Christmas book reviews

Three recently-published Christmas books bring enough Christmas spirit to fill a half-hour between presents and feasting, the last corner of the living room not given over to decorations and wrapping paper, or a child’s heart.

From both sacred and Santa perspectives, these books are sure to be winners either as stories shared between family members or Christmas presents themselves. They are still available by Christmastime on, and yes, they are also available at Perry Library…

Cricket at the Manger, by Edith Hope Fine

In the vein of We Were There, by Eve Bunting, Cricket at the Manger tells the story of a grouchy cricket who cannot understand why so many people and animals are invading his stable this night and keeping him awake with all their clamor. The strength of this story is not the illustrations: though the pictures are beautiful in a stylized, self-consciously religious way, some readers may find the human eyes on the cricket and sheep a little creepy, as I did. Nevertheless, this book is a valuable addition to the holiday shelf. My favorite part of this book is the onomatopoeia — the written sounds of the cricket as his chirps change from crabby (Gar-RUMPH, gar-RICKET) to filled with Christmas spirit (Chirrr-RUPPP), through the influence of the Christ child. And there the illustrations work, for as he sings his celebratory song, the cricket’s wings resemble tiny violins. Readers looking for a new take on the story of Christ’s birth will enjoy this first-person tale.

Santa Claus the World’s Number One Toy Expert, by Marla Frazee

In this 2005 Christmas book by Marla Frazee, everyone can find something to love. Even “big kids” who don’t believe in Santa Claus. Santa’s job is detailed in every way, from how he gets to know the world’s kids, to his toy preparation and testing, to wrapping and delivery. As good as the story is, the pictures are even better. Santa has the same loving face throughout, but the individual kids’ faces are a joy to see. And there are lots of them to see. Each illustration is composed of smaller, individual pictures, so there is always something new to discover, Where’s Waldo style. See if you can keep track of the number of mugs of hot chocolate (always with a stripy candy cane) that keep Santa going through the year. What can a librarian find to love? Well, my favorite moment has to be when Santa makes the “cozy toys” even more special for their future owners by reading them a bedtime story.

Good King Wenceslas, by John M. Neale and Tim Ladwig

Though Tim Ladwig is credited only as the illustrator of this heartwarming book, it clearly owes more to him, since there is more to the story than simply the words of the John M. Neale’s Christmas carol. Ladwig creates an accessible frame for the song’s words, giving them a setting both in the modern Czech Republic where Wenceslas is still a revered saint and hero, and in the imagination of a child who hears a busker, or modern-day bard, tell the tale. The conclusion of the book is even more interesting and helpful, since Ladwig recounts the original legend that inspired Neale to write his carol and prints the original lyrics on the final page.

That said, the illustrations are truly lovely and evocative. I love medieval stories, and the pictures bring the lives and people of those times to life so vividly that readers can almost feel the warmth of the flames in the king’s chamber or the biting wind when the page boy struggles to follow (literally) in his liege lord’s footsteps, stand under the high wall of ancient Prague, and smell the basting meat in the poor man’s house. I will not retell the story here, since Ladwig has more than done that job, but I will say that if anyone wants to share a book filled with all the true kindness and giving spirit that Christmas can mean, than this book is certainly one to read. And to cherish.

Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!