Holiday picture books offer something for everyone

Sunday, November 21, 2004

All of these winter-oriented picture books would make excellent hoilday giving -- but surprisingly, it is the least expensive that wins the highest marks of all.

"A Blue's Clues Holiday" features something for every tradition, and that's exceptionally admirable. Whether it's Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, Blue has found major reasons to celebrate. Written by Angelo C. Santomero with illustrations by Yo-Lynn Hagood, this little gem ($3.99, Simon Spotlight/Nick Jr.) will grab the attentionof any child and successfully promotes multi-cultural understanding in a festive way.

Also a multi-media endeavor, the illustration are catchy and artistic at the same time. Despite its small paperback format, this book packs an astonishing amount in a very small space. In addition to teaching about holidays, it also gives a strong message about the significance of colors -- entertaining and teaching at the same time. Don't let the fact that this is based on a popular series cause you to think it's simple or simplistic, because it's neither. It deserves a hearty two-thumbs up.

Another value-oriented book of exceptionally high quality is the Caldecott-Honor Book "Snow," written and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz. Just issued in paperback ($5.95. Farrar, Straus amd Giroux Sunburst), this book is recommended both for the delight of the pictures and the wit of the text. Children will recognize the veracity of the tale, in which would-be weathermen get their comeuppance. This book will put kids, and maybe even adults, in the winter mood.

From light-hearted to lightness of spirit -- that's what happens when readers turn to "One Candle." Meaningful is the best word to describe this Hanukkah book by Eve Bunting with illustrations by K. Wendy Popp. Painted in muted tones, the book focuses on the impact of the Holocaust on a Jewish family, who marks this holiday occasion by remembering a small light in the family's life at that very dark time.

The story shifts dramatically from one time to another, always with the presence of a flame that endures, from Nazi Germany to the present. In the end, children and adults unite in a toast to the flame, chanting in unison, "To life." This paperback ($5.99, HarperTrophy) is an evocation of life's memories, that can be understood by anyone of any faith.

Also touching, though in a very different way, is the story of "The Snow Princess," written and illustrated by Ruth Sanderson, who tells the story of a maiden with a frozen heart. This princess can stay immortal as long as she does not let love touch her. In the story ($16.99, Little, Brown and Company) the lovely princess dares to sacrifice eternal frozen life to fall in love with someone who turns her into a flesh-and-blood woman. She gladly gives up her icy reign over the earth to experience eventual spring and the wonder of a real heart.

A fairty tale of sorts, this book goes far beyond that with an ending that reminds its young readers love is always preferable to isolation, however safe that isolation might seem. The illustrations are alternate visions of radiance and darkness, with the dark strikingly beautiful and ominous at the same time -- while the light scenes are filled with color and a persistent glow that can only be the harbinger of a new season.

Hearts will surely warm for "Henry the Christmas Cat," written by veteran picture book author Mary Calhoun and illustrated by Erick Ingraham. Siamese cat Henry saves the runaway lamb in the annual Christmas pageant and eventually makes the pageant extra special with his participation in the loveable adventure ($15.99, HarperCollins).

A must for cat-loving children, this picture book offers a combination of humor and sweetness that should make it a favorite of just about everyone. The illustrations are appealing and adeptly rendered, the narrative carefully balanced between spirituality and the down-to-earth. Who would have thought a "sheepcat" would bring the nativity scene a final, happy touch?

Another, more solemn book gives a new look at the nativity through animal's eyes in "Room for a Little One: A Christmas Tale," by Martin Waddell with illustrations by Jason Cockcroft. This compassionate rendering shows what took place as the stable filled up with stray animals before and at the arrival of Christ. Retelling the familiar beloved story with some new humble characters, "Room for a Little One" ($15.95, Margaret K. Mc Elderry Books) is filled with creatures who came to the stable and found shelter and warmth -- including Tired Donkey with Mary on his back, who was invited in by Kind Ox.

The spare narrative tells the story perfectly, with a few well-chosen, emotionally-charged words. There is comfort for children in the final pages: "And so Jesus was born with the animals around Him: Kind Ox, Old Dog, Stray Cat, Small Mouse, and Tired Donkey all welcome Him to the warmth of their stable."

No creature was too insignificant for this scene, which has brought joy to millions around the world.