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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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Big Fun Christmas Crafts & Activities, by Judy Press

Big Fun Christmas Crafts & Activities

Big Fun Christmas Crafts & Activities: Over 200 Quick & Easy Activities for Holiday Fun!, by Judy Press (2006)

As the week winds to a close, I thought I would do my fourth Christmas review of the year on a craft book and give you a day or two to come up with the supplies to keep your 3-7 year old children occupied this weekend!

This craft book indicates that it is intended for use with children ages 3-7. Although the majority of the text is written as though it is addressing children (“Ask a grown-up to help you hang it on a neighbor’s door.”), I think that only a few in the target age-group would be able to use the book independently (and, of course, there are several activities involving knives and sharp scissors where you certainly wouldn’t want them to try it alone!). It is mostly intended for parents, teachers, and caregivers to use with individuals or groups of children (both large and small groups), but the crafts themselves are not the sort where the adult has to pretty much do every single step for the project to turn out well. There will be prep work, of course, but many of the projects seem simple enough to assemble or create independently (at least for school age children–all bets are off with preschoolers!) with a little oversight.

The table of contents makes the different projects easy to find. The categories are Christmas Is A-Coming! (decorations), Christmas Cards & Happy Wishes, Gifts to Make & Give, All Wrapped Up! (wrapping paper and gift bags), Let It Snow! (snow-related crafts, most not Christmas-specific), and Light Up the Night! (winter holidays from other cultural and religious traditions).

The book starts with a section explaining the book to the supervising adult. The projects leave room for the imagination, and there are tips and suggestions scattered throughout to make using the book easier. Some projects include a “Quick & Easy” version of the craft for a simpler or faster project, some have “Waiting Games” for related activities, others give an “Act of Kindness” tip for doing something with the craft or related to the craft for others. There are also sections called “Little Hands Story Corner” that suggest read-alouds to go with the craft (excellent for planning storytimes or themed lessons at school!).  General safety tips are given in this introduction and are also listed as reminders on the specific crafts that call for them.

In the body of the book, each section starts with a two-stanza poem introducing the content. The pages are illustrated with colorful drawings rather than photographs of the projects, but they have enough realism to make them easy enough to use as a reference for the craft anyway. Each craft has a “What you need” list so you can easily identify what materials are required for the activity. In addition to the extras mentioned in the adult introduction, a “Yummy Treats” section on some pages gives crafty snack ideas, and there are occasional “Customs Around the World” sidebars with supplemental information about the origin of the craft or other related traditions.

Perhaps the most useful part of the book comes right before the index: the Crafts by Skill Level list! Using the list, adults can select skill-appropriate crafts from the Easy, Medium, or Challenging lists to best fit their child or group! Although it doesn’t appear as though the book is still in print, there are many relatively inexpensive copies available on Amazon, and I am pretty sure I’m going to invest in a copy for GirlChild and BoyChild for next year. Even though GirlChild will be at the top of the suggested age range, I think she’ll still enjoy many of the ideas for several more years to come! Unlike many craft books, the crafts are simple, adaptable, and use common supplies and common sense! This is a great addition to any classroom or home library!

Other Christmas craft books:

Earth-Friendly Christmas Crafts in 5 Easy StepsEarth-Friendly Christmas Crafts in 5 Easy Steps, by Anna Llimós (2006): Five steps is kind of understating some of these since a step might involve crafting a Santa head out of clay (which I would certainly consider a very involved step), but the ideas are very cute and some seem simpler than others. There is a lot of crafting from clay and allowing it to dry in this book, so I would recommend this for older kids with more dexterity and patience.

175 Easy-to-Do Christmas Crafts, 175 Easy-to-Do Christmas Craftsedited by Sharon Dunn Umnik (1996): Actual photographs of the finished craft along with a basic how-to accompany each of the multitudinous crafts in this book. Again, because of the level of dexterity and the amount of deductive reasoning needed (because the steps aren’t illustrated, etc.), I recommend this for older children or as a spring-board for an adult to lead a crafting session. (This series also includes Easter, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Everyday craft books!) These appear to be excellent resources for adults who are supposed to come up with frequent crafts for children!

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Bright Christmas: An Angel Remembers, by Andrew Clements, illustrated by Kate Kiesler

Bright Christmas: An Angel Remembers

Bright Christmas: An Angel Remembers, by Andrew Clements, illustrated by Kate Kiesler (1996)

To start off this year’s twelve reviews of Christmas, why not pick up right where we left off…with Andrew Clements!

The story is told from the point of view of an angel who clearly remembers this one special night, the night that “the great truth came to the earth once and for all.” He looks back at other things angels have announced, remembering how they were pieces of the revelation, pointing toward this one amazing night. He speaks of the star, of Joseph and Mary, of the shepherds, and of the light shining in the darkness–Jesus. The illustrations are done in oil paint and are soft but realistic (the illustrator put effort into making sure the setting was archeologically accurate to the time period and location). The perspective of the illustrations changes between what the angels might have seen to the point of view of someone who was watching the whole story unfold. The angels seem to be depicted in the form of white birds, mostly out of focus or shadowed in darkness or shining so brightly that their shape is unclear. The one clear image is represented by a single white feather lying on the ground next to Jesus in the manger, a reminder that an angel was there.

As I read this book to my kids, I couldn’t help thinking about what a great performance piece it would be. For very young children, someone dressed as the traditional image of an angel (white robe, wings, you know) could read the story aloud and share the pictures as part of a Christmas story time or before a Christmas party. It would also be a beautiful monologue for a Christmas performance at church (given the right permissions were sought), and although it would be difficult to project the original artwork that would help to tell the story, there might be possibilities for actors to present tableaus to represent the different scenes. (Its focus on how the Christmas event is part of God’s revelation throughout history reminded me strongly of Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus by The Skit Guys. It’s available for purchase with licensing information and all that and could maybe be used as part of the same production as a performance of this book.)

BoyChild’s Reaction: BoyChild ran to get our Little People Mary and Jesus figures and compared them to the pictures in the book as I was reading. I like that he’s making the connection (and learning that the visual representations of the characters aren’t always going to be the same because no one knows exactly what they looked like), but I do wish he’d stop saying “Baby Moses” every time before he corrects himself (or I correct him) to “Baby Jesus”! He was more than happy to sit through a second reading of the book, and I bet he would ask for it again if we didn’t have to return it to the library because our renewals have all expired!

GirlChild’s Reaction: GirlChild loved the book, too. I think reading it aloud first is the best choice because of the first-person point of view and the performance aspect of it, but I’m sure she would have enjoyed it reading it independently as well. GirlChild, as always, was tuned in most to the emotions of the book and focused on the page about Mary. The text never specifically said that Mary was happy (and that illustration was the least enjoyable to me–I don’t think it quite conveys the spirit of the text because she looks a little…confused), but that is what GirlChild got out of the description of Mary anyway, and that was the intent. Considering both of their interaction with the text, I would go ahead and recommend this book for preschool to elementary as a read-aloud or performance piece. I’m so glad I found it!

 

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Fun Fourth Friday: Halloween Book Blog Round-up

Well, wow. I promised an Andrew Clements themed post, and then we took a weekend trip, BoyChild got a cold, then BoyChild’s sinus issue changed into his asthmatic cough, and none of us have gotten any decent sleep for several days. Between necessary errands, a trip to the doctor, and helping with preparations for the festival at GirlChild’s school this evening, I just haven’t had the chance to give the books the attention they deserve. Therefore, I’m serving up leftovers, so to speak–I’m linking you to other blogs that have reviewed Halloween-themed books for kids so you can at least get something useful from my blog this month! (All blogs were found via Pinterest.)

Scary and Scary-ish Halloween Books on Imagination Soup: This list of books about Halloween is for ages two to twelve. It includes not-scary picture books, a Halloween craft and recipe book, and scarier chapter books.

Halloween Books That Won’t Give Your Child Nightmares on No Time for Flash Cards: I’ve linked this blog before, and here’s another goodie–a list of easy-on-the-spooky picture books about Halloween. Includes contributions by many favorite children’s authors, like Jane Yolen, Laura Numeroff, and Karen Katz.

Halloween Books and Crafts to Match on No Time for Flashcards: Not reviews on this No Time for Flashcards entry, but each book and its link is paired with a craft (image shown so you know what you’re considering) and its link. Perfect for family or small-group activities at the library or in the classroom!

Halloween Book Countdown on Simply Kierste: While it’s a little late this year for the whole one-book-a-day countdown to Halloween that this family does, there are a number of Halloween and pumpkin-themed books here from which to choose–thirty-one, to be exact! The books aren’t reviewed (the post is mostly a description of the tradition), but there are links to the Amazon pages for each of the books she uses so you can check them out and decide for yourself (and maybe give it a go next year!).

Best Kids’ Halloween Books {a children’s librarian’s list} on Modern Parents Messy Kids: Just seven books long, this selective list suggests a good mixture of old and new, artsy and simple, funny and spooky.

Halloween Books for Preschoolers on Little Us: Most of the books on this list are unique (although there are a few repeats from other blogs), and I really like the looks of Are You My Mummy? (GirlChild always called the mummy rubber duck we had the “mommy duck” because the only use of the word “mummy” she knew at that time was from Topsy and Tim…) The summaries are apparently taken from the front flap or back cover of the books, so you get a good idea about each of the titles from which to choose.

There are many, MANY more lists from which to choose, and I’ll let you peruse them on your own. Here’s a link to my Pinterest search that you can use to discover the perfect Halloween books for your family!

(Don’t forget to visit your local IHOP to let your kids try out their Scary Face pancakes this year–free on Halloween at participating restaurants! My kids love them!)

GirlChild's scary face pancake (2013, age 5)

GirlChild’s scary face pancake (2013, age 5)

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Amelia Bedelia Bakes Off (and You Can, Too!)

GirlChild sounded like she was talking nonsense when she was telling me about the Amelia Bedelia book she had been reading, but since those books are full of silliness, I figured she just didn’t quite get the jokes, so I had her reread it aloud to me so I could explain the word play. We discussed homophones (words that sound alike but are spelled differently) and idioms (words or phrases that mean one thing literally but another thing to the group of people who use the idiom (“raining cats and dogs” was the example I used)). While she was reading, I stopped her occasionally to have her explain the jokes to me or to predict how Amelia Bedelia (or her Cousin Alcolu in this book) would interpret what was said. Thankfully, she has some background knowledge about cooking shows and baking in general, so she was able to focus on just understanding their misunderstandings! At the end of the book (which can be seen on the Amazon preview if you don’t have the book in hand! (UPDATE 8/19/14: I can’t see it there anymore, but I found it here instead!)) is the 9-ingredient cake recipe that Amelia Bedelia uses for the sheet cake–which she just goes ahead and makes into a bed cake because she’s so tired!–that wins the bake off for her, and GirlChild expressed a great and overwhelming desire to make the cake! (Everything is a big deal these days–lots of six-year-old drama!) Since Grandma and Grandpa are here this week, I told her we could, and she and BoyChild and I made it this afternoon. She desperately wanted to make it into a bed cake like Amelia Bedelia does, but I wasn’t quite up to trying to sculpt and do fondant and all that to make it really look like a bed like she did, so we just iced it using this frosting recipe and tossed on some sprinkles. It was pretty tasty, and–for anyone with allergy issues–is egg and dairy free! (The frosting has butter and milk, but those could be swapped out for whatever substitute suits your fancy, or you can just use your own allergen-free frosting recipe!)Amelia Bedelia's Sheet Cake

Kids’ books featuring tie-in recipes make it super simple to help connect your kids’ reading to a family activity and make it fun for everyone, and this one was pretty simple and doesn’t require a bunch of bizarre ingredients (or even a bowl for mixing–you mix it right in the baking dish!). Make sure you have enough cocoa in your cupboard (I had to make a last-minute run to the store because my container was emptier than I thought it was!), and mix up this easy cake tonight! It’s great with a cold glass of milk (or milk substitute)!

If you’re into book tie-in activities with your little ones, try an activity or recipe from these other posts, too!

Parents magazine: Read, Cook, Love, by Monica Bhide

Themed Third Thursday: Apples

Topsy and Tim’s Peanut Crunchies (aka, Health Cookies by my Aunt Lois)

Don’t Let the Pigeon Be Your Cake!

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