Adults know that holidays take on far greater significance when children are involved -- lighting candles, helping in the kitchen, waking up far too early to shake and pinch and rattle every package. And truly, holidays are about celebrating the best stories we have, stories children are able to see with fresh eyes and ready hearts. These picture books help illuminate some old favorites.
Star So Bright
What Star Is This?, by Joseph Slate (author of the popular Miss Bindergarten series), illustrated by Alison Jay (Putnam, $15.99; ages 4-up), provides a fresh perspective on the Christmas story of the bright star that guided worshipers to the manger. The picture book follows the small comet from where it begins "in an icy ring through the deep dark sky," as it sails through constellations and around planets, leading wise men and shepherds to the true star of the story, the baby Jesus. Slate's unique approach combined with Jay's illustrations makes this an exceptional book. Jay's signature style uses a crackling varnish atop oil paint, giving her work the look of pottery with glaze that has begun to crack. The images are reminiscent of folk art -- clear, simple and fanciful, with huge-humped camels perched high on thin legs, fat sheep with small black faces and a luxuriously tall Mary and Joseph. Parents will enjoy reading this book as many times as their children will request it and will be grateful for a new, comet-shaped face on a familiar story.
One of our favorite holiday songs was born out of a grim, dark setting -- perhaps appropriate for a season in which we celebrate light coming to darkness. Silent Night, Holy Night, by Werner Thuswaldner (Penguin, $16.99; all ages), recalls the birth of this familiar hymn in the early 1800s in Oberndorf, an Austrian village wracked by war, poverty and floods. Village curate Joseph Mohr and teacher/musician Franz Xaver Gruber decided to give the villagers a gift on one difficult, cold, poor Christmas: "a song, to rouse them from the misery of despair." So they wrote and performed "Silent Night" after the midnight mass to a packed church, singing to Mohr's simple guitar accompaniment. From that humble beginning, this song traveled around the world, stirring hearts and turning thoughts away from material things "to the holiest night of all."
The story here is not terribly compelling; it is told as though by one adult to another, facts recited rather than yarns spun, and the English translation from the original German occasionally falters. But gorgeous illustrations by Robert Ingpen, who won the Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 1986, make the book worth owning. Ingpen's heartfelt detail -- faces of women and children, workers lining up in the cold -- captures both the gray dreariness of Oberndorf and the bright light and hope of the music.
Bah, Humbug. . . . Kvetch
Writer Esme Raji Codell and illustrator LeUyen Pham turn Dickens's classic A Christmas Carol into an early-20th-century Hanukkah story set among New York City's Jewish immigrants in Hanukkah, Shmanukkah! (Hyperion, $16.99; ages 5-up). Scrooge becomes Scroogemacher, a horrible boss (of course) who changes the hands on the workroom clock to eke more work out of his exhausted and underpaid crew. When his nephew encourages him to send everyone home early on the last night of Hanukkah, Scroogemacher replies, "Hanukkah, shmanukkah." And with that, his fate is sealed.
He is visited that night by the three rabbis of Hanukkah Past, Present and Future. Gone are Dickens's elaborate ghostly concoctions; Codell's rabbis are relatively normal. They take Scroogemacher to see the Maccabees regain the temple, his workers' humble festivities and a miserable boatload of new immigrants. The story falters when the Rabbi of Hanukkah Future takes Scroogemacher to see schoolchildren in modern America, launching into speeches about the value of education and workers' rights while Scroogemacher is distracted by electric lights. Scroogemacher finally observes a modern Jewish family lighting Hanukkah candles and decides the tradition is important because it is about remembering "how hard people have worked to make their place in the world. Our people, and all people." This conclusion will be welcomed in more liberal Jewish households, although parents may want to use it to spark a discussion about what else makes the holiday distinct and important to them.
If this Hanukkah tale reaches further than Dickens's original, it is also achieves less. In the end, Scroogemacher gives a few pennies to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and reluctantly gives in to his workers' demands. As the book says, "Good things happen from a little remembering." But in this case, not enough.
Season of Miracles
Miracles can happen today -- not only during the holiday season but all year through. And we can be part of them. That's the message of In God's Hands (Jewish Lights, $16.99; ages 5-up), by renowned Jewish writer Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and Newbery Honor winner Gary Schmidt. Their book is a retold Jewish folk tale that will also appeal to Catholic and Protestant readers, liberal and conservative.
Jacob is very rich and likes to think about money even when he's in synagogue. So he's surprised to hear God's voice one day asking him to bake 12 loaves of challah. David is very poor with lots of children to feed, so he prays and asks God for food and is surprised to find -- you guessed it -- 12 loaves of challah that Jacob has left. The men go on like this for years, surprised and thankful for the miracle, until the rabbi discovers what's happening and fills them in on the secret. Distraught at first that God does not bake challah or eat it, the men eventually see the miraculous in each other, understanding "that their hands are the hands of God."
This simple story, with earth-tone illustrations by Matthew J. Baek, is a welcome antidote to the grand holiday tradition of accumulating material things. It will help small hearts understand that some families are in need and that we have the great privilege of serving them as "hands of God."
Faith Around the World
Holidays are a good time for little ones to ask questions about what we believe -- and why other families believe and celebrate differently. Laura Buller's A Faith Like Mine (DK, $19.99; ages 10-14) tells the stories of faiths around the world through the eyes of children. Readers meet Eva from Greece, who loves cracking red hard-boiled eggs on Easter (they are red to symbolize the blood of Christ, and cracking them is a way to celebrate the resurrection); Yael from Israel, who loves to say the Sh'ma, the basic Jewish affirmation of faith, and who tells us about the bitter root, lamb and charoset in the Seder meal at Passover; Jang-chub from Tibet, who lives and studies at a Buddhist monastery, where he wears red robes and shaves his head. Dozens of other children -- Hindu and Sikh and Muslim -- also share the basic beliefs of the world's main religions. Each section covers symbols, rites of passage, holidays and special events, brought to life with dozens of compelling pictures. This engaging guide, if at times overly simple, will be especially helpful to parents around the Washington area, where Buddhists and Sikhs and Hindus may not only be across the world but also just down the street. *
Lori Smith is a freelance writer who covers religious publishing for Publishers Weekly.