Friday, November 27, 2009

Christmas Books Old and New

The radio's playing Christmas music, with a strangely repetitive emphasis on "There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays," and apparently everyone in the United States except me is Christmas shopping today, so I thought it would be a good time to tell you about some Christmas-themed children's books. I'll start with two I just added to my library.

A Season of Gifts by Richard Peck

I read Richard Peck's new book, A Season of Gifts, last week, and I thought, Richard Peck doesn't need me to write a review of his book. But then I thought, I need to write a review of his book. The back jacket flap quotes the Washington Post as describing Peck as "America's best living author for young adults." I don't know about young adults vs. children, so I'd just say Peck is "America's best living author for young people." The companion novels, A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder, made the American Library Association notable lists in both the children's and young adult categories; they also won a Newbery Honor and Newbery Medal, respectively.

I really hope you've already met Grandma Dowdel in those previous books, but if you haven't, I recommend you read all three. In the first two books, she is hosting her grandchildren. In this book, she is much older but still going strong. We catch a glimpse of her great-grandson, but mostly we see her with the children who live next door.

It's sort of astonishing that a book about an old lady could be such a great read for children, but then, Mrs. Dowdel isn't your run-of-the-mill old lady. When children come into her orbit, they are not only baffled, entranced, and entertained, they are also altered. Mrs. Dowdel is more than just irreverent and unpredictable, she is kind, though her kindness is hidden beneath a veil of eccentricity and toughness. Mrs. Dowdel is pretty good friends with her shotgun.

The story is told by a boy named Bob who moves into the next-to-last house in a small town, along with his preacher father, his worried mother, his Elvis-crazy older sister, and his lost puppy younger sister. The last house in town is Mrs. Dowdel's. At first Bob and his family catch only glimpses of their strange neighbor, but pretty soon their lives are enmeshed in surprising ways. Mrs. Dowdel manages to be a hero and a friend subtly, without taking away the dignity or decision-making power of the people she helps, in this case Bob's family. Bob is being bullied, his father needs a congregation, his older sister is secretly seeing the town bad boy, his mother needs help with all of the other family members, and his little sister needs a grandma.

But this would be just another feel-good book without the author's humor, or without his spare, perfectly constructed prose. And I do mean perfect. Here's a sample:

I followed her across the hall and jumped back at her door. To help her settle in, Mother had let Phyllis paint her room in her choice of color. She'd picked a Day-Glo pink that really yelled at you. It was like being inside a stomach.

Then Phyllis had painted a stripe of that same Day-Glo pink down the center of the floor and warned Ruth Ann never to set a sandal across it.

Phyllis had hung her Elvis Presley posters, all eight of them, around both sides of the room. I know for a fact Phyllis wrote letters to Elvis Presley regularly, though she never heard back. Ruth Ann sat bunched up on her bed, clutching her dolly. Looming above her was a giant poster of Elvis in a cowboy rig and neckerchief, strumming a guitar. Another was Elvis in the gold coat he wore on his tour last year. Elvis was all swooping hair and sideburns and showing teeth in life-size sneers, all over the room. He was everywhere. It was like being in a revolving door with him.

"I'm scared," Ruth Ann said over her knees. She made big eyes up at a poster. "Don't go out and leave me with him." She whispered for fear Elvis would hear.
A Season of Gifts is solidly posed as a holiday book, building up to Christmas. Between Mrs. Dowdel's gruffly kind tendencies and Bob's preacher father, you will find messages about being a good person here. But the book really isn't limited to one denomination, and the holiday setting ends up being a lot less important than the shotgun-wielding granny's good intentions and the often-sly way she goes about getting what she wants.

The antagonist in A Season of Gifts is the aforementioned town bad boy. The war between Roscoe Burdick and Mrs. Dowdel has apparently been going on for a while, but in this book, we first meet Roscoe when he bullies Bob in a really creative way involving Mrs. Dowdel's privy (leading to the funniest joke in the book, referring to a famous Bible passage). Later Roscoe takes advantage of Phyllis's Elvis fetish to win her heart, or at least to capture her imagination. But Mrs. Dowdel isn't through with Roscoe, and though she loses a few skirmishes, there's never any doubt she'll win this war. The only question is how she'll do it.

It took me a while to catch on, since Coyote and Loki don't usually come dressed up as cranky old women in small-town America in 1958, but yes, I think Mrs. Dowdel is actually that classic mythological character, the Trickster. But mythology or no, I have to say: lucky, lucky us. Because 'tis the season, and Richard Peck has given us another marvelous gift of a book.

Voices of Christmas by Nikki Grimes and Eric Velasquez

The second Christmas book I've acquired this year is Voices of Christmas by Nikki Grimes, with illustrations by Eric Velasquez and even an audio CD. In case you haven't heard of Nikki Grimes, she's a famous writer of poetry and novels for children. In this book, she presents a poem for each character in the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. Each poem is introduced by the character's name and a quote from the Bible at the top of the page, followed by a poem at the bottom, all encased in the artwork.

The obvious characters are included, but we also get the thoughts of a neighbor and of less well-known Biblical figures such as Simeon and Ana at the temple when the baby Jesus is taken to be blessed. Each of the magi is given his own page, drawing out their portion of the story in a way that echoes the shape of their journey in its elongation. Grimes even uses something implied by the Biblical narrative—that by the time the magi arrive, the baby is now a child, living in a house with his parents. (Most versions show the magi arriving at the stable, a chronology that doesn't work well even without the reference about the child and the house.)

The poems in Voices of Christmas are simple, yet well crafted. As the title might imply, the voice of each character is as important to the success of the poetry as the story they are telling. Mary speaks of her bedroom walls "[beaming] brighter than moonrise" even after the angel is gone, Zechariah laments being "a dim-witted man" for having questioned the promise of a son in his old age, and the innkeeper, shown as a smug woman in the artwork, justifies herself with an irony readers will recognize even if she does not:

I led them to a dry spot
in my stable,
and a bed of hay
on which to lay themselves.
It was the most I could offer,
other than to share
my own, warm room.
And who would care
to do that for strangers?
It's not as if they were royalty, right?
A stable would do for the night.
This book is very beautiful. It is also very somber. Even the colors are dark, with an emphasis on blues and grays and browns. I don't know that those who lack an interest in the Christmas story will be drawn to this one, which ends on a note of faith, addressing You, the reader, as the last character. But for anyone with the slightest bit of belief, let alone a strong commitment to Christianity, Voices of Christmas is a book to add to your collection.

I will confess that I have not yet listened to the CD enclosed with this book, but it's something I look forward to this holiday season! The 20-minute CD is narrated by the poet and Craig Northcutt, with music added by Keith Ward.

An African American writer, Nikki Grimes has earned Coretta Scott King honors for several books, most notably winning the Coretta Scott King Award in 2002 for her novel Bronx Masquerade. There is often an unabashedly spiritual component to her work, and I especially like her poetry.

Now I'll share some Christmas books that have been in my library a little longer...

The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumor Godden and Barbara Cooney

My favorite Christmas book for children is this one, the old-fashioned, magical story of a little girl who gets off a train at the wrong stop on purpose to go looking for her grandmother, even though she is an orphan and truly doesn't have one. The author tells us right up front, "This is a story about wishing," and oh, is it ever! Ivy wishes for a home and a doll, while little doll Holly wishes for a child to hold her and the policeman's wife is wishing, too. Unless you've read any of the author's other doll stories and recall her matter-of-fact tone, you might not understand how a book can be this sentimental without being irritating or schmaltzy. But it works. There's even a highly original villain in the form of a toy owl named Abracadabra. I get this book out every Christmas and read it with just as much joy as the year before. Cooney's illustrations are equally simple and direct, yet with a touch of softness, complementing the story exactly as they should. Especially if you have daughters ages 5-7 or even 8 or 9 in the house, give Holly and Ivy a try. (Trivia extra: Demi Moore named her oldest daughter after this author.)

I should tell you that my love of Christmas-themed stories began with my mother, who told us her favorites every Christmas Eve for years. She eventually collected most of the stories in a book which is now out of print, Under a Christmas Star. Among the stories she told us was Rumor Godden's "Holly and Ivy." As I recall, my mother had found it printed in a women's magazine and kept it with her Christmas things until it was falling apart.

One year when I was far from home in Argentina, my American roommate and I decided to celebrate Christmas in June, since it was winter where we were and thus, to our homesick twenty-one-year-old minds, should have been Christmas. I had a little stash of American food someone had sent me, so we made tuna sandwiches and I recounted the story of Rumor Godden's "Holly and Ivy" in great detail. A few years later, after my friend and I were back in the States and had gone our separate ways, the story was made into a picture book with illustrations by Barbara Cooney. Kathy discovered it and sent me an inscribed copy—a keepsake to this day.

Christmas Day in the Morning by Pearl S. Buck and Mark Buehner

Are you familiar with this often-anthologized story about a farm boy who gets up early to surprise his father by milking the cows? In the hands of a lesser writer, the story would be didactic. Here the characterization is so strong and the telling so stark that the sentiment is rich without being cloying. Because let's face it: there is a place for tenderness in this world, and the very fact that here it is expressed between a father and son who don't usually talk about that sort of thing makes it all the more moving. Mark Beuhner's illustrations, as somber-hued as the ones in the Nikki Grimes book described above, are well suited to evoking both the winter darkness and the deepest, truest places in the human heart.

How Many Miles to Bethlehem? by Kevin Crossley-Holland and Peter Malone

This British author is currently best known for his heavy-duty children's novels about a flawed King Arthur, beginning with The Seeing Stone. Here he writes a picture book about the Nativity, and like Nikki Grimes, he gives voices to the characters in the story. Peter Malone's illustrations are deliberately medieval in feel and also rather dark, although with more warm browns and yellows than the books I've told you about so far. The author's tone is much lighter, however, and his characters' voices more contemporary in style. For example, here's Crossley-Holland's version of the innkeeper:

Sorry, Joseph! Every space is taken, and there's nothing left to eat—I'm even out of figs and grapes.

We'll all be hungry tonight. My guests. My cats. Everyone except the stone-hearted Emperor.
Each character in this narration is lightly linked to the character on the proceeding page, creating a cumulative feel. I recommend How Many Miles to Bethlehem? to you as an artful and unusual Christmas book.

B Is for Bethlehem: A Christmas Alphabet by Isabel Wilner and Elisa Kleven

Last month I talked about Elisa Kleven's artwork in my review of Tony Johnston's The Whole Green World. This nativity-themed alphabet, also illustrated by Kleven, is another gorgeous book. Each letter is accompanied by an appropriate couplet from the author. For example, we get "N is for Night, so quiet, so still./Peace in the stable. Peace on the hill." The words are nice, but not extraordinary. The illustrations are both giddy and grand, however, well worth your time.

The Nativity, slightly adapted from the King James text, illustrated by Julie Vivas

I'll end with my favorite version of the Christmas story, The Nativity, which is illustrated by Julie Vivas. Vivas, an Australian illustrator and Dromkeen Medal winner, is probably best known for her artwork in Mem Fox's Possom Magic, but I am enamored of her take on the birth of Jesus. Vivas gives us a Mary who is wildly, obviously nine months pregnant. All of these characters, including the angels, look like peasants, but not medieval ones. No, they look like they could live in some small Australian town in the 1940s or so.

For instance, the passage from the Bible about the Anunciation shows us Mary (in house slippers and an apron) and the angel (in unlaced boots) sitting at a kitchen table—chicken standing beside them—deep in conversation over cups of what might be coffee or soup. As they talk, Gabriel's wings are spread behind him like parchment scrolls, glimmering with lavender and gold and tattered at the edges. Some might find this rendition of the story facetious, but I think it's touching, not to mention a nice change from some of the books I'm not listing here, which tend to look like so many failed attempts at painting like the Renaissance masters.

Here are a few more memorable Christmas titles, plus one Hanukkah favorite:

The Story of Christmas by Jane Ray
How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
Mr. Willoughby's Christmas Tree by Robert Barry
The Legend of the Poinsettia by Tomie DePaola
The Legend of Old Befana by Tomie DePaola
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson
The Miracle on 34th Street by Valentine Davies (better known as a movie)
The House without a Christmas Tree by Gail Rock (a movie on TV, I think)
Let It Snow: Three Holiday Romances by John Green, Lauren Myracle, and Maureen Johnson (Young Adult)
Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric A. Kimmel and Trina Schart Hyman

Feel free to note your own favorites in the comments. And in the coming weeks, I wish you much happiness!


Jennifer said...

I love Holly and Ivy also - especially as it's one of my favorite carols. I also love The Christmas Stories of George MacDonald, and often read his other books around Christmas time, although his odd and mystical stories, especially the ones seemingly obsessed with death, aren't going to appeal to everyone.

I also like Tasha Tudor's Take Joy, Katherine Paterson's Angels and other Strangers, James Herriot's The Christmas Day Kitten, Adrienne Adams' The Christmas Party...hmmm, maybe I need to do my own post on this!

Ashley Howland said...

My kids love Christmas books, their favourite at the moment is the Australian 12 days of Christmas, they sing along. Also love the night before Xmas.

Kate Coombs said...

Jennifer--Oh, you should! I don't know those MacDonald stories, though I have his Princess and the Goblin and sequel. Intriguing!

Ashley--I'll have to look for the Australian 12 Days of Christmas. I think it's great that your kids sing along!

Linda said...

I am looking for a book we loved as children. It was a book of short Christmas stories. One story was about kittens who made candy out of yarn. Can anyone help me?

Kate Coombs said...

Linda--Sorry, I can't remember reading that story. Good luck tracking it down!