As holiday traditions go, almost nothing is cozier than gathering together and sharing stories, including cherished books. It’s a time of candlelight, spiced air, chubby little hands pushing on grown-up knees as children lean in to see the pictures in a favorite story.
At the bookstore, we have several customers who come in every year and ask for "this year’s Christmas book," meaning, the one they will want to add to the family’s treasured collection. So far this year, Lauren Thompson and Jon Muth’s The Christmas Magic has been that book. It’s a beautiful marriage of art and text, showing a simple Christmas preparation by a very human Santa getting ready for the big night. The writing is lyrical, and Muth’s treatment of light has never been better. (Scholastic, $16.99. ISBN 978-0439774970)
Chanukah isn’t yet represented by the breadth of literary offerings Christmas enjoys, but there are many terrific books out there. This year’s top hit at The Flying Pig has been Eric A. Kimmel’s mischievous Zigazak! A Magical Hanukkah Night, illustrated by Jon Goodell, in which two pesky demons wreak havoc at a Hanukkah celebration until a wise rabbi manages to outwit them — and points out the hidden good in the chaos. (Doubleday, $16.99. ISBN 978-0385326520)
In our family, we have several go-to holiday books, the ones Christmas and Chanukah wouldn’t be the same without. Every year, Josie and I and various members of our families read these books aloud to one another over the course of the holidays, and these evenings accrete like coral onto the stories we read: each book carries with it echoes and images of the years before, the bright eyes, the laughs, the hidden tears, the inside jokes borne of mis-heard words and memorable interruptions. That is, the stories become stories containing stories, and these are unique within each family. I love that.
Here are our must-reads.
The Trees of the Dancing Goats by Patricia Polacco (Aladdin, $7.99. ISBN 978-0689838576).
We’d love this story even if our family didn’t celebrate both Chanukah and Christmas, but it’s especially wonderful since we do. A Jewish family, preparing for its own festival of light celebrations, discovers that many of their neighbors, who celebrate Christmas, have been stricken by scarlet fever. In an act of grace and generosity, young Trisha rallies her family to help make their neighbors’ holidays joyous.
A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote; illustrated by Beth Peck (Knopf, $17.95. ISBN 978-0375837890). We love this story for its true, sweet friendship between a boy and his elderly cousin, both ignored and scolded by most of the adults in the house. They are allies, co-conspirators, and with their dog, Queenie, have gentle adventures. Capote’s writing is so beautiful as he evokes those rare days. Here are a few favorite passages:
"The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something, We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend."
"Inside myself, I feel warm and sparky as those crumbling logs, carefree as the wind in the chimney. My friend waltzes round the stove, the hem of her poor calico skirt pinched between her fingers as though it were a party dress…."
"Morning. Frozen rime lusters the grass; the sun, round as an orange and orange as hot-weather moons, balances on the horizon, burnishes the silvered winter woods. A wild turkey calls. A renegade hog grunts in the undergrowth."
"Scented acres of holiday trees, prickly-leafed holly. Red berries shiny as Chinese bells: black crows swoop upon them screaming. Having stuffed our burlap sacks with enough greenery and crimson to garland a dozen windows, we set about choosing a tree. ‘It should be,’ muses my friend, ‘twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can’t steal the star.’ "
"My, how foolish I am!" my friend cries, suddenly alert, like a woman remembering too late she has biscuits in the oven. "You know what I’ve always thought?" she asks in a tone of discovery and not smiling at me but a point beyond. "I’ve always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord. And I imagined that when he came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don’t know it’s getting dark. And it’s been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling. But I’ll wager it never happens. I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are"—her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone—"just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes."
Beth Peck’s illustrations are perfect for this book — as delicate and quavery as the old friend’s frame, as bright and cheery as their friendship.
This 50th anniversary celebration has a CD narrated by Celeste Holm, which I haven’t yet heard but will probably make me burst into tears. In a good way.
A Child’s Christmas in Wales, by Dylan Thomas.
I have two equally loved versions of this book. A beautiful hardcover illustrated by the marvelous Edward Ardizzone (at left; David R. Godine, $16.95, ISBN 978-0879233396), and a luscious little paperback illustrated with woodcuts by none other than Ellen "The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I mean Noel)" Raskin (New Directions, $9.95, ISBN 978-0811217316).
This is Dylan Thomas’s homage to the Christmases of his boyhood, when the snow was thicker and whiter, when everything about Christmas was better than it is now. (Sound familiar? Ah, the good old days!) It’s the sheer acrobatic brilliance of the language here that we most love. This is the most delicious read-aloud for having words trip off the tongue. Here, try these passages:
"All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen."
"But that was not the same snow, I say. Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and han
and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards."
I think I could read that last paragraph every night for the rest of my life and still be delighted by it each time.
The Story of Holly and Ivy, by Rumer Godden; illustrated by Barbara Cooney (Viking, $17.99. ISBN 978-0670062195)
Barbara Cooney’s charming illustrations grace this gratifying everything-turns-out-all-right story of an orphan yearning for a doll in a toy-shop window and, of course, a home. She finds both through a series of fortunate events (this is no Lemony Snicket tale, that’s for sure). This is a longish picture book, which makes it excellent for slightly older children (ages 4-8) at Christmastime.
Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, by Robert Barry. (Doubleday, $15.95. ISBN 978-0385327213). A quick read and a very satisfying little story about recycling. Just kidding, it’s not about recycling, although an overtall tree gets lopped off at the top and, instead of being thrown out, is given to the maid for her table. But her piece of tree is too tall, too, and its top is cut off and given to the gardener. And so on, with each "tree" getting successively smaller, until the seventh and final family enjoying the tree turns out to be a little family of mice. Adorable, timeless illustrations make this a crowd-pleaser year after year.
And speaking of shared trees, we can’t do without Night Tree by Eve Bunting; illustrated by Ted Rand (Harcourt, $17. ISBN 978-0152574253; also in paperback: $7. ISBN 978-0152001216). This is like a drink of icy clear water—so refreshing! A family heads into the woods looking for their Christmas tree. When they find it, instead of cutting it down, they decorate it—with apples, sunflower seed balls, tangerines, and other edible treats for the animals in the woods. Lush snowlit night scenes help create the magic of this book, and the boy’s vision of all the animals gathered around the tree enjoying their holiday feast is one of those images that stays with you forever.
The Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry, illustrated by P.J. Lynch (Candlewick, $15.99. ISBN 978-0763635305). Also illustrated by Lizbeth Zwerger (Aladdin, $5.99. ISBN 978-0689817014).
This is another case of being torn between two equally worthy illustration styles, so we trade off between them in alternating years.
Do I need to recall this story to anyone who loves books enough to read this blog? I doubt it, but in case you have missed the ultimate O. Henry story, it is this: a poor young couple in love, having no money for Christmas, each sells his or her most precious possession to buy the other a present. But in typical O. Henry fashion, there is a twist: each has sold the one thing the other’s present depends upon. The phrase "It’s the thought that counts" has its very origins in this story.
Lest we get too sentimental, we also have our sheerly fun reads. There is a new Night Before Christmas every year, of course; this year, it’s Rachel Isadora’s cheery version set in Africa. The collage art is just gorgeous, and my nephews are going to LOVE this take on the familiar poem.
And we can’t resist the gleeful, childlike joy of Marla Frazee’s Santa Claus, the World’s Number One Toy Expert (Harcourt, $16. ISBN 978-0152049706), with its towering shelves of toys (the fun, simple kinds, like balls and dolls and jacks, etc.) and repeated exuberant images of Santa pogo-sticking around his studio or putting on his Santa suit, polka-dotted undergarments on up to the boots.
For Chanukah fun, we like to read stories from Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories, about the foolish residents of Chelm, on cheery Chanukah nights. Isaac Bashevis Singer; translated by Elizabeth Shub; illustrated by Maurice Sendak. (Harper, $17.95. ISBN 978-0060284770; also in paperback $7.95. ISBN 978-0064401470).
Finally, two of our Christmas staples have gone out of print. Peter Collington’s brilliant wordless book, A Small Miracle, about a lonely woman and her unexpected holiday visitors, remains the unavailable holiday title most requested at the bookstore.
And Bonny Becker’s gloriously illustrated, hilarious light romp, The Christmas Crocodile, is always a favorite with the children; I wish it were still in print, as well, so I could recommend and sell it to other families.
That’s a long list of must-reads. Do we really get to them all every year? Strangely enough, we really do.
What are your go-to holiday reads, and why?