In the children’s book world, the Christmas season begins in September. That’s when the vast majority of Christmas-themed books hit the shelves, ready for eager, early-bird shoppers. It’s also when we publish our roundup of Christmas, Hanukkah, and—if there are any—other winter-holiday picture books. And I begin to feel very Grinch-y, lip curling from my perspective at the top of my personal Mount Crumpet at the rank commercialism on display.
That the Christmas retail juggernaut drives marketers’ perception of book-buying is made amply clear in the proportions. This year, Kirkus reviews some 45 picture books with winter-holiday themes; of them, four are Hanukkah books, two use Christmas imagery to communicate messages of peace, and one focuses on the winter solstice—the rest are Christmas books, underscoring the seemingly unquestioned perceptions that the vast majority of the nation’s book buyers celebrate the holiday and that those who might celebrate other winter holidays don’t buy many (or any) books.
It’s not just in the selection of holidays that the nation’s diversity is largely ignored, but within the collection of Christmas books as well. In this year’s clutch, three feature explicitly interracial families: Long Ago, on a Silent Night, by Julie Berry and illustrated by Annie Won; Snow Globe Wishes, by Erin Dealey and illustrated by Claire Shorrock; and Cookies for Santa, by America’s Test Kitchen and illustrated by Johanna Tarkela. Deborah Melmon’s lightly massaged adaptation of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas places at its center a family of three children with brown skin and straight, dark hair. The only identifiably Latinx Christmas celebration occurs in Between Us and Abuela, by Mitali Perkins and illustrated by Sara Palacios. Almost all the rest of this year’s batch of Christmas picture books reviewed cast characters of color in supporting roles—if they appear at all. The only nonwhite Santas are of the Salvation Army or department-store sort.
Why, if you are a Christmas-celebrating person of color or caregiver to a child of color, would you spend money on books that seem to ignore your existence?
And, sadly, a whole lot of the annual Christmas glut is not particularly good. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that there’s not much creativity left to be wrung from Christmas stories when the season produces such titles as The Tooth Fairy Vs. Santa, Peanut Butter and Santa Claus: A Zombie Culinary Tale, and The Dinosaur That Pooped Christmas! (“Safe to say,” opines our reviewer, “it’s the only dinosaur-poop–themed Christmas book readers will ever need”).
To be sure, there are a lot of terrific books that families will be happy to add to their book bags. Francesco Tirelli’s Ice Cream Shop, Tamar Meir’s historical tale (illustrated by Yael Albert) of an Italian gentile who gave shelter to her father-in-law and his family during the Holocaust, includes a lovely, touching celebration of Hanukkah. Susan Cooper’s The Shortest Day, illustrated by Carson Ellis, is a brief but incandescent survey of solstice observances beginning in prehistoric Europe and concluding with a Yule celebration in a modern, Western, multicultural home with a Christmas tree, menorah, and sprig of holly in the living room. And on The Night of His Birth, Mary wonders aloud at the miracle that is her child in author Katherine Paterson and illustrator Lisa Aisato’s luminous, reverent work.
One of our favorites, however, Nutcracker Night, embodies the contradictions inherent in the packaging and delivery of Christmas culture. Author Mireille Messier and illustrator Gabrielle Grimard’s buoyant celebration of a child’s first encounter with the popular ballet follows an Asian child-and-dad pair who sit in a robustly diverse audience—and watch a troupe of mostly white dancers.
Can’t we do better?
Vicky Smith is the children’s editor.