Themed Third Thursday: An Incidental Christmas

We’ve covered a variety of straight up Christmas books, but what about all those books where a chapter about Christmas just sneaks up on you and gives you a little insight into the Christmas traditions of other places and times past? That, my friends, is an incidental Christmas, and here are some books where you’ll find them!

Emma, by Jane AustenEmma, by Jane Austen (1816): Set in the early 1800s in Highbury (Surrey), England, Christmas appears in the form of the disastrous Christmas Eve party at the Westons’. With wintry weather beginning and Harriet unavailable for the evening’s festivities due to a bad cold, Emma is forced to endure Mr. Elton’s obsequious attentions and evident lack of care for the absence of his presumed beloved, and his real inclinations toward her are revealed as they travel together on the trip home afterwards. Apart from Emma’s uncomfortable thoughts and experiences, the evening seems to consist of a good deal of conversation in small groups interrupted only by dinner and again by the weather threatening to make travel difficult. It is also suggested that, were it not for the weather and her father’s subsequent objections, they would have attended church on Christmas morning.

Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott (1868): Little Women, by Louisa May AlcottSet during the Civil War in New England, the book actually opens with Christmas preparations. The four girls are gathered together bemoaning the fact that they aren’t going to have gifts at Christmas this year because their father is serving as a chaplain on the front lines of the Civil War and their mother doesn’t feel it’s right to spend money on pleasures when the soldiers are lacking so much. They first debate buying themselves what they want before deciding to use their money to buy gifts for their hard-working mother instead, and they make big plans for a theatrical production on Christmas night. After reading a letter from their father, they resolve to work to make themselves better to make him proud. On Christmas morning, their mother asks them to join her in giving away their special breakfast to a poor immigrant family nearby. They and some (unidentified) friends put on the play (somewhat disastrously), and a wealthy neighbor rewards their good deed of the morning with an elaborate Christmas dinner surprise.

Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls WilderLittle House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1932): Set in the late 1800s in the woods of Wisconsin, the Christmas portion of the story takes place relatively early in the book. Pa spends a lot of time carving an ornate shelf to give to Ma for Christmas, and Ma and the girls work at the festive foods (including molasses candy made in the snow). Their aunt, uncle, and cousins come to spend Christmas with them, and the cousins teach them the Big Woods version of snow angels–climb on a stump, then fall face first into the snow to make a snow “picture” of themselves. They go to bed early–all the girls in one big bed–to sleep and wait for Santa to come, and they hang their stockings by the fireplace. Pa plays for them on his fiddle to get them to sleep, and they wake to find mittens and a peppermint stick in each stocking. Laura also receives a rag doll she names Charlotte. The adults exchange their own homemade gifts (“Santa Claus had not given them anything at all. Santa Claus did not give grown people presents, but that was not because they had not been good. Pa and Ma were good. It was because they were grown up, and grown people must give each other presents.”) After chores, Ma makes pancakes shaped like little men for the children, and the children spend the day looking at pictures in the Bible and animal pictures in another book. Their parents allow them to indulge at Christmas dinner, and then the cousins have to bundle up to head back home in the bobsled, and Laura reflects that it was a very happy Christmas. (This Christmas story and others from the series can be found in the anthology A Little House Christmas: Holiday Stories from the Little House Books.)

Anne of Green Gables, by L. M. Montgomery (1908): Anne of Green Gables, by L. M. MontgomerySet in the late 1800s in a small town on Prince Edward Island, Canada, the Christmas part of the first Anne story doesn’t really talk much about Christmas itself at all! Anne and her classmates are preparing for a fundraising concert on Christmas night, and Anne will have several significant pieces to perform. Matthew notices that Anne isn’t dressed like all the other girls, and he decides to buy her a nice dress with puffed sleeves for Christmas, and their neighbor, Mrs. Lynde, helps by choosing the fabric and sewing the dress to surprise her. Anne wakes on Christmas morning to snow on the ground (“I’m so glad it’s white! Any other kind of Christmas just doesn’t seem real, does it?”) and Matthew’s surprise gift which brings her to tears. (No other gifts or special celebrations are mentioned, and that seems fitting with Marilla’s spartan way of approaching life.) The performance, which has nothing to do with Christmas, goes well, and both Matthew and Marilla are proud of Anne and begin to see that she has gifts that will need more than a local school to fully cultivate. (Anne, with her zest for life and the kind of personality that I envy, was my favorite literary character growing up–I even gave my GirlChild her name as a middle name!)

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C. S. LewisThe Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis (1950): Set in the English countryside during WWII and then, of course, in Narnia, the Christmas story in the land where there is “always winter and never Christmas” takes place in the chapter called “The Spell Begins to Break.” Now that the White Witch’s spell is failing, Father Christmas arrives and distributes useful gifts and a fully prepared tray of tea things to Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and the children. He is not just “funny and jolly” like he is depicted in our world, but his true self was “so big, and so glad, and so real that they all became quite still.” The episode is a short one, but it is a vital turning point in the story.

Ramona and Her Father, by Beverly Cleary (1977): Ramona and her Father, by Beverly ClearySet in Oregon in the middle of the 20th century, the Quimby family is experiencing hard times around Christmas because of Ramona’s father losing his job. Ramona is willing to give up a lot to make Christmas easier for her family, but having to wear a pair of faded pajamas as her sheep costume in the church pageant because her mother is too busy with work to sew her a proper costume is almost more than she can bear. A big girl steps in and saves Ramona’s confidence by painting a little black nose on her with eyeliner, and Ramona looks at her parents in the audience and sees her father’s love and once again feels secure despite the difficult times they’re coming through.

Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, by J. K. RowlingHarry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling (1997): Set in England in the 1990s, this Christmas episode is the first positive Christmas experience Harry has had. Staying behind at Hogwarts is by far more pleasant than returning to the Dursleys and their hand-me-down “gifts.” Hogwarts is decorated festively with holly and mistletoe and evergreens decorated magically. Expecting nothing but the celebratory food and fun on Christmas morning, Harry is delighted to find that he has received gifts from Hagrid (a hand-carved wooden flute), Mrs. Weasley (a hand-knitted sweater and homemade fudge), Hermione (a box of Chocolate Frogs), and the Cloak of Invisibility from an unknown giver. The Christmas dinner includes turkey, potatoes, chipolatas (pork sausages), peas, gravy, and cranberry sauce, and there are special “wizard crackers” (wizard versions of the classic British party favors). Dinner is followed by Christmas puddings and snowball fights outside.

 

A couple other books with Christmas events that I didn’t have a chance to read thoroughly to summarize:

In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, by Jean Shepherd (1966): Unclear if memoir or fiction, an adult book set in Indiana sometime in the early-mid-twentieth century–A Christmas Story (the “You’ll shoot your eye out!” movie) was adapted from a segment of this book.

The Dark Is Rising, by Susan Cooper (1973): Part of a fantasy series, set in modern (at the time) England.

The Giver, by Lois Lowry (1993): A dystopian novel set in the future.

If you know of any others, please feel free to leave the title in the comments!

 

 

 

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The Twelve Reviews of Christmas, 2014 Style: The Wrap-Up

Here’s are links to all the twelve reviews of Christmas for this year in one handy list!

12. O Holy Night: Christmas with the Boys Choir of Harlem, illustrated by Faith Ringgold
11. Santa’s Secret Helper, by Andrew Clements
10. Snowed Under and Other Christmas Confusions, by Serge Bloch
9. The Amazing Christmas Extravaganza, by David Shannon
8. The Very Fairy Princess: A Fairy Merry Christmas and Sparkles in the Snow, by Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton
7. Listen to the Silent Night, by Dandi Daley Mackall
6. Marvin’s Best Christmas Present Ever, by Katherine Paterson
5. A Pirate’s Twelve Days of Christmas, by Philip Yates
4. Big Fun Christmas Crafts & Activities, by Judy Press
3. Christmas Day in the Morning, by Pearl S. Buck
2. Natalie the Christmas Stocking Fairy, by Daisy Meadows
1. Bright Christmas: An Angel Remembers, by Andrew Clements

Keep your eyes open for the December Themed Third Thursday: An Incidental Christmas! And have a merry Christmas and a happy New Year!

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O Holy Night: Christmas with the Boys Choir of Harlem, pictures by Faith Ringgold

O Holy Night: Christmas with the Boys Choir of Harlem

O Holy Night: Christmas with the Boys Choir of Harlem, pictures by Faith Ringgold (2004)

Here are five traditional English Christmas carols on this twelfth day of Christmas book reviews, performed by the Boys Choir of Harlem and illustrated by the inimitable Faith Ringgold!

The book begins with the text of Luke 2:1-20 from the King James Version (the one I memorized growing up!) in block text just as an introduction. Then it moves into the illustrated carols, and the rest of the text is written as song lyrics, so they look more like poetry than prose (as they should) and, after the first few lines, are printed in white on a gold box with a character from the story illustrated at the top of the box. “Silent Night” is the first song, and you’ll notice that a verse from the performance is missing in the text and that the verse that is printed is not sung. There is an adult female soloist for this song, and it is not the traditional arrangement. “O Come, All Ye Faithful” is next, and it is recognizable as the standard arrangement performed with a traditional choir sound. There is one verse printed in the book that is not performed on the cd. “O Holy Night” is a somewhat subdued gospel choir arrangement, and this one is actually my favorite! I love the voice of the soloist on the “sweet hymns of joy” section, and I love the joy and energy of the whole arrangement as well as the experimentation with volume and voice groupings. It sounds as though it may have been recorded live. The last two songs, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” and “Joy to the World” seem to be pretty traditional renditions, and the lyrics match the performances. My favorite part of these two is that they seem to have trumpet accompaniment (or maybe even full orchestra–but years of playing trumpet makes my ears tune in most to that!) and fanfares.

Since she earned the Caldecott in 1992 for Tar Beach, Faith Ringgold’s work has been a familiar part of most picture book collections. (The one with which I’m most familiar is Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky–it was a trade book that came with a reading series my school used when I taught fifth grade.) I am no art expert, so I’m unsure if the paintings are done in oil or acrylic, but they start in the endpapers with Mary and Joseph arriving at the stable and end with them leaving it. (It should be noted that these are the only times that Mary is shown not wearing the blue outer garment with white and gold spots that identifies her in all the other illustrations. Joseph always wears an orange robe with gold accents, and Jesus is in various styles of clothing but always white with blue. They also all have the traditional halo circle behind their heads.) Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and most of the other characters have skin tones that are varying shades of brown, but some of the angels and a few other people within groups have lighter skin tones and hair. I wonder if Ms. Ringgold was rendering an actual group of people and not just a variety of random faces, particularly among the angels; the features and hairstyles just seem too unique and detailed to be fully dreamed up in the artist’s mind! (I’m thinking particularly of one male angel with curly red hair, a long nose, and a distinctive mustache…) While the paintings don’t seem to refer specifically to the song they illustrate, they all depict either a scene from the nativity or Jesus (sometimes without his family and sometimes with Mary or Mary and Joseph) partially out of context (so you can’t really identify if a specific scene is intended). Jesus is also shown at various ages from infant to adult. Some other elements that caught my eye were the setting-less backgrounds (except in the endpapers) and the appearance of a variety of unexpected animals (like the black and white bulldogs at Mary’s feet and a pinkish animal on the title page that I couldn’t quite identify) and large crowds of brightly dressed people (who can’t be identified specifically as shepherds or wise men), sometimes adoring Jesus (who sometimes wears a crown), sometimes offering gifts. The colors are bright and rich, and the pages are full of detail to explore.

GirlChild and BoyChild’s Reactions: GirlChild read the book independently before we realized there was actually a cd with it, but she knew some of the songs, and she made up tunes to sing with the others! When I realized she was singing randomly, I joined her to teach her the actual tunes of the ones she didn’t know. When I had them listen to the cd, she noticed right away that “Silent Night” wasn’t the arrangement we’re used to hearing, but she said it was her favorite of all of them anyway. BoyChild looked at the cover and said, “Did their skin change colors?” This is why I like to choose Bible stories and nativity books with a variety of illustrations! I had the chance to explain to him that no one knows exactly what Jesus looked like, so people imagine him and draw him in a lot of different ways, including different skin tones. I don’t know exactly how to recommend using this book–it’s not really the kind of book most kids would sit down and read through (although, of course, GirlChild did just that despite the unfamiliar vocabulary present in the songs), but it would be hard to read it aloud because of the singing element. What I ended up doing was setting the book up at the table while the kids were eating (so they wouldn’t have to sit through twenty minutes of music with nothing to occupy their hands) and played the cd for them while I turned the pages to stay with the lyrics. Because some of the lyrics don’t match the music, that could be confusing, though. I think, perhaps, it would be a perfect book to have available in a listening corner (they still have those in younger grades, right?!) during the Christmas season or during a unit study of Faith Ringgold’s works (or just at your own house for quiet rest time!). It’s definitely the sort of book that you can just sit and look at the pictures without worrying about the complex text, and the musical accompaniment would make it that much more enjoyable!

 

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Santa’s Secret Helper, by Andrew Clements, illustrated by Debrah Santini

Santa's Secret Helper

Santa’s Secret Helper, by Andrew Clements, illustrated by Debrah Santini (1990)

For this eleventh review, we’ll read about Santa’s eleventh hour assistant that helps him get the job done!

The elves are extra busy getting two sleighs, two teams of reindeer, and two red and white suits ready…because Santa has a secret helper this year! Santa’s secret helper and Santa split up and head east and west to deliver toys and treats all around the world. Santa’s secret helper does all the things Santa would do, from eating cookies and leaving notes to say thank you, giving the reindeer a rest when they get tired, and waving and calling, “Merry Christmas!” to a few parents who see the sleigh from their windows. When the last gift is delivered in the wee hours of Christmas morning, Santa’s secret helper heads back to the North Pole and gets ready for bed. Surprise–it’s Mrs. Claus! Santa wants to know all about her night, but she’s too tired from her busy trip, so she just puts on her nightcap, says her prayers, and goes to sleep…”just what Santa would have done.”

I believe the art is done in watercolor (as are the other books illustrated by Debrah Santini that have a similar appearance), and the story starts right inside the front cover with a full-spread illustration of many elves busy at work in the reindeer stable on the 24th of December (according to the wall calendar), packing bags and harnessing the reindeer. The first page of the actual story brings us back to the 23rd as the elves are preparing two sets of everything, and each illustration gives plenty of things to notice: the changing calendar, elves doing unusual things (or usual things in an odd way), stray pieces of candy, Santa’s secret helper’s feet disappearing up a chimney, or hoof prints and sleigh tracks on roofs in the background. The attention to detail doesn’t clutter the page, but it certainly allows for new discoveries with every reading. I found myself looking for clues to Santa’s secret helper’s identity and not finding any! (I also read back through and realized that no pronouns were used for the secret helper, so there was no hinting about she versus he!) The back endpapers are my favorite of the illustrations; they show the aftermath of Christmas Eve in the reindeer stable: yawning reindeer, strewn paper, drooping lights, and napping elves scattered all about!

GirlChild and BoyChild’s Reactions: GirlChild didn’t even think to question the identity of the secret helper (she really needs to think more as she reads instead of just enjoying the reading and not processing the story…), so I tried piquing BoyChild’s interest as we read it, but he was, of course, more interested in the illustrations than the story. (He is really cued in to facial expressions (a result of early hearing problems from frequent ear infections), and the style of the painting didn’t lend itself well to clear faces, so he was confused a few times about why a person would be feeling angry (because of a resting frown and defined eyebrows–his indication of anger) or some other nebulous expression. If he were to pay attention to the text, he might be really good at using pictures for context clues!) I read it to both of them together, and a reread seemed to help GirlChild notice more of what was actually going on. She even self-selected it to read again later! The book never says why Mrs. Claus helps Santa out this year, so a great inference activity might be to have students come up with a backstory about what was going on that year that led to what happens in this book (like maybe there were a lot of extra kids on the nice list, or maybe Mrs. Claus just wanted the experience, or maybe Santa was training her as a backup because he almost missed Christmas the last year because of an injury or sickness or something). I tried this with GirlChild, but she might still be a little young for that level of thinking (or maybe just needs more practice!), and she couldn’t think of any reason why. Maybe next year. :) I couldn’t find a publisher-recommended reading level, but I think that preschool to early elementary (the Santa-believing years) would be a good choice, and judging from GirlChild’s weak interpretation, I think a read-aloud is probably the best way to share the book with its intended audience. (For the inference activity, you can probably go a little older–they’ll probably be more creative about what might have led up to the story anyway!) If you’re into doing Santa with your kids, this story might help you explain why there are different “Santas” all around–he’s just got a lot of secret helpers!

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Snowed Under and Other Christmas Confusions, by Serge Bloch

Snowed Under and Other Christmas Confusions, by Serge Bloch (2011)

Metaphors and idioms and Christmas, oh my! This tenth review features samples of grammar inside.

This book tells the story of one family’s Christmas Eve preparations. A young boy and his dog spend the day misinterpreting everyone’s idioms and metaphors, like his mother saying they are going to be feeding an army and his grandma asking him to help trim the tree. It goes from first thing in the morning (and the author missed an opportunity to showcase “rise and shine”!) when his mother tells him that they’re very busy (“have to work our tails off”) all through the day and night until first thing Christmas morning when the boy sees that Santa has come and he “[lights] up like a Christmas tree!” (using a simile of his own). Every page features a different figure of speech (in colored font to distinguish it from the rest of the text) and a pen and ink drawing depicting a literal translation of the phrase. Realistic collage accents, like the photographed hats and scarf (complete with shadow) on the cover, provide color (usually red and green) to an otherwise plain page. The author has written several other punny gems including You Are What You Eat and Other Mealtime Hazards and Butterflies in My Stomach and Other School Hazards. While it’s not the most engaging storyline ever written, the pictures are clever, and the whole purpose of the book is to showcase the phrases anyway. Although the publisher recommends the book for preschool to middle elementary, I would actually recommend it as a teaching tool and for sharing with the grammar-lovers in your elementary school classroom.

 GirlChild and BoyChild’s Reactions: I read this aloud to BoyChild with some reservations; I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to get across to him the meaning of all these unfamiliar phrases, and I was afraid he would get bored of it. Turns out that it didn’t matter. Not only did the strange phrases not throw him at all (I suppose the fact that I pepper my conversation with antiquated phrases and bizarre idioms helps him deal with ambiguity in meaning (I seriously said, “I’ll be there in two shakes of a lamb’s tail!” when I sent him off to nap!)…), but he thought that all the pictures of the dog were funny (“Dat funny dog! He wearing a hat! Hahahaha!”), so he stayed put the whole time I was reading it. GirlChild read this on her own first, but when I asked her what she liked about it, she couldn’t be any more specific than just that she liked the story. (She *was* able to summarize it, oddly enough, despite not catching on to what was going on between the pictures and words at all.) When I pressed to find out what was funny about it and she still couldn’t answer, I figured I’d better read it to her. Now, although she seems incapable of applying reading comprehension strategies independently, she was full of questions when I read it to her (and BoyChild again)! I had to explain every single phrase to her (which didn’t seem to lessen her enjoyment of the story any), and BoyChild kept turning to Daddy and saying, “Daddy, you gotta see dis!” about all the funny pictures. I definitely think this is a book that can be enjoyed best with a discussion element, either one-on-one or in a group where figures of speech are being introduced with the opportunity for kids to volunteer what they believe the phrase means (and could be a springboard for simile/metaphor/idiom art projects). For older kids who are familiar with some of the phrases (and can figure out what the unfamiliar ones mean) and find grammar humor funny, independent reading would be good as well.

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The Amazing Christmas Extravaganza, by David Shannon

The Amazing Christmas Extravaganza

The Amazing Christmas Extravaganza, by David Shannon (1995)

As more and more lights go up around town, this ninth review is for a book that showcases a truly astounding display!

Mr. Merriweather and his family have always celebrated Christmas with happy simplicity: a well-trimmed tree in the front window and a wreath on the front door. This year, however, he decides to branch out and add…a string of white lights around his window. When his neighbor, Mr. Clack, makes a derisive comment about Mr. Merriweather’s lights in comparison with his own, Mr. Merriweather is flustered and embarrassed and replies that he’s not yet done and that Mr. Clack will be amazed by the finished product. After his first splurge (where he buys so much his station wagon can hardly contain it!), Mr. Clack seems jealous, and other neighbors show up to admire his display. This admiration makes him so happy that he keeps going out and buying more things, even resorting to building his own display items when the stores run out of things to add! While most of the neighbors continue to exclaim over his work, his family is starting to regret that he is spending so much time and effort on the display. As the book says, “Mr. Merriweather was no longer thinking about Christmas…. He was thinking about bigger, brighter, and more.” He even skips his children’s Christmas pageant to keep on decorating. He becomes so absorbed in his efforts that he doesn’t notice that he’s sapping the neighborhood electricity and that the tourists coming to see his display are becoming a nuisance to his neighbors. When his lights cause the entire neighborhood to lose power on Christmas Eve night, his neighbors have had enough and tear apart his display while he and his family hide under a bed, thinking there’s an earthquake shaking their home! On Christmas morning, when the shaking finally stops, Mr. Merriweather is stunned to discover the angry mob still outside and the smouldering remains of his destroyed display. He realizes that, although well-intentioned, he had let things get out of hand and hadn’t really paid attention to how those around him were feeling. His neighbors, ashamed of what they did out of their frustration, offer to help him put the display back together, but Mr. Merriweather says that his little string of white lights are enough. Everyone tells him how wonderful the display really was, despite all the problems it caused, and Mr. Merriweather is encouraged to try again but to scale down his artistic endeavors for his next attempt–Easter! Moral of the story: Don’t let anyone else’s rude comments ruin your enjoyment of the simple things!

David Shannon writes and illustrates this book with barely a tip of the hat to his No, David! and other books for younger readers; the only similarity I saw was in the darkness of the eyes of all his characters. (I frankly find it a little creepy, but it didn’t detract from this book at all.) While this is still a picture book, the text is much longer and more complex than most of his stories with which I’m familiar (A Bad Case of the Stripes is the closest one I know in both artistic and literary style to this one), and you’ll need to be a patient reader and have patient listeners for this story. You’ll need to be patient because your listeners will keep interrupting you to point out something else they’ve found in the acrylic paint illustrations and because, even when you’re through with the text on the page, they’ll want to keep exploring the pictures! They’ll need to be patient because you’ll want to actually read all the words when they are absorbed in the art. Not a bad reason for either, really. Most of the text is written in medium-length blocks on a white page with a border of lights around it…and the lights border becomes more cluttered with Christmas flotsam as the book progresses. Even the cover gives a glimpse of the conflict in the story: it’s actually hard to find the title (written in gold text at the top) in all the craziness that is his National Lampoon-esque display!

GirlChild and BoyChild’s Reactions: Both of my children were completely absorbed in this book. (I actually chose this book because GirlChild has been using the term “extravaganza” to describe the party she and her cousin are planning to host at Grandma’s house this New Year’s Day…and because the cover illustration was so over-the-top!) True to form, GirlChild was more caught up in the emotional aspects of the text and BoyChild was all about spotting things in the pictures. They both crowded against me on the couch while I read the book to them before naptime, and I imagine I’ll find BoyChild, at least, crouched over it as he examines the pictures again once I put it in their library book bin, and GirlChild will probably try to finish getting ready in the morning early enough that she has a chance to read it herself before school. GirlChild’s eyes were like saucers when I read that Mr. Merriweather was no longer thinking about Christmas–the enormity of losing sight of Christmas and family and friends just to make a big production was not lost on her! I’m pretty sure BoyChild’s thinking wasn’t quite so deep on this one. That said, it’s a great read-aloud for good preschool listeners individually or in small groups up through elementary school in groups (even to upper elementary for an exercise in discovering themes using trade picture books) or one-on-one. While not a religious story at all, it can definitely be used to facilitate a discussion of what happens when a person loses sight of the truly important things at Christmas time.

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The Very Fairy Princess: A Fairy Merry Christmas and Sparkles in the Snow, by Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton, illustrated by Christine Davenier

This eighth review is a two-for-one special!The Very Fairy Princess: A Fairy Merry Christmas

The Very Fairy Princess: A Fairy Merry Christmas, by Julie Andrews & Emma Watson Hamilton, illustrated by Christine Davenier (2012)

In this leveled reader, Geraldine (called by her nickname, Gerry, in this book), a self-proclaimed fairy princess, is getting excited because Christmas is just two days away. She finds joy in giving gifts (just like Santa!), but she finds that her piggy bank is rather low on funds (and includes a hair clip and a button in addition to the few coins). Her mother tells her that homemade gifts are best, and after she sets up her own workshop in her bedroom and recruits her toys to serve as elves, she sneaks around her house to observe her father, mother, grandmother, and brother to see what the best gift for each might be. She spends all day the next day creating her gifts and goes to bed to “sleep in heavenly peace,” happy in her work. On Christmas morning, her family is pleased with each personalized, thoughtful gift that Gerry creates for them, and Gerry proclaims: “One fairy princess is better than TEN elves when she REALLY lets her sparkle out!”

 

The Very Fairy Princess: Sparkles in the Snow

The Very Fairy Princess: Sparkles in the Snow, by Julie Andrews & Emma Watson Hamilton, illustrated by Christine Davenier (2013)

This picture book in the series tells the story of Geraldine (called by her full name in this book) as she prepares for her school’s Winter Wonderland Festival and concert. It is a rather impressive event, and Geraldine is extremely disappointed when she finds out that, despite all her best efforts to get Mr. Higgenbottom, her music teacher, to realize that (as the school’s most “enthusiastic” singer) she should receive the solo part in the chorus, a professional singer is being brought in to draw crowds to their show. Her parents try to make her feel better, but it takes waking up to a very snowy morning to really restore her spirits. When she arrives at the festival, Mr. Higgenbottom is concerned because their guest soloist is stuck in the snow and can’t make it. Geraldine volunteers for the solo and is accepted, but she is temporarily stymied by the fact that not only did she forget her dress shoes to change into but that she’s wearing two different socks (one with a hole!). She “fixes” the issue by painting ballet slippers on her socks (and exposed toe!), but she is discouraged by the giggles she hears about the purple paint footprints she leaves on the stage. However, the beautiful music and the happy audience and the sparkling lights inspire her, and she sings her heart out. Her family congratulates her, and they all head out to enjoy the other things the festival offers. Despite the rough start to the festival, our fairy princess realizes that “the SPARKLIEST things can happen when you least expect them!”

Written by the mother/daughter team of Julie Andrews (yes, of Sound of Music fame) and Emma Walton Hamilton, the Very Fairy Princess series is intended for readers and listeners from preschool to early elementary. The picture books actually have a much broader vocabulary and longer text than the leveled books, so stronger independent readers might prefer the picture book to the leveled reader (Passport to Reading, Level 1, intended for very early readers to read with an adult). The books read like a cross between Junie B. Jones (in her innocent enthusiasm) and Fancy Nancy (in her mature emotional responses and developed vocabulary), and she seems to be a fun, good-hearted character with a lot of sparkle to spread around! (There’s a little Gigi, God’s Little Princess to her as well.)

The illustrations are “done in ink and color pencil” and are both soft and bright, almost like watercolor. The illustrator skillfully conveys emotions and mood through expressions and posture, and Gerry/Geraldine almost always stands out from the rest of the illustration by appearing just somehow more saturated in color than her surroundings. (This not only makes it easy for young readers to locate the protagonist in each illustration even if her clothes are changed–although the tiara and wings are ever present!–but helps visually reveal her somewhat larger-than-life personality.) In the leveled reader, there is much less detail to the illustrations; for many of the pages, the background is plain white, and the characters get all the attention. Other full-detail illustrations help set the stage, but the focused illustrations probably assist a new reader in paying attention to only the text and relevant picture clues for understanding.

GirlChild’s Reactions: I was not surprised that GirlChild loved these books despite being a more advanced reader than necessary and at the high end of the intended interest ages. (To be honest, I think that any fairy princess hopeful through third grade, even, would like these books!) GirlChild, too, has a shining, loving, willing personality, and she is thrilled by all things beautiful and exciting. I could really see GirlChild in Gerry’s actions and thought processes, and that made me love the books, too. (I actually laughed out loud while previewing the picture book because it pretty much struck the nail on the head in regards to my innocent, inventive, eager, and emotional daughter!) [Note: BoyChild slept through the reading of these books, but he’d probably be just as happy to listen, just not as inspired to emulate. If his big sister likes something, he tries to like it, too!] Probably best enjoyed by the pre-Fancy-Nancy crowd, these books are suitable for any reader or listener from preschool to early elementary who has an interest in fairy princesses or fancy dress-up or even just possesses an outgoing personality!

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