A Book Lover's Advent Calendar: 2013

My Advent Calendar for Book Lovers keeps me thinking and browsing through stacks of storybooks all year long.  I have an affinity for older stories, mostly because they are the books I loved as a little girl, or were the books my kids loved when they were little themselves.  But the annual tradition I have created for myself here allows me to immerse myself in the children's section of Barnes & Noble, "doing research."  You will just have to imagine me, sitting in a wee little wooden chair, pouring over gorgeous storybooks with my knees tucked under my chin.

Here is the list of books I recommended in 2013.  Except where noted, the link will take you to the nice people at Amazon.  I don't have any financial interest in your purchasing books there -- just seemed easy.

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I have said before that my favorite of the Little House Christmas stories is the tale of Mr. Edwards' encounter with Santa Claus, on a muddy street in Independence, Missouri (this story is a chapter in Little House on the Prairie).  I also do love the story of Laura's beloved doll Charlotte, found in Little House in the Big Woods.  But I was thinking about the fourth book in the series, On the Banks of Plum Creek, and it occurred to me that this book is just chock full of Christmas.

Wilder tells us that one early Christmas, the family exchanges no gifts, but Pa buys horses that they will need for plowing come spring.  And of course the book ends with Pa's arrival at home on Christmas, after being trapped in a snow bank during a four-day blizzard -- and after eating their Christmas candy so he can survive.

But for most Little House lovers, the fabulous Christmas story in this book is the chapter called "Surprise."  Who can forget the church Christmas party, at which Laura sees her first actual Christmas tree?
Everyone stood up to sing and Laura stood up, but she could not sing. Not a sound would come out of her throat. In the whole world, there couldn't be a store so wonderful to look at as that tree. After the singing, Mr. Tower and Mr. Beadle began taking things off it, and reading out names. Mrs. Tower and Mrs. Beadle brought those things down past the benches, and gave them to the person whose name was on them. Everything on that tree was a Christmas present for somebody!

Mrs. Tower stood smiling, holding out the little fur cape and muff.  "For me?" Laura said. "For me?" Then everything else vanished while with both arms she hugged the soft furs to her. She hugged them tighter and tighter, trying to believe they were really hers, that silky-soft little brown cape and the muff.
"What do you say, Laura?" Ma asked, but the Reverend Alden said, "There is no need. The way her eyes are shining is enough."

Gets me every time.

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The Advent Calendar book for today was perfect as we entered 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!

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As Advent moves forward it's always good to remember that our Jewish friends are in the midst of celebrating Hanukkah. 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.

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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 Christmastimeby 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.

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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!

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On the Feast of St. Nicholas, 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."

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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 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.

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.

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In honor of our first snowy day -- which, let's be real, was 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.

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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 this book  is out of print, although it can be found at used bookstores, and I bet you will be able to find it at your public library.  The link here is to the fabulous online used book seller, ABEBooks.com.

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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.

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In honor of my Australian readers (hi, Polly!), here is a Christmas storybook that speaks to the way the celebration is seen on the other side of the world.  This great little gem, A Bush Christmas, is 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, here in the northern half of the planet.

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

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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?!)

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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 WomenLittle 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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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." 

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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.

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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!

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