What We're Reading

The Twelve Books of Christmas

Stories for Sharing

David K. Brown

There are dozens of Christmas books published each year, and the shelves of the bookstores are filled with this year's offerings. My list doesn't include any of those new books. The books I am listing here are the ones that I encountered in previous years and intend to go back to.

Most but not all of these titles are still in print, at least in North America. Many of them should be available from public libraries. I have not included publishers in my citations, since these books have been published in various editions in various countries over the years.

Rosemary Wells, Morris's Disappearing Bag

Morris was too young to play with chemicals, said Betty, he might blow up the house.

He was too little to play hockey, said Victor, he might get hurt.

And he was too silly to use the beauty kit, said Rose, he would use up all the lipstick.

Then Morris, a somewhat more retiring little bunny than his more famous counterpart Max (of Max's Christmas), discovers a most unusual Christmas present... This little book is important to me for a lot of personal reasons, not the least of which is that it was the first Rosemary Wells book I ever encountered, and as a result it still shines the brightest.

Book CoverShirley Hughes, Angel Mae

"What about being an angel?" asked Mrs. Foster.

Mae didn't want to be an angel either.

"You could be the angel Gabriel," Mrs. Foster told her. "That's a very special angel, a very important part."

Mae thought about this. Then she nodded her head.

"I'm going to be the angel Gave-you!" she told Frankie later.

Any of Shirley Hughes' stories of loving, rumpled families would make a good Christmas read, even the ones set in the English springtime. In this story, Mae worries about the new baby her Mum is expecting, and plays her part in the Nativity pageant.

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David McPhail, Santa's Book of Names

Edward was good at numbers (he could count all the way to fifty). He could recite the alphabet and knew the names of most of the dinosaurs, but when he opened a book and tried to read it, he just couldn't.

Edward's teacher was concerned. She sent a note to Edward's mother and father urging that he be tested to find out what the problem was.

No tests, Edward's mother wrote back. Patience.

A young boy finds Santa's Christmas gift list, accompanies him on his sleigh, and in the process, learns to read. Its message for children is twofold: first, that reading is important, and second, that with practice, they can learn. But all this talk about messages obscures the fact that it's a touching story, warmly illustrated.

Book CoverDr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas

"And they're hanging their stockings!" he snarled with a sneer.
"Tomorrow is Christmas! It's practically here!"
Then he growled, with his Grinch fingers nervously drumming,
"I MUST find some way to stop Christmas from coming!"

Probably a more familiar Christmas text than those obscure verses from the Book of Luke. Just try and read it without doing a Boris Karloff impression. And be prepared for someone to say "I didn't know it was a book too!"

Book CoverGloria Houston, The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: an Appalachian Story, pictures by Barbara Cooney.

"We must choose a special tree and mark it for the coming year. It is the custom in our village," said Papa, "for one family to give to all the folk in the village and up every hill and holler a Christmas tree for Pine Grove Church. This year it is our turn."

With Papa away at war, it is up to Ruthie and her mother to provide the tree. This is a touching story of a courageous and loving family in difficult times. Barbara Cooney's illustrations are as always, luminous.

Diana Hendry, Christmas in Exeter Street, pictures by John Lawrence (US Title: Christmas on Exeter Street)

Just after supper an unexpected guest arrived. It was Uncle Bartholomew, back from Australia! Mrs. Mistletoe made up a bed for him on the sofa in front of the fire. This was just right for Uncle Bartholomew. Because it had been very hot in Australia, he was feeling very chilly. He was so cold he wouldn't even take off his gloves. Uncle Bartholomew brought a great big box of Austrhalian Delight. It was like Turkish Delight, only nicer.

The unexpected guests just keep coming, and the Mistletoe family welcomes them all, until the house is so full that Father Christmas "had to take off his boots and count on his toes to make sure he had remembered all eighteen children."

Book CoverChris Van Allsburg, Polar Express

It was wrapped in an apron of steam. Snowflakes fell lightly around it. A conductor stood at the open door of one of the cars. He took a large pocket watch from his vest, then looked up at my window. I put on my slippers and robe. I tiptoed downstairs and out the door.

"All aboard," the conductor cried out.

Van Allsburg's vision of the North Pole as a 19th century industrial company-town has become such a Christmas standard that it's hard to remember how startling and unusual it seemed a few years ago-- until you read it again, and the magic all comes back. Just one question: Are the elves really happy working in those big old brick factories in the middle of nowhere?

Book CoverWilliam Joyce, Santa Calls

They found the box outside their prairie laboratory one dusty December day just before Christmas. No one knew how it had gotten there, and the only clue to its origins was a large S.C. stamped on one side.

"Holy mackerel!" said Art. "What a mystery."

"I suggest we examine it scientifically," said Spaulding.

And so using the most scientific method at their disposal, they poked the box with a stick.

Holy mackerel! Thrills, adventure, and style! This time, the North Pole is an Art Deco vision of the future, complete with spectacles and dance floors big enough for a Busby Berkeley extravaganza. Now these elves ought to be happy!

Book CoverSusan Wojciechowski, The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, pictures by P.J. Lynch

Jonathan Toomey wasn't an old man, but if you saw him, you might think he was, the way he walked bent forward with his head down. You wouldn't notice his eyes, the clear blue of an August sky. And you wouldn't see the dimple on his chin, since his face was mostly hidden under a shaggy, untrimmed beard, speckled with sawdust and wood shavings and, depending what he ate that day, with crumbs of bread or a bit of potato or dried gravy.
A young widow and her son ask a gruff and solitary woodcarver to carve the figures for a Christmas creche. You can pretty much guess what happens after that, but this beautifully written and illustrated story makes it all fresh and touching.

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Barbara Robinson, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker's old broken-down toolhouse.

If you have somehow missed this story of the year that the horrible Herdmans bullied their way into the Christmas pageant, you are in for a treat. If you have read it already, read it again.

Book CoverTim Wynne-Jones, "Save the Moon for Kerdy Dickus" in Some of the Kinder Planets

You also have to know something about Ky's family if you want to see what the Stranger saw when he arrived at their door. You especially have to know that they have family traditions. They make them up all the time.

What is the Stranger to make of this perfectly ordinary Canadian multiracial family, wearing red flannel pyjamas and living in a high-tech transparent dome in the middle of a forest? A very funny story about Christmas hospitality.

Book CoverCynthia Rylant, Children of Christmas: Stories for the Season, drawings by S.D. Schindler

"When he was a boy," the old man continues, "every Christmas Eve he'd come climbing into bed with us, Florrie and me. We never told any of his brothers, 'cause you know how boys are...."

"Truth is, we liked it." He shakes his head. "We missed having a baby in the bed between us, so we liked that little boy snoring in our ears every Christmas Eve. It was a special present just for us, we told ourselves, just for being good. Good to our boys."

I would love to share the amazing stories in this collection with my family, but it's impossible for me to read them without crying. In fact, I am typing this in my office, with the tears streaming down my face, having just re-read "For Being Good."

It appears that a clever publisher has allowed this book to go out of print and this year has reissued one of the stories (Silver Packages) as a newly-illustrated picture book. My guess is that we'll be seeing separate versions of the other stories for several Christmases to come. If you don't want to wait, check your library.

Copyright © 1997 David K. Brown. All rights reserved
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