Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Tales of Holiday Happiness (FAMILY magazine reviews)

Family, friends and food are among the ingredients we choose to help us honor and celebrate holidays in ways we value. Choose any and all of these wonderful tales to remember the past and establish unforgettable traditions to share.

The Spider’s Gift: A Ukrainian Christmas Story

retold by Eric Kimmel

illustrated by Katya Krenina

Holiday House, $16.95, Ages 6-9

Celebrated author Eric Kimmel collaborates once again with Ukrainian artist Katya Krenina for this version of a lovely folktale from her native land where Christmas customs are ancient. Not only the story itself, with roots in central and eastern Europe, but the contrasting bright and dark acrylic illustrations, showing clothing, landscapes, and iconic images, transmit both cultural and family traditions in an almost primitive flat style that accents the descriptive language and importance of the foods and symbols, which were significant aspects of the religious experience for people from that time.

Young Katrusya is upset to learn her peasant family will not be celebrating Christmas because the harvest has been so poor there is no money for the extras that define the celebration. But the family ultimately decides that although there is no money to spend, they can still celebrate with a tree, -- which costs nothing to cut down in the forest – by making their own presents, tree ornaments from old brass buttons and paper, hand embroidered cloth, whittled nativity figures, bandura music, and even a braided Christmas bread whose three rings symbolize the Christian trinity.

Bringing the tree into the warm house hatches hundreds of spider eggs hidden in the branches, drawing the attention of Katrusya’s mother who wants the spiders out of the house, immediately. The family convinces her to keep the tree and its spiders in the house until after Christmas, a kind gesture that causes Katrusya to rejoice. When they all return from the evening worship celebration, she discovers the webs have, miraculously, become real silver. Graciously, the family shares the wealth of silver with those from their village.

La Noche Buena: A Christmas Story

by Antonio Sacre

illustrated by Angela Dominguez

Abrams, $16.95, Ages 5-8

For those unfamiliar with a Miami Christmas, here is a grand introduction to many special Cuban traditions that characterize this holiday. Even for local South Floridians, acquainted with warm winter festivities instead of the typical northern icy winter fare, this lively picture book is a rare treat.

Storyteller and author Sacre uses strong sensory language to show the differences Nina experiences from her customary ice skating and building snowmen at Christmas with her mother’s family up north. This year, since it’s her dad’s turn, Nina arrives in Miami’s Little Havana to stay with her Abuela (Grandmother) Mimi for La Noche Buena, (Christmas Eve) the best night of the year for many Cuban families.

Not only does Nina have a chance to meet many extended family members, pick fresh avocados and prepare ingredients for the fiesta, she also meets other neighbor children, gets to see everyone (including herself) dressed in their best, shares the huge traveling party through many nearby backyards, walks to the Rooster’s Mass at midnight, dances, and listens to stories and jokes. Readers can almost feel onion- and spice-generated tears in their eyes, see and hear loud bright colorful parrots, listen to Cuban-accented Spanish words -- part of the lilting language of the story -- taste the garlic flavored marinade, smell the roasting pig and feel the warm hugs from family and congregation members.

Nina is charmed, as are readers and listeners, by both the bright pastel background colors of buildings, clothing, and food reproduced with joyful acrylics by artist Dominguez in this accessible and entertaining story, and by this intriguing glimpse into a distinctive cultural celebration of La Buena Noche. A helpful small glossary of Spanish words and phrases is included at the back.

Great Joy

by Kate DeCamillo

illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline

Candlewick Press, $8.99, Ages 4-8

When an organ grinder man with his monkey appears, in the week before Christmas, on the street where Frances lives with her mother, Frances wonders where the two newcomers go at night. The music sounds sad and, while her mother finishes Frances’ costume for the pageant, Frances watches from the window as the monkey holds out his tin cup to the people walking past.

Luminous, lightly focused paintings in sepia tones suggest a city setting from the 1940’s with clothing, streetlights and cars to strengthen this perception along with a photo of a navy officer on a shelf in the living room. Illustrator Ibatoulline carefully contrasts bright holiday lights with dark snowy night, using tenderly textured acrylic gouache to focus attention on important details like the monkey, the falling snow and faces, especially Frances’ face in her pageant role.

On her way with her mother to the nearby church for the Christmas play, Frances stops long enough to drop a nickel in the monkey’s cup and invite the man with the monkey to come to the play. Although he smiles at her, it’s the sadness in his eyes that stays with her later as she prepares to speak her line. But the words simply won’t come out . . . . until the sanctuary door opens to show her guests, releasing Frances to smile. “Behold!” she shouts. “I bring you tidings of Great Joy!” The use of repetition emphasizes the importance of the simple, direct language; particularly as the final double page spread wordlessly shows the entire congregation, including the organ grinder and the monkey, joyfully celebrating with refreshments afterward.

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