31 Days, 31 Books: 2021 Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
I may have mentioned in a previous post this month my disappointment with the derth of historically marginalized voices in board books these days. That disappointment fades quickly when I look at the holiday books of 2021. And when I say “holiday books” I’m not talking St. Patrick’s Day/Halloween/Christmas fare. Sure, we have some of those. But along the way we also have Eid, the Cherokee National Holiday, Chinese New Year, Nowruz, and more. I sort through hoardes of holiday books every year, and these are the ones that go above and beyond their places on the yearly calendar. Each book on this list can be considered on its merits alone. Don’t believe me? Give ’em a read:
2021 Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
Amira’s Picture Day by Reen Faruqi, ill. Fahmida Azim
[Holiday – Eid]
You may have noticed the delicately phrased post Why the Hell Don’t More Holiday Books Win the Caldecott? by Elisa Gall and Jonathan Hunt on Calling Caldecott last month. You’ll find all the books mentioned in that piece in today’s post, including this book, and for that I thank Elisa and Jonathan. Holiday books have a difficult job. To be original they must be accessible. And what, I ask you, could be more accessible than that gut-drop you feel when “everybody” is doing something that you can’t do? Amira is definitely looking forward to picture day at school (as opposed to my own children who seem to view it as a prelude to the gallows) but timing is everything. Alas for her, Eid is falling on the exact same day, and that’s going to make things difficult. I love the story (and how it teaches you about Eid without you really noticing) but what I really enjoyed were the parents. I feel these parents. You’ve got this kid who is pushing and pushing and you’re in that weird position where you’re not sure to what extent you should give in. Beautifully rendered for child and parent alike.
Beautiful Eggs by Alice Lindstrom
[Holiday – Easter]
Don’t be fooled by this title’s board book design. While I wouldn’t hand this title to a toothsome tot, it makes for a positively splendid Easter book by examining a wide variety of ways that people around the world decorate eggs. Interestingly, Eastern Europe and a great many Slavic nations shoulder the bulk of the pretty egg credit. Still I was grateful for the inclusion of Mexican cascarones and Japanese eggs covered in washi paper. At the end is an enormous cut-out, where you can trace an egg to decorate on your own. The art of the book is a cut paper style that perfectly replicates the eggs, cultures, and people inside. If you’re a librarian, make sure your catalogers put this in the holiday and not the board book section of your library. A fresh new take on old art techniques.
Bracelets for Bina’s Brothers by Rajani LaRocca, ill. Chaaya Prabhat
[Holidays – Raksha Bandhan]
Through part of Charlesbridge’s impressive “Storytelling Math” series, I found this particular title from the math-loving Ms. LaRocca to be an interesting holiday title. In this celebration of the Raksha Bandhan holiday, youngest sibling Bina is determined to make bracelets for each of her three brothers. Vijay loves blue but doesn’t like green. Siddharth is fond of green but can’t stand orange. Arjun likes orange but is sick of blue. With three colors to work with, will Bina get the bracelets right? A “Cultural Note” at the end from Rajani explains that Raksha Bandhan, falling on the last day of the Hindu lunar calendar month of Shraavana (usually August), is a celebration of the bond between brothers and sisters. And the fact that it isn’t in a ton of picture books already just shows how far we have to go.
Christina’s Carol by Tomie dePaola
[Holiday – Christmas]
This is a clever solution to a palpable problem. As this book tells us, Tomie dePaola loved nativity scenes. He created a whole host of them over the years, and while they were all recognizably his, as his style and times changed, there were significant differences between them. Tomie also loved illustrating Christmas carols. I know this for a fact since I used to sing my kids the Tomie dePaola Book of Christmas Carols all the time. Before he died, Tomie was working on a book in which poet Christina Rossetti would write her poem “In the Bleak Midwinter”. No doubt some of you recall singing this as a Christmas hymn (my favorite line involves “snow on snow on snow”). Tomie left this book unfinished, so some clever editor came up with a note-worthy solution. Why not fill the book with different nativity scenes to accompany the words of the poem? And why not make sure they all came from dePaola? The end result is a stunning and marvelous collection of art. I was particularly taken with a very different group of four images of Mary and baby Jesus, some harkening back to a classical style, some very modern and contemporary. Befana makes an appearance. And there are some really neat pop up scenes that give the book a three-dimensional quality from time to time. All told, a meaningful collection that pays homage to both Rossetti’s poem and dePaola himself.
The Christmas Mitzvah by Jef Gottesfeld, ill. Michelle Larentia Agatha
[Holiday – Christmas]
I can’t be the only one who read this title and felt the hackles rise on the back of her neck. I get really suspicious around children’s picture books where Hanukkah turned into a kind of Jewish Christmas on the page. They’re two entirely different holidays, but too often you’ll see them conflated in some way. And I can tell you straight out that my mind was not put at rest when I read, “Al Rosen was a Jewish man who loved Christmas.” I was a bit relieved, though, to see the next line, “It wasn’t his holiday.” What follows is based on a true story about the real Al Rosen. Back in 1969 he was so moved by a man’s story that he’d have to miss Christmas Eve with his family due to work that Al decided to help out. So he called a radio station and announced that he would be happy to do the job of anyone who was forced to work on Christmas Eve. In this book, Al takes on a wide variety of jobs over the years, helping people out. It’s a simple but very fun concept, and I appreciated Gottesfeld’s storytelinng prowess. Don’t know if I should catalog this as a Jewish classic or a Christmas one. The important thing, is that you own one. Stat.
Look, Grandma! Ni, Elisi! by Art Coulson, ill. Mardelyn Goodnight
[Holiday – Cherokee National Holiday]
Maybe this is more a math than holiday book, but I don’t care a jot. Let’s math it up! While we were all distracted with other things in our lives, Charlesbridge just swooped in and cornered the math-related picture book market. Cornered, heck. They’ve conquered it! You see, not only do their picture books in the “Storytelling Math” series really show math-related concepts in wonderful contexts, but they reach out and find authors and artists from a wide range of ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. In this particular case, Art Coulson is Cherokee and Madelyn Goodnight is of the Chickasaw Nation. The story itself couldn’t be simpler. Bo wants to help bring the homemade marbles he’s created (as big as bocce balls) to his family’s craft booth during the Cherokee National Holiday. Trouble is, he needs to find precisely the correct sized container to fit. That means wrangling with concepts like volume and capacity. A Glossary of Cherokee words and phrases, as well as additional information on the marbles and suggested math-related activities (created by Dr. Sharon Nelson-Barber of Rappahannock descent), round everything out. I’m a sucker for a clever solution, and the fact that this is a kind of math that can be so difficult to explain to kids didn’t hurt either. A marvelous (marble-ous?) addition to the series.
My Creepy Valentine by Arthur Howard
[Holiday – Valentine’s Day]
So about 15 or so odd years ago I was working in the Central Children’s Room of New York Public Library at the desk and in walks this fellow. He happens to mention (and as I recall it was said very casually) that he was Arthur Howard and he illustrated children’s books. Next thing the poor man knows I’ve just run into the space in the back with the historical book collection, grabbed about 10 copies of everything I could find (mostly Mr. Putter and Tabby but there might have been a Bubba and Bo somewhere in the mix) and plunked them down at the table where he was sitting, demanding that he sign them. I never missed an opportunity to add to the library’s collection and meanwhile I tried not to gush too much over how much I loved his art. I doubt sincerely he remembers that visit, but that’s okay. He must get it a lot because there ain’t nobody, not nobody, who draws like he does. Now I’d seen Hoodwinked, the previous picture book that starred Mitzi the witch (good name) but this one I like even more. In it, Mitzi eschews the cutesy-pieness of Valentine’s Day, only to find herself falling for a boy who can do such amazing things as spurt milk out of his nose and wiggle his ears while hanging upside down. This is perfect for those kids for whom Halloween is their one and only true holiday love and they need a little push to explore others. Utterly charming.
My First Book About Ramadan: Teachings for Toddlers and Young Children by Sara Khan, ill. Ali Lodge
[Holiday – Ramadan]
Board books about religious holidays can be tricky if the book attempts to explain too many things. We’ve all seen the ones that just fill their pages with text, without any consideration for the age of the child readers. So a lot of what impressed me about Khan and Lodge’s book here is how well it breaks down its explanations into these succinct, careful sentences. Take, for example, the two-page spread where the only text apparent reads, “There are some people who do not have to fast.” And rather than launch into a long explanation of those cases, there are four situations that will allow parents to discuss these exceptions to their kids. This is a book that knows when to lean on its art and when not to. This is also one of those rare board books with backmatter. It’s clearly there for the adults, which is interesting. Oh! And if you aren’t getting this out of the library then guess what? It comes with stickers!! Cool Ramadan stickers. Do you want cool Ramadan stickers? Yeah you do.
New Year by Mei Zihan, ill. Qin Leng, translation copyright by Yan Yan
[Holiday – Chinese New Year]
“Every New Year’s Eve, I miss my daughter. My child has become an adult so quickly.” Well you may as well just roll a tub of tissues up to my chin, for all that I’m going to be able to resist the “Cat’s Cradle” aspects of this particular picture book. Mei Zihan keeps the focus squarely within the mind and emotions of a father in China desperately missing the adult daughter that moved to France. He completely understands not only why she went but also the difficulties she’d face in visiting, as well as how sad she must be when Chinese New Year’s rolls around. And while I would not necessarily call this the most cheerful Chinese New Year title, nowhere else (except maybe a Grace Lin novel) will you see such a loving recounting of foodstuffs. There’s this shot of the cold appetizers, spring rolls dipped in vinegar, egg dumplings, tofu skin rolls, spinach in a casserole and this full FISH that had me drooling (and I was already eating my own lunch at the time). Still what stays with you long after you’ve put the book down is the melancholy. It’s the melancholy parents feel for their grown children and it’s rendered exquisitely here. Qin Leng is in top form. This is utterly realistic, nothing cartoonish about it, and you ache at the end. An unusual holiday title, and a beautiful one.
The Passover Guest by Susan Kusel, ill. Sean Rubin
[Holiday – Passover]
When this book was released earlier in the year in January it came out not long after the attack on the Capitol Building. I remember looking at the images of the Capitol and just gazing at them for long moments. Sean Rubin first came to my attention years ago when he created that marvelous comic/world’s-longest-picture-book Bolivar. Here he pairs with librarian and author Susan Kusel to bring us a whole new Passover tale that incorporates the Great Depression and Washington D.C. Why is it that Passover consistently presents us with such better tales than Hanukkah? Under Rubin’s pen, the apple blossoms of D.C. bloom in sharp contrast to the poverty of the era. He says he’s going for Chagall but I love the angularity of some of these pictures. And look at how he plays with light and the different D.C. landmarks. This book may be a religious tale at heart but it’s also a love story to our nation’s capital in more ways than one.
The People Remember by Ibi Zoboi, ill. Loveis Wise
[Holiday – Kwanzaa]
In the history of children’s literature there has never ever ever been a thoroughly good Kwanzaa book. I’m not even kidding about that. So when I reached the end of THE PEOPLE REMEMBER and saw that the book is steeped in the seven principles of Kwanzaa, I was floored. You know, a lot of adult authors try writing for children and however good their intentions might be, they can come off as earnest and message-y. What makes Zoboi’s book so remarkable, aside from the smart writing, is the fact that it actually fills a distinct need. I mean, Kwanzaa books, as we librarians know, were mostly published in the 70s and 80s. They’re too often worn, outdated, and (quite frankly) look dull. Occasionally Lerner puts one out that’s a little more fun, but no one would ever think to do one that links the history of African-Americans to its seven pillars. In her Author’s Note, Zoboi writes that, “On each day of Kwanzaa, I read books with my family and friends; however, I’ve always wanted there to be one book that both celebrates the principles of Kwanzaa and tells the story of Africans in America as a lyrical narrative, like a song or long poem that can be shared throughout the year, and every year.” If they don’t have your book, make it. She has. We’re grateful.
Peter Easter Frog by Erin Dealey, ill. G. Brian Karas
[Holiday – Easter]
There’s more than a whiff of Big Bad Bunny lingering around this charming new Easter tale, and I for one couldn’t be more pleased. Peter Easter Frog, looking like nothing so much as Jonathan London’s Froggy all grown up and in some seriously jaunty attire, sets off to do the Easter Bunny’s job. What gives him the right? He can hop! Converting other animals to his vision of Easter labor equality, he at last is confronted by a seriously p.o.ed Easter Bunny proper. Don’t worry, though. Everything works out for the best, and the Bunny gets a serious humbling. I don’t know about you, but Easter’s one of those holidays that could potentially crank out hits like Christmas does and yet, doesn’t. Karas, for his part, is a marvelous choice for the part. No one does rabbits like he does (Muncha Muncha Muncha, anyone?) Consider this one a contemporary classic.
Pumpkin Heads! by Wendell Minor
[Holiday – Halloween]
Have I ever mentioned to you that my favorite holiday is Halloween? I’d like to personally pat on the back the enterprising editor that realized that Wendell Minor would be the ideal person to illustrate a Halloween-related book too. This is a great intro to the season, written at a younger level. It isn’t just the pumpkins that draw me in, but those amazing autumnal backgrounds. Look at that image of the big and little pumpkin on a bench. Appreciate for a moment the well-worn care taken with illustrating not just the old wooden slats but also the turning colors of the leaves and weeds in the background. Minor does worn wood better than anyone else. This will be incredibly beloved by kids for generations to come. Evocative in all the right ways.
Red and Green and Blue and White by Lee Wind, ill. Paul O. Zelinsky
[Holiday – Hanukkah / Christmas]
You know, this book pairs remarkably well as the flipside to the aforementioned The Christmas Mitzvah by Jef Gottesfeld, ill. Michelle Larentia Agatha. In one book a Jewish resident helped out his Christian neighbors and in this book the opposite is true. Based on a true story, in December of 1993 in Billings, Montana a Jewish family had a brick thrown through their front window. Theirs was the only window on the block with a menorah on display. What happened next, as Lee Wind puts it so eloquently in his Author’s Note, is that “the people in Billings chose not to just stand by and be BYstanders while bad things happened to others. Instead, they stood up to say the bad things weren’t okay. Those chose to be UPstanders.” As a librarian who works in a space where we’ve received Upstander Training, this is great to start to see in our children’s books. Zelinsky, for his part, is doing such lovely things with color in this book. The info on his style says, “the illustrations for this book were drawn on a Wacom tablet, in images of up to 150 layers, using brushes of the artist’s own creation.” I’m fascinated by this inclusion of the number of layers at work here.
Rosh Hashanah with Uncle Max by Varda Livney
[Holiday – Rosh Hashanah]
Oh boy, oh boy! I sincerely hope that this is the first of many many Uncle Max board books. Max is clearly that fun, unmarried uncle that likes to shake things up just a teeny bit when it comes to the holidays. This is a really nice, basic explanation of Rosh Hashanah for the young, but it’s not one of those books adults think are “good” for kids that children themselves find snorefests. This book has grape juice and honey and tons of food and a silly uncle who keeps things interesting. There are words in Hebrew and English, fun sound effects to do (the shofar will be very fun to read out loud, and even (believe it or not) a birthday cake. Let’s hope Kar-Ben Publishing realizes that they have a serious series on their hands.
Seven Special Somethings: A Nowruz Story by Adib Khorram, ill. Zainab Faidhi
[Holiday – Nowruz]
There we go! This is more like it, people. If you, like myself, want to see a wider array of holidays represented on our bookstore and library shelves, this title’s a great place to start. I was unaware of the existence of Nowuz before reading this, and now that I’ve encountered it I just want to tip my hat to Adib Khorram. You YA folks probably already know him from his Darius the Great books, but the man has range. Not every author of teen novels can write a clever picture book. As it happens, during Nowruz each family sets a “haft-seen”, which is to say a table full of seven things that begin with the letter “S”. So what happens when the family cat upsets the traditional haft-seen and our hero, young Kian, has to improvise? Aside from the made-for-a-picture-book aspects of this holiday, I was intrigued by the art of Zainab Faidhi. It’s more cartoonish than we tend to see when it comes to Muslim holiday picture books. Honestly, her style reminded me a lot of Huda Fahmy and her work, but on a younger scale. I got really fond of it. Sometimes you need the right art to replicate the right feel. This book does that.
Thankful by Elaine Vickers, ill. Samantha Cotterill
[Holiday – Thanksgiving]
Kind of a cheat to call this one as Thanksgiving book since not so much as a turkey appears in the margins. Still, I could easily see this becoming a staple when that time of year rolls around. Vickers elucidates reasons to be thankful with aplomb and not a little poetry as well. But, of course, it’s artist Samantha Cotterill’s cut paper and model backgrounds that really set this one apart. I’ve been a fan of hers since I saw The Secret Rhino Society last year and I continue to be impressed by her inventiveness. Particularly her ability to light her own scenes. Just amazing stuff. The rare book that manages to be meaningful and kind without falling overboard into twee.
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore, ill. P.J. Lynch [Holiday – Christmas]
I consider myself a bit of a “Twas the Night Before Christmas” connoisseur. If someone’s done a version, then I want in! I’m endlessly fascinated by the choices the different illustrators make to the text. Tasha Tudor took the note that he looked like an “elf” literally and made him into a little man (tiny reindeer and all). Loren Long split the narrative between four different households, which was something I’d never seen before. And, of course, I always like to see whether or not Santa smokes a pipe or not. Remember that there was a period there where that line about the pipe kept getting changed or cut out (which, let me tell you, mucks with the scansion something fierce). I am pleased to report that Lynch is utterly faithful, smoke around Santa’s head and all. So what makes his book different? Well, he does a darn good quilt on the children’s bed. And when he goes up the chimney you get this pretty cool p.o.v. shot from the narrator of the soles of Santa’s boots, the sky visible, as he ascends. Also, Santa doesn’t bother putting out the fire in the fireplace! That makes the comments about the soot make a bit more sense to me. It’s Lynch, so you know it’s going to be lovely, but it’s the details that really make a book pop, y’know?
We Give Thanks by Cynthia Rylant, ill. Sergio Ruzzier
[Holiday – Thanksgiving]
I’d go great lengths to find some way to include a Sergio Ruzzier book or two on my lists. Thanksgiving is a bit of a puzzler when it comes to Holiday books too. You pretty much want to avoid the bulk of the “Thanksgiving story” titles (particularly if they’re anything more than five years old). But anything that talks about the innocuous system of “giving thanks” can come off as mundane. Enter the Rylant/Ruzzier team (who, it occurs to me, are probably shelved next to one another in the easy book section all the time). Ruzzier’s breaking out the watercolors and Rylant’s cranking up the lists of things to be grateful for. Consider this a pretty darn good option for Thanksgiving Day when all else has disappointed you.
Would you like to see previous years’ lists of holiday titles? Try these on for size:
And here’s what else is on the docket this month:
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations
December 3 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Funny Picture Books
December 7 – CaldeNotts
December 8 – Picture Book Reprints
December 9 – Math Books for Kids
December 10 – Books with a Message
December 11 – Fabulous Photography
December 12 – Wordless Picture Books
December 13 – Translated Titles
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 16 – Middle Grade Novels
December 17 – Poetry Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Older Funny Books
December 20 – Science Fiction Books
December 21 – Fantasy Books
December 22 – Informational Fiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Autobiographies *NEW TOPIC!*
December 26 – Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 28 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
December 30 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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