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Books for counting down the days to Christmas

Beloved holiday books build the spirit of the season, revisiting traditions year after year as surely as Christmas carols and favorite foods. More than just a cozy fireside family ritual, reading a holiday book can also prep children on how to “read” a holiday ballet for the first time, and on why families cherish different holiday rituals in different faiths.

At Los Altos’ Linden Tree Books, 265 State St., staff pointed out a variation on the pop-up book as the perfect primer on what to expect at the ballet. “The Nutcracker: A Magic Theater Book” (Chronicle Books, 2012) by Geraldine McCaughrean, illustrated by Kristina Swarner, whizzes through the story of a young girl and her Nutcracker Prince using moving parts and boldly painted pictures to introduce the story wound around Tchaikovsky’s music.

Radio host and young adult author Ellen Kushner hijacked Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” for a bold tween-oriented use in “The Golden Dreydl” (Charlesbridge, 2010). Originally a narrated story backed by a klezmer orchestra, the text is now available as a paperback book with humorous line drawings and the refreshingly relatable opening phrase, “It was the holiday season, but Sara was not happy.”

“Dreydl” follows Sara, who’s bored with the predictable company and games at her family’s Hanukkah party. An enchanted dreidl draws her into a magical world full of Jewish folklore. She learns why heroic stories from the past can help you understand your own life and better value your own strengths.

Also playing with the power of song and sound, Ezra Jack Keats’ “The Little Drummer Boy” (Puffin Books, 1996) can be sung rather than read, and ends with sheet music. Using only lyrics and the bright rich colors of lands under an Eastern sun, Caldecott Medal winner Keats follows the drummer boy as he treks alongside three kings bringing gifts to the manger. The story is extremely simple but very sweet, and might draw music from even the most timid reader.

Eric Carle’s “Dream Snow” (Philomel, 2000) also employs very simple prose. Carle offers a chance to practice counting, leading up to a fun surprise at the end. Collage illustrations follow a farmer as he dreams, then wakes and goes about his yuletide work with animals One, Two, Three, Four and Five.

For another countdown to Christmas Day, children’s librarians at the Los Altos main library suggested indulging covert Francophile urges with Claire Masurel’s “Christmas Is Coming!” (Chronicle Books, 1998), illustrated by Marie H. Henry. Originally published in French (“Demain c’est Noel”), the story follows young Juliette through the exciting rituals of Christmas Eve, accompanied by the wiggly, joyously alive company of her stuffed-animal friends. They all have names and personalities, and they get into playful trouble as they help her bake cookies and decorate the house. When Juliette falls asleep, her stuffed menagerie is too excited to stay in bed and sneaks downstairs for a Santa sighting.

Not every human can patiently await Santa, either, as David Shannon exuberantly captures in “It’s Christmas, David!” (Blue Sky Press, 2010). Shannon specializes in illustrating good-tempered chronicles of everything little boys are told not to do – and all the terrible things they really, really would like to do. Here, he playfully captures the rules, anxieties and temptations of Christmas from the up-close, larger-than-life cartoon scrawl of a young boy with a taste for mayhem and adventure.

Shannon’s story casts Christmas Day in a new and satisfying light – as one brief break from a year of restraint, when it is OK to go on a rampage of opening and exploring and eating new things. The book is edgy enough to be adult-friendly but perfectly appropriate for children (and parents) who can take a joke.

For troublemakers of a different kind, turn to “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” (Holiday House, 1989), written by Eric A. Kimmel and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. The lavishly illustrated picture book, which snagged a Caldecott honor, follows the holiday-hating goblins that plague a village, snuffing out menorah candles and trashing dreidels left and right. As a wild adaptation of a very ancient Hanukkah story, “Hershel” shows how wit and tenacity can help a people of faith triumph even in dire circumstances.

Linden Tree Books has stocked 60 copies of the relentlessly popular classic “Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree” (Buccaneer Books, 1995) by Robert Barry, originally published in 1963. For those with nerves just barely recovered from the political drumbeat of election season, the trickle-down economics of this simple story might be a scarring reminder that partisan politics is always with us.

The rhyming-text tale follows the Christmas tree that wealthy Mr. Willowby acquires for his parlor. He must lop off the top as the tree is too tall, and the surplus tree goes home with his upstairs maid. From there, the process of top-cropping and tree-gifting repeats in settings more and more humble, until the last splinters are merrily arrayed by a family of mice six households later.

For the last and local classic, turn to Los Altos children’s book author Shirley Climo, who died this year. Her book “Cobweb Christmas: The Tradition of Tinsel” (HarperCollins, 2001) tells the magical story of an auntie with ambitions for a magnificent Christmas tree and the overlooked spiders who, in the night, complete its glory.

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