The focus on children in this recommended Christmas book list was unintended, but, upon reflection, I must say that it’s appropriate. We celebrate the Christ Child’s birth, and our most sincere celebrations are marked by childlike simplicity and wonderment. I will start off with two books for adults, but I hope everyone will enjoy the children’s titles too.
An autistic boy named Adam is at the center of Eye Contact by Cammie McGovern (Viking, 2006.) His mother, Cara, and an unexpected middle-school friend, Kevin, struggle to understand what Adam knows about the murder of a young classmate.
For most of the characters, life is fraught with the difficulty of making and maintaining friendships. For example, the youngsters, mostly middle-schoolers, are tormented by bullies, and some attend meetings of The Group for People Who Have No Friends.
The point of view shifts frequently, allowing the reader to experience distinctive visions from inside several individuals’ heads. Most moving is the expression of Adam’s perceptions and unique understanding, but it’s only through the collective vision that we can piece together the truth.
The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue (Nan A. Talese, 2006) feels like a blend of Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia. The action is rooted in the real world where urban sprawl is threatening the environment, there is the every day tension between permanence and change, yet certain characters lead an existence outside of the normal flow of time.
Henry Day is abducted by hobgoblins and replaced by a changeling. He and the changeling function as coprotagonists, taking turns narrating. Henry is tormented by watching the impostor becoming him. But he cannot go back to his reality until he finds a child with whom to swap places.
The changeling must remember to change at the appropriate physical stages, a humorous dilemma when he forgets to enter puberty. One character makes the wonderfully ironic statement that “every teenager’s parents think he’s a monster.”
Pirateology: The Pirate Hunter’s Companion by William Captain Lubber and Dugald A. Steer (Candlewick Press, 2006) is a gorgeous book with a compass and jewels embedded in the covers. A publisher’s note in the front cover claims that the book was found by divers “in an old sea chest.”
The “plot” of this journal involves the pursuit of Arabella Drummond, “Terror of the Seas,” but the action must take a back seat to the abundance of pirate lore and allegedly authentic documents that are affixed to the pages. In the process of examining those pages, we learn to recognize the difference among Barbary, Caribbean and Chinese pirates.
Young and old readers also will learn many nautical terms, a bit of geography and natural history. The adults might want to spend some quiet time with it before hiding its bejeweled cover under gift wrap. From cover to cover it is full (literally) of marginal notes, maps, sketches and a bag of treasure.
Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer (Miramax, 2002) suits readers ages 9 to 12, as well as anyone intrigued by a protagonist who is incredibly rich, intelligent and criminally inclined. He’s a bad guy with twinges of conscience, a precocious teenager determined to restore his family’s lost fortune.
The plot moves fast, often powered by high-tech inventions and fairy magic. Don’t let the boys be deterred by the “fairy tale” aspects. The little creatures are tough and wily in defense of their legendary gold. Especially admirable is Holly Short of the LEPrecon unit (Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance). Adults, don’t wrap this one either until you’ve enjoyed it yourself or until you’ve broken the code that runs along the bottom of each page.
An eighth-grade boy who reads above his grade level recommended Redwall by Brian Jacques (Philomel Books, 1986.) With sections entitled “The Wall,” “The Quest” and “The Warrior,” how could it not be a hit?
Matthias, the novice in Redwall Abbey, turns out to be the inheritor of a legendary warrior’s sword and shield. He is called upon to wield them in defense of the abbey when it is threatened by the dastardly Cluny the Scourge and his evil army of rats. The characters are a multitude of woodland creatures, and each speaks his or her special dialect. My favorites are the moles who say things like, “Oi reckon they pesky varmints got’n an ‘eadache.”
The next three titles are picture books suitable for young children and perfect for reading aloud.
Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems (Hyperion Books, 2004) is a Caldecott Honor Book. The question is, is the caution for the parents or for the child? Trixie can’t say words yet, but when she leaves her toy bunny at the Laundromat, her attempts to explain this fact and the mutual exasperation that she feels with her father are exactly right.
The art is an interesting mix of black-and-white photos and color illustrations of the characters. And the drawings of facial expressions capture many nuances of the parent-child relationship, as well as of the toy-child relationship.
Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes is a Caldecott Medal Winner (Harper Collins, 2004.) This is another black-and-white beauty. The round-eyed look of surprise and confusion on the kitten’s face is delightful. The adult can turn the session into a read-along with the exclamations, “Poor kitten!”
Another audience-participation treasure is Snow Music by Lynn Rae Perkins (Greenwillow Books, 2003.) The reader is instructed to whisper, sing, create the sounds of a dog’s tags and birds, and to make other wintry noises. (What is the sound a snowflake makes? You’ll find out.)
This is the one book on the list featuring the colorful “real” world of nature scenes; I especially like the falling snow captured in the cone of light beneath a street lamp. Some pages have four blocks of different illustrations and text; other images span two full pages. Lines of tracks in the snow meander across pages, leading us to people, animals, even salt trucks!
Palma is an adjunct assistant professor of English at Monroe Community College in Rochester and an adjunct instructor at Nazareth College in Pittsford. She has a master of science degree in education from Nazareth and a master of arts in theology from St. Bernard’s Institute.