October 26, 2017
(++++) WINTRY WARMTH
Snow. By Cynthia Rylant. Illustrated by Lauren Stringer. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
Jingle Bells. By Susan Jeffers. Harper. $17.99.
Bear’s Merry Book of Hidden Things. By Gergely Dudás. Harper. $14.99.
Mary Engelbreit’s Color ME Christmas. By Mary Engelbreit. Harper. $9.99.
Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur: A Very Dino Christmas. By Bruce Hale. Illustrated by Charles Grosvenor. HarperFestival. $6.99
Santa’s Moose. By Syd Hoff. Harper. $3.99.
Snow is poetry in motion – slow, drifting, downward motion – in Cynthia Rylant’s lovely Snow, originally published in 2008 and now available in paperback. It is hard to imagine a prettier, gentler introduction to winter weather than this book, whose acrylic paintings by Lauren Stringer make every page a vista of wonder and delight. The book is also distinguished by its intergenerational structure: yes, children are its focus, but the repeated appearance of a grandmother reinforces the ultimate message here, “that nothing lasts forever except memories.” That could be a rather depressing notion in hands less skilled than those of Rylant and Stringer (whose illustrations reflect her memories of three generations of her family). But what the words actually convey, what the pictures complement so well, is a sense of timelessness, a feeling of peace and beauty: “And some snows fall so heavy/ they bury/ cars up to their noses,/ and make evergreens bow,/ and keep your kitties/ curled up awhile.” Whether snow “comes softly in the night” or appears in “fat, cheerful flakes,” its message is that “home is where you/ need to be,/ and this snow/ will take you there.” Snow is both reality and dream world, a beautiful blend of blank verse and subtle seasonal sharing.
Snow dominates Susan Jeffers’ illustrations for Jingle Bells, too, but here everything is more lighthearted and less thoughtful as the words of the familiar song become the basis of an open-sleigh outdoor romp featuring a boy, a girl, a snow-white dog and horse, an unexpected encounter with some curious deer, a white rabbit, a fox that joins the pursuit, and various other woodland creatures. The playfulness of the dog with river otters, the appearance of snowy owls flying overhead, the details of icicles hanging from a Christmas-colored house with a heart-shaped window in the front door – these and other details make the book an upbeat and offbeat interpretation of the words of the song. And anyone who wonders just which animals have made their appearances in the story can look at the small pictures of all 10 of them at the end – then go back and find any that might have escaped notice the first time.
The gift-giving part of the winter holiday season meets Where’s Waldo? in Gergely Dudás’ Bear’s Merry Book of Hidden Things. There is no plot here – just a small bear trying to get things together for a Christmas party for his friends, and needing to find various items in crowded places. The cartoonish, pleasantly rounded characters are part of the charm here, as are the various things those characters are doing. For example, Bear starts by searching for a horn to make music at his party – and he goes to a Christmas market where chicks and penguins and porcupines and foxes and rabbits and other animals mill around stalls selling everything from cookies in multiple shapes to candles in multiple sizes and colors. The following pages involve searching for a gingerbread man in a jam-packed pile of gingerbread cookies, seeking the single not-yet-wrapped present among all the brightly wrapped ones, finding a holiday card on a page filled with shopping bags, picking out the single red Santa hat from all the non-Santa hats being worn by many-colored perched parrots – and on and on. The “find this” puzzles are not easy – looking for, say, a wreath among a batch of Christmas trees is no simple task – but neither are they overly difficult; there is nothing here to spoil the fun of the search. And some of Dudás’ drawings are really quite clever, such as the page filled with poinsettias amid which Bear is looking for a big red bow, the packed page of hedgehogs concealing a pinecone, and the all-red page featuring candy apples among which a red glass ornament is hiding. The party at the end is, of course, a great success; and the final page, showing Bear face-down on his bed and fast asleep, makes perfect sense at the end of so elaborate a quest.
Some less-elaborate, small-size holiday-themed books are more limited in scale and scope, getting (+++) ratings that indicate they are fun for a time but likely to have less lasting value and a lower chance of bringing kids back to them again and again. In fact, Mary Engelbreit’s Color ME Christmas, if used as intended, is strictly a single-use item, since it is designed for coloring and then tearing apart. It includes 10 postcards, 15 gift tags and 10 ornaments – and for those who no longer send postcards, those pages can also be used as tags or tree decorations. The drawings are typical of Engelbreit in her usual upbeat mood. One postcard shows two children, arms spread wide and smiling broadly, in front of a Christmas tree, the scene emblazoned with the words, “Enjoy the Joy!” Another shows four kids starting a large snowball and says, “Snowmen fall from Heaven unassembled!!!!!” Gift tags feature elves and other jolly characters, or elaborate backgrounds and edgings and words such as “For Christmas, give your heart” and “Be warm inside & out.” Ornaments – printed two-sided, so colors can be different on front and back – have suitable seasonal patterns, or characters such as a fairy carrying a candy cane. A very pleasant coloring project for kids during a snow-day school cancellation, or on a chilly weekend, Mary Engelbreit’s Color ME Christmas is a nice little helping of seasonal cheer.
So are two books featuring Danny and the Dinosaur, a duo dating all the way back to 1958. One of these books takes a page – several pages, actually – from the approach of the Mary Engelbreit one: A Very Dino Christmas includes 16 small holiday cards, a poster, and stickers, all featuring art that Charles Grosvenor has deliberately created in the style of Syd Hoff (1912-2004). Parents or, more likely, grandparents may well remember Danny and the dinosaur fondly. Hoff created the thoroughly unrealistic, ever-smiling dinosaur – who walks on his back legs but is shaped like the huge, long-necked plant eaters that walked on all fours – as a simple, charming companion for Danny. In A Very Dino Christmas, the dinosaur does not understand Christmas decorating until Danny explains it to him, and then the two set out to decorate the museum where Danny and the dinosaur first met. Bruce Hale keeps the tale suitably simple, including a twist in which the museum director objects to what has been done to the exhibits – until some museum-goers tell him how much they like the decorations and promise to bring lots of other people to visit, which they do. It is interesting to contrast this story and its drawings with Santa’s Moose, which really is by Hoff (dating to 1979) and which is now available as a Level 1 book (“simple sentences for eager new readers”) in the “I Can Read!” series. There is no dinosaur here – no Danny, either – but there is a wide-eyed and rather silly-looking moose named Milton, who really wants to help Santa with his toy deliveries and is given the chance to do just that. Milton messes things up at first, but proves a quick learner, and when the reindeer get tired because the load is extra-heavy this year, Milton more than pulls his weight and makes sure children everywhere get their presents. Hoff had a fine sense of pleasant storytelling mixed with engaging characters, and families whose children are reading at what is considered Level 1 will enjoy meeting Milton the moose – as well as Danny and the dinosaur.