20 Big Trucks in the Middle of Christmas by Mark Lee, illustrated by Kurt Cyrus
Published by Candlewick
The Little Owl & the Big Tree: A Christmas Story by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Jeanette Winter
Published by Beach Lane Books
Summary: Santa and interlibrary loan brought me these two holiday books just days before Christmas. In 20 Big Trucks Before Christmas, two boys watch the holiday preparations in their town which require–you guessed it–twenty big trucks. A mishap hanging the star atop the tree inspires the donut truck driver to take the donut off his truck, decorate it with red and green lights, and use it to replace the star. When Santa arrives in a pickup, it’s time for the celebration to begin!
We’ve seen Rockefeller the owl already this year in The Christmas Owl. This version of the story, by the Winter mother-and-son team, focuses on the wild owl: “The owl didn’t have a name–and of course she didn’t: She was a wild animal.” Humans are necessary to help her when she’s trapped in the tree destined for Rockefeller Center, but after her stay at the wildlife rehabilitation center, she is “back in the wild, back in the trees, somewhere out there under the stars.” An author’s note tells a bit more of the story. Both books are 32 pages and recommended for ages 4-8.
Pros: Here are two illustrators that really should get more recognition. Kurt Cyrus’s lifelike pictures of machinery are always popular with kids, and Jeanette Winter, who is 82 years old and has written and illustrated dozens of books, has a beautiful folk-art style that’s perfect for Rockefeller’s story.
Cons: I wish I could have gotten these books a few weeks sooner so I could have shared them with kids before vacation.
Published by Levine Querido
Summary: Isaac’s house is the only one on the block decorated in blue and white instead of red and green as he and his best friend (and neighbor) Teresa count down the days until Chanukah and Christmas. Then one night a rock is thrown through the window of Isaac’s house. The family is scared but determined not to let their fear make them hide their faith. The next night, they light the menorah again. When Teresa sees the lit candles, she draws a picture of the menorah with the words “For Isaac,” and hangs it in her front window. Before long, others in town show the same support. Their drawings get on the news, and a few weeks later, there are 10,000 menorah pictures hanging in windows all over. Includes an author’s note with additional information about the 1993 real-life event in Billings, Montana that inspired this story. 32 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: This brief but moving story tells of the power of good triumphing over evil, a perfect theme for the holiday season. The illustrations are filled with cozy comfort that’s in contrast to the broken glass on the cover.
Cons: Most reviewers recommend this for ages 4 and up, but I think the story would be better appreciated by an older audience, especially if you’re reading it to a group.
Published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers
Summary: Wildlife rehabilitator Ellen Kalish tells the story of Rockefeller, an owl whose tree home was cut down and taken to Rockefeller Center for Christmas. Filled with questions about what Christmas is and what is happening to her home, the owl is finally rescued from the tree and taken to Ravensbeard Wildlife Center. There, Ellen nurses her back to health until she’s finally ready to fly off on her own. She makes a stop at Rockefeller Center, where she sees happy people holding hands and hugging, celebrating the spirit of the holiday. She flies back home, eager to tell her animal friends there what she has learned about Christmas. Includes an author’s note about her career as a wildlife rehabilitator and additional information about Rockefeller’s story. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: A charming holiday story that reminded me of one of my favorite Christmas read-alouds, Red and Lulu by Matt Tavares. Kids will take Rockefeller to heart, and the additional information at the end makes her story even more interesting.
Cons: There was a little too much anthropomorphism for my taste, considering this is based on a true story.
Published by Henry Holt and Co.
Summary: A girl and her family prepare for Diwali by cleaning and decorating the house, cooking food, and dressing up. Family and friends arrive for a full day of ceremonies, feasting, gift-giving, and more. As night falls, everyone enjoys sparklers on the lawn before saying their goodbyes. Includes additional information about Diwali, a glossary, and three recipes. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: A good simple introduction to the holiday of Diwali with brightly-colored illustrations and a glossary to help out with words and phrases that may be unfamiliar. The story is based on the authors’ experience, and they make it clear in the note at the end that there are a variety of ways to celebrate.
Cons: It seems like a not-so-great editorial decision to release this book on November 16 when Diwali was the first week of November this year.
Published by Denene Millner Books/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Summary: Carla is excited to be going to her grandparents’ house for Christmas with her sister and mother. The anticipation builds as the family enjoys Christmas Eve dinner, including Granny’s delicious cornbread. Carla and her sister get ready for bed, deciding to do a puzzle before they go to sleep. As her sister lays out the puzzle pieces, Carla takes a big bite of a sugar cookie she sees out on the table. Too late, she realizes the cookie was meant for Santa, and worries that she will now be on the naughty list. Granny saves the day, assuring Carla that Santa still loves her and probably gets tired of so many cookies; she helps Carla make a small skillet of cornbread to leave instead. In the morning, the skillet is empty except for a single slice left behind for the baker. Includes recipes for cornbread and cinnamon butter. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: Another heartwarming Christmas story featuring a Black Santa, this one by celebrity chef Carla Hall. The illustrations place the story in the early 1970’s, but the family holiday story has a timeless feel to it.
Cons: When you realize that the interior design fashions of your childhood have really not stood the test of time.
Published by Dial Books
Summary: Deja’s excited about Christmas, but not all of her friends share her belief in Santa. But all their reasons why the jolly old elf can’t possibly exist are countered by her mom, who offers one explanation after another throughout the season. At a family Christmas Eve celebration, other relatives back up Mom’s logic. Finally, Deja, like so many children before her, decides to wait up for Santa, but ultimately falls asleep. When she wakes up Christmas morning, she finds a pile of presents…and a photo of a smiling Santa. 32 pages; ages 3-8.
Pros: A heartwarming Christmas story that makes Santa accessible to children of color and those who live in city apartments. The brightly-colored digital illustrations bring the warm family holiday scenes to life.
Cons: It wasn’t clear to me how the photo of Santa was created. Christmas magic, I guess.
Published by Scholastic
Summary: Those of us who grew up reading Scholastic’s books like If You Sailed on the Mayflower in 1620 or If Your Name Was Changed At Ellis Island will recognize the question-and-answer format of this book that traces the history and culture of the Wampanoag people, the Europeans who sailed on the Mayflower, and what happened when their paths crossed. This story does not end with the 1621 harvest feast that these groups shared, but continues on to what happened in the years afterward as Europeans increasingly moved onto indigenous lands and killed many of the people with wars and disease. It also tells how Thanksgiving came to be a national holiday, more than 200 years after the event it purports to celebrate, and concludes with a discussion of American holidays (or the lack of them) that recognize indigenous people. Includes a glossary. 96 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: I enjoyed these books as a kid, and this one provides a much-needed correction to the traditional Thanksgiving story, with a greater emphasis on the Wampanoag history and culture, and a look at some of the history after 1621. Definitely a resource that should be added to elementary school classrooms and libraries where Thanksgiving is part of the curriculum.
Cons: Given the many, many questions around the traditional telling of the history of Thanksgiving, I was disappointed that this book didn’t include source notes, additional reading lists, or any information about the author.
Published by Orchard Books
Summary: Violet fondly remembers the table where her family used to gather to cook and eat meals. Lately, though, her mom, dad, and brother are busy–usually with screens–and the table often stands empty. One day, Violet is shocked to see that the table has become smaller; the next day it has shrunk even more. By the end of the week, the table is small enough for Violet to hold in the palm of her hand, and in the blink of an eye it disappears altogether. But Violet is a resourceful girl, and she comes up with an idea. Pretty soon she’s recruited the family to build a new table. Those screens come in handy for doing the research, and before long everyone is working together. Finally, the family comes together for dinner at “a table stronger, more beautiful than ever.” 48 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: A great reminder of the joy of sitting around a table with loved ones–perfect for the holidays. The illustrations go from monochromatic purple when Violet is feeling alone to a bright palette of colors when the family is together.
Cons: The shrinking/disappearing table was a bit disturbing.
Published by Random House Books for Young Readers
Summary: “I love, love, love Santa,” says the narrator, whose house is filled with Santas as Christmas gets closer. When Grandma and Grandpa arrive on Christmas Eve, they have a present for the kids to unwrap. It’s another Santa for the collection, this one holding a list that includes the names of both the boy and his sister. When Grandpa recounts how their mom tried to stay up and take a picture of Santa, the boy gets the idea to try that himself. He falls asleep and gets carried off to bed by someone dressed as Santa. Too tired to take a picture, he sneaks a quick peek and sees that Santa is just like he hoped, because “Santa looks just like me.” 32 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: The Christmas portrayed in this book will generate plenty of excitement: lots or presents, a big tree, gingerbread cookies, and lots of Santas, all of whom have brown skin. Black children (and their parents and teachers) will welcome this story that shows them that Santa looks just like them.
Cons: The storyline of trying to wait up for Santa and falling asleep isn’t really a new one.
Published by Neal Porter Books
Summary: A girl narrates her family’s annual trip to visit both sides of her family West Virginia and Florida. In West Virginia, her father’s family hosts them at their home in the mountains, feeding them toast with blackberry jam and sausage for breakfast and some sort of banana pudding for dessert. Three days later, they visit her mother’s Puerto Rican family where they eat tostones, arroz, and flan. There’s a big party for the whole family before they head back home. The girl misses her extended family, but feels better when her parents whip up some waffles, then tuck her and her two siblings into bed. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: Although this book looks like it takes place in the summer, it would make a great Thanksgiving read to get kids thinking about their families and the food they like to eat. Readers will enjoy poring over the richly detailed illustrations; I loved the endpapers, depicting West Virginia in front and Florida at the end.
Cons: It seemed like the story should have been divided evenly between West Virginia and Florida, but Florida got more coverage.