Holiday High Notes 2023

Oh, the weather outside is frightful,
but these tales are so delightful.
When we’ve candled or decked or treed…
let us read! Let us read! Let us read!*

Here’s our annual list of recommended new holiday picture books. Season’s greetings from the Horn Book staff!

*with apologies to lyricist Sammy Cahn

The Twelve Hours of Christmas
by Jenn Bailey; illus. by Brittany Jackson
Preschool, Primary    Little, Brown    32 pp.
10/23    9780316330978    $18.99

This picture book joyfully reimagines the popular Christmas carol and counts down twelve hours of a Black family’s celebration. The day begins with a young girl finding a kitten under the tree, but by the second hour: “Uh-oh! Where can she be?” Amid the search, the hours bring five nana hugs, six older cousins, and more. Jackson’s warm, digitally rendered illustrations showcase the variety of skin tones and hairstyles commonly found in African American families. The day ends with a safely located kitten and twelve “loud long ‘love you’s” as holiday guests head home: a perfect ending to the family’s Christmas Day. MARVA ANNE HINTON

Monsters at Christmas
by Laura Baker; illus. by Nina Dzyvulska
Preschool, Primary    Happy Yak/Quarto    32 pp.
9/23    9780711276727    $18.99

A colorful array of monsters takes over the pages of this rhyming picture book. Baker’s zany verses, dynamically typeset to mirror the frenetic energy, take readers on a whirlwind tour of the monsters’ Christmas shenanigans and make for a great read-aloud: “­JOYFUL monster, / TOY-FUL ­monster, / filling up a sack. / ­PEEKING monster, / SNEAKING monster, / HEY NOW, give that back!” Dzyvulska’s illustrations, outlined in bold black lines and colored in bright hues, provide a visual smorgasbord of details to pore over. An appended prompt sends readers back to the beginning to find Santa Monster in every spread. SHENWEI CHANG

Santa’s Gotta Go!
by Derrick Barnes; illus. by Courtney Lovett
Primary    Paulsen/Penguin    32 pp.
10/23    9780593530436    $18.99
e-book ed.  9780593530443    $10.99

In this silly Santa story, siblings Monte and Mabel Mack invite Santa Claus to stay with their family after his sleigh breaks down on Christmas. While waiting for a “yip-yip fuse” to fix it, he makes himself at home, putting his feet up on a loveseat and eating everything in sight. When he mistakenly cracks Mabel’s new tablet, she declares, “SANTA’S GOTTA GO.” But order is restored, and kindness and patience recognized. Lovett’s humorous digital illustrations will make readers believe in a Santa who wears skinny jeans and has several tattoos and an earring. MARVA ANNE HINTON

How Does Santa Go Down the Chimney?
by Mac Barnett; illus. by Jon Klassen
Preschool, Primary    Candlewick    32 pp.
9/23    9781536223767    $18.99
e-book ed.  9781536234442    $18.99

Barnett and Klassen (The Three Billy Goats Gruff, rev. 1/23, and others) reunite to address the title’s age-old Christmas question. Barnett’s text expertly speculates as a child might, with ideas ranging from the logical (“Maybe Santa knows about the key under the flowerpot”) to the playful (“Or [does he] stretch out like taffy and step in one leg at a time?”). Klassen’s graphite, ink, and digital illustrations add his ever-pleasing straight-faced brand of humor (e.g., Santa doing laundry in his heart-patterned underwear to clean the soot off his suit). Theorizing is more entertaining than discovering an answer would be — the magic is in the mystery, after all, including the mystery of how Santa gets back up the chimney. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

Luna Loves Christmas
by Joseph Coelho; illus. by Fiona Lumbers
Preschool, Primary    Kane Miller    32 pp.
10/23    9781684646418    $15.99

Young Luna usually has two Christmases: one with Mom and one with Dad. This year, however, she and her family are “doing something different.” On Christmas Eve, Luna and Mom make deliveries for the food bank; on Christmas Day, Luna and Dad join Mom (and grandparents) at the town hall to help with a community dinner “where everyone is welcome, so no one is alone.” The lively illustrations put fellowship on full display; as in previous books starring this happy biracial girl (Luna Loves Library Day and others) and her amicably co-parenting Mom and Dad, listeners are treated to a story within the story. KITTY FLYNN

We Disagree About This Tree
by Ross Collins; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Candlewick    32 pp.
9/23    9781536231984    $16.99

So many decorating concepts, only one tree! The polar bear and mouse first seen in There’s a Bear on My Chair alternate showing off their own ideas and rejecting each other’s: tinsel, electric lights, a manatee tree-topper, lit candles (fear not: the mouse has a fire extinguisher). The funny rhyming text is all in dialogue, but it’s easy to see who’s speaking as the argument escalates: fonts are differentiated, and the digital illustrations make it clear who’s excited about each aesthetic and who’s decidedly not. All ends well, of course — but if these two ever try decking the halls, run. SHOSHANA FLAX

La Noche Before Three Kings Day
by Sheila Colón-Bagley; illus. by Alejandro Mesa
Preschool, Primary    Harper/HarperCollins    32 pp.
9/23    9780063234321    $19.99

This Spanglish take on “The Night Before Christmas” shares a family’s traditions for “la noche before Three Kings Day” (Día de los Reyes or Día de Reyes in Spanish), which celebrates the arrival of the Reyes Magos on the sixth day of January. Cheerful digital illustrations with a mid-century-esque flair show the family decorating shoeboxes to leave out for gifts and candy from the Reyes Magos, eating “scrumptious comida,” and dancing. The elaborately drawn Reyes Magos shine — literally — when they finally arrive, and the whimsical spread depicting them flying off on camels is a fitting finale. MONICA DE LOS REYES

Otto the Ornament
by Troy Cummings; illus. by the author
Primary    Random    40 pp.
9/23    9780593481202    $12.99
Library ed.  9780593481219    $15.99
e-book ed.  9780593481226    $7.99

The tree ornaments are enjoying a “peaceful and calm” Christmas Eve when Otto, a brand-new, “snazzy…jazzy…Christmas-pizzazzy!” ornament, shows up and insists: “A superstar like me belongs on the top of the tree.” Glittery Otto is rebuffed by the group (after obnoxiously pointing out the others’ flaws) and sets out to find his own tree. But the perfect tree is missing something: “What’s the point of being at the top if I don’t have anyone to share it with?” The journey home is harrowing, and Otto returns chastened and lacking his previous luster but with a new appreciation for community. Lively cartoonlike illustrations depict Otto’s adventures with flair and heart. KITTY FLYNN

Red & Green
by Lois Ehlert; illus. by the author
Preschool    Beach Lane/Simon    40 pp.
9/23    9781534401723    $18.99
e-book ed.  9781534401730    $10.99

“It was a cold, wintry night, / and all through the house, / not a creature was stirring… / except a small mouse!” Ehlert’s (posthumously published) take on “The Night Before Christmas” provides a zoomed-in, mouse’s-eye view, with her trademark geometric illustrations stealing the show. Frequent die-cuts in unexpected configurations enhance delight, with each page-turn bringing a singular surprise. Bold hues include the expected red-and-green palette along with pops of fuchsia here, understated tones there, and the occasional shiny foils. The tall-and-thin vertical orientation makes pages easy to turn and evokes the Christmas tree on the cover and at the center of the book. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

The Christmassy Cactus
by Beth Ferry; illus. by A. N. Kang
Preschool, Primary    Harper/HarperCollins    40 pp.
9/23    9780063039643    $18.99
e-book ed.  9780063334342    $10.99

Christmas trees get all the ­attention — why­­­ shouldn’t cacti get their own tinsel? Ferry inspires empathy for protagonist Tiny Cactus through a mutually adoring relationship between the plant and her young owner. Amid Tiny Cactus’s holiday wishes for her own trimmings, the text’s simple, vivid descriptors evoke the infectious bustle of holiday traditions: “Shimmering things. Sparkling things. Twinkling, tinseling, transforming things.” Kang further personifies the cactus with blushing cheeks and a determined, eager smile. Shown on creamy, off-white pages, the reds and greens of Christmas decor within this family’s pink-hued household increase the ­coziness. EMMA A. SHACOCHIS

The Magical Snowflake
by Bernette Ford; illus. by Erin K. Robinson
Preschool, Primary    Boxer Books    32 pp.
10/23    978191412221    $18.99

In this atmospheric picture book, set during a bitterly cold day, Ori wishes for snow, and just like that a snowflake falls from the sky and lands on her nose. She asks if it’s a magical snowflake and seems to hear it say, “Follow me.” As she and the other children follow the snowflake through town, more snow begins to fall, and more children and adults join their caravan — which ends up in a festively frosty destination. Robinson’s bright, highly textured illustrations will make readers long for a snow day. MARVA ANNE HINTON

Winter: A Solstice Story
by Kelsey Gross; illus. by Renata Liwska
Preschool, Primary    Wiseman/Simon    32 pp.
10/23    9781665908139    $18.99
e-book ed.  9781665908146    $10.99

On the longest night of the year, Owl calls on his forest friends to “shine the light” and “share a gift of hope.” Deer leaves nuts on tree branches so that all may have enough to eat. Raccoon hides berries in the snow as “sweet surprises.” As different animals explain how they can contribute (“I can help to shine the light…I can help to spark the light”), they decorate a tree, and their efforts culminate in the completed tree featured in a vertical gatefold. Liwska’s muted digital illustrations, with primarily blue backgrounds, help to set a peaceful wintry mood. MARVA ANNE HINTON

It’s Navidad, El Cucuy!
by Donna Barba Higuera; illus. by Juliana Perdomo
Preschool, Primary    Abrams    40 pp.
9/23    9781419760136    $18.99
e-book ed.  9781647006044    $15.54

Ramón and his not-so-mythical friend El Cucuy are back for “Nochebuena, the final day of Las Posadas.” With an eye-catching backdrop of cut paper–inspired digital illustrations, Ramón explains the Navidad tradition to El Cucuy and how they will invite the revelers into their family’s house as the last stop. After Ramón reassures him that “por supuesto” he is a part of their family, El Cucuy, in turn, teaches the traditions to Ramón’s snowman, whom he had previously dismissed as “not real.” Continuing the themes of welcoming and belonging from ­El Cucuy Is Scared, Too! (rev. 7/21), this is an enjoyable addition to the quirky series. Author and illustrator notes give more information on Las Posadas and related celebrations. MONICA DE LOS REYES

Little Red
by Will Hillenbrand; illus. by the author
Preschool    Ottaviano/Little, Brown    40 pp.
10/23    9780316333627    $18.99

Cheerful pick-up truck Little Red and his intrepid driver, Katie, are known throughout Tiny Town as the ones to call in a jam. From jump-starting Purple Delivery Van’s battery to fixing Yellow Popcorn Wagon’s flat, this team makes unscheduled stops above and beyond their “one more job for the day,” even as “the snow came down and down.” A satisfyingly seasonal penultimate stop leads to an effectively foreshadowed big-reveal conclusion (including a vertical book-turn). There are so many details to love, from the text’s patterned repetition to the digital illustrations’ unique personality-filled vehicles to the color-coded speech bubbles and sound effects. Many “thanks to Little Red and Katie,” indeed. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

Decorate the Tree!
by Amanda Jane Jones; illus. by the author
Preschool    Cameron/Abrams    32 pp.
9/23    9781949480566    $15.99
e-book ed.  9798887071503    $14.39

Cleanly designed double-page spreads feature large-size type on the left and simply composed cut-paper and digital illustrations (resembling a child’s craft project) on the right. À la Tullet’s innovative, interactive picture book Press Here (rev. 7/11), listeners are instructed to tap a fir tree composed of overlapping green triangles “to add some lights.” A page-turn shows those lights on the tree. Clap to turn the lights on, knock twice to add ornaments, and so on. Garland, candy canes, and a star tree-topper complete the effect. “Turn the page to turn out the light.” This offering captures the fun of tree decorating. KITTY FLYNN

Dreams of Green: A Three Kings’ Day Story
by Mariel Jungkunz; illus. by Mónica Paola Rodríguez
Primary    Astra    32 pp.
10/23    9781662620379    $18.99
e-book ed.  9781662620386    $11.99
Spanish ed.  9781662620393    $18.99

Lucía is afraid the Three Kings won’t be able to find her in her new home: unlike Puerto Rico, Ohio in January has no grass to guide their camels. Lucía’s family reassures her, and together they keep old holiday traditions alive (Mamá bakes mallorcas) and make new ones (they gather pine needles for the camels). Soft, digitally rendered illustrations highlight the beauty and fun Lucía finds in her family’s new experience of winter and the warmth they create for the holiday. More information about the holiday is appended. Concurrently published in Spanish as El verde de mis sueños. MONICA DE LOS REYES

Eight Nights of Lights: A Celebration of Hanukkah
by Leslie Kimmelman; illus. by Hilli Kushnir
Preschool, Primary    Harper/HarperCollins    72 pp.
9/23    9780063242487    $19.99

Opening this sturdy-backed gift book reveals nine little books (written in little type) that are candle-shaped and ­removable: one for each night of Hanukkah plus the shamash. The narrative follows young Lena and her family as they sing songs, fry latkes (traditional, sweet potato, and plantain), exchange gifts and perform tzedakah, attend a ­Hanukkah party at the synagogue, and more. After reading that night’s story, children can flip the candle to its “lit” side, creating a virtual hanukkiah without all that pesky wax. Cheery digital-looking illustrations embrace inclusivity. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

Santa Shark
by Mike Lowery; illus. by the author
Primary    Orchard/Scholastic    32 pp.
10/23    9781338803952    $14.99
Paper ed.  9781339036663    $7.99

Shark! the herald angels sing. Santa Shark (who builds toys with his “eelves” and has a sleigh pulled by magical seahorses) is coming, and shark Edgar intends to be prepared. He’s full of ideas (making “Christmas cods,” singing “Christmas corals”) until the question of how to make it snow underwater leaves him at sea — but a crab friend provides a creative solution. Let the many, many puns wash over you in this sea-set Santa story with buoyantly cartoony illustrations to match. “Jingle all the waaaves!” SHOSHANA FLAX

First Words of Christmas
illus. by Madeleine Marie
Preschool    WorthyKids    20 pp.
10/23    9781546005353    $7.99

“Long ago, an angel told Mary she was going to have a baby.” This board book tells the biblical story of the birth of Jesus in simple language. Each left-hand page features a sentence about a particular aspect of the story, from the angel visiting Mary to the wise men bringing Jesus gifts. Vocabulary words, such as Bethlehem, stable, and manger, appear in bold, and the right-hand pages feature the bolded word from the opposite page along with an isolated illustration. Marie’s use of colorful jewel tones ­creates an inviting atmosphere. ­­­MARVA ANNE HINTON

The Mexican Dreidel
by Linda Elovitz Marshall and Ilan Stavans; illus. by Maria Mola
Primary    Kar-Ben    24 pp.
10/23    9781728449289    $19.99
e-book ed.  9781728495385    $8.99

Danielito is visiting his Bobe for Janucá. He doesn’t have a trompo to play with the neighborhood kids, but Bobe supplies a dreidel. A chase through town after both types of spinning tops provides shared glee, followed by shared buñuelos and latkes. Illustrations with varied compositions spotlight Bobe’s neighborhood in this relatable story about wanting to fit in and embracing individuality. An appended note provides background about the holiday and the Jewish community in Mexico, including some linguistic context (e.g., Bobe is a Spanish transliteration of the Yiddish Bubbe). SHOSHANA FLAX

Santa Claus and the Three Bears
by Lou Peacock; illus. by Margarita Kukhtina
Preschool, Primary    Nosy Crow    32 pp.
10/23    9798887770291    $18.99

Santa, who’s almost-but-not-quite done with his rounds, makes a Goldilocks-esque stop at the Three Bears’ house…and promptly conks out (“Who’s that sleeping in MY chair?”). When he can’t be roused, Baby Bear — assisted by the Fairy-Tale Rescue Rangers team of Little Red Riding Hood, the Seven Dwarfs, the Three Little Pigs, and the Gingerbread Man — takes the lead. Peacock’s text includes lots of funny fairy-tale flourishes (“‘Quick, Gingerbread Man,’ cried Baby Bear. ‘Run, run, as fast as you can, and deliver all the presents!’”) enhanced by Kukhtina’s spry, cartoony, digital-looking ­illustrations. On Christmas morning, Santa wakes up in a mild panic, but everything’s under control — and Baby Bear gets her own apt reward. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

Holy Night and Little Star: A Story for Christmas
by Mitali Perkins; illus. by Khoa Le
Primary    Waterbrook    40 pp.
9/23    9780593578049    $15.99
e-book ed.  9780593578056    $7.99

Resistant to change, Little Star is uncertain how she can help Maker on Holy Night. She follows the shepherds to a stable in Bethlehem and sees a newborn baby there whose eyes are familiar: “This Child…was Maker!” Her gentle gleam calms the Baby, so she stays, shimmering softly overhead for Maker until the travelers from afar arrive to worship the King. Perkins’s child-friendly fantasy about the role played by the Star of Bethlehem offers a thought-provoking, cross-cultural retelling of the Nativity story. Perkins re-teams with Le (Bare Tree and Little Wind: A Story for Holy Week), who beautifully depicts the human and otherworldly aspects of the story with (culturally accurate) diverse skin tones for the people and effervescent ­illustrations of the celestial host. ­CYNTHIA K. RITTER

The Last Slice: A Three Kings Day Treat
by Melissa Seron Richardson; illus. by Monica Arnaldo
Primary    Little, Brown    40 pp.
12/23    9780316436298    $18.99

The Rosca de Reyes for Three Kings Day looks delicious, but Marta is terrified of accidentally swallowing the Niño Dios figure hidden inside the cake. She fears the religious ramifications of eating Baby Jesus, as well as letting down her family on Candelaria Day in February: whoever finds the baby brings tamales to the celebration, and “no baby meant no tamales.” ­Marta’s anxieties (an appended note shares how they are based on the author’s own childhood worries) are humorously described and tempered by comical watercolor and pencil crayon illustrations featuring a cheeky Niño Dios. Eventually, Marta faces her fears, and with a “CHOMP!” triumphantly finds Niño Dios, ensuring tamales for her cheering family. Back matter also includes information on Three Kings Day. MONICA DE LOS REYES

Latke’s First Hanukkah
by Alan Silberberg; illus. by the author
Preschool    Viking    16 pp.
10/23    9780593623169    $7.99
e-book ed.  9780593623183    $7.99

In this eight-nights-of-Hanukkah counting book, Silberberg (Meet the Latkes, rev. 11/18) simplifies his signature absurdity for the board book set. Latkes celebrate and count with anthropomorphized applesauce, which argues with the sour cream; dreidels who “drop by, dizzy”; and sufganiyot who are “full of joy (and jelly).” Illustrations are bold and color-saturated (one includes dreidel letters out of order). Loose-lined latkes’ expressive eyes show them as variously rapt or overwhelmed by it all. An intro to Hanukkah that’s sure to grab the attention of small…fry. SHOSHANA FLAX

Dasher Can’t Wait for Christmas
by Matt Tavares; illus. by the author
Primary    Candlewick    40 pp.
9/23    9781536230130    $17.99
e-book ed.  9781536233483    $17.99

First introduced in Dasher (rev. 11/19), the titular character returns in a new holiday adventure that conveys the spirit of the season. Dasher loves “seeing the Christmas lights from high above” on Christmas Eve while flying Santa’s sleigh. Too excited to wait as Christmas Eve approaches, she follows the sound of Christmas carols, but then can’t find the North Star to guide her home. Luckily, a child kindly lends her a compass to get her back to the North Pole just in time. While Tavares has switched to a digital style for this sequel, the illustrations still maintain a rich, realistic quality featuring mainly cool hues that are just right for a cozy nighttime read. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

Esperanza Caramelo, the Star of Nochebuena
by Karla Arenas Valenti; illus. by Elisa Chavarri
Preschool, Primary    Knopf    40 pp.
9/23    9780593488676    $18.99
Library ed.  9780593488683    $21.99
e-book ed.  9780593488690    $10.99
Spanish ed.  9780593705018    $18.99

It’s Nochebuena eve in the ­pastelería, “a night when wonder reigns, for those who believe in magic.” In Nutcracker-like fashion, Esperanza, a sugar figurine, is brought to life and proceeds to wake up the rest of the characters adorning a ­Christmas-tree cake. When a mischievous cat knocks down the intricate dessert, the figurines work together to re-bake it. With mixed-media illustrations that seem to shimmer with sugar and fairy dust (and an appended note about the author’s grandmother’s real-life sugar creations), this book is sure to satisfy any reader’s sweet tooth. Concurrently published in Spanish as Esperanza Caramelo, la estrella de Nochebuena. MONICA DE LOS REYES

How to Decorate a Christmas Tree
by Vikki VanSickle; illus. by Miki Sato
Primary    Tundra    40 pp.
10/23    9780735268586    $18.99
e-book ed.  9780735268593    $10.99

Della Rose Santiago (as her name appears on her “first-ever ornament”) narrates this decoration play-by-play: “Clean up your toys so the tree has a nice place to stand.” After helping with the lights, Della tells the story of each ornament as she hangs it on the tree. A pinecone from camping, a maneki-neko from her aunt in Japan, a parol (“the oldest ornament…It belonged to Lola Reyna” from the Philippines). Toward the end, Della and the cozy collage illustrations reveal the “you” she’s been speaking to: “This year, we have a new ornament” with a new sibling’s name on it. A warm celebration of family history and holiday tradition. KITTY FLYNN

Hanukkah Upside Down
by Elissa Brent Weissman; illus. by Omer Hoffmann
Primary    Abrams    40 pp.
9/23    9781419762963    $18.99
e-book ed.  9781647007362    $15.54

Cousins Noah and Nora live on “opposite sides of the world,” with Noah in New York and Nora in ­Aotearoa New Zealand. During Hanukkah, they compete to determine whose celebration is better: “Hanukkah’s­ awesome in winter.” “Maybe…but it’s awesomer in summer.” Over the course of the eight nights, readers learn some details about the holiday’s rituals and about each of the settings. “Noah slid on his skates. Nora surfed to the shore. But on the seventh night of Hanukkah, they both spun sevivon — and won gelt for gimel!” Digitally assembled pencil, charcoal, and brush and ink illustrations play up the humor (e.g., in the example above, both cousins have wiped out) and the friendly — and futile — competition. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

Is This…Winter?
by Helen Yoon; illus. by the author
Preschool    Candlewick    32 pp.
9/23    9781536226270    $10.99
e-book ed.  9781536234527    $10.99

A young puppy experiencing its first winter goes exploring. Its interactions are confusing: it greets a mailbox that doesn’t respond; it tries to play with a snowman but in its exuberance smashes it. “Hey, what happened? Where’d you — go…?” Then comes the most confusing encounter of all: a garish set of holiday yard decorations including lit-up reindeer, wind-sock puppets, the requisite (adorned) pink flamingo — and a giant blow-up Santa. Santa’s mechanical “Ho Ho Ho” bowls the pup over and sends it running back to its owner. “Winter is weird.” Yoon’s trademark energetic mixed-media art (see also Is This…Easter?) captures the puppy’s outgoing personality — and some of the silliness of over-the-top holiday displays. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

From the November/December 2023 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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