Tis the Season…My Favorite Christmas Books

imageIt’s December.  Another year has almost come and gone. My children are almost a year older, and so am I. The days shorten and night stretches out a little longer. It’s the time of year when dusk comes in quickly, but a string of lights hanging across our gate reminds me that the light is always shining in the darkness, and is all the more precious for the backdrop. There is something is so familiar and sweet and reliable about this time of year. As the year draws to a close, it also slows down…suspends a few minutes, invites us to linger,  over a cup of tea, over a plate of cookies (which I do often), next to the fireplace.  And out come the books: they’ve never been really put away because I’m not that organized, but now they’re given a special place of honor and prominence. They, too, symbolize this fading, precious, quiet and joyful time of year.  Here are my very favorites:

1. The Christmas Day Kitten by James Herriot

Beloved British country vet James Herriot tells us the story of a very special kitten.  Set in the Yorkshire Dales, James is called out to a farm on Christmas Day to attend to a sick cat. With an optimistic, straight forward style, this story spans two Christmases to tell the stories of two special cats. Every year we read this charming, endearing story and it never fails to bring a lump to our throats.

2. The Gift of the Christmas Cookie by Dandi Daley Mackall

This was a book I had never heard of until a few years ago. I was at a book fair with my girls, and just picked it up, along with a pile of other books, not knowing it would become a yearly favorite. This sweet story, about a young boy named Jack, takes place on Christmas Eve during the Great Depression. Jack’s father has been gone, hopping freight trains from town to town, in hopes of finding work to support his family.  On Christmas Eve word arrives that his father won’t make it home for Christmas, and to make matters worse, the delicious cookies his mother is making in the kitchen are for the needy at church.  As it says in the book, Jack feels pretty needy himself. This is one where my voice shakes as I read it aloud. It’s poignant and touching, but easy to understand even for young listeners/readers.  It’s a lovely read aloud.

3.  A Pussycat’s Christmas by Margaret Wise Brown

This extremely charming Christmas book is by beloved author Margaret Wise Brown.  A little cat notices all the signs that Christmas is coming…the smell of tangerines, the rustling of tissue paper, the smell of snow in the air.  The sights, sounds, and smells that are unique to this glorious time of year let her know: Christmas is coming! This book could not be more sweet; it invites you in to all the charms of the season.

4. Christmas in the Big Woods adapted from The Little House Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder

This lovely picture book is simply excerpts from the Little House series – all the stories about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood Christmases are here! From making molasses candy with Ma to cherishing a single stick of peppermint found in her stocking on Christmas morning, Laura’s grateful appreciation of the things that are most simple and heartfelt will warm your heart cockles instantly! Reading about the Ingalls family’s simple and sweet Christmas celebrations feels new and fresh to me every year.

5. Franklin and Winston: A Christmas That Changed the World by Douglas Wood

Last year, as Advent came, my heart was heavy. Unrest in the Middle East, refugees fleeing places of persecution looking for a new home, so many displaced and hurting people – it seemed as though the weight of the world was enough to crush anybody. It certainly felt like it could crush me. I was struggling to show my children hope and courage in the face of so much horrific pain and suffering. Then, I came upon this book. Instantly, it buoyed me up! It’s a story of courage in the face of adversity, of being brave and fighting even in the darkest hour; it’s the story of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill coming together to stand against against the Nazi powers to fight and eventually win WWII. This might seem like a very odd choice for a children’s Christmas story, but I sometimes think the easiest way to be brave is to hear about someone else being brave in incredible circumstances. Now, one Advent later, we are still in dire need of being brave. Incredible challenges weren’t just the province of these two leaders and those who lived through World War II.  Today we still need to hear and tell stories about brave men and women who faced the unique challenges of their times, and this book is absolutely one of the most enheartening I can think of.

6. The Tweny-four Days Before Christmas by Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine L’Engle is one of my favorite writers; from the Crosswicks Journals to her YA fantasy /scifi offerings (I’m reading A Wrinkle in Time with my children right now!), I love just about everything she ever put out. This little book is a lovely Advent story about the Ausin family, and particularly about Vicky Austin who is worried a special Christmas arrival might completely derail all the beloved and familiar ways the Austin family celebrates Christmas each year. This is a really sweet little read and the Austins’ day by day Advent traditions will make you want to pour a cup of hot cocoa and linger by the tree just a little longer.

So these are our tried and true favorites, but I’ve just ordered a huge slew of used books from Instagram book sales that will be arriving soon and I have a feeling my Christmas book list will be happily expanding! Merry Christmas!

 

Summer Stories – Trixie Belden

It’s summertiimageme! It crept in more slowly for some than for others – school children were released in staggered succession from mid May to late June – but now it is completely official.  It is summer.  I realized a couple of years ago that as seasons turn, I instinctively turn towards different books. About two years ago, right as our homeschool year was drawing to it’s academic close, and summer was beginning, I ordered the complete set of Trixie Belden mysteries off of ebay.  I have no idea why this heroine came back so strongly in my mind, I hadn’t read her since I was a child, but her summer adventures of riding her bike, riding horses with her best friend Honey Wheeler (who is a millionaire, natch), swimming in the lake, and solving mysteries on the side, came back to me in vivid, idealized childhood  technicolor.  It was ideal. Trixie had the ideal summer, set in the Hudson River Valley of New York in the late 1940’s.  If you haven’t heard  of Trixie Belden, she’s a girl detective.  She’s a lot less famous than her contemporary Nancy Drew (who is enjoyed in heavy rotation in this house) and unlike Nancy, she’s a spunky, imperfect thirteen year-old,  a middle child sandwiched between two older brothers, and one younger brother.  She lives on a farm – Crabapple Farm! and helps her mom, who she calls “Moms’, in the garden and is sometimes stuck watching her little brother Bobby.  In her first adventure, a new girl moves into the mansion up the hill, a shy, retiring girl named Honey Wheeler, who becomes Trixie’s best friend and fellow sleuth.

For me, a great detective story, whether it is for adults or children, is best set against a wholesome, sanguine backdrop. This pastoral setting makes the mystery more mysterious, more incongruous, and therefore more insidious. Trixie’s summer and life are full of swimming, riding, gardening, jokes with her brothers, cut off shorts and then changing into a dress for dinner at Honey’s house.  So, when a light is left on in the old gatehouse, or some strange tire tracks are found in the quiet woods where Trixie and Honey go riding, you know something is definitely up!

A few summers ago, I put away our homeschool materials, made a tomato and cucumber salad, baked a chocolate cake and put it in the refrigerator, brewed strong coffee to keep cold, and ordered a complete set of Trixie Belden mysteries.  It was summertime.

Miss Rumphius – an Inaugural Post

Hi! Here I am! Starting to blog just moCaputo.missrumphius.image-5nths after setting up this page! Hopefully this slow start and the obvious commitment issues it suggests aren’t indicative of how it’ll be moving forward. So, I’ve been wanting to write about children’s books, and the question was, where to start? There are so many I love and so many I could begin with…which one had all the elements that make me love a good children’s book so much?  A few different books came to mind immediately and before long, one stood out from among the rest.  Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney, was my inaugural choice.
I first discovered Miss Rumphius in a really odd way. I was in high school, and I went along with a friend of mine on a babysitting job. To be clear, it was her job. I was not at all interested in kids at the time. Once the kids were in bed, we sat on the living room couch, eating popcorn and watching a movie, but before that something kinda magical had occurred. My friend was tucking the kids into bed and I was kind of milling around waiting for her to be done, and I went over to check out the kids’ bookshelf (honestly, I think with just the idea to avoid the diaper change that was happening across the room), and in the midst of the row of book spines, I noticed one called Miss Rumphius, (an odd name, I thought) and pulled it off the shelf. What greeted me when I opened the pages was waves beating against a rocky New England shore, a story that spanned the length of the lifetime of the title character, and the injunction to “make the world more beautiful”. Miss Rumphius, written from the point of view of a niece about her spinster aunt, spoke straight to the center of my soul. And who knows why Miss Rumphius had spoken straight to the center of my teenage soul, a soul that was not even mature or gentle enough to appreciate the little children my friend was babysitting, a soul that was waiting impatiently for my friend to be done tucking them in so we could hang out. But spoken it had. I never forgot that book, and years later, with children of my own, I was thrilled to find it at my local bookstore and buy a copy for my own kids.
Why do I love Miss Rumphius? I think one reason is that it’s seasonal. It covers the seasons in this woman’s life but also the seasons of the year, and I tend to be attracted to the concept of seasons. When she is older, and has to stay in bed all winter due to health problems, it’s more poignant because we, the readers, also saw her when she was young enough to travel and to dream about all that was ahead of her. But this illness is also just a season, and she rises again in the spring.  Another reason I love it is because she travels. Traveling was a big part of my childhood, and I want my own children to value travel, so when Miss Rumphius decides to go on some adventures, traveling, I inwardly cheer for her, knowing she will come back to her familiar house by the sea  enriched and also changed by what she’s seen.
I also love it because here she is, this maiden lady, who has some adventures, but who also suffers and has periods of darkness, but who gets up again and does something so seemingly silly and maybe insignificant as planting flowers.  This is all she can really think to do to “make the world more beautiful”, but just because her offering is small, it doesn’t stop her from making it.  And by the end of the story she’s called The Lupine Lady (lupines being her flower of choice) by all the children who live around her, and lovely lupines are planted everywhere as a testament to her life and her attempt to add some beauty to the world. It reminds me of a quote from a George MacDonald book, The Seaboard Parish, where a young man says he wants to make his mark on the world, and an older clergyman replies that he just wants to remove some of the marks that have been made on the world. This lady, living in many ways a hidden life, finds a way to add beauty and bring gladness to the world around her, and to do a little traveling, too, and that sounds like an excellent life to me and a great example to my children.

*When writing this post I found this awesome narrated audio version of Miss Rumphius! I absolutely love it. But if you haven’t read it, you should read it first!