Saturday, December 15, 2012

Humorous and Heartwarming Books for the Holidays (FAMILY magazine reviews)

Ready to snuggle with some dears for storytime?  Try these charmers and make some holiday memories.  Merry! Merry!!

The Night Before Christmas Deep Under the Sea 
by Kathi Kelleher
illustrated by Dan Andreasen 
Holiday House, $16.95, Ages 4-7

            In a lively and humorous parody of the familiar holiday rhyme, this picture book is set in an underwater world of oysters, kelp and seaweed, with an expressive lobster as narrator.  The rhyming text is a perfect rhythmic imitation of Clement Clark Moore’s Christmas poem -- “The moon shells they glimmered like pearls from the glow / Of luminescent jellyfish gliding below” – the whiskered walrus rides in on a “conch shell sleigh,” pulled by “eight lively sea horses,” whose sea creature names, like urchin and snail, he shouts with merry delight.
            As he slides down the poop deck, carrying a bag full of goodies, the red rubber suited blue walrus looks “like a pirate come hauling his loot.” And the somewhat cautious lobster has his fears put “to rest without words being said,“ by the “gleam in his eye and a nod of his head.”
            The double page illustrations are oil paintings combined with digital underpainting, generating an exuberant, animated undersea scene with color zones and underwater bubbles to accompany the vivid, jolly language.  After delivering the gifts, “the flotilla ascended, he bellowed quite clearly,” the timely and timeless message, “Merry Christmas, my friends! I love you all dearly!”  This book is a clever and playful addition to holiday story times.

The Carpenter’s Gift:  A Christmas Tale About the Rockefeller Center Tree 
by David Rubel
illustrated by Jim LaMarche 
Random House, $17.99, Ages 6-9

            Beginning as a reminiscence, this Christmas tale shows readers an aging Henry, who recalls Christmas eve 1931, when as a young boy (on the facing page), he helps his unemployed dad cut and sell evergreen trees from a grove near their unheated shack.  Using a borrowed truck to drive an hour into New York City, they park and unload with permission and assistance from the workers at a construction site, earning “enough money to make the trip a success.” 
            Giving the remaining trees to the construction workers, they help set the largest tree at the site and decorate it with handmade and found objects, creating a magical moment for young Henry, who keeps a pine cone from the tree, to remember the day.  In a lovely circling manner, the Rockefeller Center workers show up the next day with leftover wood, supplies and tools to build a new house for Henry and his family.  In gratitude and hope, Henry plants the pine cone, which grows into an enormous spruce in whose shade he works and plays with his own family.
            But there’s more!  And here’s where the tradition of holiday trees for the Rockefeller Center meets the purpose of Habitat for Humanity – whose objective and mission is to build simple decent homes for those without, using volunteer labor.  A collaborative story, showing the transformative power of giving, this picture book with its luminous watercolor and colored pencil illustrations captures the wonder, not only of the enchanting tree, but of the faces of the individuals who care to invest their time and energy, changing the world.
            Helpful end matter tells “About the Christmas Tree at the Rockefeller Center” and “About Habitat for Humanity International.”

Together at Christmas 
by Eileen Spinelli
illustrated by Bin Lee 
Albert Whitman, $15.99, Ages 3-7
            On Christmas Eve, that most bewitching of nights, a family of ten mice
shiver in the snow.  Counting backwards, this rhyming story shows each mouse finding a cozy place to stay warm – some locations are traditional, like a fallen nest and a milkweed pod – others are more whimsical, like cattail fluff for an overcoat. 
Well-loved author-poet Spinelli’s light-hearted language frames the contrasts between the bitter-cold night and the refuges found by each mouse to cuddle and nestle. Illustrator Lee’s snow-lit settings counter the sleet-driven darkness, producing a bright, whirling energy, subtly supporting the cozy, affectionate tone of this tale, in spite of frigid conditions. 
Ultimately the mice opt to be together even before one of them discovers a hollow log, with a “stash of berries” and “room for everyone!”

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