Stack Overflow has been a bit sporadic lately—I’ve been done in by a combination of sick kids, a long Thanksgiving break, roller derby, and a long list of small, unexpected tasks. But now that we’re into December, I figured it’s finally time that I can share some books about Hanukkah and Christmas. In fact, last night was the first evening of Hanukkah, so let’s start with those stories, and then we’ll continue to the sizable stack of Christmas books.
Young Gertie just wants to help her mom and older sisters with the Hanukkah preparations, but it seems that everything is too dangerous for her—the potato peeler and grater and knife are all too sharp, and the spattering schmalz is too hot. So she’s pretty grumpy, but when her dad gets home, he finds a job she can help with: lighting the first candle on the menorah.
This picture book is based on Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books, the first books about Jewish children that reached non-Jewish kids, and also helped Jewish kids see themselves on the page. Emily Jenkins grew up reading Taylor’s books, and wrote this short story as another episode in the family’s life in the early 1900s. The illustrations use a style inspired by Expressionism, which was just starting to grow at about the time this story takes place, and the bold, rough lines are a good fit for the story. The back of the book includes a brief glossary, some notes about Sydney Taylor, and the origins of Hanukkah. I liked that this book, like Taylor’s own, can either help reflect a child’s culture or open a window into a different culture.
Latkes—potato pancakes—are one of the traditional foods of Hanukkah, so this picture book is about a family of latkes telling the story of the holiday. It’s quite silly: Grandpa Latke tells about the Mega-Bees defending the Jewish temple, under attack from alien potatoes with laser eyes. Meanwhile, Applesauce (the dog) interrupts and corrects Grandpa with the real story: the Maccabees were fighting King Antiochus and his followers. But this method works: the funny part gives you a memorable mental image, which is then tied to the real story.
Of course, there’s always some weirdness when you have anthropomorphic food (like the fact that potato pancakes are frying up donuts), but that’s part of the charm. There’s a brief summary of the story of Hanukkah and a glossary at the end, too.
This latest advice book from Elise Parsley once again features Magnolia demonstrating some things you shouldn’t do. In this case, when her dad takes her and her siblings to the mall to meet Santa, she meets a different plump guy in a red suit with a white beard … a pirate. And even though her dad warns her that pirates are on the naughty list, she figures she can change him before they get through the line. Well, you can probably guess that things don’t go exactly as planned. The illustrations in these books are over-the-top ridiculous, and the pirate demonstrates (in a goofy way) why he’s on the naughty list indeed.
In another case of mistaken identity, our favorite curmudgeonly bear is saddled with some extra responsibilities at Christmas despite just wanting to go to bed. When Bruce gets spotted wearing his red hat and long underwear, he’s mistaken for Santa Claus—and the mice (who live in his house) don’t do anything to dispel the rumor. In fact, they encourage it. Pretty soon, Bruce is knee-deep in animal kiddos sharing their wish lists. As with the other Bruce books, the illustrations are wonderful, from Bruce’s ever-present grimace to the extreme enthusiasm of the mice. And, unlike most picture books, it doesn’t generally end with Bruce learning a valuable lesson—he’s still grumpy and still wants to go to bed.
This illustrated adaptation of the Christmas song is from last year, but I figure it’s an evergreen. (Ba-dum-tshhh!) Greg Pizzoli depicts the twelve days of gifts, with a young elephant receiving the gifts from its elephant friend … while the parent looks on in growing dismay. There’s a slight bit of relief at the “five golden rings” (because at least you don’t have to feed them birdseed) but then all the other stuff starts showing up. It’s a cute portrayal of how overwhelming all of these gifts would get, and that’s without even repeating the gifts from previous days (there’s only one partridge and one pear tree total, rather than a dozen).
It’s time to leave some cookies for Santa Claus … but why is it always stars and bells and gingerbread men? Why not Cookiesaurus? The book is told in a one-sided monologue by Cookiesaurus, the King of All Cookies, as he tries to weasel his way onto the plate for Santa, displacing the other cookies each time the giant spatula comes back and puts him back onto the baking sheet. Will Cookiesaurus ever be able to earn a place of honor for Christmas? Yep, it’s pretty silly, but it’s cute.
When I interviewed Tony DiTerlizzi earlier this year, he mentioned that he was working on his next picture book, which was inspired by a real-life event with his own daughter: she had accidentally broken a glass ornament, and he made a comment that “when an ornament is broken, a Christmas fairy is born.” Now, that comment has become a story about Jack, who just wants the best Christmas ever—a bigger tree, more presents, more ornaments … until he breaks one and his mom gets upset. From the broken ornament comes Tinsel, a tiny fairy who tries to grant Jack’s wishes by turning the living room into a winter wonderland. However, it’s up to Jack to come up with a solution to his mom’s lost ornament.
DiTerlizzi’s illustrations are fabulous, as always: the trees sprouting up through the floorboards and curling against the ceiling, the reindeer prancing in through the front door, the living snowmen having a snowball fight with the army of Nutcrackers … the magic really comes to life. Of course, you may want to keep an eye on your breakable ornaments after reading this one with your kids, but it’s a tender story nonetheless.
My Current Stack
I just finished reading Stranger Things: Worlds Turned Upside Down, a behind-the-scenes look at the Netflix series, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Jim Kelly wrote about it last month, and I agree with his assessment: if you’re a fan of the show, you’ll really dig this book. It’s made to look like an artifact from the 1980s, and delves into the various characters, the making of the Upside Down, and how the show went from idea to reality. My only gripe is that some of the footnotes seem a bit unnecessary, often describing plots of movies or other ’80s pop culture referenced in the text. I don’t know how many people need a footnote explaining what a Rubik’s Cube is, but if that’s you—you’re in luck. The footnotes aside, it was a fun read, and looks fantastic.
I picked up several comics at the bookstore lately in the series that my kids and I read: Ms. Marvel 9: Teenage Wasteland, Squirrel Girl 8: My Best Friend’s Squirrel, and Lumberjanes 9: On a Roll. Ms. Marvel has left Jersey City behind, and her friends are trying to pick up the slack by patrolling as Ms. Marvel, when an old enemy reappears. In Squirrel Girl, Nancy and Tippy-Toe are transported to another planet that’s under threat from Galactus—and there are guest appearances from Loki and Drax. Finally, the Lumberjanes try out a new sport that’s near and dear to my family: roller derby! Okay, so there are a few rules that aren’t quite accurate (at least in current flat-track derby) but it’s pretty good overall. Plus, it’s Lumberjanes. My older girls and I enjoyed all three, and my five-year-old has just been discovering the joys of Squirrel Girl herself.
Disclosure: I received review copies or ARCs of the books in this column except where noted otherwise.