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Best children's books get to the heart of Christmas

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The best children's book is the one you sit down and read to them. The best children's book is the one you sit down and read to them.
The Yule Blog, Dec. 23
2 days until Christmas

Make a child’s holiday memorable by giving or reading a good book

Before you get too wrapped up in the season’s last-minute wrapping, baking, shopping and tree trimming, why not make some time to cozy up with your favorite little one and a good Christmas book? There’s nothing like it to help you remember, and your little one to understand, the true meaning behind all the fuss.

The best books have a message that children will easily grasp -- perhaps love, kindness, generosity, selflessness or strength of spirit. Here is just a sampling of new and noteworthy titles, along with some well-loved classics.

The classics

It is only fitting to start with the undisputed king of Christmas books, “The Polar Express.” Still steaming full speed ahead after more than 20 years, Chris Van Allsburg’s piece de resistance takes readers on a train ride to the North Pole in a story that has the power and the heart to make a believer out of anyone.

“It’s got to be the number-one holiday title for any age across any holiday season,” said one book store manager, adding that the book is such a strong seller year after year that “It’s hard to believe there’s anyone out there who still doesn’t have it.”

But new customers are literally born every day. I have made it my personal mission to give every new niece and nephew this book for their first Christmas.

But even “Polar Express” cannot unseat Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” from its special place in my heart. For the delightful just-a-tiny-bit-scary way it reminds us that Christmas is a celebration of love and not gifts, this 1957 perennial best-seller takes the roast beast.

'Thank You, Santa' by Margaret Wilde. 'Thank You, Santa' by Margaret Wilde.

Another favorite of mine is a little-known book called “Thank You, Santa” by Margaret Wild, about a girl in Australia who writes a letter to Santa after Christmas, beginning a year-long correspondence. The story weaves in details about Arctic animals and has a neat surprise at the end. Published in 1991, it is going to be hard to find, but it will be well worth the search. Try your local library if you can’t find it in bookstores or online.

'A Little House Christmas' by Laura Ingalls Wilder. 'A Little House Christmas' by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Did you grow up loving “The Little House on the Prairie” and others in the series by Laura Ingalls Wilder? “A Little House Christmas” is a compilation of the holidays celebrated by the Ingalls family as they traveled across America in search of a homestead. Adults and children will be entertained by tales of their life in the wilderness at a time when a penny, a peppermint stick and maybe a tin cup of their very own were all it took to thrill children on Christmas. There’s also a Volume II and “A Little House Christmas Treasury,” both packed with tales of joy and strife told from a tender child’s-eye view.

Tops in the fun department are the “I Spy” books written by Jean Marzollo and illustrated by Walter Wick. These picture riddle books have been delighting children since the ’90s with the challenge of finding items hidden in elaborately staged photos.

'Can You See What I See: Night Before Christmas'  by Walter Wick. 'Can You See What I See: Night Before Christmas' by Walter Wick.

The collection includes a number of Christmas titles, including “I Spy Christmas,” “I Spy Santa Claus” and “Can You See What I See: Night Before Christmas” and others.  

Two wordless treasures that have been delighting children for years are “The Snowman” by Raymond Briggs and “Carl’s Christmas” by Alexandra Day – one of many books starring a lovable Rottweiler who takes over child-care duties when the parents are out.

 

Noteworthy new books

Almost anything by author and illustrator Jan Brett is a sure hit with the younger set. Her lavish illustrations are gems – full of vivid detail, with an old-world Scandinavian charm and side panels that hint at what is happening behind the scenes or yet to come.

'Cinders: A Chicken Cinderella' by Jan Brett. 'Cinders: A Chicken Cinderella' by Jan Brett.

In her newest book just out in November, “Cinders: A Chicken Cinderella,” Brett works her magic with a classic fairytale. She sets the Cinderella story in a snowy Russian winter where one magical night, Cinders, the most picked upon hen in the flock, becomes the most loved by Prince Cockerel after she arrives at his ball looking so beautiful that even her bossy sisters don't recognize her. 

Brett, who lives in Massachusetts where snow generally falls in abundance, has a penchant for wintry scenes, so many of her stories lend themselves to cuddling up on a winter night.

Other Brett favorites include “Home for Christmas,” about a naughty troll who doesn't want to do his chores, “Who’s That Knocking on Christmas Eve?” “The Mitten,” “Christmas Trolls,” “The Hat” and my favorite, “Annie and the Wild Animals,” written in 1989 and illustrated with Brett’s spectacular detail.

 

'Santa Claus and the Three Bears' by Maria Modugno. 'Santa Claus and the Three Bears' by Maria Modugno.

Another new take on a time-honored fairytale is “Santa Claus and the Three Bears,” a collaboration between author Maria Modugno and illustrators Jane Dyer and Brooke Dyer published in September 2013. In this clever adaptation, Santa comes to visit when the bears are out, and everything eventually turns out just right.

'The Christmas Wish' by Lori Evert and Per Breiehagen. 'The Christmas Wish' by Lori Evert and Per Breiehagen.

Also new this year is “The Christmas Wish” by Lori Evert and Per Breiehagen. It is a cozy Nordic tale about a girl named Anja who longs to be one of Santa’s elves and sets off on an adventure to join them. The photographs are stunning, and the story is sweet.

There are some nice books out that provide a lesson in humanity. One is the 2011 book “The Sparkle Box: A Gift with the Power to Change Christmas,” written by Jill Hardie and illustrated by Christine Kornacki. It’s a story about how giving to others shows a little boy the true meaning of Christmas.

'The Carpenter’s Gift: A Christmas Tale about the Rockefeller Center Tree' by David Rubel 'The Carpenter’s Gift: A Christmas Tale about the Rockefeller Center Tree' by David Rubel

But my favorite late-model Christmas book has to be “The Carpenter’s Gift: A Christmas Tale about the Rockefeller Center Tree” written by David Rubel and illustrated by Jim LaMarche and published in 2011.

Set in New York City during the Great Depression in 1931, it is about an 8-year-old boy who goes out with his father, an underemployed carpenter, to cut down Christmas trees to sell in the city. They give a tree to construction workers building Rockefeller Center and have a small celebration with them. Responding in kind, the construction workers and neighbors help build a house for the family.

The tradition of putting up a Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center started with a gift. The tradition of putting up a Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center started with a gift.

Henry plants a pinecone from that first Rockefeller Center tree, and as an old man, repays the gift by donating the enormous tree that grew from it. After bringing joy to thousands as the Rockefeller Center tree, its wood is used to build a home for a family in need through Habitat for Humanity. I just love this book about how the tradition of the Rockefeller tree came to be, the Habitat for Humanity tie-in, and its theme of selflessness.

Slightly older but worthy of mention is the 1995 crossover book “The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate” by Janice Cohn. Based on a true incident that occurred in Billings, Mont., the story begins when a rock is thrown through the bedroom window of a boy who has a menorah displayed. The story relates how the townspeople take a stand against bigotry. Have plenty of tissues handy.

As more and more authors jump on the holiday book-writing bandwagon, be wary of books that may be celebrity-written or well-illustrated, but devoid of character. The best books should have enough substance to hold a child’s interest and make them want to hear them again and again.

Amazon.com, eBay and other online booksellers have made it fairly easy to procure out-of-print books, sometimes for only a few dollars plus shipping.

If you are giving the book as a gift, I recommend taking a minute to inscribe it with a personal message. Your favorite youngster will be reminded of you every time they open it – and if you have picked a good one, that should be often.

But the most appreciated book of all will be whichever one you sit down and read to your special little one.

The Yule Blog is a day-to-day countdown to Christmas featuring a new story each day. Click the links below to read other stories in the series.

Nov. 29: Best shopping apps put you where the buys are.

Nov. 30: Small Business Saturday gives independent shops their turn to shine.

Dec. 1: Before there was 'Elf,' there was 'The Santaland Diaries.'

Dec. 2: Historic Smithville has plenty of old-fashioned Christmas spirit to go around

Dec. 3: Earth-friendly gifts help preserve the world's green assets.

Dec. 4: Great gift ideas for the cook

Dec. 5: Let Cape May kindle your Christmas spirit

Dec. 6: The worst and the weirdest Christmas films

Dec. 7: How to take the perfect holiday portrait

Dec. 8: Will South Jersey have a White Christmas in 2013?

Dec. 9: Don't risk a home fire this winter

Dec. 10: In the kitchen with grandma: How to make 6-layer Neapolitan cookies

Dec. 11: 12 (relatively) new songs for Christmas

Dec. 12: Best all-time Christmas movies, Part 1

Dec. 13: Best all-time Christmas movies, Part 2

Dec. 14: How to make Razzleberry Dressing

Dec. 15: Last-minute make-it gift: Peppermint Patty Martini

Dec. 16: Dennisville Christmas House Tour connects past and present

Dec. 17: Snow day survival guide

Dec. 18: Best all-time Christmas songs

Dec. 19: 5 handy gifts for the home baker

Dec. 20: Cookie swaps sweeten the holidays if you can avoid the jams

Dec. 21: When will Santa get here? Track his flight Christmas Eve with NORAD

DEc. 22: Presents for pets - and pet lovers

Dec. 23: Best children's books get to the heart of Christmas

Dec. 24: Feast of the 7 Fishes is a Christmas Eve tradition for many Italians

Dec. 25: People all over the world celebrate the birth of Jesus


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