Monthly Archives: December 2011

Christmas Wrap-Up

(Ha! I see what I did there!)

In case you missed a day or just want to see all the Twelve Reviews of Christmas together to pick and choose, here’s the list!

12.  A Christmas Carol
11.  The Crippled Lamb
10.  The Christmas Story
9.  Merry Christmas, Mouse!
8.  The Secret Keeper
7.  Mousekin’s Christmas Eve
6.  Pippin the Christmas Pig
5.  A Houseful of Christmas
4.  My Merry Christmas: And the real reason for Christmas joy
3.  Countdown to Christmas
2.  Fisher-Price Little People: Christmastime Is Here!
1.  The Twelve Days of Christmas

There were some other great and/or interesting books that I didn’t get to share in the Twelve Reviews of Christmas–we spent a lot of time quarantined from the library in the last couple weeks because of sick children–but I wanted to toss out a few more ideas in case none of these hit the spot!

A Classic (and a classroom use guide):
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson
(For elementary readers and good listeners!)The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

A (Really) Unique Take:
We Were There: A Nativity Story, by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Wendell Minor
(I couldn’t check this out to review because I shuddered violently just touching the illustrations when I was trying to turn the pages to preview it! Perfect for your little entomologist!)

In Case You Didn’t Realize:
An Early American Christmas
, by Tomie DePaola
(Did you realize that in early America, Christians celebrating Christmas was a bit out-of-the-ordinary?)

Funny Animal Christmas Stories:
Olivia Helps with Christmas, by Ian Falconer
(It’s Olivia. Some kids just need Olivia for every season!)

Santa Cows, by Cooper Edens, illustrated by Daniel Lane
(This book is–yes, I’m going to do it, for my dad!–udderly ridiculous. In the spirit of Twas the Night Before Christmas, but with cows. And kitsch.)

Hark! The Aardvark Angels Sing: A Story of Christmas Mail
, by Teri Sloat
(Aardvark angels help deliver mail to all the corners of the earth. Really.
Set to music.)

A Little Alphabetical Latin Flavor:

N is for Navidad, by Susan Middleton Elya and Merry Banks, illustrated by Joe Cepeda
(The Spanish alphabet–including those “extra” letters ch, ll, ñ, and rr–is used to tell a story of the celebration of Christmastime in a Latino family. A pronunciation guide included for those who don’t speak Spanish!)

A Ballet in Book Form:

The Nutcracker, by Susan Jeffers
(A simple retelling of the traditional ballet with beautiful art by the illustrator of one of my favorite childhood books, All the Pretty Horses.)

A Favorite Christmas Villain:
The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss
(Did you realize that there’s no mention of the Grinch being green in the book? Nor that he’s not any color at all in the illustrations? No? Time to break out the original instead of the movies, then!)

Hope you have a chance to make it to the library before Christmas (and that you find a few of these books on the shelf!). Have a very merry Christmas!
(Do you have any suggestions for great Christmas books I might not have included? Tell us in the comments!)



Filed under informational, reader input sought, review

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, illustrated by Brett Helquist, abridged by Josh Greenhut

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my blogger shared with me…
a classic Christmas story retold!

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, illustrated by Brett Helquist,
abridged by Josh Greenhut
(2009, HarperCollins, ISBN 978-0-06-165099-4)

If you’ve read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, this book will seem familiar to you…very familiar. It is not a dumbed-down paraphrase for children; it is simply a (very) sparing abridgement that makes this Christmas classic short enough to share with younger children or for older children who aren’t yet ready for the full-length version to read independently. The language is original, the phrasing is original, the tone is original—all the most important events of the story are told as the author told them, just without all the words. The opening scene at the counting house gets one page of text, each of the ghosts gets three or four, and the conclusion is just three, but somehow the whole story is told and told well.

I initially picked this book because I recognized the illustrator—Brett Helquist—as the same one who illustrated the Series of Unfortunate Events, so I was intrigued to discover his take on the story. It starts right in the front endpapers with “MARLEY WAS DEAD” and a full-spread illustration of a hook-nosed Scrooge (distinctive noses appear to be a trademark of the illustrator) standing at his partner’s grave in an otherwise empty graveyard.  The illustrations, done in oil and acrylic, are occasionally set on a page next to a nearly full page of text with a small, simple black-and-white illustration at the top or bottom of the page, almost like what you might find at the beginning of a chapter in many books. Other times, they dominate a two-page spread and the text appears in a somewhat plain portion of the illustration, such as a blank wall or a cloudy patch of sky. The characters themselves are textbook Helquist, but the images vary from harsh and dreary to soft and glowing, depending on the mood of the scene. The contrast between the first close-up of Scrooge in the counting house with his nephew and Bob Cratchit in the background and the one that shows Cratchit arriving late at work on the day after Christmas to find Scrooge already at work is sharp; although the setting is identical, the colors and lighting are totally indicative of the change of heart Scrooge has experienced. The Ghost of Christmas Past is both bright and ethereal, Christmas Present is large and bold, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is somehow more sinister draped in strings of decaying garlands and lights. Helquist has used color, movement, and perspective wisely to create strong visuals that skillfully supplement the story and help create the mood that the missing narration would otherwise have provided.

GirlChild’s Reactions: I was kind of surprised by how involved GirlChild was in this book. I mean, she’s just three, and I was sitting in the front seat of the car and holding the book so she could see it from her seat behind Daddy. I stopped reading a couple times (it’s a longish book for a picture book) to help my husband with directions as we drove, and each time, GirlChild impatiently told me to keep reading! I was afraid that the ghosts would scare her, particularly the last one, and the events leading up to the climax of the story are kind of dark, what with the people selling “the dead man’s” things and Scrooge visiting the graveyard and all, but she didn’t seem disturbed in the least. She did interrupt often to ask questions, and I had to keep telling her to just keep listening to find out the answers. She was concerned when the Ghost of Christmas Present wouldn’t answer Scrooge directly about whether Tiny Tim would live (although I’m not sure she understood that entirely; she was just upset that he wouldn’t respond), and she was worried about Bob Cratchit in the second-to-last illustration and wanted to know why he looked sad (when he arrived late to work the day after Christmas), but her worries didn’t linger or make her want me to stop as they often do when she’s watching a movie where someone is sad or upset. She wanted to know what was going to happen and seemed satisfied with the ending.

This dumb book made me cry. Seriously, if my husband hadn’t been driving, I would have made him finish reading the last page because I was bawling like a baby. The abridgement of this book, while certainly drastic, left all the feelings of joy and redemption from the original, and I couldn’t help myself! I would perhaps pin the book’s ability to affect me on just my memories of the “real” one, but the way that GirlChild was spellbound throughout suggests to me that a skillful job was done in shortening this book to the minimum events without taking away any of the heart of the story. So I must say congratulations to Mr. Josh Greenhut on a job well done! And, of course, congratulations to Mr. Helquist for his visual contributions to this classic.

That wraps up our twelve reviews of Christmas, and I echo Tiny Tim when I say…

God bless us, every one!

Additional titles:

A Christmas Carol(The original story)

(Written and illustrated by Helquist)

1 Comment

Filed under review

The Crippled Lamb, by Max Lucado with Jenna, Andrea, and Sara Lucado, illustrated by Liz Bonham

On the eleventh day of Christmas, my blogger shared with me…
encouragement when we can’t see the plan!

The Crippled Lamb, by Max Lucado with Jenna, Andrea, and Sara Lucado,
illustrated by Liz Bonham
(1994, Word Publishing, ISBN 0-8499-1005-6)

Joshua the spotted lamb was born with one leg that didn’t work right. He has no family, and the other sheep make fun of him. Only Abigail the cow seems on his side with her friendship and her frequent, wise reminders that “God has a special place for those who feel left out.” When the shepherds leave Joshua behind at the stable when they take the rest of the flock to greener pastures, it is almost more than Joshua can take. That night, however, he and Abigail are woken by strangers in the stable…a woman and her newborn child who is shivering in the cold. Unable to do anything else to help, Joshua curls up next to the baby to give him some warmth. After a short while, a man arrives with rags to wrap the baby, and the mother tells Joshua that the baby is Jesus, God’s Son. Suddenly, Joshua’s shepherds stumble in to find Joshua has already met the newborn Savior that the angels told them about out in the fields. Joshua finally understands why his life has been like it was; God had always meant for Joshua to be left behind that day and be there to welcome and warm the newborn king.

Max Lucado is a well-known Christian author of books for both children and adults; his daughters joined him in writing this book. The story is a simple one aimed at readers who have ever wondered at their situations and what God could possibly have planned for them. Very young readers may not yet have had these kinds of questions, but they will still find a sympathetic protagonist in the little crippled lamb who feels left out. The sentences and paragraphs are short with simple vocabulary for easy comprehension. Most of the description is focused on actions and feelings that children can understand.

The illustrations are bordered by a deep blue, textured frame with white and gold interior rim. Each illustration is like a landscape painting featuring the pastoral scenery that a story starring livestock requires. The realistic paintings are bright and inviting, and the large number of farm animals and smiling people make the illustrations accessible for even the youngest readers.

GirlChild’s Reactions: When asked what she thought of this book, GirlChild stroked the picture of the lamb on the cover and cooed, “It was wonderful!” When further pressed, she said that she liked that the lamb and the cow slept in the stable. When pressed even further, she remembered that the lamb snuggled with “Mary’s baby.” This book was apparently very heartwarming to this three-year-old girl as she had an “Aww, how sweet!” expression on her face the whole time she was talking to me about it. And she petted the cover.

This book is probably best for older preschool through early elementary, and it provides plenty of discussion points for parents or caregivers to share with the little ones they love. The message that comes through is that sometimes someone doesn’t see his or her own worth because they’re not seeing through God’s eyes. The crippled lamb in all of us sometimes wonders why we can’t do all the things we want to do or be all the things we want to be, but God has a special plan for each of us, and we are all precious in his sight.

Additional title:
(We have the board book version of this one, and it made me cry when I read it to GirlChild! Completely sweet book for parents and children–biological or adopted–to share!)


Filed under review

The Christmas Story, by Patricia A. Pingry, illustrated by Wendy Edelson

On the tenth day of Christmas, my blogger shared with me…
a simple take on Luke chapter two!

The Christmas Story, by Patricia A. Pingry, illustrated by Wendy Edelson
(2005, Ideals Children’s Books, ISBN-13: 978-0-8249-5512-0, ISBN-10: 0-8249-5512-9)

My family has always been big on traditions, and one of our most important Christmas traditions is the reading or recital of Luke 2 on Christmas Eve night just before bed. (When my brother, sister, and I were little, we memorized it from the King James version. I think we can all still get most of it right even now!) My husband and I have continued the tradition, but this book—a gift from GirlChild’s Sunday school teacher last year—will make the tradition more accessible for GirlChild and BoyChild while they’re still very young. We love the way this book boils the story down to the basics so that the littlest ones have a better chance of actually following the story so they have a foundational knowledge to build upon as they grow and mature.

The text in this book is printed like a sidebar to the illustrations; this seems appropriate both in that the pictures are likely to be more important to a very young child and also that young readers might find this less intimidating because there are only a few words per line to read. Several significant words (some more significant than others) on each page are printed in red, enlarged font and draw attention from the reader. After a brief introduction explaining that we celebrate Jesus’ birth at Christmas, the story tells the simplified events of the biblical account to get the main ideas across in as basic a way as possible. Because this is a retelling of just the first sixteen verses of Luke chapter two, there is no background information included and the story ends when the shepherds arrive and worship Jesus. A few details are improvised (like that Joseph made a soft place for Mary to sleep) and some are brought in from other parts of the story (like Jesus being named) but they don’t change the meaning of the story and make it flow better for younger listeners. The second to last page is basically a one-sentence summary of the story and a reminder that this is the Christmas story, and Luke 2:1-16 (King James version) is reprinted on the last spread.

The watercolor illustrations depict all the traditional images of the Christmas story. The characters and setting are painted with rough, folksy realism rather than the more cartoonish style one often finds in illustrated Bible stories. (Oddly, Mary does not appear to be “great” with anything at all at the beginning of the story, let alone a soon-to-be-born child, but it’s unlikely that a young reader will notice that.) Although the focus of most of the illustrations is on the characters themselves, as it should be, the simple backgrounds help transition the setting from one part of the story to the next. My favorite illustrations are the ones that accompany the introduction and conclusion: a modern little girl clutching a lamb figure while looking at the Nativity scene in front of her Christmas tree and the real-life version of that same stable under the star of Bethlehem with the city in the background beneath a starry sky.

GirlChild’s Reactions: GirlChild asked one question (“Why did she call him Jesus?”) and interrupted to talk a little bit about the part about there being no room for them in Bethlehem, but she didn’t seem satisfied with the story as it was and wanted me to read the Bible excerpt at the end of the book as well. Either I caught her at a bad time (it was right before nap and she was sick and cranky), or she may be too used to longer stories now to really get engaged with this short story format. We’ll still read this book on Christmas Eve right before bed, but maybe we’ll have her act it out with her nativity set as we read so she processes it more fully, or maybe it will be just perfect as it is for her level of concentration on an exciting night like Christmas Eve! It is definitely a keeper for BoyChild for the next couple of years as well.

Additional titles:


Filed under review

Merry Christmas, Mouse!, by Laura Numeroff, illustrated by Felicia Bond

On the ninth day of Christmas, my blogger shared with me…
a counting book from mouse sans cookie!

Merry Christmas, Mouse!, by Laura Numeroff, illustrated by Felicia Bond
(2007, HarperCollins Children’s, ISBN 978-0-06-134499-2)

This Christmas counting book features the mouse from If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, and his overzealous behavior continues as he decorates a Christmas tree!

Readers expecting the “if/then” pattern of the If You Give books may be disappointed because this, although it stars the famous mouse, is not that sort of book. It starts with Mouse putting one star on the tree and progresses on each page with him adding a successively larger number of decorations—two angels, three snowflakes, etc.—until he gets to ten…and then has one hundred more to go! The bulk of this board book is essentially a long list of the items he adds to the tree, so there are a total of four sentences in the whole thing. Each page features a sentence or phrase containing the number word printed in color to match the numeral printed in one of the top corners. The illustration style will be familiar to anyone who knows the series already (although you only see Mouse himself on four pages). Each spread shows a close-up of a section of a Christmas tree with the just the ornaments being described on that page showing. When it says there are just one hundred left to go, you see a huge pile of various ornaments on the ground next to the tree, then the last page shows an over-burdened tree tilting dangerously toward Mouse under the weight of all the decorations. There are an abundance of things to count and explore, especially on the last few pages, to satisfy even the most detail-attentive child!

GirlChild and BoyChild’s Reactions: While GirlChild is capable of counting much higher than ten, she still likes to count the objects in a counting book like this one. She loves the If You Give books that we’ve read, so she recognizes the mouse, too. (The only thing she would have loved more would have been if it featured the pig from If You Give a Pig a Party instead because she has that book and stuffed animal from a Kohl’s Cares for Kids book and toy sale a couple years ago.) BoyChild is still at the age where he wants to eat the book instead of reading it or looking at the pictures, so I’d probably recommend this book either for infants who have a longer attention span than BoyChild or for toddlers and preschoolers learning to count.

I’ve had a hard time finding good Christmas-themed board books for the very young…does anyone have any good suggestions? I know there are some Karen Katz ones (see below, although they’re not everyone’s cup of tea), but our library’s board books are just stored randomly in bins, so I can’t locate any without looking at every single board book in the place!

Additional titles:
If You Take a Mouse to the Movies

(board book)

(another counting board book)


Filed under review

The Secret Keeper, by Anna Grossnickle Hines

On the eighth day of Christmas, my blogger shared with me…
a book about the secrets we keep!

The Secret Keeper
The Secret Keeper, by Anna Grossnickle Hines
(1990, Greenwillow Books, ISBN 0-688-08945-3)

Little Joshua is feeling left out of all the Christmas secrets at his house until Grandma comes to the rescue with an idea to get Joshua involved in some secret-keeping of his own.

Anna Grossnickle Hines is a relatively prolific children’s author and illustrator (she illustrates the new Curious George books in addition to writing and illustrating her own) who has branched out from her original colored pencil roots to now sometimes using quilts and digital illustration for the books she creates. (She and her family recently founded appropo, a company dedicated to creating picture book apps.) The Secret Keeper, however, is an earlier venture, done in watercolor and colored pencil, and is in traditional picture book format. It tells the story of a little boy—probably three or four judging from the fact that he still uses a booster seat at the table—who is tired of all the secrets his family is keeping from him as they prepare for Christmas. The last straw is when Grandma arrives to stay for Christmas and share his room, bringing in a bag filled with “Christmas secrets,” and Joshua proclaims that he hates Christmas because there are too many secrets! Grandma understands how he feels and helps Joshua create secrets of his own for his family. (He even surprises Grandma by making her a gift when she’s busy helping his mom!) The whole family is happily surprised on Christmas morning, and his sisters even consider letting him in on their secrets next year because he kept his own secrets “so well that [they] didn’t even know [he] had any.” Joshua, however, has decided that he likes having Christmas secrets of his own.  The story is told in first person with no introduction of the narrator, requiring the use of both text and picture clues to figure out what exactly is going on; it is important to understand his age, at least, to know why he is being left out of the secrets. The necessarily secretive nature of the events of the story also create the need for a goodly amount of inference and, in my opinion, raises the comprehension  level necessary above the unassisted ability of the age group for whom it is intended.  However, the somewhat larger that usual font suggests that the book is possibly meant for young independent readers who are, in fact, older than the narrator but may still identify with him.

The illustrations are done with simple realism of the characters and minimal background. In fact, you only see the suggestion of walls or floor based on the people and the furniture or other items in perspective; once, there is a doorknob with the door fading away around it, and a sign taped on the door to the garage hangs in blank white space. The colors are softly bright and the few pieces of furniture, the Christmas tree, and gifts are drawn with great attention to realistic detail. Something about the dress and hairstyles of the characters makes them seem somewhat dated, but that feeling is minimal and probably wouldn’t be noticed by a young reader. (I, however, am strongly reminded of the cover illustration from the 3rd edition of What to Expect When You’re Expecting
with the coloration and the way the characters are dressed…) The scenes where Grandma and Joshua are making the gifts for the rest of the family are cleverly done so you see just enough of the gift around the back or over the shoulder of the characters to see some of the supplies they are using, but the reader, like the rest of the family, is kept in the dark about what they are actually making until the gifts are opened at the end of the book.

GirlChild’s Reactions: I had to do a lot of explaining to GirlChild about what was going on during the story because her experience is limited and there weren’t enough clues in the pictures and text for her to guess what exactly was happening. She does understand Christmas secrets, however, and at the beginning of this Christmas season, she was just as unhappy about them as Joshua was at the beginning of this book. I’ve tried to share some with her this year (mostly about BoyChild’s gifts since he wouldn’t understand anyway if she lets something slip) so she’ll feel excited about them instead of grumpy, and, just like in the book, it seems to have worked. She’s still not particularly good at keeping secrets, but it makes her feel important to have some, and she doesn’t really notice when she’s let something slip, so it’s a good thing I’m still careful about it! When we finished this book, she decided she wanted to give Daddy the elephant toy we’d bought at IKEA earlier this month just so she’d have a secret. (What she doesn’t know is that we bought that elephant for her! *winkwink* Shh!)

My family has always been big on Christmas secrets (we are even very good about telling Christmas lies with complete believability despite the fact that we try not to practice lying the rest of the year!), so this book was fun for me. I love the feeling of being secretive and surprising someone with something he or she didn’t expect but really likes, and I think GirlChild feels the same way. I hope to make many opportunities for her to share the joy of surprising someone with a heartfelt gift to show her love!

Additional books:

NOTE: This book is out of print, so I had to scan the cover of my library copy to have an image. The link to the book on Amazon is under the image. Also, the information I included about the author was gleaned from the Amazon biography page linked to her name in that paragraph.


Filed under online resources, review

Mousekin’s Christmas Eve, by Edna Miller

On the seventh day of Christmas, my blogger shared with me…
a book about a mouse on Christmas Eve!

Mousekin’s Christmas Eve, by Edna Miller
(1965, Prentice-Hall Books for Young Readers, ISBN 0-13-604454-9)

When the family moves out of the house where Mousekin has been living, he sets out on a wintry night to look for a new place to live. The dangers of the woods at night frighten him, and he is taken by surprise when the snow around him is suddenly awash in colorful lights. He finds that he has come upon a house that is full of warmth and happy noises, and he slips inside when everyone inside has gone to bed. He is dazzled by the glittering Christmas tree and eats his fill of crumbs and popcorn before he notices the crèche filled with hand-carved people and animals. He finds a place of rest and peace near the manger where the little baby lays.

This story tells the realistic tale of what might happen to a mouse whose house can no longer provide the food and warmth to which he is accustomed. The mouse behaves as a mouse would do; the writer only puts words to the sensations and experiences that a mouse, of course, would not be able to express. The story itself, told in third person, is simple and easy to follow despite the occasional vocabulary word that might be unfamiliar to young children, such as “globes” (in reference to the ornaments on the tree), “crèche,” and “rude” (as a synonym for “rough” or “crude”). Context and the illustrations help make the more difficult vocabulary immaterial, at least when the story is read aloud. A brief note at the end of the book explains the origins of the crèche figurines illustrated in the story.

The illustrations are very realistic with sparing detail in the backgrounds and fine detail in the characters and significant elements of the setting. Mousekin’s fur, the woodgrain of the window next to which he huddles, the branches of the Christmas tree—all are done in delicate detail that draws the reader into the beautiful picture they create. Edna Miller wrote and illustrated this book (and several others featuring Mousekin) and used a live whitefoot mouse as a model (which the back bookflap says she released into the wild again when she was finished with this book). Despite the age of the book, the realism of the images makes the illustrations timeless.

GirlChild’s Reactions: I had to make sure at first that GirlChild was following what was happening, that the people who had lived where Mousekin was had moved, so he had to find someplace else to live where there was food. However, after that first review, I felt like she was able to follow along well, and she loved looking at the pictures. When I asked her what her favorite part was, she said it was when the little mouse was safe. Awwww. She was also pretty interested in the popcorn he found, so we might do popcorn garlands for our tree this year (and hope no real mice get in, but I won’t tell GirlChild that)!

This is a totally adorable book. I wish it wasn’t out of print so I could find cheaper copies to buy of all Edna Miller’s books about Mousekin because GirlChild would love them! Guess I’ll be perusing the library shelves for more!

Additional titles:
Mousekin's Thanksgiving

Mousekin's Golden House
(She has many books, but they appear to all be out of print, so finding a cover image was difficult. These were the best I could do from Amazon even though there seem to be quite a few available for purchase (with customer images you may be able to see at itself), some of which are collectibles. Check your local library for copies to read!)


Filed under review