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I am very picky about my children’s books. I don’t want a story to talk down to the reader. I don’t want cute. I don’t want sentimental. So, with those restrictions, how can I find a decent Christmas story?
Turns out, it is not so hard. It is true that the shelves of Christmas books can be full of sentimental tripe. You will find no end of Nativity stories showing a blonde, well-kept, beatific Mary gazing down at an equally glowing baby. What’s a parent to do?
Try Julie Vivas’ earthy but beautiful The Nativity you want something that reminds you that birth is a miracle, and that climbing on a donkey at nine months pregnant is no easy task. Vivas uses the familiar King James text to tell the Biblical story of Christmas but the formal words are perfectly balanced and made accessible to even young children by her watercolor paintings.
Local Author Tells his Story
Francisco Jimenez, a professor at Santa Clara University, is also a writer of children’s books. His autobiographical The Christmas Gift: El Regalo de Navidad comes from his own experience as the child of migrant farm laborers. This is a story, like O’Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, that asks readers to examine their definition of generosity and think about what Christmas can mean to a family that is struggling economically.
Gloria Houston’s The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree is illustrated by gifted artist Barbara Cooney. The story is about an Appalachian mother and daughter who cut down the village Christmas tree feeling the absence of husband and father who is away fighting during World War I. The book could easily become too sentimental, but Cooney’s delicate, detailed paintings are beautiful without being cloying. I won’t give away the ending, but you might need that handkerchief.
When You Crave Something Silly
For something entirely different, try Bill Harley’s Dear Santa: The Letters of James B. Dobbins. James sends his list to Santa early in December and follows up, almost daily, with missives about his efforts to be good, and queries about Santa’s success locating the requested gifts. This book will have kids, and parents laughing aloud.
While you are reading funny books, I suggest How Santa Lost His Job by Stephen Krensky and Santa Claus: The World’s Number One Toy Expert by Marla Frazee. Both of these books will answer the perennial questions about Santa’s skill set, his annual schedule and his amazing ability to find just the right gift for children all over the world. You will want to take note of Santa’s seasonal attire in Frazee’s book. Who knew that Santa celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with shamrock boxers?
Something a Bit Longer
And what if your kids have passed the picture book stage? I recommend continuing to bring home holiday picture books long after the kids have learned to read novels on their own. There is something about Christmas that lets kids be young . . . and invites cozy family read-alouds.
There is one novel that I love when I am in the mood for a more cynical look at family holiday gatherings. Anne Fine’s The True Story of Christmas is a sharp, witty and very truthful family story for middle grade readers. Don’t expect any heartwarming endings, but you’ll certainly get a good laugh and be left with something to think about as well.
MK has been recommending holiday books . . . and books of other sorts, for too many years to count.