Kiddosphere: Seasons Readings – Books for Christmas and Hanukkah
Strap yourself in. It’s time for my “new and favorite Christmas/Hanukkah books” post. Christmas and Hanukkah books are my favorite type of holiday books, and every year brings terrific new titles.
When I look for new Hanukkah books, I’m drawn to stories that place Hanukkah within the story, rather than a “this is what we do during Hanukkah” book. We have many excellent books that show families preparing for and enjoying the holiday so I’m more apt to buy a Hanukkah book if it offers something different. Little Red Ruthie is a darling and inventive take on the Little Red Riding Hood tale. Little Red Ruthie is on her way (armed with sour cream and applesauce) to help her grandmother make latkes for Hanukkah when she encounters a hungry wolf in the woods. Little Red Ruthie must do her best to convince him that latkes are much tastier than she is!
Nutcracker in Harlem is another take on a familiar story; in this case, it’s the Nutcracker story set in 1920s Harlem (during the Harlem Renaissance). This gorgeous retelling comes with an informative author’s note on the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance. Pair this with Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite (complete with CD) for an enhanced experience.
The fun of visiting a Christmas tree farm is celebrated in Pick a Pine Tree, which will join my Christmas read alouds list. Everything from picking out the tree to decorating it at home is lovingly detailed.
Like many multicultural families, the family depicted in Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas blends two culinary traditions (Dad is Jewish, Mom is Indian) to celebrate and honor their shared heritage. Little sister Sadie climbs everywhere, which certainly keeps her older brother on his toes. When the family is accidentally locked out of their home, Sadie’s crawling skills are put to good use. This is a funny and heartwarming story of the craziness that inevitably happens during holiday preparations.
Although I admire the children’s Nativity books that draw upon the language of the King James Bible, I prefer the ones that are written for a child audience. Twas the Evening of Christmas takes the familiar cadence of Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas and retells Christ’s birth in a way that lends itself perfectly for a family or Sunday School setting. The illustrations are also diverse and reflect the Middle Eastern setting.
Long-time (ish) Favorites
When I was a child, I loved The Best Christmas Pageant Ever for its hilarity. As an adult, I’m moved by its honest and unprettified look on the Nativity, and the impact inclusion has on children who seem unlovable but desperately need someone to care.
Love, love, love The Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood. What a gem. If you need a Christmas story that’s focused on selflessness and community (rather than on gift receiving), don’t miss this one.
A Night of Great Joy is one of two darling picture books that tells the Nativity story through a Sunday School class playing the parts of the Holy Family/Wise Men/shepherds/angels/etc. Mary Engelbreit makes a point of making her artwork inclusive and diverse, which is beautifully depicted here. The Christmas Pageant is an older and equally sweet treatment of the Christmas story.
One of my favorite easy chapter books series finds EllRay Jakes preparing for the big holiday concert. Not only does EllRay have to emcee the show, but he’s also slated to sing “Jingle Bell Rock!” EllRay Jakes Rocks the Holidays is a great way to get started with the series; a superb pick for both reluctant and avid chapter book readers.
Based on actual events, Hanukkah at Valley Forge is a stirring tribute to the Jewish soldiers of the Revolutionary War. As a soldier lights the first candle for Hanukkah, he tells General Washington about the unlikely victory of the Maccabees against the powerful Greeks. Although the conversation between the soldier and General Washington is fictional, Washington did speak of learning about the holiday from a Polish-American soldier during the war. The story also effectively portrays Washington’s innate curiosity and thirst for knowledge, which tends to be forgotten in the shadows of Adams and Jefferson, as well as his views on religious liberty (as evidenced by his letter to a Jewish congregation in Rhode Island).
Cat knows that he needs to be on Santa’s “nice list” in order to get presents, but it’s really hard for him. He even tries giving gifts to children, who tend to not share his idea of awesome gifts. Here Comes Santa Cat continues Deborah Underwood’s rascally cat’s adventures.
Jeremy is making a special dreidel at the dreidel making workshop; his friends think he’s making a secret code, but he’s actually transcribing the Hebrew letters into Braille for his father, who is blind. Jeremy’s Dreidel is a unique story with a positive and affirming message; one of my top Hanukkah picks.
While we have many exquisite retellings of “The Nutcracker,” many patrons find that they are quite long and detailed for young listeners. If that’s your case, then try Susan Jeffers’ rendition of The Nutcracker. My three year old niece received this as a gift from our aunt just before she went to see an abridged performance of the ballet, and she loved it.
You might not think of Ramona and Her Father being a “Christmas book,” but as it begins with Ramona making her list in September and ends with the sisters participating in their church’s Nativity play, it counts for me. It’s also a realistic look at a financially strapped family’s struggle with Christmas (even forty years after its publication).
As she has for many of her books, Cynthia Rylant drew upon her Appalachian heritage to write Silver Packages: An Appalachian Christmas Story. Every Christmas, a train travels through a remote village, bringing presents for children. One boy hopes for a doctor kit every year, but never receives one (although he receives gifts that he definitely needs and appreciates). If you can read the ending without choking up, you’re made of stronger stuff than I am!
Need a read aloud for elementary school students? Try Too Many Tamales. Maria tries on her mother’s wedding ring while making tamales, when it inevitably goes missing. Uh oh–what to do? This darling family story stresses honesty with a good dash of humor.
Waiting for Christmas is a deceptively simple story; while the text is minimal and makes for a perfect read aloud, its rich illustrations are best enjoyed carefully and unhurriedly (note the African-American Santa Claus, among other things).
Christmas is also a fun time to enjoy movies with the family!
Look, I unabashedly love the (very) flawed 1982 Annie movie, but the 1999 Disney version restores the Christmas ending first shown in the original stage production (which makes more sense than the Fourth of July ending).
The Bells of St. Mary’s is deeply sentimental, showing a pre-Vatican II Catholicism/America that no one under the age of 60 will identify with (so don’t be surprised when they mention the “Holy Ghost” and don’t have the “under God” part of the Pledge of Allegiance). It has a weird subplot in which everyone lets Ingrid Bergman think that Bing Crosby wants her transferred because he hates her rather than tell her that she has tuberculosis, they’re also reaaaaally vague about what exactly Patsy’s mother does for a living that’s so scandalous that she wants her daughter to board at the school, and frankly, not much happens other than the drama of the rich old man planning to knock down the crumbling Catholic grade school. However, it reminds me of my grandmother, with whom I watched it, and it shows kindness, heart, understanding and charity that you don’t see much of in modern movies (it also has a classic Christmas-ish subplot of money not being the most important thing in the world, with a “road to Damascus” feel ). So cast aside your cynicism when you watch it. The only Christmas scene is a class adorably improvising the Nativity story, but that’s good enough.
Everyone has their favorite version of A Christmas Carol; mine is the George S. Scott production. Yes, the special effects for the ghosts are obviously from the 80s, but ignore that small bit.
To paraphrase Louisa May Alcott, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Little Women. While the 1994 version is not 100% faithful to the book, it’s my favorite edition. It opens with Christmas and has an additional Christmas scene, which makes it Christmas-y enough for me. 2018 marks the 150th anniversary of the first book (it was originally published as two separate books), so there is no better time to get reacquainted with the story!
The only Christmas thing Meet Me in St. Louis has going for it is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” but really, what more do you need?
One of my favorite Muppets movie, which also has the advantage of not having dated jokes, unlike the earlier ones. The Muppet Christmas Carol retains the heart and hope of Dickens’s story (Gonzo actually narrates it as Dickens himself). It also has a fantastic score (the opening number is fabulous).
Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah!
For program highlights and staff suggestions for children and young adult readers, make Kiddosphere your source for all the latest on what to read and what to do for kids!
Jennifer Schultz, Youth Services Librarian, Fauquier County Public Library