Holiday stories to get you in the spirit

BOOKS FOR KIDS

December 10, 1993|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Staff Writer

The Santa Claus of my childhood had a split personality. There was the gentle, benevolent Santa, the one who took the nickels and dimes we deposited in the Salvation Army kettle and used the money to buy presents for poor kids.

Then there was the threatening, omniscient Santa who knew when we were sleeping, when we were awake, when we were bad or good. I was afraid that if I ever ran into the real Santa, he would stare straight into my soul, decide I'd done far too many naughty things and withhold all presents for the rest of my life.

So it's not surprising that my favorite Christmas book this season celebrates the kind side of Santa.

* In "Harvey Slumfenburger's Christmas Present" by John Burningham (Candlewick Press, $15.95, 32 pages, ages 3 and up), Santa seems to have fallen on hard times. He's down to just two reindeer, and there are no elves to help out. Having just delivered all his presents, he climbs into bed, exhausted, only to discover one more gift in the sack at the foot of his bed.

It's for Harvey Slumfenburger, whose parents are so poor that the only present Harvey ever gets is the one each year from Santa. So Santa sets off on foot to deliver the present because his reindeer need their rest.

His journey to Harvey Slumfenburger's hut at the top of Roly Poly Mountain far, far, away is the heart of the book. He relies on the kindness of strangers and perseveres despite enormous odds. Mr. Burningham's simply drawn characters are remarkably expressive -- his award-winning work includes "Granpa" and "Mr. Gumpy's Outing" -- and the landscapes are his most dramatic yet.

But the best part may be the ending. As his last gift, Mr. Burningham lets the reader guess what's wrapped inside Harvey's precious parcel.

* The other big Santa book this year is "Santa Calls" by William Joyce (HarperCollins, $18, 40 pages, all ages). As in Mr. Joyce's other books -- which include "Dinosaur Bob and His Adventures With the Family Lazardo" and "A Day With Wilbur Robinson" -- the illustrations are entrancing. His 1930s, art-deco style turns Santa's Toyland into the set of a mega-musical.

In his acknowledgments, Mr. Joyce thanks "Robin of Locksley, Nemo of Slumberland, and Oz, the first Wizard Deluxe." He left out Indiana Jones, to whom the main character, Art Atchinson Aimesworth, bears a striking resemblance. Art doesn't have Harrison Ford's charm, though.

Art sets out on this swashbuckling adventure with his faithful Comanche friend, Spaulding Littlefeets, and Art's little sister, Esther. Santa has summoned them to Toyland, an Oz-like dimension that includes the Dark Queen and her Dark Elves (who swoop down and kidnap Esther, just as the flying monkeys snatched Dorothy).

Maybe I've come to expect too much of Mr. Joyce. He drags out the plot and hammers us over the head with a moral about brotherly love.

* A simple Christmas story that doesn't get icky sweet is "Calvin's Christmas Wish," by Calvin Miles, illustrated by Dolores Johnson (Viking, $13.99, 32 pages, ages 5-8). It's about the Christmas Mr. Miles remembers best as a child growing up on a small farm in North Carolina.

Calvin has asked for a Hopalong Cassidy model bike for Christmas. He knows his parents can't afford it, and that Santa is his only hope. Then his friend tells him there's no such thing as Santa Claus.

Although he's worried, Calvin gets caught up in his family's preparations for the holiday -- Ms. Johnson's illustrations of the African-American family are as warm as the worn, rough-hewn floors of their house -- and in the end, he isn't disappointed. Neither are readers.

Mr. Miles wrote this when he learned to read and write, at age 39. Some proceeds will be donated to Literacy Volunteers of New York City.

* A well-to-do black family in Baltimore is the subject of "Chita's Christmas Tree," now out in paperback. Written by Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard and illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Aladdin, $4.95, 32 pages, ages 4-7), it is a true story about Elizabeth Shipley, who was born in Baltimore after the turn of the century.

* Here are two books that more closely resemble toys. "A Visit to the North Pole" by Tracy Sabin (BridgeWater Books, $15.95, 12 pages, all ages) is a pop-up, pull-the-tab, spin-the-dial adventure starring a polar bear who gets to explore Santa's workshop. It's entertaining, and it might last longer than a week if you can keep the toddlers away.

"Who's Getting Ready for Christmas?" illustrated by Maggie Kneen (Chronicle, $13.95, accordion fold with six spreads, all ages) is actually a beautiful Advent calendar of sturdy cardboard that stretches more than 7 feet long.

* Looking for a way to help the kids burn off a bit of energy? Check out "Santa's Sackful of Best Christmas Ideas" by Deri Robins, illustrated by George Buchanan (Kingfisher, $5.95, 32 pages, ages 4 and up). It has stencils to trace for decorations, directions for a homemade Advent calendar, a recipe for dough ornaments and holiday ideas from around the world.

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