December 03, 2015
(++++) MERRY, MERRY, HAPPY, HAPPY
Enzo and the Christmas Tree Hunt! By Garth Stein. Illustrated by R.W. Alley. Harper. $17.99.
Little Elfie One. By Pamela Jane. Illustrated by Jane Manning. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Splat the Cat: Christmas Countdown. By Rob Scotton. HarperFestival. $6.99.
All I Want for Christmas Is You. By Mariah Carey. Illustrated by Colleen Madden. Doubleday. $17.99.
Christmas to Color. By Mary Tanana. Harper. $15.99.
’Tis the season for seasonal delights of all sorts, including, inevitably and delightfully, Christmas-themed books featuring familiar-to-kids characters having amusing but always surface-level adventures. Make that almost always surface-level, because Garth Stein goes deeper than most in Enzo and the Christmas Tree Hunt! Yes, it starts as a typical searching-for-just-the-right-tree story, as Zoë and her dad, Denny, head for a Christmas tree farm to choose a tree that Zoë repeatedly insists has to be “perfect.” Enzo gets his first introduction to snow, shares some of the cookies that the tree farm puts out for customers, meets “a young person with a red hat” who tells girl and dog that he is “a very tall elf,” and so on. This is a cut-your-own-tree establishment, which uses huge Newfoundlands to pull the trees on sleds after customers choose and fell them. There are plenty of strictly-typical-for-the-season scenes, all of them winningly illustrated by R.W. Alley – one of Enzo with a snowflake on his nose is particularly cute. But the story takes a darker turn when, after playing in the snow as Denny keeps searching for just the right tree, Zoë and Enzo find themselves alone: the man whom Zoë believes to be her father turns out to be someone else who is dressed the same way. Soon “Zoe zigs and zags between the trees, sometimes stumbling in the snow” as she looks for Denny, but he is nowhere to be found, and it is snowing harder and harder, and Zoë says she is afraid, and Enzo, who narrates the book, laments that “I have no words I can use to tell her” to stay calm and not be frightened. So resourceful Enzo uses the sounds he does have to help, howling loudly toward the Newfoundlands, and sure enough, soon one of them hears and responds, and there is a delightful rescue-and-reunion scene in which it turns out that the tree under which Zoë and Enzo took shelter is the perfect Christmas tree – Enzo is the one who notices that, too. Enzo’s “sign of respect and gratitude” to the Newfie who found them is as heartwarming as the reuniting of the human characters, and so is Enzo’s conclusion – once everyone is safely back at home, with the tree nicely decorated – that Christmas is all about love. That is super-sentimental and, in context, perfectly appropriate.
Something lighter for the same age range of 4-8 is the rewriting by Pamela Jane of the song “Over in the Meadow,” with suitably cute illustrations by Jane Manning. Little Elfie One starts with, of course, one little elf, soon moving on to two little mousies, then three little “gingies” – gingerbread boys, that is: the adorable nicknames for the small beings here are a big part of what makes the book enjoyable. Little polar bears are “polies,” for instance, and small stars are “starries.” The mousies nibble, the “gingies” run, and carolers carol and “polies” swim and “snowies” (small snowmen) shiver, and so on. The winter scenes are pleasantly drawn – warm in spirit if not in the decidedly chilly things they portray – and the recasting of the old song is quite well done, with good rhythm and aptly chosen rhymes: “five” for the “polies” rhymes with “dive,” “seven” for the “starries” with “heaven,” and as for the reindeer, including Rudolph, the “little reindeer nine” soar “o’er the tall snowy pine.” Young children who know the original song will especially enjoy this Christmas variant of it, and if kids do not know the original yet, there is certainly nothing wrong with introducing them to it through Jane’s clever reworking.
For even younger children, up to age four, Rob Scotton offers a touch-and-feel board book featuring the seasonal antics of Splat the Cat. The story is, of course, short and simple, but the touch-and-feel elements of the book fit it particularly well. Splat puts up a Christmas tree that feels gritty on the page; he puts a smooth-feeling gold star on top of it; he wraps gifts and gets covered in ribbon – which feels like ribbon; he sleeps quietly as Santa comes down the chimney, wearing a red outfit that feels fuzzy; and on Christmas morning, Splat and his family, still in nightclothes, have “the best Christmas ever,” and kids get to feel Splat’s furry belly where the top and bottom of his pajamas do not quite meet. A solidly constructed book, Splat the Cat: Christmas Countdown is, of course, purely seasonal, but it is made well enough, and tells its seasonal tale with enough zest, so that families can keep it after the holiday and bring it out again for future Christmas use. Splat will be just as enthusiastic and cutely silly in other years as he is in this one.
Another fun-for-year-after-year book is based on a fun-for-year-after-year song that dates back to 1993 and was first released the following year: All I Want for Christmas Is You. Mariah Carey wrote the words and Walter Afanasieff the music, and the song has become a modern standard in somewhat the same way that Johnny Marks’ Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer became a seasonal staple soon after its first commercial performances in 1949. Carey’s lyrics, addressed by an adult to her lover, are prettily transformed for children by Colleen Madden’s illustrations into the story of a wished-for puppy that a little girl eventually gets for Christmas after drawing puppy pictures, making puppy cookies, wrapping gifts in puppy paper, even creating a snowdog while all the others kids are making more-traditional snow sculptures. In the real world, giving an animal, and its attendant responsibilities, as a holiday gift, is rarely a good idea: shelters have a huge upsurge in unwanted pets dropped off after holidays, as people discover just how much work it is to be responsible for a dog, cat, Easter chick or bunny, or other living creature every hour of every day for year after year. But in the pleasant not-quite-real world of All I Want for Christmas Is You, the whole story moves as inexorably toward a uniting of little girl and puppy as fairy tales move toward happily-ever-after marriages. Not realistic, perhaps, but oh-so-feel-good! The multiracial family in the book cooperates to get the little girl what she wants so much – and thank goodness the puppy comes from an adoption agency rather than a breeder or pet shop! Madden’s picture of the puppy being carried in an open box, just one of its eyes visible through an air hole, is beyond cute, and the story as a whole is as warmhearted as it can possibly be. Missing here is an endnote reminding parents and children not to become so swept up in holiday cheer that they bring home an animal they are unable or unwilling to care for over many years; that would have been a responsible touch. In its absence, parents will need to be a bit Scrooge-like when All I Want for Christmas Is You inevitably leads to kids saying how much they want a puppy. Popular songs and beautiful pictures are all well and good, but someone has to balance them with a real-life message about responsibility – even at Christmas. The many charms of All I Want for Christmas Is You are clear on page after page and will stay that way year after year. Puppies, however, grow into dogs, and kittens into cats. Children grow, too, and it is never too soon to remind them gently, even in the bright holiday season, that the real world is not the same thing as the world of popular songs and attractive picture books.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with wishing that the real world could be more Christmas-like all the time, and not just during one part of the year. Some time spent coloring Mary Tanana’s Christmas to Color may even bring the Christmas spirit close for a longer time. This is a wonderful family-bonding book: almost wordless (except for occasional suitable seasonal expressions, such as “Wishing You Joy” and “Let Your Heart Be as Light as a Song”), the book offers some really lovely black-and-white art that kids and adults alike can color to their heart’s content. The intricacy of the pictures is quite something to see: even without color, they are thoroughly delightful. And many of the scenes Tanana chooses are not the typical ones usually associated with Christmas. Yes, there are some pinecones and reindeer and stars, but they are shown in ways that take them beyond standard Christmas fare (Tanana says she is influenced by the folk art of Ukraine, Hungary, Russia and Poland). And there are some scenes here that are very special indeed: peacock feathers nestled in a lovely vase, full pages of what could be snowflakes except for the fact that they have 12 rather than six points, a set of eight partridges suitable for anyone’s pear tree, a fascinating two pages on one of which there is an elaborate border around an empty tree-shaped space, and on the other of which is nothing but a tree – all this and much more. The sentiments “Peace on Earth,” “Deck the Halls” and “Joyeux Noël” are clearly written and surrounded by elaborate décor; a two-page scene showing four stockings tied to a pine garland is wonderful to look at for the elaborate and very different detail of each stocking; and the pages showing ornaments suggest a riot of color beyond what most people are likely to have in the real world. So Christmas to Color becomes, in a sense, realer than real, especially when readers get together to make it as colorful as it can be – which is very, very colorful indeed.