• Posted on November 23, 2010

A Christmas List of Christmas Books

As anyone who collects illustrated picture books knows, Christmas is when artists come out to play. Maybe it’s the sparkling snow, or the um…spirited atmosphere that prevails this time of year. Maybe it’s the fruitcake. Whatever the reason, beautiful books abound, with more published every year. There are also shelves and shelves of dreck the baby Jesus Himself would toss out of the cradle in disgust, but for the most part, something about the festive season brings out the pointiest pencils, the juiciest colours, and the most luminscent storytelling of the publishing year.

I always add one or two books to my collection every season, and though I’ve acquired a large number of books, it’s far fewer than I’d like, and less comprehensive than perhaps it should, or could be. Some day I’ll take a serious dive into antiquarian book collecting, but until Santa increases my credit limit, I am compelled to stick with the contemporary and the affordable.

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.

Some images were curiously (and annoyingly) resistant to display, so I’ve linked them to Amazon. Longer, gushier reviews to follow…


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) Yeah, I know, but this is not your bonnet-wearing, unbelievably cloying 1970’s ragamuffin. The illustrations are superb, especially the scenes of Toot (a pig) struggling through a snowstorm on his way back to see his BFF Puddle (also a pig) on Christmas Eve. It’s sweet, but not sicky sweet, and it is gorgeous. 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 Wales by 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-Clement Moore, illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger (Penguin, 2005) Sweetly and beautifully reimagined. The old elf has never looked so jolly.

The Night Before Christmas by Clement 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.


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.


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…

  • Posted on November 21, 2010

Brothers in Humps

Two brothers, Morris and Boris, live together in an isolated valley with their chickens, cows and goats. At this point, the story could go in a number of directions, but The Tale of Two Brothers is a children’s book and not a headline in a newspaper. The story follows the usual fable-strewn path, with a fate-sealing quest, a charmed wood full of strange, watchful creatures, and of course, the moral, delivered upon the brothers in the form of fleshy retribution, or reward, depending on the situation. Each brother has a hump on his back, and are in all ways very similar, with one exception: Morris is kind and benevolent, and Boris is a bastard. I think you know where this is going…

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  • Posted on November 18, 2010

Picks & Tweets from the Illustrated Word

Subversive Bull

Slight name change as I cannot be relied upon to post these things every week. Also, my twitter account, the Illustrated Word, covers books, illustration, and other assorted visual ephemera, so this title is more apropos, if not a shameless plug for my Twitter site.

Now, onto the news…

Jon Klassen wins the Governor General’s Award for Illustration with Cats’ Night Out. Congrats! Hope to see you in my blog soon…

From Laura Coffey (via Richard Helm), the nine most subversive kids’ books, including Ferdinand, the ultimate pacifist. Really? Ferdinand? What about Gandhi’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Hunger Strike?

From the BibliOdyssey blog (via Round my Skull): “There can never be too many Cephalopods.” My thoughts exactly.

Also from Round My Skull (such a great resource): The 1920s Spanish ‘Pinocchio’ with illustrations by Salvador Bartolozzi.  Kinda whacked…kinda love it.

From the Caustic Cover Critic blog (a big favourite), Ray Fenwick’s Artist books. Really lovely.

11 Of Tim Burton’s Weirdest Christmas Images from the new book The Art of Tim Burton. Weird images? What a surprise.

The Zoomorphic Artography of Fernando Vicente. Stunningly beautiful & exceptionally strange. From the Big Think blog.

From the Daily Heller, the most inventive (and witty) shopping bags in the world.

Next post: My humps, my humps, my lovely book of humps.

  • Posted on November 12, 2010

Marie-Louise Gay, Artist of Bright

The late autumn palette is a subdued mix of earth tones, cross-hatched by the black and grey spikes of defoliated branches. On a good day, it’s like a breathtaking Wyeth canvas stretched across the low horizon. On a bad day, it feels as if all the colour has drained from the world. Wandering around this blanched landscape the other day, thinking about my next post, one thing came to mind (OK, two things, but anti-depressants require a prescription): I needed to immerse myself in something juicy and colourful, like the newest book by Marie-Louise Gay, Roslyn Rutabaga and the Biggest Hole on Earth, for instance. Imagine your computer screen in the dim setting, just before sleep mode. Now imagine tapping a key. Suddenly, the screen is infused with light and colour. To view the art of Marie-Louise Gay is like someone tapping us out of some dimmed state of consciousness into a bejeweled and bewitched landscape.

She is the cure for dull.

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  • Posted on November 06, 2010

Picks & Tweets: the week in books

Woopsy Daisy

Well, that’s it. Halloween is over, a thousand fun-size Mars Bars have mysteriously disappeared, and in a few short weeks, this blog will deliver the first of many Christmas posts. However, before a major snowfall covers up the drab end of autumn and Seasonal Affective Disorder settles in for good, here are a few bright lights from the World of Illustration:

Just out, the New York Time’s Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2010~Congrats to 32 Pages favourites Peter Brown & Peter McCarty~ The 100 Scope Notes blog has a terrific review of Peter Brown’s Children Make Terrible Pets, which you can read here.

From Groundwood Books, Marie Louise Gay’s brand new website! This amazing Canadian illustrator has long been one of my visual heroes. Can’t wait to write something about her. Perhaps sooner than later…

Arnold Böcklinorama: The story behind “Isle of the Dead,” one of the most widely hung and reproduced pictures of the late 19th century. Love the original, but Michael Sowa’s homage is simply hilarious.

A 1945 Picture History of Britain, from The Age of Uncertainty blog. I’m a big fan of that retro stuff. For some similar retro visuals, have a look at my review of Charley Parker: An Illustrated Life.

From the Inspiration Blog, a really cool (and inspiring) German illustrator~Christian Lindemann.

Nice article about David Wiesner~Illustrator of many fabulous children’s picture books, some of which will be reviewed in this blog. On a Tuesday.

Next Post: Something bright, colourful, and Gay.

  • Posted on November 04, 2010

Bear Country

A black bear on a quest for food, in preparation for hibernation. I know the feeling. I realize we evolved from apes, but sometimes I think my genetic lineage has more in common with Ursa Major than Simianus Nofatus. I’ve never swung from trees, nor do I have any aspirations to do so, but I know all about the irresistable drive to fatten up for the winter, which invariably leads to very long naps in my cozy den. And, I like honey. Clearly it’s genetic memory, not lack of willpower.

Darwin was almost right.

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