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Showing posts with label Christmas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christmas. Show all posts


Can't Wait Till Christmas! (2010)

Written by Mike Huckabee

Illustrated by Jed Henry

G.P. Putnam's Sons

Election season has been gearing up, and while everyone else has been distracted by Donald Trump's shenanigans, I thought it would be fun to take a look at the major players through the lens of picture books. First up is former Governor of Arkansas and current Republican nominee, Michael Dale Huckabee!

In 2010, Mike Huckabee authored this small Christmas-themed tome, "Can't Wait Till Christmas!" I must confess, I was surprised at how... secular of a tale it was. Huckabee is not one known for mincing words when it comes to religion, and is a proponent of the 'war on Christmas' myth so pervasive in right-wing politics, so I assumed this would have something Jesus-y in it. As it stands, there was nary a manger scene!


Saint Francis and the Christmas Donkey (2000)

Retold and Illustrated by Robert Byrd

Dutton Children's Books

"...Francis was not simply a charming, eccentric lover of nature," writes Robert Byrd. "To see him only in that dimension trivializes his outlook on life."

I think Robert Byrd is an interesting illustrator. He really prefers to illustrate characters either head-on or in full profile, which gives the pages a simplistic tone, but at the same time he fills his backgrounds with so much wonderful detail it is almost overwhelming.

The opening page is of a verdant landscape, in which several types of trees are captured, receding into the distance, rocks and hills and distant birds, a thousand and one blades of grass, and there stands the saint, looking out at us with equanimity, a wolf to one side, a bunny to the other.

It reads to me as though Saint Francis is a stand-in for Adam, the first Man. We learn in Sunday School that Adam gave all of the animals their names, of course, but it is Saint Francis, we learn in this story, who called them his "little brothers" and reminded them of how precious they are, "from the tiniest mouse to the powerful great gray wolf."

It is while Francis ponders in his 'eden,' that he hears the loud, sad braying of the donkey, and asks why he should be so unhappy.

"You would cry out yourself, if your work was as hard as mine. Ever since the beginning of time, we donkeys have carried heavy loads on our small backs, and people and animals have made fun of the way we sound."

And so Saint Francis begins his tale, which begins at the dawn of creation...

It has the form of one of Kipling's Just-So stories, as we discover that the Donkey was at first an extremely proud animal, with short ears and a small tail, who spent these early days of Creation waltzing about and mocking the elephant, ridiculing the giraffe, for their extreme and comical features. Then a band of monkeys get together and decide to teach that Donkey a lesson, by pulling out his ears and tugging on his tail, and them finally - if that weren't bad enough - his is cursed by God Himself:

"...you shall always laugh, but your laugh will be an ugly sound. And when my creatures hear your loud, ridiculous 'Hee-haw! Hee-haw!' they all will laugh at you. You will always do the hardest work, carrying heavy loads for the rest of your days, wherever you go."

This does not cheer the Donkey up, to know of this long ago curse on he and his kin. But Saint Francis assures him, that is only the beginning of the story. There is redemption to be had, of a kind, and it is wrapped up in the Christmas story, as the donkey is called upon to carry a very important traveler through the desert.

Several times the donkey stumbled,
but he did not fall.
I love desert wildernesses, and Byrd does an exquisite job of rendering it is as much detail as he paid to those verdant pastures at the offset. The sands and the rocks of the desert are done with so many shapes and shades, it feels like a living place.

The quest is an epic one, pushing the beast of burden to the absolute limits of his abilities, but finally bringing Mary safely to Bethlehem, and is witness to the birth, to angelic encounters, to shepherds and wise men bearing gifts.

And in his own heart, in his very own way,
the donkey knew what he had done,
and he was happy.
"But the little donkey in the stable had no gift to give," said the Donkey sadly.

"Well," said Francis, "surely you can see that by carrying Mary and the baby Jesus, the Christmas donkey had truly given the most wonderful gift of all."


The Baker's Dozen (1988)

Retold by Heather Forest

Illustrated by Susan Gaber

August House

This is an older book which was just recently re-issued by August House. It has a real nice feel and look to it. I remember the illustraot, Susan Gaber, from her work on Raisel's Riddle, but in this one the colors seem warmer, the scenes in the bakery itself are filled with cookies and cakes and pies. The subtitle is "A Colonial American Tale," and its Christmas theme is just subtle, a tiny Santa Claus hanging in the window of the bakery, and a few flakes of snow.

Van Amsterdam is the most popular baker in Albanytown. He is rotund and jouyous and wears a toque the balloons from his head like a mushroom with elephantitus. His most famous creation of all is the St. Nicholas cookie which brings him much prosperity. But this is a cautionary tale! Late one night, in a very Ebeneezer-ish frame of mind, Van Amsterdam stays nawake counting his gold coins.

"If I use just a little less butter, no one will know. If I use just one less egg, they will scarcely be able to tell. If I use just a little less honey, then there will be more money for me!"

That dark turn of mind then manifests itself in the guise of a mysterious, cloaked woman, who appears in his store and demands a dozen of his cookies... or else!

"A dozen means twelve!"

"A dozen means thirteen, and you're a greedy man!"

"How dare you call me greedy! Get out of my store!"

I suppose I'd never thought about the origins of the phrase "a baker's dozen," before, and I was surprised when that's exactly when this story turned out to be. Apparently, Van Amsterdam is an historical figure, a colonial baker living in Albany, New York, who "inspired an American custom that, in some places, persists even today."

I'm not sure how much of this story is from the author's imagination, and how much of it is the actual tale as it has been passed down. Looking up the phrase myself, I found a few different versions, some setting it back in medieval England. Regardless, this one certainly felt authentic.


Coyote Christmas: A Lakota Story (2007)

Written and Illustrated by S.D. Nelson

Acrylic Paint on 140-lb. cotton paper

Abrams Books for Young Readers

Oh, this is a fun one. It's an original story, and does a great job of bringing Trickster Coyote of many an age-old tale into a contemporary Lakota reservation. Despite the fact that it is appears to be a heart-warming Christmas story, the mere presence of such a trickster figure means it will have an unpredictable way about it.

Nelson describes it very well with a note at the end of the book:

When it comes to good and evil, Coyote is not the same as the Devil found in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Instead, Coyote reveals the paradoxical nature of life, capable of both good and evil. He reminds us that all of life is in a state of constant creation and destruction.

"On a more fundamental level, Coyote's antics offer insights into an underlying dynamic of life itself - order and chaos," he writes. "Coyote, of course, is the one who delivers chaos."

So then, in this particular incarnation, it is a snowy Christmas Eve, and Coyote is - as usual - cold and hungry. However - also as usual - he has a plan, a plan which involves passing himself off as Santa Claus and inveigling his way into the warm home of the two-legged creatures with the good food. In so doing, Coyote seems to unwittingly tap into a deeper magic than he bargained for.

The sack full of straw which he had brought is transformed into a sack of wrapped packages, containing the very presents the children had wanted.

"Oh Santa, thank you!"

And there is even more magic to come. Curiously, instead of embracing this turn of events, Coyote is rightfully freaked, and dashes off, back into the coldness. At least he got his fill of meatballs.


Amahl and the Night Visitors (1986)

Written by Gian Carlo Menotti

Illustrated by Michele Lemieux

William Morrow and Company

This book has great resonance. I was only somewhat familiar with the story when I began reading, and knew that it was based on the opera of the same name, from 1951.

This is the story of the Nativity, but one in which the baby Jesus and his parents do not make an appearance. The central character is Amahl, a young boy who lives with his mother. We first see him playing his pipe as the stars begin to appear in the night sky. He is clearly a dreamer.

There is one star in particular which captures young Amahl's attention. It burns more brightly than the others, and he cannot take his eyes off of it. Even when his mother scolds him, he cannot tear himself away.

"Oh Mother, you should go out and see! There's never been such a sky! Hanging over our roof there is a star as large as a window. The star has a tail, and it moves across the sky like a chariot on fire!"

Amahl's mother sighed. "Oh, Amahl," she said wearily, "When will you stop telling lies? All day long you wander about in a dream. Here we are with nothing to eat, not a stick of wood on the fire, not a drop of oil in the jug, and all you do is worry your mother with fairy tales..."

Yes, indeed. At that moment, Amahl is one with Jack the Giant Killer. He is one with Dorothy and with Alice and with every dreamer of any fairy tale ever told or written. The Star of Bethlehem is not merely a Sign from God, it is an icon of other adventures and romance.

That night, as Amahl lays sleeping, the adventure comes to his front door.

First, there is only singing:

From far away we come and farther we must go.
How far, how far, my crystal star?
Cold as the sands by the silent sea.
Frozen the incense in our frozen hands.
Heavy the gold.

When his mother opens the door, still disbelieving her son and his wild stories, she gasps in shock and amazement. There stand the three kings, dressed as aliens from a faraway land. They've come following the Star, and wish to spend the night with Amahl and his dumbfounded mother.

And when they eventually leave, it is with Amahl - who leaves his home for the first time. "...as he piped, the caravan moved onward."

This review was linked from Tales and Their Tellers 7: "The Prayer of Saint Nicholas."

Spirit Child, A Story of the Nativity (1984)

Retold by Bernardino de Sahagun

Translated by John Bierhorst

Illustrated by Barbara Cooney

Finding books like this make doing this index well worth it. I had been going through my library's Christmas section, thumbing through various Santa Claus phantasmagoria and sacrosanct religious tales. The words, "Spirit Child," along the spine caught my eye. With the words, "translated from the Aztec" on the front cover, along with the dark-skinned angels and dormant volcanoes, my interest was more than piqued.

"The text is preserved in Sahagun's Psalmodia Christiana (Mexico, 1583)," reads the tiny print on the copyright page. This was a book written entirely in the Aztec language and one of the first books to be published in the so-called New World.

It was actually translated into English specifically for this picture book. Bierhorst, the translator, happened across the tale while writing an Aztec-English dictionary based on sources from the 1500s. The artist, Cooney, traveled to Mexico City and the surroundings in order to properly illustrate it. Needless to say, this is not the same old Nativity story you've heard before.

We begin in the shadow of a smoking volcano. Families appear to be running for their lives. "For 5000 years after the world began, the devil was king," we read.

The devil looks like he is culled from a Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. There he sits, in the bowl of the volcano, a grinning, eye-less skeleton dressed in bird feathers and smoking a pipe. Skeleton girls fan him and dance for his pleasure while naked children suffer in the flames before him.

"But the name Jesus already existed before the world began. This was always his name, even before he was born," we read. "O spirit, I child, you are the flame, you are the light of the almighty father. O child, remember how you were born long ago."

Gabriel comes to visit Mary, wearing a loin cloth with green wings, bearing flowers and a fan, proclaiming, "Hail Mary, full of grace! Listen, I will tell you a great mystery."

I love that. "I will tell you a great mystery."

O spirit child! All the people of the world are waiting for you. We are prisoners tied in chains, and you can save us. You are the light and we are in darkness.

This review is linked from Tales and Their Tellers 7: "The Prayer of Saint Nicholas."


The Legend of Saint Nicholas (2003)

Written and Illustrated by Demi

Paint and Ink

Text set in Packard

Margaret K. McElderry

We call upon Your mercy, O Lord. Through the intercession of St. Nicholas, keep us safe amid all dangers so that we may go forward without hindrance on the road to salvation.

This is not - as one might be expecting - the true story behind jolly St. Nick who would one day be transformed and reiterated as Santa Claus. It's more of the myth behind the myth. Which at first frustrated me, as I had read with genuine curiosity about the historical Saint Nicholas. But upon reflection, I like the idea of there being myths within myths. A true hall of mirrors, this.

"As soon as he was born, Nicholas showed amazing and miraculous powers. On his very first day, he stood up in his bath and prayed to God!" Demi writes, and there he is, a newborn babe, standing with his head bowed and his hands folded. Was baby Jesus himself as pious as this? I think not.

As a toddler, Nicholas fasted on every holy saint's say. He refused to nurse, preferring to pray all day.

There's an absurdity to the premise which brings to mind Oskar Matzerath from Grass' The Tin Drum (who in turn serves as the literary ancestor of The Family Guy's Stewie Griffin), the baby who is born with complete cognition and maturity intact. Demi goes on to chronicle several other miraculous events in your Nicholas' life, illustrating them in her gorgeous, gilded style, which culminate in story of a nobleman who had fallen upon hard times, and was forced to sell each of his three daughters so that he could collect the dowry. St. Nicholas, learning of the man's troubles, anonymously sends him bags of coins at night, tossing them in through open windows. On the third night, the bag falls into the youngest girl's open stockings. Aha! Thus is born the long-lasting Christmas tradition.

From there, Nicholas travels the world, performing miracles and dispensing wisdom and piety, calming stormy seas, rescuing the unjustly imprisoned. Perhaps the greatest of all miracles comes when he learns that "a wicked innkeeper kidnapped three little boys, killed them, and salted them in a tub of brine, intending to serve them as food." Yikes. Nicholas, praying to the Lord, raises the bodies of the dead children from the brine and brings them back to life.

So, not only does Santa Claus see you when you're sleeping and knows when you're awake, but he can raise the dead as well.

It is only in the last several pages that Demi shows his transformation into Santa, as he mingles with the Dutch character Sinter Klass and we see him flying in his sleigh packed with goodies, led by his team of reindeer. It's an image which seems rather incongruous with the preceding pages of formal beauty and religiousness.

Throughout the world today, whether he goes by the name of St. Nicholas, Sinter Klass, or Santa Claus, this figure who shows enormous generosity, a love of children, deep care for the poor and needy, and a completely selfless nature is considered to embody the spirit of Christmas and the true spirit of the Lord.

This review is linked from Tales and Their Tellers 7: "The Prayer of Saint Nicholas."


The Christmas Story (1998)

Illustrated by Gennady Spirin

Designed by Martha Rago

Tempera, watercolor and pencil on watercolor paper

This is an absolutely gorgeous book which, on first glance, does not appear to be a picture book at all, but is surely a reproduction of classical paintings centered around the birth of the Christ. But this is not the case.

We are told only that Spirin is drawing on his "classical training and his Orthodox Christian faith." Some of the images are in a small box accompanied by a corresponding reading from one of the Gospels, whereas others are a full, double-page spread, the detail and the beauty of which is overwhelming.

My favorite illustration is of the angel visiting the shepherds. It appears as a huge, golden figure, luminous, slowly touching down with outstretched wings. The rest of the picture, by contrast, seems dark and obscure, but a closer look reveals the tiny figures of the shepherds as they cower their eyes and run for cover. The true scale becomes apparent.

For Spirin, the Christmas story is a cosmic one, in which the human players are tiny in comparison with the supernatural.

This review is linked from Tales and Their Tellers 7: "The Prayer of Saint Nicholas."
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