Besides our book-a-day Christmas countdown, we've checked out some seasonal books from the library (and, miracle of miracles, some of the books I reserved actually came in before Christmas!).
Here are two new (if you consider books published in 1993 and 1996 "new") favorites:
1. Harvey Slumfenburger's Christmas Present by John Burningham
Mr. Gumpy's Outing is a favorite around here, but I had no idea about this Christmas book by John Burningham until earlier this month. I'm so glad I heard about it because we liked it so much it will probably join our collection sometime in the future.
When the story begins, Santa is just returning home after a long night of delivering presents to boys and girls around the world. He tucks the reindeer into bed (one of them is feeling a little under the weather) and is just climbing in bed himself when he notices a lump in his bag. On examination, he discovers he failed to deliver a present--to one Harvey Slumfenburger (and if that's not a fun name to say, I don't know what is). Harvey Slumfenburger lives at the top of the Roly Poly Mountain. His parents are very poor . . . so poor, in fact, that the only present he ever receives on Christmas Day is from Santa Claus. And Santa forgot to deliver it!
Santa knows that even though his reindeer are already in bed and even though he himself is exhausted, he can't let Christmas Day come for Harvey Slumfenburger without a Christmas present waiting for him. And so, he sets out, and, with the help of a few kindhearted people, manages to make it just in time.
The story is told through engaging repetition, and, as Santa meets with one disaster after another, that repetition conveys a sense of urgency to the reader: Please let Santa get to Harvey Slumfenburger's house on time! Please don't let him wake up on Christmas morning and not find a present! Hurry Santa, hurry!
I wish this was the way Santa Claus was portrayed in every book: as someone who is kind, selfless, and willing to do whatever it takes to make it a merry Christmas for all children. If that was the case, I think my lukewarm feelings toward him would disappear.
2. The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojchechowski, illus. P.J. Lynch
I've been hearing about this book for years. And I even had it checked out at one point but decided against reading it to my kids because it looked too long for them at the time.
But this year I checked it out again, and a couple of days ago we read it. It definitely wasn't too long anymore. In fact, my kids listened with rapt attention the entire time.
From the cover, you might assume that it's going to be about a kind and gentle carpenter who lovingly nurtures a little boy. But that's the Christmas miracle. Because when it begins, Jonathan Toomey is anything but kind, gentle, loving, and nurturing. In fact, most people in the village refer to him as Mr. Gloomey instead of Mr. Toomey because he is so gruff and grumpy.
But what the village doesn't know is that there's a reason for Jonathan Toomey's gruffness (as there almost always is). Several years before, Jonathan's wife and little baby son became ill and died. What is perceived as grouchiness is actually a mask to cover up the pain he is still feeling.
Enter the widow McDowell and her young son, Tommy. The widow commissions Jonathan to carve a nativity set to replace a lost family heirloom. Every few days, she and Tommy stop by to check on the progress. Eventually Tommy works up the courage to give Jonathan a few suggestions about the pieces he's carving ("my sheep looked happy," "my cow looked proud") and even asks if Jonathan will teach him how to carve.
As they spend more time together, Jonathan's walls begin to come down and his heart begins to soften. He allows himself to love (and be loved) again. As he carves the final two pieces (Mary and the Baby Jesus), he draws inspiration from the perfect place.
This is a sentimentally sweet story. If that's not your thing, you're not going to like it. But I happened to love it (and yes, I choked up at the end). The illustrations are gorgeous (I think my favorite page is the same one that's used for the cover) and tell the story almost as well as the words. Jonathan's transformation is gradual and believable.
My kids loved it too. There's no Santa Claus or reindeer or snow-packed action, but I think even they recognized that this is what Christmas is really about: love, giving, and the power of a Little Baby to heal our hearts and change our lives.
Tell me: what are the Christmas books you've discovered this year?