The National Catholic Review
Maryann Cusimano Love
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Christmas is the heart of a child’s calendar. Besides the obvious presents and sweets, there is the deeper attraction: the Nativity story. In Jesus’ birth, children hear themes tremendously empowering for the under-4-foot crowd: the supreme importance of a poor child, that kings and rulers both worshipped and feared a child, and that a young child could change the world. In Christmas, the theological imagination meets the child’s imagination, both suggesting a world in which children matter, and make a difference.

A number of new children’s books pick up this theme of the power that even the very young can exert. A trio of children’s Christmas picture books show children transforming their families through the simple power of their good deeds. You may have thought the rich Rockefeller family purchased the first Christmas tree to illuminate New York City’s landmark Rockefeller Center. They did not. Instead grateful workers who built Rockefeller Center raised the first tree there in 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression, to show their thankfulness for having jobs when a quarter of all U.S. workers were unemployed. The Carpenter’s Gift, by David Rubel (Random House, ages 4-8) imagines that true story from the fictional point of view of Henry, a poor boy helping his struggling family by selling Christmas trees, who gave the construction workers the first Rockefeller Center tree. The workers returned Henry’s kindness, helping his family build a home. Today Rockefeller Center’s owners donate the wood from the tree to Habitat for Humanity International to help needy families build their homes, and the epilogue of the book discusses the work of Habitat for Humanity. Illustrated with pencil and pastels by Jim LaMarche that match the simple tale, this story of need and helping hands resonates in our difficult economic times.

In A Christmas Tree for Pyn, by Olivier Dunrea (Philomel/Penguin Putnam, ages 4-8), Pyn’s gruff father tells her they cannot have a Christmas tree, but she is not discouraged. She wears down his resistance to having a tree, and to being called “Papa” after the death of Pyn’s mother. Like many artist-written books, the text is not as engaging as the lovely art.

Similarly, Home for Christmas offers all the intricate Scandinavian winter scenes for which artist Jan Brett is known and loved (Putnam, ages 4-8). Rollo, the wild “Prodigal son” troll, returns home with a more selfless heart. The story doesn’t sing, but the art will have you reaching for a cup of hot chocolate.

Jane Goodall discerned her future as a young child, when she was given a stuffed chimpanzee toy. By age 10, Jane declared that she would go to Africa, live with animals and observe them. She was told her dream was impossible, both because she was a girl and because her family had little money. She was not dissuaded, her mother encouraged her, and she became a leading scientist, a United Nations “Messenger of Peace” and an environmental educator, founding the Roots and Shoots organization for children and the Jane Goodall Institute to encourage environmental education, conservation and action. Me...Jane, by Patrick McDonnell (Little Brown, ages 4-8) whimsically combines cartoonish artwork with photos and quotes from the real Jane, to encourage young readers to reach for their dreams. As Goodall notes, “The life of each one of us makes a difference...and we have a choice as to what sort of difference we make. The life of each one of us matters.”

Jessie and Evan Treski take that theme to heart and try to stand up for themselves against a popular crook. What are kids to do when the richest boy in the neighborhood steals their hard-earned lemonade-stand money, buys the latest 3D video game system, and instead of becoming a pariah for his crime, becomes the most popular kid in the class as everyone wants to try out the newest tech toy? In Jacqueline Davies’s The Lemonade Crime (Houghton Mifflin, ages 8-12), the aggrieved siblings take the law into their own hands and set up a trial by a jury of their fourth-grade peers. By turns funny and insightful, the brother and sister learn that courts do not always produce justice, but forgiveness and reconciliation, even among “frenemies,” is always within reach.

Anyone who has ever observed a child’s glee in pushing an elevator button will understand the appeal of Herve Tullet’s ingenious Press Here (Chronicle, ages 4-8). Instead of telling children not to touch, Tullet tells them to go ahead, press the button, shake the book, etc. Without a single pop-up, lift-the-flap or computer chip, the old-school Press Here is fully interactive. Young readers delight when the turn of the page reveals that each of their actions “created” a correlating visual reaction in the illustrated dots. Our children call this “the magical book.” Be prepared for multiple readings.

E-books take another approach to interactivity and agency. They can empower children with technology. Some provide a helpful aid for early literacy. But in the case of children’s picture books, this also means many titles that cannot decide if they are books or video games. Do the electronic add-ons enhance or detract?

For chapter books and older readers, the choice of e-books or print books is simply one of price, convenience and personal preference for how you want your text served up. Do you want the cheaper and hardier print book, which can be dropped, brought to the sandy beach or wet pool, left in a hot car or accidentally slept on? Or is the price of pampering the fussier, expensive e-reader worthwhile, so you can easily carry an entire library with you wherever you go? The devices are addictive, and lifesavers for people for whom access to bookstores and libraries is difficult.

Many e-readers, like Barnes & Noble’s Nooks, are fully functional touch-screen tablet computers at a fraction of the iPad’s cost. This presents both opportunities and challenges. It opens up educational Web sites to children without tying up the family computer, but it also means parental surveillance of children’s Web use on the e-reader. E-books are good news for publishers trying to compete for eyeballs and wallets with screens and the Internet.

But is what is good for publishers good for your children? E-readers are hailed as interactive, child-centric learning devices that can help younger children develop early reading readiness skills, experience the joy of independent reading through the “Read to you” setting and interest older children in reading, particularly reluctant readers and boys, because these groups may view electronic devices as “cooler” than books.

Do children’s e-books live up to the hype? They can, but for picture books the buyer must truly beware. Only a fraction of children’s books are available in e-book form, so choices are narrow; blockbuster series and celebrity authors get more attention. Most of the print books reviewed in the beginning of this article are not available as e-books. Children’s picture books are both works of literature and works of art. Shrinking a 20-inch spread to a tiny 6-inch screen can produce sometimes illegible results. Zooming in to see the text better, you chop off the picture. It is a zero-sum conundrum. The genre is new and evolving, so there are few standards.

As fans of audio books know, the narrator may be a delightful addition to the book. Actor Andre Braugher’s narration of President Obama’s children’s book, Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters, is a wonderful counterpoint to Loren Long’s optimistic artwork and the inspirational stories of Americans from George Washington to Helen Keller, César Chávez and Sitting Bull. Ray Charles’s narration of the rhythmic alphabet book Chica Chica Boom Boom, by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault, with bright illustrations by Lois Ehlert, sets a toes-tapping beat to help children learn the alphabet. But you may also be dismayed by narrators whose voices sound like fingers on a blackboard. You may enjoy the Australian comedian Barry Humphries’s character Dame Edna on late night television but find him grating as the narrator of the popular e-book series about the pig Olivia.

Dr. Seuss, pioneer of children’s books, is ironically also a pioneer of e-books, despite his death 20 years ago. The first books to be made into e-books were Dr. Seuss books, used in library and school computers before Nooks and Kindles existed. Oceanhouse Media is a quality e-book and book app producer. They start with a focal point in the art so you can see something well before panning out to show as much of the whole artwork as possible on the small screen space. The words light up as the narrator reads them. When children touch the words in the story, the word is re-read to them. When children touch pictures on the screen, the corresponding word appears.

Dr. Seuss’s new book, The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories (Random House, ages 6 and up) is a collection of seven stories released in magazines in the early 1950s, and now published for the first time in book form. In the title story, a duck finds a magic bippolo seed and is planning to wish for some needed food, when a tall cat (a precursor to the Cat in the Hat) tempts him to excess and loss. It is a parable about greed often repeated in Dr. Seuss’s later works, and a message that resonates in our consumer culture and Occupy Wall Street days. As Dr. Seuss once quipped, “I’m subversive as hell.” There are fewer pictures and less graceful rhymes than in his later works, but even Dr. Seuss’s early work holds its own in both print and e-book format.

When done well, children’s books and e-books can empower young readers by seeding the power of reading, and reminding even the most pint-sized readers of their worth and strength.

Read additional reviews of electronic children's books.

Maryann Cusimano Love, a professor of international relations at the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., is the author of several children’s books, most recently You Are My Wish (Philomel Books).

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