Eloise descends on the Plaza at Christmastime, Auntie Claus goes to the North Pole to help out her brother, a girl named Rebecca travels to Bethlehem, but when the Grinch starts spouting Latin, things can get daffy.
Eloise, that little scamp who has been tormenting the guests and staff at the Plaza Hotel for nearly 50 years, has returned with a vengeance. F.A.O. Schwartz is offering Eloise dolls and Christmas tree ornaments, toy Weenies, an "emergency kit" and other assorted merchandise this year. Hollywood has bought the rights to the four books and plans to shoot two live-action movies back to back. Eloise even has her own shade of lipstick now.
But the best way to introduce a child to the most famous resident at the Plaza this holiday is with Kay Thompson's Eloise at Christmastime (Simon & Schuster, $17). The book has been out of print for 40 years, and one wonders why. It is as fresh as a new sprig of holly and far more fun. Thompson traces the 6-year-old's outrageous antics on Christmas Eve in the freest of verse. Whether spreading holiday cheer in her own inimitable way in the lobby or scrawling "Merry Christmas" across the hotel walls, the Plaza's good little bad girl never runs out of steam or mischief. "We sang Noel for 506/ Silent Night for 507/ We didn't sing for 509/ at the request of 511."
However bewitching Thompson's lines may be, there would be no Eloise without her foster father, Hilary Knight, and he hasn't lost his touch. Knight has drawn a bright new cover and several additional pictures for the reissue, and one can barely distinguish these from the original drawings.
Elise Primavera's Auntie Claus (Harcourt Brace, $16) is a little girl's version of William Joyce's Santa Calls seasoned with a good dose of Kay Thompson's pizzazz. Sophie Kringle lives in the same New York hotel as her mysterious aunt; and, determined to find out exactly what business Auntie Claus goes on each year before Christmas, she stows away in the lady's biggest box. They are off to the North Pole, for Auntie Claus is Santa Claus's sister and one of his favorite emissaries, and Sophie is immediately put to work as one of his elves. She probably belongs on his Bad Boys and Girls List for spying on her aunt and other little indiscretions throughout this engagingly illustrated picture book, but every child will naturally root for Sophie to have a Merry Christmas in the end.
Patricia Polacco has explored another meaning of the season in Welcome Comfort (Putnam, $16.99). When a kind-hearted school janitor befriends an overweight, tormented foster child, this boy who has never known Christmas before is miraculously blessed with a ride in Santa's sleigh that year. He then grows up to carry on the good work of his old benefactor. Welcome Comfort is as warm as a down comforter and told with the conviction and cadences of a tall tale. But the ending, borrowed from the movie "The Santa Clause," may unsettle some young readers who have other ideas of who the real patron Saint of Christmas is.
In A Christmas Story (Eerdmans, $17), British artist Brian Wildsmith has gone back to the dawn of the millennium to compose a simple, apocryphal tale about the first Christmas. A little girl named Rebecca traces the steps of Joseph and the Virgin Mary on their way to Bethlehem to reunite a donkey with his mother. Of course Judea never looked like Wildsmith's gorgeously colored paintings, and the candy-box gold is garish and adds nothing to the beauty of this book's art. Nevertheless, A Christmas Story is a quiet, gentle introduction to the story of Christ and should be shared with the littlest ones.
Tasha Tudor is the grande dame of American picture books, and at 84 she does not seem to be slowing down a bit. She illustrated Clement C. Moore's The Night Before Christmas back in 1962, but now she has done an entirely new edition (Little, Brown, $14.95). The drawing is gnarled, the color murky, and she cribbed her Santa Claus from Arthur Rackham. But her loyal following will not be disappointed in this reinterpretation of the most famous of Christmas poems. Nearly every detail, from the utensils around the fireplace to all the toys tumbling from Santa's bag, reflect Tudor's nostalgic vision of a pre-industrial America. And her beloved corgis can be spotted everywhere. The only glaring anachronism is a Christmas tree in the colonial cottage. Christmas trees weren't introduced to the United States from Germany until long after Moore penned "A Visit from Saint Nicholas."
Another new edition of a Christmas classic is The Nutcracker (DK, $14.95), in this case the German Romantic fairy tale rather than the famous Tchaikovsky ballet. The text is abridged and the pages are cramped and crammed with information. It is not the easiest way to read the story for the first time. This lavishly illustrated annotated version is part of the "Eyewitness Classics" series, but the scholarship is dubious. Because this book was originally published in London for an English audience, the marginalia is unnecessarily Anglocentric, and some of the pictures do not quite go with the notes they grace. For some odd reason E.T.A. Hoffmann is listed on the title page as "Ernest Hoffmann." Also James Mayhew's humdrum pictures capture little of the magic of this marvelous tale. However, some children will enjoy learning about the old-fashioned toys, sweets, books and customs that litter this book.
The perfect gift for all those Grinches in the family and office is Quomodo invidiosulus nomine Grinchus Christi Natalem abrogaverit (what a mouthful!), a Latin translation of Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Bolchazy-Carducci, $19.95). Classical scholars Jennifer and Terence Tunberg have not attempted a literal rendering but rather have rewritten the rollicking holiday fable in "rhythmic prose." In the daffiest translation since Winnie ille Pooh, little Cindy-Lou Who becomes the seductive "Laetitia Laetula." The Tunbergs make Ted Geisel sound like Virgil!
Just in time for New Year's, John Updike has revised an early work of his, A Child's Calendar (Holiday House, $16.95). The famous novelist once aspired to be a poet, but it is just as well he turned to fiction. The 12 verses here, each devoted to a different month, are sweet and slight. There is no variation in form nor any verbal experimentation. The rhythm and rhyme scheme of his rigid quatrains are static (a-b-c-b all).
Yet there is a nice turn of phrase here and there, as in "June": "The live-long light/ Is like a dream/ And freckles come/ Like flies to cream." The new pictures are the book's chief delight. Caldecott Medal-winner Trina Schart Hyman affectionately portrays a year in the life of her daughter Katrin's family in New England, with special emphasis on pensive Michou and curious Xavier. Hyman's wit and shrewd observations save these lovely watercolors from greeting card bathos. The best in the bunch is the little devil gazing up toward all the ghouls and goblins of the neighborhood gathering around his door for Halloween tricks or treats. A Child's Calendar is a tender tribute and a book for all seasons.
Michael Patrick Hearn's books include "The Annotated Christmas Carol." He is currently writing a biography of L. Frank Baum, the author of "The Wizard of Oz."