Some old, some new. All bursting with magic
Compiled by Shannon Purdy Jones
Growing up, one of the things I most looked forward to about the holiday season was rediscovering the Christmas books my mother had packed up with the decorations in the attic. Stored out of sight for most of the year made them fascinating, almost otherworldly. They weren’t like all the other books on the shelf; they were special. Dreamy, snow-dusted illustrations and gentle rhymes worked their magic on me back then, and years on, they haven’t let go.
Now, with kids of my own, I realize that part of what made those books so special was the memories attached to them: the time my brother and I stained the page of a family heirloom with red frosting (because who can be bothered to wash up while decorating cookies?). Or reading ’Twas the Night Before Christmas before bed every Christmas Eve. (The very same edition I now read to my children.)
We still have some of my most treasured childhood holiday books, and each year my kids add to the collection, creating their own memories of cookies and reindeer and snow. Below, you’ll find my favorite holiday books of 2021 — some brand-new, some re-releases of old favorites. No matter what holidays you celebrate, you can start — or grow — your own we-keep-these-forever stack of threadbare but well-loved books.
The Star Tree by Gisela Colle (Northsouth Books, $17.95) A timeless classic back in print with a fresh, new look. In a little house in a big city, an old man remembers Christmases long ago: when friends and family gathered to tell stories and sing carols, and children made gold paper stars to welcome visitors. Now the city is filled with skyscrapers, bright lights and flashy signs. Who would even notice old-fashioned paper stars hanging in a window? But when the old man decorates a park tree with his basket full of paper stars, the whole community rediscovers the simple power and beauty of the Christmas spirit.
Santa in the City by Tiffany D. Jackson, illustrated by Reggie Brown (Dial Books, $17.99) It’s two weeks before Christmas, and young Deja is worried that Santa might not come to her house. After all, as a city kid, she doesn’t have a chimney for him to shimmy down and none of the parking spots on her block could fit a sleigh, let alone eight reindeer! But with a little help from her family, community and Santa himself, Deja discovers that the Christmas spirit can find its way into any corner of the world. With bold, colorful illustrations that capture the joy of the holidays, this picture book from award-winning author Tiffany D. Jackson and illustrator Reggie Brown is a holiday gift to be treasured for years to come.
The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper, illustrated by Carson Ellis (Candlewick, $17.99) As the sun set on the shortest day of the year, early people would gather to prepare for the long night ahead. They built fires and lit candles. They played music, bringing their own light to the darkness while wondering if the sun would ever rise again. Written for a theatrical production that has become a ritual in itself, Cooper’s poem captures the magic behind the returning of the light, the yearning for traditions that connect us with generations that have gone before — and the hope for peace that we carry into the future: So the shortest day came, and the year died. Richly illustrated by Caldecott Honoree Carson Ellis, this beautiful book evokes the joy, universality and community found in honoring and celebrating the ongoing mystery of life. Welcome, Yule!
The Christmas Owl by Ellen Kalish & Gideon Sterer, illustrated by Ramona Kaulitzki (Little Brown, $17.99) When Little Owl’s home is cut down by people saying it will make a beautiful Christmas tree, she’s not sure she wants anything to do with Christmas, whatever that means. But then she is saved by a woman named Ellen, whose house is merrily decorated for the holiday — and filled with birds who need someone to care for them. Surrounded by kindness and helpful new friends, Little Owl begins to wonder if Christmas might not be such a bad thing after all. Co-written by Ellen Kalish, caretaker of the real owl found inside the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, The Christmas Owl is a charming story of friendship, compassion and the true meaning of this special time of year.
Red and Green and Blue and White by Lee Wind, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky (Levine Querido, $17.99) It’s a holiday season that both Isaac, whose family is Jewish, and Teresa, whose family is Christian, have looked forward to for months! They’ve been counting down the days, playing in the snow, making cookies, drawing (Teresa) and writing poems (Isaac). They enjoy all the things they share, as well as the things that make them different. But when Isaac’s window is smashed in the middle of the night, it seems like maybe not everyone appreciates difference. Inspired by a true story, this is a tale of a community that banded together to spread light.
The Snowflake by Benji Davies (Harper Collins, $17.99) From Benji Davies, the award-winning creator of Tad and The Storm Whale, comes a dazzling wintry tale about trust and serendipity. Exquisitely written and beautifully illustrated, The Snowflake tells the separate stories of one snowflake and one little girl. Both longing for their own special place in the world, they spin together into a magical ending. The snowflake and Noelle discover that, wherever we go — and however we fall — in the end, we all find a way to shine. Perfect for fans of The Night Before Christmas (illustrated by Loren Long) and Dasher by Matt Tavares.
Jan Brett’s The Nutcracker by Jan Brett (GP Putnam’s Sons, $18.99) Jan Brett’s striking illustrations and the Christmas classic, The Nutcracker, are a match made in picture book heaven. Brett makes this classic her own by setting it in snowy Russia and adding whimsical touches to favorite elements of the traditional ballet. Enjoying this book will be an instant Christmas tradition for families who love the ballet or for those new to the story. As perfect a gift as Brett’s classics, The Mitten and The Night Before Christmas. OH
Shannon Purdy Jones is store manager and children’s book buyer at Scuppernong Books.