November 13, 2014


A Very Marley Christmas. By John Grogan. Illustrated by Richard Cowdrey. Harper. $9.99.

Pete the Cat Saves Christmas. Created and illustrated by James Dean. Story by Eric Litwin. Harper. $17.99.

Mary Engelbreit’s Nutcracker. By Mary Engelbreit. Harper. $9.99.

Backhoe Joe. By Lori Alexander. Illustrated by Craig Cameron. Harper. $15.99.

The Fairy Bell Sisters #6: Christmas Fairy Magic. By Margaret McNamara. Illustrations by Catharine Collingridge. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $15.99.

     Christmas is a time of tradition, and one tradition in publishing is the reissuing of Christmas-themed books just in time for new seasonal celebrations. The best of these are evergreens that are delightful year after year, their new editions (or new printings of old editions) providing a fine opportunity for families to reacquaint themselves with books from earlier years or to make those books’ acquaintance for the first time. A Very Marley Christmas dates to 2008 and is a typical story of the world’s most trouble-prone dog and the family that loves him anyway (or, more accurately, because he’s so endearing even as he destroys everything in sight). Marley stops Daddy from bringing in a Christmas tree by playing tug-of-war; he gets tangled in Christmas lights as Mommy tries to string them; when the tree is finally up, he runs toward it enthusiastically and knocks it over; he wears his Christmas stocking on his face; and so on. But Marley inevitably brings more joy than irritation: Cassie and Baby Louie wish for snow on Christmas Eve, but there is none – until, on Christmas Day, Marley pushes through the closed curtains to get someone to open them, and lo and behold, there is snow everywhere. Of course, Marley promptly runs out into it, skids and slides, gets covered in the white stuff, then brings it indoors and shakes it all over everything. But the ever-tolerant family thinks all of that is wonderful – resulting in a typically warmhearted conclusion for John Grogan’s book, in which the story is ably illustrated with realistic-looking scenes by Richard Cowdrey.

     There is nothing realistic in Pete the Cat Saves Christmas, but realism is scarcely the point of this 2012 book, in which Santa comes down with a cold and decides to call on Pete to handle Christmas deliveries. Huge-eyed Pete is on his surfboard in Key West, Florida, when the emergency call comes in. Can Pete save the holiday? Well, of course he can, with the oft-repeated refrain, “And although I am small,/ at Christmas we give,/ so I’ll give it my all” to encourage him. A road trip in Pete’s minibus soon takes him to the North Pole, where the bus gets packed with presents and pulled aloft by Santa’s reindeer, and Pete delivers gifts to every single child on Santa’s list, finishing just as dawn breaks – and kids everywhere are delighted. The collaboration of James Dean and Eric Litwin, which includes a link to a free song and story download, is an amusingly offbeat variation on the “someone unexpected saves Christmas” motif and will be a real treat for Pete’s fans.

     Fans of Mary Engelbreit’s stylized drawings and simplified storytelling will enjoy Mary Engelbreit’s Nutcracker, originally published in 2011. It tells the Nutcracker tale as seen in Tchaikovsky’s ever-popular ballet, with a couple of references to the E.T.A. Hoffmann story on which Tchaikovsky’s work is based – but not too many such references, because the original Nussknacker und Mausek├Ânig is a very dark story indeed. The ballet lightens it considerably, and Engelbreit does so to an even greater degree, to make her book suitable for young children. Engelbreit’s characters are all roly-poly and pleasant, with little Marie, who is supposed to be seven years old, looking even younger than in most stage productions of Tchaikovsky’s work, whie Godfather Drosselmeyer looks more like a Disneyesque fairy than the faintly sinister figure he is even on stage (never mind the very sinister and complex one he is in the original tale). “The very fierce Mouse King” does not seem especially scary here and is not intended to be, and has only a single head (not seven, as in the original tale and some stage productions), and is defeated fairly easily and without visible bloodshed. And so Marie and the Nutcracker Prince journey to his kingdom, which Engelbreit calls Toyland rather than the Land of Sweets. Here, the illustrations encapsulate some of the marvelous “character dances” from the ballet, and eventually Marie and the Prince return to the real world – where the prince promises to make Marie Queen of Toyland “when you are grown.” And so there is a happy ending, Engelbreit-style, and a book that Engelbreit fans will cherish whether or not  their families go to see one of the inevitable Christmas-season performances of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.

     The proliferation of reissues of seasonal books does not, of course, prevent the emergence of entirely new ones that fit, indirectly if not directly, into this time of year. There is nothing particularly Christmas-oriented about Lori Alexander’s Backhoe Joe, for example, but the book goes well with one such as A Very Marley Christmas and the not-uncommon request that kids make for a puppy as a gift. Alexander tells about a little boy named Nolan who has always wanted – not a puppy, but a backhoe. And one day, this little boy encounters a stray, yellow, smiling, big-eyed backhoe in his neighborhood, but the heavy equipment is so shy that it backs into some nearby bushes and “wouldn’t budge. The rocks in Nolan’s backpack gave him an idea.” Nolan likes to collect rocks, and now he lays them out in a line to tempt the backhoe with “tasty treats,” which the backhoe happily scoops up. “Nolan gave the backhoe a pat behind the loader, which made his bucket wiggle like crazy.” The notion of a pet backhoe equipped with doglike mannerisms is a highly amusing one, made more so by Craig Cameron’s illustrations, which show the backhoe doing lots of doglike things: “he leaked all over the driveway,” and “he buried his cone in the flower bed,” and he “revved at the mailman,” and so forth. Nolan names the backhoe Joe, and his bemused parents say he has to train it if he wants to keep it, so Nolan tries techniques such as playing catch, visiting the park, and letting Joe dig at a delayed construction project. The two soon bond, but then Nolan sees a “lost backhoe” sign on a tree and realizes that “someone’s missing you” and “I think you miss them, too” – and indeed, Joe looks downcast as Nolan examines the sign. So Joe goes back to his construction-crew owner, and Nolan’s parents compliment him for how well he took care of Joe, saying he is ready for a pet of his own. But “then Nolan remembered how much work Joe was” and thinks he would be better off with “something that will sit still – and purr.” Such as…a cement mixer! The hilarious ending to this unusual pet-focused book may not stop kids from insisting that they really want a puppy or kitten for Christmas, but it may distract them long enough for parents to change the subject.

     Some kids old enough to be distracted from hectic Christmas preparations by a longer book will have fun with the new, sixth entry in Margaret McNamara’s series about The Fairy Bell Sisters. This sequence imagines that Tinker Bell has five siblings named Clara, Rosy, Goldie, Sylva and Squeak (the last a tiny baby fairy). In Christmas Fairy Magic, it is just 10 days before Christmas, and all five sisters are eagerly anticipating Tink’s return home. She has promised to bring decorations and gifts from Neverland, and has insisted that she is taking care of everything – her sisters are not to do any work at all preparing for the holiday. But things are so busy and happy in Fairyland that Clara, Rosy, Goldie and Sylva really want to take part; and besides, when there are only five days until Christmas, Tink is not home yet, and the Christmas Fair is about to take place on Sheepskerry Island, the sisters just have to be each other’s Secret Christmas Fairy and search for nice presents for each other. Things go awry, though, and it takes some fairy-carol singing to make the Fairy Bell sisters feel better – for a time. But soon, matters get even more complicated, as Squeak disappears, and the sisters have to search far and wide, despite a cold wind that chills their wings, until they find Squeak and a very, very special Christmas gift: a brand-new fairy baby that they name Noel. And of course Tink does eventually show up, and everyone is happy, and the whole book simply oozes sweetness that may be too much for readers except at the very youngest end of the book’s recommended age range of 6-10. Christmas Fairy Magic is too predictable and too sugary in many ways, and the Catharine Collingridge illustrations are too ordinary to add much to it; but it gets a (+++) rating because at least some little girls who love holiday stories about other little girls will enjoy it – and because Christmas is, among other things, a time to be generous.

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