Category Archives: review

The Beasts and Children, Day 12: Christmas with the Mousekins

Christmas with the Mousekins

Christmas with the Mousekins, by Maggie Smith (2010)

As we enter the last two weeks leading up to Christmas, this book about a mouse family’s activities during the same time might lead to some inspiration…and maybe some cinnamon snails!

The book opens as Papa Mousekin starts getting out the Christmas decorations two weeks before Christmas. (I’m actually right there with him this year!) The family–Papa, Mama, Mimi, Momo, and Baby–goes to find the perfect tree, and before they even get it set up at home, Nana Mousekin arrives for her Christmas visit. She and the older children make decorations while Papa and Mama set up the tree, and the children write their letters to Santa while the adults get the lights up. Then they all decorate the tree. Ten days before Christmas is the baking day; they bake cookies of all sorts to give as gifts (and to keep for themselves!). A week before Christmas is spent ice skating, sledding, and building snowmice in the fresh snow. Five days before Christmas, the carolers come around, and the Mousekin family has cookies and hot drinks to share. The day before Christmas, everyone is hurrying to finish up their gifts for one another. When everything is finished, Nana tells the story of Papa Mousekin’s first Christmas, the one where Santa Mouse had to rescue Grandpa Mouse from a snowstorm and delivered him down the chimney! On Christmas morning, the children come down the stairs to see the stockings filled and the tree surrounded by gifts. Finally, after their Christmas dinner, the Mousekins go around to all their friends and neighbors to deliver Christmas cookies, then they return home to enjoy their gifts together. On the very last page, on the day after Christmas, Mimi writes a thank-you letter to Santa for “all the good cheer that Santa Mouse brought to her family this year.”

It might not be possible to explore all of this book in one sitting with a young listener, and an independent reader might get sidetracked by ideas, too–even the endpapers are filled with craft instructions! BoyChild was obsessed with the speech-bubble-esque words in the illustrations (no actual speech bubbles, but spoken words in hand-written text to differentiate from the italicized story font), and I had to stop reading the story to read each word that was spoken by the mice in the pictures. There are so many details in each image that a child could spend an hour just looking through the book and still not catch everything. Then there are the craft instructions and recipes interspersed with the story, and there are even some items pictured (like the felt skates with paper clip blades and pinwheel cookies) that don’t get an explanation because there just isn’t enough space! This would be a great book to use with your elementary aged children to create a personalized family timeline of Christmas plans (maybe opting to start decorating a little earlier and not wait until the last minute to finish craft projects!) to both pace your Christmas activities and to help manage anticipation by laying out what comes next. You might get some great ideas for spending time together, too!

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The Beasts and Children, Day 11: A Christmas Goodnight

A Christmas Goodnight

A Christmas Goodnight, by Nola Buck, illustrated by Sarah Jane Wright (2011)

BoyChild was disappointed that “all it had was goodnight!” I think that’s because he is at the age where he prefers a story with a plot, and this cute book would be a great bedtime book for toddlers and preschoolers at Christmas time!

The book opens with a semi-typical depiction of the nativity scene, different only in that they are pictured in a cave (a more likely traditional setting for a stable than a wooden structure). Like usual (and inaccurate to the Biblical account), the Wise Men are there at the birth with the shepherds. (Just getting my beef with many nativity-based stories out of the way!) From that point, the story is more implied than told, and you don’t really fully understand what’s been happening until the end of the book! The book is, as BoyChild said, a series of goodnights. The words and pictures show a goodnight to (among many others) “the baby in the hay” and “the sleepy mother,” a variety of animals, the angels, and the rest of the nativity story characters. The very next page starts with goodnights to the moon and the cold air (with an appropriate image of a rural nightscape), then moves into a house where we see a family with a young child saying goodnight “again, sweet baby” to the baby Jesus from their nativity set, then finally, “Goodnight–God bless the whole wide world, for tomorrow is Christmas Day!”

If you have very young children, you know that going to bed can involve a lot of goodnights to people and inanimate objects; this story seems to tap into that tendency. My understanding is that the whole story is actually part of the child’s nighttime routine at Christmas: say goodnight to all the pieces in the nativity set before saying goodnight to his own surroundings and the world (with one more goodnight for the baby). The pictures help move the text along in that they start with close-ups of all the characters in the nativity story, then zoom out to show some of the surrounding area, then move away from Bethlehem into the fields. They then transition to the snowy outdoors scene, then to the farmhouse window, then inside the home where you see the parents and child with the nativity set. The very last picture, with the words “for tomorrow is Christmas Day” shows a wide view of a snowy Christmas morning on a farm with a small village in the distance. The publisher’s recommended ages are 4-8, but I think that skews a little old for such a simple bedtime book (at least one that hasn’t become tradition for the child) and would suggest starting a little younger. It is a really adorable book for small ones!

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The Beasts and Children, Day 10: Santa Mouse and the Ratdeer

Santa Mouse and the Ratdeer

Santa Mouse and the Ratdeer, by Thacher Hurd (1998)

GirlChild says she’s read this one before, but I certainly don’t remember it!

A mouse family is trimming the tree on Christmas Eve, and things aren’t going particularly well for Rosie, so her father has her come to help finish up the cookies for Santa Mouse. Meanwhile, Santa Mouse is having a hard time getting going for his trip; he can’t find anything, the ratdeer are complaining, and the sleigh should have been repaired months ago! Still, he has to get going, and he’s in a bad mood about it all. The snow is blowing hard as he starts off, the wind whips his map out of his hands, and his lunch box and thermos fall right out of the sleigh…then the sleigh starts to malfunction and crash-lands in the North Woods. His ratdeer desert him, and he is left alone, cold, and hungry in the forest. Unaware of all that’s happening, Rosie is constructing a snowman to point Santa Mouse to her home before she goes to bed. She wakes in the night when she hears a scratching at the door, and she finds the cold, lost ratdeer right outside. She can’t help them find the beach (there isn’t one nearby), but she offers them cookies, hot chocolate, and a toasty fire. A couple of the ratdeer go in search of Santa Mouse to bring him in, too. Rosie treats them all to a pleasant time of jokes, cookies, and hot chocolate by the fire, and Santa Mouse, his good humor restored, goes to repair the sleigh. He then loads all the gifts except for one large one for Rosie, and she finds his missing map in the snow. Then Santa Mouse is off! In the morning as they open gifts, Rosie doesn’t mention anything to her parents about the midnight visitors, and when they ask about the mess of hot chocolate mugs and the Rosie-sized sleigh gift she opens, she just smiles. The story ends with a poem called “Mouse Prayer at Christmas” (which ends, “Sing for joy, sing for good cheer, sing for Santa and his ridiculous ratdeer”) and the knock-knock joke that Santa Mouse tells at Rosie’s fireside.

While it wouldn’t have to have rodent characters to be a story (after all, Santa’s sleigh breaking down has happened in Christmas books and movies before now!), it certainly ramps up the silliness factor to have antlers strapped to the heads of flying rats! There were a couple times when I was able to pause and let BoyChild predict what would happen next (when Rosie is reeeeaching to put the star on the tree and when Santa Mouse takes off in all his consternation), and his guesses were pretty accurate. He also loved the speech bubbles for the aggravated ratdeer. While I wouldn’t rush out to purchase this text (unless your child has an uncommon love of mice and silliness), it’s a fun one to read together, so you could always check your library shelves! (While I thought that I knew this author’s works, it turns out I was only familiar with his name…and that only because of his mother, Edith Thacher Hurd!)

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The Beasts and Children, Day 9: Crispin, the Pig Who Had it All

Crispin, the Pig Who Had it All

Crispin, the Pig Who Had it All, by Ted Dewan (2000)

Crispin and his abundance of both belongings (especially the car on the cover) and ennui reminded me strongly of Milo from The Phantom Tollbooth, but this story has a more focused point and less journey than that one. Still, both Crispin and Milo undergo a personal change when they experience unfamiliar interactions with others, and a dynamic main character makes for an interesting book! In addition, both kids were appalled by Crispin’s callous treatment of his belongings…which I hope will help their minor case of ingratitude!

“Crispin Tamworth was a pig who had it all.” Each year at Christmas, he gets more, of course, and he soon gets bored with each new thing. (The story says that each item gets broken, but one illustration makes it clear that Crispin destroys his expensive toys when he is tired of them…in as short as a week in one case!) This Christmas, Crispin is excited to see a huge box under the tree; the note on the box says, “Master Crispin, In this box you will find the only thing you do not have. It’s the very best thing in the whole wide world. S.” The box, however, is empty. Crispin shoves the box outside and goes to his room to pout. When he sees a rabbit and raccoon find the box and attempt to take it with them, assuming it’s being discarded, he is seized with jealousy and goes to guard the box until he gets too cold and goes back inside. The next day, he catches the same two children playing in the box and goes outside to yell at them again, but they manage to involve him in the game of Space Base they are playing instead. The next day, he skips his weekly trip to spend his pocket money at the arcade to wait for Nick and Penny (the raccoon and rabbit) to come by; they end up playing Store, Pirates, Castle, and Space Base. Crispin is heartbroken the following day to find that the rain overnight has ruined his box and is afraid his friends won’t come back again. They do come, however, and bring even more playmates, and they spend the day repurposing the debris from his broken toys to make a really amazing game of Space Base. When the family’s new refrigerator arrives later that week, the housekeeper has the deliveryman haul away the “junk” from Crispin’s room while he’s at school, and he is horrified at the loss of yet another thing that he believes is keeping his friends around. In the backyard, however, he finds the refrigerator box that was left behind, and he discovers that it is full…of friends.

GirlChild was able to figure out by the end of the story that the note on the empty gift box was referring to friends, and the sparkly snowflake pattern bursting from the box at the end suggests the snowflake and star pattern from the wrapping paper on that box earlier in the book, giving another hint. We all felt kind of bad for Crispin that he thought that he could only have friends if he had things to entertain them, so it was really nice to see how many playmates he acquired by the end who were only interested in playing, however it came about! Stumpy little Crispin with his enormous ears is an adorable little guy, too, and all the more so when he stops being so self-absorbed and starts enjoying his friends. This is a great book for reminding children that friends are a gift!

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The Beasts and Children, Day 8: Wombat Divine

Wombat Divine

Wombat Divine, by Mem Fox, illustrated by Kerry Argent (1995)

I had to pick this up since the juxtaposition of “wombat” and “divine” was too sharp to ignore! My family went to Australia when I was ten, and I recognized many of the animals in this book from that trip!

Wombat loves everything about Christmas, especially the nativity play, and he is finally old enough to audition. He finds that his physical attributes and sleepy tendencies make it impossible for him to take any of the parts he so willingly volunteers to try. Each time he proves to be a vital mismatch somehow, the animal who is chosen instead comforts him with a gentle touch and kind words and encouragement: “Don’t lose heart! Why not try for a different part?” When all the parts have been given out, Wombat struggles not to cry in disappointment, and all his friends look on with concern. Then Bilby (one of BoyChild’s new favorite animals from the Plum Landing game on pbskids.org) has a sudden inspiration: Wombat is perfectly suited to play Baby Jesus! After his convincing performance on the night of the play, his friends congratulate him on the “best Nativity ever,” and Emu, the director, says, “You were divine, Wombat!” And Wombat is suitably pleased.

The illustrations are semi-realistic (for a book about anthropomorphic Australian animals auditioning for a Christmas play!) and expressive. You can see how bad Wombat’s friends feel that he isn’t able to participate the way he wants to, and they aren’t as happy about their own parts because of how unhappy their friend is. There are no bad friends or meanies or ungracious winners or sore losers in this book, so there are no bad behaviors to discuss away. Wombat Divine is simply a sweet book about a hopeful wombat with theatrical aspirations and his strong, caring support system! A very cute read-aloud or independent reading book for preschool to middle elementary, particularly those with a Wild Kratts-level of love for Australian animals! (Oddly enough, there is another book about a wombat and Christmas by a different author (of Diary of a Wombat fame) and with a very different focus: Christmas Wombat, by Jackie French.  I’ve not read this one!)

 

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The Beasts and Children, Day 6: When Santa Was a Baby

When Santa Was a Baby

When Santa Was a Baby, by Linda Bailey, illustrated by Geneviève Godbout (2015)

If you like to read aloud to children, this is a good one for getting to exercise your vocal talents!

Santa’s parents fawn over him much like any  other parents do, but even they are a little taken aback when, instead of the giggle or coo they expected from such a “soft and round and cuddly” baby, they hear a windows-rattling, “HO, HO, HO!” Still, they admire his strong, unique voice and many of his other idiosyncrasies: his devotion to the color red, his regifting of all his birthday presents, his request for a not-quite-a-horse (“like a horse, except it had horns and could pull a flying sled”), the strange names of his hamsters and the fact that he trains them to pull a miniature sled, and his love of the cold. While he doesn’t always fit in with others his age, his parents think he is wonderful, and it turns out that he is: he “follow[s] his childhood dreams” and becomes the Santa that is beloved around he world.

The illustrations in this book have a very vintage feel, yet they are funny and engaging, and children familiar with Santa will recognize his childhood habits as precursors of his Christmas duties. (BoyChild and GirlChild did, and we don’t spend a lot of time talking about Santa!) His parents ponder what his behaviors might mean, and several recognizable variants of lines from the Clement Moore poem work their way into their musings (“calling them by name,” “covered in ashes and soot,” “bowls full of jelly,” etc.). It’s clear how much they adore their little offspring, so it might be a great gateway to reminding your children that they are unique and loved, too! While entirely cute on its own, it might be fun to pair a good, lively read-aloud of this book with a version of The Night Before Christmas; it’s your call whether to read it beforehand to give your listeners some background knowledge or to read it afterwards for some “aha” moments! Particularly good for a read-aloud with children (probably preschool to middle elementary) who are familiar with the standard American version of Santa.

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The Beasts and Children, Day 1: Christmas Cricket

Christmas Cricket

Christmas Cricket, by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Timothy Bush (2002)

The dedication page implies the inspiration for the story. The author writes, “To the Christmas choir in my garden. You sing like angels.” This book tells the story of a cold, wet, and dejected cricket who makes his way indoors and takes shelter in a brightly lit tree he finds there. Once he hides himself there, he begins to sing, and he is startled by sudden voices nearby. When the larger of the voices agrees with the smaller voice (who says she thinks she heard the angel ornament sing) that he thinks he hears singing, too, Cricket is surprised to hear him also say, “Did you know that angels sing in the songs of birds, and frogs and people and crickets?” Cricket is calmed and encouraged by the thought, and he joins in with the voices as they sing “Joy to the World” with joy in his own heart.

BoyChild really enjoyed this book. He even gave sounding out a few lines a try: “What should he do? He must not be found. Should he jump? Should he try to get away? Should he stay hidden?” (Clearly, not all of that can be sounded out, but he tried!) When we reread it the next day, he willingly tried it out again, only missing a few tricky words, so I’m encouraged by his effort! While he liked the part when Cricket is crossing the kitchen tiles (“jump-jumped across something, cold as frozen snow”), the hardwood floor (“skid-skidded across somewhere, slippery as pond ice”), and onto a rug (“a place as soft and fresh as grass”), he really loved the illustration showing Cricket hopping across the living room floor and up into the tree. I think he found it funny how Cricket interpreted the different flooring types based on his own experience with the outside, and the implied movement of the illustration was fun for him. The art is done in watercolor and features an assortment of perspectives that keep the illustrations interesting and make the reader feel close to the action of the story. While the claim that angels sing in the songs of animals and people is a little suspect, I explained to BoyChild that the Bible says that nature proclaims God’s glory (Psalm 19), so the author probably means that it’s as if the angels are singing when creatures in nature make their music. The point of the story, then, is found in the following passage: “He was small, then. But not worthless. What a great discovery!” For little children feeling small and powerless (and perhaps their parents, feeling insignificant in a big world), the reminder that even the smallest voice–each member of God’s creation–speaks a bit of heaven is a refreshing and empowering thought.

Great for a read-aloud for preschool to early elementary, this book has large illustrations and small chunks of text that would make it a great independent read for an early reader as well. Definitely BoyChild approved, and GirlChild thought it was cute, too.

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