October 29, 2009


’Twas the Night Before Christmas. By Clement Clarke Moore. Illustrated by Jon Goodell. Accord Publishing/Andrews McMeel. $17.99.

A Christmas Manger. By H.A. Rey. Houghton Mifflin. $9.99.

The Christmas Book: How to Have the Best Christmas Ever. By Juliana Foster. Scholastic. $9.99.

The Little Prince Deluxe Pop-Up Book. By Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $35.

Dinosaur Park. By Hannah Wilson. Illustrated by Steve Weston. Kingfisher. $17.99.

     Christmas is not that far away – and here are some wonderful new books to help put you in the mood. The familiar verses of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas are enlivened in the handsome new Accord edition of the poem by illustrations that make use of lenticular animation – or “AniMotion,” as the publisher calls it. This is a technique in which pictures (or, in this book, parts of pictures) seem to move as you change the angle of the page, lending an animated element to the story. The Star of Bethlehem grows larger at the start of the poem as a comet whizzes past; a candle flame visibly flickers; those sugar-plums really do dance in a child’s dream; and, later, a toy train moves under the Christmas tree and Santa’s belly does indeed shake when he laughs. The naïve charm of the otherwise old-fashioned illustrations mixes pleasantly with the modern technology that makes parts of the book seem to move, even though Jon Goodell takes some liberties with the words of the poem: Santa is human-size, not a “jolly old elf”; there is no indication that “his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot”; and there is no sign of his pipe smoke encircling his head – the pipe seems to be a toy. Ah well – these pictures are not so much about accuracy as they are about enjoyment, and kids will certainly get plenty of that as they watch elements of this much-loved poetic tale appear to come to life.

     It is the religious elements of Christmas that come to life in A Christmas Manger, a wonderful crafts project for the whole family. Curious George creator H.A. Rey (Hans Augusto Reyersbach) was Jewish, but this 1942 work is entirely Christian, using words from the gospels of Matthew and Luke to tell the familiar tale of the birth of Christ, and then showing the animals, Three Kings and angels adoring the Holy Family. The book’s design is tremendously clever: every figure can be neatly punched out of the pages – no scissors or other tools required – and then folded so it stands up. Cutouts in the inside front and back covers are storage pockets for the figures, so they can be set up year after year. And when they are set up, they produce a traditional manger scene that kids can arrange as they wish and that parents can use to teach the story of Jesus’ birth visually – to go along with the Biblical words that the book includes. This is a lovely family activity and an effective way to recount the Christmas story, especially to young children.

     For a guide to the more secular aspects of Christmas, families can turn to The Christmas Book, which explains the origins of many Christmas traditions (cards, Santa Claus, caroling, Christmas trees, etc.) and offers suggestions on activities such as holding a Christmas party, preparing Christmas dinner (including for vegetarian guests), wrapping presents, and making edible gifts (several recipes are included). Stories of how Christmas is celebrated around the world are especially interesting: in Greenland, people feast on raw, decomposed auk meat; in Iceland, instead of one Santa, there are 13 imps; in Ukraine, revelers welcome spiders into their homes to commemorate a folktale about magic arachnids that turned webs into silver and gold. Add in the suggestions for games that kids can play – plus some for adults – and you have a winner of a book that will help keep your Christmas spirited.

     And speaking of Christmas gifts: anyone who loves Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic novella, The Little Prince, will be absolutely charmed by the new pop-up version, which would make a very generous gift for a child or a marvelous addition to a family’s own bookshelf of treasures. This is the complete story, not the sort of abridgment that would more usually appear in a pop-up book. And the illustrations are the original ones created by Saint-Exupéry himself for the first edition in 1943 – not modernized at all, just rendered into three-dimensional form through very clever pop-up designs. Adults encountering the book for the first time, or re-encountering it after some years, may be surprised at how…well, adult the book is, for all its reputation as a children’s work. The core statement in the book – “What is essential is invisible to the eye” – is scarcely what one would expect in a story for children. And the Little Prince’s adventures, on six planets inhabited by foolish adults and then on Earth, are far from the kind of mundane and innocent fun that so many children’s books offer. The fact is that The Little Prince is not a children’s book, or certainly is not wholly one, and the wonderful pop-ups in the new edition make that clear (and increase the work’s many ambiguities) by giving the author’s unusual illustrations greater prominence. This is a treasurable edition of a wonderful work, highly recommended as a gift for Christmas or any holiday.

     Even in pop-up form, The Little Prince will be a bit too much for younger children, but they too can have a wonderful time with pop-ups – in Dinosaur Park, which is nearly an entire play set in book form. Open this very cleverly designed book and you get four separate pop-up scenes set in a make-believe zoological park featuring dinosaurs – think Jurassic Park without the scares. Each scene bears unidentified footprints and is imprinted with questions, such as “Who hunts hadrosaurs?” and “Who is trying to eat the eggs?” Kids find the answers in the bound-in “Dinosaur Park Field Guide,” which tells about several dinosaurs and shows their tracks – which can be matched to the ones in the pop-up scenes. And the dinosaurs themselves are contained in a packet bound into the back inside cover of the book and marked “Warning!! Dinosaurs – Open if You Dare.” When kids do open the flap, out come perforated, press-out dinosaur pieces that easily stand up and can be placed within the pop-up scenes – or used for play elsewhere. For children ages 3-6, Dinosaur Park makes a wonderful gift: colorful, educational, filled with things to do and lots of fun to use. It’s a treat for any occasion in any season of the year.

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