As Christmas approaches, cuddle up with picture books that pack a surprising amount of holiday cheer into a mere 40 pages. They’re perfect for sharing with the little bundles of joy in your life: young readers!
★ Tiny Reindeer
Chris Naylor-Ballesteros’ Tiny Reindeer isn’t just small. In fact, he’s hoof-high to Santa’s “big, stamping, snorting reindeer.” Naylor-Ballesteros takes the tiny theme and runs with it, revealing entertaining new delights with every page turn.
Tiny Reindeer yearns to be useful, but clever vignettes depict him tangled in reins and harnesses, taking an unexpected bath in a water bowl and covered in tape and twine after attempting to wrap gifts. Then he stumbles upon a letter from a girl asking Santa for a little reindeer to go with her small sleigh, which was crafted for her by her grandfather. “He wanted to make a reindeer too,” she writes, “but couldn’t in the end so my sleigh won’t ever fly anywhere.”
Naylor-Ballesteros handles the death of a grandparent subtly and with touching sensitivity as Tiny Reindeer realizes this is his time to shine. Clad in a jaunty hat and scarf, he takes a flying leap into the back of Santa’s sleigh, parachutes down the girl’s chimney (using her letter as his chute) and then faces his most challenging obstacle yet: climbing the stairs.
During this busy time of year, it’s easy for children to feel overlooked or left out of adults’ hustle and bustle. Young readers will adore Tiny Reindeer’s determined attempts to fit in and stand out. Naylor-Ballesteros paces his story perfectly, and every player, including the girl, Tiny Reindeer and Santa himself, gets their moment in the spotlight. Tiny Reindeer is a wonderful addition to the Christmas picture book canon that reminds us of the special gifts we all have to offer, no matter how tiny we might be.
The Christmas Owl
A unique blend of fact and fiction, The Christmas Owl follows a little owl during an incredible true journey that took place in 2020.
After delivering a spruce tree from Oneonta, New York, workers erecting the Christmas tree display at New York City’s Rockefeller Center discovered a saw-whet owl, the smallest owl species in the northeastern United States, huddled in its branches. The public was enchanted by the tiny hitchhiker, who was transported to a wildlife rehabilitation center in upstate New York run by Ellen Kalish, where he was given the name Rockefeller—Rocky for short.
Co-authors Kalish and Gideon Sterer (The Midnight Fair) transform this incident into a magical holiday tale centered on Little Owl as she tries to learn the meaning of Christmas. Ramona Kaulitzki’s illustrations set a festive mood from the start as Little Owl flies out ahead of a group of animals—moose, rabbit, skunk and squirrel—galloping through falling snow. In the distance, a village nestles in the valley below, dotted with towering evergreen trees. One of the trees is Little Owl’s home, destined to be cut down and transported far away. Kaulitzki’s art is bathed in beautiful shades of deep blue, giving each page a wintry glow. Warm touches of yellow, including twinkling lights and the yellows of taxis, trucks and workers’ jackets, add to the effect.
The book focuses on Little Owl’s perspective every step of the way. Her wide eyes reflect wisdom and surprise simultaneously, whether she’s gazing around at a strange new urban landscape or looking up into Kalish’s kind, welcoming eyes at the wildlife center. Little Owl’s innocent confusion about Christmas, a new word she hears from both humans and her woodland friends, reflects many children’s sense of wonder about the season. As Kalish nurses Little Owl back to health, the owl ponders, “Could Christmas be caring? Could Christmas be kind?”
Fascinating back matter provides a nice contrast to the anthropomorphized tale. Kalish describes exactly what happened to the real Rocky, including her release into the wild to begin migrating south. The Christmas Owl is an intriguing fable that offers young readers much to contemplate, including the impact of human actions on the natural world.
Zee Grows a Tree
How do Christmas trees grow so big and tall, anyway? Zee Grows a Tree cleverly weaves the details into a fictional story that juxtaposes a child’s growth against that of a Douglas fir.
On the day that Zee Cooper is born, a seedling pokes up from the soil at her family’s tree farm. Her parents put it in a pot labeled “Zee’s Tree,” and their baby girl learns to love and nurture it as it grows alongside her, eventually inspiring her to want to become a botanist when she’s an adult.
Author Elizabeth Rusch excels at showing similarities between Zee and her tree. At age 4, Zee is shorter than the kids in her class. “Everyone grows at different rates,” Zee’s father tells her. She repeats his reassuring words as she measures her tree, which is also shorter than the other trees. Rusch adds touches of drama throughout, depicting Zee going to great lengths to protect her fir from extreme heat and cold. Rusch also incorporates brief factual notes about fir trees on various pages, as well as more extensive information at the end of the book.
Will Hillenbrand’s lively illustrations infuse each page of this quiet, measured story with action and emotion. As the tree thrives, Zee soars through the air in a tire swing, heads off on the school bus and bounces a soccer ball on her knee. Hillenbrand expertly portrays the strong bond that Zee feels with her tree, capturing the curiosity, concern and compassion on her face as she inspects the sapling. When she camps alongside it during a heat wave, her lantern casts a lovely glow as she reads aloud to her tree, her gray cat curled up at her knee, ice cubes spread around the tree’s trunk to ward off the effects of drought.
Although Zee Grows a Tree ends on a seasonal note (don’t worry, Zee’s tree stays firmly planted in the ground), this informative tale will be enjoyed by young naturalists at any time of year.