Monday, December 17, 2012

A Jolly Young Soul

Santa from Cincinnati, by Judi Barrett, pictures by Kevin Hawkes, Atheneum, $16.99, ages 4-8, 48 pages, 2012.

With that big belly that shakes like jelly, it's hard to believe Santa was ever a tyke. But indeed he was -- just ask Judy Barrett and Kevin Hawkes.

The book-making dynamos come together for the first time to share the wonder years of dear old Claus -- and wondrous they were.

Even as a newborn, Santa had cheeks like roses and a nose like a cherry. As other babies wailed their way into the world, he turned his mouth up like a bow.

As you might guess, Santa was crazy for toys and the funny thing is, his stuffed toy reindeer had a habit of floating when Mom wasn't looking. Santa would take those eight toys everywhere (Mom gave him a pillowcase to carry them over his shoulder).

Santa was quirky, just like his dad. (At age 5, he glued cotton balls to his face so he had Dad's beard.) His dad was a basement toymaker and he invented all of Santa's toys. Soon, Santa was drilling alongside Dad and neighbor kids were putting in orders.

But of course all of this toy making takes time -- 365 days of time. So how does a guy with homework, prom, college and a girlfriend find the time to become the world's nicest guy?

Barrett's writing is playful and fun -- Santa's an Ohio native, so he's got a Midwest work ethic, and being a preoccupied with inventing, he's surrounded by clutter. He also has to streamline his work (by cutting naughty kids from his list).

Hawke's paintings radiate happiness. His somewhat retro style is matched with whimsical detail. One of my favorite images is on the cover (a young Santa with the shadow of his future self looming behind him).

This is a sweet picture book to feed that magical feeling of Christmas -- and remind children that life is good and that wondrous things do happen.

Best Part: Hawke gives Santa an "Elf on the Shelf" grin -- a joyful smile that never goes away.

(Barrett is the author of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Hawke's books include Westlandia.)

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