Picture Books

Holiday Picture Book Extravaganza

Ok, maybe it’s not an extravaganza, but it’s one more than the last two years. Yay!
I haul out all our holiday picture books from the rec room for the month of December every year. When the kids were little, it meant we read holiday picture books almost exclusively for story time. Now that they’re big, it means we all sort of steal one and snuggle down surreptitiously for ten minutes of delight and nostalgia before going back to whatever homework/grading/finals sort of demand we’re facing.
This year I have a mix of old favorites and new treasures—from the traditional 12 Days of Christmas to the Sugar Plum Fairy who happens to have two dads. And then there’s the happy pagan winter tale, slightly updated, of Lucia, the little girl who faces down trolls to bring back the light.
Whether you have someone young to share these with or not, I promise they’re all worth your time.
1. Laurel Long’s “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is far and away the most visually stunning version I have ever seen. I have loved her work for years, especially her fairy tales “The Lady and the Lion” and “The Magic Nesting Doll,” but this one tops everything she’s ever done in my opinion. She includes each of the previous list of element in every page, so you can search for the partridge in every spread and the two turtle doves after the second, and all of them—ALL OF THEM—in the last spread. In the tradition of Graeme Base, this is amazing work.
2. “Lucia and the Light” is a rework of the trickster tale where the hero goes to fetch the sun from thieves. In Phyllis Root’s version, illustrated with big-eyed wonder by Mary Grandpré, the hero is a little girl whose name means ‘light,’ and the thieves are giant rock trolls. Lucia is loving and clever and brave, and she has a milk-white cat who is part sidekick, part familiar, and all delightful. My daughter was four when we got this, and she still reads it when I pull it out.
3. Do you know I love bunnies? And Nordic things? Especially gnomes, or as the Swedes call them, tomten? Ulf Stark and Eva Eriksson have a couple books out about “The Yule Tomte and the Little Rabbits” and one for Midsummer as well. The stories are sweet, and the illustrations are precious. They’re aimed at little ones, maybe 3-7 years, but I enjoy them both.
4. This year’s new discovery was “Plum: How the Sugar Plum Fairy Got Her Wings” by Sean Hayes and Scott Icenogle of Will and Grace fame, illustrated by Robin Thompson. This is the little-known backstory of the plucky orphan who becomes the princess of the Land of Sweets, and, when she’s learned to be generous of spirit, she earns her fairy wings. Pretty sweet.
5. Finally, there is “Auntie Claus” by Elise Primavera, another of my favorites from reading with the kids. Auntie Claus is Santa’s sister, and little Sophie sneaks out and stows away to learn the family secrets. This is imaginative and funny, and there’s a rule-spouting elf named Mr. Pudding.  I’m thinking that should be enough. If it’s not, the illustrations are delightful, and once or twice you have to turn the book sideways because the text and illustration demand it, so that’s always a plus.
There you have it: this year’s five picture books for the holidays. I hope you find time to check them out. I’ll happily read them, I mean loan them, to you if you like.
Merry merry, everyone.
Living · Picture Books · Reading

Raising Readers

Summer is birthday season when you’ve planned kids on an academic calendar. This summer my “baby” turns 15, which is a kind of weird, arbitrary-sounding milestone (for a non-Latino family), but for this literacy-minded mama, it matters. It turns out that as children learn to read, it helps their fluency and vocabulary-building to read to them aloud. The benefits last at least until they are fifteen, when their visual vocabulary catches up with their aural vocabulary.
Kids understand more of what they hear than what they read on their own until they are fifteen. (I think I first got this number from Jim Trelease’s The Read-Aloud Handbook, but I’m having trouble putting my finger on the reference just now.) The number, though, stuck in my head for years, and it makes sense to me that kids’ aural vocabulary (what they hear read in context, one presumes especially from a reader who reads with fluency and drama, so that the sense of new words can be gleaned from the context) is greater than their visual vocabulary (what they read by themselves) until they are fifteen years old.
So until 15, parents have a real, practical reason for continuing storytime.  I didn’t make this felicitous date with the little one, incidentally.  Regular storytime pretty much ended when she started high school and felt herself burdened with homework nearly every night.  (I’m not indulging my curiosity about how her homework load was so much more burdensome than her brother’s just two years before… with the same teachers and same assignments….  He had plenty of time for our evening reading, which means we kept going until he was 16 and she was 14.)
At any rate, now I don’t have to feel guilty any longer.  I didn’t really feel guilty. She’s ten times the reader I was at her age, and my goal was always to hook them on reading, not just hit an important date. Mission accomplished on both counts. They both read a considerable amount for pleasure, even in the age of video games, and since her eleventh birthday, my daughter has asked primarily for books for her birthday. I call that a win.
It’s her birthday coming up, so her reading journey I’m interested in tracking here.

In the picture book days, we read around an hour a day to her.  She loved Where’s My Teddy by Jez Alborough, which we had in an oversized board book format, perfect for propping on laps and reading together. It’s adorable, so I never minded reading it four times in a row. (One fear I always had was that they’d love something I hated, and I’d have to suffer through the same drivel a hundred times.  Reader, beware of this—read books before you introduce them to wee ones, who thrive on repetition.) When she learned to read (and she was well in to first grade), we scaled back to a conservative 45 minutes a night, and there we stayed, nearly without exception, until last summer.


Scholastic Book Club became my best friend. They have so many economical books, and you contribute to the teacher’s library too–everyone wins. She plowed through Daisy Meadows’s fairy books and Holub and Williams’s Goddess Girls series on her own, while we read a bit above her level at home—Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, Peter and the Starcatchers. We also made a point to read things she might struggle with on her own—British books like The Wind in the Willows, The House at Pooh Corner, The Hobbit, and classics like Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and A Tale of Two Cities.  For some of these, she benefitted from having a mom who taught those books, but far more of them, we discovered together. I wouldn’t have traded this time for anything in the world.  

And as she advances through high school and in to adulthood, requesting Barnes and Noble giftcards for holiday gifts and brandishing tee shirts with the Ravenclaw crest or slogans like “The Book Was Better,” I take some consolation for the loss of storytime.

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!