Great reads that last beyond holidays
Even though we are closing in on the end of the season many children’s thoughts will remain in holiday mode for a bit longer.
In 1897 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote to the New York Sun to ask: “Is there a Santa Claus?’’ The editor responded with a resounding, eloquent, and now famous editorial yes.
“Yes Virginia,’’ written by Chris Plehal and illustrated by James Bernardin, provides the fictional back story to the real one. Virginia writes her letter because, as her father says, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.”
The plot is as full of holes as a piece of Swiss cheese: A letter thrown down the garbage chute happens to be found by a girl passing by, and Virginia’s Christmas book, which was never lost, is “found” and restored by an elderly man looking like — who else? — Father Christmas. New characters are introduced — a snooty rich girl who torments Virginia; a hard-boiled newspaper editor (who’d never have written that famous letter); a street Santa intervening on Virginia’s behalf.
But this remains: A little girl writes to the newspaper and receives a beautiful, ringing affirmation. “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist. How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”
Bernardin’s pictures find a poignant middle ground between cartoon and vintage art. His palette is dark when it needs to be, Christmas-bright when called for, and there are subtleties throughout: a brass street clock reads “Believe.” Pictures can make a picture book. This is a book whose nostalgic qualities may appeal to adults as well as children.
While holiday books are particularly fun around the holidays, great books for young readers reward all year round. No batteries required.
“Pecan Pie Baby,’’ written by prize-winning author Jacqueline Woodson, and illustrated by Sophie Blackall, deals with the coming of a new baby and her irate big sister. Gia is the heroine who’s sick and tired of “talk about the ding-dang baby.” Even at school, “my teacher read a book about a girl who was going to become a big sister, and when she finished reading it, everybody looked at me.”
As late summer turns to early fall, and fall turns toward winter Gia waits with increasing dread for her new sibling. The only things they will probably share in common are Mama and a love of pecan pie. But Gia thinks mostly of what she’s about to lose:
“Some days I sat on my stoop thinking about all the years it had been just me and Mama.
“About us drinking hot chocolate and telling silly stories.
“About the mornings I jumped into her bed when it was still blue-pink outside, snuggling up to her while she tried to keep on sleeping.’’
Woodson, whose awards include the Newbery Honor and Caldecott medals, earned her reputation through young-adult novels but has proven equally adept at picture books. Blackall’s gentle color art follows every nuance of Gia’s shifting feelings. My favorite picture is when Gia feels “real, real, real alone” after a Thanksgiving outburst, and sits with her knees tucked up on her narrow bed, staring out at bare trees. Words and images together make “Pecan Pie Baby’’ one complete work of art.
William Wondriska’s “A Long Piece of String’’ first appeared in 1963. The reissue of this graphic wonder proves it to be a children’s classic, a miracle of simplicity. One long black piece of string loops from one thing to the next, wordlessly connecting the seemingly disconnected: an elephant, a flower, a 1960s-style gas station. Of course it’s also an alphabet. “A Long Piece of String’’ packs a powerful visual wallop, and does it all in orange and black. The string loops mischievously, airily, dancing from object to object, not only teaching the ABCs but somehow suggesting that we are all connected. A back page lists all the objects in alphabetical order, with the single question, “What do you have on your string?” Well, now we have this book again, and that in itself is quite an amazing gift.
Lincoln Peirce’s “Big Nate Strikes Again’’ follows his wildly popular tween book “Big Nate: In a Class by Himself.’’ It’s kin to the equally hilarious “Diary of a Wimpy Kid’’ by Jeff Kinney, but unlike Wimpy Kid, which has gotten successively weaker with each book, Big Nate holds his own, big time.
Peirce began Big Nate as a comic strip. Big Nate, a smallish kid with a big attitude, now stars in a planned series of books that combine narrative with graphic illustrations, comics, and doodles — more than 500 of them in “Big Nate Strikes Again.’’ His pals, Francis and Teddy, stand by him (mostly) and his “arch enemy” Gina continues to torment him, as he blunders his way through middle school: captain of the Fleeceball team, in love with the inaccessible Jenny (“the most awesome girl in the whole sixth grade, and someday she and I are going to make a great couple”), and general cutup extraordinaire. The genius of the book lies in all the graphic images, and the interplay (and contradictions) between words and pictures. Easy to read, even easier to love, “Big Nate Strikes Again,’’ is a guaranteed hit with readers ages 8 and up.
Liz Rosenberg, whose latest picture book is ”Nobody,” teaches English at Binghamton University. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.