Saturday, December 25, 2021

Merry Christmas!

Utnik-StrugaƂa, Monika. Christmas Is Coming: Traditions from Around the World 
Published September 14th 2021 by NorthSouth Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

This Polish import has a lot of interesting information on different aspects of Christmas, from trees, to ornaments, to depictions of Santa Claus. There was, not surprisingly, a lot more on Polish Christmas than I have previously read. I was enlightened by the brief information about Christmas in Japan; in 2007, we had a Japanese exchange teacher stay with us for three weeks, and it was interesting to hear what a big holiday it was, although to celebrate, the Japanese eat Kentucky Fried Chicken and sometimes get engaged!

A lot of my 6th grade girls are very interested in fiction books set in December, and it's often my Muslim students with family connections in other countries that are particularly enthralled. I have been looking for books with overviews of various facets of the Christmas season for these readers, but haven't found quite the right book yet. If you want a lot of serious information in a well illustrated volume, this is the one for you, but it wasn't quite what I wanted. 

Growing up, my parents would often sign up for Time-Life or World Book series, the kind where you could sign up but "cancel at any time", which was always after the first book! My knowledge is a little skewed because of this; I know about the 1920s, the Revolutionary War, and Christmas in Germany because those were the volumes we had! Some of this book was familiar, but there was also a lot of information I didn't know. 

Katz, Alan. Trouble in Toyland: Elf Academy
September 21st 2021 by Aladdin
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Andy lives at the North Pole with his parents and older brother Andy and younger sister Susu. He attends Elf Academy, where the students spend the mornings on academic topics and the afternoons making toys for Santa. Andy, who is in second grade, tries to spice things up by doing things like seeing how many helmets he can wear at one time, but he frequently gets in trouble for his antics. He's tired of building the same toys over and over, and longs for a creative outlet. When the principal announces a design contest for the children to design a bird toy, Andy should be elated, but instead struggles to come up with an idea. Craig tells him to trust his instincts, and the he is a winner any time he is creating, but it is still a struggle to come up with a concept and to build it. When he finally comes up with an idea, it is a bit outside of the gift box. Will Andy's innovative toy help him feel creative, and maybe even win the contest?
Strengths: I'm a huge fan of shorter books with large print for emerging readers. This is a perfect blend of text and pictures, and perfect for first or second graders who can zip through a 32 page I Can Read book with no problems. Christmas stories are always fun, and there is so much more that could be done with the whole Elf Mythos. Andy is an exuberant character with which many young readers will sympathize. School projects start to become interesting at this age, so seeing a child work through the creative process is informative. I'm curious to see what other highjinks Andy embraces. 
Weaknesses: I could tell that this was more of an elementary title when I found myself being outraged that Santa was exploiting the elves and having seven year olds make his toys. 
What I really think: I won't be purchasing this for my school library, but would definitely have gotten this for my own personal children when they were in early elementary school. Alan Katz has a lot of really fun looking titles for younger readers. I love all of the Simon Kids series-- this is Quix, but there's also a M!X and MAX! imprints that are hugely popular with my students. This would be a great book for fans of Jacobson's Twig and Turtle or Higgins' Good Dog books. 

Rowling, J.K. The Christmas Pig
October 12th 2021 by Scholastic Inc.
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central 

Jack is dealing with divorce and his parents. His father is very distant, and it isn't long before his mother is dating someone who has a daughter, Holly. Jack's okay with this, and even knows Holly from school, but she is struggling with the change in relationships and is mean to Jack. Jack's comfort through all of this is a very dilapidated lovey, a stuffed pig called Dur Pig. When Holly throws him out of the car in a fit of pique, Jack is devastated. His mother tries to remedy the situation by getting him a new stuffed pig, but it's not the same. Soon, however, Jack finds out that his new stuffed animal is magic, and the Christmas Pig takes him into the Land of the Lost, filled with new adventures and is peopled by strange characters like talking diamond earrings. Will Jack be able to evade the Loss Adjusters and go undetected long enough to make it to the Island of the Beloved to find Dur Pig?

This is a bit longer than many US books for readers young enough to be emotionally invested in stuffed animals, but would be excellent for a read aloud during the Christmas season. The beginning is very much like a Jacqueline Wilson novel (Candyfloss, The Suitcase Kid, The Lottie Project), rife with suspect British parenting, mean family members, and a child who just wants to be loved and cared for properly. We are then sucked into a fantasy world a bit like Bell's Crooked Sixpence or Hannibal's The Lost Property Office, and get to proceed on an exciting quest. US readers who haven't read too many British books will find the story innovative.

Jim Field's occasional illustrations are pleasant, but there could have been many more of them. I wish that chapter heading decorations would make a much bigger comeback so that the talents of illustrators could be better showcased! 

Fans of Harry Potter, especially ones who now have children of their own, will definitely want to investigate this new title as an extension of Rowling's magical imagination. Part Velveteen Rabbit, part Polar Express, The Christmas Pig will resonate with anyone who has ever felt a deep and unexplainable love for a stuffed bit of fake fur. Merry Christmas, Teddy. 

Davies, Valentine. Miracle on 34th Street
September 14th 2021 by Clarion Books (first published 1947)
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

Kris Kringle is about to be turned out of the Maplewood Home for the Aged in New York City and transferred to Mount Hope Sanitorium because the Board of Directors will only allow people to stay at Maplewood if they are of sound mind. Since he believes he is THE Santa Claus, he is considered unstable. Instead of being sent to the sanitorium, he takes himself off to stay with a friend who is a zookeeper for the reindeer at the zoo and somehow earn a living. In a fortuitous turn of events, he is at the staging area of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade when the man playing the role of Santa is found to be inebriated. given his jovial, bewhiskered appearance, the parade director, Doris Walker, hires him on the spot to fill in. He also takes over in the department store, and takes the innovative approach of telling parents where they can find their children's objects of desire for cheaper prices, even if it isn't at Macy's! This boosts goodwill as well as business. Doris is a very driven professional, who is raising her daughter Susan alone after a divorce. She is a pragmatic woman, and raised Susan to forego the frivolities of youth such as believing in Santa. Luckily, neighbor Fred indulges her a bit more. He also is interested in Doris as a romantic interest. When it turned out that Kris is considered to be unstable, Doris wants to fire him, but gets caught up in a trial to judge his competence. Susan starts to belive a bit in the mythology of Christmas, but will Santa be able to grant her fondest wish?

This 1947 title bears some hints of its age, but holds up fairly well. It's good to see an independent woman at this particular juncture of history, and I think Doris' approach to raising Susan is sound. The dated aspects include quite different treatment of the elderly (especially since Kris is described as being around 75!), and different terminology for mental health conditions; "lunacy"is no longer a politically correct term. I wasn't a huge fan of Fred's pursuit of Doris, but he was generally a fine fellow, even though the dream of a house in the suburb and married life seemed very tied to post war feelings. 

The cinematic orgins of the story also bleed through occasionally, and the sentimentality is typical of holiday fare from this era. Considering this was a movie before it was a book, it's not a surprise. The writing is still strong, and the slim volume is a quick read. 

I've never compiled a list of classic Christmas stories, but this would be a good addition to a holiday collection along with Dicken's Cricket on the Hearth, Henry's Gift of the Magi and Shepherd's A Christmas Story.

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