I had thought to recommend more Christmas books this year, but there were just so many other great reviews and lists out there that I decided to refocus this month. It doesn’t feel right, however, not to talk about Christmas books on Christmas Eve. I’m sure a lot of you have traditions of reading certain books before heading to bed. When I was growing up, we had the obligatory ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas book and The Littlest Angel, which took on additional significance after my baby brother died. Kind of sad, now that I think about it, but reading it was a tradition.
As for The Night Before Christmas, first published anonymously in 1822, you have plenty of options. Charles Santore has illustrated Clement Moore’s poem with a more traditional feel (Applesause, $18.95). Tasha Tudor’s illustrated edition reached its tenth anniversary last year (Little, Brown, $6.99).Tomie DePaola’s version is available in board book format (Holiday House, $8.95). Scholastic even produced a version for their Can you See What I See? series ($13.99), perfect for the detectives in your group. Robert Sabuda has created an enchanting pop-up version (Little, Brown, $27.99), and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt recently reissued Jessie Wilcox Smith’s 1912 illustrations ($6.99). My favorite edition, however, is the one illustrated by Jan Brett (Putnam, $20.00). All of her winter books, because of the Scandinavian motifs she incorporates, have that Christmas feel to them. Her use of borders is always provocative, creating a sense of watching the events unfold through a frosted window pane.
My family also had a tradition of reading the nativity story from the family bible. My father is not the performer type, so it was unusual for him read aloud to all of us together. Jan Pieńkowski’s illustrated edition of The First Christmas (Knopf, $9.99) is an exquisite version of this traditional story. Pieńkowski is best-known for his silhouette illustrations and they are always striking. In this book, the foreground figures — people, animals, and the landscape — are silhouettes. The background, however, is vibrant and full of color and energy. The text is derived from the King James Version of the bible and so the language is both familiar and distancing, stark and majestic. The illustrations perfectly capture this dichotomy: the simple black figures of the earth set against the grand illuminations of the sky and heavens. Rather small in size, this is a complex little book. Architectural allusions range from classical to modern. The animated figures recall nineteenth-century puppet shows and Christmas pantomimes. The first letter of every page is illuminated, like a medieval manuscript, but in a style that is significantly more contemporary. The animals portrayed — elephants, porcupines, bats, camels, monkeys, roosters, reindeer, mountain goats, and of course the obligatory donkey — represent a range of geographical regions. I wonder if Pieńkowski is intentionally trying to convey the vast influence and impact this story has had. His version is not located in one place or time, but illustrates the variety of peoples who have embraced this particular story and made it their own.
Whatever Christmas means to you, I hope you have a happy one.