Books

Gather ’round, kids, and read these great new holiday books

When my children were young, my favorite Christmas story to read to them was “The Littlest Angel,” a book first released in 1946 by Charles Tazewell about a young cherub who just can’t get the hang of heaven.

He receives permission to retrieve his box of earthly treasures, which he then gives to the newborn in the manger. It made me cry every time I read it to my own little blond angels.

This year Alison McGhee and Peter H. Reynolds, the award-winning pair who created “Someday,” give a modern twist to the story of the littlest angel and the Nativity.

In “Star Bright: A Christmas Story” (ages 3-6; Atheneum Books for Young Readers; $16.99), the text is spare, and the illustrations are creative: The youngest angel dresses in a long white coat, a white aviator’s cap, goggles and a scarf that make her look like a young Amelia Earhart.

Heaven has connecting platforms and computer screens. The angel wants to give something special to the new baby, but the gifts from nature that she thinks would be most comforting — wind, rain and music — are not hers to give.

Down on earth, the angel sees that the world is dark despite little twinkles of stars, and the three wise men look lost. She knows then what her gift will be.

This sweet book with beautiful watercolor illustrations will surely become a holiday favorite to give and receive.

Here are more recently released children’s books to share with the young readers on your holiday gift list:

▪ Tuesday is the first night of Hanukkah. A children’s book that has delighted readers for 25 years, “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins,” by Eric Kimmel, has been re-released in an anniversary edition (ages 5-8; Holiday House; $17.99).

Who wouldn’t love a story with fantastically ugly goblins that are defeated in a battle of wits by villager Hershel? The modern folktale creatively takes readers through lighting the menorah candles. It also shows how clever Hershel uses ordinary items, such as a boiled egg, a jar of pickles and a wooden toy dreidel, to overpower the goblins’ curse.

Whimsical illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman perfectly capture the old beggar Hershel and the horrible goblins.

The story may prompt questions about the holiday, which was explained at the end of the original version but does not appear in the anniversary edition.

▪ From scary goblins to a sweet polar bear, Kimmel varies his telling of the Hanukkah story. In “Simon and the Bear: A Hanukkah Tale” (ages 3-6; Disney-Hyperion Books; $16.99), young Simon sails off for America with a knapsack containing a menorah, candles, a dreidel and latkes, packed by his mother so he can celebrate Hanukkah wherever he is.

When he ends up on an iceberg after his ship sinks, he is joined by a huge polar bear who shares his latkes and candle-lighting. On the eighth day, Simon hopes for a miracle, and a fully lit menorah may do the trick.

The watercolor illustrations by Matthew Trueman bring depth and warmth to the purple arctic nights and glowing candles. An explanation of Hanukkah at the end of the book will show readers how Kimmel’s creative story relates to the historical tale.

▪ Waiting Is Not Easy! (An Elephant & Piggie Book),” written and illustrated by Mo Willems (ages 4-8; Disney-Hyperion; $8.99). There are reasons the early-reader Elephant & Piggie books continue to win awards and praise: They discuss topics that kids can relate to, and they’re just plain fun.

Although this is not technically a holiday story, there is a lot of waiting and wondering this time of year. Willems has the little-kid mannerisms and responses down pat. Gerald the elephant moans and groans when he finds out his best friend, Piggie, has a surprise for him but won’t give any more clues other than it’s big, it’s pretty, and they can share it.

Piggie is infuriatingly calm; Gerald is increasingly annoyed. Groan! When the surprise finally appears, the majestic Milky Way images shared between friends show that it was worth the wait.

▪ “Olive and the Embarrassing Gift,” written and illustrated by Tor Freeman (ages 4-8; Candlewick Press; $15.99). How embarrassing! Olive the cat’s best friend, Joe the turtle, has given her a heartfelt gift: a knit hat that proclaims “Best friends” with hearts. Joe even has a matching one.

When the teasing from their buddies starts, Olive comes up with numerous reasons to not wear the festive hat and ultimately tries to stuff it in the trash. To her chagrin, Joe sees her.

The facial expressions on the animals will bring the story home for young readers, who will certainly sympathize with both Joe and Olive as they navigate issues such as teasing and friendship.

▪ “A Chick ’n’ Pug Christmas,” written and illustrated by Jennifer Sattler (ages 4-6; Bloomsbury USA; $16.99). A laid-back pug dressed as Santa and his energetic sidekick, Chick the elf, set out to spread holiday cheer, even though Pug would much rather take a nap. When Pug explains what Santa does — fly through the air and deliver presents — Chick is certain that Santa is a superhero.

The front-cover cartoon sets the visual tone for the book, and the twist at the end is a delightful surprise.

This is the third book in the Chick ’n’ Pug series.

▪ “The Last Christmas Tree,” written by Stephen Krensky with illustrations by Pascal Campion (ages 3-5; Dial, $16.99). It almost seems like Linus and Charlie Brown should appear in this book about a scraggly little evergreen that can’t find a family even when the price is free.

The personification of the tree, like a little kid trembling with excitement about Christmas, adds a simple touch of believability to the story. In the end, Santa comes to the rescue and takes the little tree home to sit by the fire where the reindeers’ monogrammed stockings hang.

With a warm fireside glow in the final illustration, the little tree seems to stand a little taller and a little stronger, just right for a stocking-footed Santa and the Mrs.

▪ “The Animals’ Santa,” written and illustrated by Jan Brett (ages 3-5; G.P. Putnam and Sons; $17.99). The charm of Brett’s picture books lies in the details, and this one will certainly delight young readers as they follow the secondary story of the homemade gift preparations by lemmings dressed as elves in the sidebar panels.

Little Snow the rabbit has his doubts about Santa. After all, no one has ever seen the mysterious gift-giver, and he never leaves tracks in the snow. Santa does finally arrive, in the form of a snowy owl, and his majestic presence is perfect for the awestruck forest creatures.

▪ “Skippyjon Jones Snow What,” written and illustrated by Judy Schachner (ages 4-6; Dial; $17.99). This Siamese cat who thinks he’s a Chihuahua has to be one of my favorite children’s book characters these days, so a new release around Christmastime means my gift-giving for young readers is complete.

The little-kitty guy reacts as only a boy could in a house full of girls — by disappearing into his closet for wild adventures with his seven chimichango buddies. While his sisters listen to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Skippyjon leaps to his challenge of waking up the frozen princess, Nieve Que, with a kiss. Yuck!

The wordplay and smash of Spanish and English words make this book one to read with an exaggerated Spanish accent, perhaps wearing a mustache as well.

▪ “And Then Comes Christmas,” by Tom Brenner, with illustrations by Jana Christy (ages 3-6; Candlewick Press; $15.99). An old-fashioned Christmas story with poetic “When …” and “Then …” sequences alternating lines, this picture book carries readers through the many traditions and preparations for the Christmas season. You can almost smell the evergreens and cookies.

A sweet story of one family and their Christmas rituals, this picture book would make a nice cuddle-and-snuggle present in front of the fireplace.

▪ If you’re looking for wonderful children’s books to give during the holidays that don’t have anything to do with the holidays, try “Little Humans” or “Firebird.”

In “Firebird,” by Misty Copeland with illustrations by Christopher Myers (ages 5-8; Penguin Young Readers Group; $17.99), the author shows an older dancer encouraging a young student, just as Copeland was helped on her journey to become the only black dancer who is a soloist with the American Ballet Theatre.

Copeland’s words are lyrical and poetic, but the illustrations are the star of this book, as the bold, sweeping colors and lines mimic a dancer’s graceful movements. A beautiful book full of encouragement and hope for the future, whether or not the reader is a dancer.

The best-selling “Humans of New York,” by Brandon Stanton, started off as a blog that paired street photography portraits with a little story about the subject in their own words.

In this spinoff, Stanton gathered some of his favorite photos of children from the blog and added simple free-verse poetry and some new portraits to create “Little Humans” (ages 5-8; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $17.99).

The funky full-page portraits of a wide variety of youngsters make a fun picture book that piques the imagination of readers, who will see similarities and differences in their own lives.

To reach Mary Schulte, call 816-234-4357 or send email to mschulte@kcstar.com.

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