November 06, 2008


The Nutcracker. Retold by Stephanie Spinner. Illustrated by Peter Malone. Knopf. $16.99.

There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Bell! By Lucille Colandro. Illustrated by Jared Lee. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.

If Jesus Came to My House. By Joan G. Thomas. Illustrated by Lori McElrath-Eslick. Harper Blessings. $16.99.

     The Christmas season is nigh, and whether you celebrate it with gift-giving, music, religious observance or some combination of those elements, you can find books that will heighten your enjoyment of this special time of year. The Nutcracker has been a child-oriented Christmas-season ballet standard for more than 60 years, and its confectionary delights – including a second act set entirely in the Land of Sweets – continue to thrill and engage even very young children. Indeed, for many it is their first exposure to classical music, as well as to ballet. Stephanie Spinner’s abridged retelling of the story, for ages 4-8, dances lightly over much of the partying in the first act and the journey to Candyland at the start of the second, focusing on the magic of the wooden nutcracker coming to life and on the many sweets-related dances in Act II (whose total lack of drama disturbs music critics but rarely troubles audiences, especially those filled with children). Peter Malone’s illustrations have a lovely old-fashioned touch, and several reflect actual ways in which the ballet has been staged. And the book comes with a CD of a performance – not of the full ballet, but of much more than the more-often-heard Nutcracker Suite. It is an older recording, with Maurice Abravanel conducting the Utah Symphony, but the sound is fine and the chance for parents and children to cuddle with the book while hearing bits of the music makes the package, shortened and sweetened though it is, well-nigh irresistible.

     Young children will also enjoy the latest “Old Lady” collaboration between Lucille Colandro and Jared Lee: the seasonally focused There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Bell! Based, like the other Colandro-Lee books in this series, on the old song about the old woman who swallowed a fly, a spider, a bird, and so on, this entry has the old lady swallowing a bell, bows, gifts, even an entire sleigh (the picture of her doing that is especially enjoyable). She eventually swallows – what else? – flying reindeer, and that leads to a happy conclusion in which the old lady brings everything back up and heads off with Santa Claus. The premise of this book (and its predecessors) is odd enough so some children will likely ask, “Do you mean she threw up all of Santa’s gifts? Ewwwwww!! But kids who don’t take things seriously will enjoy the whole absurd idea.

     Families that do take Christmas seriously, as a religious holiday, are the target audience for If Jesus Came to My House, which is set in warm weather but which these families will find appropriate at any time of year. Intended for ages 3-8, it is a fable about the young boy Jesus – about whom the New Testament says very little – visiting a modern little boy’s home, sitting in the rocking chair, playing with the cat and dog, hiding behind the stairs, and otherwise taking part in the boy’s everyday life. The book communicates a feeling of camaraderie and warmth, and in the first half, most of its preachiness is downplayed. For instance, the boy shows Jesus a hall corner where the shadows are sometimes scary: “I always have to hurry/ when I’m going past at night,/ but hand in hand with Jesus/ I’d be perfectly all right.” In the second half, the boy says he knows Jesus cannot actually come visit him this way – and the rest of the book communicates a more strongly religious message as it explains what can happen, including kneeling, praying, doing things to help other people, sharing, and so on. Parents who want young children to focus on the religious underpinnings of the Christmas season will find Joan G. Thomas’ book a gently insistent way of putting across their expectations for their families.

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