I'm Emily Reynolds.
1) Christmas Day in the Morning, written by Pearl S. Buck, illustrated by Mark Buehner
In my mind, this is one of the most meaningful picture books about Christmas that a child can read. In fact, that everyone should read it. Why, you might ask? Because, not only does it share with us what event--and actual being--started this millenias-old Christmas season, but also why Jesus Christ's life, example, and atoning sacrifice help and change us today and forever.
These hard-to-grasp topics can be tricky for little people to digest (and those of us big people too, for that matter!), unless seen applied in our own lives. This beautiful, simple story, by one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century (if you also love The Good Earth, by Peal S. Buck, you'll know what I mean), does just that.
When I was a girl, I remember being shown a film strip, based on this story, at church every year around Christmas time. (Yes, that does make me a million years old to admit that I was around when humming projectors were used to show movies. But weren't they fantastic?! Those ancient projectors that flipped the last strand of film around and around at the end of the movie...) The film version of this story made me weep like a baby, as an eight year-old, just as reading the book aloud to my own kids does now.
The storyline is of a boy, Rob, overhearing his father's tender desire to let his growing son get enough sleep. And with this accidental eavesdropping, comes an awakening to the fact that the boy's father loves him, and that he loves his father in return. But how to show his dad, with little money to buy a Christmas present?
So as the boy thinks about his father, when they arise before the crack of dawn each morning, he decides something...
On Christmas morning, after rising at 2:45a.m., the boy dresses, goes out to the barn in the darkness, and does his father's chores by himself, puts everything to rights for the day for his dad, then climbs back into bed and pretends to be asleep, waiting for his father to discover his gift.
Just serenely joyful, isn't it? Thanks to Mark Buehner, and the late Pearl S. Buck, for bringing such a gift of love and light to the world. I can't help but want to give copy after copy of this book away at Christmas over the years. This story just encapsulates everything right in the world. And the glowing illustrations aren't anything to sneeze at, either!
2) Lighthouse Christmas, story by Toni Buzzeo, pictures by Nancy Carpenter
Trying to use my own weak words to describe this little gem of a cozy, heart-warming story is absolute slaughter. But I have to try, as the voice of these homey, family-oriented characters is spot-on to people we all know and love. From Frances and Peter's conversations, to the simple, home-spun computer illustrations. Just read the first page of text below, and you'll see what I mean:
After the passing of the children's mother the previous spring, their father takes a transfer from the mainland to be a lighthouse keeper on a small island off the coast of Maine. Peter, the youngest, wonders if Santa noticed their move? He longs for sugar cookies, singing, and presents.
But practical Frances, now stepping-up to fill her mother's homemaking shoes, worries the supply boat won't make it to their island before Christmas so the family can receive even the simplest of necessities such as sugar to flavor their bland oatmeal again--let alone ingredients for baking holiday cookies.
So when the children's aunt Martha radios to offer sending her dory to fetch them for Christmas Day on the mainland, the children's longing hearts must decide whether to leave their father home alone for Christmas (someone's got to keep the light burning to protect the ships at sea from crashing into rocky shores!), or fulfill their wishes of enjoying Christmas traditions with extended family.
But when a shipwreck off the coast requires an act of bravery and sacrifice from the Ledgelight family, Frances and Peter learn what the true meaning of Christmas really is. Without deflating the ending here too much, I'll just say there's a lovely surprise conclusion--based on actual events for many lighthouse-keeping families throughout the last century.
So in a nut shell, in the midst of hardship and kindness, two children learn what it means to give up one selfish desire for something even better--loving one's neighbor. And one good turn deserves another.
The author, Toni Buzzeo, gives a lovely nod to a big-hearted part of New England history--included in the author's notes at the end of the book. (Don't you love indulging in "author's notes" after your kids get up and walk away?) In my eyes, the "author's notes" were written for the grown-up readers, who'd care for a little bit more info re: the history of the hows and whys of the story.
This book is Just delicious, almost as good as Christmas butter cookies--sweet with sugar! :)
So if you're looking to add another feel-good Christmas book to your family's collection, Lighthouse Christmas is a singular choice--a reminder of how serving our fellow men is what makes Christmas so magical.
3) Christmas on Exeter Street, written by Diana Hendry, pictures by John Lawrence
After housing fifteen people under one roof for Thanksgiving a few weeks ago (only three of them being adults), I have an even keener love for this quirky and splendid story about making enough room in the inn, and revelling in the adventure that comes with it!
My husband was rather impressed with our nieces and nephews, "Those are some pleasant kids!" Pleasant, dish-washing guests do make for an enjoyable holiday, I must say. Thanks for the happy memories, guys!
And the guests at Mrs. Maggie Mistletoe's home in Christmas on Exeter Street are no exception to being good guests--if uninvited tailgate crashers, at that! Still, they're easy to please as you'll see below.
And for all of you fellow Anglophiles out there who love a good British book written with English phrasing and cultural tidbits, this book's a complete charmer...
From the first set of grandparents arriving (getting the finest "spare bedroom") to the next set of grandparents getting the second-best bedroom, you can guess what happens...As quintuplet aunts, an uncle fresh from Australia, neighbors with parents visiting Timbuktu, mere acquaintances, the minister's family, and even complete strangers (with a broken-down car) all show up...they all seek asylum under the roof of the cozy Mistletoe home on Christmas Eve.
According to that center illustration above (of Jane and Annie lying on the mattresses), it looks like it wasn't just my sisters and I, who would lay on our backs with our feet soles-to-soles playing the pedal-'madly-til-you-giggle-yourself-into-almost-having-an-accident game. The details of hominess in this book are too inviting!
Funny, as I've noted that the text in the older version of this book has been edited out. The older copies (on the above page) say something along the lines of, "Lily slept on the small sofa in the playroom, which had been bounced on so often it was very soft and saggy, kind of like Lily herself." The editors must have thought better on that one. Whew!!! Probably was the one who'd had a few babies, and knew what it's like to have one's body go from being fit and young, to drooping into soft and sagginess as the babies come, the years go by, and we don't have time to play tennis and freeze tag anymore. Ha!
But not even the kitchen sink was safe from being made into a safe haven that night on Exeter Street...
The zaniest turn of the book though, is when the five quintuplet aunts arrive from Abingdon, bringing with them a big turkey and their three Pekingese dogs.
Their bunking arrangements take the cake--or at least the plates off the shelves by which to eat any!
The highlight of this book, which kids love, is the full-spread layout of the lodging arrangements--showing all five stories of the Mistletoe home, and where each person is bunking down for the night:
And don't forget the Christmas Day feast, to which they all wore Lily's Christmas hats (except for Amos, who wore his blanket tied around his head because "he felt happiest that way"). Such a silly, sweet, wonderfully welcoming book. I hope you're kooky enough to adore it with me as it reminds us all to let the Christ child in, and make room in the inn for everyone!
4) Merry Christmas to You, Blue Kangaroo, written and illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark
This book is on the list because it's pure eye candy--it's as plain as that. I'll admit it, I'm a sucker for bright splashes of color. And all of Emma Chichester Clark's books have that luminosity. Besides, every child and adult (hard to remember as it may be...) can relate to having had one special toy that was everything to them for a spell. Blue Kangaroo is that stuffed toy for Lily. It's Blue Kangaroo's first year with his person, and Lily wants to show and share with him everything magical about Christmas.
So Lily introduces her special stuffed toy to his first advent chain countdown.
And Blue Kangaroo's first Christmas tree.
And when Aunts Florence and Jemima arrive with mince pies and gingerbread men...
...Lily shares with Blue Kangaroo all the joys of being with family and making special foods together to celebrate the holidays.
Do you not love the aunts' so-very-English hats? I forgot to mention that this book is just one in the entire fabulous series of Emma Chichester Clark's Blue Kangaroo books. Not to mention her scores of other British gems! Wouldn't it be loverly to have a Limey friend read this book in an authentic accent? I'll put Emma's official website, listing her scads of books, at the bottom of this review. (Lest you fall down the rabbit hole now, and never finish reading about Blue Kangaroo...)
Okay, those illustrations made me totally snacky--I just caved and went to sneak that last gingerbread cookie out of the jar. My kids will kill me! EEK! But, hey, they all got a gingerbread man packed into their bags for their snack time at school today, so all's fair in cookies and war. Moms are people too, you know. (And it was so spicy and satisfying!) Gingerbread is truly one of the perfect homemade treats on this earth. Besides, there's nothing better than having that very food on-hand which you're seeing pictured or advertised before you! Am I right? You know what I'm talking about. :)
Can't you feel the cold blast of air swirling in with the snowflakes--melting on the grandparents' coats as they greet Lily and her snuggly, warm little sleeper-clad brother here? These illustrations are perhaps the loveliest, homiest, most welcoming pictures in about any children's picture book I've ever seen. How does this illustrator create such moods? I would love to know. Great shadows and saturation, maybe?.
So as Blue Kangaroo is repeatedly overwhelmed with love from Lily, he longs to do something "just for Lily" in return. And since he's been such a good little stuffed marsupial all year, his wish is granted.
On Christmas Eve, a certain someone arrives with a great "thump"(!) in the night to help him find a suitable present for Lily ...
Isn't the above picture every child's dream-come-true? To see Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, just chilling in the kitchen--writing a little note over milk and cookies...so fun!
But not only does Blue Kangaroo give Lily a sweet little gift (with the help of Father Christmas), but unexpectedly finds one left in a tiny blue stocking for himself as well...
A very happy ending for a sweet little girl and her mild-mannered blue side kick. Just so you know, in the other Blue Kangaroo books, Lily's a bit more headstrong, and gets into the regular mischief that any other normal, healthy child would. So we relate with her even more when we know she's as mischievous as our own kids.
Here's Ms. Chichester Clark's website:
Enjoy the rest of her books!
5) A Christmas Like Helen's, written by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock, illustrated by Mary Azarian
Every year, I think I'll thread popcorn and cranberries on a string to decorate the tree. We've only been so leisurely and romantic once--years ago. And had really sore thumbs afterward. But, it always looks fun, doesn't it?
To really get a taste of this book, you'll just have to read its prose, not my own nonsensical foolishness. Without further adieu:
Are you starting to hanker for an old-fashioned taffy pull by now? Mmmm-hmmm...
There's something binding in braiding a little girl's hair--a connection of action between one being made tidy, and another being grooming the other out of love. It's therapeutic.
Queue the Celtic music...
Okay, okay, okay...I live even farther north than Vermont(!), so I do not like that line above that says, "You'll have to not mind living in a place where winter lasts nearly eight months of the year." ARGH! I suppose it's true.
But November through February is the prettiest time of year for many of us in New England. Truly spectacular coats of ice on the trees and shrubs, and a Narnia like feel when walking in the woods. But, March through May--I could leave it! Mud city, my friends! Blech. One of these years we'll escape back to Utah for the spring to see the daffodils bloom under our old front window in late FEBRUARY!!!
But the rest of the year really is as enchanting in the northeast as this book purports. Just NOT during the spring, which is why this book is not titled, "A Spring Like Helens." Because Vermont and any place further north like Maine have no spring. Only winter until mid-May, a week of strange, sudden transition, and then summer in June. So weird. But so worth it.
The lines above are a bit eye-opening for any of us who don't grow all of our own food, right? I mean, most people have probably had experience gardening a few crops of some vegetable in their lives. But how many of us, in the middle of January, think about who raised the crop of apples sitting in our refrigerator--six months ago?! Kind of some cool thoughts going on in that text to make kids ponder on where things come from, and who does all the work to make it happen...
Here are my favorite hay bales from around the corner and down the road a mile, just across the street from my friend, Christa's place. Some time this winter, I'll paint these happy bales (I can hear Bob Ross saying that..) in oils. I can hardly wait...
What a neighborly sentiment to teach young kids reading this book. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" will never go out of fashion.
Notice (in the illustration above) that as the youngest, Helen isn't even wearing skates--she's just being pulled by the older kids who do. So accurate in the order of taking the turn being the littlest. Reminds me of when my sister and I (being the two youngest of five) inherited the smallest two pairs of metal roller skates from our older siblings, so we could join them in skating around our basement in upstate New York when I was five, and she was six. The skates consisted of metal toes and metal heals that could slide up and down a metal sole bar (attached to metal wheels) to accomadate one's foot size. We secured the (ancient-seeming) skates around our feet with strips of cloth. Brilliant! And then we had such a blast--going rickety-gliding over the concrete floors playing cops and robbers! Shwoopee! Crash! Oh, the days...
When I was fourteen I was a gangly, late-blooming wanna-be ballerina. I auditioned for the Nutcracker (which the Utah Valley Regional Ballet Company would put on every year). I made it into the performance as..."a parent." I'd started taking lessons so much later than the younger girls in my classes, and was so tall compared to my peers (who were being cast as Russian dancers, soldiers, or sugar plum fairies), that the only role the directors could use me in, was as a parent at the Christmas party where Clara gets her nutcracker. It was a little awkward, as most of the other parents, were, well...real parents. Yes, it was a funny situation...but I was thrilled to take part in my first ballet!
Anyway, to make a long story short, those were stressful weeks, being in an onstage performance at a university theater, and having lots of new systems and routines to learn quickly. The slip of my ball gown even caught on the heal of my "stage partner's" character shoe during one matinee and was pulled down to my ankles. Exciting times! Maybe it helped the audience to enjoy the show that afternoon?
But by the last night of performances, I began to feel weak and achy. A gripping cough seized my chest, and I couldn't draw full breaths. I remember slumping down against the wall in the wings of the stage, and people walking about in tights and tutus at my eye level. Then at the end of the last round of applause, my parents were standing before me. And my dad scooped me up, and carried me out of the building, and through the parking lot of the Harris Fine Arts Center at Brigham Young University. After weeks of early hours, long days, stress, and exhaustion, we were going home. Bless-ed home! And even more blessed were my mom, dad, and family!
The ordeal was done. I'd made it into a ballet--and successfully wiped myself out. As I lay listless in my dad's arms outside that fine arts center, huge snowflakes (the size of silver dollars and goose down) drifted slowly out of the pearly sky. I've never seen such a serene snowfall. And I'd never loved my dad so much before for helping me--carrying (and caring for) me, as when I felt so miserably ill.
My sweet mama took me to the doctor the next day, and I came home with a diagnosis of bacterial bronchitis--the nastiest sickness I've ever felt. But I'll tell you what...that Christmas is my most memorable one. My family laid out a cot next to the Christmas tree, so I could enjoy the glowing lights, and experience the season even if I couldn't sit up much or do anything for the next few weeks. I loved my parents more than ever that year. I don't remember a single present, but I do remember my mom reading to me, propping me up to watch a movie with everybody, and feeding me. Family is what it's all about.
So since my oldest two girls have begged/promised their way into getting a doghouse-converted-chicken-coop full of hens, I now understand an inkling more about the realities of the unglamorous life of living on a farm. This book makes farming as a family seem pretty swell, indeed. And I'm sure there are many pluses to such a wholesome lifestyle. But there are probably many drawbacks as well. Cleaning out the chicken coop, being one.
What I love about this book is not so much the lifestyle or place it describes, but the light the story sheds on the joys of family life. The memories made with siblings and parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. This is the stuff joy is made of. Sledding, going to church together, playing baseball with brothers in an open field at night, telling stories around the dinner table, raising animals together, helping out the neighbors as a family.
Read this book with someone you love this Christmas, and bask in that warmth of that familial strength.
6) The Night Before Christmas, written by Holly Hobbie, poem by Clement C. Moore
This version of The Night Before Christmas is perhaps the most lovely illumination of Clement C. Moore's poem I’ve ever seen. Artistically, it is a wonder of design and craftsmanship.
Are any of you as ancient as I am? Do you remember the Holly Hobbie paraphernalia that was so popular in the 70s? Those Holly Hobbie dolls were all created by this very same Holly Hobbie, the author and illustrator of the Toot and Puddle books. We're talking, this woman knows how to make and remake her style again, and again, and again. I am impressed. If you haven’t seen this redo of The Night Before Christmas, though, you are in for a treat! I can hardly wait for you to check out a copy of this book, pull a little person into your lap, and revel in its peace!
So this is a little spooky. The house above could be my neighbor's around the corner--but without a snowman, and painted green instead of grey. Typical old Main-uh home, eh.
Such a sense of place. You can almost feel the sandy blast of ice crystals blowing against your face here, with that beautifully-painted gust.
I love the old creaky-looking floorboards!
How does Holly Hobbie do it? Really, it kills me how stunning these paintings are!
You're wanting to scratch that warm, lazy cat's belly, right? (Unless you've got allergies like me...Ugh!) But aren't those ilustrations a treasure? Almost as much of a delight as...
...or decorating for Christmas, or going out to walk in the first snow of the season, or watching your husband or child open a gift you know they'll really like.
So, if you're looking for a timeless book to celebrate Christmas for adults, or kids, I think this instant classic by Holly Hobbie pleases both crowds.
Now, since it's Christmas, I'm throwing in one last extra recommendation. I just couldn't narrow the tremendous list of fantastic picture books down to six. So, pretend the Half-dozen Mama is the Septuamom, for this month, as here is a seventh book title:
#7--a Bonus Book, since it's Christmas and all): Stickman, written by Julia Donaldson, and illustrated by Axel Scheffler
Do you know this book? It's strangeness is equal only to its charm. My kids and I LOVE it! In fact, if we didn't keep it up on the top shelf with the Christmas books for 11/12th of the year, we'd be reading it once a month. Which we did, after we were first acquainted with Stick Man.
Who wouldn't "root" for this spindly guy from the get go? (Carrying his tiny twig son on his shoulder like that!)
The story of Stick Man is as basic as they come. A hero is separated from his family and wants to find his way home. A tale as old as "The Odyssey." And the Christmas twist at the end is that Stick Man helps Santa Claus out from a very tight spot, so you can guess how Santa thanks him...
And the rest (this isn't The Little Match Girl--I never did quite understand that tragic tale...), is before you below...Kids will be glad to read the satisfying ending. Don't look at the last page below if you hate spoilers, even in picture books. :)
Yeah, you knew what would happen all along, but it's still good to see it spelled out plainly with a fun illustration by Axel Scheffler.
Congratulations! You just slogged your way through the longest book review of your life! Ha ha! Oh, boy...(*head shake...*) But I hope the titles listed above did give you at least one or two ideas for gift-giving to those you hold dear in your life.
And since you're a marathon reader and made it ALL THE WAY down this far (bless you, patient soul!), PLEASE, tell me what your favorite children's picture books to read at Christmas time are in the comments below, or share your most cherished holiday memory or tradition. We would all love to get some more great recommendations for new books--and ideas of how to bring our families closer this season.
Merry Christmas and much love to you and yours!