A Holiday Reading Tradition For The Whole Family

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Judy Freeman is a children's literature consultant and a former children's librarian. You can see a list of her favorite children's books about the holidays here.

For more book picks for kids, visit ReadKiddoRead, a nonprofit Web site devoted to encouraging children's reading.

In the dark days after Thanksgiving, before the holiday season is in full swing, Sally Kern drags out a big box filled not with holiday decorations — those will come later — but with books.

Sally and Stephen Kern read to their kids pretty much every night, but the books in this box are special, reserved for this time of year only. They are filled with stories, mostly about Christmas, but also about Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and the winter solstice.

"I think it's wonderful to have books as a centering activity this time of year, because everything does get ratcheted up," says Sally Kern. "Even before Thanksgiving, the Christmas pummel starts. And so this is something that is very grounding for them and for us."

As a child, Sally Kern wanted to be an illustrator, and now she chooses her books with the eye of an artist. Intricate detailed pictures with an old-fashioned look appeal to her.

As the family picks through the pile, they look for their favorites, the ones they remember from last year. Sally Kern pulls her son Larkin's favorite book from the pile and hands it to her husband.

She may be the collector, but her husband is the reader. He settles onto the couch with 7-year-old Larkin to read Jan Brett's Who's That Knocking on Christmas Eve?, which the family refers to as "the snausage book."

Garrett, 10, listens by the fire. Though he can read many of these books himself (two of his favorites are North Country Christmas and An Orange for Frankie), he still likes to be read to.

"When I'm listening to them, I get more out of it, because I listen to stuff that I don't notice when I am just skimming through the pages," he says.

But some parents feel self-conscious when they read aloud, says Judy Freeman, the author of a guide to read-aloud books called Books Kids Will Sit Still For. Freeman says they should get over their inhibitions.

"Your kids don't know the difference. They just want to be warm, and they want to hear your voice, and they associate the words with you," she says. "It turns them into readers. If you want your kids to read, you have to read to them."

Reading aloud to kids is a good idea no matter what time of year, says Freeman, but the holidays can be an incentive to get started.

"When you start a family tradition by reading the same books every year ... it's just fun. It's warm. It makes you say, 'Oh it's that time of year again, let's do this,' " Freeman says.

As the years go by, the Kerns have discovered that the annual ritual spawns their own stories, which are now becoming part of family legend. Last year, says Sally Kern, Stephen teared up when he was reading Christmas Day in the Morning by Pearl S. Buck. ("It's nice to have Sally remind me of these things," he jokes.)

Stephen Kern seems almost surprised at how deeply this tradition has taken hold in his family. He says they don't really think about it, it's just something they do — and the more the Kerns do it, the more it becomes something they can't do without.

"I like it that we really don't bring these books out until after Thanksgiving, and they really do go away again," he says. "And it's hard to put them away, because as you can see, we have a lot of them, and we don't get through them all. But I think it sort of is part of the looking forward to taking them out again and rediscovering them, and maybe adding a new one."

Sally Kern looks forward to the time when the kids will be old enough for bigger books, like A Christmas Carol, which she remembers reading with her grandfather and her mother. And there is one book the Kerns read every year without fail:

"We read The Night Before Christmas, the night before Christmas. And sometimes that's at home, and sometimes it's in a rustic lodge in West Virginia, beside the frozen river," she says.

But this year, on this night, the Kerns get a sneak preview of the big event, as Stephen Kern picks up the book his wife's parents gave her as a present many years ago and begins to read:

"Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house ..."

Children's Books For The Holidays

These 50 books are riveting titles you might want to buy or borrow for the holiday season and pull out each year right after Thanksgiving to share aloud, reminisce over and get ready for the celebrations to come. Just as Christmas cookies or Hanukkah latkes are traditions in many families, so too should great books be a part of the holiday fun.

The All-I'll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll

By Patricia C. McKissack. Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. Schwartz & Wade, 2007. (32 pages; suggested ages: 4-8)

In a warm, wise Depression-era story, Nella and her two sisters fight over the most treasured gift ever — a Baby Betty doll their parents expect them to share.


Angelina's Christmas

By Katharine Holabird. Illustrated by Helen Craig. Puffin Books, 2008, c1985. (32 pages; suggested ages: 3-7)

Thoughtful white mouse Angelina Ballerina brings Christmas cheer to her lonely neighbor, Mr. Bell, the retired village postman.


Arthur's Christmas

By Marc Brown. Illustrated by the author. Little, Brown, 1984. (32 pages; suggested ages: 3-7)

Arthur needs to find the perfect present to leave for Santa.


Arthur's Christmas Cookies

By Lillian Hoban. Illustrated by the author. HarperCollins, 1984, c1972. (63 pages; suggested ages: 3-7)

In a classic easy reader, Arthur the chimp makes inedible cookies using salt instead of sugar.


Auntie Claus

By Elise Primavera. Illustrated by the author. Harcourt, 1999. (40 pages; suggested ages: 5-8)

Spoiled Sophie Kringle wants more, more, more — though her mysterious Auntie Claus warns her, "It is far better to give than to receive."


Bear Stays Up for Christmas

By Karma Wilson. Illustrated by Jane Chapman. McElderry, 2004. (40 pages; suggested ages: 3-7)

In a joyful, rhyming Christmas picture book, sleepy Bear's animal friends try to keep him busy so he'll stay awake for the big day.


The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

By Barbara Robinson. Illustrated by Judith Gwyn Brown. HarperTrophy, 1988, c1972. (80 pages; suggested ages: 8-12)

The six horrible Herdmans take over all the starring parts of their church's Christmas pageant in this riotous fiction classic about the worst kids in the history of the world.


Can You See What I See?: Christmas Read-and-Seek

By Walter Wick. Illustrated by the author. Scholastic, 2008. (30 pages; suggested ages: 3-7)

Find Christmas toys and objects hidden in each intricate color photo.


Celebrate Christmas: With Carols, Presents and Peace

Celebrate Diwali: With Sweets, Lights and Fireworks

Celebrate Hanukkah: With Light, Latkes and Dreidels

Celebrate Ramadan and Eid Al-Fitr: With Praying, Fasting and Charity

By Deborah Heiligman. Illustrated with photos. National Geographic, 2006. (32 pages; Suggested ages: 6-9)

Explore the history, origins, food and celebration customs of each holiday in this informative, attractive and photo-filled Holidays-Around-the-World series.


The Christmas Alphabet: A Pop-Up Celebration

By Robert Sabuda. Illustrated by the author. Little Simon, 2004. (14 pages; suggested ages: 3-8)

Sabuda's elegant all-white paper pop-ups, starting with angel, bell and candle, take you through the Christmas season alphabetically.


A Christmas Carol

By Charles Dickens. Illustrated by P. J. Lynch. Candlewick Press, 2006. (160 pages; suggested ages: 9 and Up)

Gorgeous watercolors in a lush Victorian style make Dickens' 1843 allegory the perfect classic to read aloud as a whole family.


The Christmas Story: From the King James Bible, According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke

Illustrated by Gennadii Spirin. Henry Holt, 2008. (32 pages; all ages)

The biblical story of the birth of Jesus is brought to life in Spirin's magnificent, glowing, gold-gilded paintings.


Drummer Boy

By Loren Long. Illustrated by the author. Philomel, 2008. (40 pages; suggested ages: 3-8)

Right before Christmas, a boy's beloved drummer-boy toy falls into the trash, leading to its unexpected journey through the wintry city.


The Gift of Nothing

By Patrick McDonnell. Illustrated by the author. Little, Brown, 2005. (32 pages; all ages)

Mooch, the cat from the popular comic strip Mutts, is looking for a special gift for Earl, but what do you get a dog who has it all?


The Gift of the Magi

By O. Henry. Illustrated by P. J. Lynch. Candlewick, 2008. (36 pages; suggested ages: 11 and Up)

At Christmas, Della sells her hair to buy her husband Jim a chain for his pocket watch, while he sells his watch to buy her a set of combs for her beautiful hair. O. Henry's classic short story, first published in 1906, is the quintessential tale of sacrifice and love.


The Gingerbread Doll

By Susan Tews. Illustrated by Megan Lloyd. Clarion, 1993. (32 pages; suggested ages: 5-8)

During the Great Depression, 9-year-old Rebecca hopes for a porcelain doll for Christmas, but instead receives a homemade gingerbread doll she names Button Marie.


Hanukkah Haiku

By Harriet Ziefert. Illustrated by Karla Gudeon. Blue Apple Books, 2008. (22 pages; suggested ages: 3-8)

Here's one very pretty counting book about the eight nights of Hanukkah, with each stepped page featuring a large menorah to which a family adds a candle each night, and a related haiku describing their celebration.


Hanukkah, Shmanukkah!

By Esme Raji Codell. Illustrated by LeUyen Pham. Hyperion, 2005. (53 pages; suggested ages: 7 and Up)

In a Yiddish-infused retelling of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Old Scroogemacher, a factory owner, is visited by the rabbis of Hanukkah past, present and future.


Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins

By Eric A. Kimmel. Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. Holiday House, 1989. (32 pages; suggested ages: 5-9)

To rid a village's synagogue of fearsome Hanukkah-hating goblins, Hershel promises to spend the next eight nights in there and light the menorah candles each night.


How Santa Got His Job

By Stephen Krensky. Illustrated by S. D. Schindler. Aladdin Paperbacks, 2002, c1998. (32 pages; suggested ages: 5-8)

See how a young Santa's jobs as a chimney cleaner, a late-night package deliverer for the post office, a cook at an all-night diner and a zookeeper helped him in his current career.


How the Grinch Stole Christmas

By Dr. Seuss. Illustrated by the author. Random House, 1957. (64 pages; all ages)

This classic rhyming tale of how the mean Grinch steals all the presents in Who-ville is a must.


The Jar of Fools: Eight Hanukkah Stories from Chelm

By Eric A. Kimmel. Illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein. Holiday House, 2000. (56 pages; suggested ages: 7-12)

Get to know the lovable fools of the Polish village of Chelm at Hanukkah time in two traditional Yiddish folktales, three adaptations of stories from other cultures and three original tales.


Judy Moody & Stink: The Holly Joliday

By Megan McDonald. Illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds. Candlewick Press, 2007. (82 pages; suggested ages: 6-9)

In a Christmas-themed addition to the popular chapter book series, Stink only wants one thing for Christmas — snow — but his practical big sister, Judy, knows they haven't had snow in Virginia in December "for like a million years."


Kibitzers and Fools: Tales My Zayda (Grandfather) Told Me

By Simms Taback. Illustrated by the author. Viking, 2005. (43 pages; suggested ages: 6 and Up)

In this uproarious collection of 13 short tales from the Jewish tradition, a zayda (grandfather) introduces a variety of fools, including shlemiels, shlimazels, nebbishes, nudniks, schmendriks and schnooks.


The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story

By Lemony Snickett. Illustrated by Lisa Brown. McSweeneys, 2007. (48 pages; suggested ages: 6 and Up)

A newborn and misunderstood potato pancake runs screaming through the village, passing flashing colored lights, a candy cane and a pine tree, none of whom understand his purpose as a Hanukkah guy.


Merry Christmas, Strega Nona

By Tomie DePaola, Harcourt Brace, 1986. (40 pages; suggested ages: 4-8)

Big Anthony plans a surprise feast for Strega Nona (Grandmother Witch) for Natale, the Italian Christmas.


Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats: A Treasury of Chinese Holiday Tales, Activities & Recipes

By Nina Simonds and Leslie Swartz. Illustrated by Meilo So. Harcourt, 2002. (80 pages; suggested ages: 7-11)

Illustrated with witty and informative watercolors, this festive celebration of five major Chinese festivals, including the one most familiar in the U.S. — Chinese New Year — contains folktales, crafts, riddles, traditions and recipes.


The Night Before Christmas

By Clement Clarke Moore. Illustrated by Jan Brett. Putnam, 1998. (32 pages; all ages)

The classic poem, gorgeously illustrated and set in an ornate Victorian house in New England, includes a side story, told in pictures, of two elves who go AWOL from Santa's workshop.


The Night Before Christmas

By Clement Clarke Moore. Illustrated by Niroot Puttapipat. Candlewick Press, 2007. (20 pages; all ages)

This handsome pop-up version of the classic poem is illustrated with cut-paper silhouettes.


The Night Before Christmas: A Pop-Up

By Clement Clarke Moore. Illustrated by Robert Sabuda. Little Simon, 2002. (12 pages; all ages)

The famous poem is the basis for another Sabuda spectacular, with pop-ups that astonish and delight.


The Nutcracker

By Susan Jeffers. Illustrated by the author. HarperCollins, 2007. (40 pages; suggested ages: 4-8)

A lush and magnificent picture book rendition of the ballet, based on the George Balanchine version.


An Orange for Frankie

By Patricia Polacco. Illustrated by the author. Philomel, 2004. (48 pages; suggested ages: 5-11)

Based on a family story about young Frankie Stowell — the author's great-uncle and one of nine children — about the snowy Michigan Christmas when he gave his best sweater to a hobo passing through town.


The Polar Express

By Chris Van Allsburg. Illustrated by the author. Houghton Mifflin, 1985. (32 pages; all Ages)

In this Caldecott Medal classic, a boy rides on a magical train to the North Pole, where he receives a special gift from Santa Claus.


Runaway Dreidel!

By Leslea Newman. Illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker. Square Fish/Henry Holt, 2002. (32 pages; suggested ages: 4-7)

Borrowing the rhyme scheme from The Night Before Christmas and the chase scenes from The Gingerbread Boy, a city boy describes the escape of his dreidel on the first night of Chanukah.


The Runaway Rice Cake

By Ying Chang Compestine. Illustrated by Tungwai Chau. Simon & Schuster, 2001. (32 pages; suggested ages: 4-8)

"Ai yo! I don't think so!" cries the Chang family's rice cake as it pops out of the steamer and races through the village one Chinese New Year's Day.


Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town

By J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie. Illustrated by Steven Kellogg. HarperCollins, 2004. (32 pages; all ages)

Sing along with this sprightly illustrated version of the 1934 classic song.


Santa Kid

By James Patterson. Illustrated by Michael Garland. Little, Brown, (32 pages; suggested ages: 5-8)

When Exmas Express buys out the North Pole and takes over Santa's workshop, it's up to Santa's young daughter, Chrissie, to do something about it and save Christmas.


Santa's Book of Names

By David McPhail. Little, Brown, 1993. (32 pages; suggested ages: 4-7)

When Santa loses his specs on Christmas Eve, it's up to young Edward, a nonreader, to help decipher the gift lists from Santa's special book.


Seven Spools of Thread: A Kwanzaa Story

By Angela Shelf Medearis. Illustrated by Daniel Minter. Albert Whitman, 2000. (32 pages; suggested ages: 5-10)

After their father dies, seven quarreling sons from a village in Ghana must learn to work together for the first time, making "gold" out of silk thread when they weave it into multicolored kente cloth.


Shall I Knit You a Hat?: A Christmas Yarn

By Kate Klise. Illustrated by M. Sarah Klise. Square Fish/Henry Holt, 2004. (32 pages; suggested ages: 4-7)

For Christmas, Little Rabbit knits outlandish but practical hats for each of his animal friends.


The Shortest Day: Celebrating the Winter Solstice

By Wendy Pfeffer. Illustrated by Jesse Reisch. Dutton, 2003. (40 pages; suggested ages: 6-9)

This engaging nonfiction picture book describes the winter solstice, how and why it occurs, and how people around the world have celebrated it through history.


Silver Packages: An Appalachian Christmas Story

By Cynthia Rylant. Illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet. Scholastic, 1997. (32 pages; all ages)

Each year, Frankie awaits the Christmas Train and hopes for the gift of a doctor's kit. Based on an inspirational true story, this picture book will warm your heart.


Too Many Tamales

By Gary Soto. Illustrated by Ed Martinez. Putnam, 1996. (32 pages; suggested ages: 5-8)

Maria is panic-stricken when she loses her mother's diamond ring while helping to make tamales for Christmas dinner.


The 12 Days of Christmas: A Pop-Up Celebration

By Robert Sabuda. Illustrated by the author. Little Simon, 2006. (12 pages; all ages)

This distinguished version of the Christmas song comes with striking white paper cut-outs that pop up from pastel colored pages.


Where Did They Hide My Presents?: Silly Dilly Christmas Songs

By Alan Katz. Illustrated by David Catrow. McElderry, 2005. (32 pages; suggested ages: 5-10)

As a break from all those earnest and ubiquitous Christmas songs, try singing these 15 irreverent parodies guaranteed to crack up the elementary school crowd.


The Wild Christmas Reindeer

By Jan Brett. Putnam, 1998. (32 pages; suggested ages: 4-8)

Young Teeka tries training Santa's reindeer by scolding, but she soon learns that gentleness works best.


The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: An Appalachian Story

By Gloria Houston. Puffin, 1996, c1988. (32 pages; suggested ages: 4-8)

In 1918, with her father away at war and Christmas coming, Ruthie prays for him to come home and wishes for a special doll.


Young Santa

By Dan Greenburg. Illustrated by Warren Miller. Scholastic, 2005, c1991. (96 pages; suggested ages: 9 and Up)

A comical chapter book explains how Santa got his name, found those eight tiny reindeer, acquired the red suit and worked in a toy store as training for his life's work.


Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories

By Isaac Bashevis Singer. Illustrated by Maurice Sendak. HarperCollins, 1966. (104 pages; suggested ages: 9 and Up)

Both the foolish and the unfortunate prevail in this classic folklore-based collection of seven Yiddish short stories, including the Hanukkah-themed title story and the hilarious noodlehead tale, "The Snow in Chelm."

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