ANGELA AND THE BABY JESUS By Frank McCourt. Illustrated by Raul Colon | Simon & Schuster, $17.99; ages 5-10
Among the common themes in Christmas literature for children is one that reminds young readers of those who have less than they do. This season gives us two new picture books that do this in a gentle, non-hectoring way.
Angela and the Baby Jesus retells a story that Frank McCourt's mother (first memorialized in Angela's Ashes) told him as a child. As recounted here, 6-year-old Angela worries that the Baby Jesus in her church's creche must be very cold without any blanket. Even though she knows stealing brings punishment, she lifts the Baby Jesus from his crib, makes her way home and puts the still-smiling baby in her own bed.
McCourt and illustrator Ra¿l Col¿n wonderfully capture the child's-eye version of this rescue attempt, including the way Angela identifies with the smaller child: "Even if he was cold he'd never complain because the Baby Jesus would never want to make his mammy the slightest bit unhappy. . . . She was often cold herself, hungry too, but never complained for fear of being told by her mother and brothers and sister to stop the whingeing." Col¿n's watercolors pay close attention to Angela's expressions and movements; the muted tones and softly glowing lights create a world that's only a bit daunting for a little girl out on her own. (A second version of the story is being marketed to adults, with considerably darker illustrations by Loren Long.)
Inevitably, her well-intentioned scheme is discovered. Her mother quickly wraps the baby in her shawl and walks back to the church with Angela and her siblings. There they find the parish priest with a policeman, who asks, "Should we . . . put her into the Limerick jail?" Angela's brother, just a bit older, begs to go in her place. McCourt, of course, blesses us with a happy ending. When Angela "put the Baby Jesus back in the crib, he smiled the way he always did and held out his arms to the world."
THE ALL-I'LL-EVER-WANT CHRISTMAS DOLLBy Patricia C. McKissack . Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney | Schwartz & Wade, $16.99; ages 4-8
Patricia C. McKissack's story takes place in a Depression-era African American home where old newspapers were put on the walls to keep out winter winds. "Christmas always came to our house," the young narrator, Nella, points out, "but Santy Claus only showed up once in a while." Jerry Pinkney's lovingly detailed, pencil-and-watercolor illustrations reveal a humble but lively place where the family members and their colorful clothes stand out from subdued brown-and-gray surroundings. Nella and her two sisters are called "chickadees" by their mother because "those little birds huddled together, chattering, twittering, and sharing everything they had -- like us." But squabbles break out when Santy brings a Baby Betty doll for all three to share, a doll that Nella had dearly wished for and written a letter to Santy about. When her sisters relinquish their claims to Baby Betty, Nella discovers the doll is not nearly as much fun as her sisters are. Pinkney infuses the final double-page spread with all the affection three little girls can have for one another, as Nella pours a pretend cup of tea and says, "real prim and proper-like, 'Isn't this the best Christmas ever?' " Unlike Baby Betty, her sisters know exactly when to laugh.
WINTER IN WHITE A Mini Pop-Up Treat By Robert Sabuda | Little Simon, $12.99; all ages
Robert Sabuda is the Prince of Pop-Ups, and his 2002 version of The Night Before Christmas already stands as a holiday classic. His festive offering this year, Winter in White, is subtitled "A Mini Pop-Up Treat" and can probably fit into medium-to-large-sized stockings. The construction isn't sturdy enough for toddlers, and the poem isn't particularly timeless, with lines like "A silent hush of snowy white/Making deep, dark forests bright," but the bright white visions that spring forth each time you turn the page are little wonders. Among the scenes: a skater doing a pirouette on a shiny frozen pond, a sled racing down a hill and, with a nice splash of color, two doves tying a gift's big red bow.
THE NUTCRACKER By Susan Jeffers | HarperCollins, $16.99; ages 3-8
Susan Jeffers's version of The Nutcracker is not a full translation of the original, but its precise and pretty watercolors, semi-traditional treatment and spare text make it a wonderful introduction for young children. The versatile illustrator behind the beloved McDuff series as well as Brother Eagle, Sister Sky and several lush fairy-tale adaptations, Jeffers knows how to catch a child's attention. One spread reveals a doll's-house view of Marie and Fritz's house, and the ballroom scenes are as convincingly drawn as the battle between Fritz's toy soldiers and the Mouse King's little army. Even better is the Land of Sweets, for which Jeffers flies far above a strict stage view. The magic here is in the delicious-looking details.
Abby McGanney Nolan writes about pop culture and kids' books.