On a peaceful note

If you’ve ever heard the song “Christmas in the Trenches” by folksinger John McCutcheon, yChristmas in the Trenches by John McCutcheonou will remember it. It’s become part of my Christmas tradition after hearing it on a local college radio station in ’84. In his beautiful picture book Christmas in the Trenches, McCutcheon has adapted his touching song about the Christmas Truce of 1914 for older children. The story’s narrator is an elderly man named Francis, who tells his grandchildren of the unique Christmas he experienced as a young soldier in WWI.  The soldiers in the trenches were bored and homesick on Christmas Eve. Suddenly, they heard German voices singing Christmas carols. The English soldiers decided to join in on “Silent Night,” an act that inspired a German soldier to cross No Man’s Land with a white flag and a Christmas tree. The two sides called a temporary, informal truce. Sorensen’s atmospheric oil paintings highlight the unexpected night of peace with a double-page spread showing the soldiers and the battlefield. Included are an author’s note, music notation, and a CD with the title song and “Silent Night/Stille Nacht,” along with a reading of the story. This sensitive picture book won a 2007 Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People.

For older children who want to learn more about the event, show them Jim Murphy’s Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting (Scholastic, 2009). Murphy gives an accessible overview of WWI and focuses on how peace was briefly restored when troops defied orders and met their enemies in the barren land between the trenches. Archival photographs, maps, and artwork help children understand the events.


Stirring the Pot for Halloween Treats

Do bookstores have to be so predictable in their Halloween displays, as yet again they promote ho-hum Clifford and Curious George and Scooby-Doo products? Families can save their money and their sanity by heading to the library instead, where an array of craft books, poetry, folktales, and novels await anyone with a library card.

One way to combat the oppressive commercialism that has crept into the holiday is to make it yoEd Emberley's Drawing Book of Halloweenurself — whether it’s costumes, decorations, puppets, or cupcakes. Look for craft books by Kathy Ross, such as All New Crafts for Halloween. And remember feeling proud of those monsters you drew with the help of the wonderful old Ed Emberley’s Halloween Drawing Book? Don’t let your children grow up without Emberley’s engrossing little books. An alternative for slightly older children is Ralph Masiello’s Halloween Drawing Book.

Ghosts, ghouls and humor show up in plenty of kid-pleasing poetry. Adam Rex’s Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich and his follow-up, Frankenstein Takes the Cake will have children (and parents?) howling with laughter. The illustrations are as much fun as the punchy poems featuring various monsters.

Other titles to look for are compilations such as Jack Prelutsky’s It’s HalloweenLee Bennett Hopkins’ Halloween Howls: Holiday Poetry or Marc Brown’s Scared Silly: A Halloween Book for the Brave: Poems, Riddles, Jokes, Stories and More.

For some of the best seasonal stories, head over to 398.2 for folk literature from around the world. One of Short and Shivery Thirty Chilling Tales retold by Robert D. San Soucithe most dog-eared, beloved collections in my school library was Short & Shivery: Thirty Chilling Tales retold by Robert D. San Souci. Ranging from diverse cultures, the stories are not uniformly scary, but they are all well-written and accessible to children ages 8 to 12. The volume includes such memorable tales as the Appalachian “Tailypo,” the Grimm Brothers’ “Robber Bridegroom,” and “Skeleton’s Dance,” from Japan. Audio- and e-book editions are also available. Another winner is any of the perpetually popular Alvin Schwartz collections, such as Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, illustrated ghoulishly by Stephen Gammell.Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

As for novels, many older children (ages 10+) will be drawn to Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, winner of the 2009 Newbery Medal, which unspools the bizarre adventures of a boy called Bod as he grows up being raised by ghosts in a cemetery. Gaiman reads his gripping novel aloud on his well-crafted web site.

For slightly younger ones (ages 8 to 12), it’s hard to top James Howe’s Bunnicula series, featuring an evil-looking bunny (found at a Dracula movie) that comes to live with the Monroes, Harold the dog and Chester the cat. When various vegetables show up with teeth marks and drained of all juice and color, the clever cat ascertains the toothy truth. Who knew a vampire story could be so much fun? Another witty one (for ages 6 to 8) is Kate DiCamillo’s Princess in Disguise, in which the pig Mercy Watson is persuaded to dress up in a pink gown and tiara. 

And for younger ones:

See my prior post on Julia Donaldson’s Room on the Broom, as well as any of the tales featured in the 2011 Scholastic DVD Teeny-Tiny Witch Woman and More Spooky Halloween Stories.

Prepping for Fairy Tale Feasts

Stories often serve up scenes rich with food, and the relationship is reciprocal. Who better than Jane Yolen to serve up a spicy stew of both stories and recipes? Yolen and her daughter, Heidi E.Y. Stemple, have concocted an appealing collection of 18 recipes, including latkes, kugel and blintzes, complemented by an equal number of folktales. Jewish Fairy Tales Feasts by Jane Yolen

A long-awaited follow-up to their charming Fairy Tale Feasts (2006), this collection puts the spotlight on some of the many enchanting and thought-provoking Jewish folktales that have been passed down over the centuries. It gives young and old families an extra incentive to spend time together, creating meals, as well as telling stories. That’s not just nourishing, it’s entertaining!

One of my favorite tales in this collection is “And the Matzo Was Still Warm,” which Yolen adapted from a version by Asher Barash. Long ago in Mainz, a father leaves his son Jacob with a strange dying wish: “Never cross the River Danube.” Years after his father’s death, Jacob has married and has a family, but he yearns to go study the Torah with the revered Rabbi Judah. But, to do that, he must …. . Well, you guessed it.

He crosses the river and winds up spending three years studying with the pious rabbi. But on Passover Eve, Jacob’s heart is heavy as he longs to return home to his wife and son. Rabbi Judah reads his mind. Alas, it’s impossible for Jacob to reach Mainz in time to be with his family for the seder.

Unexpectedly, the rabbi proposes that Jacob help bake the matzo. “After that, we will see what I can arrange to get you home.”

And what a short, strange trip back home, thanks to the rabbi’s miraculous gift.

Paired with the story is Heidi’s recipe for matzo brei. As with all the book’s recipes, she offers simple instructions, preceded by a list of ingredients and of necessary equipment.

Folks of all ages and faiths can find something to savor in this playful collection. As the authors note, “Recipes and stories are made more beautiful, more filling, more memorable by what you put into them.”

See also …

Fairy Tale FeastsNot One Damsel in Distress World Folktales for Strong GirlsSerpent Slayer and Other Stories of Strong Women by Katrin Tchana

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Fairy Tale Giveaway Hop: Enter to Win “Troll Bridge: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Fairy Tale”! (susanheim.blogspot.com)

Christmas in the Country

Christmas Day in the MorningPearl Buck’s Christmas Day in the Morningfirst published in 1955, is a timeless treasure perfect for reading aloud. Reissued a decade ago with beautiful, wintry illustrations by Mark Buehner, this tender story features a man who lovingly recalls the time when, as a 15-year-old, he overheard his father telling his mother how he hated to awaken Rob so early to help with the farm chores. At that moment Rob begins to feel the enormity of his father’s love for him. How he yearns to do something to show his own love for his big-hearted dad.

Rob realizes the most meaningful gift of all would not involve purchasing an object. Rather, the boy decides he will slip out before anyone else — at 3 a.m. Christmas morning — to relieve his father of all the morning chores and let him enjoy just one morning of leisure. It would mean the farmer could at last witness his children’s expressions when they first see the Christmas tree and open their presents.
Perch yourself by the fire and read this touching story to older children. Be prepared for tears — and for sweet memories.

Another warm story set in a long-ago Christmas is poet Donald Hall’s recently published Christmas at Eagle Pond. The author circles back to the year 1940, when he experiences the treat of spending Christmas with his grandparents at their farm in New Hampshire. Hall lovingly recalls the sights, smells, and sounds of a life centered on family, community, and the land.

Christmas at Eagle PondTwelve-year-old Donnie fondly falls in with his grandparents’ routines. He joins Gramp in the barn, as he milks the cows and relates stories of the past or recites poems to the boy. At night, Gram fills hot-water bottles for the beds. “I walked through their icy bedroom to mine, even icier, and stuffed my hot-water bottle under the sheets to warm my feet. Crawling beneath the covers I shivered a moment, but the quilts were thick, my feet almost too hot, and soon I fell asleep in my familiar goosefeather bed at the house I loved most in the world.”
Donnie’s week in New Hampshire involves other simple events, such as seeing the Christmas pageant at church, getting new socks, and feasting on the huge meal Gram prepares. As the boy prepares to return home, the air becomes “heavy with fine snowflakes, the kind that fall at the start of a big storm.” How, Donnie wonders, will he be able to return home to Connecticut?

This quiet, nostalgic novella holds no dramatic action (although vegetarians might want to skip Gramp’s selection of chickens for the meal). Instead, Christmas at Eagle Pond offers a comforting, slightly bittersweet respite from the clash and bang of modern life. Be sure to read the author’s note.

Another highly recommended novella with a rural setting for ages 8+ is:Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

and for ages 6 to 8, consider these picture books:

Silver Packages by Cynthia Rylant

Cobweb Christmas by Shirley ClimoWhile the Bear Sleeps retold by Caitlin Matthews

The Parakeet That Brought Them Together

“Suddenly David cried out, “Papa, look!” And he pointed to the window.
I looked up and saw something that seemed unbelievable. Outside on the windowsill stood a yellow-green bird watching the candles.”  Power of Light
With this unexpected event, the renowned Isaac Bashevis Singer shows how miracles can still brighten our dark, confused world. In “The Parakeet Named Dreidel,” one of the eight warm tales in The Power of Light: Eight Stories for Hanukkah, Singer invites us into the apartment of a family as they make room for a lost parakeet attracted by the light of their menorah.
The parakeet possesses charming, near-human traits: it speaks a selection of Yiddish words; it hops on the author’s fingers as he types his stories; it even pushes a dreidel — hence, the inspiration for the family’s name for the pet.
In another pleasing twist, the original owner of the parakeet eventually comes into the son David’s life, an occurrence that ushers in a lovely change, which I leave to you readers to discover for yourselves. This sparkling collection will make for cherished memories of family story times during Hanukkah or the winter.
While The Power of Light is, lamentably, out of print, you can still find good used copies (by clicking on the live link for the title, you’ll see what’s available at Alibris).

See also my past post on Hanukkah titles and these
related articles:

Thanksgiving knocks at the door

After burning dinner, an elderly couple, Ann and Ed, decide to go to the New World Cafe for Thanksgiving. Finding the door open when they arrive, they see tables decorated not just with Pilgrims and Native Americans but also with figurines of what appear to be Russian dancers. Readers should suspect at this point that the restaurant is not, in fact, open for business.

The cafe owners, who are Russian immigrants, are wondering who has crashed their family party. Grandmother, though, generously welcomes the strangers, and they all go on to share songs, dances, and stories, along with the big dinner. As Ann and Ed leave, Papa tries to close the door, but finds a potato propping it open: “In old country,” Grandmother says, “Thanksgiving door is like happy heart, opened up big and wide. Potato good for that.”

Debby Atwell’s bright, folkloric illustrations add to the fun of this unusual Thanksgiving story, as she spices it with such details as iconic Russian onion domes in a picture in the restaurant, the starched-clean scarves on the women, and the telling cover image of Grandmother pushing the potato under the door. For ages 6 to 8, The Thanksgiving Door is a quiet treat to savor.

For rousing nonfiction, turn to Melissa Sweet’s fascinating Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade.
Tony Sarg was already famous for his mechanical marionettes that attracted hordes of shoppers who came to gaze at Macy’s “Wondertown” windows. What more could the department store do to highlight the holiday?

The author points out that many of Macy’s workers were, like Tony, immigrants, who “missed their own holiday traditions of music and dancing in the streets.” Why shouldn’t Macy’s put on a parade for their employees? And who would be more perfect for the job than Tony Sarg?

The first parade was a dazzler: a procession winding its way from Harlem to Herald Square, resembling a European street carnival, with horse-drawn floats and even real bears, elephants, and camels from Central Park Zoo. That first parade was so successful, the store decided this was the beginning of a new Thanksgiving Day ritual.

The wild animals, though, caused concerns, and for the 1928 parade, Macy’s asked Tony to come up with a better alternative. Mulling over a vast range of puppets, Sarg fixed on the idea of an Indonesian rod puppet from his own toy collection. Voila! The parade would never be the same. “Part puppet, part balloon, the air-filled rubber bags wobbled down the avenues, propped up by wooden sticks.”

Melissa Sweet has infused every page of her award-winning picture book with her own inventive illustrations that show off her clever snipping and flipping and sketching. Beginning with end papers featuring vintage pages of The Tony Sarg Marionette Book and finishing with a dramatic 1933 New York Times ad (“HERE COMES THE PARADE!! IT’S IMMENSE! IT’S COLOSSAL! COME A-RUNNING!!), the author/illustrator has created a brief biography that soars with color and energy. Highly recommended for ages 7 to 10. 

Another exceptional nonfiction book, this one for ages 9 to 12, is 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving, by Catherine O’Neill Grace in cooperation with the living-history museum Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts. Sharp, full-color photos of re-enactors in period costumes help children understand some of the roots of the holiday. You’ll find no pumpkin pie, no silver buckles in this Thanksgiving account. You will, however, discover both sides of the story of how 52 English colonists came to celebrate their first harvest with 90 men of the Wampanoag tribe, in the town we now call Plymouth.

Streets Filled With Latkes?

No matter what your religious affiliation (if any), Hanukkah tales full of light or magic offer a special glow this time of year.  I’ve known such joy reading stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, as well as those by children’s book authors Eric A. Kimmel, Barbara Diamond Goldin, and Howard Schwartz. Kimmel’s most recent picture book, The Golem’s Latkes, is worth celebrating. Blending elements of Jewish folktales and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Kimmel concocts a humorous, well-paced plot, enhanced with bright, lively illustrations and a concise author’s note on significant Hebrew words that appear in the story.

Rabbi Judah makes a giant man of clay who doesn’t know when to quit. Just before the first night of Hanukkah, the rabbi must go speak to the emperor. He tells his new maid Basha to  clean the house and cook lots of latkes while he’s gone, for he’s expecting many guests. Although the rabbi has never allowed anyone else to supervise the golem, he decides to make an exception this time, considering all the tasks she must manage. He warns Basha, however, not to leave the golem alone. The giant will work incessantly unless someone tells him “Enough!”

Of course, the young woman does not heed his warning — and chaos ensues. The golem makes so many latkes they literally take over the street! Kimmel’s happy ending has everyone in the village sharing the feast.

For more wondrous Hanukkah stories, consider …

“The Magic Menorah” in Howard Schwartz’s fine collection The Day the Rabbi Disappeared: Jewish Holiday Tales of Magic. Recommended for ages 8-12.

Hanukkah Moon by Deborah da Costa. A girl visits her aunt Luisa, whose Latina-Jewish customs include a dreidel pinata. There’s also a mysterious late-night visit to welcome the luna nueva, the new moon that appears on Hanukkah. Ages 6 to 8.

Just Enough Is Plenty by Barbara Diamond Goldin. A magical story of kindness rewarded. A poor family welcomes a stranger into their home, and the peddlar turns out to be Elijah, who leaves them a pack of fine gifts. Ages 7 to 10.

And see my post featuring Eric Kimmel’s When Mindy Saved Hanukkah and other great Hanukkah picture books for ages 6-10.

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