November 29, 2007


Merry Navidad! Christmas Carols in Spanish and English. By Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy. English version by Rosalma Zubizarreta. Illustrated by Viví Escrivá. Rayo/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Fartsy Claus. By Mitch Chivus. Illustrated by Mike Reed. HarperCollins. $16.99.

      Every Christmas season brings some books with new angles on the holiday. Some of those angles are acute, others merely obtuse. Here we have one of each.

Merry Navidad! is a lovely idea and should be fun for families with children ages 5-10. This is not a series of Spanish translations of well-known English-language carols – it is more the other way around. Here are carols from Mexico, Argentina, Spain, Chile and other Spanish-speaking countries, most of them emerging from rural traditions that are fading but that retain long-lasting charm. These villancicos are offered in Spanish and English on facing or following pages, and arranged into such sections as “The Road to Bethlehem,” “Christmas Eve” and “Christmas Lullabies.” Each section is introduced – again, in Spanish and English – by a page explaining the traditions of the Spanish-speaking world and the ways in which the villancicos reflect those traditions. The words, by and large, are simple ones: “Bethlehem is celebrating,/ fum, fum, fum!/ What’s the reason for such glee?/ What can it be? I cannot guess…” But the words of most English-language carols are simple, too. In fact, one of the charms of this book lies in showing English speakers how similar their Christmas sentiments and expressions are to those of the Spanish-speaking world. Unfortunately for anyone tempted by the pleasant lyrics and lovely illustrations to sing along with the carols, there is no CD included with the book (that would have been a nice touch), and there are musical notations at the back for only six of the 19 songs. Still, as an introduction to a Christmas tradition with which many English speakers may be unfamiliar, and a work of gentle charm for Spanish speakers already familiar with these carols, Merry Navidad! is a lovely seasonal book.

      Not so Fartsy Claus, which is clearly supposed to be funny and offbeat but which is simply in bad taste – doubly so because it is aimed at children ages 3-7, who are likely still to believe in the physical reality of Santa Claus. Aside from winning the dubious prize for largest number of odor jokes ever in a Christmas book, Mitch Chivus’ story has little to recommend it. Mike Reed’s illustrations, some of which are genuinely funny, gain the book a low (++) rating, but the story itself is just embarrassingly bad. The premise is simple: someone leaves out franks and beans for Santa instead of the traditional milk and cookies, and St. Nick enjoys them so much that he wanders into the home’s kitchen, finds a huge pot of beans simmering on the stove, and eats the whole thing. This story is the umpteenth version of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, here maximized for poopy jokes: “The reindeer eyed each other, feeling queasy and funky,/ thinking, ‘He smells like a dirty old monkey!’” Just the Christmas spirit you were looking for, right? The word “fart” appears quite a lot, and it is supposed to be hilarious that Santa’s gas is so loud that it makes a home’s windows shake and awakens two kids who have been sleeping peacefully. So they come downstairs and see him: “His beard was white, his cheeks were pink,/ and PHEW! He really seemed to stink.” The kids eventually solve Santa’s problem, using his gas to propel him on his way after devising underwear equipped with a funnel. That garment is the most amusing idea in the book. The rest of the ideas seem to have come from someone who got too much coal in his stocking over too many years. Don’t be fooled by the authorial pseudonym (Mitch Chivus = mischievous). There’s nothing playful and carefree here – Fartsy Claus is simply dumb.

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