November 10, 2016
(++++) JOYS OF THE SEASON
Maple & Willow’s Christmas Tree. By Lori Nichols. Nancy Paulsen Books. $16.99.
Prissy & Pop Deck the Halls. By Melissa Nicholson. Harper. $17.99.
Clark the Shark Loves Christmas. By Bruce Hale. Illustrated by Guy Francis. Harper. $17.99.
The Christmas Boot. By Lisa Wheeler. Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. Dial. $17.99.
Five Little Elves. Illustrations By Dan Yaccarino. HarperFestival. $6.99.
Stories with warmth to counteract the seasonal chill of winter are a mainstay of children’s books with a Christmas theme, providing authors and illustrators with opportunities to present new series entries with tie-ins both to the holiday season and to earlier entries in multi-book sequences. Lori Nichols does just that in Maple & Willow’s Christmas Tree, in which the charmingly arboreally named girls encounter an unanticipated problem that leads to some friction before they find a suitable – and suitably pleasant and amusing – solution. Big sister Maple and little sister Willow have a great time getting ready for Christmas, and are delighted that this year they can pick out a real tree to decorate for the holiday. And they soon agree on one, and everything is delightful when they bring it home – until they get it into the house and Maple starts sneezing. It turns out that she is allergic to the tree, so the girls’ never-seen parents have to get it out of the house. They put it right outside a window, where the girls can see it, but that isn’t the same as having it indoors, and Willow is upset enough to hurt Maple’s feelings: Maple apologizes, overstating the case, for having “ruined Christmas,” and Willow says, “I’m sorry you ruined Christmas, too.” But then, at bedtime, Willow feels bad for hurting Maple’s feelings, and she comes up with a way to make things right – which leads to a nighttime scene of the girls, one in striped green footed pajamas and one in striped red ones, discovering Willow’s very clever solution to the no-tree-in-the-house situation. To cement the wonderfulness, Willow, whose turn it is to put the star on top of the tree, instead hands it to Maple to place atop Willow’s non-tree creation – as warm an affirmation of sisterly love and Christmas spirit, combined, as kids are likely to encounter.
The “buddies” angle is a bit odder where Priscilla and Poppleton are concerned, because Prissy and Pop are pigs. Really. As in porcine beings. They are very small – mini-pigs, to be precise – and Melissa Nicholson has done a series of books about them to complement their Instagram appearances online. The fun of Prissy & Pop Deck the Halls lies in watching the seasonally dressed little pigs – who start off the book wearing green Santa-focused pajamas, with Prissy sporting a big red bow as well – do their best to get into the Christmas spirit. They do this by trying to decorate a tree (producing a mess in the process), making cookie dough (and only eating a little of it), creating a card for Santa, and so on. Yes, the activities are mundane, but the point is that these are pigs doing them, and kids will enjoy the scenes of P&P doing this and that as much as they will like seeing the different seasonal outfits that the mini-pigs wear without apparent concern or complaint. Of course, it is impossible to see Prissy and Pop actually decorate a gingerbread house, but the picture of them next to it (Prissy now sporting a large green bow) is cute, and the seasonally colored outfits, stocking caps, popcorn-and-punch-bowl poses, and other amusingly photographed antics will delight P&P fans. The photo in which both pigs have their mouths open, as if singing carols, is especially silly, and Nicholson clearly has fun not only with the pictures but also with the text: “Prissy and Pop change into their piggie pajamas. …They hang their little piggie stockings.” Christmas morning brings exclamations of “Oh my piggie goodness!” and “Oh good piggy golly!” And the final picture, showing P&P together in a box covered in red-and-white striped wrapping paper, neatly wraps up all the holiday festivity.
Prissy and Pop books are pure fun, but Bruce Hale and Guy Francis look for a bit more than that, in the form of simple, easy-to-communicate lessons, in their Clark the Shark tales – including the latest, Clark the Shark Loves Christmas. The thing about the title character is that he is much, much bigger than the other fish in the books and much, much, much toothier, but instead of being any sort of threat to anyone, he is simply a good-natured, bumbling and (to be honest about it) not-too-bright shark with a lot to learn about almost everything. That he does learn, and retains his pleasant nature and ability to make and keep friends despite his frequent wrong-headedness, is the point of these books. Like others in the series, Clark the Shark Loves Christmas starts with Clark overdoing things because he does not quite understand appropriate behavior. Because he loves Christmas so much, Clark is over-enthusiastic about decorating the green-coral tree, and almost knocks it down; because he loves cookies, he tilts the whole plate of them into his mouth; because he loves caroling, he sings so loudly that all his schoolmates look suitably dismayed. Clark’s best friend, Joey Mackerel, tries to bring Clark down to earth – or down to the sea floor, anyway – but with not much success. Clark first does not understand the class Secret Santa plan, then misinterprets it, then spends his time trying to figure out who in class will be giving him a secret gift and what it will be, and finally realizes that he completely forgot to get a gift for Benny Blowfish, whose name he has drawn. Clark eventually solves his problem – he always does – but a lot of the fun here is from seeing the gifts that various characters receive: a hula hoop for Amanda Eel, for example, and multiple pairs of socks for Sid the Squid. Clark has given up his favorite comic book as his gift for Benny, having come belatedly to understand the importance of giving in the Christmas season – and everything works out just fine when Clark gets the same comic as his gift. And so Clark learns yet another lesson, as Hale and Francis make sure that, once again, he looks large and toothsome but is really just a little kid, often confused but always with his heart in the right place.
There is a lesson in The Christmas Boot as well, but it is neither simple nor straightforward; nor is the book a once-over-lightly in any way, despite the foundational simplicity of its story. It is one of a subgenre that could be called “Christmas miracle” books, but it is not religious – although it certainly has a spiritual dimension. It is an exceptionally touchingly told tale, with Lisa Wheeler’s prose flowing beautifully, almost poetically; and the illustrations by Jerry Pinkney are exceptional as well – Pinkney creates the book’s world with such care that it is almost palpable. The story is of an old, poor woman named Hannah Greyweather, who finds a lost boot in the forest one day while she is gathering kindling and trying to cope with her near-freezing, rag-wrapped feet. The boot somehow fits itself to her left foot, making her feel warm for the first time in who-knows-how-long; and at home that night she only wishes she had its mate. Sure enough, the right boot appears overnight – and the next night, after another wish, Hannah has some warm mittens as well. She makes some bigger wishes offhandedly, and they too come true, but they do not quite fit her: she knows the elegant, large house she wishes for is not really right for her. Then the owner of the lost boot turns up – kids will recognize Santa Claus, but he is never named here and appears simply as a stranger at the door, seeking warmth and conversation. He and Hannah share both, she returns his lost boot, and everything she got by magic disappears – but the magic of Christmas does not. The simple, homespun way that Santa rewards Hannah – a way that grants her deepest wishes and one that does fit her perfectly – leads to a conclusion so heartwarming that adults who read The Christmas Boot with their children will have a hard time holding back tears. This is a book that is beautiful on all levels: beautiful to read, beautiful to look at, and with a beautiful message to contemplate. Even children who are almost past the picture-book stage will not be too old for this very special volume.
Santa and his environs are handled much more cutely and amusingly for younger kids, up to age four, in the board book, Five Little Elves. Dan Yaccarino’s illustrations make the simple story into a light and pleasant seasonal treat. The five green but otherwise very-different-looking elves appear on the cover amid a pile of gifts, and Yaccarino uses color cleverly to make the brief text appealing to very young children. The first elf holds a bright red-and-white hat while wondering where Santa is; then the elves are seen with brown reindeer getting ready for their flight; next, there are multicolored snowflakes, with one elf sticking out his green tongue to catch them while the others smile upward; and then all the elves, eyes closed, are seen thinking about bringing “great joy to every little girl and boy.” A pack-the-sleigh scene has packages in various colors and patterns, and the final page shows the five elves, lined up in order of size, waving to a silhouette of Santa and the reindeer as the sleigh flies in front of a brilliant full moon. There is enough visual interest in Five Little Elves so the book will be enjoyable to read to babies; but it makes sense that it is intended for ages newborn to four, because kids just learning the basics of reading by identifying a word or two will also like the simple seasonal story, right through to a final picture of the five super-happy-looking elves on the back cover.