a list of…five tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago

christmas in the country cover imageChristmas in the Country, by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Diane Goode

Growing up in the country with her grandparents created lots of sweet memories for the narrator of this book, memories of the old coal stove, snowy hillsides, and grandfather fetching the tree from the woods.  There’s also the box of dearly-familiar ornaments, some she has made herself,  the little church where she sings every year, cookies for Santa, and of course all the relatives cramming into the christmas in the country illustration diane goodehouse for the Christmas feast.

Rylant’s love for family and the simple pleasures of life is apparent in many of her cherished books, and this one shines with that same affection.  The old, well-loved traditions, the small details that stay wonderfully the same year after year, are presented with fondness.  The serenity and lovely silence of the country, as opposed to the jangling muzak of the shopping malls, breathes peacefully from her words.

Diane Goode supplies just the right touch of warmth without drifting into oversentimentality in her friendly, light-hearted ink and watercolor illustrations.  Lots of wagging dogs, plenty of homey mussiness, a hearty grandmother and knobby-kneed little girl fill the pages.  The tone of the pictures is upbeat and joyous.  It’s a very pleasant read for ages 4 and up.

lucy's christmas cover imageLucy’s Christmas, written by Donald Hall, illustrated by Michael McCurdy

It’s 1910 in rural New Hampshire.  Lucy Wells is a practical kind of girl who likes to plan ahead, and to that end she begins getting ready for Christmas — in August.   Out come her sewing scraps as Lucy begins making Christmas presents — a colorful pincushion, a tiny clothespin dolly complete with wardrobe, and several other dandy gifts for family and friends.

As the months roll by, lots of other chores and Christmas preparations lucy's christmas illustration michael mccurdy 001are underway — canning applesauce, rehearsing for the church Christmas program, preparing bags of popcorn and candy to decorate the church’s massive Christmas tree, and most exciting of all, ordering a brand new stove for her mother’s busy kitchen!    Lucy is in the thick of all this bustle, but her mother and father have still managed to slip a surprise into the works for Lucy.  What could it be?

Donald Hall, an amazingly talented poet, author of the wonderful Ox-Cart Man, has written this delightful story based on his mother’s childhood in New England.   It’s authenticity, delectable details, and the happy discovery of Lucy’s surprise combine to make a superbly engaging story.  Michael McCurdy has illustrated it with arresting scratchboard illustrations, full of period details — charming fashions, New England architecture, horse-drawn sleighs, and kerosene lamps, textured and tinted so beautifully.  Little girls, especially, will love this one. Ages 5-10.

becky's christmas cover imageBecky’s Christmas, written and illustrated by Tasha Tudor

Okay, there’s a repeating backdrop in these stories, isn’t there — Christmas in New England seems to be the setting for old-fashioned charm.  With stories centered around girls.

Well, Becky, age 10, is the central figure in this incredibly pleasant story, but life in her busy, creative household involves brothers and father, cows and horses, activities and surprises that may have a little wider appeal than some others on today’s list.

Tasha Tudor is the queen of old-fashioned life in New England having lived it becky's christmas illustration tasha tudor 001herself for over 90 years.  Becky’s family lives on a wonderful homestead with acres of woods for choosing a Christmas tree, a massive stone fireplace for roasting the turkey, and a multitude of warm traditions — homecrafted-gift giving, gingerbread-ornament making, hand-drawn advent calendars and trunk-loads of Christmas balls that have been handed down for generations.  All this is, of course, drawn from Tasha’s own history.  Follow Becky’s family through this shining Christmas season while wildly anticipating along with her the very mysterious present everyone is working on for her.

If you are familiar with Tasha Tudor’s iconic drawings and watercolors, you know what an exceptional treat lies in each work from her hands.  As you would expect, this story is chock full of her signature soft, detailed artwork that draws you in to pore over each painting and sense the atmosphere of this life.  The story is quite long; it could be read in installments to children as young as 5, or would be a nice chance for sturdy readers to flex their reading muscles.  It’s sadly out of print, and Amazon’s used-book prices are extremely high! but maybe your library has a copy.  I snagged mine at a library sale years ago.

an early american christmas cover imageAn Early American Christmas, written and illustrated by Tomie dePaola

We’re in New England again, but stretching back just a bit further to the early 1800s when a (fictitious) German family moves into a tidy New England village.  Historically, it’s a time when Christmas was not celebrated in this area.  This fact is briefly discussed as the backdrop to this story, though not attributed to the Puritans nor couched in religious terms.

However, this family has brought with them their German traditions, including a an early american christmas illustration tomie depaola 001penchant to celebrate Christmas that requires preparation throughout the autumn and early winter.  What a fascinating process it all is!  From picking the “gray waxy berries from the bayberry bushes” in order to dip sweet-scented candles, to whittling this year’s newest figure for the nativity scene, cutting out elaborate paper ornaments and stringing popcorn for the tree, and baking and baking and baking!   Finally Christmas arrives, and all these pieces come together for a lovely, holy day of celebration.

Again, Tomie dePaola brings his characteristic Early American-style artwork to us, and of course it is completely perfect for this story.  These stalwart New Englanders in their plaid woolens and shawls, the oak-stave barrels filled with apples, the graceful tapers lighting the home are tidily drawn on a great deal of white space, colored in soft, colored-pencil.  Incredibly appealing as always.  This book is new to me, though published 25 years ago, and I very much like it.

a christmas like helen's cover imageA Christmas Like Helen’s, by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock, illustrated by Mary Azarian

One last New England Christmas.

This one is on a Vermont farm, long ago.  To experience Christmas like Helen did, this story describes the ingredients you’ll need.  You’ll need brothers, horses, stories that have been passed down from the Old Country, a barn full of warm cows and milk-greedy cats, a toughness that doesn’t flinch from walking far, far to school on icy-cold days.  You will need to work all year long to gather the maple syrup, apples, and potatoes for your Christmas dinner.  Meanwhile, your life will be filled with neighborly neighbors and acres of snow, sicknesses far from any a christmas like helen's illustration mary azariandoctoring, and a white village church with a spire reaching toward heaven, starlight and candle glow, great joy and deep contentment.

Natalie Kinsey-Warnock has based her story on her grandmother’s life.  This translates into a warm authenticity in the details, with the realities of difficulty added in small measure to ground the story’s abundant charms.  It’s a fascinating account of an incredible lifestyle.  Mary Azarian, who won the Caldecott for her woodcuts in Snowflake Bentley (reviewed here) shines again.  These are really gorgeous woodcuts, strong black lines supporting the rustic details and warm, honest colors of farm kitchens and candlelit tree, rolling snowy hills and starry night skies of this beautiful region.  It’s a deeply satisfying book for ages 5 and up.  Perfect for a grandparent and grandchild to share.

For lots more of my reviews of Christmas picture book gems, search “Christmas” with the search bar on my blog. Meanwhile…

…here are Amazon links for all these “memorabe” stories:

Christmas In The Country (Scholastic Bookshelf)
Lucy’s Christmas
Becky’s Christmas
An Early American Christmas
A Christmas Like Helen’s