For those of you who celebrate Christmas like we do, we hope you have a peaceful, joyous, and blessed Christmas with your friends and family. Whatever your traditions are, and whatever the day may bring, may you enjoy the little moments that cause us to celebrate the good in the world.
Written by: Cynthia Rylant
Illustrated by: Chris Soentpiet
Scholastic Books, 1987, Softcover
Target Audience: Ages 3-8
Theme: Caring, Dreams, Self-Determination
How We Discovered This Book: Since Christmas is nearly upon us, I felt compelled to look through our favorite Christmas books. Some of the books are sweet, some are spiritual, and some have a powerful message. This book is sweet and has an important message slipped in.
A rich man has an accident in the Appalachian hills, and after he is nursed back to health by the residents, he feels compelled to repay the debt. Every December 23rd, he rides a train into the town and tosses a silver package to each of the children. A boy named Frankie wishes for different toys each year, but he doesn’t get what he wishes for. He gets a nice toy along with something more important – something he needs. The story comes full circle when Frankie is grown and decides to return to the town to repay his own debt.
What I Liked:
The book has a straightforward plot, with expressive and rich illustrations. Ms. Rylant manages to get across the key details without being too overt – how poor these children and families are, how to be grateful for what we are given, and how to share our blessings with others.
What Did My Kids Think?
My kids found the train and the silver packages to be magical, and couldn’t wait to find out what Frankie got the next year. The Polar Express is another one of our favorites – my, the fun things that trains can bring.
Brainstorm with your kids or students on what they would wish for if a train came through their town.
Find a service project to do with your kids or students. It’s not too late- there are needy people across the world at all times of the year. I find it’s most impactful if it serves a group they can identify with – other kids, people in their own town, etc.
Some other Christmas favorites:
The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore: There are tons of versions of this classic story, but we have a version illustrated by Bruce Whatley that is full of texture and unexpected depth.
Snowmen at Night by Caralyn Buehner, illustrated by Mark Buehner: What do your snowmen do at night while you are sleeping?
Jingle Bells by Kathleen N. Daly, illustrated by J.P. Miller: This is a favorite of mine from my childhood, originally published as a Little Golden Book in 1964 (for the record, I have the 7th printing from 1976). It has Richard Scarry-esque illustrations, and there is no way to read the book without singing.
The Legend of the Candy Cane by Lori Walburg, illustrated by James Bernardin: Check out the review we posted in early 2013.
What are your favorite Christmas books? Please share in the comments!
Instead of selecting one book this week, I thought it would be fun to talk about an author. Okay, so Peter Brown isn’t only an author–he also illustrates. And not just any illustrator–the 2013 Caldecott Honor winner for Creepy Carrots! I first heard him speak at the 2012 SCBWI winter conference in New York City. I hadn’t read any of his books prior to that, and while he seemed like a nice (and kinda hip) guy, I can’t remember running out to get any of his books after the conference. Then, while browsing at our local library, I found The Curious Garden. I’ve been enjoying his brilliance every since. Here are a few of my favorites.
The Curious Garden follows a young boy who discovers a pocket of bright green plants growing in his otherwise dull gray city. He cares for the plants, training himself in gardening. Under his attention, the garden expands, transforming the city. I suppose, it’s kind of a true story, in a way. NYC’s High Line Trail is an elevated railway converted into green walking space. Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail is also being developed. So cool! All making The Curious Garden a poignant tale for showing what can happen with just a little bit of love.
Mr. Tiger lives in a pseudo-Victorian world where all the animals are uptight. It’s no fun, so Mr. Tiger Goes Wild! The illustrations here are simply gorgeous–and they won Brown a Bull-Bransom Award, a yearly award for the best in children’s book illustration that focuses on nature and wildlife (given by the National Museum of Wildlife Art, in my hometown of Jackson, WY!).
When my five-year old started kindergarten this fall, I got him Brown’s latest book, My Teacher Is A Monster! (No, I Am Not.) Bobby is convinced his teacher is a monster, and retreats to a park to unwind. But what happens when he runs into his monster of a teacher in the one place he can be free? Bobby learns that people can be quite surprising.
Here’s a few of Brown’s other titles, but the list isn’t exhaustive.
Creepy Carrots! (written by Aaron Reynolds)
You Will Be My Friend!
Children Make Terrible Pets
Flight of the Dodo
If you haven’t already enjoyed Peter Brow’s creative brilliance, do it now!
Creativity is an intangible thing. It can’t be held in your hand or bought with money. Each of us knows (or is!) someone who claims, “I’m not creative.” Yet I would argue that creativity is accessible to all of us. Maybe we just need a little help getting there.
Art class is ending and Vashti’s page is blank–she’s convinced she can’t draw. Her wise teacher suggests she “make a mark and see where it takes [her].” Vashti jabs angrily at the paper–just once–and an artist is born. As the story progresses, Vashti experiments with her own creative expression and is given an opportunity to guide another “not creative” person on the path to creativity. Her story is charming, making this book perfect for, well, everyone! Vashti is so likeable, and her artwork so simple, that it’s impossible not to be drawn in. Artsy kids will love it immediately, but the message is accessible to all types, even adults. The first time I read this book, my son hadn’t been born, but I want to share it with him now and talk about how Vashti’s experience can be applied to all kinds of situations in life–from building with Legos to experimenting with different sports as he discovers who he is.
Part Two: Creativity in Life
As Vashti’s learns, creativity starts with one action–any action–and expands with the opportunity made by that choice. “If I can make little dots,” she realizes, “I can make big dots, too.” From this point, creativity can travel in so many directions. One podcast I’ve been enjoying lately is Sara Zarr’s This Creative Life. She interviews various creative people about their creative process, and I always find it freeing to see how diverse that process can be. That makes space for me to try whatever I want. But what if you need a bit more help? If you’re a writer, you might enjoy Sarah Selecky’s Daily Writing Prompts. These are short writing exercises designed to help spark out of the box ideas. If you’re not a writer, or if perhaps you’re one of those “not creative” types (said lovingly), Vashti’s journey still might apply to you.
Either way, make a mark and see where it takes you.