTMAS TO ALL, / AND TO ALL A GOOD BITE!” A brief appended spread provides more information about the featured shark species. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

Thanks for Nothing! [Little Bruce]
by Ryan T. Higgins; illus. by the author
Preschool    Disney-Hyperion    32 pp.    g
9/21    978-1-368-07585-5    $9.99

Poor Bruce. The mice of Soggy Hollow keep surprising the grumpy unibrowed bear (from Mother Bruce, etc.) by ruining different parts of the surprise autumn feast he was cooking for them. His stew becomes their foot bath, the peas are used for “pea-pong,” the gravy slide…well, it’s a mess. And, oh yeah, let’s not forget that they invite a wet moose for dinner! When Bruce unsurprisingly has nothing to serve, laughing listeners may join in to shout the titular phrase. Higgins’s comedic timing is spot-on in the pithy text and the textured illustrations, which include a pumpkin stuck on one mouse’s head and a can of Ocean Spray look-alike “Sea Sneeze Cranberry Sauce.” Here’s something to be thankful for this ­Thanksgiving: more Bruce! CYNTHIA K. RITTER

Santa in the City
by Tiffany D. Jackson; illus. by Reggie Brown
Preschool, Primary    Dial    32 pp.    g
11/21    978-0-593-11025-6    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-11026-3    $10.99

Deja believes in Santa, but…how can he get into her apartment without a chimney? And there aren’t any parking spaces on her city street — where will he put his sleigh? The adults in her life — Mommy, Mr. Ortiz from the corner bodega, her aunts and uncles — do their best to (very creatively) answer her questions, but Deja isn’t satisfied. On Christmas Eve, her plan to stay awake so she can quiz Santa herself fails. But she awakens on Christmas morning to find proof that Santa has been there — a message from him, just for her. Lively digital illustrations portray a close-knit Black family and urban community in a story that will reassure kids with the same concerns as Deja’s. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

The Robin & the Fir Tree
retold by Jason Jameson; illus. by the reteller
Primary, Intermediate    Templar/Candlewick    64 pp.    g
10/21    978-1-5362-2002-5    $18.99

Dressed up by his friend the robin in flowers, berries, and ribbons, a restless fir tree nonetheless longs to see new places. When the axe-men come, the fir is happy to go with them to be the town’s Christmas tree, even though afterward he’s burned for firewood. Inspired by the morose events of Hans Christian ­Andersen’s “The Fir Tree,” Jameson’s retelling benefits from his striking grayscale pencil drawings, digitally colored and enhanced with textural elements such as Celtic knots and ­Victorian scrollwork leaves. The resulting transcendent folk-art visuals of nature in the Russian-inflected setting will invite repeat examination. ANITA L. BURKAM

Grand Jeté and Me
by Allegra Kent; illus. by Robin Preiss Glasser
Primary    Harper/HarperCollins    32 pp.    g
10/21    978-0-06-239202-2    $17.99

When the little girl narrator visits her grandmother, a former prima ballerina whom she calls “Grand Jeté,” dance infuses their ordinary moments (“we arabesque our plates and lunge for the milk”). Preparing for and attending The Nutcracker together, of course, is an extra-special occasion. Kent’s text goes through the ballet’s story line in a useful introduction for first-time attendees and gives a sense throughout of the warm relationship between doting grandmother and admiring grandchild. Glasser’s merry illustrations include lots of dancing across the page, as well as moments of rapt spectatorship against the more lavish scenes of the ballet itself. An author’s note explains Kent’s own experience dancing in Balanchine’s Nutcracker, and a glossary defines ballet terms. SHOSHANA FLAX

The Three Latkes
by Eric A. Kimmel; illus. by Feronia Parker-Thomas
Preschool, Primary    Kar-Ben    24 pp.    g
10/21    978-1-5415-8891-2    $17.99
Paper ed.  978-1-5415-8892-9    $7.99

Optimal latke preparation and dipping sauce are often the subject of friendly debate. Here, the debaters are the latkes themselves, shown in the cheerful colored-pencil illustrations with simple faces, limbs, and even accessories. Are red, yellow, or gold potatoes best? What’s the superior ­frying substance? (Yellow Potato’s answer, chicken schmaltz, combined with its dunk into the sour cream might raise questions for kosher-keeping readers about mixing meat and dairy.) The cat is a qualified judge, and luckily (for the feline!) the latkes seem unbothered by being test subjects. An appealingly silly holiday side dish — just don’t get too attached to the potato-based protagonists. A latke recipe with lots of options is appended, but it doesn’t settle the debate, either. SHOSHANA FLAX

Hanukkah at Valley Forge
by Stephen Krensky; illus. by Greg Harlin
Primary, Intermediate    Apples & Honey/Behrman    32 pp.    g
10/21    978-1-68115-584-5    $17.95

Krensky’s Revolutionary War–set Hanukkah tale, based on a historical anecdote and featuring General George Washington learning about the holiday from an unnamed Jewish soldier, has been modestly revised from its 2006 edition, with small edits and a new appended author’s note. A Sydney Taylor Book Award winner, the story, which draws parallels between the Maccabees and the Continental Army, is illustrated with watercolor paintings both somber and luminous, reflecting the struggles for freedom — and the light of Hanukkah. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

20 Big Trucks in the Middle of Christmas
by Mark Lee; illus. by Kurt Cyrus
Preschool    Candlewick    32 pp.    g
9/21    978-1-5362-1253-2    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5362-2563-1    $17.99

A fleet of public-works vehicles delivers the makings for a town’s holiday celebration while two kids watch and play in the snow. First on the scene is a pastel-pink and -blue truck with a giant doughnut on its roof. The doughnut truck looks a bit out of place, but more trucks arrive, drawing our attention elsewhere. Truck number four hauls a huge evergreen; a ladder truck (ten) helps workers place ornaments and lights. Other vehicles bring “a holiday band…a dancing snowman,” a choir, Santa’s sleigh, llamas, and more (including Santa himself in truck number twenty). When the star tree-topper falls and breaks, the sharp-eyed kids suggest a great replacement, bringing the story full-circle (just like the shape of a doughnut). This companion to 20 Big Trucks in the Middle of the Street (rev. 5/13) is brightened by Lee’s rhyming text and Cyrus’s winter-crisp digital illustrations. KITTY FLYNN

Charlotte and the Nutcracker: The True Story of a Girl Who Made Ballet History
by Charlotte Nebres with Sarah Warren; illus. by Alea Marley
Primary    Random    40 pp.    g
12/21    978-0-593-37490-0    $17.99
Library ed.  978-0-593-37491-7    $20.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-37492-4    $10.99

Cast in the New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker, young Charlotte (the first Black Marie in the company’s history) shares the holiday spirit with audiences for the entire season, then enjoys Christmas with her family: making Trinidadian pastelles, searching for the pickle ornament on the tree, and smashing a peppermint pig. Author Nebres, who danced Marie in 2019 when she was just eleven, writes a spare but sensory-rich narrative that emphasizes inclusion, representation, and the amount of work it took to realize her dream. Marley’s inviting cartoon illustrations in soft pastel colors play with light and create a cozy holiday atmosphere. ANITA L. BURKAM

Hello, Hanukkah!
by Susan S. Novich; illus. by the author
Preschool    Kar-Ben    20 pp.    g
10/21    978-1-7284-0344-1    $7.99

An eight-night holiday lends itself to counting books, and this one adds in colors as well as Hanukkah activities. Badger plays dreidel and lights two orange Hanukkah candles; reads the story of the Maccabees and lights five blue candles; and so forth. The reassuringly predictable text provides an introduction to the holiday, and the cut-paper illustrations have just enough details to keep young viewers engaged: varied textures, carefully ­lettered dreidels, even tributes to Badger’s bird companion. A just-right board book for the youngest ­Hanukkah celebrants. SHOSHANA FLAX

The Real Santa
by Nancy Redd; illus. by Charnelle Pinkney Barlow
Preschool, Primary    Random    32 pp.    g
10/21    978-0-593-17814-0    $17.99
Library ed.  978-0-593-17815-7    $20.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-17816-4    $10.99

As his loving extended family begins their traditional Christmas Eve celebrations, a young Black boy tells us how much he loves Santa. He is curious to know, however, of all the different representations of Santa that adorn his house (“sitting on our Christmas tree, smiling on our gift wrap, and stitched on to my sweater”), which one the real Santa looks like. “Does he wear a red or golden hat? Is his beard gray or black?” The child stays up all night in order to find out. The answer, when he finds it, is satisfying: “Santa looks just like me.” Cozy, detailed art in Christmassy colors ­supports a ­joyous story of self-worth and ­inclusivity. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

Construction Site: Merry and Bright: A Christmas Lift-the-Flap Book
by Sherri Duskey Rinker; illus. by AG Ford
Preschool    Chronicle    18 pp.    g
10/21    978-1-7972-0429-1    $12.99

In their second holiday-themed ­outing (Construction Site on Christmas Night, rev. 11/18), the hard-working Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site trucks celebrate in a lift-the-flap book. The rhyming text is full of good cheer, and the richly colored wax oil crayon illustrations feature the smiling trucks decked out festively. On Christmas Eve, the gang gets busy decorating the job site, “each one…planning something great!” Six flaps (one on nearly every spread) reveal the surprises: e.g., with Crane Truck’s help, Flat Bed’s “load of Christmas cheer” is shown to include (under a flap) “a GIANT Christmas tree.” Deliveries of a star, wreath, and presents follow; Cement Mixer and Skid Steer add the final twinkling touches. Rinker and Ford’s winning formula captures “TRUE Christmas cheer”: “a time to gather, give, and share — / a season filled with love and care.” KITTY FLYNN

Zee Grows a Tree
by Elizabeth Rusch; illus. by Will Hillenbrand
Primary    Candlewick    32 pp.    g
3/21    978-0-7636-9754-9    $17.99

On the day Zee is born, a small shoot emerges in a clay pot on her parents’ Christmas tree farm. It is quickly designated as “Zee’s Tree,” and the two grow up together, with Zee being the tree’s primary caregiver. Without a hint of anthropomorphism, Rusch makes targeted comparisons. For example, Zee goes to kindergarten with a new outfit and “new look”; concurrently, her tree gets a pruning. When both the tree and Zee are eight, Zee is big enough to decorate her now-fully-grown Christmas tree all by herself. Hillenbrand’s soft-hued mixed-media illustrations not only reflect the text but also clarify and expand the narrative. Small expository notes, set apart from the main text, provide further scientific information. Appended with an index, a bibliography, and instructions for the care of live ­Christmas trees. BETTY CARTER

We Give Thanks
by Cynthia Rylant; illus. by Sergio Ruzzier
Preschool, Primary    Beach Lane/Simon    32 pp.    g
9/21    978-1-4424-6507-7    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-4424-6508-4    $10.99

In expertly scanned and rhymed verse, Rylant offers up many of the things we can be grateful for: “We give thanks for apple trees / and bushes filled with roses. / We give thanks for nice warm soup / and fires to warm our toeses.” The text gains by its specificity (“The mailman, the grocer, and the nice Italian waiter”) and is augmented by Ruzzier’s gently comic ­pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations of a kingdom of animal friends, a world in which a bear can lovingly cradle a smiling fish. With the verses easy to remember and fun to say out loud, this could become a favorite (and non-sectarian) Thanksgiving (or anytime) tradition. ROGER SUTTON

Christmas Is Coming: Traditions from Around the World
by Monika Utnik-Strugała; illus. by Ewa Poklewska-Koziełło; trans. from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Primary, Intermediate    NorthSouth    136 pp.    g
9/21    978-0-7358-4443-8    $25.00

In thirty-nine sections consisting of a few pages each, plus a glossary, readers are provided with a wealth of information about religious and secular Christmas (and some New Year) traditions celebrated around the world. Some occur in just one country (the Christmas lottery in Spain), while others (the festival of Saint Nicholas’s Day) are more widespread, so ­Utnik-Strugała organizes the book by topic rather than by geography; a table of contents makes it easier to browse. The text, lengthy but conversational, is full of illuminating facts about decorations, foods, festivals, and more. ­Poklewska-Koziełło’s highly colorful and detailed illustrations depict a cast of people from the enthically diverse cultures described. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

Larry’s Latkes
by Jenna Waldman; illus. by Ben Whitehouse
Primary    Apples & Honey/Behrman    32 pp.    g
10/21    978-1-68115-565-4    $17.95

Food-truck owner Big Larry (an alligator) has always sold latkes made from Grandma Golda Gator’s recipe, but this year he decides to try new flavors. The farmers’ market provides options, but his peach-, turnip-, and Camembert-based latkes are each missing a key ingredient. Never fear: he comes to his senses, and the results are a delicious innovation in fusion dining. A well-metered text and friendly, cartoonish digital illustrations make for an inviting story of mixing old and new. Back matter gives brief, miracle-focused information about the holiday as well as a recipe for latkes — with fresh rainbow salsa. SHOSHANA FLAX

Who Will Pull Santa’s Sleigh?
by Russ Willms; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Clarion/HarperCollins    40 pp.    g
9/21    978-0-358-39342-9    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-358-39343-6    $12.99

This silly story takes readers through Santa’s hiring process for sleigh pullers. A want ad states: “Only one night of work each year. See the world.” Also, “magic flying dust will be provided.” Thirteen eager teams respond; some are dismissed right away (sloths: “Maybe one house a night?”; sharks: “Can we eat the presents?”). More animals are eliminated during the test run (elephants, cats). When Santa names Team Monkey as his “official SLEIGH PULLERS,” the text announces, “THE END.” It’s not, and there’s one more premature “THE absolutely real and final END” before it’s down to just one team. “Did the reindeer have what it takes?” Of course, the “for real this time” ending is never in doubt. Willms’s bright, lively illustrations match the text’s energy and heighten its humor. KITTY FLYNN

The Little Owl & the Big Tree: A Christmas Story
by Jonah Winter; illus. by Jeanette Winter
Preschool, Primary    Beach Lane/Simon    32 pp.    g
10/21    978-1-6659-0213-7    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-6659-0214-4    $10.99

Mère et fils Winter commemorate “Rocky,” the tiny Northern Saw-whet Owl found in the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in 2020. Jonah Winter’s text is simple but completely factual, with nary a hint of anthropomorphizing: “She now had a name: Rockefeller. She didn’t know anything about that, though. She knew about being an owl.” The owl’s journey from the forest to Manhattan (and back, hallelujah) is dramatic but not scary, with Jeanette Winter’s characteristic small-framed paintings offering ­coziness and comfort and lots of ­gorgeous forest greens and blues. ROGER SUTTON

From the November/December 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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