Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Happy Christmas!

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men."

Luke 2: 13-14

Happy Christmas, my friends!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Las Posadas!

Here is a fabulous video of a Las Posadas procession that took place in the Olvera Street marketplace -- the oldest part of the city of Los Angeles (it was established in 1781).  Las Posadas is a Latin American custom that re-enacts the journey of Joseph and Mary as they searched for a place to stay; the procession focuses on the words, "there was no room for them at the inn."

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Our Advent story today is about the response of a rejoicing earth to the birth of the newborn King. Throughout the world, the animals respond to the miracle they sense is coming.  Song of the Stars, by Sally Lloyd-Jones, is a beautiful story, that reminds us that Christmas is the time when we celebrate the birth of the King of all creation.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Dennis was right. As usual.

So my friend Dennis has been harassing me for three years now to include his favorite Christmas book in my list of Advent favorites.

I was leery, frankly -- because he is a Three Detectives man from way back, while I have always been more of a Brains Benton and Robin Kane girl. But I finally gave in and read his stinking book, and loved it.  Of course.


Mrs. Coverlet's Magicians, by Mary Nash, is a great little chapter book, second in a series.  The three Persever children, Malcolm, Molly, and six-year-old Toad are left with their cranky neighbor as Christmas approaches.  Without their father and Mrs. Coverlet, who will make Christmas happen? The Toad takes things into his own hands with the help of a magic kit he orders from the back of a comic book.  And Malcolm and Molly take steps as well, while Miss Eva, the bossy and disapproving neighbor, takes mysteriously to her bed.  Has Toad created Christmas magic, or is something else going on?  The friendly pastor who looks in on the children has his own opinion.
     "There's been magic around us, all right," he said.  "I felt it very strongly when I came to your house last night and saw you and Molly filling the stockings."
     "Then you do believe in magic?"
     "I believe in magic at Christmas," said Mr. Forthright reflectively.  "The amount of goodwill which is set loose every year at this time is quite unaccountable." 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Full house!

The girl in charge came home last night -- very happy-making!  Both the sunny girl and I ran out to hug her before she had really even gotten both feet out of the car, and for a little while there, no one could move because we were all caught in a hug scrum.  It was fabulous -- lovingly claustrophobic or claustrophobically loving, I'm not sure which.  Either way I'm glad she's home!

She drove all the way from Atlanta by herself, which makes some readers yawn ho-hum, and causes other readers to remind me that I drove to Florida  to visit the beloved roommate's family a time or two myself, when I was not much older than the girl in charge. To all of which I say, pipe down!

She did break up the trip by staying overnight with these hipsters, who broke their promise that they would not knock themselves out for her, by making tacos for dinner, and by wooing her with their total awesome-osity.  In the morning before my girl arrived, dudes went out and bought themselves a house.  The day after she left, they got on a plane for the Christmas holiday.  Yet still -- welcoming and loving and awesome to my girl.  The heart just explodes, y'all.

This photo was swiped from Maggie's Facebook.

By the way, Maggie is the MVP of the family, and Mr. Maggie knows it.  The girl in charge reports that he distributed all kinds of tips for the future about married life.  Maggie and Mr. Maggie got hitched in June.

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So,  hey!  Books for Advent!


I read Louisa May Alcott's novels over and over and over when I was younger -- I was drawn to them in the same way I was drawn to the Little House books.  And like Laura Ingall's Wilder's stories, each of Alcott's books has a Christmas or winter adventure.  Several Christmases (some joyously happy, some bittersweet) are lovingly described in Little Women, Little Men, and Jo's Boys.  Polly and Fanny have very different ideas about how to celebrate the season in An Old-Fashioned Girl.  And in Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom, Alcott shows Christmas through the eyes of a little girl, and of that same girl as a young woman.

But the Alcott Christmas story I love the most is the one described in Jack and Jill.  In this novel, the catalyst for the book's story arc is a sledding accident that occurs in the first chapter.  When Jack's mother takes in gravely injured Jill and her mother, she transforms their lives by turning Jill's sickroom into a Christmas-y wonderland.  As Alcott describes the decorations, the treats and gifts, and the friendship of the two young companions, a modern reader is swept right into the scene.  It's lovely!


People, look how beautiful this book is!  The text of We Three Kings, illustrated by Gennady Spirin, is taken from the well-known carol about the three magi.  But the images are so lush and detailed and gorgeous!  This is the kind of book that makes you want to stroke the pages -- the jewel-like colors are printed on yummy thick paper. It's a work of art.  The carol's old-fashioned language is hypnotic, and even young listeners who might not understand everything they hear will be drawn into the exquisite intricacies of the images.


Winter Holiday, by Arthur Ransome,  is the fourth book in the beloved Swallows and Amazons series. Readers who know that series already get how great this snowy adventure story is.  The Walker children (the Swallows) and their friends the Blacketts (the Amazons) team up with Dick and Dorothea (the D's) when the lake freezes: obviously they can now head out for the North Pole!  But when the D's disappear, will the Swallows and Amazons be able to find them? Fabulous capers ensue!


In A Night the Stars Danced for Joy, Tim Jonke's illustrations are so creamy and dream-like -- they are a lovely accompaniment to the story by Bob Hartman about a shepherd family that follows a glowing star.  I do love picture books and storybooks like this one.  Even when the text is simple or familiar, a beautiful image or intricate detail can draw us in and trigger our imaginations.  This book is out of print, but I found it at my local used book seller (shout out to C&W Used Books).  I bet you can get it at your local library, too.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

My advent calendar is like my life: always running a little bit behind.

Here's our pretty tree from a couple of years ago -- after the gifts had been opened.

Well, so let me share a list of all the things I have not done yet during this Advent season:
  • decorate the Christmas tree with all my lovely ornaments, each of which has special meaning to me, but which I may or may not be able to find currently
  • put lights on the Christmas tree
  • acquire the Christmas tree
  • bake any sort of scrumptious Christmas-y treat
  • put twinkly Christmas lights up outside my home to welcome family, friends, and maybe a wassailing stranger or two
  • wrap any Christmas gifts for my family and friends
  • purchase any Christmas gifts for my family and friends
  • hunt down the Christmas stockings and stocking hangers
  • write a hilarious, not-too-braggy, chock-full-of-pictures Christmas newsletter to include with my Christmas cards
  • mail any Christmas cards
  • purchase, craft, or recycle any Christmas cards

My Christmas angst level is high, y'all.

It feels like I say this every year. But -- I am always able to slide into the pew in time to sing carols before Midnight Mass, and somehow the little baby Jesus is always able to celebrate another birthday.

And I have also realized that Santa has my back; it's just that I need to learn how to recognize his elves when they are all around me.  Somehow the treats get made (the sunny girl is my go-to baker); the presents get purchased (come here, Amazon-dot-com, so I can kiss you on the lips) -- and wrapped by Coleen and by the girl in charge (who has a system, of course). The Boy Scouts come through every year, with a tree, and greenery, and luminaria to welcome those wassailers and friends.  My family's Christmas mornings are always wonderful, and our Christmas Day is mellow (we all lazily read our newest books), and we continue our festive season the very next day with a kick-ass Boxing Day party.

So -- get thee behind me, Christmas angst!

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And here -- with no angst! -- is a "catch-up" batch of wintery and Christmas-y books for Advent:


Twelve Kinds of Ice, by Ellen Bryan Obed, is a nostalgic and old-fashioned seeming book about the different kinds of ice one family experiences as winter progresses.  From a delicate skim of ice on a pail to true skating ice, the narrator and her sister find a way to find joy and anticipation and fun.  The delicate and precise illustrations by Barbara McClintock match the tone of the writing -- the book evokes all the different feelings of winter.  I'm so glad to have found this book!


Kevin Crossley-Holland wrote a trilogy of books that re-tell the King Arthur story that the tall boy loved when he was younger, so I was curious to see how he "re-tells" the Nativity story.  His book -- How Many Miles to Bethlehem? -- is wonderful.  The language is sometimes whimsical and sometimes sweeping and majestic, as Crossley-Holland narrates the story through the voices of the various participants and observers.  And the artwork!  Oh my goodness, it's so gorgeous!


In A Perfect Day, Carin Berger creates a snowy world using collages made of ledger paper brushed with paint; the texture and depth in the illustrations seem to be a way of representing the unique quality of the light on snow.  The story of the children who emerge from their homes to play together is told very simply, but the pictures give the story a richness that will have young readers and pre-readers poring over the book themselves for hours.


A storybook called The Nativity seems pretty straightforward, and the reader might assume that it will take a reverent tone when it describes this most important of all births.  And the story is absolutely told with a serious voice -- taken from the King James version of the Bible.  But the illustrations by Julie Vivas are just the slightest bit kooky, so that everyone will delight in looking at the pictures.  Mary's belly is really, really big; the angel Gabriel has bright red hair, shimmery wings, and big work boots.  It's hilarious! I just wish, wish, wish I had been able to share this book with the urchins when they were little -- but I am happy that my sister's small boys will get to enjoy it (guess what they're getting for Christmas?!)

Friday, December 13, 2013

Book Lovers' Advent Calendar: Day Thirteen

This unique book -- Through the Animals' Eyes, by Christopher Wormell -- tells the Christmas story through the eyes of many different animals who might have witnessed a part of the story -- for example, a dog who helps shepherds as they watch their flocks at night, and a cobra who is made to dance for King Herod.  The animals' perspective is shown through very simple language along with gorgeous woodcuts; the illustrations are as enjoyable for adults as they are for children.  An added bonus is that more information about the animals in the story is included at the back of the book.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Book Lovers' Advent Calendar: Day Twelve

I love this sweet story, Room for a Little One, by Martin Waddell.  In his beautiful little book, Waddell tells the story of Kind Ox, who makes sure that everyone who comes to his stable feels welcome.  A kind creature, he declares, "There is always room for a little one."  When Mary and Joseph arrive on a cold and tired donkey, all three are welcomed into the warm stable.  And when a baby arrives, Kind Ox knows it is true -- there is always room for a Little One.

This is a great read-aloud book for young listeners.  The warmth of the illustrations is a perfect accompaniment to the simple rhythms of the story.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Book Lovers' Advent Calendar: Day Eleven

Stock photo available at DepositPhotos.

Well, so Coleen has been doing a lot of traveling with her new job, and has been hitting air traffic control conferences and symposia all over the world. She bought a pink wool coat in Paris, y'all.  Fortunately she and I wear the same size, and she's a good sharer.  Otherwise, she'd have to go back to Paris, just to buy a pink wool coat for me so we could be twins.

She goes to a lot of cool places, but the one trip that truly does make me want to tag along is the journey to Australia and New Zealand.   If I didn't love my own job so much I'd be totally jellie.  Some day I'll get there!

tangent: The hipster urchins say "jellie" all the time when they mean "green with envy" -- and I totes want to be all up in that trendy slang for shizzle, McDrizzle.  Actually, I don't know what I just said. 

Bondi Beach Surf Rescue Crew (2011), via Getty Images/Don Arnold

Well, so I  know I have a few readers from Australia and New Zealand, so I got to wondering whether those folks get annoyed or just fed up with all the wintery Christmas season books that permeate the market at this time of year, since Australians often celebrate their summery Christmas with a cookout on the beach.


So I thought I would look for a Christmas storybook that speaks to the way the celebration is seen on the other side of the world.  And I found this great little gem, A Bush Christmas, based on a poem written by C.J. Dennis in 1931.  It is a humorous look at an outback Christmas, where the heat of the noonday sun completes with Mum's hot oven as she puts together a "traditional" feast.  The children in this story cannot imagine a cold Christmas!  Although our world is much more connected these days, through television, movies, and social media, this look at a summery celebration will tickled your bundled up kids.

This book is not available through Amazon, but can be found at the publisher's website; the price is in Australian currency.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Elf on the Shelf: the horror continues


So here we go again with that freaking elf on the shelf.

People, I just don't know if I want to live in a world where all the mommies are required to creep around their own homes night after night, in the middle of the holy-hell-I-am-so-tired, making big-assed messes to fool the urchins into thinking that elves have gotten up to festive and naughty capers while the family sleeps. And then, of course, the mommies get to clean up the messes while the urchins frolic adorably and drink hot chocolate (made by the mommies, or made by the daddies so the mommies get to clean up that mess, too).

But apparently for some mommies, even this marathon of torture isn't enough work.  Now, it seems, it will not do merely to pull the bedraggled elf out of the storage room (if you can find him, because all the Christmas crap was hurriedly stuffed into the laundry room by mistake right before Grandma and the fabulous neighbors arrived for Easter dinner . . . oh.  Is that just me?).

This party idea comes from a perky, perky blog called Giggles Galore.  I'm not even kidding.

Now, I gather one must host a party to welcome the elf.

A party.  Do you believe that shit?

The blogger at Swish Designs does this kind of thing professionally, so I was ready to cut her a break -- until I read that the elf on her shelf arrives at the "Welcome, Elf!" celebration with gifts for the children of the home. GIFTS!

People, I weep. I mean really, I weep at the prospect of hosting a party for a doll.  This just can't be right, can it?  My fellow mommies must have been hypnotized into a frosting-covered, jingle-bells-ringing, tinsel-throwing trance.  I blame that stupid "Christmas Shoes" song.

Sisters!  I call upon you!  Rise up!  Rise up against the tyranny of the elf on the shelf!  You have nothing to lose but your red and green construction paper chains!

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Today's Advent book is The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree, by Gloria Houston.  It is 1918, and Ruthie's father has not yet returned from the War.  So Ruthie and her mother work together to harvest and transport the town's Christmas tree -- their family's responsibility for many years.  Through Ruthie's eyes, we see how heroic and hard-working her mother is, and we learn about the values of the Appalachian community that is their home.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Book Lovers' Advent Calendar: Day Nine

I love this story, The Christmas Knight, by Jane Louise Curry.   Sir Cleges is a merry knight, who loves to open his castle to all and to feast with his poorer neighbors during the Christmas season.  But when he falls upon difficult times, his neighbors forget about him.  After Sir Cleges offers a prayer of humility, a miraculous gift allows him to make a wonderful offering to King Uther.  In return, King Uther grants Sir Cleges the title of "Christmas Knight."

I am sad to say today's book  is out of print, although it can be found at used bookstores (you know about the fabulous website at ABE Books, right?), and I bet you will be able to find it at your public library.

"School's closed -- too bad!"

So the sunny girl is feeling particularly sunny on this snowy day, because we just read those happy, happy words: "Prince William County Schools -- CLOSED, Code Red."

Of course, gone are the days when she would spend tomorrow sledding or wishing we had gotten enough snow for a big snowman. Instead my girl will sleep, then have some tea, and fool around on Tumblr, then sleep some more. 

Aren't you jealous?

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In honor of our first snowy day -- which, let's be real, has really been more of an ice/sleet day -- here is a beautiful book: Dream Snow, by Eric Carle. This charming story tells about a farmer who, on Christmas Eve, dreams of a white wonderland. Little ones will have fun finding the farmer's animals, hidden under the snow -- and will love helping the farmer give his surprise gift to his animals on Christmas Day. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Book Lovers' Advent Calendar: Day Seven


Today's book is part of a series I've talked about before.  The book -- The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper, is the second in the sequence.


I am recommending it today for two reasons.  First, I think it is a great Yuletide story in the old meaning of the word -- all the action takes place around the time of the winter solstice.  The novel tells the story of Will Stanton, in many (though not all) ways a typical eleven-year-old boy, who must enter into a quest to defeat the powers of the Dark -- which rises at the turning of the year.

Allusions to Celtic mythology and elements of the Arthurian legend weave their way through the novel, so that makes me happy.  I could talk for way too long about the reasons that in many ways the Arthur story can also be read as a Christmas story -- I got an A on that paper in college!  But even without knowing much about King Arthur, readers will thrill to the idea that the battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil is a never-ending one -- and can turn on the hinge of a single person's actions.

The second reason I chose today to tell you about this book is that I have discovered a cool, cool thing: starting today you can be part of a Worldwide Readathon of the entire The Dark is Rising sequence!  How awesome is that?!  The organizer figured today was a good day for the event to begin, because Will Stanton is the "seventh son of a seventh son" -- see how December 7 is a fitting day to start the adventure?  The thinking is that everyone can read at his or her own pace, and we should all finish up right around December 20 -- Will's eleventh birthday, and Midwinter Eve.

No one has anything else to do this time of year, right?

NOTE:  Although it is part of a series, I think this novel can stand on its own quite well without one needing to be familiar with the previous book.  You know your kid, so you can decide whether this book is right for your family, but most readers who loved the Harry Potter books will enjoy this as well.  If you're not sure, I suggest that you read it to or with your child -- always a great thing, but especially cozy and fun in winter. With tea or cocoa. Or wine. As appropriate.

ANOTHER NOTE:  All of these book covers are from the various American and British re-printings of the book; published over forty years ago, the series has never been out of print.  Pick the cover that makes you happy -- they are all easily found online.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Book Lovers' Advent Calendar -- Day Six: The Feast of St. Nicholas

Today, even though it is the Feast of St. Nicholas, I cannot bring myself to eat a corned beef sandwich in honor of the pickled boys that St. Nicholas miraculously revived (sorry, Susan).  I did have a bagel for breakfast, so I am going to say that was in honor of the wheat that the good saint miraculously provided for his starving city -- although actually, I just really wanted a bagel.  And St. Nicholas did secretly throw gold coins into the stockings of three young girls in his town, thus saving them from prostitution and slavery.  So in honor of St. Nicholas I shall have gold foil-covered chocolate coins for lunch.  

I will wash down my chocolate coins with a Coke. Because I mean, come on!

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Here is a great book that has recently been re-published, Kersti and Saint Nicholas, by Hilda van Stockum.  Kersti is a naughty girl (though she is also brave and generous), and a good case could be made that she should get nothing but coal in her clogs on December 6 .  But St. Nicholas (Sinterklaas in Dutch), accompanied by his Moorish assistant, Pieterbaas, sees something more in Kersti -- and we do, too!

Here's the original cover, from when the book was first published in 1940.  When van Stockum was criticized for glorifying such a naughty girl in her story, here's her hilarious response:  "I claim no responsibility for [Kersti's] actions. I had a lovely, sweet, good little story for nice little children and Kersti just came and played havoc with it. She ruined the moral, shocked Pieterbaas, had a very bad influence on St. Nicholas and did not deserve a present at the end. I wash my hands of her."

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Dinner date!

Well, so -- much of the reason I have been away from blogging this fall has been that I have been spending a lot of time with my mother-in-law.  She has been battling illness, so has needed some extra help.  This is lucky for me, because I love her so much -- and always enjoy the time I get to spend with her.

Take Tuesday night, for example -- she and I had a fabulous dinner together: pork tenderloin, roasted potatoes, sauteed snow peas, and sliced tomatoes.  And we split a bottle of wine while she told me hilarious stories about the husband's childhood.

It was a great date!

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Today's book selection for Advent is lovely to look at -- and has a lovely story to go with it as well. Christmas Tapestry, by Patricia Polacco, is about a pastor's family who move to a new town and a new church community.  After the church is damaged in a storm, Jonathan and his father worry that Christmas Eve services will have to be ruined.  Luckily they find a beautiful old tapestry that will cover the damage perfectly.  Then the miracle part happens!

Such a great story -- and so gorgeous, too!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Book Lovers' Advent Calendar: Day Four

 I have always been a big Eloise fan.  I fell in love with her in a bookstore in Lexington, Virginia, when I read, "Here's where he's been: Spain.  Here's where I've been: boiler room."  I love, love, love that she has a dog named Weenie and a turtle named Skipper Dee.  And I have taken up many of her verb creations: the kittens so obviously skibble across the floor chasing an ice cube that I can't believe the word wasn't created by Chaucer to denote just such an action.  And I totally agree with Eloise: who hasn't wanted to sklonk somebody in the kneecap out of sheer frustration?

So today's choice for the Advent calendar, Eloise at Christmastime, by Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight, tickles me pink (Eloise would approve).  The book was originally published in 1958, and is unique among the Eloise books in that it is written in verse -- although Eloise's rhymes are often a little wonky, which makes sense since she's only six, for Lord's sake!

Eloise is fabulous as she makes gifts for everyone she knows, sings carols outside the doors of the Plaza's guests, hits all the parties, and then dreams about Santa.   Aack!  So happy-making!

[If your childhood memory of this book needs a little jog, it might be because this was the original cover . . . .]

"Sometimes there is so much to do that I get sort of a headache
 around the sides and partially under it."

Sister, I would wear that on a t-shirt.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Book Lover's Advent Calendar: Day Three

While my Jewish friends are in the midst of celebrating Hanukkah, I wanted to bring your attention to this gorgeous, gorgeous book.  Chanukah Lights, with lovely poetry by Michael Rosen, is really mostly about the stunning and lovely pop-up art by Robert Sabuda.  But don't be fooled by the childish term "pop-up." This pop-up art is really just art.

Each page illustrates the lighting of the menorah in a different scene -- across time and in multiple locations.  We are taken to a Russian shetl, to the New World, to an Israeli kibbutz.  The intricate cut-outs and three-dimensional constructions make this a book that your whole family will treasure.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Before the thankful season gets away from me . . . .


I let an important anniversary get away from me this fall, but I know you are all with me as I savor the fact that it has been over a year since the tall boy has had an encounter with a hospital emergency staff, or a cardio-thoracic surgeon, or an interventional radiologist.

This fall, instead of taking this picture . . .


. . .  the husband and I met the tall boy and Her for a birthday celebration and took this glamour shot.  Way more fun in every way -- believe it.

Talk about Thanksgiving!

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The Advent Calendar book for today is perfect as we enter into the season of snow -- or at least the season of hoping for a few white flakes!

Snow, a Caldecott Honor Book by Uri Shulevitz, is a great picture book that perfectly captures the excitement a child feels upon seeing a first snowflake . . . and then a second, and a third.  Shulevitz portrays the frustration and faith of one little boy who longs for snow.  Gorgeous!