The Beasts and Children, Day 7: A Letter to Santa Claus

A Letter to Santa ClausA Letter to Santa Claus, story by Rose Impey, pictures by Sue Porter (1988)

Charlotte lives in a rural area with no other children around except her infant brother. She spends her time like many small children, drawing, watching television, playing dress-up, and visiting the animals around her home. Her favorite thing to do, however, is write. Charlotte doesn’t yet know how to read, though, so she often copies lists, notes, and addresses from envelopes. Charlotte writes a letter to Santa Claus by copying what her mother has written for her, including a request for a surprise gift and a mention of the Christmas list she plans to send with the letter. When she starts to clean up for dinner, she drops several papers on the floor, and–since she can’t read–she picks up the wrong list to include with the letter to Santa and seals them into an envelope for her father to mail up the chimney. When Santa receives her letter, he is a little confused by the list (which is actually a copy of one of her mother’s shopping lists). As Charlotte impatiently waits for Christmas to come, she spends time watching her animal friends in the cold and snow outside, and she worries about them, hoping to get one of the busy adults at home to find some food she can give them. While she is lying awake with excitement on Christmas Eve, she sadly remembers that she hasn’t yet fed her animal friends and hopes that Santa sometimes brings something for the animals. Santa visits after she falls asleep, eager to “see this little girl who had sent him such an unusual Christmas list” and hoping she won’t be disappointed by what he has brought. When Charlotte wakes in the morning and begins to open the parcels in her stocking, she finds a loaf of bread, a bag of carrots, a package of raw fish, a bag of nuts, a carton of milk, and a hot water bottle. She feels like “Santa had been able to read her mind” and has brought her just what she needs…to take care of her animal friends! Before her parents even get up, she is outside with the animals in order to distribute the gifts she has received. And for her surprise, Santa has brought her a farm playset, “the perfect present for a little girl who liked to look after animals.”

This is another oldie-but-goodie in my opinion. Modern enough to mention television in passing, the rural setting is (as I’ve mentioned before) a kind of timeless backdrop; Charlotte could be a child sending a letter to Santa this year just as well as she did almost 30 years ago when this book was published! The pictures help make the story and sometimes include significant information that the printed text does not. While this book could be enjoyed independently by readers up to the middle elementary years, young pre-readers would probably love to have this book read aloud by someone who would let them take the time to explore the pictures and to point out important clues found there. I haven’t yet read this to BoyChild, but I’m considering asking him to find some environmental print to copy just to see what kind of a crazy Christmas list he might come up with if he wrote a letter to Santa like Charlotte did! (My guess is that he’d have a nice copy of the to-update list for our home that hangs on our refrigerator or a note to schedule a doctor’s appointment!) Animal-loving readers might be inspired to make a list of their own for things to help make the animals they love more comfortable this Christmas. As much as you can, help them out–encouraging compassion and generosity at Christmas time is important!

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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 5: Here Comes Santa Cat

Here Comes Santa Cat

Here Comes Santa Cat, by Deborah Underwood, pictures by Claudia Rueda (2014)

This book is very different than what I expected from the cover, actually. It is told half in words, implied to be half of a conversation with Cat, and half in images, where Cat communicates using signs and facial expressions.

In the book, Cat realizes that his track record suggests that Santa will not be bringing him anything this year (he’s been pretty naughty), so he decides that he will become Santa and give himself a gift. The speaker (the implied person who is talking to Cat) suggests that Cat is short a few necessary qualifications (like being able to fly reindeer and go down chimneys) and suggests that he try being nice instead (because it’s never too late!). Cat, however, is not particularly skilled at being nice and isn’t very successful with his attempts. The speaker thinks that Santa will appreciate Cat’s efforts anyway, and the speaker gives Cat a gift also: two cans of fancy cat food! Cat is happy with the gift but disgruntled when a little kitten shows up looking wistfully at the food. Cat begrudgingly gives the kitten one can of the cat food and is surprised and pleased by the hug the kitten gives him in thanks. Cat has finally done something nice, just in time for Santa to arrive with a present for Cat: an elf costume so Cat can help him. Cat returns the favor by giving Santa a gift, too: a sign that says “HO HO HO” so Santa doesn’t have to.

As far as readership for this book, I think that a shared read-aloud is great…as long as the listeners can understand the signs that Cat holds up. I explained what some of them said or showed (in the case of the naughty/nice pie graph) to BoyChild, but I think it would hold listeners’ attention better (and be funnier for them) if they could read them for themselves. (Amazon/the publisher suggests ages 3-5, but I think they’d really be missing out on what most makes the book funny, and the School Library Journal review places it as a preschool to 3rd grade interest range.) Being able to “read” facial expressions is another skill that helps in full enjoyment of this book. GirlChild seemed to think it was pretty funny, and BoyChild liked it too…after we clued him in to some of the things he missed. Probably best as a read-aloud or independent read for early to middle elementary students. (For more holiday fun with Cat, the author/illustrator team has also published Here Comes the Easter Cat, Here Comes the Tooth Fairy Cat, and Here Comes Valentine Cat!)

 

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The Beasts and Children, Day 4: The Christmas Pageant

The Christmas Pageant

The Christmas Pageant, by Jacqueline Rogers (1989)

I didn’t realize when I picked this book up that the author/illustrator is the woman who provides the cover art for the new Ramona reprints and for Calvin Coconut (a series I discovered in the school library recently). The style is very different from those books–much more realistic–but it’s clear that she has varied talent!

This book shows the story of the dress rehearsal and performance of a rural Christmas pageant (performed in a barn surrounded by snowy hills and not much else!), and the text represents the contents of the pageant (matching up with the scene the pictures illustrate), including songs with sheet music! The picture story begins with final preparations of costumes and set pieces. From there, we see the angel Gabriel making his announcements to Mary and then Joseph (while set work continues in the background). Then Joseph pulls a wagon (with a donkey cut-out taped to the front and Mary perched on a box inside) across the stage, and we see the toddler (a little girl, according to the cast list on the title pages) who is playing Baby Jesus pestering an innkeeper behind the inn set while another child leads some real animals into the barn for the performance. Mary and Joseph have some trouble keeping the “baby” in the manger once she sees the cow and sheep on stage, and one of the sheep chews on a shepherd’s head covering while the angel appears to proclaim the birth. Then an angel choir (with appropriately mixed behavior) sings as the shepherds make their way to the stable (where Jesus sucks on a pacifier and tries to pull off the head covering of another shepherd). The real program begins at this point of the illustrations as the costumed wise men (one carrying the camel cut-out) trek through the snow on the country road leading to the barn where cars fill the plowed out area that is serving as a parking lot. They track snow across the stage while the audience looks on with pride. The faux Jesus has actually fallen asleep for this evening performance, and Mary and Joseph smile as they place her in the stage manger. Then all the cast gathers around the sleeping child for the final song (“Joy to the World”) and curtain call. As the performers and their families file out of the barn after the performance, snow is falling, delighting the children.

With as much charm as a real performance of a Christmas pageant, the text of the book could actually be used as the basis for a production (with directors reminded by the illustrations of what pitfalls exist with child performers!). It is not verbatim text from the Bible, but it summarizes and condenses much like any Christmas pageant would (and, like most pageants and nativity sets, features the wise men–inaccurately–at the birth for the purpose of seamlessly including their part of the account.) The characters in the illustrations are actually based on real people, credited by the author/illustrator on the page facing the title page. While the director’s hairstyle, outfit, and glasses might give away the 1989 publication date, it’s not jarring (or prevalent) enough to distract from the art, and the kids look like any kids from any time in the late 20th to early 21st century. (The biggest hint of the publication date might actually be that none of the audience is holding up a cell phone to record the performance!) This book would make a great read-aloud for preschoolers, and readers in middle elementary grades could probably handle it independently.

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The Beasts and Children, Day 3: Merry Christmas Mr. Mouse

Merry Christmas Mr. Mouse

Merry Christmas Mr. Mouse, by Caralyn Buehner, pictures by Mark Buehner (2015)

This is another one that BoyChild really enjoyed. Part of the fun of this is the built in hidden pictures–but we still haven’t found the cat, T-rex, and rabbit in all of the illustrations! (And I really wish I knew the backstory behind the dedication: “For Mr. Joe, who’s as handsome as a bus and as clever as a tractor”!)

Mr. Mouse hears that there is a spot available for sale under a kitchen stove, so he and his family (a wife and seventeen small mice) move in. As Mr. Mouse is exploring the human house one day, he discovers an evergreen tree covered with lights has been brought in and notices all kinds of new smells and new activities going on. He and his family observe and wonder the reason for all the festivities, so Mouse creeps upstairs and overhears the nativity account and the story of Santa being told. “All that fussing upstairs is for Christmas, and Christmas means joy, and love,” he reports back to his wife. She decides it would be a good idea to decorate and celebrate, too. Mr. Mouse goes around borrowing small items to recreate the decorations he has seen upstairs while Mrs. Mouse makes pajamas for everyone, and they wrap the gifts in scraps of colorful paper. Crumbs of gingerbread and bits of candy cane serve as their treats. Then they gather the whole family for the celebration with games and music, treats and gifts, and a retelling of the Christmas story. They each hang a tiny stocking before bed, just in case. To Mr. Mouse’s surprise, they awaken to find a small gift for each parent and a chocolate chip and a bit of cheese for each little mouse. Mr. and Mrs. Mouse decide that Christmas is worth celebrating every year.

The story is told in rhyming verse (ABCB pattern), but it’s not overly rhythmic, so it doesn’t feel too forced. The illustrations, in addition to the hidden images in each one, feature rich, vibrant colors, and the contents of the Mouse home, in particular, are creatively made using regular household items (much like in The Borrowers, a childhood favorite of mine). Small readers can try to figure out the origins of all the items, from the paperclips and buttons on the sprig tree to the chili powder can they use as a fireplace and the dominoes, Tinker-Toys, and blocks they use as seats for the children. (There’s even the little Scottie dog from a Monopoly game as a table-top decoration and birthday candles used for light!) (In an added twist, I recognized the cover of another Christmas book I’ve reviewed, Christmas Day in the Morning, on the page where the mouse is listening to the humans share Christmas stories–because the illustrator of this book is the one who illustrated that one!)

Even though it’s not heavily emphasized, it’s easy to take the central message of the book and apply it in the lives of our little readers–“Mouse learned that on that night long ago/was born the Lord of the earth,/and the lights and the songs and the giving/were to celebrate His birth.” Great for preschool and early elementary read-alouds.

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The Beasts and Children, Day 2: Christmas in the Country

Christmas in the Country

Christmas in the Country, by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Diane Goode (2002)

I may have liked this book more than BoyChild, but I suppose he’s not quite old enough yet to be the sentimental sort. Although I’m not sure it’s entirely autobiographical, the author often includes episodes and people from her life in her works, so there is every possibility that much of the story is true.

The narrator looks back to when she was a little girl living with her grandparents in the country. Each season brings new experiences, and this book focuses on winter and the anticipation of Christmas. In her family, her grandfather goes to chop down a tree while she and her grandmother get out the ornaments, each one a reminder of years past. Christmas Eve is a chance to sing with the other children in front of the church and get a small gift of fruit and candy after the service. Before she goes to bed when they get home, she writes a nice note for Santa to leave with the milk and cookies. Early Christmas morning, she wakes her grandparents to go see what Santa has brought her, and she is always pleased to receive the new doll she has asked for and a special second gift that’s a surprise. After opening her gifts, they go to church once again for a quick reminder of what Christmas is about, then they return home to entertain the friends and family who visit throughout the day. When Christmas is done and the New Year comes, the tree comes down, the ornaments are packed away, and the anticipation of each new season–and other Christmases–begins again.

Most page spreads have one page with a decent amount of text in a frame with a small illustration and a full page illustration on the opposite side. A few feature a paragraph of text that takes second place to the full spread illustration. I find myself once again wishing I had the knowledge and vocabulary to describe the art! The setting is clearly in the past, but the illustrations depict the kind of timeless country home that could still be found represented all over. (This one has electric lights but is heated by “an old coal stove,” so the time can’t be firmly established.) Plenty of details give young readers something to study on each page, and many will find the three dogs’ activities interesting enough to warrant a longer look.

I think what I liked most about this book is the focus on memories of traditions. None of the things she writes about are big, showy things, but they are childhood experiences that have importance in her mind. Our family has a tradition of adding an ornament to the tree each year that represents a family experience of the year; some years, everybody gets their own for some special memory from the year. (BoyChild’s is BB-8 this year, in tribute to his new Star Wars obsession, and our family ornament is from our visit to Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine this past summer. (Our kids earned Junior Ranger badges there, and GirlChild did some extra work and got the patch!) We’re still deciding on what part of GirlChild’s busy year we’re going to commemorate with an ornament!) We parents also have our childhood ornaments that were given to us by our parents for our new tree for our first Christmas when we were married. Decorating the tree each year is a drawn-out process. Each person hangs his or her own ornaments, and there are usually stories shared about when we got each ornament or who gave it to us or what we remember about the experience that prompted the choice. We don’t relive every Christmas tradition our families had growing up, but we’ve selected some from each side and have developed our own that work for our little family, too. From the apple, orange, and nuts in each stocking from my husband’s family to the multiple advent calendars from mine, we build tradition and meaning into the whole month. Our most firm tradition, though, is to always read the Christmas account from Luke 2 on Christmas Eve right before bed. Like the narrator’s preacher on Christmas morning, we find it important to always remind ourselves what Christmas is about so it carries with us through the rest of our celebrations and gives them a foundation in love and giving.

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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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