Children's Literature for ChristmasWYETH O. BURGESS
With enjoyment as well as instruction in mind, Wyeth O. Burgess offers the following suggestions, for young readers from about age four to early teens.
I have included reminders of age old favorites that continue to quicken the hearts of even the most media-savvy youth, but I have also ventured beyond Treasure Island to mention more contemporary titles that may prove worthy of an honored place on the bookshelf.
Eric Carle’s Draw Me a Star is a nice Christmas book for four through seven-year-old children. In large format, this book explores the theme of creation through one young artist’s creative journey. Carle explains in the book that Draw Me a Star is the marriage of memory and dream. His childhood memory of his German grandma teaching him to draw a star was the catalyst for the book, while his dream about a star supplied the ending.
Carle’s The Very Quiet Cricket is also a prized volume at our house among those who don’t mind a cast of insect characters. Coming in a close second is Carle’s The Grouchy Ladybug, with a variety of creatures, a bit more of a story line, and a clever treatment of the bragging, pugnacious ladybug.
Bill Martin’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?, both illustrated by Carle, received resounding endorsements from current preschoolers and sage old third-graders who remember each page by heart. Both titles come in large format or smaller, reinforced board books with big, bright illustrations and a fun, rhythmic text.
If the Moon Could Talk by Kate Banks, illustrated by Georg Hallensleben, has been a sellout in France and won the Boston Globe Horn Book Award for best picture book in 1998 in this country. The impressionistic evening scenes seem wet with paint and the lyrical text intrigues yet comforts the bedtime reader. Criticized by some reviewers as too close a cousin to Margaret Wise Brown’s beloved Goodnight Moon, this poetic book takes nothing away from that earlier classic. The details in the illustrations should spark some imaginative musings and speculative conversations with observant young listeners.
Young readers return again and again to Olaf Landstrom’s treatment of everyday events and children’s responses to them in Will Goes to the Beach and Will Goes to the Post Office. The minimal, cartoon-like drawings add much to the simple stories as they capture adult gestures and setting details that children notice and remember. In each of his small adventures, Will makes some discovery or enjoys a surprise. With few words to the page, Landstrom’s picture books are just right in length and cadence for some squirmy lap-sitters.
The earliest retelling of the Christmas story that my children enjoyed was Who Is Coming to Our House?, a picture book available only in softcover by Joseph Slate with illustrations by Ashley Wolff. The mouse in the stable urges the other animals to make ready for special guests, the Christ child and his parents, who are seen from afar and arrive at the end of the book. I welcome this little book’s emphasis on preparation for Christ’s coming rather than yet another paraphrasing of the Nativity story.
For first-through third-grade readers who enjoy a bit of humor, I suggest two amusing and successful treatments of the story of the three little pigs. Eugene Trivizas’s The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig reverses the roles with timid but determined young wolves and a pig equipped with modern demolition equipment. The age old adversaries reconcile in the end and become roommates in a house built entirely of flowers.
The True Story of the Three Little Pigs (Jon Scieszka) is the Big Bad Wolf’s claim to innocence. Wolf blames his generations of guilt on “a sneezing cold” and misunderstood trips to the neighbors’ to borrow a cup of sugar. Many second and most third-graders will be able to read these two fractured fairy tales unaided and in one sitting. Both evoke smiles of recognition in young readers who enjoy being in the know and catching the humor.
The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree by Gloria Houston, illustrated by the award-winning Barbara Cooney, is a book I plan to give this Advent. Set in the Appalachians in the winter of 1918, this lovely Christmas story centers around a little girl whose family has the honor that year of providing the town with its Christmas tree. This is a book about promises kept; how much closer can we be to the meaning of Christmas?
I put William Joyce’s Santa Calls in this same category. Joyce’s zany characters and the sweep of his angular illustrations are familiar to children in George Shrinks and Dinosaur Bob and His Adventures with the Family Lazardo, both standard fare for reading aloud time at school or in libraries. In Santa Calls, the very confident Art Atchinson Aimesworth, his sister Esther, and their Indian companion, Spaulding, are summoned by Santa to the North Pole. Their Christmas is indeed more secular than Ruthie’s in the Appalachians, but I am always moved by the way the siblings, who annoy each other at the beginning, establish new, mutual respect during the journey.
I risk unforgivable understatement but would be remiss in not mentioning E.B. White’s beloved chapter books. Who has read Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, or The Trumpet of the Swan and found them forgettable? I cannot be alone in my impatience, when my children were toddlers, for the day when I could share with them Charlotte’s secrets or that famous race in which the valiant mouse Stuart skippers the model boat in the park fountain.
As young people move from primary grades into the fourth- through sixth-grade years, reading levels and preferences diverge a bit. Teachers and booksellers tell me that children enjoy series at this age. While girls often identify with the young characters in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books or Patricia MacLachlan’s prairie stories (such as Sarah, Plain and Tall), boys may prefer Billy, the young hunter and protagonist of Wilson Rawls’s Where the Red Fern Grows. Roger Lea McBride has added a generation to Wilder’s fiction with his series, The Rose Years, in which Laura and Almanzo Wilders daughter Rose and her family move to the Ozark Mountains.
For readers tired of the frontier but still game for adventure, I recommend some of the reliable animal stories, such as Black Beauty (Anna Sewell); Rascal (Sterling North); Sounder (William Armstrong); the Black Stallion series (Walter Farley); Misty of the Chincoteague and Stormy, Misty’s Foal (Marguerite Henry); and The Incredible Journey (Sheila Burnford).
Many young people enjoy fantasy, and C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia can be begun aloud and then read for oneself in the latter volumes. The Magician’s Nephew, written for Lewis’s own godson, is not traditionally included in the Chronicles but contains the creation of Narnia and explains all that follows. HarperCollins publishes a nice hardcover edition of this Lewis title. Narnia appeals to both genders, I’ve found, and these books will likely be reread as children grow to appreciate the various levels of meaning.
Also appreciated by both girls and boys is K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series. These recount the metamorphoses of a group of young people into all sorts of animals as they solve different problems, often in heroic, unselfish ways. The stories remind me of science fiction enlargements of young Arthur’s adventures inside other creatures in The Sword in the Stone.
British writer Brian Jacques captivates young imaginations and pleases teachers with his Redwall novels. The medieval abbey of Redwall is central in the lore of the forest creatures who must conquer evil to regain their precious territory and, just as precious, freedom from fear. Selfless acts of courage, daring escapes over wall and under moat, and ritual anointings of the next generation of young crusaders are standard fare in these stories. When I could prompt them to look up from their books, Redwall fans endorsed, along with the title volume, Mattimeo, Martin the Warrior, Mossflower, The Pearls of Lutra, and The Bellmaker.
Three outstanding books — two past and one current American Library Association’s John Newbery Award winners — stand out for me as a reader, parent, and teacher: Island of the Blue Dolphins (1961) by Scott O’Dellis an adventure story about a young girl mistakenly left behind on a Pacific island. Karana’s physical and spiritual resourcefulness and O’Dell’s lyrical prose are so compelling that the reader will worry about her when not reading and come back to this story for years to come. Many boys do not read stories about girls; Island of the Blue Dolphins is a notable exception.
Carol Ryrie Brink’s Caddie Woodlawn (1936) is based on the story of the author’s grandmother’s childhood on the frontier and is the paragon of such novels, written long before such stories were made cute by television series. Caddie’s experiences with her brothers and sisters are neither cute nor trivial, and her struggle to remain herself as she goes from tomboy to young woman has endeared her to the readers who have kept this book in print for decades.
The 1999 Newbery winner, Holes by Louis Sachar, has much to offer in clever humor and a cheer for the underdog as luckless Stanley Yelnats digs daily holes at a detention camp in the Texas desert. Stanley, mistakenly convicted and sentenced to dig in this colorless landscape, is not mistaken when he begins to suspect that all of this digging is not just to build character in bad boys. He and his friend Zero dig their way to greatness and into our hearts. A young reader I know was observed chuckling with this book while his siblings were engrossed in television in the same room. Here’s to Holes!
Thinking back to my own childhood shelf, I close with a recommendation of a series of attractive, durable classics published by Grosset and Dunlap in the junior Illustrated Library Editions. These are almost all under $15, a welcome price when compared with the magnificent but costly republishings of Scribner’s illustrated classics with N.C. Wyeth’s color plates. We cherish the beauty of the paintings, the print, and the torn-edge pages of those Wyeth editions, but they lean, with the exception of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s The Yearling, in a very boyish direction (Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Robin Hood). One is almost loathe to put these gorgeous books into the hands of children.
My Junior Illustrated Library Editions have survived to be read and their ranks expanded by my children. The titles in this group include those we expect to see, such as Treasure Island, Black Beauty, and Alice in Wonderland, but how nice to find Heidi, The Arabian Nights, and The Call of the Wild as well. Among this collection, I started my godson with Tom Sawyer (a much easier read than Huckleberry Finn), but Aesop’s Fables, Grimms’ Fairy Tales, or The Jungle Book would have done as nicely. Numbering 30 in all, this small library can grow with your reader from Anne of Green Gables and Wind in the Willows to Gulliver’s Travels, Ghostly Tales and Eerie Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, and Jane Eyre.
May these rambling suggestions inspire good choices for gifts that will live long in young readers’ minds, and may you enjoy book shopping as much as I have enjoyed remembering and recommending these old and new friends on the shelves.
Burgess, Wyeth O. “Children’s Literature for Christmas.” Crisis 17, no. 11 (December 1999): 45-49.
Reprinted by permission of the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.
Wyeth O. Burgess has a Ph.D. in literature and culture from Emory and has taught primary, secondary, and college English.
Copyright © 1999 Crisis
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