Familiar Christmas tales get fresh turns


When a story has been around almost 2,000 years, it can be tough to give it a fresh spin. "When It Snowed That Night" casts the tale of the Nativity in a new, inviting light.

It is a collection of poems written by the prolific Norma Farber, who died in 1984, and is illustrated by Petra Mathers (Laura Geringer/HarperCollins, $16, 40 pages, all ages). Fans of Ms. Mathers' work will immediately recognize the folk-art style that combines grace and whimsy (her works include "Sophie and Lou" and "Maria Theresa").

Each poem flows into the next, beginning with the animals and insects that will find their way to the manger. Along with the traditional lamb and camel, there's a giraffe, a sloth, a giraffe, a turtle and even a ladybug:

With dainty speed

I tiptoe, red

as a pomegranate seed,

a holly berry,

a hawthorne bead.

The three kings make it to the stable, too, setting up a wonderful verse entitled "The Queens Came Late." The closing poem is an ode to the mothers who couldn't make it to Bethlehem, too busy were they with their own babies.

* "Four Candles for Simon," by Gerda Marie Scheidl, illustrated by Marcus Pfister (North-South Books, $13.95, 26 pages, all ages) is an engaging parable. Simon is a young shepherd who accidentally lets one of his lambs stray.

The owner of the flock angrily sends Simon off to find the lamb. One of the other shepherds, worried about Simon, gives him a lantern with four candles to light his way.

During his search, Simon is tested four times. Each time he responds with kindness, unselfishly sharing his candles with strangers in need. The last stranger is an infant in a stable, and it is there that Simon finds his lost lamb.

Mr. Pfister's soft paintings lend just the right glow. His animals have such expressive eyes that they would talk if they weren't so wise.

I would rate this book much higher than Mr. Pfister's "The Christmas Star" (North-South Books, $16.95, 32 pages, ages 5-8), which retailers are pushing this month. It uses the same hologram foil that made his "The Rainbow Fish" a hit last year. In this case, the glitter is a gimmick to pull readers into a tradition retelling of the Nativity story.

* "Christmas Gif': An Anthology of Christmas Poems, Songs and Stories Written by and about African-Americans," compiled by Charlemae Hill Rollins, illustrated by Ashley Bryan (Morrow Junior Books, $14, 106 pages, all ages) is a new edition of the book first published in 1963.

Mr. Bryan's black-and-white, linoleum prints are a handsome match for the prose and poetry collected by Ms. Rollins (1897-1979), a librarian known nationally for her crusade to erase stereotypes of blacks in children's books.

Here she gathered poems by Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Effie Lee Newsome. There are spirituals and, at the back, 18 recipes that slave cooks passed down, ranging from hog's-head cheese and sweet potato pone to johnnycake and spoon bread.

* "The Christmas Donkey" by Gillian McClure (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $15, 32 pages, ages 4-8) takes an original look at the story of Mary and Joseph, through the eyes of the donkey that carried them to Bethlehem.

Arod is a stubborn, proud animal that the donkey dealer can't get rid of. No one wants the insolent beast who brays, "Only a king is good enough for me." He is the only donkey left to buy

when Joseph begins his journey.

Arod does his best to make the ride miserable for Mary, but his every misdeed is met with a miracle. By the time they get to the stable, a humbled Arod is happy to kneel before his King.

* "A Christmas Surprise for Chabelita" by Argentina Palacio, illustrated by Lori Lohstoeter (BridgeWater Books, $14.95, 32 pages, ages 5-9) is set in Panama. Chabelita is a young girl who stays with her grandparents because her mother needs to take a teaching job in the city.

Chabelita has a fine time with her grandparents, and her mother returns home to visit as many weekends as she can. The surprise comes when Chabelita recites a poem at her school's holiday program. This is a simple story that any child with absent parents can appreciate, and Ms. Lohstoeter's impressionist paintings make readers want to linger.

* "Nutcracker Noel" by Kate McMullan, pictures by Jim McMullan (Michael di Capua/HarperCollins, $15, 32 pages, ages 3 and up) is a book for realists in tights.

Our hero, Noel, is not exactly thrilled when she is assigned to be one of the trees in her class's production of "The Nutcracker." To make matters worse, snooty Mia gets the part of the gingerbread-cookie doll, much to the delight of her mink-coated mom, the ultimate stage mother.

Noel gets over her disappointment and decides to be the best tree she can possibly be, and along the way she teaches Mia a thing or two about making dreams come true.

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