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.
Summary: In the first poem, titled “Questions”, a girl gets an assignment to trace her roots and realizes she can only go back three generations. At home, she asks her grandmother for help. Her grandmother gathers the family together and tells them their story, beginning with their ancestors in West Central Africa who were kidnapped in 1619 and forced on a hellish journey aboard a slave ship. Those who survived were forced into slavery in tobacco fields, fighting to hold onto their memories of home. Their descendants went on to become great people in their new country. By the end of the story, the girl is ready to return to school and finish her story; the final poem is called “Pride”. Includes notes from the authors and the illustrator and the website for the 1619 Project. 48 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: The award-winning authors have crafted an empowering collection of poems that doesn’t shy away from harsh histories, but also celebrates an African history that is often overlooked.
Cons: I wish there were more resources listed; the 1619 Project website has books connected to the project, but no others.
Summary: In the 1940’s, young people danced in groups divided by race and ethnicity. Millie danced to jazz in her Italian neighborhood, while Pedro danced to Latin songs in his Puerto Rican community. But then a band called Machito and His Afro-Cubans started mixing things up, using jazz trumpets and saxophones with Latin maracas and congas to make what they called Latin jazz. In 1948, New York City’s Palladium Ballroom broke the rules by opening its doors to everyone and hiring Machito to play for them. It brought together Millie and Pedro, who danced a new dance called the mambo–and danced it so well that they became the best at the Palladium, the best in New York City, and finally, the best in the United States. Includes an author’s note with more information on Machito, the Palladium, and the dancers mentioned in the text; also a list of resources. 40 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: The realistic oil painting illustrations and the brief text capture the movement and energy of the dancers, as well as the different groups that came together at the Palladium. The back matter adds good informational value.
Summary: Look: you might see a bushy tail or a flash of orange. Listen: a soft pad of paws. A fox travels through the snow, hunting for food to take back to its den, where three cubs wait. As the cubs get bigger, they go out on hunting expeditions, too. On one trip, the fox is hit by a car and dies by the side of the road. The cubs return home and are seen walking by the fox’s body as it slowly starts to decompose. Birds and insects feed on the body, and insects lay their eggs there. “Life is everywhere. Death is not just an end but a beginning.” Includes additional information on death, decomposition, and the cycle of life. 48 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: This beautiful book looks at death and decomposition from a scientific viewpoint, part of the cycle that allows new life to grow and flourish. It doesn’t deal with grief (the young foxes seem unfazed by the death of their parent) but shows readers the natural process of death.
Cons: Readers who may not have picked up on the foreshadowing of the “circle of life” subtitle may be shocked and dismayed by the death of the fox. This is definitely a book to share and discuss one-on-one.
Summary: When Sonny Rollins needs a place to practice his music that won’t disturb the neighbors, he heads for the bridge. Climbing the steps to the walkway, he finds a place where he can blow his saxophone as loud as he wants. Subway cars, tugboats, and seagulls add their distinctive voices to the song Sonny plays from New York City’s Williamsburg Bridge. Includes additional information about Sonny Rollins and the Williamsburg Bridge, as well as a collection of quotes from interviews with Sonny, now 91 years old. 32 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: This would be a great resource for music teachers to introduce Sonny Rollins’s music. The brief poetic text makes a quick but compelling read-aloud, there’s lots more information at the end, and the illustrations gorgeously capture the feeling of music on the bridge.
Cons: There’s not much biographical information in the main story; the back matter provides more, but more research will be needed for a full picture of Sonny Rollins’s life and career.
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 Simon and Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books
Summary: “From land to land, brave travelers arrive with hopes, dreams, skills, and determination.” The lyrical text and illustrations of this book celebrate the immigrants who have come to the United States, and the Statue of Liberty that welcomes them. The gifts that people bring in terms of skills, languages, and cultures are recognized, as are the harder truths that people have not always been made to feel welcome. “The long, bitter story of the US” is also acknowledged, including “stealing land from Native people, bringing enslaved captives all the way from Africa, and then seizing a huge part of Mexico.” The final image, though, is of Lady Liberty’s torch, and the book concludes on this hopeful note. Includes notes from the author and illustrator about their personal experiences of immigration. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: This would make an excellent introduction to immigration, with poet Margarita Engle’s text and Raúl Colón’s colored pencil illustrations depicting so many different nationalities coming to the US. While some hard truths are acknowledged, the tone is basically hopeful and celebratory.
Cons: A list of additional resources would have made this even more useful for older kids.
Summary: Before the title page, a man tapes a sign to his office door: “Off-Limits”. As he walks away, a girl is seen peeking from around a corner. In she goes. “Hello! I’m just looking.” Well, looking and taking one tiny piece of tape. Then Mr. Lamp gets a scarf made of tape, and before long he’s festooned with paper clips and binder clips. And then she discovers…the Post-it’s! The entire office is transformed into a chaotic mix of tape, clips, and dozens and dozens of colorful Post-it’s, some cut into stars, hearts, and paper dolls. Finally, the girl steps back, realizing what she’s done. She sneaks back to her room, only to discover Daddy, decked out in her dress-up clothes and dancing for an audience of stuffed animals. 32 pages, ages 3-7.
Pros: Preschoolers will love vicariously living out this fantasy of completely “decorating” forbidden office space. The illustrations with the Post-it’s really capture the feeling of joyous abandon, and the surprise ending will definitely get a few laughs.
Summary: Pura Belpré grew up in Puerto Rico, surrounded by a family of storytellers. When she moved to New York City, she missed those cuentos and visited her branch of the New York Public Library to discover the stories there. The librarian noticed her interacting with others in both Spanish and English and offered her a job. Pura loved reading to kids but couldn’t find any books with the Puerto Rican folktales she grew up with. She broke with protocol by telling a story instead of reading it during an evaluation with library administrators. They were so impressed that they gave her special permission to use her storytelling skills (instead of reading a book) during library story hours. She was a pioneer of bilingual story hours, making the library more inviting to Spanish speakers. In her retirement, she worked on writing down some of the stories, making her beloved cuentos available in published books. Includes an author’s note, a list of Pura Belpré’s books, and other sources. 40 pages; grades K-3.
Pros: I almost passed by this book, thinking that everything I needed to know about Pura Belpré I learned from 2019’s Planting Stories by Anika Aldamuy Denise. I’m glad I didn’t, as I found it charming and engaging, telling the story of this fascinating woman with slightly dreamy illustrations that incorporate a lot of Spanish words. Planting Stories won a Belpré honor, and this book is worthy of one as well.
Cons: Seems like it would be in keeping with Pura’s spirit to have a Spanish version of this book, but I couldn’t find one.
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 Luluby 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.