cozy holiday read-alouds

Long, candlelit evenings and no school in the morning.
Cocoa topped with whipped cream and peppermint candy flakes.
New Christmas jammies.
And a good book.

Sounds like a pretty great way to revel in some hygge during these darkest days of the year, right?
If you’re looking for a read-aloud perfect for that kind of holiday season, consider these old and new titles. Starting with books for the youngest listeners…

Have Fun, Anna Hibiscus, written by Atinuke, illustrated by Lauren Tobia
first American edition 2010 by Kane Miller Books; 109 illustrated pages

One of my favorite little gals, Anna Hibiscus, travels from her home in Nigeria to spend the Christmas holidays with her Canadian grandmother.

It’s their first meeting and Anna’s first snow. In fact, there’s newness everywhere Anna turns, from Grandma’s quiet household instead of her boisterous, extended family, to dogs that live inside houses and chocolate cereal for breakfast!

Although Anna does miss home, she quickly feels happy and comfy in this new, cold land and has quite a merry time on her Canadian holiday. It’s a joyous read. Ages 4 and up.

A Toad for Tuesday, written by Russell E. Erickson, illustrated by Lawrence Di Fiori
originally published in 1974 by Lothrop, Lee & Shepard; 64 pages

I adore Warton and Morton, two very likeable toad brothers who keep house together in a fabulous old series of early chapter books.

Morton makes an especially delicious Beetle Brittle. Warton, the more adventurous of the two, determines to deliver a batch to Aunt Toolia despite the fact that it’s mid-winter. He bundles up, straps on a pair of spiffy, homemade skis, and sets out.

Hygge, toad-style.

Alas! Shortly he is captured by a hungry owl! The owl decides not to consume Warton immediately, saving him until Tuesday, his birthday, for a special treat. That’s five days away. Will Warton’s pleasant conversation and cups of tea soften the heart of this grumpy owl? 

An ace story, plum full of high adventure, great suspense, plus lots of little mice on skis! Di Fiori’s drawings are brilliant. 4 and up.

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, written by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Lillian Hoban
originally published in 1971 by Doubleday Books for Young Readers; this edition, 2017; 48 pages

Dear Emmet Otter and his mom eke out a meager living in their Froghollow home by taking in washing and doing the odd job here and there. Emmet is young, but he shoulders a bushel load of responsibility with grace and determination, and the two of them lighten many an evening for one another by joining their voices in song.

Just now, times are even leaner than usual causing both Emmet and Mrs. Otter to daydream of having money enough to give the other a splendid Christmas gift, even just once. When a talent show is announced with a sweet prize for best in show, both of them risk everything to make that dream come true.

Russell Hoban was an enormously gifted children’s author. Here he presents an impoverished family with dignity, hope, and love. Lillian’s charming artwork enlivens the entire community of woodland personalities. 5 and up.

The True Gift: A Christmas Story, written by Patricia MacLahlan, illustrated by Brian Floca
published in 2009 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers; 82 pages

Lily and Liam are always eager to head to their grandparents’ farm to spend the Christmas holidays. This year, however, Liam is immediately distracted by the apparent loneliness of Grandpa’s solitary cow. The rest of the herd is gone. Even the donkey’s been sold. For Liam, it’s an untenable situation. He determines in his own, quiet way, to remedy White Cow’s sorry state.

Patricia MacLachlan spins this unusual plot masterfully, incorporating community and a lovely spirit of giving into this quiet, tenderhearted story. 5 and up.

The Story of Holly and Ivy, written by Rumer Godden, illustrated by Barbara Cooney
originally published in 1958; this edition 2006 by Viking Books for Young Readers; 32 pages

Rumer Godden’s story of the Christmas wishes of one little orphan girl, one china doll, and one childless couple, has been in print for almost 60 years now. It’s an old-fashioned story full of elegant dolls, telegraphs, brown paper parcels and hot chestnut vendors.  I have to say it also shows its age with some cringeworthy comments from Mr. Jones, who responds to his wife’s wistful feelings by chiding, “Don’t be daft,” then leaves the house for his overnight beat calling, “Have a good breakfast waiting for me” in the morning. Yeesh. 

Nevertheless, Rumer Godden’s heart for the lonely, her understanding of the longing to belong, are apparent and this poignant story will touch the hearts of children able to accommodate the vintage atmosphere and abundance of dolls. One villainous toy owl, plus Barbara Cooney’s precise artwork with its solemn, colonial New England sense, help avoid treacly sentimentality. Although it’s only 32 pages, the text is much longer than an average picture book and would easily break up into more than one sitting. 5 and up.

The Family Under the Bridge, written by Natalie Savage Carlson, illustrated by Garth Williams
first published in 1958; this edition 1989 by Harper Collins; 128 pages

I unabashedly love this book!

Unattached, responsible for no one but himself, Armand is a happy, old, tramp who knows his way around Paris, enjoys many friends, and glories in his carefree life. He is not on the lookout for a settled home, but for adventure. Above all, Armand wants to avoid children. Starlings, he calls them. “Witless, twittering, little pests.” His dear friend, Mireli, accuses him of being afraid of children. “You’re afraid the sly little things will steal your heart if they find out you have one,” she says.

So, on this cold December day, when Armand meets three, ragged children tucked under a bridge he considers his own, he feels decidedly grumpy. He wants nothing to do with them. Yet the Calcet children aren’t afraid of Armand’s gruff exterior. Before Armand knows what’s happening, these children have indeed wormed their way into his heart, and Armand is working overtime to help make their Christmas wishes — for a home of their own — come true.

This 1959 Newbery Honor title spills over with humor and heart and as a bonus, it’s illustrated by the one-and-only Garth Williams. 6 and up.

The Lion in the Box, written and illustrated by Marguerite De Angeli
originally published in 1975 by Doubleday Books for Young Readers; out of print; 63 pages

Sadly, this sweet story is out of print but if you live near a large library you may be able to find it.

Mama and her young family live in New York City at the turn of the century where she struggles to earn a living plus raise her five children. She relies greatly on her oldest three daughters to look after the others, and the whole crew is well trained in household chores. Even so, as a single mother she works tremendous hours cleaning offices, then setting the bread dough to rise or the soup bones to simmer after returning home at midnight.

It’s a happy household despite the deprivations. Still, little Lili longs for a real doll rather than her pinned-together tea towel, and wishes Ben had an actual toy train instead of the pickle bottle he chug-chugs around the floor. In her wildest dreams, though, she could never have imagined the strange surprises in store for them this Christmas, especially the huge wooden crate delivered to their door in the night causing such a commotion and fright.

Based on a true story told to the author by the real Lili, this story shines with contentment and a loving family, with the mutual support of immigrant neighbors and the incredible outpouring of generosity by one woman towards another. Illustrated with Marguerite De Angeli’s delicate pencil drawings. An afterword tells about the real Lilli. 6 and up.

Heartwood Hotel: The Greatest Gift, written by Kallie George, illustrated by Stephanie Graegin
published in 2017 by Disney Hyperion; 176 pages

Mona the mouse works as a maid at the Heartwood Hotel. It’s situated in a great tree with root floor space for moles and voles, branch floors for chipmunks, twig floors for birds, and a kindly badger as innkeeper. Mona is quite happy in her charming community of woodland friends and ready for a bit of ease while most hotel guests settle in to their hibernation suites.

The winter is anything but peaceful and dreamy however! One petulant rabbit duchess arrives, one bumbling bear threatens their safety, and another hair-raising difficulty arises to test the pluck of Mona and the Heartwood staff.

These stories are delightful. They’ve got a bit of a tiny-animal-Downton-Abbey feel with all the gossip and goings-on among the hotel staff, lots of charming descriptions of acorn soufflés and moss carpets, and darling illustrations. This is the second of a series. 7 and up.

Odd and the Frost Giants, written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell
published in 2016 by Harper; 120 pages

This is the epic story of Odd, a young boy in medieval Norway who is fairly down on his luck. With his father drowned during a Viking raid, his leg lamed via a logging accident, his mom remarried to a lazy lout, and a long sluggish winter ahead cooped up with cranky villagers, Odd determines to hike into the forest and live independently in his father’s old hunting lodge.

Sooner than you can say Thor’s Hammer, though, Odd encounters a curious threesome — a fox, an eagle, and a bear. These three are definitely more than meets the eye. In fact, they’re Norse gods, transformed and deposed by some cunning, evil, Frost Giants. Journey with Odd and his companions to Asgard to right the wrongs in this heroic tale brimming with cups of mead and tricksters tricked, frozen landscapes, and the relentless pursuit of Beauty. Neil Gaiman spins his saga magnificently while Riddell’s ink drawings are enchanted and mythical. Ages 7 and up.

The Thirteen Days of Christmas, written by Jenny Overton, illustrated by Shirley Hughes
originally published in 1972; reissued in 2013 by Oxford University Press; 154 pages

It’s Christmas-time in Tudor England. Annaple, eldest in the Kitson household, has burned one too many dinners to please her kindly father and harassed siblings. They’d like to see her married off and done with their cooking detail. Francis, a wealthy nobleman is besotted with Annaple, but she won’t have him, preferring her romantic notions of country living. It’s up to Annaple’s siblings to coach Francis in the art of wooing. “Do something fanciful,” they encourage him.

And so he begins with a miniature pear tree, occupied by one plump partridge, delivered Christmas Day. Annaple is charmed. The next day, an ornate, gilded cage housing two cooing turtledoves arrives and, surprisingly, another potted pear with partridge. As Francis’ gifts become more elaborate and more embarrassingly conspicuous, Annaple’s brothers and sister fear their plan has gone seriously awry!

Such a funny story that also incorporates real and fanciful traditions for keeping each of the twelve days. Illustrated by Shirley Hughes in black ink drawings. Ages 8 and up.

Winter Holiday, written and illustrated by Arthur Ransome
originally published in 1933; paperback 2014 by David Govine; 336 pages

Winter Holiday is the fourth book and one of my favorites in the Swallows and Amazons series. It does help if you’ve met the Walker and Blackett kids in the first book, but you can read this one as a stand-alone and fare decently well I think.

It’s winter school break and these great friends are together again in the Lake District, hoping against hope for an unusually great freeze to ice over the whole lake and accommodate their epic Arctic expedition plans. Stir in a couple of new friends, sneaky adventures by moonlight, Nansen’s Fram, astronomers, mumps, and ice sledges racing across the lake at untenable speeds…and you’ve got the makings for excellent adventures, near disaster, and a fabulous, lengthy read-aloud for ages 7 and up.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, by Karina Yan Glaser
published in 2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 293 pages

The Vanderbeeker family — Mom, Dad, five children, three pets — fill their Harlem brownstone with liveliness and love. So much liveliness! Too much, it appears, for their reclusive, curmudgeonly landlord living on the top floor has given notice he’ll not be renewing their lease. They’ve got to move out, and right at Christmastime, too.

Unable to fathom living in a different home and neighborhood, the five children set out to change their landlord’s mind. Kill him with kindness, so to speak. Some of their ideas are good, some definitely not-so-good, yet as the few days before Christmas tick by, none of their plans go as intended. Instead, they only make things worse. What is curdling the heart of that landlord anyway? And how can they win him over?

This is a contemporary story with a lovely glow of old-fashioned, big family, warmth. In addition, it features a biracial family, a needed bit of diversity in the canon of children’s Christmas literature. If you like the Penderwicks, or even some older books like Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy family series, you’ll love this, with at least one sequel promised. Ages 9 and up.

The Coat Hanger Christmas Tree, written by Eleanor Estes, illustrated by Susanne Suba
published in 1973 by Atheneum; 75 pages

Here’s another out-of-print title and quite an unusual story. It takes place in Brooklyn when ethnic neighborhoods each held their distinct personalities, and features a young girl named Marianna, her older brother, and her deeply unhappy mother.

If that doesn’t sound like the recipe for a Christmas story, you’re right — this is not your average Christmas story. Marianna’s mom doesn’t really permit Christmas to enter their home. No Christmas trees, is the rule. But Marianna longs for a tree and this story witnesses her determination to change her mother’s mind.

Eleanor Estes was a wondrous story teller. Her books about the Pye family and the Moffats glow with warmth. This story, on the other hand, allows her to explore the longings of children in more difficult circumstances, the bonds they forge with one another, and the hidden wounds some parents carry. It’s thought-provoking and deeply satisfying for the right audience. You can read more in my longer review here. Ages 9 and up.

The Greenglass House, written by Kate Milford, illustrated by Jaime Zollars
published in 2016 by HMH Books for Young Readers; 400 pages

Finally, this longest read, a mystery adventure with a gothic twist that won some hefty awards last year.

It’s Christmas break. Milo and his parents sigh with happy relief as they look forward to a period of no guests in their rambling old Greenglass Inn. Perched as it is atop a precipitous cliff, just getting there in the midst of the current blizzard is nigh unto impossible, so they believe, until one by one an odd assortment of folk land on their doorstep fairly bursting with dusky secrets and… there goes Christmas.

Adding to Milo’s discomfiture at giving up his holiday is a mysterious map one of the guests seems to have dropped which Milo would very much like to puzzle out. And a series of thefts. And the cook’s daughter who annoyingly shows up and insists Milo join her in a role-playing game to solve these baffling events — not Milo’s normal cup of tea. And the Inn’s history as a haven for smugglers. And before you know it, we’re entangled in a fantastical, dangerous, adventure!

Running throughout the story is Milo’s unease as an adopted child who dearly loves his parents but yearns to know his birth parents as well. As you can tell, while this book is set during Christmas, it has very little actually to do with Christmas. Nonetheless, for older listeners who may want to enter a more sinister world together by candlelight, it could make a good, lengthy holiday read-aloud. Ages 10 and up.