Book Review: Letters from Santa and the Ice Bear

JRR Tolkien took Christmas pretty seriously. He took the time to write complete letters to his children in the name of Santa. He even created a strange, spindly and unfamiliar (to his family) form of handwriting, so the children wouldn’t know they came from dad.

There’s also a collection of fun personalities that live with Santa, including the Polar Bear, who is both hapless and mischievous:

“Still [Polar Bear] is all right now—I know because he has been at his tricks again: quarreling with the Snowman (my gardener) and pushing him through the roof of his snow house; and packing lumps of ice instead of presents in naughty children’s parcels. That might be a good idea, only he never told me and some of them (with ice) were put in warm storerooms and melted all over good children’s presents!”

And very pleasant neighbors:

“The Man in the Moon paid me a visit the other day—a fortnight ago exactly—he often does about this time, as he gets lonely in the Moon, and we make him a nice little Plum Pudding (he is so fond of things with plums in!).”

In several others, the North Pole is attacked by goblins who actually wage war on the Christmas castle, but find all of Santa’s helpers are far better versed in combat than one might assume – particularly the bear. The goblin wars are exciting, but they are an unusual (and vaguely violent) perspective on Father Christmas, which made them feel a bit odd at points. If you’ve read the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, than these stories will sound very familiar.

“I had to blow my golden trumpet (which I have not done for many years) to summon all my friends. There were several battles—every night they used to attack and set fire in the stores—before we got the upper hand, and I am afraid quite a lot of my dear elves got hurt…They have rescued all my reindeer. We are quite happy and settled again now, and feel much safer. It really will be centuries before we get another goblin-trouble. Thanks to Polar Bear and the gnomes, there can’t be very many left at all”

The dates on the letters range from 1920 to 1943, so Santa’s struggles with WWII are detailed in several.

“I am so glad you did not forget to write to me again this year. The number of children who keep up with me seems to be getting smaller: I expect it is because of this horrible war, and that when it is over things will improve again, and I shall be as busy as ever. But at present so terribly many people have lost their homes: or have left them; half the world seems in the wrong place.”

From both a historical and biographical perspective, this portion of the letters are fascinating – to an adult. I attempted to explain the historic significance of those dates to the children in my life and they just stared at me with blank confusion.

Amazon.com

My only complaint about the hardcover version  centers on the illustrations. Tolkien included several pictures, illustrating the North Pole and the antics of the Ice Bear. The hard cover edition provides glossy, full-color reproductions of the handwritten letters and all illustrations, but the size of the book is slightly large than a pocket novel (about the size of an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper folded in half), so these reproductions are hard to see.

What I wish they had done was a large format, full color, 3-D version similar to the Ologies books, such as Dragonology: The Complete Book of Dragons (Ologies) by Dr. Ernest Drake (Author), Dugald A. Steer (Editor).

This super-fancy format would provide ample room for showing off the letters and illustrations, including little envelopes with copies of the letters included. The Dragonalogy book’s secret pockets with letters in both English and in runes are fascinating to children and just-plain-fun for us stodgy-old-adults.

There are many more quotes from this book already posted to this blog, including those mentioned above.

Book reviewed: Letters From Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien

Book Review: Snowballs Make the Best Gifts

Most holiday-season picture books focus on Santa Claus and the joy of giving, or receiving gifts. It’s a heart-warming experience wrapped up in a neat little box covered in pretty paper and a bow.

The best thing about this book is the way Santa Claus delivers the best possible gift to  Yukio, the main character – an EPIC snowball fight! It’s not a toy or clothes or even a much-needed tool or box of supplies, it’s an activity!

The children in my life simply loved the snowball fight between a village of ninjas (and their ninja children) and a mysterious red-suited samurai who turns out to be the jolly-old-man himself. The best part? Santa reveals his identity through a letter left for Yukio, under the tree:

Dear Yukio,
I hope you enjoyed the EPIC snowball fight. I made it just for you.
Sincerely,
Samurai Santa

The story is fun, well-told and full of action and adventure. There’s a happy ending and an entire community of kids who enjoy the best snowball fight of their entire lives! So, in that respect, it’s an excellent book to read during the holidays – just for fun.

However, the book also opens up the concept of gift giving as an action instead of a thing. Sometimes the best presents don’t have wrapping paper or boxes or a place under the tree. Sometimes they are the time we spend with each other.

It’s an all-around excellent story.

Samurai Santa, A Very Ninja Christmas, by Rubin Pingk

Book Review: Ugly Rescue Dog is a Hero

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The first time I read this book to the children in my life, their reaction was a combination of fear and concern. I had to encourage them to read the story to the very end, so we could enjoy the happy ending.

The reason there was such a strong reaction is because the main character is Spike, a dog who is naturally so ugly he wins an ‘Ugliest Dog in the Universe Contest.’ Immediately after winning the contest, his owner ties Spike to the porch and moves away, leaving the dog behind. Not only does this awful man abandon the dog, he also gleeful shouts insults at the animal as he drives away.

Yeah, that guy is mean.

The neighbor boy starts caring for Spike and wants to adopt him. As it turns out, Spike is an extremely well-behaved dog, so the only objection the boy’s mother has is financial. They can’t afford a pet.

All of this is told, first person, by Spike. The pictures are lovely and there is nothing scary, violent or threatening about the images. The tension is created by the story itself. But the experience of being called names, forced out of a family or circle of friends and wanting to belong are easy for children to empathize with, and Spike is a genuinely nice and lovable dog who doesn’t deserve to be treated so badly. So, around this household, the reaction to the story was rather emotional during the first reading.

In the end, not only is he adopted by the neighbor boy, Spike also rescues the neighbor’s cat (a prize winning show cat) from a would-be kidnapper and is featured in the local newspaper as a hero dog, which is much better than being the ugly dog.

Spike is thrilled when people ask if Spike is the Ugliest Dog, and his new owners respond with:

“Actually, he’s the most beloved dog in the universe – and this is just the boy to take care of him.”

The happy ending is an excellent resolution and the story is equal parts sad, exciting and happy. After that first reading, this became a family favorite. It’s the kind of story kids like to hear because they know how it will end.

Spike, the Ugliest Dog in the Universe by Debra Frasier

Thanksgiving Book Review: Dinner with Criminals

I have to admit to being conflicted about this book.

The good: The illustrations are wonderful and the story is an exciting wild west adventure whose main character is a girl!

The bad: The adventure involves meeting (surviving), sharing Thanksgiving dinner, and dancing with the notorious outlaw Butch Cassidy. The story paints Butch Cassidy as…well…a really nice guy!

The quotes listed HERE illustrate this conflict, particularly this one:

“Well, a poster don’t tell the whole story of a man,” Butch said. “We’ve all worked as cowhands here. These people have been good to us. And we’re just saying thanks today.” He winked. “We won’t rob your train. I wouldn’t want to scare your mama after she’s had such a nice time.”

While Butch Cassady’s life story isn’t as violent, bloody, and pro-confederate politics (e.g.: slavery) as wild west criminals like Jesse James, he was still a thief who robbed banks, payroll payments (read: taking the entire paycheck for the vast majority of a small town), and ranchers (e.g.: cattle rustling).

These were facts that I kept rolling around in my head while I read this story about a little girl who is smart and brave enough to identify the man in the wanted poster as the benevolent host of an impromptu rescue of a snow-bound train and the Thanksgiving feast that hosted a large number of strangers from that train.

This book would make an excellent starting point for a discussion about the many different ways that people can behave, as well as the many different ways that history can be presented.

Note: The book is written for older kids, with significantly more text than is generally found in picture books.

An Outlaw Thanksgiving by Emily Arnold McCully
Winner of the Caldecott Medal

Ordering Books: Whether you are building a family library or simply looking for a fun way to build-up to the holiday celebration, having brand new books shipped to your home, in your child’s name, is a great way to do it. To a child, it is super exciting to receive a package in the mail, addressed to them! They may even want to read their brand-new book immediately AND before bed.

Library Holds: If you’d prefer to review the books before buying them, or need to maintain a tight budget, then use the local library. Go to the library website, locate the book and place it on hold. When the notification arrives, bring the child along and let them help find the books in the on-hold shelves.

Thanksgiving Book Review: Playing Football

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This is a story about a boy who eagerly anticipates the Thanksgiving feast and the annual turkey bowl. The ‘turkey bowl’ is a rough-and-tumble game of football played by a motley collection of family and friends.

After everyone has had their fill of turkey and treats, the turkey bowl begins – in a nearby open field, in the winter wind and snow:

All afternoon Ethan, Alex, and all the kids from the block dove for passes and lunged for tackles. Finally, on the last play of the Turkey Bowl, Alex dropped back for a pass and threw a bomb. Ethan raced down the sidelines. Deep in the end zone, he soared high above a defender…”Touchdown! Touchdown!

This is a wonderful portrayal of the many ways that people spend time with family and friends over the holiday.

Turkey Bowl, written by Phil Bildner and illustrated by C. F. Payne

Suggestions for Building Excitement Over The Holidays

Ordering Books: Whether you are building a family library or simply looking for a fun way to build-up to the holiday celebration, having brand new books shipped to your home, in your child’s name, is a great way to do it. To a child, it is super exciting to receive a package in the mail, addressed to them! They may even want to read their brand-new book immediately AND before bed.

Library Holds: If you’d prefer to review the books before buying them, or need to maintain a tight budget, then use the local library. Go to the library website, locate the book and place it on hold. When the notification arrives, bring the child along and let them help find the books in the on-hold shelves.

Book Review: Trump Is a Nasty Knight

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Nick and the Nasty Knight by Ute Krause was published in 2012. The book is not anti-Trump protest literature. It’s just a story about a boy who lives in an impoverished town where the political power (the nasty knight) uses taxes, sleazy political (legal) maneuvers and physical violence to drain every last penny out of the residents.

This knight lives in an enormous castle where he keeps all of the gold locked up, forces people to carry him around because he will not be bothered with walking and…get this…he uses a golden toilet.

Much like Maurizio Cattelan’s “America“, the similarities and political applicability are almost eerie. While it’s important to note that Trump’s golden toilet is an internet myth, it’s symbolism is very much a political reality.

When I first read this book to the children in my life, I was hoping for an anti-bullying or a problem solving story. Every once in a while I will come across a kids book with excellent pictures and some good hard advice for dealing with people – this is not that book.

The story is about Nick, a child who is taken from his family, by the nasty knight, as a slave (yes, he is actually taken as a slave) because his family is poor and had no more money to give to the knight when he came pounding on their door during one of the all-to-frequent tax-collecting tours. Nick is trapped in a never-ending cycle of work, the reality of which is well illustrated without being excessively scary.

He decides to escape his indentured bondage by climbing out a castle window and accidentally stumbles across the knight’s secret room full of (stolen) gold. Nick steals one coin and successfully escapes. Once in the woods beyond the city, he encounters a group of bandits and thieves who are just as horrible as the nasty knight – possibly worse.

At this point in the story I’m feeling both impressed by the realism and a bit disappointed in the lack of proactive resolution. The main character just can’t get a break.

The bandits find the single gold coin and Nick tricks them into returning to the castle. He leads them to the secret room filled with gold and sounds the alarm, causing an enormous brawl between the knight, his soldiers and all of the bandits.

Side note: the knight won’t walk to his golden toilet but he’ll jump into a potential bloodbath of a battle to protect his gold…interesting.

Ok, that was pretty good. Tricking bad guys into fighting bad guys is an impressive maneuver.

But then it turns out that the coin the boy stole was a magic coin, which ultimately transforms all of the bad guys into alligators. This saves the town and returns peace and prosperity to all. Here’s a quote:

When the people up in the castle saw what had happened, they began to cheer. Without the Nasty Knight, they were once again free!…From that day on, Nick made sure that at last his poor mother and his family had enough to eat every day.”

(sigh)

It’s a good story for kids. The ending to the plot is pretty standard in literature and film but…

I really wish the resolution hadn’t been reliant on a magic coin or the elimination of a handful of bad guys. Neither scenario is real and there are other ways to resolve the story.

Even so, this book remains on the family bookshelf and is pulled out from time to time because acts of bravery and defiance in the face of corrupt powers and politicians is a good place to begin. It’s an excellent story to enjoy and to talk about; because, sometimes, the flaws in stories lay the groundwork for excellent discussions about what is fun fiction vs effective in real life.

In this case, the symbolism is fitting and powerful: It’s a story about using money to take down a corrupt politician with a golden toilet.

There may be a few adults in your life who would appreciate listening to this story over the holiday break.

Thanksgiving Book Review: Food and Community

The Thanksgiving holiday has a fascinating history.  There are many reasons and historic events behind the holiday, some good and some bad, but most people think of it in terms of two things: family and food.

Bear Says Thanks, is the perfect representation of Thanksgiving as a family-and-food holiday. It’s similar to the old ‘stone soup’ fable, where everyone brings a little something and the feast they share as a community fills both bellies and hearts.

In this story, Bear is sad because he doesn’t have any food and he wants his friends to come over for the holiday, but he can’t host a gathering without food. His friends come over anyway, each bringing something to share. Bear’s den provides the gathering space and the warm fire. A wonderful time is had by all.

It’s a simple and lovely story with beautiful illustrations that very young children will enjoy hearing over the holiday weekend.

A quote can be read HERE.

Bear Says Thanks, written by Karma Wilson and Illustrated by Jane Chapman

Suggestions for Building Excitement Over The Holidays

Ordering Books: Whether you are building a family library or simply looking for a fun way to build-up to the Holiday celebration, having brand new books shipped to your home, in your child’s name, is a great way to do it. To a child, it is super exciting to receive a package in the mail, addressed to them! They may even want to read their brand-new book immediately AND before bed.

Library Holds: If you’d prefer to review the books before buying them, or need to maintain a tight budget, then use the local library. Go to the library website, locate the book and place it on hold. When the notification arrives, bring the child along and let them help find the books in the on-hold shelves.

Grown-Ups Choice: Homelessness and Building Community

I bought this book for myself. I read it to the children in my life – they like it too – but this is one of a small selection of children’s books that I bought specifically because I really liked it:

Julia’s House For Lost Creatures by Ben Hatke – quote found HERE.

The story-line: Julia lives alone, in a house built on the back of a giant turtle. When the turtle moves, Julia and her house go with it.

It’s a rather large house and a positively enormous turtle. So, when the turtle settled by the side of the ocean, Julia found herself feeling lonely in her great-big-house and decided to hang up a sign outside the front door: “Julia’s House for Lost Creatures”.

Before long, she has a house filled with mythical, magical and homeless creatures of every possible type, shape, and size. There’s a bit of a problem keeping things clean, organized and under control; but Julia solves the problem and everyone settles down into a happy communal life.

While the story is a bit idealistic (it IS a children’s book, after all), it presents a positive perspective on building community, helping others and homelessness.

Also, the pictures are positively wonderful.

Sometimes I pull this one out, look through the pictures and read, by myself….just because.

Suggestions for Building Excitement Over The Holidays

Ordering Books: Whether you are building a family library or simply looking for a fun way to build-up to the holiday celebration, having brand new books shipped to your home, in your child’s name, is a great way to do it. To a child, it is super exciting to receive a package in the mail, addressed to them! They may even want to read their brand-new book immediately AND before bed.

Library Holds: If you’d prefer to review the books before buying them, or need to maintain a tight budget, then use the local library. Go to the library website, locate the book and place it on hold. When the notification arrives, bring the child along and let them help find the books in the on-hold shelves.

Halloween Book Review: The Family That Plays Together

Ninja! Attack of the Clan by Arree Chung

The family that plays together, stays together! This family likes to play Ninja games and the book ends with a wonderful image of everyone in the family wearing home-made ninja costumes, complete with spatula weapons, while playing ‘ninja’. Everything that is good and fun about Halloween is summed up in that one image.

For more information about this and other books in the series, see the June 2017 Giggle Book Award.

All of the Halloween themed books, quotes and commentary posted to this blog can be found HERE.

Suggestions for Building Excitement Over The Holidays

Ordering Books: Whether you are building a family library or simply looking for a fun way to build-up to the Halloween celebration, having brand new books shipped to your home, in your child’s name, is a great way to do it. To a child, it is super exciting to receive a package in the mail, addressed to them! They may even want to read their brand-new book immediately AND before bed.

Library Holds: If you’d prefer to review the books before buying them, or need to maintain a tight budget, then use the local library. Go to the library website, locate the book and place it on hold. When the notification arrives, bring the child along and let them help find the books in the on-hold shelves.

Halloween Book Review: Granny Is Gloriously Different

Amazon.com

Hubble Bubble Granny Trouble, written by Tracey Corderoy and illustrated by Joe Berger

Granny is wonderful! The heroine adores her grandmother, she just wishes granny were a little more….normal.

Granny is a witch who tries, really tries to be helpful, but many of her spells take a turn for the worst. The granddaughter decides she wants things to be very VERY normal on her birthday, so Granny puts away the spellbook and the two do absolutely everything by hand.

The cake they make is a bit lopsided and the dress is a glorious mess of scraps from the sewing box, but the two do everything together and have a wonderful time! When the guests arrive for the party they are taken aback by the sight of the cake and the dress, but granny pulls out some face paints and soon all of the children are having lots of fun pretending to be wild animals or monsters.

The party is a hit, one whole day of being ‘normal’ (as defined by our heroine) is divine, and the mess left behind is massive. Granny pulls out her spellbook and the clean the house Granny’s-way, together. In the end, the granddaughter wouldn’t want her granny to be anything other than who she is.

It’s a wonderful book that is perfect for either Halloween or a birthday.

A quote can be found HERE.

All of the Halloween themed books, quotes and commentary posted to this blog can be found HERE.

Suggestions for Building Excitement Over The Holidays

Ordering Books: Whether you are building a family library or simply looking for a fun way to build-up to the Halloween celebration, having brand new books shipped to your home, in your child’s name, is a great way to do it. To a child, it is super exciting to receive a package in the mail, addressed to them! They may even want to read their brand-new book immediately AND before bed.

Library Holds: If you’d prefer to review the books before buying them, or need to maintain a tight budget, then use the local library. Go to the library website, locate the book and place it on hold. When the notification arrives, bring the child along and let them help find the books in the on-hold shelves.