The holidays, with their requisite feasts, gifts and laughing children, provide more than just occasions for raucous celebration. They also give moments of quiet contemplation and opportunities to appreciate the fullness of life. In that spirit, young readers will find much to think about in the entertaining Star Mother's Youngest Child (Houghton Mifflin, $14; ages 9-12). Louise Moeri's strange, enchanting holiday tale was first published 30 years ago. This new anniversary edition proves that the story has lost none of its riveting power.
It's a variation on a very old kind of story in which an unearthly visitor bestows a valuable gift on a gracious hostess. In Moeri's version, the hostess is a character known only as the Old Woman. She has been alone for so long, living with her dog in a forlorn little hut at the forest's edge, that nearby villagers have completely forgotten about her. Her desperate straits could be lightened somewhat, she thinks, if she could "have a real Christmas, with a Christmas tree, and presents, and candles lit, and music, and a feast."
Meanwhile, the Star Mother, charged with tidying up the heavens, struggles to cope with her "peevish" son, who keeps "dawdling and diddling around the sky, banging into constellations and scuffing up the clouds his mother had smoothed out so carefully."
"Just once," he complains to his mother, "I want to celebrate Christmas like they do down there!"
Soon Christmas morning arrives, and the Old Woman opens her door to find a mysterious guest: "He had patched up clothes of some uncertain style, a wrinkled brown face, and spiky, yellow hair that stood up like dry grass all over his head."
The Star Mother's young son has been magically transformed into an Ugly Child, whom the Old Woman suspects is a rascal up to no good. But he quickly proves to be a wide-eyed innocent, unfamiliar with such things as fire, tea, turnips and sugar.
The grumpy crone and the curious boy gradually fashion a Christmas enriched not by material possessions but things that really matter, like generosity, companionship and love. Moeri's prose is consistently lyrical and evocative. Outside the hut, she writes, "snowflakes lifted up from the drifts and ran about like little girls in white dresses." In the night sky, stars are seen "twinkling and shimmering up there together like some great family of acrobats in silver sequins." Trina Schart Hyman's illustrations, rendered cleanly in black and white, provide the ideal complement to this memorable tale.
The Wee Christmas Cabin of Carn-na-ween (Candlewick, $14.99; ages 4-8), by Ruth Sawyer, is another timeless gem. Originally published in 1941 and now invigorated by Max Grafe's sensitive new illustrations, Sawyer's revival of an Irish legend manages to be somber, haunting and ultimately heartwarming.
Sawyer tells the hardscrabble story of Oona Hegarty, a poor foundling left on a doorstep in Ireland, "a hundred years ago and more." Oona grows up a beautiful and kindhearted girl, known for her tireless work ethic, her boundless compassion and her nursing skills. But she is also known throughout the village as a tinker's child and as such is deemed unsuitable for marriage. Husbandless, she isn't able to acquire a cabin of her own. Instead she lives with various families as hired help. "From cabin to cabin, whenever trouble or need abided, there went Oona," Sawyer writes.
Throughout her long years of labor, Oona yearns for her own place. "Not one of the many she served and loved guessed of the hunger that grew with the years for a cabin she could call hers."
But it begins to look as if this will never happen. She grows old and moves "slowly on unsteady feet." Ireland weakens too, as its great famine makes food and shelter hard to come by. Privation, Sawyer warns, "can put stones in the place of human hearts, and hunger can make tongues bitter." In a heartbreaking scene, Oona is turned out of her last place of employment on a cold and harsh Christmas Eve. With her belongings bundled on her back, she climbs a hill to find shelter under a blackthorn tree. There she is befriended by kind fairies -- "Gentle People" -- who build her the cabin she has always wanted.
Oona's magical home becomes a place of eternal refuge visible only during white Christmases, when she takes in weary travelers in need of a welcoming hearth and a warm heart. Buoyed by Sawyer's lovely language, a story that starts out with a foreboding tone is redeemed by its hopeful conclusion. Readers and wayward travelers are assured that "Oona Hegarty, the tinker's child, will be keeping the griddle hot, the kettle full, and her arms wide . . . if it be's a white Christmas." Sawyer, who died in 1970, was an award-winning children's author who often found inspiration in Irish folktales. This new edition, winningly illustrated by Grafe, shows that talent seldom goes out of style.
Serious storytelling always has a place at holiday time, but there's also room for less challenging fare as well, and that's where Rebecca Bond's A City Christmas Tree (Little, Brown, $15.99; ages 4-8) comes in. After the Christmas tree man sets up shop on Liberty Street, it starts "the city all dreaming great dreams of a city Christmas tree." In Bond's whimsical setting, such reveries revolve around the Laroche kids -- Maggie, Teddy, Lucas and Ellie -- who spend a week in a fog of Christmas-tree fantasies, excitedly awaiting the day their parents will purchase a tree and bring it home.
"Maggie Laroche was the first to come," Bond writes, "just Maggie alone on Monday day." Her siblings follow her one by one, each bringing a dream of his or her own.
Bond skillfully blends festive domestic scenes with fetching flights of fantasy. The best of these include Teddy's vision of a tree that makes him feel at home "in the heart of the woods, all brightly and lushly alive." In another rewarding sequence, relatives of the Laroches take to the skies and soar above Liberty Street toward the family home, "with boxes and bags, crossing the landscapes, the seascapes, the skies, to share all together this tree."
By Saturday the Laroches' longed-for tree is set up in their parlor to be decorated while snow falls outside. Gentleness is the prevailing tone set by Bond's acrylic paintings, rendered in soft colors that display the city easing into hushed, peaceful repose.
When Christmas falls on Sunday, the setting outside the Laroche home is "as quiet as quiet, and the world was perfect and it was dark, there were only the lights all bright in the city, of hundreds of Christmas-tree trees." And the silence all around seems a fitting holiday coda, as welcome and appropriate as all the other good things we associate with the season, such as feasts, gifts and the laughter of children. *
Jabari Asim is children's book editor for Book World. His new children's books will be published in the spring.