12 December 2010

Favorite Christmas Picture Books

Okay--so I meant to get this posted right after Thanksgiving. But there is still plenty of time to share a Christmas picture book. While shiny copies of Dewey's, Marley's and Fancy Nancy's holiday escapades are being showcased at your local bookstores, these older classic are not too be missed, so be sure to check those library shelves. They might be the dog-eared leftovers on the display table, but like Charlie Brown's twig of a tree, they have much to offer.

So, in no particular order, I present my favorite Christmas picture books:

Wombat Divine by Mem Fox; illus. by Kerry Argent

Wombat has waited a long time to be in the annual Nativity play, and now he's finally old enough. The problem is that he is ill-suited for every part: he's too heavy to be the Archangel Gabriel, too clumsy to be the innkeeper, and too short to be one of the Wise Men. With all the parts allocated to more suitable animals (and I do mean emus, koalas, and bilbys,) it looks as if Wombat will be sitting out this year's play, too. Until....inspiration strikes. This is a sweet tale from one of Australia's greatest contributors to children's literature.

We Were There by Eve Bunting; illus. by Wendell Minor
Let me clarify--there aren't just illustrations featured in this unorthodox Nativity story. There are paintings. There aren't many Christmas books which can boast a scorpion on the front cover (I can't think of any others) made sacred by the inclusion of the Christmas Star glowing beneath the tip of the scorpion's stinger. If Wendell Minor's stunning paintings of rats, tarantulas, and warty toads aren't enough to distinguish this Christmas book (you can see some of the other paintings here,) then have a read of Bunting's text, told in verse and from the point of view of each creature, making their way to the stable to worship the Christ child. This unique perspective on a familiar story makes a poignant statement about the relevance of Jesus' arrival, not just for the good and the easily lovable (i.e. the ox and lamb,) but the lowly inhabitants of the dark, as well.

Harvey Slumfenburger's Christmas Present by John Burningham

Santa's had a long night, and he's knackered. He no sooner finished his rounds, gets his reindeer in bed, and dons his pajamas, before he realizes that he's missed delivering a gift. And of course, the gift is for Harvey Slumfenburger, who is poor and will get no other gifts but the one from Santa. And he lives in a hut. At the top of the Roly Poly Mountain. Which is far, far, away. So there's nothing else for it but for Santa to deliver that gift. Not wanting to wake the reindeer, he tosses his red coat over his jammies and sets off by foot for Harvey Slumfenberger's hut. It's a long and arduous journey requiring many modes of transportation, but Santa will not be deterred. And with the final five words of the book, John Burningham shows why he is a master at writing for children.

Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs

While Burningham's Santa is a dogged and dutiful man, Brigg's St. Nick is no jolly old elf. From the moment his alarm goes off on Christmas Eve, to his final grumbly blessing, Father Christmas looks as if he'd rather be anywhere than delivering presents on a cold and snowy night. As he preps his thermos, feeds the cat, and locks his front door, he could be heading off for a shift at the local factory.  The humor in this books is generated by the rather working class perspective to Santa's story, told in graphic blocks like a comic book. Father Christmas has to work around restrictive chimneys (or none at all--I particularly like the image of him trying to squeeze out of the top of a cooker,) try to avoid roof-top aerials (remember them?!) and tripping over cats, and in true British fashion spends most of the book complaining about the weather. And when he gets home, he still has to make his own Christmas dinner! Evidently this Santa is a bachelor. And, without a doubt, the hardest working man in the world.

A Pussycat's Christmas by Margaret Wise Brown; illus. by Anne Mortimer

This book was originally published in 1949, and then re released in 1994 with illustrations by the incomparable Anne Mortimer. She is, for my money, the best illustrator of cats. From cheeky, to contemplative, to serene--her ability to capture their essence is amazing. Brown's understated yet precise description of the sounds and smells of a Christmas Eve in preparation, makes for a quiet, almost reverent, reading experience.

The Church Mice at Christmas by Graham Oakley

The Church Mice would like to plan a slam-dunk Christmas party at the church, but they are having trouble procuring funds. Raffling off Sampson doesn't raise much--particularly when he returns to the church and the mice have to refund the money. And caroling is fraught with danger on a busy high street crowded with shoppers. Raiding the choirboys' stalls for abandoned sweeties produces no dividends either. When Arthur and Humphrey make the rather rash declaration that Father Christmas will be visiting the vestry, things almost take a turn for the riotous as antsy church mice find their holiday disappointment difficult to contain. But all ends well--and humorously--for the church mice. As ever, this book is filled with detailed illustrations which are as much of a joy to inspect as the story itself.


Terry Doherty said...

I'm with you on leaving the new books on the store shelves and snuggling up with some favorites. Sadly, I haven't read ANY of these ... is there a must-read in the bunch?

Kara Schaff Dean said...

Oh Terry--how can I choose?! I love them all for different reasons. My sentimental favorite is "Father Christmas", but I'm going to have to go with "We Were There" because it is such a distinctive book in the way that it looks and the way it reinterprets the Nativity story. But you can't go wrong with any of them!

Anonymous said...

You've given me some more good ideas, Terry. Thanks for your list. Perhaps you'd enjoy mine, too. My Christmas book recommendations are at http://booksofwonder.wordpress.com/

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