Something From Nothing

By Phoebe Gilman

Now that Christmas has come and gone, I thought long and hard about what book I should do next. Something about rebirth, maybe, or one that encompasses the spirit of giving without relating to Christmas. And absolutely nothing bad – I want a good, uplifting book. Then at the store I stumbled across the answer, lost in the press of similarly sized children’s books crammed on a too-small shelf. How fortuitous!

Something From Nothing is an old book that I read as a child, but have forgotten as the years have passed. Nevertheless, it remains one of my favorite stories, and one that might make you hard-pressed not to tear up. It begins with a blanket Joseph is given at birth by his grandfather. As he grows older, the blanket grows rattier, until the mother declares that he should throw it out. Distraught, he takes it to his grandfather, where it’s remade into a coat. Joseph loves the coat, until it’s too small and worn out, and the mother once again declares it should be thrown out. So back to the grandfather, who remakes it as a vest, a tie, a handkerchief, and a button before the boy accidentally loses the button. Distraught, he goes to his grandfather, but is told there is nothing to be done: “you can’t make something from nothing”. At school the next day, Joseph discovers that he has just enough to make a wonderful story.

Based on a Yiddish tale, Something From Nothing is a gorgeous story. The story is simple and rhythmic, somewhat repetitive so children more easily grasp the nature of the story. The artwork is beautiful, full of little Easter eggs in in the panels (just watch and see how much fun your child has examining the minute life of the mice that live under the house and use scraps from his blanket).

If you’re looking for a good story about grandfather-grandchild relations, this is a great one to recommend. In its undertones it’s about family love, values, and how memories are kept long after the physical object has disappeared.

Suggested ages: 3-6

The Muppets Christmas Carol

I admit, I’ve never been much for the classics. I’ve never read them, except for when forced to by school, though I think most of us are in the same boat. Safe to say, however, that I’ve never read Dickens, and have never really had an interest. I’m sure he’s a wordsmith, but he’s never made my list of books I want to made. Jane Austen barely made it, and she’s as girly as it gets. A Christmas Carol is one of those stories that has been adapted and re-adapted dozens and dozens of times; I could pick any version from screen or stage to review, and I think everyone has their favorites. My – and my family – have laid our favorites in the child-friendly muppet version, the aptly named The Muppets Christmas Carol.

This is the movie we always watch on Christmas Eve; that’s our tradition. The Muppets Christmas Carol is a musical, done with muppets, puppets, and people. You might start cringing when you think about muppets doing their take on a serious Dickens work, but I’ve always thought the managed the line very well. They balance kid-friendly comedy with Rizzo the Rat and the Great Gonzo with the serious themes of death, rejection, and hopelessness.

The movies starts lightly enough, with some moody acting from Michael Caine (as Scrooge), balanced by the eternal optimism of Kermit (playing Bob Cratchit). There are sad moments from the ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, but the appearance of the ghost of Christmas Future is quite intimidating and terrifying, at least as far as the Muppets go. Even the narrators – Gonzo and Rizzo – run away until the finale, breaking the fourth wall as they go.

The songs are a great part of the movie. The opening song “Scrooge” is very enjoyable, introducing the main character while showcasing the traditional Muppet group-singalong. Caine’s introduction is delightfully chilly. The second song, “One More Sleep ‘Til Christmas” is the reason my family watch this movie on Christmas Eve – it’s only one more sleep ’til Christmas! And we all sing along with Kermit, naturally. This is balanced by the beautiful, sad song Belle sings at the middle of the movie; a song that, sadly, has been cut from some versions of the film. I’ve never been sure why; perhaps because it does not, technically add to or move the plot forward.

The puppeteering is, as always, fantastic. The Muppets have some of the most talented puppeteers around, and each Muppet has their own look, personality, movement and life on-screen. I’ve always loved the Muppets, and this movie only increases their nostalgic power.

Merry Christmas everyone! I hope your holidays are restful, festive, and full of excellent food! And remember: only one more sleep ’til Christmas.

Christmas Specials – The Twelve Days of Christmas

Nostalgia is a wonderful thing. It’s beautiful and rose-coloured, making us long for Christmas Specials passed. Never mind how incredibly bizarre some of them are. A lot of Christmas specials fall into this category – but then again, so do a lot of children’s shows in general.

The Twelve Days of Christmas is the story of a melancholy princess, the persistent suitor, the squire, and a crossword puzzle.

Intrigued yet? The suitor, a knight, has been pining over the princess for years, and is determined to finally have her. He sends his squire Huckleberry to steal her Christmas list so he can give her everything she desires. He accidentally steals the answers to her father’s special crossword puzzle, and ends up giving her the answers as presents. This idea might still be impressive, if only she wasn’t allergic to birds. In the end, however, Huckleberry produces a laugh from the princess, and ends up with her hand in marriage.

This special is cute and harmless. The animation is cheap and nothing special, but the story is different to say the least. For a 30-minute Christmas special, it’s not bad; the characters are diverse, and most go through a character development arc, which, while not hard, is difficult to do. So, congrats to the writers for managing to accomplish that – it’s silly and educational all at once! Though it’s not nearly as sweet as the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.

There are a few things that are annoying, but those come mostly from my own personal preferences; first and foremost that I dislike wimpy heroes. He never gets any stronger; just more henpecked by the princess and the knight. The narrator, served by the Partridge who lives in a pear tree, is equally annoying. But then, I dislike an omnipotent narrator who is part of the story – it defeats the purpose. And she’s no Boris Karloff.

There are highlights: the father is delightfully reminiscent of the Sultan from Aladdin, and I love chubby, loving, doting obliviousness in my father figures. I enjoy the princess as a character, mostly because she speaks to the uncaring teenager within me. I can’t say much for her taste in men, but she just wants someone to make her laugh. Can’t fight with that.

Despite the simplicity of the special, I have to say that most children probably won’t get the nostalgic shout-outs that are present as the “12 Days of Christmas” singers. For each gift, there’s a singer/s impersonating well-known artists (such as Elvis) as they sing their verse. I know I certainly missed that reference when I was young, and almost missed it now. I’m going to blame that on bad singing and worse animation though.

Check out this silly special. I don’t see it on television much, and it’s a nice way to break up the traditional lineup.

Plus, you can just see it below.

Christmas Specials – How The Grinch Stole Christmas!

Based on the work of Dr Seuss

If you were of the right age (which I am not), you would swoon over the pair of Dr. Seuss and Boris Karloff. Or you would cock your head and go “whaaat?”

For those of you not in the know, Boris Karloff was an actor in the 1930’s who played, among others, the iconic role of Frankenstein’s Monster. Basically, a horror movie actor of extreme popularity. What does this have to do with Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas!? Why, he was the narrator! And the Grinch’s voice. And it’s probably the only reason kids today might have any clue who Boris Karloff is. Though, to be fair, at least he’s still known for being mean, green, and terrifying. Or at least green.

How The Grinch Stole Christmas! is one of those classic Christmas specials that should and will never die. It is short, sweet, and captures the story of Dr. Seuss’ story perfectly. We all know the story, and if you don’t then please go watch the video below; we cannot let this travesty continue.

In brief: every Who down in Whoville loved Christmas a lot. But the Grinch who lived just north of Whoville did not. Therefore, he decided it was an excellent idea to steal Christmas by taking all their presents!

Okay, so that doesn’t rhyme very well. Or at all. Luckily, Dr. Seuss’ version is much more readable. But that’s the gist: the Grinch hates Christmas and wants to take it away. Because he especially hates the noise of the presents and the Whos singing, he decides to steal the presents, dressing as Santa Claus to escape notice. When the night is done and he’s about to dump the presents off the mountain, he hears singing; the Whos are singing a welcome to Christmas despite all their presents being gone. Suddenly understanding the meaning of Christmas, the Grinch rides back down the hill, delivering all the presents back to the village folk.

In essence, the story is about the true meaning of Christmas being not in the presents, but in the spirit of the season; the love and giving. It seems simplistic, but who said Christmas had to be complicated? The part where the Grinch’s heart grows is one of my favorite scenes, and I love the “Welcome Christmas” song the Whos sing. There are only three songs in the special, and each one of them has a special place in my heart. That’s what nostalgia does, kids: makes you miss things you see only once a year. But that means it’s working!

The special is faithful to the book with only a few embellishments (like the songs). While I cannot, at all, be considered an expert or even mildly informed in the art of animation, I enjoy what the special has done. The details of the special mimic a Seuss-ian feel, with simple lines and stylistic angles. When the Grinch goes slithering around the floor after presents, you feel kind of creepy, but it’s funny too. If you consider this like a book, then the animation is great, because it can interest young children without overwhelming them with details.

I have not seen specials on television of late, but perhaps I’m missing the proper times and channels. If you happen to see this special when flipping through your local listings, make sure to call your kids and enjoy 30 minutes of the Grinch.

Home Alone

And now for something with almost no seasonal or religious affiliation (yet somehow retaining both) – Home Alone!

This is one of those classic movies that I almost didn’t see. Please don’t ask me how. I just remember that, when everyone else in my class was excitedly talking about how they were going to see Home Alone and bust a gut over it, I was sitting there with my head cocked going “Home Alone what now?”

I’ve never been one for comedies, but if I can handle them at any time, Christmas is the time. And Home Alone is one of those classics that should always be played at Christmas. What’s not to love? The acting is great, especially when you consider how old half the characters are, the story is fun, and because it’s set at Christmas time you can do all the fun things and no one will get mad! Because it’s Christmas!

Most of you will know the story: boy (Kevin) gets left home alone while his ridiculously large family flies to France, mother goes insane trying to get home to find him and no neighbours are around to go help him. Conveniently, burglars are hitting up every empty house on the street, and the¬†McCallister house is the perfect target. Kevin decides that he will not sit back and let his house be burglarized, so he sets up a series of elaborate traps to keep the robbers out. Just when things look darkest, he’s saved by the friendly/creepy-looking man who shovels snow and the family all make it home for the holidays. Hugs all around!

What they don’t show you is the family realizing exactly what Kevin’s destroyed while they’re gone, and how many, many years Kevin spends grounded.

Home Alone is a great movie, especially at Christmas time. The focus is on the screwball comedy and both sets of actors (the thieves & Kevin, the parents/adults) carry off their roles very well. We can forgive the child actors for their occasional slips because, hey, they’re kids, and that’s what they do!

There’s even a Christmas message shoehorned into the overall story, which is impressive when you consider that the whole thing is one kid trying to defend his house against two crafty (I use the term loosely) robbers. But it’s there; it even takes place in a church! Kevin even says grace over dinner! I am shocked. Shocked!

This movie is not for everyone. Overall, I think it’s harmless, and most kids in North America have seen it at some point in their lives. It’s a great movie to put in, sit back, and laugh to a semi-Christmas message. And because it does have a Christmas message, I give it a thumbs up for the holiday season.

(please use discretion based on the ages of your children)

The Little Crooked Christmas Tree

By Michael Cutting & Ron Broda

Most of the stories that are written around Christmas do not, ironically, focus on “Christmas”. When I say this, I mean they do not talk about the religious message behind Christmas: the birth of Jesus, the story of the manger or the three wise men, Mary and Joseph, and so on. The books I primarily see now are more secular in tone, to reflect the secular nature of our society.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to condone or applaud this change. It is what it is. A lot of my old books, I have come to realize, either told the story of the origins (so called) of Christmas, or focused on Santa. I would almost like to argue that Santa is the new, secular Jesus: he has become the spokesperson of the holiday.

This does not remove the message of the holidays. The spirit of giving, love, and belief should transcend religion and encompass the holiday as a whole. The Little Crooked Christmas Tree goes there.

This is one of those rare books that focuses neither on Santa nor on Jesus (though Jesus’ name is mentioned). The hero of this story is a kind Christmas tree, growing in a Christmas Tree lot. “What is Christmas?” He wants to know, and asks the animals he comes across, but none of them know. One night, during a storm, a dove is blown into his branches. About to lay her eggs, the little Christmas Tree bunches his branches, making her a little nest for her and her eggs. As a result of his act, the Christmas Tree develops a hump in his trunk and grows crooked. When the dove’s children are old enough, they leave for the winter, but promise to return.

Finally it’s Christmas, and people descend on the Christmas tree lot, but the little Christmas Tree is left behind because of his hump. Thus begins a very lonely year, where he is the only tree left in the lot. Then, abruptly, he is dug up and moved to someone’s backyard. Rejected by the other trees, he spends another lonely year, until Christmas arrives a second time. Then, to his surprise, the family comes out and decorates him as a Christmas tree. Everyone in the neighbourhood comes out to admire him, and Mrs Dove once again appears to him, explaining that this was his reward for sheltering her and her brood, even though it meant giving up his entire purpose as he saw it. Now, instead of bringing joy to children for only one year, he will serve as a Christmas Tree for years to come.

This is an incredibly touching story for one about a tree. He is a very dedicated tree – first, to his career path as a Christmas tree; and second, to the dove and her family. You feel for him and his simple desire just to know what he is and to fulfill his destiny as an object of happiness to children.

The artwork is stunning. Done in a collage style, using carefully constructed cut-outs, the artwork is amazingly emotive. The little tree goes from straight to crooked to gorgeous. The details are extraordinary, and the feel is 3D. Even the text boxes get the same collage 3D treatment, looking like they’re each on a small raised platform of heavy paper. It’s just beautiful.

This is one of those books that shares the meaning of Christmas in a subtler, touching way. It was one of my favorites as a kid, and it still is now. It’s not overly preachy, not religious, but still deals with the heart of what Christmas is and what it means. I highly recommend you pick up this book, at least to look at, if not to add for your Christmas collection.

Suggested Ages: 3-6

The Polar Express (2004)

Christmas is, if nothing else in my books, the season of traditions. Every year at the preappointed time we start pulling out the same songs, the same books, the same movies, and I love it. Tradition is the thing that makes family. Every one of you reading this can tell me at least one tradition your family has, whether it be centered around Christmas or another event. One of my favorite family traditions are the movies we watch every year, and the order we watch them in.

The movies that we watch are the same ones now as they were when I was small, and that is, in part, what makes them so awesome. As part of a special Christmas present from me to you, I will reveal every Christmas movie we watch between now and Christmas Eve, so make sure to check back every day!

Now, since you can both read the above title, you know the first movie I’m going to talk about is The Polar Express, that 2004 Tom Hanks vehicle of an adaption of a beautiful book.

I have mixed feelings about this movie. While the book ranks as one of my all-time favorites to read, the movie leaves me ambivalent. Part of the reason for that is the animation. I love computer animation, but sometimes I just can’t stand it. One of my favorite movies, Hoodwinked, has some of the worst animation I have ever seen. The Polar Express strikes me as the same. Not because the animation is bad, no, not at all. It’s because I find the characters expressions… apathetic. Sure they move and smile and look pretty realistic, but no one in the movie gives any real expressions, and that makes me feel disconnected from the story. I wish they had instead gone with a more traditional form of animation, or just picked different character forms.

If you can get past the zombie-people, the movie is beautiful. The backgrounds are beautifully rendered, and the train is a thing of beauty. And that scene with the ice train on the ice? Or that up-shot of bell through the ice? Be still my beating heart! They do ice incredibly well, along with snow. Which is good, seeing as this is, in fact, a Christmas movie set in winter. The way the environment moves around the characters is enough to almost suck me in, so long as we don’t go to a close-up too often.

I would also like to add a caveat to my character-hatred: the way the characters are written is fine. There’s nothing too stiff or stilted about them; in fact the Hobo ranks as one of my favorite characters from a children’s movie. The train engineers are hilarious and I wish they had more screen time. The main trio and annoying kid are all stereotypes, sure, but that’s what kids movies do to their main characters, so I’ll let it slide. At least they all get some character growth and go home a little different from when the train picked them up. So maybe just squint your eyes when the camera shows a person then go back to admiring the gorgeous scenery.

I also love the music. There are a few exceptions (“Hot Chocolate” springs to mind; Tom Hanks, I love you but you can’t sing), but when they get the music right, they nail it. Alan Silvestri provides a brilliant background soundtrack, and the moving “When Christmas Comes to Town” is one of my favorite Christmas songs.

It’s easy to see why, on one hand, the movie did mediocre at the box office; it can be really hard to embrace a movie where the people look like manikins, and it’s a Christmas movie so how many times do you really need to see it in theatres? By the same token, I also understand how it has since gained a cult following. If you watch it enough, you learn to look around the bad character capture/design and just appreciate the beautiful source material. Or you could read the book; same thing.

There are a lot of good points to this movie, and the plot sticks relatively close to the book (now if we could just cut the part with her ticket; why was that even included??). The Polar Express takes you on a wild ride from Michigan to the North Pole and back again, and teaches you, like the book, to believe.

(Man I wish I could make that word sparkle for you all.)

The Polar Express

By Chris Van Allsburg

Everyone has their favorite Christmas books. You know which ones I mean – the ones you haul out year after year and read to your children, or your siblings. From the time I could tolerably trip my way through our version of A Night Before Christmas I was reading it to my sister, thus sparking a new tradition: Christmas Eve Fight Night. (No, I kid – I knew Santa was watching and was always very, very good the night before).

One of our favorites, and perennial classic to children everywhere, is The Polar Express. No, not the movie (I’ll get to it later), but the book. I love the book. The illustrations are beautiful, incredibly rendered in gentle colours. They feel soft, in a way; looking at them makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside, which is exactly how I want to feel when I’m reading a Christmas book.

The story is the one we all wish we could take part in if this story were real. An unnamed young man, going to sleep on Christmas Eve, awakens to hear the call of a train whistle outside his house. Running downstairs, he is greeted by the conductor and told that “this is the Polar Express”. Initially reluctant, the boy climbs on, and is ushered in to a lively, magical train.

The Polar Express makes its way north, eventually coming to a stop at the North Pole, where Santa will give out the first gift of Christmas. He chooses the boy, who requests to have a bell from the reindeer’s harness. Santa grants this wish and gives him the bell, but on the subsequent trip home, the boy realizes there was a rip in his pocket at that he has lost the bell. Dismayed at the loss, he finds a package under his tree the next morning with the bell and a note from Santa.

At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.

I’m going to say it again: I love this book. The illustrations are to die for, beautifully rendered and perfectly conveying the feeling of magic and Christmas. The story is simple, provoking children to reaffirm their belief in Santa Claus and Christmas. After all, if you believe, you too might end up on the Polar Express and receive a gift from Santa.

Suggested Ages: 3+

Aliens Love Panta Claus

By Claire Freedman

You know what we need more of? Underwear-obsessed aliens who team up with Santa to ensure that every being on Earth gets a pair of pants. “Pants” being what British folk call their underwear.

Pure. Awesomeness.

Now, normally these aliens steal underwear. But not today! Because, as you see, today is Christmas day. So instead of stealing them, they’re giving them away! Yes, that’s right. They’ve decided to reform, and are giving away their hoarded underpants. But only for today! So enjoy it while you can; tomorrow they might be gone!

Aliens Love Panta Claus is one of those books I wish I’d had when I was growing up. It’s a short Christmas tale done in rhyming stanzas. The text is witty but limited, with only four lines per every two pages. The drawers are brightly coloured, and every page contains at least one pair of underwear, so you know your kid wants you to read this ad nauseum. Even without the giggle-enducing amount of undergarments, the pictures are large and simple, usually a two-page spread. Big, bold colours and simplistic drawings means it’s good for a range of ages; this could easily become a Christmas classic. Even if for no other reason then to see Rudolph wearing colourful pants. That sells it right there.

If you love this book (and you should), try the prequel/non-holiday-themed version, Aliens Love Underpants. Guaranteed not to disappoint, because we all know that there is no humour better then British humour.

Suggested Ages: 3-6+

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship

By Arthur Ransome

I think folktales are the best kinds of stories. Not only are they great for kids – heck, they’re practically tailor-made for our little ones – but they’re great for adults too. There’s nothing like sitting back and sharing an old-fashioned folk tale. They’re the first stories we hear, the basis of our inspirations later in life, and can be found almost anywhere if you look hard enough. Even more, they’re a universal the world over. Just look at the world-wide variations on Cinderella that can be found.

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship is a retelling of a Russian folktale. This book was the first time I ever saw the word “Czar” (we will not get into how long it took my parents to teach me how to pronounce that, or how confused I continue to be at how many different ways there are to spell this word), “moujiks” (peasants), or “faggot” (as in faggot of wood, not the derogatory term). Isn’t it great how books teach us new things?

This book is pretty long as far as children’s stories go. It starts with the Czar sending messengers all over the land, offering his daughter’s hand in marriage to any man who brings him a flying ship. The messengers bring news to a small hut in the woods, wherein lives a family with three sons. The first two, smart and clever boys, decide they want to go out and try their luck. Their father gives them fine clothes, and their mother bakes them white rolls and gives them corn brandy before sending them off. The third boy, known only as the Fool/Fool of the World, says that he would like to follow. Sick of him, the mother gives him dry crusts and water and pushes him out of the house.

So the Fool walks along, merry as can be, when he comes across an ancient. They share a meal, and the old man tells the Fool how he can get a flying ship. Obeying the ancient’s instructions, the Fool finds himself with a flying ship. As he goes across the country, he starts collecting all manner of strange folk. First, there’s the man who listens; the man who can run around the world in one stride; the man who can shoot things at an incredibly far range; the man who can never get enough to drink; the man who can never get enough to eat; the man with the faggot of wood that turns into soldiers; and the man with the straw that turns the hottest day to winter. Quite the collection, really.

Upon arriving, the Czar looks out and sees the flying ship, but he is far from happy to see that his daughter will be marrying a peasant. He decides to present the Fool with challenges that will run the Fool off and leave the Czar with the flying ship. Of course, each challenge plays to the strength of one or more of the Companions, and the Fool ultimately bests the Czar, marrying the princess. The last page tells us that the princess and the Fool fall madly in love, the Czar and Czarina think very highly of their son-in-law, and the Fool becomes a very clever man.

I’ve always been a bit thrown off by that ending; when you call someone a Fool, I never think of them as smart. I suppose he could be a savant, or maybe he just needed some guidance and education to become an enlightened man. Perhaps he wasn’t a fool at all, and was just a very kind, naive man who thought the best of everyone, and Fool was a bit of a misnomer. Yes, I think I like that one.

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship is a Caldecott Award Winner. The pictures are interesting for kids; it certainly has a distinctive feel. I remember the pictures as well as I remember the text, and while I don’t think the art is spectacular, it does have a folksy, Eastern-European feel, which fits with the text very well. They are simple illustrations with bright colours. There is never a page without action; in almost every page there is someone walking, or flying. It gives this long book an pace and keeps the children’s attention grabbed.

Suggested Ages: 5-9

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