Originally created 12/12/04

New picture books could fill Santa's sack



Chrissie is Santa's kid - and not in the way that you, your child, your nephew and the rest of the people in the world are Santa's kids.

Chrissie is the real thing, the offspring of Mr. and Mrs. Claus.

She spends her days at the North Pole, hanging with the elves and feeding the reindeer.

In her memoir called "SantaKid" (Little, Brown, $18.99, ages 3-6), written with a little help from best-selling mystery writer James Patterson and illustrated by Michael Garland, the bright-eyed girl with a red hat, scarf and boots gives young readers the skinny on her dad (no jolly mounds of fat except at Christmastime) and what happens to the Toy Workshop when corporate conglomerate The Exmas Express buys the North Pole.

Mean Warrie Ranson wants to change the holiday from Christmas to "Exmas" and replace Santa's sleigh with a fleet of 18-wheelers, but Chrissie springs into action to save the day, repeating her father's mantra, "You have to believe," all the way.

Jolly old St. Nick is the main character in several of the new Christmas picture books, but so are generous animals, big-hearted children and the new baby king in Bethlehem.

"The Last Straw" (Talewinds/Charlesbridge, $15.95, ages 4-8) by Frederick H. Thury and illustrated by Vlasta van Kampen is adapted from a Thury's original libretto, which was performed by the Toronto Children's Chorus. It's the story of Hoshmakaka, a semiretired camel who complains of sciatica but nonetheless is chosen by the Wise Men to deliver gifts to the newborn king.

Each merchant, baker and miller he passes adds something to his load, but, miraculously, the burden gets lighter. Or, perhaps, the camel gets stronger.

The late Margaret Wise Brown had a way with simple storytelling, and "Christmas in the Barn" (HarperCollins, $15.99, ages 3-7) is no exception.

The book, which offers a childlike interpretation of the Nativity story in the rhythm that will be familiar to fans of Brown's "Big Red Barn," was first published in 1952, and this edition features bright, cheerful illustrations by Diane Goode.

"Room for a Little One: A Christmas Tale" (McElderry, $15.95, ages 3-7) by Martin Waddel also has a Nativity theme but it emphasizes that all are welcome at the stable on Christmas Eve, especially a tired donkey who brings with him a weary Mary and Joseph.

The soft-style illustrations by Jason Cockcroft are flecked with color that adds both a brightness and warmth.

An unlikely pair find themselves spending Christmas Eve together - and sharing a miracle the next day - in "Winter's Gift" (Sleeping Bear Press, $15.95, ages 4-10) by Jane Monroe Donovan. A widower was going to ignore the holiday since it was the first without his wife, but a horse who needs his help first gives the man a purpose and then convinces him that each day can bring a new beginning.

Donovan's painted pictures of what must be an idyllic New England farm blanketed by the calm of a fresh snow are a compelling part of the story.

Little Rabbit isn't obsessed with Elmo or Bratz for Christmas. Instead, he wants something that will keep his ears warm and dry during the winter snows. When his mom comes through with a two-eared cap in "Shall I Knit You a Hat? A Christmas Yarn" (Henry Holt, $16.95, ages 3-7) by sisters Kate and M. Sarah Klise, Little Rabbit decides to give one to all his friends as gifts.

The pals are extremely appreciative - and well-mannered - and they thank Little Rabbit for the very thoughtful gifts. "My antlers have never been drier," says the deer.

Little Red, the rosy ragdoll cooked up by Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson and artist Sam Williams, comes across Big Red, as in Santa Claus, in Christmas Tree Wood in "Little Red's Christmas Story" (Simon & Schuster, $15.95, ages 3-6).

Santa is in "a bit of a tizzy" because one of his reindeer has fallen ill. Little Red and her pony Roany save the day, but their friends who trim the tree and prepare the party get kudos and presents, too.

The dilemma in "Santa's Suit" (Scholastic, $10.95, ages 3 and up), a touch-and-feel book by Kate Lee and Edward Eaves, is that St. Nick is bored with his red outfit but he has trouble finding something else to wear. If he tries white, he might be confused with a polar bear; if he wears yellow, he looks like a giant lemon.

Leave the fashion decisions to Mrs. Claus: She reminds her husband that red is not only cheerful but it's also his favorite color. "You're right," says Santa. "Red is best - and it matches Rudolph's nose."

Santa delivers a message that it's even better to celebrate two holidays in December in "Santa's Kwanzaa" ($15.99, Jump at the Sun/Hyperion, ages 4-7) by Garen Eileen Thomas and illustrated by Guy Francis.

After his Christmas delivery route is done, Santa is eager to return to his home where his wife and elves have been busy making a feast and gifts for him that celebrates his African heritage. He shows his appreciation with one final reindeer ride to spread colorful lights of love across the sky.

Romantic love blossoms between a goose and a gander in the backyard of a farmer and his wife in "Petunia's Christmas" (Knopf, $15.95, ages 4-8), a reissue of the book by Roger Duvoisin that was first published in 1952.

At first it seems as if their courtship is doomed, since Charles is being fattened up to be served as Christmas dinner, but the farmer is charmed by Petunia's tireless tactics to get her sweetie freed. The "couple" is married on Christmas day and the barnyard "had never seen so much dancing, singing and feasting."

The celebration is delayed in "A Cowboy Christmas: The Miracle at Lone Pine Ridge" (Aladdin, $7.99, all ages) by Audrey Wood and illustrated by Robert Florczak, but a young boy learns that family, tradition and prayer are what makes the holiday special. The difficult journey that Cowboy Cully made to get a silver bridle makes the gift even more meaningful to that same boy.

"Santa Comes to Little House" (HarperTrophy, $5.99, ages 4-8) also takes place in America's Heartland in a bygone era, when the holidays were celebrated with a peppermint candy and sweet potatoes and children counted their blessings instead of gifts.

But what will really come as a surprise to modern-day youngsters is that in this story, adapted from Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House on the Prairie" and illustrated by Renee Graef, Santa Claus travels by pack mule and saddle instead of reindeer and sleigh. It's explained that he travels this way in the Southwest because there isn't any snow.

Charles M. Schulz's beloved Peanuts gang is back in "I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown!" (Little Simon, $5.99, ages 3-8), and Rerun, Lucy and Linus' younger brother, think he wants a playmate just like Snoopy. It turns out he just wants to be a part of things and he gets the gift he wants when he appears with Schroeder, Pig Pen and everyone else in the Christmas pageant. Lucy's heart even warms during the giving season; she's the one who helps Rerun remember his lines.

"Harry and the Dinosaurs Make a Christmas Wish" (Random House, $15.95, ages 3-7) by Ian Whybrow and artist Adrian Reynolds is about the excitement and anticipation of the holiday. Harry and his gaggle of pals think they want a duckling as a gift, but they learn that Santa knows best.

What Santa doesn't know, however, is when to stop eating those tasty cookies that well-intentioned children leave for him, and in "Santa's Stuck" (Dutton, $15.99, ages 3 and up) by Rhonda Gowler Greene and Henry Cole, Santa has one too many.

Eventually, what comes down must go up - at least if you're Santa and there are other gifts to be delivered - but not without recruiting some extra helpers, including a dog, a cat and her kittens, and a clever mouse.

Bartholomew, star of "Bartholomew's Blessing: A Christmas Story" (HarperCollins, $15.99, ages 4-8) by Stephanie S. Tolan and illustrated by Margie Moore, is a mouse who makes up for his small size with his big heart.

He sees all of the other animals heading the same way and he tries desperately to get the donkey or the sheep to tell them where they're going. He's ignored but he's used to that.

Then an angel appears at his door and urges Bartholomew to join everyone at the stable to greet the newborn king. The mouse wonders what he could bring as a gift since he'd have trouble carrying anything heavy such a far distance, but it's not the "thing" that matters, it's Bartholomew's heart full of good wishes that bring a smile to the baby's face.

Hibernating is good, but Christmas is better! That's what Bear learns in "Bear Stays Up for Christmas" (McElderry, $16.95, ages 3-7) by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman.

His friends do everything they can from keeping the sleepy-eyed creature from snuggling up in his den, including asking him to carry the Christmas tree on his back, but it's his desire to make gifts for his friends that really keeps him going (while the badger, rabbit and wren take a snooze).

All the presents that Santa doles out get put to good use in "See Santa Nap" (Atheneum, $14.95, ages 3-5), a Ready-to-Read book by David Milgrim.

St. Nick is tired from all the work he does during the holiday season and he just wants to take a rest - but he can't do that until all the appreciative recipients thank him in their own special ways. Luckily, Otto got a fishing pole that can hoist Santa up to a quiet tree house.

"Santa's Great Reindeer Chase" (Chronicle, $9.95, ages 4-6) by Vincent Bourgeau is an interactive book that allows for a movable Santa to go from page to page as he tries to find the two naughty reindeer who decide to play hide-and-seek on Christmas Eve - or is it?

Emily Bolam counts the "Twelve Days of Christmas Presents" (Sterling, $9.95, ages 3-7) with cheerful, cartoonish illustrations of all the things children might find themselves playing with, including a 12 balloons a-flying, 11 cats a-jumping, 10 jelly babies, nine balls a-bouncing, eight fish a-swimming, seven pots for painting, six trains a-tooting, five wind-up toys, four furry bears, three hula hoops, two storybooks and a cute spotted puppy under the tree.

"Christmas Morning" (Cartwheel/Scholastic, $6.99, ages 4-8) by Cheryl Ryan and illustrated by Jenny Mattheson uses one little phrase, "This is the house where the children slept," as a string to weave a story that touches on reindeer, St. Nick, toys, the Nutcracker and several other traditional holiday elements. Of course, with all this going on in the house where the children sleep, it's hard for them to get their rest!