Your Go-To Holiday Books?

Elizabeth Bluemle - November 24, 2009

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?

22 thoughts on “Your Go-To Holiday Books?

  1. Kate

    Elizabeth-the Celeste Holm reading is lovely (originally recorded 20+ years ago), but my fondest memory of A Christmas Memory, a story I discovered in 7th grade, will always be listening to Capote himself read it to a packed auditorium when I was in college…green suede slippers and all.

  2. Ellen Mager

    Loved your choices Elizabeth. For Chanukah, I’d add CHANUKAH GUEST by Eric Kimmel, WHEN MINDY SAVED HANUKKAH with Barbara McClintock’s incredible illustrations (when they restored the synagogue there were no pictures and they used Barbara’s illustrations as their guide!)and HERSHEL AND THE HANUKKAH GOBLINS, again by Eric Kimmel with Trina Schart Hyman’s amazing paintings. Peter Collington’s first Christmas wordless book, which I am drawing a blank on now is truely a missed treasure on how Santa gets into homes without chimneys.

  3. shelftalker elizabeth

    Heidi, that is a great one! I love Peter Spier. Kate, I found a UK bookseller, the, who carries the Truman Capote recording. Will have to track it down. Thanks. And Ellen, I never knew that about Barbara McClintock’s artwork being used to restore a synagogue!! She is one of the great undersung artists of our time. I do not understand why she hasn’t won a Caldecott medal yet. In fact, I’m working on a post about several authors and artists whose work I feel deserves a lot more reward and recognition than it’s gotten yet. Harumph. Thanks for the additional titles.

  4. Trina B

    This year I am adding a great book to our holiday collection that will help us warm up to the snowy Christmas Season. It is titled “In The Snow” is written AND illustrated by Peggy Collins. (a very talented gal 😉 Its a heartwarming story about playing in the snow, told from the perspective of a young boy.

  5. kidzbkcrusader

    I agree 100% that Barbara McClintock is underappreciated. She is absolutely brilliant and always kind,cheerful and accommodating at her book signings. I hope she gets that much deserved Caldecott gold medal one day.

  6. Carol N

    SILVER PACKAGES by Cynthia Rylant is based on the true story of the Christmas Train that brings presents to the chilren of Appalacia. GINGERBREAD DOLL by Susan Tews is about a doll make from love.

  7. pinkofemme

    Hi ShelfTalker, Love you. Love your blog. However, this post should be titled “Your Go-To Mostly-Christmas Books?” – it is mostly Christmas books (with a touch of Chanukah thrown in). There is nothing wrong with a post mostly about Christmas books, but can we call it what it is? Why use an inaccurate title that infers that this post addresses non-Christmas “holiday season” books? Christmas and Chanukah aren’t the only “holiday season” cultural traditions. In general, keep up the good work.

  8. shelftalker elizabeth

    Hi, pinkofemme. (I read your name as pink of emme for a while before realizing it was pinko femme. Great username.) The title of this blog is asking people for *their* go-to holiday books, which can be for any holiday. As I explained in the post, our family celebrates Christmas and now Chanukah, too, so those are the special holiday books we read and love every year. This post is about our (mine, yours, everyone’s who comments) unique personal canons. So come on, share yours, if you’d like!

  9. pinkofemme

    I suppose I could be Pink Of Emme, though I’m not sure what that means… I generally dislike holiday books. Dylan Thomas’ Child’s Christmas in Wales, however, deserves be savored by all. Van Allsburg’s Polar Express has a nice spirit to the illustrations.

  10. Chris Van Dusen

    I’m so glad you included “Mr, Willoughby’s Christmas Tree” by Robert Barry. Bob was my illustration professor in art school, and even before that, I remember Captain Kangaroo reading his story every Christmas. Yeah, I’m THAT old!

  11. Shutta Crum

    Elizabeth, we always listen to a recording of Dylan Thomas reading his “Child’s Christms in Wales”. That lovely recording of his deep Welsh voice is still available. Combine that with a beautiful book verson…could any Christmas be cozier? Shutta

  12. MelP

    Thanks! “The Christmas Crocodile” is one of my favorites to read aloud at this time of year (its so dramatic!)and hadn’t realized it was out of print. Its a shame! Especially with David Small illustrating, hmmm.

  13. Julianne Daggett

    When I was a kid we’d read “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “A Christmas Carol” and watch both stories on TV together as a family. I recently purchased “Christmas Magic” based on your suggestion and its a wonderful book I highly recommend it also!

  14. Carol Chittenden

    My favorite for getting across the connection between the religious element and the symbolic celebrations of it is Santa’s Favorite Story, by Hisako Aoki, illus Ivan Gantschev. Luckily it’s still in print, after a hiatus in the 90’s. But I would really like some help finding a beautiful retelling, for ages 2-5, of the nativity story, with traditional illustrations. We have so many holiday books (and after all these years I forget which ones are in print, and which have faded to the back) that I assumed we had the most standard of standards — but we don’t, and it’s a trick to identify one. Any suggestions? Thanks!

  15. Byron Borger

    We love the touching Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey–did an author appearance with Susan W. and she was a delight. P.J. Lynch does the lovely artwork. We often recommend Why Christmas Trees Aren’t Perfect (Abingdon Press)where the king picks a disheveled looking tree—it becomes obvious the tree gave itself as shelter to forlorn animals, catching the spirit of the holiday. And, for those that want an eccentric but pretty faithful rendering of the classic Biblical story, see the The Nativity by Julie Vivas; Mary is SO pregnant and the wild angels wear army boots. It’s a hoot. Reading these lists reminded us of many classics and some new ones we’ll track down. Thanks everybody!

  16. DaNae

    I know I’m late commenting. This post has been a treat for me. I have a young library and I’m looking to plump up my holiday section with the best of the best. Thanks By the way my favorites are The Grinch and Berkley Breathed’s The Red Ranger Came Calling.


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