Christmas

Every Day For Me is World Book Day

I wrote about focusing on the book, not the costume for World Book Day here. But I don’t want to appear negative, for I adore World Book Day. It’s a day to celebrate writers, writing and favourite characters. The bus stop was quite a sight this morning with unicorns, Horrid Henrys, monkeys, including my own adorable Muggle Wump, some crocodiles, and I even spotted Where’s Wally. Kudos to me! Of course I didn’t take the bus this morning, I used my Harry Potter floo powder to get to the library.

Other than dressing up, how can we celebrate books this World Book Day? There are lots of ideas on the WBD website, and hopefully many of us will visit our local independent bookshop to spend our £1 Book Day tokens. My son has a chart to fill in from school, in which he has to ask different members of society which is their favourite book and why. And he asked me.

“One book” I shrieked. What torture! And then I realised which it was.

Little Women

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
This book is unique. I don’t think it can be pigeonholed as a children’s book, nor an adult book – although is often labelled as a classic. It’s historical, but not pegged as an historical novel. It’s semi-autobiographical (Louisa May Alcott didn’t correct readers writing her letters addressed to ‘Miss March’, but replied as if she were Jo.) It’s about feminism. It’s also a family saga, and a coming of age book. I suppose it was one of the first YA titles, although most children seem to read it as they reach the upper level of middle grade – about age 10-13yrs.
Little Women tells the story of four sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, during the American Civil War. Their father is absent, fighting in the war, and their mother is left to raise the girls alone. As they grow from children into adulthood, they face dramas of friendships, illness, arguments, breaking free from constraints of domesticity, and explore first love. The book highlights the wonder of storytelling, as well as espousing moral virtue over materialism, but the wonder of the book for many lies in the depth of characterisation of the four sisters.
They are each so well-defined that, as with Pooh, Piglet and Eeyore, you can remember the character traits of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy long into your own adulthood. Meg, the beautiful compliant daughter; Jo, the non-conformist hot-tempered tomboy; Beth, the shy, quiet creature, whose sacrificial death can be read as the death of the era of quiet domesticity; and finally Amy, the vain and self-centred baby of the family, who nevertheless excels at art and pursues her passion for it no matter the cost. It teaches such important lessons subtly – women’s access to education, overcoming shyness and having confidence, practising small kindnesses, charitable acts, and the importance of a sense of humour too. Little Women was even mentioned in that long-running television comedy Friends, when the girls ruined the story for Joey by telling him what happens to Beth in that devastatingly sad chapter, Dark Days. I don’t think there’s any other book from which I can remember the actual chapter titles. The description of Christmas with the Marches made me long for an American family Christmas just like theirs, and even made me consider calling my  mother ‘Marmee’. It’s a beautiful re-read, and works wonderfully as a ‘read-aloud’ too. I implore you to revisit it – and then give it to your children.

So I chose my one book. However, the fun of being a children’s book blogger and writer is that I don’t have to choose one book. I blog twice a week (sometimes more) about all the amazing books there are for children to read. And I have to read the books to enable me to blog. I interview the authors and tweet with other writers. It’s a privileged and rewarding task. Every day for me is World Book Day.

 

And So This Is Christmas…

The Story of Holly and Ivy

On my bookshelf are a fair few books from my childhood that are now sadly out of print. One, for which I lament its inaccessibility more than others, is a traditional Christmas tale, The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden. In fact, it’s not my favourite book of Godden’s – that title belongs to the brilliant The Diddakoi (in my view one of the best books on outsiders and bullying), but The Story of Holly and Ivy stands out as a simple, old-fashioned story that deserves to be read every Christmas Eve.
It is a story about wishes. After all, every child has their wishes at Christmas – wishes that Father Christmas visits them and delivers the correct present – wishes that their family can spend some quality time together – wishes for a healthy and happy new year following the holiday season.
Holly is a doll in the story, who wishes to be bought and owned and loved. Ivy is an orphan child, who likewise wishes to be looked after and loved, and Mrs Jones is a woman with no child who wishes for her own. The three strands tie together to create a little Christmas tale with a happy ending. It may sound sentimental, and does massively affect the heart strings, but the narration is so pure that you forgive any play on the emotions.

The Story of Holly and Ivy1
Reassuringly confident, Rumer Godden takes the role of the omniscient author, addressing ‘you’ the reader and speaking of ‘I’, the storyteller, as she explains what you and/or I would feel, and what she knows that Ivy does not know. Her gentle tones sweep the reader through the story. Some of the most stunning lines of the story have a presence today that the author could not have anticipated when she wrote it in 1959:
“They did not know, and Abracadabra [the owl] did not know that it is when shopping is over that Christmas begins.”
And my Christmas wish is for the publisher to realise the strength of this story and to commission a new and upcoming modern illustrator, and repackage the book for the next generation. Although it’s available on an e-reader (and I truly believe e-readers have their place for many texts), this book deserves to be given as a gift, shared with siblings, and pored over in book form.

The Story of Holly and Ivy3

The cover version Young Puffin shown at the top is my old copy from the 1970s, illustrated by Sheila Bewley, but out of print. This edition, Viking, 2006 was illustrated by Barbara Cooney and is available in some shops, although there seem to be more copies available in the US than here in the UK. An ebook edition is available. 

Penguin or Owl?

So first there was snow – and then there were penguins. I’m not sure when penguins became synonymous with Christmas, but this year they certainly have – from the John Lewis advert to the Penguins of Madagascar, Penguins have arrived in London in time for Christmas.

owl or penguin
When I was little I had a small soft toy called Owly. It was loved and cherished (see its somewhat battered state now), but it was only recently that someone pointed out that maybe it’s a penguin. So I thought – that’s a great premise for a book – the penguin with the mistaken identity. In the meantime, here are some books that have already been written:

Penguin Polly DunbarPouting Boy
Penguin by Polly Dunbar
My overall abiding love for this book is one illustration that depicts a facial expression, in which a close member of my family is THE expert. Penguin tells the story of a boy called Ben who receives a penguin as a present, but the penguin will not communicate with him, no matter what Ben does. Finally Ben is eaten by a lion, the penguin saves him, and the penguin suddenly has a great deal to say. The book is packed with witty illustrations, a zany storyline and a winning outcome. An old favourite. Penguins are often used as a way to explore and develop friendships in picture books – I wonder if that’s because they are often depicted huddling together? Two perfect examples of penguin friends are Fluff and Billy Do Everything Together by Nicola Killen and Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers.

Fluff and BillyLost and Found
Fluff and Billy tells the tale of when play between friends gets rough leading to hurt and falling out – before there is forgiveness and friendship again. It works well to read aloud to a small child because the book is littered with repetition. Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers is fast becoming a children’s classic. The book tells the story of a boy who opens the door one day to see a penguin standing on his doorstep. He spends much of the book grappling with what to do with the penguin – until realising at the end that the penguin just wants a friend. Jeffers’ illustrations are beguilingly simple – less is more in fact. Jeffers said that the illustrations are deliberately simple so that children, wherever they are, can fill in the gaps with their own individual landscapes. Characters too – the penguin is a few simple lines – it almost seems as if the characters of the boy and the penguin are more expressive the less detail they have. Jeffers’ text also shines with a simple clarity – basic plotlines mixed with truisms and pathos:
“He ran down to the harbour and asked a big ship to take them to the South Pole. But his voice was much too small to be heard over the ship’s horn.”
So much expressed so simply – the vastness of the ship and the world as compared to a small boy asking for help.

Blown Away
The new addition to the ‘penguin’ canon of literature, and published in August of this year is Blown Away by Rob Biddulph. I implore you to find and read a copy. Rob Biddulph’s blue penguin may be more ‘Hampstead Heath’ inspired than normal Antarctic penguins, but, like Jeffers, his penguin is simply drawn – Biddulph too remarking that children can put their own emotions into the animals, so simple black dots for eyes work best. With rhyming text, Biddulph explores what happens when Blue the penguin gets blown away on his kite, picking up cargo along the way, and finally setting down onto a jungle island. But does he want to stay?
“’How nice,” says Blue,
A lovely spot,
Although it is
a bit too hot.”
The beauty of this book lies in the small details. Every page is lovingly created so that your eyes pick up the story and the animals’ emotions almost by osmosis – the rhyming text is lovely to read aloud, but the extra touches on the illustrations won me over. A charming Christmas present that’s not just for Christmas!

Dragon Loves Penguin
My last picture book is Dragon Loves Penguin by Debi Gliori, shortlisted for the 2015 Red House Children’s Book Awards. I coordinate the testing in my area for this award, so know very well how popular this book has proved with young children. It celebrates diversity, and is even relevant for those attempting to explain adoption to the very young – in essence it’s about mother’s love. When an egg is abandoned, a dragon without its own egg adopts it, but when it hatches it’s a penguin! Despite the differences, the mother dragon loves the penguin as her own, and the love makes the little penguin brave enough to see off her dragon peers who can’t accept her differences, and also to escape an erupting volcano. Yes, this little picture book is packed full of action – and has adorable illustrations – rarely has a penguin chick looked quite so cute.

The Penguin Who Wanted to Find Out
For slightly older readers, in the Jill Tomlinson series of animal books is The Penguin Who Wanted to Find Out. Beautifully told so that the reader learns about penguins at the same time as digesting the story. Jill Tomlinson’s strength is her ability to weave fiction and non-fiction seamlessly here, with some magical lines:
“The trouble was, not all adults were good at answering questions, or would try.”

The Emperors EggUsborne Beginners Penguin
For those children who want to find out even more, and for adults who can’t tell the difference between an owl and a penguin here are two great non-fiction titles for early learners.The Emperor’s Egg by Martin Jenkins, illustrated by Jane Chapman, is part of the Nature Storybooks series – telling the story of the Emperor penguins. It’s an excellent starting point for a young child wishing to find out more information. It’s not patronising, but is written as if the child is having a conversation with the writer about penguins. Asking questions of the young reader, particularly ones that make them think, is a lovely way to write a non-fiction book. No wonder this won the TES Junior Information Book Award. The Usborne Beginners series has a book on penguins; I like this series for their gentle introduction to non-fiction. Helpfully containing a glossary and an index, and with short chunks of text throughout for easily digestible facts. It also covers many different types of penguins. Usborne have also had their facts checked by experts in the field, which sadly, is not true of all children’s non-fiction in the marketplace.

The More It Snows…

Snow Eastman
This December it’s not quite cold enough for snow, and set to get warmer by the day in London this week. However, for me, the magic of Christmas is still tied to a snowy landscape. There is something special about snow. No other weather creates such a magical environment for a young child. In recent years in London we’ve had on average one ‘snow day’ a year, in which the schools close and it’s free play outside all day. One book from my childhood readily sums up the delight of this day, Snow by Roy McKie and P.D. Eastman. Published in the US as part of the Dr Seuss beginners’ series to learn to read, the basic text and smile-inducing illustrations capture the excitement in a nutshell.

Snow inside Eastman
Tobogganing, skiing, snow angels, snow ball fights, snowman building, igloo building, and of course the ultimate melting are all covered. The verses are simple yet so effective:
“Snow is good
For making tracks…
And making pictures
With your backs.”

Snow is my favourite
More recent offerings also manage to convey the happiness of a snow day, and the inevitable melting. Snow is My Favourite and My Best by Lauren Child in the Charlie and Lola book series manages to express the impatience of a child in wanting to go and play immediately before it all goes away. The tradition of my children having hot chocolate after coming in from a snow day was heavily influenced by this book! There are some important lessons here though, encouraging children to think about how to make something special. Is snow so special because it doesn’t happen every day? Both of these manage to convey the fleetingness of snow.

snow by sam usher

My new favourite is Snow by Sam Usher. From the front cover, it’s already apparent that Sam can conjure an atmosphere with a few simple pen lines. In no other picture book is the tempting flat whiteness of unspoilt snow so cleverly drawn. That impatience to go out, seen earlier in Charlie and Lola, is beautifully manifested in the slapdash hurry to get dressed, brush teeth and tie shoes…all commonly hurried activities in the impatient young. Then a breathtaking spread of pure white in front of the reader, as the snow is in front of the child. However, the book doesn’t let us leap into the snow, because, like the boy in the story we have to wait for his grandpa to be ready and take him – and then when they finally go, after the agony of watching everyone and everything else trample the fresh snow – there’s a great surprise in store. Set to be a children’s classic – I can’t wait for Sam’s next book.

Snow Bears1snow bears inside

From new to old – Snow Bears by Martin Waddell is a simple tale of a mother bear who pretends not to know where her baby bears are because they are all covered in snow and so look different. They play games in the snow, until the little one says its cold and they all go home. For me it’s the page where they return home to eat their toast that really makes me want to hug this book! Sarah Fox Davies’ illustration of the bears illuminated in the warm glow spilling out from the wooden hut sums up that wonderful feeling you only get by going into the warmth after getting cold and wet and breathless in snowy activities. The new pop up version was published in September this year.

Snow Day

Snow Day by Richard Curtis is another addition to the snow canon of picture books. I was very excited about this as it is illustrated by Rebecca Cobb, one of my favourite stars in the world of children’s illustration. The pictures certainly didn’t let me down, especially the army of snowmen, and the empty classroom. The premise is that there is a ‘snow day’ but the worst schoolboy and the strictest teacher don’t get the message (despite the emails and phone calls) and turn up to school.  What could be a miserable day turns into a day of lessons in the snow, and by the end they seem to be good friends. This is definitely a picture book for slightly older children, the length of the book and references to structured lessons ensure this.

Snow Walter de la Mare

My last new book for this Christmas with snowy landscapes is Snow by Walter de la Mare, illustrated by Carolina Rabei. This is a beautiful picture book – the illustrations create a nostalgia for Christmases in peaceful sleepy snowy villages, with happy excited children and a natural landscape of trees and robin red-breasts with no cars or modern city references to spoil the footprints in the snow.
inside snow walter de la mare
The colour adds to the picture perfectness of the book – muted browns and beiges, with splashes of true red for hats and curtains and presents, which bring to life the characters within. The picture of Father Christmas on his sleigh speeding through the swirling snow against a black backdrop sky is truly stunning. However, I can’t help but think that the wonder of the illustrations detracts from the beauty of the poetic words themselves – reading it in isolation conjures more of the magic than read piecemeal sentence by sentence across a book, but if it brings the magic of a great poet into the lives of children I can’t quibble.

Little Honey Bear and the Smiley Moon1

One final mention for a book that is not strictly about snow, but contains a story in a snowy landscape. If you want a bit of glitter on your snow, this is the one for you. (tip: read under electric light). Little Honey Bear and the Smiley Moon by Gillian Lobel, illustrated by Tim Warnes is a common enough tale of friendship – Little Honey Bear sets out to reach the moon with two of his friends, gets lost in the dark, and is finally found by Mummy Bear. However, I love this book for the liberal use of glitter to highlight the illustrations on each page – it brings the magic home for Christmas.

Little Honey Bear and the Smiley Moon

Festival of Lights

I wanted to highlight eight books for the Jewish festival of Chanukah, which starts on Tuesday evening, because that’s how many days the festival lasts. However, I got a bit excited, and found twelve! I don’t think this is a bad thing though, as living in London, I get asked for books that celebrate different faiths and cultures quite frequently, and you can never have too many.

Chanukah celebrates the miracle of an oil lamp lasting for eight nights rather than one, and the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem following the victory of the Jewish Maccabees over the Syrian-Greeks in 165 BC.

My First Hanukkah Board book
For the very youngest in the family I heartily recommend My First Hanukkah Board Book (unashamedly self-promoting here as I wrote this book with Dorling Kindersley). An excellent pictorial introduction to Chanukah, with the story of the festival told in the most basic way and the cultural symbols photographed to ensure a growing familiarity with the festival. The festival’s main song is also included with the Hebrew words spelt out phonetically in English for the youngest reader to follow. Sadly out of print now, but there are some copies floating around.

Eight Candles to Light
Another basic introduction is Eight Candles to Light by Jonny Zucker and Jan Barger Cohen. Simple illustrations rather than photography, and a handy guide to which way to light the candles (for those who forget on the first night every year!). At the back of the book there’s also a text only adaptation of the story of Chanukah, which is one of the clearest I’ve read.

maccabee jamboreemaccabee jamboree inside
Maccabee Jamboree: Hanukkah Countdown by Cheri Holland, illustrated by Roz Shanzer, is a lovely way to celebrate the festival with small children. It’s a simple counting book starting with eight Maccabees, who one by one disappear as they prepare to celebrate Chanukah with a party.
“Five Maccabees cooked latkes
But only four gobbled them up.”

The Only One Club
Some children may find this a particularly difficult time of year, as not celebrating Christmas really marks out their difference; it can be hard to know what to say when strangers in shops ask you ‘What are you hoping for this Christmas?’ and ‘Have you decorated your tree?’. One wonderful book that manages to encapsulate that difficulty and celebrate diversity is The Only One Club by Jane Naliboff, illustrated by Jeff Hopkins. It tells the story of a girl called Jennifer who is the only one in her class who celebrates Hanukkah, and makes Hanukkah decorations whilst everyone else makes decorations for Christmas. Throughout the book though it becomes apparent that everyone has something that is ‘unique’ about them and that each child has their own ‘only one club’ individuality. By the end Jennifer doesn’t feel so ‘marked out’.

Light the LightsDaddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama
For those who celebrate both Chanukah and Christmas, or Chrismukkah as it’s known in the States, Light the Lights! A Story about Celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas by Margaret Moorman fits the purpose. Totally secular, the story follows Emma and her family as they follow the traditions of first Chanukah and then Christmas, with lights on the chanukiah and then on the Christmas tree. It’s very limited and doesn’t try to explain the significance or story behind either festival, but is a good start for those who celebrate both without adhering to one faith in particular. Also on this theme is Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama by Selina Alko – you can’t get more of a mash-up than the recipe within for cranberry kugel.

Sadie's almost marvellous menorah
My new favourite is Sadie’s Almost Marvellous Menorah by Jamie Korngold, illustrated by Julie Fortenberry. Every child can sympathise with Sadie, who, at school, makes a beautiful menorah out of clay ready for the festival, only to break it on the way home to show her mother! Upset ensues, until Sadie’s clever mother shows her that the ‘helper’ candle – the shamash – which is used to light all the other candles, can still be used to light all the other candles on the family menorahs. If only most children were so easily appeased when their artwork gets destroyed!

A Chanukah Story for Night Number ThreeEngineer Ari and the Hanukkah MishapLots of Latkes

Three books that elucidate some of the qualities of the festival by telling stories are A Chanuka Story for Night Number Three by Dina Rosenfeld, illustrated by Vasilisa and Vitaliy Romanenko, Lots of Latkes by Sandy Lanton and illustrated by Vicki Jo Redenbaugh, and Engineer Ari and the Hanukkah Mishap by Deborah Bodin Cohen, illustrated by Shahar Kober.

A Chanukah Story for Night Number Three tells the tale of a boy whose birthday is on night three of Chanukah and is determined to make it special by making the largest latke in the world. The moral framework of ‘sharing’ lies behind the story, which is a good distraction from the increasingly materialistic nature of the festival. It is full of humour and hilarious illustrations (particularly the one of cleaning the kitchen). Lots of Latkes by Sandy Lanton is the story of when the preparations for a Chanukah party go wrong, and each guest brings the same food to the party. The story is a sweet tale, but presupposes knowledge about the festival. Engineer Ari and the Hanukah Mishap is part of a series of adventures of Ari and the Jewish festivals, but can be read as a stand-alone story. Ari is travelling home for Chanukah, gathering what he needs on the way and meeting a host of people who inform him about the story and traditions behind the festival. He’s delayed by a camel on the line at Modi’in though, and invited in by a local Bedouin, with whom he celebrates the first night of Chanukah. It aims to show that miracles, such as that which happened in 165 BC, still happen and that sharing the festival is a good way of celebrating it.

Dinosaurs Hanukah
Those of you who like the series of How Do Dinosaur books by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Mark Teague, will be delighted to learn there is even a Chanukah version – How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah?, including such gems as:
“Does he fidget and fuss through the candlelight prayer?
Does he blow out the candles when no one is there?”
Perhaps a touch contrived, but actually the familiar format is a winner for me.

National Geographic Hanukkah
Lastly, National Geographic have a series of books that aim to show how different holidays from different religions are celebrated round the world, without going too far into the religious aspects. Celebrate Hanukkah: with Light, Latkes and Dreidels (Holidays around the World) by Deborah Heiligman highlights the main components of the festival, including the story, the food, the games and the lights, but what sets it apart is the beautiful photos of people celebrating the festival around the world. Good for Jewish people who already understand the festival as well as newcomers who are learning what Chanukah is for the first time.

A note of warning: if you’re searching online for books on the festival, you will find that the festival is spelled many ways in English, so one search may not bring up every book.