Picture Books

Picture Books for the Holidays

It’s the Week Before Christmas and Hanukkah too,
And I’m thinking of books that I’d offer to you.

Storybooks have played a huge roll in my family’s holidays.  When I was a child, my dad read “A Visit from St. Nicholas” on Christmas Eve until he thought I’d outgrown it, and then I started reading it.  One of my favorite picture books of all time was “The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes,” by DeBose Heyward, which I faithfully read at Easter but also throughout the year.  When my husband and I were ready to start a family, one of our most precious preparations was deciding which books our children needed immediately and all through their childhood.  And as the years went by, our collection grew faster than the kids, which is saying something.
The kids are way past picture book age, being appropriately surly teenagers, but I still haul out the holiday books for the month of December.  Some of them are tattered, some are duplicates (we must have half a dozen versions of “A Visit from St. Nicholas”), but they are still good.  I thought I’d share a few favorites here, especially since some are off the beaten track of the regular classics.  Yes, we have and love the Grinch.  But there are others.
The first pictured here is a Hanukkah book.  Eric Kimmel has written several, but the one we keep going back to is “Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins.”  First—what a great title.  I just like to say it.  (I’m kind of kooky, though.)  Second, this edition is illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, whose work I adore, and third, it’s a lovely folktale about outsmarting the demons and restoring celebration and worship to a dark place.  And there are goblins—silly goblins, creepy goblins, and a really, really scary goblin.  When the goblins are outsmarted, the light returns.  What a lovely message for the winter holiday—just keep your wits about you, and you can survive anything.
The rest are Christmas books.  “The Jolly Christmas Postman” is the sequel to the Ahlbergs’ “The Jolly Postman,” and they both follow the postman as he delivers mail around the forest, to Little Red Riding Hood, Humpty Dumpty, and the Big, Bad Wolf, among others.  Each letter is interactive in some way—the letter comes out of the envelope-page, and there are games and puzzles and extra, interactive tidbits along the way.  It’s a delightful, witty little book.
“Who’s That Knocking on Christmas Eve?”  is Jan Brett’s retelling of a Scandinavian folktale about a house that always gets invaded by trolls when they smell the Christmas goodies, and how a clever houseguest with his tame polar bear (oh, we can only dream, here in Southern California) scares them away for good, leaving the family in peace as they celebrate and share their good cheer.  If I were a cynic, I’d point out that they share with the boy, but don’t share willingly with the trolls, but I’m not, so I won’t.  The trolls are hoodlums and thieves, of course, cute as they may be, drawn by the generous hand of Jan Brett.  The bear is awesome–categorically.  Who doesn’t want an ice bear for a pet?
The last book I’ll mention today is “Santa Calls,” by William Joyce, whose greatest genius, I think, lies in negotiating the different media his stories take (I’m thinking of his Guardians of Childhood series, which contains picture books, novels, and a movie, all with the same storyline or universe.) This one, though, is a Christmas book.  It’s also an adventure, and also a sibling book.  The younger sister wants to be taken seriously by the older brother, and Santa arranges not so much a gift as an experience–an adventure, and an opportunity for them to bond.  It’s not about getting presents; it’s about love.
And that’s a good place to end—with love.  All of the winter holidays celebrate a return of the light after the dark winter, a new commitment to life and a celebration of love, whether it comes from a deity, a jolly elf, or our fellow humans.  Whatever and however you celebrate the turning of the year and the return of the light, I wish you joy, love, and wonderful stories to keep you warm.  Happy Holidays!
Living · Reading

People Are Not Meant to be Like Oysters: Reflections on Scrooge

I collect editions of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. It’s one of my favorite stories. I collect film versions and print versions and even have the audio cds of Patrick Stewart’s one-man version in my car. I love it. And by this time in the season, I’ve usually seen or read it a couple times already.

I love how awful Scrooge is at the beginning, and how some of the clear, crisp images Dickens uses to describe him stick with me and ring in the back of my head when I meet people who bear him a resemblance. “Darkness was cheap, and Scrooge liked it” could be good or bad, really, but in Scrooge’s case, it’s bad and associates him with dark-heartedness and meanness, not just frugality. He was “solitary as an oyster.” He was closed off from the world, utterly alone, and practically hermetically sealed against companionship. Poor Scrooge. His greed supplanted his humanity. His need to amass wealth cut him off from all his friends and family. I can’t imagine a life more wasted.

I love that there are three spirits who visit after Marley—it’s such a lovely, fairy-tale truism that we have to think about the past, the present, and the future, that it takes three times to work the charm. The fact that the past is sad and the future is completely wretched if he stays this course is broken up by some of the most wonderful scenes of joy and contentment. The present is beautiful—it’s more than enough to make up for the past—but he’s missing it.

Most productions and abridgments choose to cut here. Dickens really lays it on thick, though. Scrooge sees the Cratchits, of course, and their small but satisfying feast. He sees Bob’s eldest daughter, Martha, come home and begin to play a trick (that she can’t make it home for Christmas) that she cuts short because she can’t bear to see her father sad, even for a joke. The middle children are described as being “up to their eyeballs in sage and onion,” and the Christmas pudding is described with such detail, I’ve kind of always wished I were British. He watches the family sing together and pass around the proverbial cup of cheer. It is a vividly depicted, sentimental, and I find, utterly charming scene.

But it doesn’t stop there. Scrooge gets a tour of London, stops at his nephew’s, flies out to sea and finds sailors and near solitary lighthouse workers sharing meals and stories and being variously contented on what feels like a cellular level. All of this is happening all around Scrooge, every single year, and with his scope tightly trained on making more and more money, he has not seen any of it.

When medieval priests described the Seven Deadly Sins, they offered contrasting virtues that one could practice to overcome, or “cure,” a sin. Practicing humility is the answer to pride; diligence cures sloth, etc. But for greed, there is no cure, only a “relief.” One can practice mercy and generosity, but they will only relieve the symptoms; nothing really gets at the root of the sin. The medieval implication is that greed is the one sin that will not be overcome.

But here is Dickens, and Scrooge, proving them wrong. I think it’s not just the fear of dying unloved and unmourned that gets him. By the time he gets to the third ghost, he’s mostly cured. The real action is with the second ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Present, who reveals to him the warmth and love all around him, that he’d been sealing himself off from, like his little oystery self. All he has to do is peel open that shell. And he does. The spirits pull back the veil and give him a glimpse of what he’s missing, and he is so stirred by the sight, he wants it badly enough to change. His first, stuttering attempt at singing a Christmas carol is a delight. He literally finds his voice and learns how to use it. (This may be my favorite moment in Patrick Stewart’s version!) It’s a beautiful thing.

Here’s wishing all you lovely readers find some holiday miracle that makes you want to sing and share and love.  (That’s Lucie, my cat, by the way, named for an entirely different Dickens hero.)

Picture Books

Fairy Tales are for Grown-Ups

I know what they say—that folktales are told to children as a way to transmit and preserve cultural knowledge and norms. Grandparents tell simple stories in the nursery to keep children quiet and entertained, while also keeping alive tradition and custom. But I also know many of those stories scare the pants off us. And I know this too—they are not simple because they’re for children. Children understand plenty. They are simple because that makes them easy to remember, and because they convey straightforward truths that don’t need dressing up.

We call fairy tales simple because they rely on stock characters (often nameless heroes, villains, millers, and youngest daughters…) and they are mostly plot, with little extra description, rationalization, or back story. But just because they are plot-heavy, and modern novels tend to be character-heavy, developing round, rich, psychologically real characters, does not mean plot-heavy works are lesser. What they are is speedy.

Folktales communicate their lesson and their drama in as little time as possible; sometimes it seems even as few words as possible.  Stock characters inhabit familiar scenes—a challenge, some assistance, punishment, or reward.  Tales leave out anything that doesn’t contribute to the narrative action.  A mother has daughters with one, two, and three eyes, respectively, and Little One-Eye and Little Three-Eyes bully their sister mercilessly, but no one asks how on earth it came to happen that a child was born with three eyes.

Think of Little Red Riding Hood.  We know precious little of her.  She is loved by the women in her life—her mother and grandmother—and she has a red cloak that suits her. Newsflash: the color red suits LOTS of people—whole ethnicities, really—huge swaths of the world. We don’t know clearly how old she is, what her favorite food is, even if she’s been asked to run questionable errands for her mom before now.  We know what we need to know:  she’s an innocent, young girl.  Grandma is old and (at the moment) feeble, and mom is confident in Red’s ability to find Grandma’s house or too busy to go herself. The wolf is ravenous. And scheming. Those two traits define him. If he weren’t scheming, he’d eat her on the road. If he weren’t ravenous, he couldn’t eat two humans in two gulps.

Given these skeletal characters, we are invited to project our own ideas on to the characters. Red can be any little girl—just like your little sister or your neighbor—and we begin the process of identifying with the narrative, concretizing the words in to images in our heads, building up a character we know, who will be unique from anyone else’s. The mother is any harried but well-meaning parent. She puts Red on the path and then lets her go. We know kids who are let loose too young, who don’t have enough guidance or tools to deal with the world, and we know what happened to them!  So keeping the characters spare encourages us to build them up in our heads, to clothe them in what we know of the world, and to make the tale seem personal. It speaks directly to us. 

With so little time spent developing character, the bulk of a folktale consists of plot. What does Red do?  What does the wolf do?  The actions define the tale. Is this a questing tale or a rags to riches tale?  A coming of age, or a tale of retribution?  The plots are often simple and focused on one problem or stage in life, because that’s the way we experience things.  Human life is formulaic:  we are born, we grow, we thrive as adults (often by means of choosing an occupation and starting a family), we age, and we die. But we deal with one phase at a time, as folktales allow us to. 


Folktales give us familiar crises and supply solutions. They help us learn to think our way out of problems, and depict others successfully escaping the jaws of the Threat Of The Day.  That is why they are loved by adults as well as children, and that’s why they mean different things to us at different ages. They’re therapy. (Second Newsflash: literature is therapy.) But folk literature uses a unique method of stock characters and scenes that allow us to project people we know in to the story, so it becomes more individualized, and hence, more meaningful. The gaps we fill as we read or listen render the tale much more complex than it looks, because it is unique to each reader. 

That is the magic and the allure of folktales, and why even in an age of digital effects and science fiction, we can’t get away from them.  We just keep retelling them. The television shows Grimm and Once Upon a Time first aired the same season, for goodness’ sake.  We’re not just not done with fairy tales; we seem not to be able to get enough of them. The wolf is as terrifying today as ever he was, and we all have to face him. May we all see him for what he is, as Red does, when we do.