At the time of this writing, it’s eight days until Christmas. EIGHT? To sound like nearly everyone else right about now, how is that possible?
There’s still time, however, to tell you about what I think are the best holiday books out right now. (And I’ll save one of them for next week.)
Let’s start with a song, a Christmas song that some people can only tolerate in small doses this time of year, to be frank. It’s a loooong song and a bit of a commitment: “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The thing is, though, in the hands of illustrator LeUyen Pham, it is delightful. Her watercolor and ink paintings accompany the lyrics in the book with the same name, released in September, and it’s a book that gets even better with each page turn. She brings readers a young boy and girl in their finest, spiffiest duds, and the boy is gifting her with the partridge, turtle doves, calling birds, French hens and, well…you know the rest.
Pham’s palette here is rich, and her compositions elegant. Her choices make for compelling page turns as well, such as when the boy on the “5 gold rings” spread shushes one of the 6 geese a-laying on the right of the page, a goose who is eager to make an appearance. We just see the animal’s head pop into the spread—and the boy trying to hold her off. Pham even manages to keep things from getting too crowded towards the end of the song. And it’s when humans are introduced (“8 maids a-milking”) that things get especially interesting. The 8 maids a-milking, 9 ladies dancing, 10 lords a-leaping, 11 pipers piping, and 12 drummers drumming hail from all over the world (Africa, Asia, Scandinavia, to name just a few), and they’re simply gorgeous in all their finery. The final spread, which includes all 78 gifts and an invitation to the child reader to find them, is a marvel. And a beauty. And, to boot, the smitten boy gets a peck on the cheek from his wee sweetheart.
The book closes with sheet music and historical fun facts about the song. Did you know that “five gold rings” may have originally been “five goldspinks”? Pham explains that this is another name for goldfinches. That also would have made all the first seven presents birds, “which lends credibility,” she writes, “to this theory.”
Next up, while we’re talking songs, is Honeyky Hanukah, a picture book adaptation of Woody Guthrie’s song by the same name, illustrated by Dave Horowitz. (Evidently, the hardback includes a CD by The Klezmatics, but I’m working off a CD-less galley copy of the book.) In the book’s closing note, we read:
Woody saw a strong connection between the Jewish struggle and that of his fellow
Oklahomans during the Dust Bowl, and was inspired to write songs that celebrated
Jewish culture. He performed his Hanukah songs at local Jewish community centers
and wrote other songs about Jewish history, spiritual life, World War II, and the anti-
So, this is one of those songs, all about the joys of the holiday. Horowitz brings readers a multi-generational, Muppet-like family, playing instruments, dancing, cooking, and generally celebrating, all rendered via construction paper, charcoal, and colored pencils. It’s festive. Guthrie would be proud.
Finally, poet Lee Bennett Hopkins gathered together poems from the likes of Marilyn Nelson, Jane Yolen, X. J. Kennedy, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Alma Flor Ada, and many more to tell the story of greeting Jesus on the very first Christmas Eve. But Manger tells these stories from the points of view of various animals—a rooster, a cat, an old owl, even the poor fish (“we cannot leave / our home—the sea”) and a spider (“All evening long / I’ll spin my threads / to place upon the Child’s head”). The starred Kirkus review notes what a fitting collection it is “for those who wish to emphasize the Christian nature of the holiday, worth savoring slowly during the Christmas season.” Indeed. The illustrations, rendered in watercolors, collage, and mixed media, are from British illustrator Helen Cann, and many spreads are striking in their drama, such as “Grandfather Owl, Keeper of skies,” spreading his majestic wings against a black night sky.
Celebrating the holidays with music and poetry seems a good idea to me. Here’s to the books of the season.
THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS. Illustrations © 2014 by LeUyen Pham. Spread here is reproduced by permission of the publisher, Doubleday Books for Young Readers.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.