November 16, 2006

(++++) A WHOLE LOT OF HO-HO-HO

Christmas. By Robert Sabuda. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $12.99.

When Santa Fell to Earth. By Cornelia Funke. Chicken House/Scholastic. $15.99.

Mrs. Claus Takes a Vacation. By Linas Alsenas. Scholastic. $16.99.

Who Will Guide My Sleigh Tonight? By Jerry Pallotta. Illustrations by David Biedrzycki. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.

Mistletoe: Four Holiday Stories. By Hailey Abbott, Melissa de la Cruz, Aimee Friedman and Nina Malkin. Point/Scholastic. $8.99.

     There’s something predictably, if understandably, treacly about Christmas, so it is always fun to find books that allow the sentiment of the holiday season to flourish without burying readers in overdone sweetness.  Each of these seasonal books finds a way to connect readers with the holiday without going over exactly the same ground that many other stories have covered.

     The simplest, most straightforward and most charming of the books is Christmas, a stocking-stuffer-size pop-up book by Robert Sabuda – whose The Christmas Alphabet has become a modern holiday classic.  This time, Sabuda brings together a series of original pop-up designs – including one never-before-seen pop-up – to spell out the word “Christmas.”  It’s simple, to the point and delightful.

     When Santa Fell to Earth is at the opposite extreme: Sabuda’s book is all about images, while Cornelia Funke’s is all about words (although it has some well-done illustrations, too).  Leave it to Funke to create a complex, far-fetched holiday tale that is dark but not too dark, worrisome but not overly scary.  This one is about what happens in the two weeks before Christmas, after a reindeer accident brings Santa down in a winter storm.  He lands and is stranded in a nice neighborhood of helpful people – but all is not well, because Santa is being pursued by Gerold Geronimus Goblynch, who wants Christmas to stop being about children’s wishes and instead be all about money.  (Hmm.  Sounds as if there are lots of Goblynches around.)  Santa (here called Niklas) and his helpers are observed by “a huge silver limousine with pinecones on the license plate and a star on the hood,” and so there is a chase, and hiding, and all sorts of trouble, until a bit of magic turns Goblynch sweet.  But this does not mean what you think – Funke is far too clever for that, as readers of the book will find out.

     Clever in a different way is Mrs. Claus Takes a Vacation, the first book by Linas Alsenas.  It’s a neatly offbeat premise, very amusingly handled: Mrs. Claus is sick of snow and ice and is jealous of the fact that Santa gets to travel all around the world, while she stays home in the cold north.  So she takes off in the sleigh, visiting beaches and Japanese restaurants and tourist attractions, making friends everywhere she goes – and leaving behind a worried and lonesome Santa, whose domestic skills leave something to be desired.  Then Mrs. Claus starts to get lonely, too, and the stage is set for a trip home and a lovely Christmas-eve surprise.

     Speaking of surprises, there are plenty of them in Who Will Guide My Sleigh Tonight? Jerry Pallotta and David Biedrzycki have cooked up a deliciously silly story about all the animals whose help Santa sought before he finally settled on reindeer.  Tigers are too rough, penguins too earthbound, dolphins too fond of dipping Santa’s sleigh in the ocean.  Giraffes get stuck in telephone wires, and skunks are…well, smelly.  Santa’s trials and tribulations are especially enjoyable because of Biedrzycki’s illustrations, which are always clever and frequently hilarious.  This is great fun for younger readers.

     For older kids – teens far too sophisticated for na├»ve holiday celebrations – the four stories in Mistletoe offer seasonal romance, troubles and even some magic.  All the authors clearly had fun coming up with holiday-themed stories: Aimee Friedman’s tale of love in a department store, Nina Malkin’s take on holiday magic in Tinseltown, Melissa de la Cruz’s O. Henry-style look at the perfect present, and Hailey Abbott’s story of a scandalous New Year’s Eve party.  As Abbott’s protagonist eventually finds out, “everything would be, if not perfect, then at least pretty darn close” – a statement that neatly fits not only this book but also Scholastic’s many other pleasantly offbeat seasonal offerings.

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