Tag Archive | Christmas

Dear Santa, Love, Rachel Rosenstein

Dear Santa, Love, Rachel Rosenstein
“All she wants for Hanukkah is…Christmas,” reads the tagline on the cover of Dear Santa, Love, Rachel Rosenstein. It seems that Rachel loves all the colorful decorations — she’s seen looking fondly back at them as her mother drags her by the hand. And of course, everyone on her block celebrates Christmas — except Rachel’s family. So one night Rachel writes a secret letter to Santa, promising cookies if he comes down her chimney (and pointing out she’s been good all year).

It’s a playful way to address a very real dilemma that Jewish parents with young children have to face every December, according to the book’s co-author, Amanda Peet. “A lot of Jewish parents seem very relieved and excited,” she told The Jewish Standard, “and then I think that a lot of people from our parents’ generation are also kind of tickled by it, because they remember feeling that way on their blocks growing up… I know my mother-in-law felt really touched by it, because that’s how she felt in her town where she grew up.”

I especially liked the colors in the book — lots of bright pastels, often emphasized by white backgrounds which can suggest a snowy street. (Illustrator Christine Davenier worked with Julie Andrews on her “Very Fairy Princess” series.) And it’s inspiring that despite its lighthearted story, some of book’s profits are being donated to a very serious non-profit, “Seeds of Peace” (founded in 1993 as a peace-building program for teenagers in Palestine, Israel, and Egypt, and other areas of conflict around the world). But best of all, like any good children’s picture book “Dear Santa, Love, Rachel Rosenstein” has a thoughtful message that’s honoring a child’s feelings, and making sure they know that they’re not alone

The book includes a sincere description of celebrating Shabbat, and acknowledges that “Being Jewish was fun most of the time. It meant you got to hunt for the afikomen on Passover, blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, and get a present a day for all eight days of Hanukkah — not to mention as many latkes as you could eat.” The book’s dramatic climax comes, of course, on December 24th. Rachel has created Christmas stockings for her family’s fireplace, strings of popcorn, and a big sign that says “I love you, Santa!” (And she even presses chocolate chips into latkes, then leaves them out with a glass of milk…)

“The Rosensteins were ready for Christmas,” the narrator writes, and Rachel anxiously stays up late, “listening for the clip-clop of Santa’s reindeer on the roof.” But will Santa make an appearance? I hope this isn’t a spoiler, but the answer is…. no. The next morning her father takes Rachel, who’s very disappointed, to an empty park drawn with bare, twiggy trees and covered with snow.

But then the family eats at a Chinese restaurant, and it’s there that Rachel sees some friends from her class at school. There’s an Indian girl and a Chinese boy — who celebrate Diwali and Chinese New Year, respectively. (And who also don’t celebrate Christmas.) Here’s where the book delivers its message of reassurance. “Rachel realized: when there were so many great holidays in the world, why feel so bad about one little old day like Christmas?”

Although as a final joke, the narrator concedes Rachel might feel “a tiny bit bad” — as she sees four Christian kids walking down the street with enormous presents wrapped with red bows…

The Cave of Santa Clops by Gig Wailgum

The Cave of Santa Clops

“The Cave of Santa Clops” arrives with a shiny cover with a rich, dark red background and pastel green letters. Its title looks almost like a poster from a 1950s horror movie — or maybe a parody of one from Mad magazine. It all helps to set a playful tone for Gig Wailgum’s newest send-up of Santa Claus. And it turns out there’s many more surprises inside…

I like how the book’s text mimicked the familiar rhythms of the Clement C. Moore poem — but always with a twist.

The stockings were hung. The trees were cloaked.
The gifts were wrapped, and the kids were stoked!

The author dedicates his book to Clement C. Moore (and to Dr. Seuss, and to South Pole explorer Ernest Henry Shackleton, as well as his own children and parents…) And it turns out that much of the book’s action does take place near the South Pole, as an explorer named Mr. Bones reminisces about his encounter with the one-eyed Santa creature.

As a young boy, during a South Pole expedition, Odysseus Bones had wandered away from his parents’ exploration party. There’s a lot of dialogue setting up the premise, which ends up with Odysseus trapped in a creepy cave. There’s some giant talking penguins, and bats shaped like holly leaves. It’s meant to be a little creepy, like the “scary Christmas” surprises in the author’s first book, “A Vist from Santa Clops.”

But that book was set at the cozy home of the narrator, whereas this one leads us to Santa Clops in his very own lair! It turns out that Santa Clops flies in a sleigh pulled by penguins — who can fly because Santa (Clops) feeds them each a magical fish. Odysseus Bones stows away on the sleigh, but soon he’s tumbling through the sky in a shower of coal dust. Santa (Clops) wheels his sleigh in (for an attack?) But in the end, he just wishes his pesky stowaway…a scary Christmas!

My friend Elliott — an H.P. Lovecraft fan — says the book was fantastic! And it’s always nice when a book’s author is also its illustrator. There’s some special care in the layout, with multiple drawings often inset inside of a single page. And even when the children ask questions, the text is drawn inside dialogue balloons over their head.

It may not be the perfect book for every single child — but there’s definitely some naughty little boys and girls who will think this book is terrific!

Not Until Christmas, Walter by Eileen Christelow

Not Until Christmas, Walter by Eileen Christelow

Eileen Christelow created the popular “Five Little Monkeys” series of books. But at a Christmas party in 1997, she got an idea for a new story called Not Until Christmas, Walter!. “Someone told me how her eight-year-old daughter wrapped presents for all the family, including the dog, and put them under the tree,” Christelow remembers on the book’s jacket. “The next morning, they found chewed wrapping paper and dog biscuit crumbs. Their dog couldn’t wait for Christmas!”

“And I couldn’t wait to get home to see if I could turn her story into a picture book…”

The author used her own dog Ophielia as a model, and dedicated the book to the dog “with fond memories of walks through the woods.” And she uses bright watercolors with lots of white space to capture the festive snow-covered buildings around the city at Christmas time, filling in simple pen and ink sketches of a little girl and her family. Walter the dog wags his tail while he watches Louise making a painting for her father using yellow glitter stars. “Don’t worry, Walter,” the little girl tells her dog. “I’m going to give you a present too!”

All of Chistelow’s illustrations give the dog a real personality. As the girl shops for an extra-large dog biscuit, Walter presses himself hopefully against the glass door. As she lays the presents out on the family’s coffee table, the dog lowers his nose to sniff them all, and wags his tail enthusiastically. He’s still wagging his tail when the girl goes to sleep on December 23rd. And he’s still wagging his tail the next morning – when the girl discovers all of the wrapping paper has been mysteriously torn to shreds.

And her dog’s nose is gleaming with lots of yellow glitter…

At 40 pages, it’s a little bit longer than the typical children’s story, but the story keeps its happy energy going. The dog ends up in the doghouse, but then the little girl gets lost while looking for a Christmas tree, and it’s ultimately the family’s dog that tracks her down. And I thought Christelow came up with a surprising and funny twist for the ending of the story. The dog is about to steal the new dog biscuit that Louise has wrapped up for him. But just then, Santa Claus comes down the chimney, and startles the snarling dog. Santa also gives Walter a dog biscuit, which makes him look guilty when the little girl discovers him.

Then she realizes that her present is still wrapped, and she has to wonder if there really is a Santa Claus after all…

The Great PJ Elf Chase by Karen LoBello and Judy Voigt

The Great PJ Elf Chase

“There’s a Christmas Eve tradition in the Taylor household. While the boys take baths, Santa’s elves drop new pajamas outside their bathroom door!” That explains the book’s title — The Great PJ Elf Chase. And once you catch on to the premise, it’s suddenly a lot more intriguing.

There’s something fun about a children’s picture book that rhymes, and the book’s cover fills in the backstory. “The PJ elves are sly and quick, but this year they’re in for a surprise — Ben and Jack are on a mission to catch one of them! ” Away we go — the book starts with the two brothers making plans on the morning of December 24th — and their conversation is written entirely in rhyme.

“Wake up, Jack.
Tonight’s Christmas Eve!
I wonder which PJs
the elves will leave?”

The crisp rhythm keeps things interesting — and the book instantly delivers more intrigue by switching from the two mischievous brothers to the elves who are watching them! With a crystal ball they track which kids have finished their baths, then when the delivery’s a go, send a specific team of elves to the children’s address at the appropriate time. I like how the book shows both sides of the story — and at one point, you even see the elves snickering under the boys’ bed!

Will the little boys outsmart the elves? They’ve hidden cheese in a box labeled “Trap #1”, and enlisted their dog McGee to keep watch over their door. But there’s a rambunctious energy on both sides, since these elves also like to mess up each family’s house. It was a family tradition for the book’s authors, two sisters who remember that growing up they always had a lot of fun each Christmas — regardless of how many presents were under their tree. And they’ve worked their memories into a story that’s surprisingly exciting — with a funny twist at the end.

Young Ben won’t give up, and he hunts after those elves — running outside in his towel! It’s a snowy day, but soon Ben discovers that he’s got an even bigger problem. ” ‘Oh my gosh! This can’t be!’ Ben must hide near a tree. His bath towel is gone — did the neighbor girls see?” Children will probably enjoy laughing at the end of this book — and the little boy who was just a little too anxious to catch the PJ Elves.

I like how this book also includes a game, challenging readers to count how many elves are hidden throughout the book’s illustrations. (“Be careful — elves like to hide!”) The illustrations by Lorena Soriano are all appropriately colorful, with magical golds and greens for the elves, and nice pastel blue backgrounds sporting lots of Christmas decorations. And it’s also nice that Ben’s younger brother ran after him with a towel, saying playfully that “You ALMOST caught them.”

And then the boys begin planning together how they’ll catch those elves next year…

The North Pole Penguin by Christopher Payne

The North Pole Penguin by Christopher Payne

I love Christmas! And so does the author of this new book, The North Pole Penguin. “I began thinking about writing a story when my niece was born because I thought it would be a great gift for her,” Christopher Payne told me in a letter. And now it’s become a shiny new book that’s ready just in time for Christmas….

The bright, festive cover introduces you to smiley Parker the penguin, and for an extra Christmas-y feeling, its title is in red and green letters. (That penguin is even wearing green mittens, and making red X’s on a calendar!) The illustrations (by Lorena Soriano) have a colorful, cartoon-y feel which set a holiday tone for the book from its very first page. “December in the South Pole world was filled with Christmas cheer. And Parker Preston led the way in winter every year…”

Yes, this story even rhymes. (It’s like the book wants to be read out loud…) And every picture lets you follow its smiley penguin as he travels the world with a snowman. The snowman’s a gift for Santa Claus — so Preston probably should’ve avoided South America altogether. Ah, but he couldn’t, the author points out — because penguins live in the south pole!

“I grew tired of seeing penguins in Christmas decorations and movies,” Payne told me. “As many of us learned in school (and apparently forgot), penguins are native to the South Pole area, not the North Pole…!” But there was another more important idea that was inspiring him. “We always hear the phrase, ‘It’s better to give than to receive’ around the holidays, and then forget the meaning behind the words… I wanted to create a character who could actually step back and think for a second and realize that if it truly is better to give than to receive, and if Santa Claus is the ultimate giver, who gives gifts to him?”

I really liked the message of the book. (I still get a warm feeling when I remember that Christmas is about the giving…) Even a prologue on the book’s first page reminds us that “Santa Claus is real, and if you believe in him and are brave enough to look for him, you might just get to meet him!” And I believe that’s actually true, if you read between the lines. Everyone knows that Santa is the spirit of giving itself — and in this story, it’s a little penguin who understands that best of all.

The book traces the penguin’s long journey to deliver his gift to Santa, across the world — and even through New York City. I liked how the penguin shared a pizza with river rats “under urban stars”, and that all the animals he meets on his trip seem friendly and helpful. Maybe it’s a reminder that Christmas is celebrated internationally, or that generous people are everywhere. There’s even a campfire in Canada, and all the animals he meets contribute more gifts for Santa.

The story might be a bit long for younger children, since Santa doesn’t appear until page 24. (And it might’ve been fun to have some dialogue between the penguin and his friends — if only so kids could hear their parents trying to imitate a penguin!) But there’s a nice Christmas feeling to the whole project, with Christmas lights surrounding the text on many of the pages. Even pages with just text have a different-colored background, like a Christmas-y green, a wintry blue, or a fireplace yellow… And most importantly, Payne wrote a story that “captures everything right about the true spirit of the holiday.”

“I just hope others feel the same way!”

Fat Santa by Margery Cuyler

Fat Santa book cover

“More than anything in the world, Molly wanted to meet Santa Claus.”

This children’s picture book offers a funny twist on the cliched Christmas story about a little girl who stays up to see Santa arrive. Unfortunately, this year Santa ate two much plum pudding, and gets his fat stomach stuck in the chimney. So when the little girl wakes up, she finds Santa growling with exasperation from insider her chimney. “Santa? Is that really you?” the girl asks sweetly.

“Of course it’s me!” Santa growls back. “Who else would be stuck in a chimney on Christmas Eve?”

She ties a rope around Santa’s ankles, but she just ends up yanking his boots off, along with his socks. (Santa’s bare feet dangle from the chimney, as he yells that “My toes are cold! And I’m still stuck.”) The little girl’s next idea is a little sadistic – tickling Santa’s toes – but her next idea finally dislodges the overweight man with the beard. She throws pepper into the fireplace, and it makes Santa sneeze.

The illustrations by Marsha Winborn really give this book a Christmas-y feel — even if it is called Fat Santa. The little girl wears red-and-white pajamas, and her house is filled with festive symbols of the seasons. There’s a decorated tree, and a long green wreath along the staircase where she watches for Santa. And of course there’s stockings on the chimney – plus the jingly bells on Santa’s black boots.

This book was written in 1987, and it’s fun to watch for clues about how Christmas has changed. Molly waits for Santa while plugging in her earphones and listening to Christmas carols – on her tape deck. But the story might be even more timely today, with our concerns about childhood obesity. When Santa falls out of the chimney, Molly even gasps because he’s “round as a snowball” – and from the illustration, he looks enormous!

In fact, Santa’s afraid to climb up the chimney again, even though he’s got one more house to visit that night. He shanghais Molly into making the run for him, and dresses her up in his red coat and hat. “I know you can do it…! Get your boots on…! Scoot…!” I feel bad for the little girl, because it all happens “Before Molly could make up her mind…” It almost felt a little codependent, with Molly enabling Santa’s addiction to overeating. And I worried for a second we were teaching children to laugh at people who are overweight.

But maybe we’re just teaching them to laugh at grown-ups, which is good every once in a while. And the little girl does get to enjoy riding in Santa’s sleigh, which is obviously a lot of fun!