Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas

Frankly, I find good children's books for Christmas to be few and far between. Most either try too hard and end up being schmaltzy or seem to feel that a carelessly placed Santa here and there means that there is no need to focus on plot. Therefore this list is short and has taken much more thought than is evident.

When I was a child the Christmas Eve tradition was to sit under the tree while my mother read Clement Clarke Moore's A Visit From St. Nickolas (Also commonly known as The Night Before Christmas). Now, nearly 200 years after it was first written, there are still myriad editions of this classic available. My advice to anyone looking for a copy to keep for family Christmas for years to come is to look at as many different ones and choose the illustrations that best suit your idea of what the story should include. If you are looking for video editions a quick Google search will find many. My students in grades K-2 preferred a video made in 1950 that starred marionettes but I confess that it got old quickly for me. They said the video with Wynton Marsalis was too confusing even though they giggled along with me through many of the scenes.

There are just two picture books that stick out in my mind as being worth a Christmas visit. Readers who are just getting a grasp on Christmas symbols as well as those who are older will enjoy Minerva Louise on Christmas Eve by Janet Morgan Stoeke. The curious chicken, Minerva Louise, tries to understand the lighting bugs on the tree outside the farm house. More confusing changes are found when she slips inside, like the chicken who sits atop the indoor tree and has laid colorful eggs all over the tree. Children love to point out her mistakes as she identifies the items that mean Christmas to most children, but apparently not to chickens.

Olivia Helps with Christmas by Ian Falconer will appeal to adults as well as the children to whom they read this clever book. Olivia, the young pig of great charm and energy, is eager to help her family get ready for the arrival of Christmas. As the song in Free to Be You and Me (or was it Free to Be a Family?) says, "Some kinds of help are the kind of help we all could do without." Olivia is a perfect example of this truism, but it is impossible to angry with her since she is so earnest about her efforts and her excitement.

I am not sure why there are children's novels written for Christmas. I can rarely get anyone to try to read them. Often a good story goes unread just because it is set at Christmas. That is the case with The Christmas Genie by Dan Gutman. This discussion of how a class can decide on one wish that will be fair to everyone is a worthy one, if not the best written book by Gutman. The genie arrives on the day before break begins with one wish to give fifth grade class, but only if they can decide together in just one hour. The resulting suggestions and the discussions about them are both humorous and philosophical. I wish that teachers could share it with their classes throughout the year but this emphasis on Christmas limits its appeal and its usefulness.

The Christmas Rat by Avi is another book that could be set at any time of the year and be just as good. I have gotten some people to read this at other times of the year when they request a scary book. Eric is an eleven year old boy who is home alone in the his apartment because it is Christmas vacation and waiting for the exterminator that his mother has sent to come. The exterminator turns out to be one very strange man who enjoys his job a little more than he should. Don't read this book when you are home alone.

I suggest that instead of limiting yourself to Christmas books, you reach out for a good book set any time of the year. Forget about the weather and lose yourself where ever the book takes you.

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