Goodwill, Hope, and Fun

My previous blog was about children’s books that focus on the Nativity. Today’s post features fun Christmas books from my childhood, as well as recent books that send a message of goodwill and hope.

Christmas around the World (1961)

IMG_6126.JPGChristmas is celebrated in many ways, and this book highlights different traditions from around the globe from Austria to (the then) Yugoslavia. In Denmark, the Jul-Nisse, the “benevolent little man in the attic,”is seen by no one and “is responsible for many mischievous happenings in the house.” The children place of bowl of porridge and a pitcher of milk next to the attic door for him on Christmas Eve. In Mexico, “street vendors display hand-carved religious figures…and tapestries of religious design are used as banners.” In Brazil, “the Christmas fiesta season is solemnly heralded by an air mass at midnight on Christmas Eve…a colorful altar is set up in the Cathedral churchyard…in a fiesta atmosphere of banners.”

It’s a time-traveling trip to 29 countries through a book.

Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs (1973)IMG_6129.JPG

In this cheeky English tale, Father Christmas is a bit of a grumpy fellow. With no elves to be found and no Mrs. Christmas to keep him company, Fr. Christmas has to feed the reindeer, fix his sleigh, and lug the many heavy bags of presents by himself. On top of that, he has to travel through blooming cold, go down blooming chimneys filled with blooming soot, and weather snow, ice, frost, sleet, hail, rain while everyone else is enjoying their parties in warm homes. It’s not a glamorous life.

Still, Fr. Christmas gets to enjoy milk and cookies and sherry and mince pies while on the job. And when his long night is over, he sits down to a good cup of tea, enjoys a lovely pud and a good bath, has himself a good drop of ale and some lovely grub with his dog and cat. It’s not such a bad gig, after all.

While younger children probably won’t understand it, this book is lots of fun and older children who understand dry humor will enjoy this spin on Santa.

Father Christmas and His Friends by Christopher Maynard and illustrated by Colin Hawkins (1979)

In this behind-the-scenes tell-all, we learn a lot about Santa. We get an up-close and personal look at his features. For instance, he suffers from a swollen right knee; the inflammation is “local and seasonal. It is the result of having thousands of children sit and bounce on it.” We get to peek at his home, his friends (including a butler, a guardian, a chief elf, and his Spanish friend, Black Peter), and his attire. We even learn what Fr. Christmas eats for breakfast: an all-or-nothing IMG_6128.JPGsandwich.

Next, we visit the reindeer nursery and the stag bar (for adult reindeers to enjoy adult beverages), and we learn lots of reindeer facts, such as their great weakness for cherry and chocolate gateau. It’s off to the mines, the blacksmith’s workshop, and the toy workshops where quality control is performed. The traditions of carols, holly, mistletoe, candles in the window, and midnight snacks are explained. And for anyone who’s ever wondered just how Fr. Christmas manages to traverse the globe in a single night, we are privy to his sled routes, time management skills (including, perhaps, the ability to travel at the speed of light and to make time stand still), how he gets into houses (including the tricks and tools of the trade), and how he’s prepared for dogs and awake children. You’ll be reeling from all the information in this 92-page exposé!

Again, this isn’t for younger kids and it’s by no means politically correct by today’s standards (it is, after all, 35 years old). If you’re looking for a sanitized version of Santa, this isn’t the book for you. However, if you’re looking for a good laugh with some irreverent humor, then see if you can track down a copy.

Well-loved Carols chosen by Audrey Daly and illustrated by Peter Church (1986)IMG_6127.JPG

I love Christmas carols. Singing really is a great way to get into the Christmas spirit and to spread good cheer. This little book features 19 beloved carols that are a joy to sing. From Away in a Manger to O Little Town of Bethlehem to Winter’s Snow, gather your family and friends and sing to your hearts content. The illustrations are lovely and harken to olden days.

Grace at Christmas by Mary Hoffman and illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu

IMG_6133.JPGThis story reminds us that the Christmas spirit is about helping others, even when you’re not feeling so merry and bright.

Book description from Amazon: “Grace loves Christmas – acting out the nativity story, opening presents, celebrating with Ma, Nana and Paw-Paw. But this Christmas Nana announces they will have visitors from Trinidad. Grace is horrified! She does NOT want to share the day with another little girl she doesn’t even know. But after some wise words from Nana, Grace’s generous spirit shines through. And in the end, as they all share a special surprise, Grace thinks it could be the best Christmas ever!”

Mortimer’s Christmas Manger by Karma Wilson and illustrated by Jane Chapman

IMG_6132This sweet book with perfectly adorable illustrations proves that home is where your heart it.

Book description from Scholastic: “Mortimer Mouse needs a new house — a house that’s not so cold, cramped, and dark. Where can he go? He sees a huge tree covered with twinkling lights. And next to the tree, a mouse-size house. And inside the house, a wee wooden manger just Mortimer’s size. But statue people seem to already live there! One by one, Mortimer lugs and tugs the statues out of the house — only to find them all put back in their places each evening! What is Mortimer to do? It’s not until he overhears a very special story that Mortimer realizes whose house he is sharing and where Mortimer himself belongs. It is the story of Christmas and the night the baby Jesus was born that warms Mortimer’s heart in this magical holiday offering.”

Santa’s Favorite Story by Hisako Aoki and illustrated by Ivan Gantschev

IMG_6130.JPGKeeping the focus on the birth of Jesus while acknowleding the fun of Santa can be a difficult process. This book manages to balance both aspects of Christmas in a gentle, non-judgmental manner.

Book description from Barnes & Noble: “Discover the true meaning of the holidays with Santa’s Favorite Story. The forest animals are alarmed when it appears that Santa might be too tired to make his Christmas rounds, until he recounts for them the Nativity story which gives the holiday its true significance.”

The Message of the Birds by Kate Westerlund and illustrated by Feridun Oral

I reviewed this book last year on Good Reads with Ronna, where you can find the latest and greatest in children’s literature reviews.

ThIMG_6131.JPGe Message of the Birds tugged at my heart. It is a simple, still book, but it is full of the warmth and innocence that parents so often desire for their young children’s lives. The book encompasses a single theme: let there be peace on earth.  As the birds in the rafters of the stable watched over the Baby Jesus, they “heard in his voice…the words of a song that they would carry throughout the world…It was a special song of blessing, of joy and good will.” Unfortunately, as old owl explains years later, that message has been forgotten or ignored. But Robin believes that children will listen and understand, and that the hope for a better world lies with them. So, the birds plan to carry the special message by singing to children. It’s a lot of work, full of long journeys, but the birds try their hardest. And something wonderful happens:

“They saw hands linked together—white hands, brown hands, black hands. Children everywhere were joining together. The children had heard the message of the birds, and what had started as a whisper now resounded from shining faces all over the world.”

What a wonderful thought to teach children, especially this time of year.

The illustrations are spot on.  The snowy, wintery scenes juxtaposed to the birds’ colorful plumage and children’s cheeriness bring the story alive. And in a way that only a masterful artist can manage, the pictures seem both lively and still.

During what is one of the busiest times of the year for many people, taking a break to enjoy and understand The Message of the Birds is well worth the time.

Merry Christmas and happy reading!

When English Isn’t

In my former role as a high school English Language Arts instructor, I would teach the students a (brief) lesson on the history of the English language. After all, students ought to know the origins of the language they use and change and edit and manipulate on a daily basis. Some of the students found the origins of the language from native Britons to the introduction of Latin via the Romans to the influence of the conquering Germanic tribes to French in the court of William the Conqueror worth their while. Almost all of the heads on the desk (of which there weren’t many; I ran a tight classroom) paid attention, however, when they realized that words they commonly used weren’t English or even European in origin.

The lesson usually went something like this:

Me: “Hey Johnny, do you like pancakes? Yes. Alright, what do you pour on them?”

Johnny: “Syrup.”

Me: “Where’d you think the word syrup comes from?”

Johnny: “I dunno. Canada?”

Me: “It’s from the Arabic word, sharab, which was then adapted by the French and possibly the Italians to sirop.”

Class, somewhat disbelieving: “Really?”

Me: “Yep. I’m not making this up. And what about ketchup? Where’d you think that word comes from?”

Class, thinking hard: “Here?”

Me: “Nope. It comes from a Chinese or possibly a Malay word that sounds like catsup.”

Class: “Whhaaa?”

I’d then proceed to list off other words that the students were very familiar with but had never given much thought: magazine (Arabic, again), shampoo (Hindi), zombie (West African and then the Caribbean) and dollar (German). This was news to them. Of course, they knew that words such as taco or pizza weren’t English in origin, but had entered the English language due to common use. Magazine has an origin that was often more difficult to follow: Arabic to Italian to French to English.  The students associated Seventeen or People with the word, so the idea that magazine isn’t of modern American origin was hard to grasp.

This enlightening lesson ran a close second in interest level to the “discovery” that Shakespearean English isn’t Old English, but is, in fact, considered the onset of Modern English. I’d play a recording of Beowulf, which is Old English, and the Canterbury Tales, which is Middle English. Then I’d watch as their minds were blown: “That doesn’t even sound like English!”

I’d like to think that these lessons opened the minds of the students to the notion that English really contains a mix of many words of different origins. It is an ever-changing, adaptable language, one that they adapt and change themselves. Selfie, anyone?

Now, go read the dictionary. It’s a good book.

(Taken from my RitatheWriter website.)