Sunday, December 3, 2006

Holiday Books for Kids

With the Yuletide and Hanukkah only a few weeks away, I thought it might be a good idea to discuss a topic suitable for the season--namely, children's books that make good reading over the holidays.

Of course, the most famous children's story for the holidays may well be the poem originally published as "A Visit from St. Nicholas," but now better known as "The Night Before Chirstmas." Commonly thought to have been written by Clement Clarke Moore (although some have argued for Henry Livingston Jr. as the author) and first published in the New York Sentinel on December 23, 1823. it established much of the mythos surrounding Santa Claus here in America. Among the concepts it introduced were the general appearance of St. Nick (as a fat, jolly old man who wears fur and boots), his use of reindeer to pull his sleigh, and the names of his reindeer. Given that the poem established much of the Santa Claus myth here in America, children can still relate to the poem even 183 years after its first appearance (about the only question I've ever received is why the poem doesn't mention Rudolph, to which the answer is that he wasn't born yet...).

If there is a holiday story as famous as "A Visit from St. Nicholas," it is probably A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Of course, A Christmas Carol is not a children's story, but a novella written for adults. That having been said, older children and teenagers can easily appreciate the classic tale. Today we tend to take the story for granted, particularly after the numerous dramatic, movie, and television adaptations that have been made, not to mention the many parodies. But A Christmas Carol was very influential on its first appearance. When first published in 1843, the old Yuletide traditions in England were dying out. The success of A Christmas Carol helped revive interest in these ancient customs. Ultimately, the novella would become Dickens' most famous work and one of the most famous holiday stories of all time.

Not nearly as famous as either "A Visit from St. Nicholoas" or A Christmas Carol is The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum, most famous for his series of Oz books. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus essentially tells how Santa Claus became, well, Santa Claus. The novel is filled with the usual imagination and originality with which Baum filled his Oz books. And there may even be a link to the Oz books. The villain of the book is the Gnome King, perhaps a variation on the Nome King, the recurring archnemesis of Baum's heroes in his Oz books... Any child who enjoys Baum's Oz books will probably appreciate The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus as well.

Of course, for many of us born in the late 20th century, the classic holiday story is "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" by Dr. Seuss. First published in 1957, it has become perhaps his most famous work and arguably his most successful. Indeed, like "Scrooge" before it, "Grinch" has become a slang term for anyone who despises the holidays. The book was adapted into the classic, animated TV special in 1966, directed by Seuss's old friend and animation giant Chuck Jones. It has become a perennial part of the holiday ever since. It was also adapted into a wretched major motion picture in 2000. Forget the movie. Read the book and then watch the classic TV special instead....

Dr. Seuss was not the only great author of the 20th century to indulge himself in the holidays. J. R. R. Tolkien did so as well in letters he wrote to his children as Father Christmas. Tolkien wrote these letters to his children between 1920 and 1942. And in the course of the letters he creates his own mythos for Father Christmas, quite different from that created in "A Visit From St. Nicholas." Indeed, the elvan script called Tengwar makes its first appearance in print in these letters, well before the publication of The Hobbit! The letters were eventually published in 1976 as The Father Christmas Letters, then republished and retitled Letters From Father Christmas in 2004. They are well worth reading not only for Tolkien enthusiasts, but for anyone who wants to read something imaginative to their children for the holidays.

A Christmas Carol and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" are regarded as Yuletide classics. And many of us grew up reading them. A more recent entry in this list is "The Polar Express." This book was first published in 1985 and tells the tale of a young boy, whose belief in Santa Claus is slipping. The boy is then taken to the North Pole on the Polar Express to see Ol' St. Nick himself. The book is fairly short--it can be read in three minutes--but conveys the meaning of the holidays perfectly. It was adapted into an animated movie in 2004 by director Robert Zemeckis, which greatly expanded on the book without losing the general spirit or moral of the book. I rather suspect the film will become a holiday classic as well.

Of course, Christian parents may well wish to entertain and educate their children over the holidays by reading them the Biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus over Christmas.

Not being Christian myself, I am well aware that other holidays fall in December besides Christmas and I don't think it would be right to leave them out. I don't know of too many children's books dedicated to Hanukkah, but there are a few out there. Jewish parents may be interested in "I Have a Little Dreidel" by Maxie Baum. It is an adaptation of the traditional "Dreidel Song" associated with Hanukkah. Another fine book about the holiday is The Stone Lamp: Eight Stories of Hanukkah Through History. The book tells eight different tales surrounding the holiday throughout history. It is written for older children, but I think younger children could appreciate it as well.

For many of us the holidays are a very important time of year. And many of us have fond memories of our parents or other adults important in our life reading various holiday classics to us. Personally, I can think of no better way to celebrate the Yuletide, Christmas, or Hanukkah than reading about the holidays to the children in one's life. Not only does reading such material to children help entertain them, but it can endow in them the true meaning behind the holidays and continue those traditions passed down from old.


Jeremy said...

Mythos of Santa Claus? Um, what are you trying to say? It better not be what I think it is!

I too love the Grinch, but the animated version has far surpassed the book for me. Love that Boris Karloff reading!

RC said...

i don't really care for children's books that get turned into full feature length films...the 3 minute polar express or the 15 minute grinch is a terrible bore in 2 hours.

I have never heard of The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, it sounds rather interesting.

--RC of