Beyond Santa and Frosty: Meaningful Books for the Season by Susan Knell
Every year I always look forward to reading aloud my favorite books to children for the holiday season. There are so many books that we can turn to year after year that go a bit deeper than the cute little books about Santa, snowmen, or Christmas gifts. Here are some of my favorites that I hope will be read and shared this year.
Christmas Sonata written by Gary Paulsen, illustrated by Leslie Bowman
(Delacourte Press, 1992)
The very first sentence of this short chapter book hooks you in with “It comes on everybody at a certain time in their life to not believe in Santa Claus.” Based on that first sentence, you probably won’t share it with the youngest children, but for middle grades it is perfect. When I taught 5th grade I read this aloud to my students and they loved it. Set during World War II a boy finds a neighbor wearing a Santa suit, but that’s not all he finds. This realistic story deals with death and disillusionment, but also faith in what really matters, especially at this time of year. And of course, Gary Paulsen never disappoints.
Gershon’s Monster: A Story for the Jewish New Year, retold by Eric A. Kimmel, illustrated by Jon J Muth
(Scholastic Press, 2000)
The combination of Kimmel’s masterful storytelling and Muth’s beautiful illustrations make this a must-read book to children of all ages. The story is told of Gershon, who made mistakes, but never regretted them or asked forgiveness. He instead swept them down his cellar. On Rosh Hashanah he would put all of his mistakes in a sack and throw them out to sea. This is a wonderful story for the new year or any time of year about forgiveness, facing our mistakes, and starting anew.
My Name Is Maria Isabel, written by Alma Flor Ada, illustrated by K. Dyble Thompson
(Simon & Schuster, 1993)
I can just imagine how I’d feel going into a new classroom and having my teacher say to me, “We have several ‘Susans’ in this class, so I’m going to call you Sandra.” That’s what happens to Maria Isabel in this dear book that shows how important our names are to us. It also centers around the winter pageant of which Maria Isabel so wants to take part, but being called another name makes it hard for her to speak up for herself. This is a brief, charming, and important read-aloud that honors the importance of our names, as well as being a cautionary tale for teachers who may have several same-named children in their classrooms.
The Story of Holly & Ivy, written by Rumer Godden, illustrated by Barbara Cooney
(Viking Penguin, 1995. Text, 1957)
This jewel of a book begs to be read aloud over a few days time to savor the illustrations and story together. I have a Scholastic book club copy and cannot say it better than what’s written on the back cover. “Ivy was a little girl who wished for a home…and a doll. Holly was a little doll who wished for a little girl. It’s Christmas—a time for wishes to come true.” Please treat yourself and those who you teach and love to this magical, dream of a story.
Silver Packages: An Appalachian Christmas Story, written by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet
Would you run after a train for a silver package? Frankie does every year while growing up poor in Appalachia. Every year he yearns for a certain present, but instead gets what he really needs. In this wondrous book about paying debts, hope, kindness, and giving back, Rylant gives us what we really need for the season, and Soentpiet’s illustrations light up the snowy Appalachian hills. Hint: When I read this book to 4th graders every December, I wrap up a box in silver paper and ribbon as a small “prop” before I read. Inside, I have bookmarks, and if I can find them, small silver package ornaments for them to take home.
The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree, written by Gloria Houston, illustrated by Barbara Cooney
(Dial Books, 1988)
When I was a classroom teacher, every December I would save this book for last to read to my students. Note that I taught 1st, 3rd, and 5th grades and each group of children loved it in different ways. Set during World War I, Papa left the Appalachian area to the war in Europe. Ruthie and her mother promise the school/church that they will provide the Christmas tree this year, as is the custom. As you read the story you learn about the Appalachian Christmas customs, keeping promises, and Christmas miracles. This book adds to the joy of Christmas.
Under the Christmas Tree, written by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
I’m always drawn to any Nikki Grimes book and this one is a delight for the Christmas season. This poetry picture book describes all the sights, sounds, and feelings of the season, with Kadir Nelson’s wonderful pictures accompanying each poem. Poetry begs to be read aloud and how wonderful to share these sweet poems that are relatable to all. My favorite poem is the very last one. You’ll have to read the book to see if you agree, and to discover your favorite!
Dear Santa, Please Come to the 19th Floor, written by Yin, illustrated by Chris Soentpiet
(Penguin Books, 2002)
You may think this is a book about Santa. But it’s really a book about hope. It’s also a book about friendship, depression, poverty, and more importantly, no chimney for Santa to deliver gifts to kids in this rough, urban apartment building. Yin delivers a truthful, modern-day story of children worrying that Santa won’t find them in a high-rise, urban apartment building with no fireplace. But through the determination of friendship and Santa, Christmas wishes do come true. And I adore Soenpiet’s light-filled illustrations that depict every feeling and moment of the story.
Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters, written by Patricia C. McKissack & Fredrick L. McKissack, illustrated by John Tompson
It’s 1859 and Christmas is coming to a Virginia plantation. In the Big House there are all sorts of celebrations, singing, gifts, and talk of an upcoming war that may change these folks’ way of life. In the slave quarters, it’s a totally different atmosphere, even though there are songs, stories, and their own celebrations. The talk of war may also change the slaves’ way of life, and freedom is talked about with hope. This books alternates between the big house and the slave quarters on what happens in those days leading to Christmas. It’s like we’re peeking into the windows of all their lives, and learning bits of history through their dialogue and everyday living, preparing for the celebration. It’s a great book to share with children over a few days’ read-aloud times to compare and contrast the different ways Christmas was celebrated just before the Civil War. The book also includes recipes, songs, and poems that add to the season.
There are many wonderful holiday books for children that are funny and entertaining, and children need to hear and read those. But these books listed above are near and dear to my heart because each one contains something that touches my heart. Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Hanbook has said that we need to not only educate the I.Q., but also the H.Q.; the heart quotient, when we read aloud to children. I believe these books do that. I hope you’ll find time to read some of these to your children, that they will touch your heart, and add to your holiday joy.
Susan Knell is a professor at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas, She teaches graduate courses in literacy education, and taught children’s literature to pre-service teachers for 19 years. Her main interests are children’s literature and reading motivation. But she also is an avid reader of adult books. She’s an active member of ILA of which she is now member emeritus, NCTE, Kansas Reading Association, and serves on her local library friends board.