There is never a shortage of Christmas books to bombard children with, but what if you took this time to teach them about other ways families celebrate as well? My kids love to see their favourite cartoon characters in a Christmas-themed story, and we have plenty of those at home too, but I love how creative publishers are getting at communicating the spirit of the season to the younger generations. Below are 5 new books that you’ll want to consider wrapping up this year.
The Christmas Owl by Ellen Kalish and Gideon Sterer, illustrated by Ramona Kaulitzki is based on the heartwarming story of a baby owl being found in the giant Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center in 2020. It’s told from the owl’s perspective – the terror of being carted across long distances trapped in a tree’s branches, and awakening to find itself in a busy city full of lights and sounds. Out of all the books in this post, this is my 6-year-old’s favourite, probably because the illustrations of the owl are so darn cute. There’s a minor storyline that involves the owl trying to find the true meaning of Christmas, but this was overshadowed by the fact that it’s really focused on being rescued and returned home, which is a more obvious message, and seemed to resonate more with my kids.
Red and Green and Blue and White by Lee Wind, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky is my favourite book of the bunch because I love how positive its message is – and it’s also based on a true story! A young boy and girl decorate their house for the holidays – the boy with blue and white for Chanukah, and the girl with red and green for Christmas. But one night someone throws a rock through the window of the blue and white house, so in a show of support and solidarity his friend puts a Menorah in their front window. This inspires everyone in the town to do the same. Clearly it’s a serious book that one wouldn’t necessarily gift to a young child, but it’s still a book that every child should read around this time. It’s a reminder that we must still fight ignorance and xenophobia, and the true spirit of Christmas is about supporting and celebrating one another. Apparently this story is based on the events of December 1993 in Billings Montana, which sadly, doesn’t seem that long ago, so I’m glad this book has now become a part of our holiday repertoire because its message is still so important today.
The Wishing Tree by Meika Hashimoto, illustrated by Xindi Yan is my oldest’s second favourite book out of this group. When I asked her why, she wasn’t able to pinpoint one thing, but I suspect it has alot to do with the fact that there are punch-out cards included to make one’s own Christmas decorations. It’s about a young boy who looks out his window a few days before Christmas and doesn’t see any decorations in his town, so he writes a letter to Santa asking to see how special Christmas can be. Then he finds a magical tree that sends him messages like “find harmony” which inspires him to go caroling with his neighbors. On Christmas Day he’s disappointed because his parents have to go to work, but the neighbors come together to lift is spirits the way he did theirs. He then brings everyone to this magical tree to make their own Christmas wishes.
There isn’t a lot of explanation around this particular tree, but the idea that a tree (especially a Christmas tree from the north pole) can grant wishes, is one that appeals to my kids. Personally, I really appreciated the fact that this story depicts a family who need to work on Christmas – this is something we so rarely see in media, but it’s the reality for so many people. Through my exposure to early literacy theory in my day-job, I’ve learned how critical it is for kids to see themselves in the stories they read, and this one ticks all the boxes.
Merry Christmas, Anne by Kallie George and illustrated by Genevieve Godbout caught my eye for two reasons: I am also an “Anne with an e” so I feel a special kinship with Anne of Green Gables, who this book is based on. It’s also illustrated by one of my favourite artists – I’ve reviewed Godbout’s work before on this blog, and I like to search out her books when I can. Sadly it doesn’t appeal much to my kids – the text is very whimsical, just like Anne. It’s essentially about her reveling in the small joys of Christmas; eating with friends, enjoying the decorations, admiring the sparkling snow, so it’s missing that tangible plot that my kids tend to latch onto. Still, I love reading this one because it is so simple, and Anne’s imagination and pleasure is contagious – I find it puts me in a good mood, so when we are sitting down with all our Christmas books, I insist on reading this one and my kids quietly sit through it and humour me.
Lastly is New Year by Mei Zihan, illustrated by Qin Leng. Leng is another favourite illustrator of mine – she’s the artist behind my absolutely favourite kids books of all time, and her casual style of line sketches are just as gorgeous in this book as they are in others I’ve read. Unfortunately the storyline of this one falls flat for both me and my children, and that’s simply because a picture book is not the ideal format for this text. It’s written from the perspective of an aging parent lamenting the fact that his adult daughter lives far away, and he misses celebrating the annual traditions together, especially their Lunar New Year feast. My children are admittedly too young for this book, but even if we revisited it few years later, they still couldn’t relate to the complicated feelings a parent has about their child building a life without them. Heck, I can barely relate to this, as my kids aren’t old enough for me to imagine them living a life that doesn’t include me. The nostalgia in this story is palpable, and it has a bittersweet theme that’s expertly woven throughout, but writing this in the form of a picture book confused me more than anything. It would make a beautiful long poem, bound individually or in a collection, but it needs to be clearly marketed towards adults.