Santa’s sleigh is filled to overflowing with holiday books for kids

Posted Nov. 30, 2008, at 9:19 p.m.

By Leanne Italie

A peg-legged pirate St. Nick with a sleigh pulled by sea horses, and a big-headed flying caribou who’s fed up with the cult of Rudolph provide fresh spin for the holidays on a beloved Christmas poem for kids.

Clement Clarke Moore’s “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” has delighted one and all since it first appeared anonymously in a newspaper in 1823. This season, some oldie-but-goodie versions are available, along with a few wacky new ones amid piles of pleasing picture books for Christmas and Hanukkah.

• “A Pirate’s Night Before Christmas,” ($14.95, ages 4-8, Sterling) by Philip Yates, with illustrations by Sebastia Serra.

This is a belly-laugh of a book for young buccaneers, loaded with jargon that lends itself to amusing read-alouds.

Christmas Eve aboard the Black Sark has the pirates “snorin’ like pigs in thar beds, while visions of treasure chests danced in thar heads.” With a shout of “Avast!” from the poop deck, seafaring Santa emerges from the mist with a Captain Hook hand and one good leg, snarling at his harnessed team of giant sea horses from his shell sleigh: “Now, Salty! Now, Scurvy! Now, Sinbad an’ Mollie!” A couple of women pirates are on board and there’s a surprise for the ship’s hardworking lookout.

• “The Dinosaurs’ Night Before Christmas,” ($18.99, ages 4-8, Chronicle) by Anne Muecke, with illustrations by Nathan Hale.

A boy is snug in his New York City apartment bed when a clatter from the American Museum of Natural History across the street awakens him. Racing over snow in bare feet, he walks into a dinosaur holiday party in the fossil room.

Lighting a yule log in the middle of the floor and munching on gingerbread in the shape of Pterosaurs, the boy is hoisted by his new friends to place a star atop their tree, then the booming voice of Santasaurus swells as he calls to his dino-deer Bronto and Maia and Steggie and Packy, Tri-tops and Raptor and Rexxie and Bracki!

Included is a CD of dinosaur-themed holiday songs and a read-aloud of the book by Al Roker. A portion of book sales goes to the museum.

• “Night Before Christmas” ($17.99, ages 4-8, Putnam), written and illustrated by Jan Brett.

This is the 10th-anniversary hardcover of Brett’s magical vision that honors the Victorian feel of the poem with Stockbridge, Mass., as the setting. She includes lively margin art that’s a story unto itself, lots of animals and a twist all her own: a couple of stowaway elves.

• “Alaskan Night Before Christmas” ($15.95, ages 4-8, Pelican) by Tricia Brown and illustrated by Alan Stacy.

The head of Santa’s team is a self-centered caribou named Kotz, short for the Alaskan town Kotzebue. With a flashy smile, he hogs the media spotlight and dreams of stardom a la Rudolph, but he ends up down and out in Anchorage instead.

• “Racecar Driver’s Night Before Christmas” ($15.95, ages 4-8, Pelican) by Una Belle Townsend and illustrated by Rick Anderson.

The book has “old Santy Claus” in a fireproof red suit as a late starter in a bust-’em-up Christmas Eve race dubbed the Jingle Bell Jammer.

• “Hawaiian Night Before Christmas” ($15.95, ages 9-12, Pelican), written and illustrated by Carolyn Macy.

Here Santa rides in on the balmy trade breezes aboard an outrigger canoe pulled by sea turtles. The book is filled with Hawaiian words and has bare-chested Santa in a malo (men’s cloth wrapped around his hips). After leaving gifts near a trimmed coconut tree, he bids: “Aloha, and Mele Kalikimaka to all!”

• “A Flake Like Mike” (HarperCollins, $16.99, ages 3-8, for sale exclusively at Saks Fifth Avenue stores and Saks.com) by Mike Reiss and illustrated by Chris Capuozzo.

A curlicue snowflake named Mike is shunned by the mass of lookalike flakes, but he leads a bloodless revolution against conformity with a smile on his face. The story and art with bohemian flair are the inspiration for the Saks holiday windows at the flagship store in New York. A portion of proceeds go to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

• “The Nutcracker” (HarperCollins, $24.99, ages 5-up), written and illustrated by Patricia Fry.

This spectacular pop-up version of the holiday classic offers colorful and intricate paper cuts that include a sumptuous Marzipan Palace, a Christmas tree that unfurls to nearly a foot tall and a fierce, multiheaded mouse king with a sword.

• “A Very Marley Christmas” (HarperCollins, $17.99, ages 4-8) by John Grogan and illustrated by Richard Cowdrey.

Coinciding with the Christmas Day release of the movie “Marley & Me,” starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston, the hyper yellow pup runs off with the lawn lights but leaves smiles on the faces of his family in the little house on Churchill Road.

• “Reindeer Christmas” (Simon & Schuster, $15.99, ages 4-8) by Mark Kimball Moulton and illustrated by Karen Hillard Good.

A grandmother and her two grandchildren on a walk in a snowy forest stumble on an ailing reindeer with a mighty resume that includes an ability to soar. Told in rhyme with touching, dreamlike illustrations.

• “All I Want for Christmas” (Blue Apple Books, $9.95, ages 4-8), written and illustrated by Deborah Zemke.

What does a starfish want for Christmas? Two and a half pairs of mittens, of course. How about a skunk, a woodpecker or a porcupine? This quick little animal book might appeal more to toddlers.

• “Priscilla and the Great Santa Search” (Little, Brown and Co., $16.99, ages 4-8) by Nathaniel Hobbie and illustrated by Jocelyn Hobbie.

The fourth in the Hobbie sibs’ series starring the pink-loving Priscilla. This time, she and gal pal Bettina head north in search of the real Santa after spotting a couple of bad mall impostors.

• “What Dogs Want for Christmas” (Sleeping Bear Press, $16.95, all ages), written and illustrated by Kandy Radzinski.

Nipping at the heels of last year’s “What Cats Want for Christmas,” Radzinksi offers equal time to the bow-wows, including Watson the Scottie as he appeals to Santa: “I’d love some mittens made of Persian kittens.”

• “When Santa Lost His Ho! Ho! Ho!” (HarperCollins, $14.99, ages 4-8), written and illustrated by Laura Rader.

Santa is dealing with the mysterious loss of his trademark belly-laugh. Gargling doesn’t help. Throat spray is useless. Not even the comedy stylings of his elves can help him, but Mrs. Claus has a plan.

• “I See Santa Everywhere” (Hyperion, $12.99, ages 4-7), written and illustrated by Glenn McCoy.

The book opens with a boggle-eyed boy sitting in his therapist’s office beneath busts of Freud and Dr. Phil, unloading his holiday angst over seeing seedy Santas lurking everywhere. There he is as a plumber under the sink, Christmas tree boxers on display. And again as a tattoo parlor customer, burger hut window worker and store greeter. Paranoia?

• “The Lump of Coal” (HarperCollins, $12.99, ages 4-up) by Lemony Snicket and illustrated by Brett Helquist.

Not exactly for the preschool set, Snicket’s bite-size unfulfilled lump of coal is looking for a miracle. Drawn in tuxedo tails, the coal wants to make great art, or at least a great barbecue fire.

• “Merry Christmas, Ollie?” (Houghton Mifflin, $12.95, ages 4-8), written and illustrated by Olivier Dunrea.

The endearing goslings are waiting in the snow for Father Christmas Goose. Wearing a red and yellow striped stocking cap, Ollie captures the impatience of childhood as he stands on his head, hops around and shouts, “I want Christmas now!”

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