Friday, December 10, 2010

40. Christmas Magic: 3 Favorites

A Christmas Carol: A Pop-Up Book, written by Charles Dickens, engineered by Chuck Fischer, Hachette, $30, ages 9 and up, 12 pages.  The stunning novella that made Dickens weep and laugh, and weep again as he wrote it, A Christmas Carol, is faithfully reproduced in all of its Victorian splendor in this lushly painted pop-up. Harking back to vintage pop-up greeting cards, the scenes unfold on cobbled streets lit by gas lamps or in grand rooms in Ebenezer's house, some with ornate swags of holy around the edges, others with dark wood furniture and red velvet curtains. Perhaps best-loved of all Christmas stories, the tale of human redemption begins on the streets of London as a scowling Scrooge steps out of his business into the languishing light of early evening. Each of the next four pop-ups show the miser reacting with fright as the four spirits show him the folly of his ways.
First, Marley's ghost, then the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future, appear from seemingly nowhere, one through a door, another out of a candle flame, the next from a table set with a feast, and finally, the most chilling of them rising from a graveyard, his face shrouded by a cloak. At the bottom of every spread, tucked into a pocket, is a booklet with the "stave" or chapter that's illustrated, or in the case of the first booklet, an essay about the novella's enduring appeal. One can't help think that Dickens would approve of this grand depiction, especially when reminded of the lavish binding, gilt edging and hand-colored illustrations that Dickens insisted upon for his book's first edition in 1843. Respectful and glowing with warmth, Fischer adaptation conveys the depth of Carol's desire for a more kind and forgiving world. 
Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus, written by Chris Plehal, pictures by Ames Bernardin, HarperCollins, ages 4-8. As captivating as Arthur Rankin's The Year Without a Santa Claus, Bernardin's illustrations turn a sweet retelling of the story behind Virginia O'Hanlan's 1897 letter to The Sun into something wondrous. Plehal's debut brings back the story of real-life Virginia, who at 8 years old asked her father if there really was a Santa. Not knowing how to answer her question, her father encouraged her to write a letter to the editor of New York City's The Sun, and reassuringly said, "If you see it in The Sun, it's so." The Sun's editor Francis Church went on to address her question in one of the most reprinted editorials ever to run in an English language newspaper. In this retelling, Church is a sour fellow and reacts incredulously that anyone would ask such a question. "This is preposterous!" he yells to his assistant, before throwing out her letter. "We report facts, not fantasies!"  In the meantime, Virginia keeps looking in the paper, wondering why her answer never appears. Her mother tells her that believing in Santa isn't something you prove; it's something you do. "Whenever we act like Santa Claus would, and are kind to others, that proves that he's real." That night Virginia remembers a beggar she saw shivering on the street, with only a scraggly Santa beard, hat and pants to protect him from the snow, and gets an idea. The next day she brings the beggar a red coat and the man tells her she's Santa to him. But then a nasty girl who Virginia knows see them together on the street and waves Virginia's letter in her face. The letter is crumpled, and girl brags that she found it in a trash can. Virginia is crushed. The beggar's heart goes out to her and that night he storms into Church's office and insists he answer her letter. "When people believe, they make the world a better place," he tells Church. "Answer that letter and you'll give this girl -- and maybe the whole city -- something to believe in." This is one of those books that your eyes keep going back to. It fills you with the spirit of Christmas, and captures in the doll-like eyes of its characters the magical look of a child who so wants to believe, if only given a chance.

A Night in Santa's Great Big Bag, written by Kristin Kladstrup, illustrated by Tim Jessell, Viking, $16.99, ages 4 and up, 32 pages. Tossing his lamb into the air on Christmas Eve, Louis muses about all the marvelous toys in Santa's great, big bag, but has no idea how intently his stuffed toy is listening or how curious it can be. "There are more toys inside it than in my toy box," he tells Lamb, a curly fellow with big pink nose, as Lamb falls back into Louis' hands. "There are more toys than in a toy store!" By the time Louis drifts off to sleep, Lamb is filled with wonder, and decides to slip downstairs and watch Santa pop down the chimney. But it's not enough to get a glimpse of the giant green bag, Lamb wants to peek inside, and soon he's tiptoeing over to look under the folds of gold-trimmed fabric. If the bag only wasn't so dark inside, he thinks, and pushes his nose in further. Before Lamb knows what he's done, he's all the way inside and every which way he looks, toys are bouncing around each other, and hovering and beeping. He doesn't even notice when Santa picks up his bag and heads off in his sleigh. Then all the toys start shouting, "It's time! It's time," as one of Santa's hands reaches in to grab a toy. Every time Santa's fur-cuffed hand appears, they shout a gleeful good-bye to the lucky toy. All them, that is, except for the first-time toys, who fret about what to expect. But Lamb knows all about being in the bag. That's how he came to Louis. And before long, he's helping all the new toys feel better. He shows Backhoe how to scoop, a puzzle how to come together and an engine which end of the train to pull, then reassures a blue bunny that he'll never have to scrunch his eyes to fall asleep with a child. He and his girl will crawl under the covers and talk themselves to sleep. Lamb loves being a helper, but by late that night, every last one's of the toys has found a home. Padding around an empty bag, Lamb suddenly gives himself a terrible fright. What if Santa gives Lamb to a child other than Louis? Enchanting and sweet, this is just the book to spark a magical dream.

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