Making spirits bright: A children’s Christmas book round-up

Long time readers know that my kindergartner has had an unhappy relationship with bedtime since babyhood. I am happy to say that things have improved a lot in the last year or so. We can now really enjoy before-bed story time without the looming dread of impending battles.

In any case, we’ve been working through our collection of Christmas books. Over the years, we’ll try new titles, and see what sticks and what is forgettable. Here’s what’s keeping the attention of a very high-energy 5-year-old boy right now (well, in addition to the classics like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Polar Express, and Elf on the Shelf, but you already know about those!)

5 More Sleeps ’til Christmas, by Jimmy Fallon, illustrated by Rich Deas. Yes, this is a celebrity children’s book, which is often a terrible genre (Freckleface Strawberry excepted!) but Fallon’s comedic timing is great. The first time we read it through, my kid was roaring at the recurring visual gag, and now that he knows what’s coming, he still likes the idea of counting sleeps until Christmas. He has made it known that starting on December 20th, we will have to read this book every night, and note where we are within the 5-sleep rubric.

Christmas Farm, by Mary Lyn Ray, illustrated by Barry Root. Wilma and her young neighbor Parker plant many dozens of Christmas tree seedlings on their back hill. Over five years, Parker grows and the trees do too, dodging moose, mice, and weather, until they are ready to be sold. We read this year after year, and enjoy thinking of how evergreen trees grow through many summers until they are ready to brighten our homes at the darkest time of year.

How Santa Got His Job, by Stephen Kerensky, illustrated by S. D. Schindler. Before his current gig delivering presents, Santa went through a long series of career pivots. Chimney sweep, delivery man, zoo keeper, circus performer — like many of us, Santa had to figure out his strengths as he went along. This one is fun as kids see how Santa is getting closer to being the red-suited, reindeer-driving character we know and love.

Who’s That Knocking on Christmas Eve? written and illustrated by Jan Brett. Far up in northern Scandinavia, Kyri and her father are plagued by trolls who keep stealing their Christmas feast. But then one year, a boy and his pet ice bear stop by on the way to Oslo, and the trolls experience a turnabout they are not soon to forget! Jan Brett does wonderful illustrations and has many Christmas books (The Wild Christmas Reindeer, Home for Christmas) but this is the one we choose to re-read because it’s less pedantic than the others. Also, I suspect my 5-year-old identifies with the naughty trolls.

The Night Before the Night Before Christmas, written and illustrated by Richard Scarry. Mr. Frumble wants to be helpful. But when he rides his ski-pickle-do up to Santa Bear’s workshop, he sets off a series of unfortunate events that has Santa Bear taking off to deliver presents on the wrong night. Hopefully Mr. Frumble will be able to solve the problem! There are always a great many things to see in Richard Scarry books, which helps this book stand the test of time.

Pick a Pine Tree, by Patricia Toht, illustrated by Jarvis. This deceptively simple rhyming book has us smiling in delight when we see the final result of all that ornament hanging. I would add that Little Blue Truck’s Christmas, by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Jill McElmurry, has a similar gasp on the last page of this board book with the blinking lit-up tree.

Bear Stays Up For Christmas, by Karma Wilson, illustrated by Jane Chapman. Kids who learn about hibernation might wonder if animals sleep through Christmas. Well, not this year! Bear’s friends are determined to help him stay up, though in his busyness of making presents, he still doesn’t see Santa stop by. With its focus on sleep, this one is particularly appealing to a kid headed toward bedtime.

I’d love suggestions of other holiday books that have been big hits in your house! I’d add that while I appreciate some more tear-jerker titles such as The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree, and The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, I just can’t handle this in my end-of-the-day-exhausted state right now.

Photo: Our elf, Sassy, who wore a mask for the first week she (or possibly he?) was here.

9 thoughts on “Making spirits bright: A children’s Christmas book round-up

  1. Hi Laura, thanks for the great recommendations! If your children like Elf on the Shelf, they will love the sister book/activity Letters to Santa (Elf on the Shelf version). The book is written like the Elf on the Shelf one, but the activity involves writing wish lists on “magic” paper, then baking it in the oven to shrink in size so that your elf can carry it to Santa.

  2. Jolly Old Santa Clause by Sparkie was a favorite in my house. The Polar Express is good too, and The Grinch, of course.

  3. I love any kids book recommendations – thank you for sharing!
    I’d recommend the Otis series (Otis is a tractor with friends on his farm). There is a Christmas entry in the series. This might be a tad young for your K son, but good to keep in mind for the baby – if you like the Bear books, also check out Shirley Parentau; “Bears on Chairs,” “Bears and Blossoms,” etc. The Fletcher books are a hit as well. Also unsolicited, we really enjoyed “Thanksgiving in the Woods” this fall.
    I read “The Enchanted Hour” at the start of 2020 and it made me want to read to my kids even more. It’s been a doable activity to keep up during 2020, when I didn’t feel I could do a lot of extra teaching during the day while also working. I love reading, so anything that supports passing the torch to my kids is a bonus too :).

  4. Ooh, definitely adding a few of these to our list.

    Here are a few we are loving: Santa’s Favorite Story (Aoki); Night Tree (Bunting); The Legend of the Poinsettia (DePaola); The Birds of Bethlehem (DePaola); Nativity (Rylant); Christmas Day in the Morning (Buck) — a little longer/more involved); and Mr. Willougby’s Christmas Tree (Barry). And many of the ones you listed as well!

  5. Agree about Who’s That Knocking on Christmas Eve. We have a particular creepy troll voice we use in our house, and so “Have a bit of sausage, kitty?” is a year-round thing for us.

    A couple of other fun/non-weepy picture books we like are Mooseltoe by Margie Palatini, Turkey Claus by Wendi Silvano, Uncles and Antlers by Lisa Wheeler, and When Santa Was a Baby by Linda Bailey (similar message to the how Santa got his job idea).

  6. We read a lot of holiday books. Favorites include “Maple and Willow’s Christmas Tree” by Lori Nichols, “Dinosaur Christmas”, by Jerry Pallotta, “Who Built the Stable” by Ashley Bryan, “Apple Tree Christmas” by Trinka Hakes Noble, and “Snow Party” by Harriet Ziefert.

  7. My boys enjoyed these two: Wombat Divine by Mem Fox. Full of Australian animals, Wombat tries to find the right role in the Nativity play. And Dream Snow by Eric Carle. The original version includes acetate (or the like) sheets on most pages to lay the snow over the scenes. There is a newer board book version now.
    And for older kids, they enjoyed The Best/Worst Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson.

  8. My family loves many of the ones you mentioned, but a couple of our favorites include:
    – Olive the Other Reindeer – it’s about a dog named Olive that thinks the song says “Olive the other reindeer” instead of “all of the other reindeer”
    – Befana – it’s an Italian story about the feast of the Epiphany/when the three wise men visit baby Jesus

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