I went to my monthly book club meeting the other night, and there was a lively discussion about favorite holiday picture books. I was woefully underprepared for this gathering and didn’t have my favorite with me, but since it is Christmas Day, I’ll tell you about it now, should it be the case that you haven’t read it. This year, I also discovered another wonderful holiday title—old, but new to me.
I’m not sure it gets any better than John Burningham’s Harvey Slumfenburger’s Christmas Present, originally published in 1993. (Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas—with the curmudgeonly, slightly misanthropic, cognac-drinking Santa—comes in a close second for me.) A friend of mine, an educator and one of my former professors, used to say that, as a teacher of young children, she wanted every child to be and to feel noticed. I love that. Well, that’s the glory and brilliance of this book, that Santa, though beat from his one-night world odyssey of gift-giving, takes the time to deliver the present that he inadvertently missed. He is wiped out and even in his comfy, warm jammies when he spots that one gift that slipped his attention. But he still knows he has to get up and deliver it, and he knows he has to take the time to notice Harvey Slumfenburger. Santa’s loyalty is hard-core, you all.
Harvey needs this attention, too. He’s way, waaaaay up on the tippy-top of “Roly Poly Mountain, which was far, far away.” And Santa “knew that Harvey Slumfenburger’s parents were too poor to buy him presents. He knew that Harvey Slumfenburger only ever got one present, and that was the present that Santa brought him.” Santa might be wrecked, but he still throws some clothes on over his PJs, puts on his boots and hat, picks up his sack with that one stray present in it, and starts to walk in the cold to Roly Poly Mountain, ’cause he doesn’t let his peeps down. Especially not Harvey Slumfenburger.
The way Santa cobbles his way to Harvey’s home—and back—is part of the adventurous fun. He gets there bit by bit, via a pilot, a man with a jeep, a boy with a motorbike, a girl who has skis, a climber with a rope. He even gets home via a zip line at one point. He gets around any way he can, just for Harvey, and then he finally slips into bed. On the book’s final page, Harvey wakes up, reaches for the stocking, and takes out his present. The book’s final words are “I wonder what it was.” I love the wonder of it all, Burningham letting the child reader imagine the possibilities.
I’m a bit biased: Burningham is one of my favorite author-illustrators. This book is so excellent, though, that it’s a great read for any time of the year. Sadly, it might be currently out of print, but if so, look for it on your library shelves.
Another good one for the holidays—originally published in 1962 but re-released this October by the New York Review Children’s Collection—is Rhoda Levine’s Arthur, illustrated by Everett Aison. Arthur is a curious bird who misses his group’s migration south. “Really, why must Arthur be so…inconvenient,’ ” remark the other birds. “He is never around when important moves are being made.” Arthur’s way too eager to see New York City, where they’d all lived during the green, lush summer.
This lengthy story is about Arthur’s attempts to survive the winter in New York, but it’s more too: It’s a spirited tribute to New York City itself. Arthur decides to spend his days exploring the city and entertaining himself. He marvels at city life, delights in “people who slithered and slid about on the soft white ground,” wonders at the lights of a Christmas tree (which is clearly the Rockefeller Center tree), and much more. His wonder and joy are infectious, though he must overcome some loneliness and fear at first: the bare winter trees, for one, sport a lonely “dependable leaf” that, like the others, eventually falls.
Aison’s illustrations are an intriguing mix of relaxed black and white line drawings (perhaps even charcoal, though I’m not sure), occasional bursts of green, elegant watercolors, and even moments of fuzzy, vibrating movement (pedestrian rush hour, as well as spinning car wheels on the ground—all from the point of view of a bird, of course).
The publisher likes to say that this book does for New York City what Make Way for Ducklings did for Boston. I can see that, but I also think it’s one of the most endearing Christmas books I’ve seen.
Happy Christmas, and happy reading!
ARTHUR. Copyright © 1962 by Everett Aison and Rhoda Levine. Illustration used by permission of the publisher, New York Review of Books.
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.