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Okay, let me just say right up front that I am a purist when it comes to Christmas books.
Every year the fall catalogs arrive from publishers packed with hundreds of brand new children’s titles for the holidays, and pretty soon my eyes start to glaze over and I need an insulin shot. Not to say that there aren’t a few gems in there, but man, they are hard to find.
This year–maybe because I’ve got a baby on the way–I’m spending a lot of time parsing the meaning of the holiday and what I want for it to be.
I want wonder.
I want genuine gestures of caring.
I want a pony. (Just kidding.)
Growing up in New England, Christmas is a nostalgic holiday, and I always find myself returning to books that evoke the best parts of it….the snow, the smell of good food, and the comfort of footie pajamas that zip up the front. For me, great books at Christmas are books that capture these qualities of familiarity, warmth, and seasonal ritual.
So here are three favorites–one new, one older, one very old– that get at the essence of what Christmas is in my neck of the woods.
Best wishes to everyone for a happy holiday.
CHRISTMAS POP UP by Robert Sabuda
0439845688; Orchard Books; October 2006; $12.99 mini HC
Speaking of little gems, this petite paper wonder from the engineering genius who brought us THE 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS, WINTERS TALE, THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, and THE CHRISTMAS ALPHABET is every bit as wonderful as its larger holiday cousins, but at a size that is perfect for little hands and stockings. Each letter of the word Christmas is illustrated on a page with an elegant little white pop-up on a color ground. I love Sabuda’s work for its design brilliance, and I never fail to be amazed when I turn the pages of his books. His Christmas titles perfectly capture the sense of enchantment we all want at the holidays. The closest thing to modern sculpture you will find in the pages of a book.
Bonus: Check out Mr. Sabuda’s wonderful webpage and try your hand at making your own pop-ups.
Also, catch Robert Sabuda & Matthew Reinhart’s visit on the Today Show this week.
STOPPING BY THE WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING by Robert Frost, illustrated by Susan Jeffers
0525467343; Dutton; September 2001; $16.99 HC
This beautiful children’s picture book edition of the Robert Frost poem, first published in 1978, perfectly captures the hush of snow blanketing the woods in a New England blizzard. New Hampshire illustrator Susan Jeffers’s luminous illustrations lend warmth to the poem and fill in the spare text with additional story elements, like feeding the birds and visiting family, that are comforting to young readers. It’s the perfect invitation to slow down and savor the simple pleasures of the season. The beautiful vellum cover and touches of additional color in small details of the pictures make this a seasonal book to be treasured year after year.
‘TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS by Clement Clark Moore, illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith
0395643740; Houghton Mifflin; October 1992; $5.95 PA
Nothing says Christmas like the granddaddy of all holiday poems. There are many, many editions of this classic available, but this is my all-time favorite. Originally published in 1912, this book has the loveliest illustrations by Jessie Wilcox Smith, a groundbreaking illustrator from the early part of the century, and a text design that feels like it just rolled off a letterpress. The best part? It’s so unabashedly red.
A note about editions: Houghton Mifflin just re-issued this book in 2005 with a different cover. If you really prefer the red one like me, you may have to look for it used.
Very often I am asked (by people outside the book industry) what I consider to be the quintessential list of first board books for very young children. This is one of those questions that everyone in the book industry has a favorite answer for, and I guarantee you everyone’s answer will be different. There are many wonderful board books out there, and other lovely books like PAT THE BUNNY and HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON which do not come in board book format, and so are not on this list although I certainly recommend them.
My list is made up of some obvious classics that no child should be without, and some newer titles that I think will be beloved enough to become classics in their own right. I adore each and every one of these books, and have read them with many children.
So, that being said, here is what I would buy for baby’s first board book dozen:
BIG LITTLE by Leslie Patricelli
0763619515; Candlewick Press; September 2003; $6.95
One of the more recent books on this list, but an instant classic that takes the big little concept and turns it on its laugh-out-loud ear with unexpected pairings and bright expressive art. One of a series including QUIET LOUD and YUMMY YUCKY.
BROWN BEAR, BROWN BEAR WHAT DO YOU SEE? by Bill Martin, illustrated by Eric Carle
0805047905; Henry Holt; September 1996; $7.95
Originally published in 1983, this book’s beautiful bold animal illustrations and predictive structure are surefire hits with children of all ages, and the story closes with a wonderful twist that brings it all home for the young reader. Stands up to reading over and over and over.
DUCK IN A TRUCK by Jez Alborough
1929132832; Kane Miller; September 2005; $7.99
What to do when a duck in a truck gets stuck in the muck? This rollicking rhyming tale is a satisfying read full of delicious wordplay and silliness from start to finish. Children love the percussive sound of the language and duck’s sticky problem. Originally published in hardcover in 2002.
GOODNIGHT MOON by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd
0694003611; Harper; September 1991; $7.95
Written in 1947, this is one of the bestselling children’s books of all time, and with good reason. The most perfect bedtime story ever written, as little rabbit says goodnight to everything in sight in his warm and cozy bedroom. The poetry of the story is a magical call to sweet dreams and tender sleep.
GOOD NIGHT, GORILLA by Peggy Rathman
0399230033; Penguin; February 1996; $7.99
Wonderful and almost entirely wordless, children love this story about an exhausted zookeeper making his last round of the night to check on the animals. What he doesn’t know is that gorilla has taken his keys, and he and his wife are about to have some bedtime company. Young readers will enjoy telling this story back to you with each successive reading.
JAMBERRY by Bruce Degen
0694006513; HarperCollins; December 1994; $7.99
Starting with “One berry, Two berry, Pick me a blueberry,” and building to an absolute crescendo of rhyming brilliance, this book is an ode to anyone who has ever enjoyed a summer’s day, the company of a good friend, and a mouthful of fresh ripe berries. The delicious language in this book begs to be read aloud with enthusiasm, and I guarantee kids cannot resist dancing and singing along. Originally published in 1983.
PEEK-A-WHO? by Nina Laden
0811826023; Chronicle; February 2000; $6.95
A deceptively simple board book that makes playful use of a young child’s love of peek-a-boo. Each page has “Peek-a..” on the left, and a generous cutaway on the right that reveals only part of a hidden surprise, like the cow in “Peek a…Moo!”. Bright eye-catching illustrations and a mirror in the back (Peek-a…You!) make this one a keeper.
SO MANY BUNNIES by Rick Walton, illustrated by Paige Miglio
0688173640; HarperCollins; March 2000; $6.99
Although a lesser known title, this book is perhaps my favorite of the list. A twist on the old lady in the shoe, in this alphabet/counting book Mama Bunny has 26 children, which she tucks away for bed in every nook and cranny of her house. Starting with “1 was named Abel. He slept on the table” and continuing to “26 was named Zed. He slept on the shed”, this book’s lovely detailed illustrations and inventive rhymes make it a great bedtime read.
THE RUNAWAY BUNNY by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd
0061074292; HarperCollins; February 1991; $6.99
Never out of print since its initial publication in 1942, this book is a reassuring testament to the power of a mother’s love. Little bunny decides to run away, but no matter what he says he will change into–a fish in a stream, a rock on a mountain, a bird in a tree–Mama rabbit knows how to find him. Perfect for very young children who are feeling separation anxiety.
THE SNOWY DAY by Ezra Jack Keats
0670867330; Penguin; January 1996; $6.99
The winner of the Caldecott Medal in 1963, this is one of the all-time great stories of a young boy’s adventure in the snowy city. The text is a wonderful example of writing the experience of a young child, without too much complication or explanation, and the artwork showcases Keats’ genius for design and color. This is a favorite no matter what the season or geographic location.
THE UP AND DOWN BOOK by Mary Blair
0375830057; Golden Books; August 2004; $5.99
Long out of print, with art by one of the great illustrators of the mid-20th century, the original artwork for this book was re-scanned from the Golden Books archives to produce this fun new edition. This book’s distinctive vertical shape is the perfect compliment to the exuberant illustrations, and the bouncy read-aloud text begs the reader’s voice to go up and down with each page. A great concept book.
THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR by Eric Carle
0399226907; Penguin; March 1994; $10.99
No board book collection would be complete without this story of an ambitious caterpillar who eats his way through a succession of items until his stomach aches and he can go no further. Young readers love the ingenious caterpillar holes on each page, the counting format, and the transformative payoff at the end. A masterpiece of great design and book engineering.
The World Snacks Series
by Amy Wilson Sanger
Tricycle Press; Various releases; 20pp.; $6.95 BB
Let’s Nosh – 1582460817
Yum Yum Dim Sum – 1582461082
First Book of Sushi – 1582460507
Hola Jalapeno – 1582460728
Mangia! Mangia! (not shown) – 1582461449
A Little Bit of Soul Food (not shown) – 1582461090
Core Audience: Children 0-3; Food lovers
Strengths: Dynamic artwork, bold design, unique subject matter
I was reminded recently of this fantastic board book series for very young children. Once upon a time, it was hard enough to find great new board book titles of any kind with original subject matter for the youngest readers, let alone a series that would appeal to the more design-minded among us.
But world cuisine?
And then along came the wonderful World Food series from Amy Wilson Sanger, and the foodie parents of the world rejoiced.
Not only do these books have bright artwork and witty writing that the youngest readers will love, but they look just as good on your coffee table as in your toy box.
Just the thing for adventurous readers AND adventurous eaters too!
by Don Freeman
Penguin/Puffin; June 1977; $5.99 PA
Core Audience: Children 3-7 and classic children’s book lovers
Strengths: A classic story for all ages about the dangers of taking yourself too seriously
When Dandelion receives an invite to Jennifer Giraffe’s tea and taffy party, he feels he should look as snazzy as possible. So he buys himself a new suit, gets his hair done in the latest style, and buys himself some fancy new boots. In fact he is so snazzy he hardly recognizes himself.
And neither does Jennifer Giraffe.
When she shuts the door in his face, he is heartbroken. But when a rainstorm blows up, Dandelion’s new look is taken down a notch, and he gets into the party after all.
This book’s gentle and humorous message about vanity and being yourself never goes out of style. The three color artwork stands up brilliantly after all these years, and is a testament to the power of strong lines and great design. This book will appeal equally to young readers and lovers of great children’s book art and design.
If you’ve yet to discover the charms of Dandelion, you’ve a treat in store.