My friend Jessica Collins writes a beautiful column called “On the Children’s Shelf” over at Books, Ink. In it, she explores the value of reading children’s books (at any age) and shares the great books she discovers. After rediscovering a treasury of (almost) forgotten books last week, I asked Jessica if I could guest write today’s column, and she generously consented.
Here’s what she had to say: “I love that I can pick up a children’s book and immediately remember someone reading it to me or remember reading it to my child. I love that children’s books hold such special memories. I was thrilled when Sally asked if she could share her experience revisiting children’s holiday books this week. Enjoy!“
When my son graduated from the picture book stage, I didn’t feel sad … exactly. Since we continued reading aloud together into the next stage, I didn’t feel the loss of a favorite bonding activity. If anything, I was excited to share the treasured books of my childhood with him – Paddington Bear, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Mary Poppins. And I was looking forward to discovering new books with him. We read the entire Harry Potter and The Mysterious Benedict Society series together, among many others.
I did feel a twinge about the Christmas books, though. Christmas is magical, and children’s Christmas books capture that magic of the season so simply and deeply through elegantly synched words and images. I kept the books around for a few years, “for decorative purposes,” I liked to say. Eventually, they migrated to the bottom of a dusty stack in a neglected corner of a little-used room. These treasures that had brought such delight, all but forgotten.
On Thursdays, I volunteer as a study hall monitor with littles. This means I read with them, of course. Often, it’s books they bring or that we find on the shelves. Last Thursday, though, I thought it would be nice to read holiday-themed books. So I went into the little-used room where the neglected corner holds that dusty stack of books. And there they were, waiting.
Immediately upon locating the books, I sank down on the floor to flip through their pages. Initially, this was to assess their condition, and then I found myself getting lost in the stories and the memories they called up.
There was Bear Stays Up for Christmas by Karma Wilson and illustrated by Jane Chapman, which we loved for its warm community of friends that helps Bear stay up so he won’t miss their celebration. There was Madeline’s Christmas by Ludwig Bemelmans, which we enjoyed for the funky, totally unexpected plot twist involving flying carpets. There was If You Take a Mouse to the Movies by Laura Numeroff, whose curious mouse protagonist made us laugh with his high-energy antics. There was One Snowy Night by M. Christina Butler with pictures by Tina Macnaughton, about a sweet little hedgehog that ventures out on Christmas to share a present.
Best of all, I found The Sweet Smell of Christmas by Patricia Scarry, illustrated by J. P. Miller. I remember exactly where I bought this book and when. My son was seven months old for his first Christmas. We went down to Florida to visit family, and I bought the book at a JFK Hudson News so we would have something new and fun to read on the plane. The story features a little bear getting ready for Christmas with his parents – baking apple pie for the big day, searching the woods for a pine tree to bring home, trimming the tree with candy canes, and so on. With each activity is a scratch-and-sniff sticker. We carried on reading the story long after the scents were exhausted because we connected with the warmth and joy of the season as depicted in Scarry’s tender story and Miller’s earnest illustrations.
Among books’ many magical qualities is that they hold memories between their pages. Just as rereading a book from my childhood reminds me of who I was, what I valued, how I spent my time, rereading the books of my son’s childhood accomplishes the same, for another stage of life. Their stories continue to enchant; their gentle lessons retain their significance.
This year, when the season has passed, I will pack these treasures carefully and store them with the Christmas decorations. I will look forward to rediscovering them all over again next December.