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!