It’s the most wonderful time of the year down at the library.
We enjoy the Benjamin Hooks children's section, but all branches have recommended holiday books on display. We also browsed the shelves, as holiday stories have candy cane stickers on their spines. And librarians always have plenty of reading suggestions.
Here are a few stories that score 5 out of 5 marshmallows in hot chocolate (my unofficial holiday scoring system).
Christmas Soup by Alice Faye Duncan & Phyllis Dooley, illustrations by Jan Spivey Gilchrist (Zonder Kids)
On Christmas Eve, Mama is making her annual “Christmas soup” since the family is too poor for a big dinner. Her three children wish there was more to eat, eldest Jack complains, but baby Fannie decides to pray for “something more.”
With a knock at the door appears a homeless mother and son, too worn out to make it to the homeless shelter. Mama invites them in and offers all she has; her Christmas soup. Needless to say, the visitors eat bowl after bowl and declare it the best they have had. Their joy spreads to the family — even the grumpy Jack. When they have eaten their fill and warmed up, they leave, wishing a Merry Christmas to Mama and her children. When the family finally sits down to eat their own bowls of Christmas soup Jack thanks God for all their blessings — even Christmas soup.
This story is a local favorite, in part because it's written by Memphian Alice Faye Duncan, but also because her story passes on the spirit of kindness and giving without mentioning presents. It further reminds us that for many families, Christmas is not a time of plenty.
The Crunchy, Munchy Christmas Tree by Karen Gray Ruelle (Holiday House/New York) is part of the Harry and Emily series for beginning readers. The sibling kittens Harry and Emily are busy preparing for Christmas. The twist in this book is that they're not spending the holiday at home; the family always drives to Grandma and Grandpa's house.
To prepare for the trip, they search out a Christmas tree, then choose stockings and one ornament each to take on the trip, since Grandma has her own ornaments. On Christmas Eve, all is ready: a letter to Santa telling him they won't be home and to please leave presents at Grandma’s house.
But Christmas morning, the snow is so deep the family must wait until the snow plow clears the streets. (We pause here while you explain to your little one what a “snow plow” is). In the meantime, the children decide to decorate a tree in their yard with popcorn strands. Later, they see reindeer by the tree and two presents… Santa remembered them after all!
In my opinion, the Christmas miracle is that snow plows are running on Christmas Day, so the family gets to their grandparent's home that afternoon. This is a different holiday story but one I would recommend to anyone who travels elsewhere for Christmas. It lets your children know there's more than one way to celebrate the season. The added bonus here is that I can pretty much guarantee you won't be looking out the window waiting for a snowplow to clear the street; THAT would be a Christmas miracle.
Oliver and Amanda’s Christmas by Jean Van Leeuwen, illustrated by Ann Schweninger (Puffin easy-to-read, level 2) is a book for beginning readers with easy words and short sentences. It is also full of Christmas illustrations that will keep younger ones interested if you are doing the reading. It is split onto five chapters that build up to Christmas day.
Pigs Oliver and Amanda are brother and sister, and they and their parents all shut themselves in their rooms to take care of mysterious tasks; Amanda thinks of crafts she can make for presents. Later, they all go to the woods in search of a tree, and because all four of them each has their own idea of a “perfect” tree they can’t agree on one. Finally, tired and cold, they notice a small one that has an empty nest in it and the all agree that the nest makes it the best one they have seen.
Another chapter is all about the two children making their own Santa and Snowman cookies, and Oliver trying to find a big enough stocking to fit the 22 toys he has requested. Finally, on Christmas day they find that Santa has come; as you can guess Oliver does not get 22 toys, but how the Christmas Day, celebrations are described and what makes the children happy is nicely done.
This is a modern Christmas tale with all the Christmas greed of what children hope for, but finishes instead with a few gifts that make the children happy — in other words, you don’t need to cover the floor with expensive presents to have a merry Christmas. If your child likes this book, there is a whole series of Oliver and Amanda tales to be enjoyed.
The Chanukkah Guest by Eric A. Kimmel, illustrated by Giora Carmi (Holiday House).
In the snowy forest village, 97-year-old Bubba (that means Granny, this isn't A Redneck Hanukkah) is preparing her famous latkes for Chanukkah, so tasty the whole village comes to eat them. Tonight is special because the rabbi is also coming.
Meanwhile, a bear in his nearby den also smells the good food and awakens from his hibernation. The rest of the tale is about the short-sighted old woman and bear playing dreidl, lighting the first candle on the menorah, and eating ALL of the latkes.
You'll have to read it for yourself to learn what happens when the villagers arrive with the real rabbi. Our family enjoyed this story as it gave us an idea of the different Chanukkah activities enjoyed in Jewish homes around Memphis — and serves as a reminder that not everyone celebrates Christmas.