December 01, 2011


The Littlest Evergreen. By Henry Cole. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. By Barbara Robinson. Illustrated by Laura Cornell. Harper. $16.99.

The Berenstain Bears and the Nutcracker. By Jan & Mike Berenstain. HarperFestival. $3.99.

The Berenstain Bears’ Winter Wonderland. By Jan & Mike Berenstain. HarperFestival. $3.99.

Zack’s Alligator and the First Snow. By Shirley Mozelle. Pictures by James Watts. Harper. $3.99.

     ’Tis the season for sentimentality, and all these books (which collectively span the target age range of 2-8) deliver it – most of them by arranging and rearranging earlier works. The Littlest Evergreen gives no official credit to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Fir Tree,” but anyone who knows the bittersweet Andersen tale will surely see Henry Cole’s book as its inversion. Andersen’s story is one of the many pathos-filled ones in which people, animals, inanimate objects and other things have moments of joy but ultimately face heartbreak that is relieved – once in a while – by the consolations of traditional religion. “The Little Mermaid,” “The Little Match Girl” and “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” are but three examples; “The Fir Tree” is a fourth. In it, an evergreen cut down in the woods dreams always of growing up and of the great things in its future, never fully appreciating what it already has; experiences joy when decorated for Christmas; but is inevitably taken down after the holiday and left to dry out and eventually be used for firewood. It is a sad story with a moral about living in the present. The Littlest Evergreen reimagines it: instead of being cut down, the little tree is dug up, complete with root ball, although other, larger trees are indeed cut with a chainsaw. The little tree is happy to be decorated for Christmas and enjoys the family’s celebration of the holiday – but is glad when it ends: “It was a relief when the family came in one morning and took all the shiny things off.” Then the tree is gently taken to a hole outside, planted in “the coolness of the soil,” and left to grow happily “for many, many seasons” and to have “a long and beautiful life.” A touching tale attuned to modern notions of ecological awareness, The Littlest Evergreen is told and illustrated straightforwardly; all of it is on the surface, without any significant moral. And that is just fine for the modern age – although those who know Andersen may wonder why today’s children are not deemed able to accept and learn from some notion of unhappiness, even in the holiday season.

     The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, a picture-book adaptation of Barbara Robinson’s novel of the same name, is even more determinedly upbeat and even stronger in emphasizing the transformational power of the Christmas season and the religious message that is its foundation. Laura Cornell’s amusing illustrations help lighten the story, in which the Herdman children – “the worst kids in the history of the world” – take over the Sunday-school Christmas pageant and somehow, through the power of the pageant’s message, turn it into the best performance there has ever been. Initially, the Herdmans don’t even know the story of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, so they come up with ideas about a pizza gift from the Wise Men and a comic-book-style appearance by the Angel of the Lord. During the pageant itself, though, everything is magically transformed, so even the missteps and misinterpretations seem somehow right, and the audience members – who showed up only “to see what the Herdmans would do” – are as transfigured by the experience as are the Herdman children themselves. A sweet, na├»ve and seasonally appropriate uplifting tale, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever will appeal to families seeking to transmit the traditional religious underpinnings of the holiday without making them too heavy-handed.

     The Berenstain Bears books are almost always “message” stories, too, even now that Jan & Mike Berenstain (rather than Stan & Jan Berenstain) are the authors. The message of The Berenstain Bears and the Nutcracker – a very loose adaptation of the Tchaikovsky ballet, which is based on a loose adaptation of the original story by E.T.A. Hoffmann – is that imagination trumps technology. The bear kids get a “funny wooden soldier bear” for Christmas along with “brand-new toys, games, and videos,” but spend little time with their Nutcracker Bear until they get tired of the new stuff or things break. Then they are bored – so they use the Nutcracker Bear to inspire themselves into an imagination-based performance using old clothes, costumes and props they find in the attic. And then Brother, Sister and Honey do the whole performance again for their grandparents when the old folks come over for Christmas dinner. As usual, the story is clear and easy to follow, with simplicity that will appeal to Berenstain Bears fans. And for something even simpler, there is The Berenstain Bears’ Winter Wonderland, a lift-the-flaps book that merely shows multiple scenes of winter activities, with the family having fun throughout even though Brother keeps asking for a snowball fight and Sister keeps coming up with reasons not to have one just yet – until finally agreeing at the end of the book. There is no plot at all here, but there are flaps that kids can open to see Grizzly Gus ice-fishing, Sister using snowshoes, a bear on a ski jump, another using a snow thrower, and so on. This is one book to keep kids occupied – for a little while, anyway – when the weather is too cold or unpleasant for outdoor play.

     A second such book is the outdoor-play story of Zack’s Alligator and the First Snow, a Level 2 book in the “I Can Read!” series. Zack’s alligator, Bridget – an alligator keychain that grows into a full-size talking alligator when she gets wet – comes from Florida and has never seen snow before. Unlike a real alligator, she becomes more active, not less, when she experiences the cold, although she does appreciate the scarf that a girl lets her wear. Bridget gets to go ice fishing her own way – by diving through a hole in the ice and catching a meal of fish – and she rides a sled, makes “gator angels” in the snow, and plays with a snowman (topping it off with the borrowed scarf). At the end, she shrinks back to keychain size as Zack promises her that they will have more fun soon – which they surely will. This is a followup to Shirley Mozelle’s original 1989 Zack’s Alligator rather than an adaptation, although it certainly does show Bridget adapting well to the chill. Coupling Mozelle’s book, with its pleasantly bouncy illustrations by James Watts, with The Berenstain Bears’ Winter Wonderland, will give kids lots of winter fun to imagine when they are not themselves outdoors enjoying cold-weather activities.

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