The snow is piled along the driveway, my breath freezes into cartoon bubbles when I exhale, and I’ve heard Santa Baby-that excruciatingly awful song, about a thousand times on the radio. Must be Christmas, and time for an updated list of festively-oriented books for 2012. Building on an original list compiled in 2010, I am pleased to add a couple of new publications to the scroll of Xmas excellence, and a few from years past. As I said in 2010, anyone who collects illustrated picture books knows that Christmas is when artists come out to play~when the pencils are the pointiest, the colours the juiciest, and storytelling the most luminescent. Perhaps it’s the sparkling snow, or the spirited beverages. Maybe it’s the fruitcake. Whatever the reason, beautiful books abound.
Ian Falconer’s Olivia Helps with Christmas (Atheneum, 2007.) Why didn’t I pick up this book when it was published five years ago? I suppose when something is ubiquitous, like the Olivia books, it’s easy to ignore. However, just because a book series is popular does not mean it isn’t artistically innovative, or funny, or completely and unutterably charming. I’ve always enjoyed Olivia and her many well-meaning mishaps. In Olivia Helps With Christmas, the precocious piglet and her siblings impatiently await the arrival of Santa, and Olivia especially is keen to help with the preparations, like untangling lights and setting the table, ingeniously using the top of the Christmas tree as a centrepiece. What is so great about these books is Falconer’s minimalist use of colour, reminiscent of vintage children’s publications. The greens, reds, and yellows pop like a Christmas cracker on an otherwise monochromatic background. Actual photographs are used here and there to great effect, like a photo of water droplets on the window as the kids watch wistfully for a first sighting of Santa, or a collage of dancer Benjamin Millepied alongside Olivia in a tutu. Olivia Helps with Christmas is everything you’d want a Christmas book to be~sweet and lovely as a candy cane, and full of spirited fun…just like Olivia.
Aside from the hustle and assorted bustle of Christmas, one of the nicest things about the holidays are the quiet moments: looking at a thickly tinseled and fairy lit-tree with my glasses off (it’s myopically spectacular), watching thousands of snowflakes descend on a stand of pine trees, contemplating eating a giant Toblerone. The Christmas Quiet Book (Houghton Mifflin, 2012) by Deborah Underwood and Renata Liwska exquisitely captures these reflective moments, however they manifest, in a series of wintry vignettes. There is such a warmth permeating the book, and indeed, all of the books by this talented duo. Calgary-based artist Liwska achieves that most difficult of illustrative tasks~communicating sweetness without veering into sap. Perhaps it’s the baby faces of her woodland creatures, tiny-featured and sweetly expressive, or the humourous background details like the mole checking out a box of decorations. Whatever her particular brand of magic, Liwska’s illustrations are simply beautiful, and Underwood’s words are as soft and gentle as the art, each page whispering another kind of quiet: knocking with mittens quiet, searching for presents quiet, reading by the fire quiet, luminaria quiet. It’s impossible to read this book without lapsing into sleepy peacefulness.
A new Christmas book from Patrick McDonnell, the man, the great man, who brought us The Gift of Nothing. A Shtinky Little Christmas (Andrews McMeel, 2012) is the origin story of one Shtinky Puddin’, a recurring cat character in the cartoon strip Mutts. As any regular reader of 32 Pages will know, I have a big ol’ crush on Mr McDonnell, artistically, spiritually, and uh..well, he’s a handsome guy. McDonnell’s strip and his books, many of which star Mooch (the cat) and Earl (the dog), are full of charm, wit, and very often, a subtle nudge to be kinder, especially to our furry companions. In his latest book, Mooch finds a ‘little orphan kitty’ in the garbage, names him Shtinky Puddin’, and vows to help him find his way home. What Mooch, Earl and Shtinky Puddin’ don’t know is that everyone is looking for the kitty, including Frank & Millie, Mooch’s ‘people.’ When the cats arrive home, Frank’s surprised reaction to the sight of Shtinky Puddin’ scares them into hiding, and Shtinky Puddin’, not wishing to cause Mooch any more trouble, wanders off…into a snowstorm. Gulp.
“Mooch, how could you misplace your kitty!?!”, cries Earl, as they head out into the snow. Well, not to worry. Santa finds the frozen trio and returns the sack o’ pets to their people. As a reward, the owner of Shtinky Puddin’ (real name: Jules), treats mooch to a bowl of caviar from the Fatty Snax Deli.
As with all of McDonnell’s books, A Shtinky Little Christmas is a perfect blend of art and narrative, simply told, with a lot of heart and humour. It is stocking-sized, and although I would have preferred a larger edition, in every way, A Shtinky Little Christmas embodies the adage, good things come in small packages.
I was very pleased to see a new book by Annette Langen and especially Marije Tolman, the Dutch illustrator of de Boomhut (reviewed in 2010.) Our Very Own Christmas (NorthSouth, 2012) is a nativity story reenacted by a wee girl named Kelly (as Mary), and her younger brother, Franklin (Joseph), with sheep, rabbits and reindeer in minor, non-speaking roles. Tolman’s drawings are sweet and simple, as are the words whispered by Kelly as she recites the story of the birth of Jesus to her brother, who never remembers his lines. ‘What’s next?’ he asks. The barn where the baby Jesus (a bunny) is born is an overturned sleigh lit by a flashlight suspended from the ceiling. Although Our Very Own Christmas is, in many ways, a traditional retelling of the nativity, Annette Langen and Marije Tolman have made it a winter story, with reindeer, mittens, and the aurora borealis colouring the snow-flaked skies of Bethlehem. It is also a story of child-like imagination, and making the very best of a blustery day.
Picked up in the Frankfurt Airport, Michael Sowa’s Christmas book, Der Karpfenstreit (The Carp Dispute, written by Daniel Glattauer) is a warped delight. The text is in German, but Sowa’s impressively odd illustrations make the words somewhat irrelevant (although I would love to read an English translation someday.) Nevertheless, Glattauer’s story is about ‘typical’ quarrels that arise during the Christmas season and how to avoid them. Most of our family quarrels at Christmas, if I recall, did not concern fish so much as the piles of dirty dishes after dinner, and who was going to wash them. Der Dishenstreit, if you will. I always lost.
New to me this year, a lovely yarn (and Governor General Award Winner) from Newfoundland, Bella’s Tree (Groundwood Books, 2007) by Janet Russell and Jirina Marton. An old woman, too ‘crooked’ to pick berries and find the ‘perfect’ Christmas tree reluctantly agrees to send her granddaughter out into the woods with an axe. Everyday, plucky Bella and her dog Bruno (the large bark with a swollen heart) bring home the wrong tree, but Nan, exacting in nature but generous of heart, decorates it anyway. In the woods, Bella meets a series of winter birds, each of whom make a request to come and sing on Christmas day in return for cutting down the tree upon which they are perched: the Alder and the junco, the spruce and chickadee, the pine tree with the pine grosbeaks, and finally, the fir-the perfect Christmas tree, aflutter with waxwings. Granny is finally happy with the fir tree, but has run out of decorations, until the birds come on Christmas day.
Russell’s story is infused with wonderful east-coast expressions. (I was going to say ‘Newfie’ expressions, but this may be slightly derogatory, unless you are, in fact, a Newfie.) In reference to the berries, Nan says, ‘The frost is after gettin’ them, and now there they are, gone.’ Colloquial words in perfect harmony with Jirina Martin’s raw oil pastel landscapes. The low winter light darkens the palette, in some cases too much, but the birdsong at the conclusion of the book is almost audible.
A colouring book for exceptional children (and a few exceptional adults), My Beastly Book of Tangled Tinsel (Owl Books, 2012) is not a picture book per se, but it is full of quirky line drawings by Christine Roussey worthy of appreciation even if you are not in possession of a crayon. This is the Christmas edition in a series of ‘colouring’ books originating in France, although this hardly describes the incredible number of puzzles, projects, and other whacked-out activities within. Normally I would not review a book such as this, but the series is so cleverly put together, and the illustrations so very, very good, it is too much fun to ignore. As far as I’m concerned, you can never do enough to encourage a child’s imagination, or warp their sense of humour. By way of example, one of the colouring assignments in My Beastly Book of Tangled Tinsel is to ‘block the chimneys of the naughty children so they can’t get their presents.’ Awesome. Check out the other books in the series as well, including My Beastly Book of Silly Things previously reviewed in this blog.
Originally written in 1962 by James Flora, and re-published by Enchanted Lion Books in 2011, a Kangaroo For Christmas is a funny and frenetic romp through the streets and homes of a stylistically iconic era, with all the wonderful period details and candy colours so evocative of the sixties. The kangaroo comes gift-wrapped all the way from Australia via a young girl’s favourite relative, the appropriately named Uncle Dingo. Kathryn is so thrilled with her present, she decides to ride Adelaide (the kangaroo) to grandma’s house, who lives across the obstacle-ridden town. It’s a very hoppy ride…
And now, the original list from 2010~
Being rather slow and prone to indolence, it would be impossible to write an ‘appreciation’ of every Christmas book in my collection. Nevertheless, these authors and illustrators are appreciated, and so…for your festive pleasure, and my own (slightly) obsessive compulsive satisfaction, I’ve listed my entire seasonal accumulation thus far, in no particular order, within a few loosely fashioned categories.
Click on the links for longer reviews (if applicable):
TOP O’ THE TREE~
The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg (Houghton Mifflin, 1985) Nothing comes even close to the beauty of this book. It is quite possibly my favourite picture book of all time. A steam train on its way to the North Pole rumbles through a neighbourhood on Christmas Eve, picking up children, and one particular young boy. Much simpler (and less sappy) than the movie, and far more stirring.
Santa Calls by William Joyce (HarperCollins, 1993) A swashbuckling, cinematic Christmas fable, painted in Joyce’s fantastically unique style. A boy, his sister, and his best friend take a rollicking trip to the North Pole in the Yuletide Flier, which looks like a kayak with headlights. It’s wild, touching, and beautiful ride.
Little King December by Axel Hacke, illustrations by Michael Sowa (Bloomsbury, 2002.) Not really a Christmas story per se, but it does involve a pot-bellied man in a red velvet coat. It is unapologically whimsical, and the wonderfully strange artwork by German illustrator Michael Sowa is superb.
The Gift of Nothing by Patrick McDonnell (Little, Brown, 2005) This book has become a classic in recent years. All the charm, all the sweetness of McDonnell’s best work. Mooch (the cat) wants to give his beloved friend Earl (the dog) a Christmas gift, but what do you give someone who has everything? Nothing! Nothing…and everything.
The Christmas Magic by Lauren Thompson, illustrations by Jon Muth (Scholastic, 2009) Santa Claus, re-imagined in blue, with a pointy hat and a pet reindeer by his side, quietly preparing for his annual giftathon. And the north pole at night, painted in the deepest sapphire hues with flecks of sparkling snow…oh my. It’s magic.
The Bearer of Gifts by Kenneth Steven, illustrations by Lily Moon (Key Porter Books, 1998) I bought this book for the blue and red snowflakes, which are unusual and very striking. A woodcarver in Lapland follows a star all the way to Bethlehem. He ‘presents’ a wooden star to the baby Jesus, and the light emanating from the cradle turns his clothes from blue to red. Returning home to Lapland, the woodcarver starts the tradition of giving gifts at Christmas. Who knew Santa was a Laplander? I thought Coca-Cola invented him.
Bear’s First Christmas by Robert Kinerk, illustrations by Jim LaMarche (Simon & Schuster, 2007) Awesome cover, and the lovely acrylic and coloured pencil illustrations within are bursting with warmth, in spite of the wintry landscape. A bear awakens from hibernation and is drawn to the sound of singing coming from somewhere in the forest. Along the way, he helps a shivering crow, a moose and some pheasants, and they too join him on his quest to find the source of the music.
Merry Christmas, Ernest and Celestine by Gabrielle Vincent (Mulberry Books, 1987) So deeply and wonderfully sweet. Celestine is a little mouse and Ernest is a big bear. They have no money but manage to put together a splendid party for their friends. It’s completely loveable, this story.
Mr Willowby’s Christmas Tree by Robert Barry (originally published in 1963, republished in 2000 by Doubleday.) So charming. Mr Willowby’s tree is too tall, so he gets his butler to cut off the top. The butler gives the top to the maid, who also trims the tree, giving the extra to the gardener and so on until the tiniest tip of the tree ends up with a family of mice. It’s fun to read, and has been restored in full colour. Love it.
I’ll Be Home For Christmas by Holly Hobbie (Little, Brown, 2001) Dispel any thoughts of a bonnet-wearing, super-saccharine 1970’s ragamuffin. I’ll Be Home for Christmas is superb, especially the scenes of Toot (a pig) struggling through a snowstorm on his way back to see his best friend Puddle (also a pig) on Christmas Eve. It’s sweet, but not cloyingly so. Simple storytelling, and great art. In fact, it is one of those books where the cover does not do justice to the splendour within. And not a bonnet in sight. Just pigs and snow.
JESUS & Co.,
The Christmas Story~King James Bible, illustrations by Gennady Spirin (Henry Holt, 1998.) This is Christ’s favourite version of His story. He told me.
Joy to the World by Gennady Spirin (Atheneum, 2000) A treasury of songs, stories and poetry, but the real treasure is Gennady Spirin. His gold-flecked illustrations have a gorgeous medieval vibe, which is really rather fitting considering the subject matter. Spirin’s paintings are so detailed and gallery-perfect, not just in Joy to the World and The Christmas Story but in all of his books, this Russian seems born of another era.
Through the Animals’ Eyes: The Story of the First Christmas~Christopher Wormell (Running Press, 2006) Awesome woodcuts, I mean, lino-cut illustrations.Assorted shepherds and lots of beasts, in beautiful, bold outline. The honeybees are especially lovely.
A Small Miracle by Peter Collington (Knopf, 1997) A total tearjerker. In 96 wordless panels, Collington tells the story of a poor old woman who reassembles a creche in her church after it’s been vandalized. Without food and exhausted from her labours, she collapses in the snow, and is then saved by all the little figures from the nativity scene.
A Christmas Carol-Charles Dickens, illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger (North-South Books, 2001) The next best thing to the Alistair Sim movie, the lovely and slightly macabre illustrations by the spectacularly talented Zwerger will knock the scrooge right out of you.
A Child’s Christmas in Walesby Dylan Thomas, illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman (Holiday House,1985) “There are always uncles at Christmas.” And hardboileds, toffee, fudge, allsorts, crunches, cracknels, humbugs, glaciers, marzipan, and of course, Dylan Thomas’s gorgeous prose, and Trina Schart Hyman’s snow-flecked illustrations. A classic.
The Nutcracker-ETA Hoffman, illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger (North-South Books, 2003) Having sat through the ballet several times, I can truthfully and emphatically state, this book is better. Stunning, in fact.
The Night Before Christmas byClement Moore, popups by Robert Sabuda (Simon & Schuster, 2002) Lovely and impossibly intricate paper creations by the inspirationally clever Robert Sabuda. Here’s a tip: do not let this book near your cat. Just sayin’…
The Twelve Days of Christmas by Louise Brierley (Walker Books, 1986) Brierley’s elongated, stylized illustrations are perfect for this old English carol. The eight-maids-a-milking are particularly fine, especially the cows being a-milked.
CHRISTMASSY FAIRY TALES~
The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, illustrations by Pavel Tatarnikov (Purple Bear Books, 2006) Many lovely versions of this story of a cold-hearted bi…queen exist, but this edition by a relatively unknown Russian illustrator is absolutely breathtaking. And strange. The giant crow painting is a standout.
The Steadfast Tin Soldier by Hans Christian Andersen, illustrations by FredMarcellino (HarperCollins, 1992) I just adore this doomed romance between a tin soldier and a paper doll ballerina. The bittersweet ending makes me tear up every time. Marcellino’s coloured pencil illustrations have a kind of soft inner glow, and he is THE master of mice faces. And cat faces. And all faces. It’s the eyeballs.
LET IT SNOW~
The Snow Day-Komako Sakai (Arthur A. Levine, 2009) A bored little apartment dwelling bunny has to stay inside until it stops snowing. Unusual paint application (dry and wet brush on a black ground) creates illustrations resembling chalk drawings on a blackboard. Beautiful, especially the scenes later in the evening, when the bunny is allowed to frolic outdoors with his mum.
Snowmen at Night by Caralyn Buehner, illustrations by Mark Buehner (Dial Books, 2002.) There is a followup to this book, Snowmen at Christmas, published in 2004, which might be more apropos to this list, but I remain steadfast in my devotion to the original. It’s got one of my all-time favourite illustrations of a couple of snowmen hurling themselves down a hill in a state of complete joy and abandon. All snowmen, apparently, once relieved of their stationary daytime duties, party hard at night. Who knew? Buehner’s paintings are mostly wintry blues and whites, and it’s damn near perfect in every way. Snowmen at Christmas is also fabulous, but Snowmen at Night is fabulouser.
The Snowman by Raymond Briggs (Hamish Hamilton/Puffin,1978/anniversary edition, 1998) Gobsmackingly gorgeous. This whimsical, wordless classic is Raymond Briggs best book (sorry Fungus.) Love the illustration of the boy and the snowman flying over Russia in a snowstorm.
Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost, illustrations by Susan Jeffers (Dutton, 2001) Coloured pencil splendour. Mostly black and white with pops of colour. A perfect book by the perfectly named Robert Frost.
Waiting For Winter-Sebastian Meschenmoser (Kane Miller, 2009) This book is wonderful, and already reviewed in this blog. A combination of pencil and watercolour illlustrations tell the story of forest animals waiting for the first snowflake. May I suggest Edmonton? We have many.
The Amazing Christmas Extravaganza by David Shannon (Blue Sky/Scholastic, 1995) Hilarious. It’s like Christmas Vacation in picture book form, except Clark Griswold has to answer to his neighbours. Sadly, there is no Cousin Eddy, but there are plenty of gorgeous paintings and a lot of laughs.
Blue Dog Christmas by George Rodrigue (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2000) Page after page of blue dogs, by the artist who made blue dogs famous! Think of Rodrigue’s blue dog motif as a kind of Monet haystack, but weirder. And bluer.
The Santa Trap by Jonathan Emmett, illustrations by Poly Bernatene (Macmillan UK, 2009) Great brat story. Little Bradley Bartleby is an entitled rich kid who sets an elaborate trap for Santa so that he get all of the presents, not just the socks. The illustrations have a graphic novel/Shaun Tan feel, with inventive angles, vivid colour, and a lot of hilarious details. It is one of the gems of 2009, regardless of genre.
Auntie Claus by Elsie Primavera (Harcourt Brace & Co, 1999) Glorious colour, extravagant storytelling, set in New York and the North Pole. A spoiled girl named Sophie discovers that her ‘mysterioso’ great aunt is actually Santa’s sister. (C’mon Sophie…your last name is Kringle!) Turns out, Sophie’s little brother is on Santa’s naughty list. A lesson will be learned, yes, but along the way to Sophie’s enlightenment, the eyes will be delighted.
Peter Claus & the Naughty List by Lawrence David, illustrations by Delphine Durand (Doubleday, 2001) You know Peter Claus, Santa’s kid? Well, he feels sorry for all the kids on his dad’s naughty list and tries to persuade the old man to give them a second chance. Hilarious. Love, love, love Durand’s whacked illustrations. Fred Marcellino may be the king of eyeballs, but Durand is the queen of noses.
First published in 1993, The Twelve Terrors of Christmas (Pomegranate) is a demented little confection from the pen of Mr John Updike and Mr Edward Gorey, two gentlemen not known for seasonal joviality, or really, joviality of any kind. The book is a scream. I especially enjoyed #12:”The Dark~Oh, how early it comes now! How creepy and green in the gills everyone looks, scrabbling along in drab winter wraps by the phosphorous light of department-store windows full of Styrofoam snow, mock-ups of a factitious 1890, and beige mannequins posed with false jauntiness in plaid bathrobes. Is this Hell, or just an upturn in consumer confidence?” The accompanying art by Gorey is suitably bleak. And while you’re stewing in this sour glögg, why not pick up David Sedaris’ Holidays on Ice? Both books will leave you in festively decorated stitches.
Coyote Solstice by Thomas King, illustrations by Gary Clement (Groundwood Books, 2009) Just found this one, and it’s by one of my all-time favourite authors! Coyote is about to hold a party for all his friends when a little girl in reindeer antlers shows up at his house. She introduces Coyote to the pleasures and perils of The Mall at Christmas time. A message about reverence for the things that really matter, delivered with King’s usual sublime wit and Clement’s hilarious illustrations.
A book I wish I had?~Parsley by Ludwig Bemelmans. Thanks to the Curious Pages blog for this retro suggestion.
Oh, and lastly~Honorable Mention to Artists’ Christmas Cards, compiled by Steven Heller (Simon & Schuster, 1981) This collection of Christmas cards from illustrators has been an endless source of inspiration for me, and it shows. The book is hanging together by a single binding thread and a piece of tape. I believe it’s long out of print but it’s definitely worth a browse if you can get your hands on a copy.
That’s it. For now…