Holiday Book List, or Best Reads of the Past Year

Apparently someone, and I name no names only because I’m honestly not sure who to blame for this one, decided Chanukah is beginning the evening of November 28 this year? Not to mention, somehow today is November 26, which I’m relatively sure is either not true or the result of some illegal bending of the space-time continuum. And since concerned mutterings about the “supply chain” is becoming as common as discussions of what constitutes “social distancing” and “remember that toilet paper thing, wasn’t it crazy?” I’m here to help with suggestions for books to buy as gifts because, hey, have you heard to get your books bought early because of those supply chain issues? (I knew I was smart to pre-order eight copies of Comfort Me with Apples!) (And then I went and bought more.) (I just realized I’m running low, though, remind me to ask the Brookline Booksmith to pretty please hold two more copies for me, and the Children’s Book Shop to hold more Kaleidoscope.)

First: a general reminder. You know I’m a fan of indie book shops over here. I always link to mine. We learned this last year, but I’m going to remind you again– DO NOT ASSUME LARGE ONLINE RETAILERS MAGICALLY MAKE BOOKS APPEAR RELIABLY OR EVEN FASTER. They really, really don’t. When the supply chain breaks down, no one will have it, and, in fact, oftentimes your indie will be likelier to have it and if you can’t get there in person, they’ll send it to you media mail (I’m talking to folks in the USA here, elsewhere you may not have media mail but you do have other great postal options). But the best thing about your indie? Well. Did you know that if a book is sold out and the reprints are on a boat and not in any shops– there are other books? Large online retailers have a search bar and you look at it thinking: “uhhh ok but, what do I look for…?” A good bookseller can say, “Such a shame about Naomi Novik’s latest being sold out! Katherine Arden often scratches the same itch for readers, though– do you want to see it?” And then you have another great option for a gift for your friend! (Yeah, that’s a real-life example: I got sold on a Katherine Arden book by three booksellers independently of each other, I think they were colluding with each other, and I’m hoping to read it this winter). Maybe, though, you’re having trouble finding an indie, or want a personal recommendation? Email me at deborah.furchtgott@gmail.com and I will gladly help! I will give recommendations, always, and I will also direct you to bookshop.org which is a wonderful resource both for finding and supporting indies. It also has fabulous lists.

But maybe you want my advice in your own list, and that’s why you’re here, and you’re getting impatient with my blather. Before I hop in (next paragraph) I want to add that you can assume that if I’ve reviewed it already, it’s a great book (which is why I sneakily linked to two reviews up there already, just to remind you to browse my archives for brilliant books). You should definitely consider those archives, honestly, there are really fabulous books in there. This year, I only have a few books which are specifically related to the holidays to add because Candlewick sent them to me and I really did love them. I’m also mentioning a few books that feel like great books to read on a vacation, or which are simply exceptional and you should get them.

Matt Tavares’s Dasher was the book I jumped at when offered to me, because I do love his art! It was as visually appealing as I’d expected, coming from him. What struck me with a little surprise was the gentle blend of bite, not meanness or cruelty, but the reality of real-world difficulties, into a sweet Christmas book. Of course, social commentary and more than a bit of pathos is not uncommon in Christmas literature, predating Dickens. (Delete, delete, delete. Sorry, got carried away with my historical commentary, you can email me if you want the whole narrative, as well as my critique of The Little Match Girl.) Tavares, though, turns up the volume and beautiful colour on both the ferocity of Dasher’s backstory as a maltreated captive reindeer and the gentle humour of her meeting with Santa and her new life and freedom. Best of all, Dasher’s genuine love for family and drive to rescue her entire family will be satisfying to children’s innate sense of justice. By amplifying both, we end up with a wonderfully exciting read, with a vivacity of narrative style that blends incredibly well with the warm and elegant feeling of tradition in the art. This would be my pick for a Christmas read aloud at a library program, family with cousins all crowded together, or maybe a community event. It just strikes every good note, but with originality.

If you want a truly traditional story, the other book I got from Candlewick was Clement C. Moore’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas with incredibly lovely illustrations by P.J. Lynch. I don’t really know how Lynch accomplished it, if I’m entirely honest. We know I’m a fangirl for Lynch, but my love for this took me by surprise because– let’s be honest, folks, I’m hugely into poetry. My doctorate was reading poetry, and I reworked the whole idea I came into grad school waving around with a new plan because I thought “I don’t want to sit and read prose, I want to read poetry, how’s about I come up with a new idea, yeah?” I really love beautiful poetry. And, despite my enormous respect for Clement Moore’s achievement in writing a poem which I’m sure more people voluntarily read on an annual basis than any other, I cannot commend the poem for anything else, except, maybe, for its remarkable narrative clarity. To be blunt: it’s a pretty dull poem as a poem, isn’t it? It’s pedestrian, it’s obvious, it’s dull, it doesn’t do what I like a poem to do. I’ve seen lots of illustrated editions which, well, provide pictures which really match the poem, yep! (Hey, folks, if you want better poems to read on an annual basis, shoot me a note. I have ideas.) And then? This! Oh my goodness, which ABSOLUTE GENIUS thought to give it to P.J. Lynch? Not only is the art beautiful, I’d actually read this aloud with this edition (but no other, still, even Lynch’s art can’t retrospectively transform the words) because it’s beautifully, honestly, genuinely exciting and mysterious and I love the feeling of light glowing in the dusky darkness… It’s really, truly actually good! This is my pick for a gift book to your beloved family friend this year, if you’re looking for that.

Now, another wintry book. I have to tell you that last year I ordered a copy of Where Snow Angels Go by Maggie O’Farrell with truly special art by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini. From the UK. Because look, it wasn’t out in the USA and this lovely UK shop, the Book Nook in Hove, had a huge number of fantastic books I wanted, including this one, so I ordered them, and they arrived and I did a happy dance when my box of UK books arrived in Brookline. And let me tell you, when the lovely Candlewick people wrote to me about their holiday list and I saw this on it, I actually didn’t feel anything but joy (and an enormous sense of virtue in being honest with them and not sneakily requesting a review copy even though I had one). I told them I was really excited to see they were bringing it out here and then I told all my bookseller friends I’d loaned the book to last year that it’s coming out here, too, and we were all happy. Then I told my librarians down the road while the Spriggan sang them his “I love the library” song. It’s a truly beautiful book, and was worth the cost of shipping from the UK, but now you can get it without paying shipping from the UK! (Well, if you’re reading this in the UK, that’s not an issue.)

The book is longer and more text-rich than many picture books today, but I never felt that it was text-heavy. It’s a real, deliciously meaty story rather than a slip of a book, and while one review says it has the feeling of a bedtime story, and I can visualize that, my recommendation is to keep it for one of the first snowy days when everyone’s super excited about the falling flakes and the blanketing of soft white fluff. The kids go and play, and when they come in after building statues of snow and throwing themselves into the snow to make snow angels– that’s when you make hot cocoa and wrap them in blankets and read this aloud. The art has a muted yet glowing feeling, radiant with winter blues, and the text is both truly original and somehow classic. I’m a fan of a well done story that bursts us out of 30-odd pages with not much more than 500 words or so, but still with the tight feeling of a concise narrative. (That said, simultaneously, one of my ideal picture books is still Donald Crews’s Freight Train– I’m a creature of contrasts!) So I welcome this to the ranks of picture books for the older range of the spectrum!

Ok but not every book has to be snowy on your gift list. And I’ve got a stack of books I never reviewed that I’m ABSOLUTELY positive you and the kids in your life need.

Top of that list is The Beatryce Prophecy by the kind of team you dream of, you wish for on a falling star, and then, when they come together, they blast your star into a comet of glory. I LOVED THIS BOOK, is what I’m saying here. This is a story from Kate DiCamillo with art by Sophie Blackall, my friends, and I’m pretty sure you’re already at your local indie book shop because that’s all you need to know, right? Kate DiCamillo. Sophie Blackall. Be still my beating heart. But I’ll tell you more anyway. This is a book that has everything you want for elementary school kids. It’s a perfect read aloud for, I’d say, grades 3 and 4, but you can certainly go both younger and older. Neither author not illustrator is the sort to talk down to kids; both trust them with difficult scenarios. This book takes place in a time of war, in a setting which has the feel of an undefined “older time” with a scriptorium and a king and an evil advisor, for example. It’s story-time, in a very Diana Wynne Jones way, but fewer mythological beasts. Kate DiCamillo is absolutely clear that if you’re in such a world, you will experience war and violence, but she articulates this such that it’s vivid but never traumatic. A soldier dies a brutal death. A boy witnesses murder. But at least as important are the vivid realities of friendship, kindness, and, ultimately, a truly extraordinary moment when a character chooses not to commit violence, and another where the choice to say no to power is articulated over and over with grace and joy. And, unbelievably, the feeling on the way out is of, again, that grace, beauty, and even humour. This is a perfect holiday gift to any child who’s able to read it, honestly. Is your child diffident and unsure? They will find confidence and friendship here. Is your child too clever by half, maybe a bit cocky as a reader? This will push them to slow down and absorb the beauty, not to mention think “how did she do that?” This may be the book that turns a dreamer into a writer.

At an older level is a great favourite: Amber and Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz with art by Julia Iredale. I’ve been reluctant to read a novel in verse, honestly, because I love poetry so very deeply. Look, sometimes you care too much, and lose opportunities for enjoyment in the process. I’m grateful to my favourite booksellers and, obviously, The Children’s Book Shop, for forcing me to read this, and to Laura Amy Schlitz herself for writing it. It’s one of the most beautifully constructed narratives I’ve read recently. Along with Kaleidoscope, I think it wins my prize for doing something new in a book for kids, with different voices and a challenge to how we relate to ancient, entrenched views of history. Laura Amy Schlitz gets a prize from me for consistently trusting kids to get complexity in her books. This is not to say she falls into “both sidesism,” so to speak. Slavery is bad, end of story, for example. But this book, set in the days of waning Athenian glory, towards the end of Socrates’s life (and we even see him die, that’s the level of intimacy we get in this book), really interrogates what is right, what is justified, and yet, bluntly and authentically, what is in one’s own interest– whether another way is “right and justified” or not. (I think, and hope, that kids who read this in high school will be ready to study with Professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta in future.)

The book follows and gets into the minds of many figures, from Hermes to an enslaved boy whose name will shift, as the names of people seen as things do. And the voice of the narrative shifts with the perspective. There are different forms of verse (and she explains her poetic forms and choices at the back), and there is also prose, and also, interleaved within the story, there are artefacts, inscriptions, all explained with concision and, when necessary, honest ignorance. Perhaps what I loved most was the book’s insistence on its own imaginative interpretation of what we know and don’t know. Schlitz is clear, and I might paraphrase the feeling I got from reading it as so: “This is potentially plausible. It is also imaginary. But thought and imagination are valuable tools in relating to history, and we must use them freely and responsibly.” It was a profoundly exhilarating, saddening, enlightening read. Apply to your ego and feel it crumble with humility yet delight.

And then you always need a ghost story, don’t you? Yes, yes, I know this was supposed to be a Hallowe’en book! Well, it ended up being released in November (see above re: supply chain issues), and it’s traditional to read a ghost story at Christmas, even if you can’t find the ghost anywhere, as in Oliver Jeffers’s There’s a Ghost in This House. Slightly melancholic, infinitely mischievous and delightful. It has to be read aloud. Try to arrange for a range of ages of small children who enjoy bouncing and exclaiming, “but it’s right there!!!” while you read, ok?

Last of all, a very lovely, really enjoyable novel with really good illustrations by Paul O. Zelinsky, whose name on a cover will get me to buy anything (more on that in a future post): Da Vinci’s Cat by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. It may have been seeing that magical cover and the illustrator’s name that snagged me, but I loved reading this in a delicious gulp of fun. It’s a very smart book– a time-travel narrative that is sensory and rich but actually feels accurate in how it handles a collision of time and space. When, for example, our present-day girl, Bee, heads back to meet Federico in sixteenth-century Rome, his discovery that she has two mothers is baffling to him– on account of the distressing question of which would bring the dowry to the marriage? “Wow,” I thought, “yeah, that would do it, obviously.” Over and over again, Murdock nails her very tricky arrangements of travels through time and space, of art and clothing and cuisine, with deftness and accuracy, and without ever dropping the ball on an enormously fun and exciting narrative. I just loved it, and I think it’s the perfect vacation read for any kid, but my Changeling, now in Grade 3, had an absolute ball with it.

That’s all for now! But I have a stack of others, just waiting… And yes, more Paul O. Zelinsky art.

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