Holiday High Notes 2018

Deck the halls! It's time for our annual selection of fa-la-la-lots of new (and one reissued) holiday books, with reviews written by the Horn Book staff.

Carols and Chaos
by Cindy Anstey
High School    Swoon/Feiwel    284 pp.    g
10/18    Paper ed.  978-1-250-17487-1    $10.99
e-book ed.  978-1-250-17486-4    $7.80

In 1817 England, eighteen-year-old Kate Darby, lady’s maid to Imogene Chively (from Suitors and Sabotage), and Matt Harlow, valet to the visiting Steeple family — including Imogene’s betrothed, Ben — become reacquainted at the country estate of Shackleford Park during the Yuletide season. A kiss under the mistletoe seems to cement their mutual affection, but, in Regency romance fashion, complications ensue. The Steeples’ footman, Johnny, disappears — was it foul play? — and Kate and Matt investigate. There’s deviousness and peril along the way, but all ends well with an engagement, an ice-skating outing, and general holiday merriment. Anstey provides another diverting mystery/romance with period details and Christmassy flourishes. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

The Queen and the First Christmas Tree: Queen Charlotte’s Gift to England
by Nancy Churnin; illus. by Luisa Uribe
Primary    Whitman    32 pp.    g
10/18    978-0-8075-6636-7    $16.99

Seventeen-year-old Princess Charlotte so cherishes the German Christmas tradition of decorating a yew branch that she brings one to her new country when she marries England’s King George III in 1761. Forty years later, to celebrate the turn of the nineteenth century, she hosts a Christmas party for local children at Windsor Castle — with an entire yew tree bedecked with candles, colored papers, and sweets as a gift for the children. Based on the real-life events that brought the Christmas tree to Britain, the approachable text emphasizes Charlotte’s generosity, concern for children’s welfare, and lifelong love of nature. Soft-lined illustrations in a muted palette portray a humble and relatable queen who is happiest amidst children or in her gardens. Biographical information (absent any mention of Charlotte’s rumored biracial ancestry) and recommended reading are appended. KATIE BIRCHER

The Lost Christmas
by B. B. Cronin; illus. by the author
Primary    Viking    40 pp.    g
10/18    978-0-451-47904-4    $18.99

In this tricky seek-and-find book, Grandad enlists help from his two grandpups (and readers) in tracking down some missing decorations for the tree on Christmas Eve. Acrylic illustrations show the young ones scouring the messy house (inside and outside) for a variety of glass blown–looking ornaments. After finding all the ornaments and decorating the tree, the dogs enjoy their handiwork along with cake and warm drinks, while readers — if they’ve looked closely enough to spot one last challenge on the copyright page at the back — can go in search of a second Santa ornament hidden “somewhere in the book.” The book’s unusual-for-Christmas bright neon color palette adds an extra visual challenge. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

Merry Christmas, Little Elliot
by Mike Curato; illus. by the author
Preschool    Godwin/Holt    40 pp.
9/18    978-1-250-18589-1    $17.99

In Little Elliot’s (Little Elliot, Big City, rev. 11/14, and sequels) latest heartwarming New York City adventure, the polka-dotted elephant isn’t feeling the Christmas spirit…even after asking a department-store Santa for it (“I’m afraid I can’t give that to you…You have to find that yourself”). Elliot’s attempts, with friend Mouse, to find holiday cheer by seeing The Nutcracker, visiting the Rockefeller Center tree, and sledding in Central Park fall short. But discovering a little girl’s letter to Santa (first seen blowing away on the title page) gives them a chance to fulfill her Christmas wish, which finally leads to a merry Christmas for everyone. Curato’s nostalgic pencil and digital illustrations work particularly well here, enlisting the yesteryear setting and the city’s classic seasonal activities to amplify the story’s sentiments. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

The Lotterys More or Less
by Emma Donoghue; illus. by Caroline Hadilaksono
Intermediate    Levine/Scholastic    292 pp.    g
10/18    978-1-338-20753-8    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-338-20754-5    $10.99

The racially diverse and blended family (two sets of same-sex parents; seven children, both biological and adopted; and one grandfather) from The Lotterys Plus One returns in a story of a challenging holiday season. Nine-year-old Sumac cherishes each and every one of her family’s traditions, from attending The Nutcracker to marching in the Solstice Parade. But when a destructive ice storm hits Toronto — thwarting the return home of one dad and a favorite brother and knocking the power out, forcing the Lotterys to leave their home, “Camelottery,” and split up in order to find alternative temporary housing — new traditions must be born. As ever, there’s an abundance of quirkiness and wordplay that borders on excess, but the warmth, humor, and affection in both the text and the textured black-and-white illustrations are undeniable. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

Silent Night
illus. by Lara Hawthorne
Primary    Frances Lincoln    32 pp.    g
10/18    978-1-78603-066-5    $15.99

With gouache paintings rendered into collagelike illustrations via Photoshop, Hawthorne’s version of the classic Christmas carol notably features Mary, Joseph, and Jesus as a brown-skinned family. The text includes all three verses of John Freeman Young’s English translation and is thoughtfully divided among the pages and carefully placed upon each one. While the heavenly hosts et al. threaten to overwhelm some of the spreads, the figure and animal drawing is supple, with good contrast made between the black and midnight-blue of the sky, the white wings of the angels, and the delicate coloring of clothing and other textiles. ROGER SUTTON

Tough Cookie: A Christmas Story
by Edward Hemingway; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Ottaviano/Holt    40 pp.
9/18    978-1-62779-441-1    $17.99

This amusing Christmas story begins as a twist on “The Gingerbread Man,” with a fresh-baked cookie being chased by a fox: “You can’t catch me— / I’m the Sugar Cookie Man!” Fast, sweet-toothed Fox easily catches this cookie, but “BLECH! YOU TASTE AWFUL!” An existential crisis is followed by self-betterment (Fox helps Cookie sweeten up and speed-train) until Cookie’s brethren — assorted Christmas tree ornaments — find him and clear things up: “You’re special. Baked with glue and lots of salt…” The funny identity comedy is sprinkled with cookie puns (“Everything I do is half-baked!”) and cinematic compositions in which Christmastown’s cartoony residents banter in speech bubbles. Recipes for “tough cookies” (both the edible kind, and nonedible ornaments) are included. KATRINA HEDEEN

All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah
by Emily Jenkins; illus. by Paul O. Zelinsky
Primary    Schwartz & Wade/Random    40 pp.
9/18    978-0-399-55419-3    $17.99
Library ed.  978-0-399-55420-9    $20.99
e-book ed.  978-0-399-55421-6    $10.99

“When darkness comes, it will be the first night of Hanukkah, 1912.” This original picture book based on Sydney Taylor’s beloved characters serves as a perfect standalone Hanukkah read, or an inviting introduction to the author’s All-of-a-Kind Family middle-grade classics. Four-year-old Gertie wants to help her older sisters prepare for the holiday; latke-making, however, involves dangerous hot oil and sharp objects. A tantrum ensues from left-out Gertie, and she is sent to her room. But eventually, with Papa’s coaxing, Gertie emerges ready to help Papa light the menorah “for the first night of Hanukkah, for the first time.” Jenkins’s cozy present-tense text and Zelinsky’s thick-lined, expressive, color-saturated illustrations capture the happy bustle of a loving family amid lots of well-researched period details. Extensive back matter includes sources and a glossary of Yiddish terms. SHOSHANA FLAX

Harold at the North Pole
by Crockett Johnson; illus. by the author
Preschool    HarperFestival    32 pp.
9/18    978-0-06-279697-4    $7.99

When Harold sets out to find a Christmas tree, his famous purple crayon leads him to the North Pole and back before he draws just the right tree (topped by the moon) “between the fireplace and the big soft chair.” This new board book edition has fewer pages than the original 1957 picture book version, with some occasional different page breaks (fitting more lines per page) and a few deletions of Harold’s in-progress drawings. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

Light the Menorah!: A Hanukkah Handbook
by Jacqueline Jules; illus. by Kristina Swarner
Primary, Intermediate    Kar-Ben    40 pp.   g
9/18    978-1-5124-8368-0    $18.99
Paper ed.  978-1-5124-8369-7    $8.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5415-2404-0    $38.65

This contemplative and useful volume features a series of brief, short-lined, free-verse poems and “reflections” for each night of the holiday, connecting the ritual of candle-lighting to broader themes. Fulfilling its subtitle’s promise, the book also provides Hebrew blessings with English transliterations and translations; historical background; dreidel-playing instructions; recipes; crafts; and sheet music. Mottled illustrations in warm pinks and blues evoke the hushed atmosphere around a lit menorah, while the text provides food for thought along with practical information. (NB: a non-kosher menorah appears in the “Eighth Night” illustration.) SHOSHANA FLAX

Dear Santa, I Know It Looks Bad But It Wasn’t My Fault!
by Norma Lewis; illus. by Olivia Beckman
Primary    Peter Pauper    40 pp.    g
9/18    978-1-4413-2421-4    $16.99

In a letter to Santa, rambunctious cat Scalawag touts his “outstanding” behavior before requesting a video game rather than the dignity-sapping catnip mice he receives as gifts every Christmas. But a series of increasingly disruptive mishaps (concluding with first responders on the scene) compels Scalawag to send three follow-up letters, shamelessly deflecting any blame. Beckman’s loose-lined, lively art captures the chutzpah of Lewis’s mischievous feline, and gives readers a front-row seat to the unfolding holiday slapstick. The Christmas spirit shines through — eventually — with human Miss Violet defending her pet to the haters who say, “Get rid of that cat!” Appreciative Scalawag’s Christmas Eve letter makes for a satisfying coda. KITTY FLYNN

by Ethan Long; illus. by the author
Primary    Bloomsbury    32 pp.
9/18    978-1-68119-825-5    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-1-68119-826-2    $11.89

The Fright Club (rev. 9/15) monsters are cooking up a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, from sweet potato casserole to turkey. But what to do when vampire Vladimir’s family shows up unexpectedly? Invite them in — the more the merrier! Except…Aunt Bessy complains about garlic mashed potatoes (because vampire), Uncle Gus electrocutes the turkey to a crisp, and so on. Long’s digitally colored graphite-pencil illustrations amp up the humor and cast the nocturnal spooks’ preparations in a suitably dim light. The simmering tension eventually boils over (monsters — they’re just like us!), clearing the way for a “do-over” meal the next day — complete with a turkey constructed with corn dogs. Serve this if your family gathering gets too heated up. KITTY FLYNN

The No-Good Nine
by John Bemelmans Marciano
Intermediate    Viking    302 pp.    g
10/18    978-1-101-99784-3    $17.99

What do you do when Santa leaves coal in your stocking? If you’re the No-Good Nine — a ragtag group of kids known by their nicknames Liar, Hooligan, Thief, Cruel, Vainglorious, etc. — you take to the North Pole in order to confront the big guy (and maybe play with some toys while you’re at it). Set during the Great Depression, Marciano’s freewheeling tale — full of frenetic peril, cartoony violence, and sometimes-rude humor — will appeal to readers who prefer their holiday spirit to be side-splitting rather than heart-tugging. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

Hanukkah Hamster
by Michelle Markel; illus. by André Ceolin
Primary    Sleeping Bear    32 pp.
9/18    978-1-58536-399-5    $16.99

During the busy Hanukkah season, cab-driver Edgar finds a hamster left behind in his vehicle and names it Chickpea. While searching for its owners, he begins to grow attached. He tells Chickpea all about Tel Aviv (and shares hamster smartphone pix with his family back home) and feels less lonesome while lighting the Hanukkah candles in his now not-quite-as-empty apartment. Edgar does eventually find the hamster’s owners — and makes two more new friends in the process. Warmhearted, unfussy illustrations keep this fanciful Hanukkah tale’s story line grounded in a contemporary, not-too-bustling city. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

How It’s Made: Hanukkah Menorah
by Allison Ofanansky; photos by Eliyahu Alpern
Primary, Intermediate    Apples & Honey/Behrman    32 pp.
10/18    978-1-68115-534-0    $15.95

“For over two thousand years, the Jewish people have celebrated Hanukkah…Did you ever wonder HOW a menorah is made?” Ofanansky spotlights three artists working with different materials — brass, glass, and wood — to craft menorahs; she also highlights a candle-maker and explores the olive oil–harvesting process. The conversational text provides additional history and details about Hanukkah and presents simple tips young readers can use to make their own menorahs, dreidels, and, of course, holiday treats. (“Another fun way to celebrate Hanukkah is to eat foods fried in oil.”) Vivid photographs in a scrapbook-like format engagingly capture the hands-on details. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

Oliver Elephant
by Lou Peacock; illus. by Helen Stephens
Primary    Nosy Crow/Candlewick    32 pp.   g
9/18    978-1-5362-0266-3    $16.99

While Mommy’s busy with Christmas shopping, Noah keeps busy by playing with his beloved stuffed elephant, Oliver: with Noah’s help, Oliver tries on a sock, plays peekaboo with Noah’s baby sister, etc. Careful viewers may notice the moment when Oliver accidentally slips off a coffee-shop table, but the stuffed elephant’s exact whereabouts are a mystery to Noah for several suspenseful spreads. The meter of this rhyming tale with a just-right ending occasionally echoes a certain familiar Christmas poem (“‘There’s something we’ve missed — but, oh, what can it be?’ / ‘I know!’ Noah said…It’s the star for the tree’”). Loose-lined pen-and-ink and watercolor wash illustrations with copious white space and frequent warm, bright touches of yellow add to the appeal. SHOSHANA FLAX

Last Stop on the Reindeer Express
by Maudie Powell-Tuck; illus. by Karl James Mountford
Primary    Doubleday    32 pp.    g
10/18    978-1-5247-7166-9    $17.99

Christmas just isn’t very “Christmassy” with young Mia’s grandfather far away, and she’s frustrated to learn that her homemade card won’t reach Grandpa before the holiday. Happily, she discovers a magical mailbox that transports her to the office of the Reindeer Express, a service specializing in reuniting “families just like hers — families that couldn’t be together at Christmas.” With the help of a flying reindeer, she’s able to hand-deliver the card — and a hug — to Grandpa at his arctic cabin. The simple text focuses on Mia’s emotions and the sensory details of the season. Thoughtful die-cuts and flaps enhance the jewel-toned illustrations, by turns fantastical and homey. KATIE BIRCHER

Construction Site on Christmas Night
by Sherri Duskey Rinker; illus. by AG Ford
Preschool    Chronicle    40 pp.
10/18    978-1-4521-3911-1    $16.99

Return to the world of Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site with the same dedicated trucks and action-packed rhymes — now with a bit of holiday cheer thrown in. As the smiling construction trucks complete “the last big project of the year,” with as much enthusiasm as ever, they each find a Christmas gift from the crew (e.g., a shiny new scoop, candy cane–striped gear). The trucks’ hard work is rewarded with all sorts of surprises, and thanks to their efforts, the fire trucks have a star-bedecked new home for Christmas Eve. The construction site’s characteristic illustrations (by Ford, taking over from Tom Lichtenheld) in wax oil crayon consisting of bold lines and plenty of red, orange, yellow, and blue here contain a seasonal touch: patches of white snow. COLLEEN SHEA

Pip and Posy: The Christmas Tree
by Axel Scheffler; illus. by the author
Preschool    Nosy Crow/Candlewick    32 pp.    g
12/18    978-1-5362-0276-2    $12.99

In their latest outing, Pip and Posy bring home a Christmas tree and decorate it with candy canes, chocolate bells, and homemade cookies. When the decorations begin to disappear, at first one by one and then “COMPLETELY” (but not mysteriously; from the humorous and brightly colored gouache illustrations, it’s clear that Pip has eaten them all), the friends replace them with paper decorations, cutting out paper chains, stars, and hearts. “And the tree looked beautiful.” Pip’s inability to resist temptation is relatable, and Posy is an admirably nonjudgmental friend — though one of her Christmas presents to Pip is a toothbrush. “‘That’s just what I need,’ said Pip. Hooray!” A sweet and funny addition to Scheffler’s winning preschool series. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

I Got the Christmas Spirit
by Connie Schofield-Morrison; illus. by Frank Morrison
Preschool, Primary    Bloomsbury    32 pp.    g
9/18    978-1-68119-528-5    $16.99

In this upbeat picture book (similar in mood and tone to the wife-husband duo’s previous I Got the Rhythm), the African American narrator awakens “to the spirit of the season” (“RISE AND SHINE!”) and heads out into a snow-dappled city with her mother, taking in all the Christmastime sights, sounds, and tastes. Schofield-Morrison’s onomatopoeia-inflected text (as the girl goes ice-skating: “I swirled and twirled around the spirit. SWISH SWISH”) and Morrison’s kinetic, zoomed-in oil paintings enliven various iterations of experiencing “the spirit.” As the story progresses, we get closer and closer to the true meaning of Christmas until the revelation — “THE SPIRIT IS YOU!” — as the girl donates a gift to a family in need. An energetic and uplifting celebration of the season. KATRINA HEDEEN

Meet the Latkes
by Alan Silberberg; illus. by the author
Primary    Viking    40 pp.   g
10/18    978-0-451-47912-9    $17.99

A family of anthropomorphized latkes — Mom, Dad, and Grandpa; little-sister Lucy; teenager Lex (“Get out of my room!”); and dog Applesauce — decorates the house, spins dreidels, and quibbles over the spelling of the winter holiday’s name. Then Grandpa tells the story of Hanukkah/Chanukah/CHHanukah, and things get really kooky. Did you know that Mega-Bees battled alien potatoes from Planet CHHHHH using a Trojan horse–like dreidel? Amid frenetic silliness, there’s helpful information: Applesauce’s speech-bubble interjections throughout set everyone straight, as does the back matter, which includes a glossary. The illustrations of the goggle-eyed potato pancakes are as cartoonish as one might expect; images of, say, “tater tyrants” shooting lasers are appropriately childlike. An absurd mishmash that miraculously works. SHOSHANA FLAX

The Christmas Tree Who Loved Trains
by Annie Silvestro; illus. by Paola Zakimi
Preschool, Primary    Harper/HarperCollins    32 pp.
9/18    978-0-06-256168-8    $17.99

A little pine tree loves to watch trains go by from her spot on the edge of a Christmas tree farm. When a boy and his dad dig her up to take home, she’s lonely and misses the trains. Then she wakes up on Christmas morning to find herself encircled by the tracks of a toy train — and “the tree had never been happier.” Better still, when Christmas is over, and the family replants her on their farm near train tracks, she now has the company not only of her beloved trains but also the little boy. The story is sweet without being saccharine, and the illustrations, in soft greens and bright reds, are homey and warm. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

A Christmas Advent Story
by Ivy Snow; illus. by Hannah Tolson
Preschool    Bloomsbury    24 pp.
9/18    978-1-68119-851-4    $14.99

A direct, descriptive text invites readers to join a boy and girl through classic winter scenes and holiday activities, such as singing carols and choosing a Christmas tree. Numbered flaps on each page count the days of Advent and open to reveal basic vocabulary words. The text gives the book a search-and-find quality through leading questions (“Some [trees] are sprinkled with shiny icicles. How many can you count?”; “Who is hiding behind the tree?”). Tolson’s soft, cozy illustrations reward attentive viewers with additional hidden details and encourage multiple re-reads throughout the holiday season. FLANNERY WIEST

Mistletoe and Murder [Wells & Wong Mystery]
by Robin Stevens
Intermediate, Middle School    Simon    342 pp.    g
9/18    978-1-4814-8912-6    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-4814-8914-0    $10.99

Their fifth adventure finds Detective Society members Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong spending the winter holidays at Cambridge University visiting Daisy’s brother, Bertie. A reunion with the Junior Pinkertons leads to a bet — which is the better detective society? — and some flirting. Then a student — insufferable, rich, and a twin — is found murdered, and the two societies agree to collaborate. Stevens’s frost-dusted 1935 Cambridge, England, is an appealing backdrop for this adolescent whodunit, and Wells and Wong’s partnership, with its echoes of Holmes and Watson, is as entertaining as ever. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

From the November/December 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
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