Monday, December 31, 2007

Auld Lang Syne: Happy New Year, Julie by Megan McDonald

True to the format of the earlier American Girls series, Julie Albright's wish for a merry holiday season appears to be impossible. Her divorcing parents seem too wrapped up in their own transitions to think about their children's Christmas. Her mom borrows a tree, but her gifts are homemade crafts from her new business, and Julie and her sister miss the carols and treats and cheery decorations from their old suburban home. Christmas at Dad's is also bleak, with diminished trappings and no good smells of traditional foods to look forward to.

To make things worse, big sister Tracy has a teenage drama queen attack when their father tries to compensate with dinner at a fancy downtown hotel. Fourth-grader Julie turns to her best friend Ivy Ling, who thoughtfully involves Julie in her family's preparations for the Chinese New Year just ahead, but although Julie appreciates the kindness of Ivy's warm extended family, it only makes her own broken family life seem more bleak.

When Ivy's parents invite Julie's sister and parents to share the holiday festivities, Julie fears the worst, but to her surprise, she finds that coming together on a neutral ground makes the challenges of living with her family in the new year a little less daunting.

Although the plot is not unique, in Happy New Year, Julie (American Girls Collection) Megan McDonald's sure voice and skillful writing take the reader right inside Julie's head and heart in this third book in the story of Julie Albright, an American girl growing up in the maelstrom of change that was the
1970's. As always in this historical fiction series, the illustrated appendix adds to the reader's understanding of events and everyday artifacts as Julie's world moves into the new year of 1975.

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Sunday, December 30, 2007

'S No Time Like Snow Time: Snowmen at Night by Caralyn and Mark Buehner

It's not a new story. It's "Frosty the Snowman," and Raymond Brigg's wonderful, wordless The Snowman, and a jillion other snowman stories in which the child witnesses the snowman's nocturnal frolic which presages the ultimate meltdown. Carpe diem!

Caralyn and Mark Buehner's take on the sodden, sagging snowman saga is not to sadden over his demise but to assume that he's just weary from a nightime of snow fun. In Snowmen at Night Caralyn's jaunty verse is no brooding existential lament for the lost snow creation:

One windy day I made a snowman,
very round and tall.
The next day when I saw him,
He was not the same at all.

His hat had slipped, his arms drooped down,
he really looked a fright--
It made me start to wonder;
What do snowmen do at night?

Mark Buehner's solid and gleeful snowmen congregate in the moonlit park to drink cold cocoa from frosty mugs made by snow mothers, to race, and skate, and play snow baseball with a broom for a bat and snowballs for baseballs. And when the game is done, the leftovers are perfect for "the world's best snowball fight." Then on tubes and tobaggans and red racer sleds they take wild slides down the hill until at last the sleepy snowmen pack it up and head for home as sunrise seeps over the still snoozing town.

So if your snowman's grin is crooked,
or he's lost a little height,
you'll know he's just been doing
what snowmen do at night.

In this happy collaboration what snowmen do at night is what kids love to do all through a joyful snow day, and Snowmen at Night shows the right way to spend the day.

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Friday, December 28, 2007

Messy Nessie: The Water Horse: A Movie Review

As written back in 1990 by Dick King-Smith, author of Babe: The Gallant Pig of movie fame, The Water Horse is a warm-hearted family fantasy, set in 1930, in which sister Kirstie and brother Angus, their mother, and their grandfather, nicknamed Grumble, conspire to raise and protect from discovery a sea serpent (named Crusoe) hatched from an egg, a huge "mermaid's purse," found by Kirstie on the beach after a storm. The family, abetted on occasional shore leave by their merchant sailor father, stealthily move the beast as it grows from the bathtub to fish pond to small lake and finally to Loch Ness, where it is finally sighted and photographed and becomes the basis of the modern Loch Ness Monster craze.

In the hands of director Jay Russell and the special effects guys at Walden Media, that sweet fantasy becomes The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep and is transformed into somewhat of a spectacle film--with emphasis on the "Legend of the Deep" portion of the movie title. The plot is reset in World War II Scotland, and younger brother Angus, rather than sister Kirstie, becomes the focal character. Angus' Royal Navy father has been lost at sea, and the manor grounds are filled with billeted soldiers preparing to defend the mouth of the nearby loch from Nazi submarines. The soft-hearted but grumpy grandad who helps care for the tiny water horse is replaced by the character of handyman Lewis Mowbrey, who vies romantically with the British commander for the affections of the children's widowed mother.

The midsection of the film offers the interesting mix of characters a chance for some humor, as in the scene in which the handyman hides the little water horse inside a toilet, sitting on the lid and casually discussing plumbing repair with the unsuspecting mum in the bathroom where the little beastie has been kept in the bathtub. In another scene the ever-voracious Crusoe spills a rubbish bin full of kitchen scraps, messily gobbles up the garbage, and emits a satisfied belch. Another kid-pleasing scene offers the army cook's bulldog, appropriately named Churchill, a chance to play the slapstick heavy as he chases the fleeing water horse through the manor house and runs down a long banquet table during a very formal officers' dinner party, while Angus tries to rescue his slippery little charge underneath.

As in King-Smith's plot line, the beast's huge appetite and rapid growth force the reluctant children to sneak him into the deep waters of Loch Ness, which provides the gorgeous backdrop for the movie's signature scene, when deep-water-averse Angus takes a literally breathtaking underwater ride on Crusoe. Problems ensue, of course, as a couple of garrulous fishermen hook the water horse and live to tell the tale--at the local pub and anywhere else they can find an ear. Things turn nasty when accounts of a monster in Loch Ness appear in the local papers. Some of the billeted soldiers set forth for a midnight monster hunt in a military torpedo boat, and the artillerymen begin firing at what they believe to be an enemy sub entering the loch. Angus and Lewis rush lochside to try to save Crusoe, and amidst a roaring storm and blasts of artillery fire the movie reaches its thrilling conclusion.

Although the story line has a few weak points, its U.K. cast is excellent, projecting their roles perfectly without overplaying their scenes, in that admirable way Brits have. For no apparent reason the script writer adds a frame story, which gives able Scots actor Brian Cox, as "old Angus", a chance to begin and end the movie as he tells his tale to a young couple visiting Loch Ness. The movie's setting is beautiful, with internal scenes shot in Ardkinglas, a 100-year-old Scottish manor house, and external scenes shot on location in New Zealand, which apparently looks more like Scotland than modern Scotland does.

This is a admirable family film, with no slapstick pratfalls, no wisecracking insults, and even the local yokels treated with a modicum of respect. Alex Etel as the young Angus is superb, and the water horse is an appropriately appealing baby and an awesome Loch Ness monster as he grows. Rated PG, the movie lasts 111 minutes. At the end of my showing the audience of mostly preteens broke into spontaneous applause, as did the two eight-year-olds who saw the movie with me.

For kids who want to know more about the famous lake monster, there is Jacqueline Gorman's The Loch Ness Monster (X Science: An Imagination Library Series), or Peggy Parks' The Loch Ness Monster (Monsters), both of which cover the mythology, mystery, history, and scientific studies of the reputed monster in Loch Ness for middle readers. For younger children Richard Brassey's Nessie the Loch Ness Monster provides a humorous and less skeptical view of the ever-popular Nessie.

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Becoming Somebody: Nothing But Trouble: The Story of Althea Gibson by Sue Stauffacher

"Althea Gibson was the tallest, wildest tomboy in the history of Harlem. Everybody said so."

An indifferent student who often cut class to stay in the game, Althea skirted getting into real trouble only by her devotion to street sports. Still, without the intervention of a part-time playground social worker, a Black tennis coach, and significant patrons who were able to spot her incredible athletic ability in the raw, Althea Gibson might never have risen to become the first African-American to win at Wimbledon.

The way to Wimbledon in 1957 was nearly impossible for an African-American, born the child of Southern sharecroppers in pre Civil Rights America. Only her drive and athletic ability enabled Althea to stick it out until she got her chance to prove her mettle. "If the field of sports has got to pave the way for all civilization, let's do it," she said. And she did.

Greg Crouch's illustrations catch the kinetic genius of Althea Gibson, all long lines and swirling motion as the young tomboy follows her crooked path to success. Nothing but Trouble: The Story of Althea Gibson, is a great read-aloud for Black History Month, especially paired with Kathleen Krull's Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World's Fastest Woman. Both of these women athletes broke the mold to break the records and are an inspiration to girls today.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Sing My America: Langston's Train Ride by Robert Burleigh

Poet Langston Hughes was eighteen when he took a long train ride from Harlem to Mexico. He was just the age when life flows deep and strong within and emotions overflow suddenly in a flood of feeling. Crossing the Mississippi, golden and wide in the late afternoon sun, his mind went back to the people who worked the lands fed by that river, the cotton workers, the boatmen, the field hands, and the slaves sold before Abraham Lincoln's appalled young eyes in the market at New Orleans.

Hughes hastily scribbled a poem on the back of an envelope he carried in his pocket, a poem in which rivers become the metaphor for the passage of humankind upon the river of time.

"Rivers. Maybe we're all part of a big river that flows from way back to here. And from here to--who knows where?"

Langston Hughes' poem, "A Negro Speaks of Rivers" begins

I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world
and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Published in 1921 in W. E. B. DuBois' Crisis, it was the one of many works which made Langston Hughes one of the twentieth century's notable American poets. And it all began with a train ride and a crossing over a river.

Robert Burleigh's lyrical Langston's Train Ride reads like Hughes' blank verse and the metaphor of his journey south parallels the poet's river metaphor seamlessly. The poem Hughes wrote on this train ride is included withing the text of the book. For the most part, Leonard Jenkins' free-form illustrations frame and interpret the text beautifully, although a few of the more symbolic designs may confuse younger children. Still, this book is highly recommended for use with Black History month activities and poetry studies in the elementary grades. Langston's Train Ride is a 2008-2009 Tennessee State Book Award nominee.

A fine anthology to introduce Hughes' poetry to children is his The Dream Keeper and Other Poems, illustrated by Caldecott honor artist Brian Pinkney. For more about the early life of this prolific and popular poet, Floyd Cooper's Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes is a biography in picture book format which describes Hughes' lonely Kansas boyhood and the foster family who encouraged his talent with words.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Foxiest Elves of the Season: Zelda and Ivy: One Christmas by Laura McGee Kvasnosky

In Zelda and Ivy: One Christmas (Candlewick, 2006), Zelda and little sister Ivy, the fabulous fox sisters, can't wait to get their presents on Christmas Day. Zelda is yearning for a glamorous evening gown, and Ivy is counting on the very popular Princess Mimi doll, with all the accessories. The Fox girls just know it's going to be the best Christmas ever!

But while making holiday cookies with their recently widowed neighbor Mrs. Brownlie, they realize that she is not anticipating her first Christmas alone at all. The sisters suddenly see that there's more to Christmas than waiting for Santa. Concerned for their friend, Zelda and Ivy decide to play "Christmas Elves" and secretly deliver a special gift to their friend to cheer her up.

While the girls plot their secret mission, they also throw themselves into the holiday fun. Zelda becomes the Amazing Zeldarina, telling their Christmas gift fortunes and attempting to boss her younger sister Ivy. Throughout decorating their tree and wrapping their Christmas gifts, Ivy manages to stick up for herself quite well.

When Santa leaves them boring matching bathrobes instead of their hearts' desire, the Fox sisters' holiday spirit almost goes down the tube, until they each find another gift under the tree--this time from "the Christmas Elf." Inside each package Zelda and Ivy find just what they've hoped for, along with a Christmas they won't forget.

For more award-winning stories of Zelda and Ivy, see Zelda and Ivy (Candlewick, 1998), Zelda and Ivy and the Boy Next Door (Candlewick, 1999), and Zelda and Ivy: The Runaways, a 2007 Notable Book (Candlewick, 2007). Newly independent readers will enjoy the humorous spats that go along with sisterly rivalry and the lively childhood adventures portrayed in Kvasnovsky's sparkling gouache and ink drawings. At Accelerated Reader levels 2.7-3.0, with three chapters each, the stories of Zelda and Ivy are just right for early independent readers who are almost ready for longer chapter books.

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Monday, December 24, 2007

What You Wish For: On Christmas Eve by Ann M. Martin

It's almost Christmas of 1958, and her sister Evvie tells Tess that it's time for her to give up her belief in Santa. Still, as the holidays near, Tess feels the old magical pull of Christmas Eve and Santa's coming. Surrounded by the comforting mid-century rhythms of the season--fashioning homemade ornaments, cutting a Christmas tree, hanging the old string of golden lights, and watching her big sister portraying the angel Gabriel in the church pageant--Tess's anticipation is saddened by the serious illness of her best friend Sarah's father.

Still Tess catches glimpses of the magic that she hopes to see if she can just wait up til Santa comes, when she can make known her wish, not for herself, but for Sarah and her father:

"We are excited, but for very different reasons. I don't say anything about this to Evvie, though. Evvie does not believe in Santa, or in the magical world that is part of our everyday world--the one that is there sort of, at the edges, something you might be able to see out of the corner of your eye if you turn to just the right place at just the right moment. If you truly believe."

Tess gets her magical moment at midnight and makes her wish for Sarah's father, although even on Christmas Eve Santa can make no promises that all wishes will be fulfilled.

In On Christmas Eve (Apple Signature Edition) Ann M. Martin manages to weave Christmas magic with a minimum of sentimentality and plenty of genuine feeling in this brief novel which walks the line between realistic fiction and fantasy.


Under the Christmas Tree: Jingle Bells, Homework Smells by Diane DeGroat

Diane de Groat's Jingle Bells, Homework Smells is a homey holiday story of the last days of school before the longed-for winter break.

Mrs. Byrd gamely tries to keep Gilbert's class's attention by reading them a snowman story, but the kids are only half there, daydreaming of the Christmas holidays. When she hands out their weekend assignment to draw and color their favorite story character, good student Gilbert thinks "piece of cake," even though Leon, the class goof-off groans.

But when Gilbert arrives home on Friday, he puts off the assignment to help decorate his mom's Christmas cookies and watch his favorite TV holiday special. Before he can get started on the work on Saturday, Patty invites him to a skating party, and Gilbert goes, promising himself he'll get the job done on Sunday. But on Sunday there's more holiday fun--picking out and decorating their tree with little sister Lola and joining the whole family for a bedtime reading of The Night before Christmas.

As soon as Gilbert awakes on Monday, he remembers the assignment. When he arrives at school, he finds that everyone else has done their work--except Leon, of course. Hit with a desperate inspiration, Gilbert commandeers Leon to help him build a hastily assembled snowman and shows its to Mrs. Byrd as their joint project to fulfill the art assignment. It's obvious that Mrs. Byrd knows what's going on, but she gives them a half-smiley face for effort. Leon is thrilled: it's his very first half-smiley face, but then he's used to getting frowny faces on his work. Usually a top student, it's Gilbert's first half-smiley, too, and he feels as if he's let his teacher down.

Luckily, Mrs. Byrd gives the two an extra day to do the assignment right, and Gilbert comes through with his picture of Santa Claus delivering a Red Racer sled down his own chimney--definitely smiley-face worthy--and Gilbert and Mrs. Byrd share a happy pre-holiday smile.

De Groat's pleasant second-grade stories of Gilbert and his friends hit all the marks--birthdays, Halloween, George Washington's birthday plays, and especially Valentine's Day (Roses Are Pink, Your Feet Really Stink) The soft pastel illustrations and charming characters add a lot of appeal to these books, but it is the characterization of Gilbert and his honest struggles with the small but important moral dilemmas that young students have that makes these picture books great for primary readers.


Sunday, December 23, 2007

Two Evergreen Tales for Christmas Eve: Carl's Christmas and Max's Christmas Stocking

That righteous Rottweiler Carl can be counted upon for a Christmas Eve fantasy just right for the board book set.

An almost wordless book, Carl's Christmas (Carl) begins with the cheery parents giving Carl his orders of the evening: "We're going to Grandma's and then to church. Take care of the baby, Carl!" (Warning: Carl is a professional fantasy character; don't try this at home!)

In a festive mood, Carl dresses the baby warmly, helps him decorate a potted plant "tree" downstairs, and then takes the toddler out for a night on the town. Carl wins a Christmas basket in a crafts store and he and the baby follow the directions on a street sign--FOR THE NEEDY--and donate the basket to the poor, the baby adding his own flap cap to their donation.

As the baby rides Carl's back around the holiday-ready town, they watch little kids looking hopefully up their chimney and join a group of merry carolers, where the baby is given a scarf to replace his cap and Carl lends his voice to the songs.

Back home dog and baby sleep before the warm fire until a surprised Carl awakes to find Santa and reindeer at the front door. Carrying Santa's pack on his own back, he helps Santa set up the gifts for the humans and their cats. Santa himself gently puts Carl's new collar around his neck and then does the old up-the-chimney thing for the amazed dog.

At last Carl returns the toddler to his crib and, true to his mission, falls asleep on the rug beside his charge. The final page shows a closeup of Carl's big pawprint in the snow.

"R-U-B-Y spells Ruby," says Max's sister Ruby.

"Now Santa will know which stocking is which. We don't want Santa to make a mistake."

Despite Ruby's careful stocking labels, however, Santa has a sudden attack of dyslexia. At least, it seems that way when Max happily begins to unload his stocking on Christmas morning. Ruby watches with dismay as Max gleefully pulls out the gifts that were on her list.

Max was thrilled. He loved his diamond tiara, his butterfly wings, and his Princess Marvella accessories.

Obviously, things need a bit of sorting out here, and with big sister Ruby in charge, they will be. Rosemary Wells' Max's Christmas Stocking (Max Board Books), with the scary premise that Santa makes mistakes providing the suspense, is a great choice for preschoolers looking forward to Christmas morning themselves.

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Don't Get Soot on Your Snout! Olivia Helps with Christmas by Ian Falconer

Who can resist a piglet with her snout up the chimney, peering for a glimpse of Santa? In this latest for Olivia fans, Ian Falconer's Caldecott award character goes through the days just before Christmas with all the joy that a preschool piglet can muster.

But Olivia doesn't just wait patiently for Santa: in Olivia Helps with Christmas, (Olivia Series) our piglet becomes a player, pitching in with those jobs that make the countdown to Christmas so much fun. Olivia "helps" wrap presents, decorate the tree and place the presents there, bake cookies and put them out for Santa, hang all the stockings, and, of course, look for signs that Santa is coming, hence the sooty snout when she inspects the chimney.

Olivia is just the right age for this Christmas, old enough to remember a bit of Christmas past and young enough for it to be new and exciting all over again, culminating in Santa's presents under the tree on Christmas morning. The illustrations are at once striking and adorable, and tots waiting for Christmas to come will identify with this impatient piglet.

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Friday, December 21, 2007

An Everything Book for Christmas: A Family Christmas by Caroline Kennedy

Celebrity anthologies usually require a bit of circumspection lest they turn out to be vanity pieces. Caroline Kennedy, however, has proven her editorial chops with several best-selling compilations, including poetry and historical anecdotes, and judging from the reactions to her A Family Christmas she's hit the mark again.

In addition to the staple Christmas Charles Dickens and Truman Capote pieces, Kennedy juxtaposes authors as diverse as Groucho Marx and Harper Lee, John and Yoko Lennon and E. B. White, Calvin Trillin and Nikki Giovanni, and even throws in some Kennedy family memorabilia in the form of an early letter from her to Santa Claus.

It's a great gift for young families and for those people who are frequently called upon to do a "reading" durng the holiday season. And if you have need on this Midwinter's Eve, it's also a good way to dispell the "Bah, Humbug"* Christmas blues.

*Today is Bah, Humbug Day, so it's officially OK to be a Scrooge for the Day. Go ahead and say it!

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

On the Job Training: How Santa Got His Job by Stephen Krensky

Stephen Krensky's How Santa Got His Job sets out to answer one of the mysteries of the holiday season: how did Santa get to be Santa anyway?

Well, Santa wasn't always chubby and plump and jolly and bearded. Once he was an eager red-haired young man in his best tweed sports jacket, pounding the pavement in search of his first job. Because he prefers active, outdoor work, he first takes a job as a chimney sweep, where he proves so adept at twisting his way down and up chimneys that everyone believes he is too clean to be doing any work. Fired from that job, he quickly goes to work for the Post Office. He loves delivering packages to people, but hates midday traffic snarls, so he begins doing most of his deliveries late at night, to the displeasure of his sleeping customers.

Still, Santa has learned that he likes to work the night shift, so he tries a job as a cook in an all-night diner. Unfortunately, tasting his own wares leads to a precipitous weight gain, so Santa resigns to find a job that will give him a bit more exercise. Working as an assistant zookeeper is great, but S.C. loves caring for the reindeer perhaps a bit too much.

Laid off for neglecting the other animals, Santa leaves the zoo (followed by an entourage of adoring reindeer) to take a job being shot out of a cannon in the circus. Santa likes the red costume, and he is so thrilled to be flying through the air that he can't help laughing "Ho, Ho, Ho" through the whole trajectory. Unfortunately, the laughter doesn't add much to the supposedly chilling, thrilling suspense of the act, and Santa once more finds himself among the unemployed.

Luckily, some fans (who happen to be toy-making elves) stop by for an autograph and invite him to eat dinner at their country workshop. When Santa notices that their well-made toys were beginning to pile up around the place, he offers to put his job experience to work delivering the toys to children, and the elves hire him on the spot.

And the rest, as we say, is legend. Oh, it takes Santa a while to figure out that reindeer are better than polar bears at sleigh-pulling, but soon Santa settles himself into what looks like a real career move as he puts all the hard-earned skills on his resume' to work and follows his bliss.

Krensky and illustrator S. D. Schindler also have a worthy sequel in their How Santa Lost His Job, in which Elf Murkle's time and motion study of Santa leads him to break out his CAD skills to design "The Deliverator," a robotic expediter to replace the all-to-human (and cookie-loving) Santa Claus. S. D. Schindler's illustrations are charmingly detailed as he depicts our beloved saint's checkered employment history in these outside-the-(gift)box Santa stories.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Gift Wrap Included: Merry Christmas, Curious George (text) by Cathy Hapka

For the last minute shopper, it's Curious George to the rescue. Actually, it's Margret and H. A. Rey's Merry Christmas, Curious George! (Curious George), all dressed up for the holiday season. Like a sort of picture book Super Man, this one's dust jacket reverses to become--tah dah!--its own gift wrap! (No phone booth needed.)

Gimmicks aside, this one is a better than average holiday adaptation of the timeless adventures of our favorite little monkey. In this tale, George goes along with the man in the yellow hat to select a Christmas tree. Curious as always, he wanders out of sight to climb the largest evergreen on the lot and hiding in its branches, gets trucked downtown with the tree to the Children's Hospital, familiar territory for George, who paid two visits to this institution in his original career.

At the hospital George scoots away, exploring and pilfering medical gear, until he spots the tree now mounted and surrounded by gifts, ready to be decorated. Making the best of the situation, George improvises Christmas tree ornaments out of X-rays, books, clipboards, stethoscopes, and crutches, all hung from a long strip of gauze encircling the tree. Just as he jumbles up the gift tags on the presents, the familiar-looking kids from Curious George Goes to the Hospital arrive in the playroom for their Christmas party, where they discover a naughty little monkey climbing a weird but intriguing Christmas tree. The nurse snatches up George and various administrators tsk-tsk at the scene, but the kids insist that George stay for the party, and when the man in the yellow hat finally tracks him down, he's just in time to help George place the final star on top of the tree.

The illustrations by Mary O'Keefe Young lean heavily on the characterizations, poses, and period paraphernalia from the original Curious George Goes to the Hospital and carry the load for this light-weight tale. Still, George, with his childlike gung-ho optimism, is such an engaging character that the whole story makes a fine Christmas addition to the Curious George canon.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Ever-green Evergreen Tale II: The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree by Gloria Houston

It's almost Christmas, World War I has finally ended, but Ruthie cannot quite enjoy the season until her father returns from the war. Still, she remembers the beautiful evergreen tree he marked to cut for Christmas, and lit by lantern light, she and her mother walk through the darkening woods to bring the tree back for their church. It's her family's turn to provide the tree for the Christmas Eve service, and Ruthie's mother is determined that she won't let the Pine Grove congregation down.

The snow-covered tree is beautiful as it stands in the woods and beautiful decorated for the performance of the Nativity Play in the little church. Ruthie herself plays the Herald Angel, dressed in a costume fashioned by her mother from her own silk wedding gown. Her family has little to spare, but what they give makes all the difference to their little community.

A beloved read-aloud since its publication twenty years ago, The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: An Appalachian Story is one of those perfect collaborations between author Gloria Houston and Caldecott Award artist Barbara Cooney. While the setting, glowingly illustrated by Cooney, is of a time past, the theme is evergreen, like the perfect tree itself.

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