It’s as much a part of our culture’s Christmas traditions as decorated trees, mistletoe, or songs about red-nosed reindeer: the Christmas book.
And that’s why the holiday season is one of the busiest times of the year for the Pulaski County Public Library. A word of advice: If you want to check out Christmas-y reading material, get there early.
“Usually it starts well before Christmas because people know we’ll put the books out,” said Carol Sexton, who serves as the county’s Children’s Librarian. “It started the day after Thanksgiving, and a good amount of them were probably out the first week in December. ... We had the Christmas books on a cart that was full front and back, and now there’s probably only one shelf that has books on it.”
And that’s even considering there’s a lot to choose from. After all, authors have been churning out yuletide tomes for centuries — people are still reading Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” for instance, and it first came out in 1843.
Everyone has their favorite — the books they remember their own parents or grandparents reading to them near a roaring winter fireplace when they were little, something as enduring as the poem “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” And perhaps one day, today’s youth will read “Dinosaur vs. Santa” to their own children, recalling it just as fondly.
But are the more time-tested books still frequent check-outs at the Pulaski County Public Library?
“Absolutely,” said Sexton. “I think there’s a whole genre of books that might be more appealing (to current kids) — it might be (something like) the Dora version (of an older story) — but I certainly think the old ones are just as wonderful and people gravitate toward this. A lot of them say, ‘I remember those,’ and want to share them with their child.”
So just what are the most popular Christmas books these days?
• “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” by Clement Moore — First written in 1823, this beloved verse gave us iconic lines like “Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse,” and the image of Santa’s belly shaking like a bowl full of jelly. It’s also how we know the names of Santa’s airborne reindeer.
“It’s a wonderful book that has been around for generations and generations,” said Sexton. “You have to hear that during the Christmas season.”
• “Dream Snow” by Eric Carle — This 2000 book features a Santa-like farmer who settles in for a Christmas Eve nap, and has a fantastic festive dream.
“All of Carle’s books are interactive, and usually they do something amazing,” said Sexton. “At the end of the book, it makes beautiful music. It’s a wonderful book because it repeats numbers 1-5 for small children, and has animals they recognize, so it’s a very sweet story for younger people.”
• “Pete the Cat Saves Christmas” by Eric Litwin — It only came out this year, but this groovy cool cat from a popular series of books who helps out Santa when he gets sick has already made his presence felt at the local library.
“This is his fourth book and he’s hugely popular,” said Sexton. “We do a shadow puppet play of this book too. It’s a lot of fun.”
• “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” — Released in 1971, this one (known as “The Worst Kids in the World” in some other countries) has been turned into a play and TV special, and is well-remembered by many of today’s parents. It tells of a ragtag group of delinquent kids who put their own spin on the Sunday School Christmas play.
“For chapter book readers, it’s a wonderful, very funny, very typical, can-happen-in-real-life story,” said Sexton. “We probably have 20-something copies of this, and at least half of them are out right now.”
• “Mouse’s First Christmas” by Lauren Thompson — This 2003 release introduces the eponymous rodent — as well as many young readers — to all the images, smells, and traditions from this time of year.
“It gives you an introduction to the very basic symbols and signs associated with Christmas,” said Sexton. “It’s a very simple story with wonderful illustrations.”
• “Dinosaur vs. Santa” by Bob Shea — Seems like an odd combo, perhaps, but when a young dinosaur roars his way to completing various holiday tasks in this newly-released book, it’s “Jurassic Park” meets the North Pole.
“Dinosaur lovers love this book,” said Sexton, who confirmed a reporter’s suspicion that the story is popular among little boys.
• “The Polar Express” by Chris Van Allsburg — The book has been a favorite since the mid-’80s, and in 2004 became a Christmas classic as a film as well. Still, for Sexton, it’s hard to replace the sensation gained from seeing the illustrations and reading the story of a boy whose faith in the magic of the holiday is restored by a nocturnal train journey to the North Pole.
“I get cold chills whenever I read this,” said Sexton. “I never read it without having a bell in my hand — I can still hear that bell ringing. It’s not a new (book), but it’s one of the wonderful old stand-bys that work well every Christmas.”
• Also in demand are informational books about the origins of the holiday season as we know it today — and as others know it.
“We get a lot of people who want books about Christmas in other countries and other traditions,” said Sexton. “A lot of people have been coming in asking about why we have Santa Claus, or St. Nicholas vs. Santa Claus, we’ve been giving out information on that too.
“We certainly will (provide books) about the signs and symbols of Christmas traditions if we have them available, but those books have been long checked out, so we will get the information if we don’t have it in a book,” she added. “We have reference books downstairs, so a lot of times we will borrow from those.
“(People are) just curious,” she continued. “They want to give children the background on why we do what we do at Christmas. It’s been all different ages, but for a while there, every day somebody was asking me about the signs and symbols of Christmas.”
The library also provides activities for children during the season, like the recent “Breakfast with Santa” featuring doughnuts and milk, and Friday’s “Holiday Songs and Stories,” which allowed library staffers to read some of the favorites mentioned above in between festive tunes accompanied by piano and guitar.
And then of course there’s Dewey, the resident “elf on the shelf” — from another popular book that’s launched a whole new Christmas tradition — who keeps watch over all the children in the library to make sure they’re behaving nicely, and not being naughty.
Naturally, the children who visit the library have their own favorite books. MacKenzie Brunson, 12, likes the Dr. Seuss classic “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”
“It’s just a good book,” she said. “It teaches that Christmas is not just about the tree and presents.”
Caleb Leach, age 5, is also a “Grinch” fan, but more for the star — “I just like him,” reported Leach. A girl at his table in the children’s section of the library, Cassidy Cataldo, age 4, excitedly told of how the Grinch’s mean heart grew three sizes, but acknowledged that she was more of a Frosty the Snowman fan because “he’s a boy.”
It’s this kind of interest in the words of authors written ages ago, yet still are read today, that warms the heart of Sexton and the staff of the Pulaski County Public Library.
“Is it heartening to me that they want to read? Absolutely,” said Sexton. “The sweetest sound in the world is hearing a child cry because they have to leave the library; we get a lot of that because they want to stay.
“They learn that at the hands, at the knees of the adults,” she added. “They’re the ones who foster that love of reading and that tradition. I always tell them that using the library should be like brushing their teeth — something they do every day. The library should be part of what they do every week at least but not a reward or punishment, just part of the routine.
“I love to see (kids light up) when they walk through the door,” said Sexton. “It’s the best.”