Happy Christmouse to All

Robert Sabuda's name has become virtually synonymous with first-class pop-up books. In popular titles such as The Movable Mother Goose and Cookie Count, he has demonstrated an uncanny talent for making stories leap off the page. The pop-up wizard's The Night Before Christmas (Simon & Schuster, $24.95) is no exception. For his version of Clement Clarke Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas," Sabuda has elevated the role of the quiet little rodent mentioned in the first stanza of the famous poem. This time, instead of appearing as a timid little critter squatting in a house full of humans, he takes center stage as the head of his own homestead.

The first few pages are fairly low-key, though certainly up to Sabuda's usual standard. The ante increases when Papa Mouse springs from his bed to investigate the clatter on his lawn. While his curious, kerchief-wearing wife looks on, Papa heads toward a window and sash that look like a scale model for a Broadway set. The miniature sleigh that he spies from his window is an impressive feat of "paper engineering," with a "little old driver" who provides just a touch of holiday color.

But this scene provides no hint of the gasp-inducing construction that pops up on the following spread. "More rapid than eagles," Santa's reindeer rush toward the reader in a 3-D frenzy of antlers and hooves, extending nearly six inches from the page. A multi-page sequence starring Santa is just as well done, although one can forgive one man -- even St. Nick -- for not quite matching the effect of eight thundering reindeer. Sabuda shows him in three-quarter view, scurrying across the page with his sack of goodies on his back, followed by a frontal shot of the jolly old guy in all his pipe-smoking, beard-wearing glory. In a final display of marvelous mechanics, he even goes up the chimney, just as the poem describes. After performing his customary good deeds, Santa flies away above a lovely snow-covered village, complete with a bridge, gazebo and several stand-alone buildings. As might be expected, this book is quite delicate and should be handled with utmost care.

Kwanzaa Redux

Sabuda has had a hand in more than a few holiday books, including the memorable A Kwanzaa Celebration Pop-Up Book, written by Nancy Williams, published in 1995 and still in print. That same year, It's Kwanzaa Time! by Linda and Clay Goss was also published. There have been few Kwanzaa books of note to emerge since then, which may explain the reappearance of the Goss book in a fine paperback version this fall (Putnam, $8.99; ages 6-up). In addition to their own contributions, the Gosses include writing and illustrations from a number of acclaimed talents, among them Jan Spivey Gilchrist, Leo and Diane Dillon and Jerry Pinkney.

A Potato Had to Do

Family rituals often define the way we perceive and celebrate holidays. One family's holiday occasion derives from a unique and bittersweet variation on tradition in One Candle (HarperCollins, $15.99; ages 4-8). Eve Bunting's story is narrated by a thoughtful young girl attending her family's observance of the first night of Hanukkah. "I love all our holidays when we're together like this," she says. "But maybe I love Hanukkah most of all."

After her family has lighted one candle in the menorah and prayed and feasted together, they all gather around while Grandma and Great-Aunt Rose retell the story of their experience in a German concentration camp. When they were just 12 and 13, they lived with five other women in a barracks at Buchenwald. At great risk, they celebrated Hanukkah by smuggling from the kitchen a potato, a blob of margarine and two matches, from which they fashioned a candle. Now, each year, Grandma recreates that ritual with a potato, and the whole family raises glasses to the flame. "And in that moment," the young narrator says, "we are lifted to the stars." K. Wendy Popp's illustrations, rendered in muted pastels, manage to exude just the right degree of warmth to accompany a somber yet affirming story.

Santa Takes the Stairs

During my own happy and distinctly urban childhood, a popular holiday joke attempted to explain why Santa seldom bothered to include the inner city on his holiday rounds. The punch line varied but always had something to do with the dangers he was sure to encounter, which included being mugged, getting lost and sometimes simply being done in by the dirty skies, clogged sewers and such. Yin neatly inverts that kind of citified cynicism in the surprising Dear Santa, Please Come to the 19th Floor (Philomel, $16.99). Willy and his best friend, wheelchair-bound Carlos, live in a crowded high-rise. A trip to Carlos's home on the 19th floor requires navigating past such hazards as smelly "winos" who haunt the staircases and "real tough-looking kids that hang out" on the 11th floor. To make matters worse, the light bulbs are frequently broken, and the elevator seldom works. But plenty of nice people live in the building as well, hardworking, kindhearted people -- which Santa discovers when he answers the boys' e-mail and pays a Christmas Eve visit to the 19th floor. Because the elevator is out, Willy must help Santa take the stairs to Carlos's apartment, an arduous trip that enables Santa to see firsthand how "underprivileged" children live. In exchange for his eye-opening tour, St. Nick teaches the boys about the value of hope. And he gives them presents, too. The illustrations by Yin's husband, Chris Soenpiet, are typical of his high-caliber work, realistic and richly evocative. *

Jabari Asim is children's editor of Book World.