Reading to Peter

In our house, we have a box full of picture books that comes out on the first Sunday in Advent, and I’m always on the lookout for new Christmas books.Tonight I read a new one to Peter. It’s a new edition of Pearl Buck’s short story “Christmas Day in the Morning,” with pictures by the Salt Lake City illustrator Mark Buehner. The plot is simple–a boy growing up on a farm decides to wake up early (3:00!) on Christmas Day and do the milking before his dad gets up to do it. The prose is spare and perfect, the exchanges between father and son tender, but never cloying.

I couldn’t get through it tonight, reading to my firstborn, who so wants to be good (even though he mostly forgets). He was very patient, waiting for me to collect myself every other paragraph, looking solemn when I went to fetch tissues. In another year or so, he’ll tease me for being such a sentimental old ninny, but tonight he was sweet and snuggly.

What about you? Any specially magic Christmas stories or traditions around reading Christmas books? Recommendations for our collection? (And yes, this is a shameless ploy to get a certain MMF to comment here!)

38 comments for “Reading to Peter

  1. Hi Kristine,

    First, Christmas books: Everyone MUST have The Polar Express and How The Grinch Stole Christmas. If you don’t, get with the program. After that, we’ve bought and recieved several ones that have made it into our regular story-night tradition (more on that in a bit). My favorites are Emma’s Christmas by Irewne Trivas (a great take on the 12 days of Christmas, with a prince wooing a farmgirl with patridges in pear trees, etc.); Cranberry Christmas by Wende and Harry Devlin; The Snowman by Raymond Briggs (the short cartoon special is excellent, too); The Night Before Christmas, illustrated by Jan Brett; and my current favorite (I discovered it last year), The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski.

    As for our story night, it evolved out of something my family did: on Christmas Eve, after dinner we each picked a story to read. My mom always picked something from General Authority, and my Dad always read Luke 2 last. But the rest of us got to dig around and find something we enjoyed. I wanted to keep that tradition, but we do something else on Christmas Eve. So, on a Friday night in December, we make home-made really rich, really good hot chocolate, light all the candles and each pick a story to read. I’m not sure how much my younger girls enjoy it (well, Alison’s only 1, so…) but I hope it’ll be something they treasure as they get older.


  2. “home-made really rich, really good hot chocolate”

    Would that be the kind that is “as thick and rich as melted chocolate bars”? The best thing about the place we lived in California was the Niles Canyon Railway, which ran excursion trains up a little canyon near Fremont. In December they did a “Polar Express” train, all lighted with Christmas lights and with a visit from Santa.

    When Peter was 5, he insisted for months that we call him “Thomas” because of “The Christmas Miracle…”

    We don’t have “Emma’s Christmas,” though–I’ll check that out. Thanks!!

  3. My dad would read “A Christmas Carol” to us every year, starting about the beginning of December and (sometimes) finishing before Christmas.

    My kids are still a little young for Dickens; I think I’ll start next year. But we have a small (though growing) collection of Christmas picture books: I love “Toomey”; Covenant put out a lovely illustrated tale called “Christmas Oranges”; last year my mother gave us a lovely illustrated Christmas collection called “In Search of Christmas.”

    My parents have an extensive collection of books of all sorts, including children’s Christmas books. Every Christmas Eve, my siblings and I would put on a play that we had written and produced–usually adapted from a Christmas picture book. I never appreciated their library until I moved across the country and no longer have easy access to their religious and children’s titles.

  4. My all time favorite Christmas book is Letters from Father Christmas by J. R. R. Tolkien. It was a collection of illustrated letters from the north pole he gave his children each year. Unfortunately I’ve never seen it around.

  5. Patricia Polacco has written three Christmas stories that our family loves, and read each year (well, one of them is new this year): “The Trees of the Dancing Goats”, “The Christmas Tapestry”, and “An Orange for Frankie”. We also like “The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey”. “The Littlest Angel” is another favorite — it was newly illustrated in the 90’s, and is beautiful.

  6. I really like Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” though I don’t know that it would be on the top of my list to read to my children.

  7. Oops. I neglected to explain the reasons why Berkeley Breathed’s Red Ranger Came Calling is the greatest Christmas story:

    1. Phenomenal illustrations (Breathed’s other work includes the “Bloom County” and “Outland” newspaper comics).
    2. It’s very funny.
    3. It’s guaranteed true.

  8. Interestingly enough, David, Melissa’s younger sister and brother adore the Berkeley Breathed cartoon “A Wish for Wings That Work,” and so far as I know they insisted on watching it every Christmas Eve. Me, I never got into it, despite being an old Bloom County fan.

    We have an old copy of Buck’s “Christmas Day in theMorning,” Kristine, but the illustrated copy you mention sounds like one worth tracking down. We have a beautiful illustrated edition of Capote’s “Christmas Morning,” though neither of us have attempted to read that to our girls on story night; O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi,” however, has gone over quite well with Megan. (This is possibly because the original “Sesame Street Christmas”–a video which she has seen many times, and is well worth tracking down–features an adaptation of the story, with Ernie and Bert selling their rubber duckie and paper clip collection, respectively, to Mr. Hooper in order to purchase each other a cigar box (for the paper clips) and a soapdish (for rubber duckie). Mr Hooper gives their items back to them as Christmas gifts, thus perhaps undermining the pathos, but the lesson isn’t lost.)

    A short and silly one which Melissa didn’t mention, and which can only be truly appreciated if you’re capable of reading it out loud in a goofy Southern accent, is Cajun Night Before Christmas, an old retelling of the poem complete with nutty illustrations by James Rice:

    “Den out on de by-you
    Dey got such a clatter
    Make soun’ like old Boudreau
    Done fall off his ladder.”

    Priceless stuff. Santa arrives in a skiff pulled by eight alligators (Gaston, Tiboy, Pierre, Alcee, Ninette, Suzette, Celeste and Renee). We all crack up every time we read it.

  9. Now there’s a topic for a great thread, Russell: children’s books that have to be read in a faux foreign accent. My kids hate it when Babar comes out as narrated by Jaques Cousteau, but I can’t help myself.

  10. Babar could only be improved by employing a ridiculous accent. I’ll have to try it next time I’m forced to read it. Never one of my favorites. I do love the Buehners’ books, though — Fanny’s Dream is a favorite of mine (makes me cry though) and my daughters’, as well as The Escape of Marvin the Ape and It’s a Spoon, Not a Shovel. Great illustrations and lots of fun.

    Kristine, I always cry when I read almost any Christmas story, sing almost any Christmas carol, or hear any primary song (and I was in charge of our ward’s primary program this year!). It’s horrible. So you’re not alone in being a sentimental ninny. Here are my favorite Christmas stories to read to my kids:

    1. Hilary Knight’s The Twelve Days of Christmas (fun illustrations)
    2. Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree by Robert Barry
    3. The Night Before Christmas, illustrated by Christian Birmingham, who also did a beautiful job illustrating a good abridged version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
    4. The Polar Express
    5. Madeline’s Christmas, Madeline in America (a Christmas story Ludwig Bemelmans wrote before his death but after a visit to Texas; since we live in Dallas, it’s fun to see all the landmarks he threw in here and there)
    6. The Mitten by Jan Brett
    7. The Little House books each have chapters devoted to very spare Christmases — we’ve read the first three books to our daughters (ages 4 and 7) and they often ask for us to re-read these poignant stories to them at bedtime. All of us are both fascinated and touched by how grateful they were for the tiniest things.
    8. We have a little illustrated book of Christmas carols that my kids love. We read/sing this book at bedtime and it’s helped them (and me) learn common Christmas songs.

  11. Great recommendations Allison; we’re definitely going to have to find Madeline in America! One note:

    “The Little House books each have chapters devoted to very spare Christmases – we’ve read the first three books to our daughters (ages 4 and 7) and they often ask for us to re-read these poignant stories to them at bedtime. All of us are both fascinated and touched by how grateful they were for the tiniest things.”

    I’m not sure all of the Little House books do, but certainly the first three, at least. (I’ve read all seven to our eight-year-old, and she’s gone back and re-read them selectively as well.) The very best Christmas chapter has to be “Santa Comes to Little House,” from the second book, which is available as a separate, wonderful illustrated book. We received it as a Christmas present a while back, and it’s a real treasure.

  12. I just wanted to ask what’s the big deal with the Polar Express. The story doesn’t really seem to do anything at all, except introduce a train that magically takes kids to see Santa. I read it this year for the first time and I have to say I was expecting something. . . interesting.

  13. Russell,
    But do the illustrations in “Santa Comes to Little House” measure up to Garth Williams’ originals? I find myself unable to believe they could. I’m funny that way (I still can’t stand to see any version of The Secret Garden or A Little Princess that is illustrated by anyone but Tasha Tudor).

    On a non-book-related note, A Charlie Brown Christmas has to be the best video ever.

  14. The Little House christmases *are* great. In fact, I believe the last time I made a complete blubbering idiot of myself while reading to Peter was the Christmas where Mr. Edwards swims across the river to bring Mary & Laura’s presents from town. I think I actually didn’t finish reading the chapter, and Peter had to wait till the next night when his dad could do it.

    Ryan, I think part of what’s great about Polar Express is exactly its minimalism. One of the things I’ve learned from making up stories for my kids is that they don’t need a lot of plot, necessarily. They like things to be like regular life, but with a *little* bit of magic. I suspect that changes somewhere between ages 7 and 10 (?), when novelty starts to be more necessary for pleasure, but the little guys really like things pretty simple, even boring.

  15. “But do the illustrations in “Santa Comes to Little Houseâ€? measure up to Garth Williams’ originals?”

    Hmm, I’m tempted to say “no”–my recollection is that the illustrated version isn’t anything special–except that in the separate book the chapter is fully illustrated, whereas I can’t remember what, if any, illustrations accompanied that particular chapter in Little House on the Prairie. And great art or no great art, it’s hard to resist a full-color illustration of Mary and Laura, in their red sleeping gowns, leaping up and down at wonder at the little tin cups they each received from Santa. (It makes me cry too, Kristine. And I like your point about simplicity regarding Polar Express. But isn’t that the truth about so many great children’s books and illustrated books? Resisting the tendency to provide all the information, all the wonder; allowing the kids to realize that there’s stuff going on outside the frame as well.)

  16. I agree that the simpleness of Polar Express, and the wonderfully quiet, mysterious-looking illustrations, are what’s really great about the book. In my opinion, the movie really messed up by adding too much extraneous crap — extra storylines, annoying characters, information the audience didn’t need, and thump-you-over-the-head messages.

  17. It’s not a children’s book, and the faux foreign accent is Czech rather than Cajun, but we read the Christmas goose story from Willa Cather’s “Neighbor Rosicky.”

  18. For Dicken’s Christmas Carol, the Innocenti-illustrated version can’t be beat. No illustration of that story captures Dickensian England more beautifully.

    I am also a big fan of L. Frank Baum’s (Yes, the Oz guy) The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus.

    And who can forget Barbara Robinson’s “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” with the Herdman clan?

  19. I don’t typically think of myself as an animal lover but I really enjoyed reading “The Christmas Day Kitten” by James Herriot to my girls when they were little. I could never get through it without crying.

    I love Miss Read (Dora Saint) books. A delightful Christmas story of hers is “The Christmas Mouse.”

  20. We wrap up all of the the Christmas books at the beginning of December and put them under the tree. The kids get to unwrap one or two every night. I think we have close to 40 now.

    The kids love “Auntie Claus” by Elise Primavera, which is a good Santa Claus-themed book.

    Susan Cooper (The Dark is Rising) has a nice book titled Danny and the Three Kings that I picked up this year. I also picked up Madeline L’Engle’s The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas.

    We like The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, The Polar Express, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Christmas Tapestry already mentioned on this thread.

    I’ll post more as we unwrap them.

  21. Actually, The Dark is Rising is kind of a cool Christmas read itself.

    And Dickens wrote quite a number of Christmas stories. I’m not sure why A Christmas Carol gets all the PR.

  22. I read the whole Dark is Rising series one year between Christmas and New Year’s, and I remember that as the best Christmas of my life–I remember being so angry at having to stop reading and go to sleep at night.

  23. Rosalynde, my Dad too used to read us A Christmas Carol every December. That was a long time ago (he died in 1981), but I have fond memories.

    I tried to read a collection of other Christmas stories by Dickens, but they just weren’t the same and I couldn’t get into it.

  24. Kevin, after the smashing success of “ACC,” Dickens capitalized with extensive book tours and yearly releases along the same line. His later efforts were never nearly as successful literarily, though, maybe because their origin was so self-serving.

    (If you’ll excuse a little shameless self-promotion, you could take a look at my article here (although it’s not available online, sadly): )

  25. Oh, and how could I forget my favorite Christmas story of all: Tomie dePaola’s “The Clown of God.” It’s breathtaking in every way, and I can’t get through it without weeping. It’s really, really wonderful.

  26. Kris,

    Part of my family’s longstanding tradition (which I’ll probably post about later) is the reading of The Other Wise Man. It’s a very good Christmas read.

  27. Lisa, we love Patricia Polacco, too. She has another Christmas story called “Welcome Comfort.” In it, a school janitor befriends a persecuted, overweight boy without a family. Yet they can never spend Christmas together, because every Christmas eve the janitor and his wife go up North ….

    That was our addition to the Christmas story collection, this year. I recommend it wholeheartedly!

    Just for fun, try James Marshall’s “Merry Christmas, Space Case.” Especially if you have young kids who are into science, robots and space!

  28. My kids dig “Babar’s Chirstmas” year-round. Somebody posted once on how strangely French the Babar books are, and this one is no exception.

  29. Rosalynde, actually I think I did read your article (I’m a long-time subscriber to BYU Studies).

    You will be pleased to learn that it is indeed online. Go to this site:

    which is the Harold B. Lee Library online collection. Do a search on “carol” as a title term and your article will come right up.

    You have to print it one page at a time, which is a pain. But at least it is there. You can send a link to all of your friends and loved ones as a Christmas gift.

  30. Albert and the Angels by Leslie Norris is SO good, especially if you read it with an accent.

  31. Wow, neat, Kevin! Thanks for the link! (Now I’ll stop feeling disgruntled that my article wasn’t one chosen to be made available online at the BYU Studies site.)

  32. yikes, Jordan–given the other similarities in our past lives, that’s just plain scary. Wir wollen bloß nicht an Doppelgänger denken!

  33. Thank you so much for doing this post, Kristine! I’m dying to add to our Christmas book collection and can’t wait to go hunt some of these great suggestions down.
    Rosalynde, I’m not sure how old your little ones are, but I have been reading “A Christmas Carol” to my girls (6 and 4) and they have loved it. I just read a few pages each night and my 4 yr. old sometimes tunes out a little, but my 6 yr. stays right with me.

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