Librarians tell tales that teach
One-hundred-and-sixty years ago, Charles Dickens set pen to paper and told a story that revived ancient Christmas customs in the midst of an industrial revolution.
A Christmas Carol, written in staves or verses, just as its name suggests, is a tale of transformation — a miserly, bitter old man is reborn one Christmas Eve as he is visited by spirits that show him his past life, his present life, and what his future will be if he doesn’t change his stingy ways.
The story is still read today and retold in many and varied forms — most recently last week as a musical on a Hilltown stage. It gave us the miser’s phrase “Bah, humbug!” But it also popularized the familiar “Merry Christmas.”
A Christmas Carol embodied the end of the puritanical observance of Christ’s birth, which prohibited merriment, and ushered in the festival of generosity, as many know it today.
In this current age of consumerism and global digital communication, we wondered what modern books are shaping our celebration of the holiday. Who better to turn to for advice than our local librarians? They hold sway in a place where children still gather, in person, to hear stories and where grown-ups come to find fodder for the mind.
Tried and true and brand new in Voorheesville
Gail Brown has been a youth-services librarian at Voorheesville for 13 years and has loved books all her life.
“I always liked to go to the Scotia library with my mother...It was next to Jumpin’ Jacks,” she said, recalling the popular eatery beside the Mohawk River.
Her first career was as a high school English teacher. She went back to school after her own children were grown to reshape her career.
Now, to find the best books for story hours at the Voorheesville Public Library, Brown reads reviews, subscribes to newsletters from publishers, and follows bloggers.
She still likes some of what she calls the “tried and true” books for the season.
One of those is Dream Snow, by Eric Carle. The back of the book has a picture of the author with Barry Mosher, an artist to whom the book is dedicated. Brown enjoys pointing out to the kids how much both of those men look like Santa Claus.
Dream Snow tells the story of a farmer who diligently cares for his animals; he has named them One, Two, Three, Four, and Five. After a day of chores, he falls asleep and dreams about snow.
One of the book’s features that Brown most appreciates is the “interactive pages.” She explains: “He’s lying in his chair and you can cover him up with snow.”
Brown reads the text: “They gently covered him with a white blanket.”
When the farmer wakes up, he is greeted with real snow. He has five gifts — one for each animal.
“It’s simple yet charming,” Brown says of the story. “It highlights the miracle of snow and the beauty of giving. I talk to the kids about hard work and the way the farmer takes care of his animals.”
Another favorite of Brown is a counting book by Nancy Tafuri, who both wrote and illustrated Counting to Christmas.
“On each page, a little girl counts the days to Christmas,” said Brown. “She has a lovely fluffy dog with her all the time.”
On the days leading up to Dec. 25, the girl does such things as cutting and pasting; writing and mailing a letter to Santa; pouring, measuring, and mixing to make a gingerbread house; or singing and playing on her recorder at a holiday concert. She also strings chains of popcorn and cranberries and, on Christmas Eve, she goes out to the woods to decorate a tree with food the wild animals can eat.
“It’s a story about giving to the woodland animals...the bear, the raccoon, the fox and the deer, so they don’t go hungry,” said Brown. “The illustrations are just lovely. It has big pictures and is great for story time.”
Another favorite is from the popular “Llama, Llama” series by Anna Dewdney — Llama, Llama Holiday Drama.
The mama llama is preoccupied with the hustle and bustle of Christmas preparations, Brown relates, “And the poor little llama has a meltdown. So the mama llama stops her chores to take time to snuggle with her little llama...
“Gifts are nice but the true gift is what we have to give each other,” Brown relates.
She finds that theme of true giving transcends religious boundaries and is extolled as well in a Jewish story she likes to read — The Borrowed Hanukkah Latkes by Linda Glaser.
Brown notes that Hanukkah this year begins at sundown on the day before Thanksgiving.
The story is about a girl’s family getting ready for Hanukkah festivities. She is sent to the house of an old and lonely neighbor, Mrs. Greenberg, to borrow one item after the next.
The girl, Rachel, realizes Mrs. Greenberg is all by herself and invites her to join her family’s gathering. When Mrs. Greenberg declines, “The whole gathering comes to her house,” says Brown.
She concludes, “The best gift of all is giving time.”
Brown said she enjoys talking to the children at her story-time gatherings about sharing different traditions.
Besides the “tried and true,” Brown is excited about two new books she has found this year. “These really spoke to me,” she said.
One is Peter H. Reynolds’s The Smallest Gift of Christmas. It’s about a boy with a small package who says he needs a bigger gift. “He gets more demanding and starts shouting,” says Brown.
When he finally gets his big gift — a rocket — he is taken from his family, which makes him cry.
“He comes to realize that the smallest gift, being home with family, is the greatest gift of all,” said Brown.
Her final newfound treasure is Little Santa by Jon Agge. “It’s about what Santa was like as a little boy and is really delightful,” said Brown.
He loved the snow and loved living at the North Pole but his parents wanted to move to Florida, Brown relates. Then, when there was a terrible blizzard, he went up the chimney and found a reindeer that could fly, thereby rescuing his family.
“They realize maybe the North Pole isn’t so bad,” said Brown, noting they’re snowbirds now, spending part of the year in Florida.
“And you know the rest of the story,” she concluded, adding, “It’s really cute.”
Seasonal view for all ages in Altamont
Judith Wines, the librarian at the Altamont Free Library, recommends several seasonal books — one for each of three ages.
Wines grew up on Long Island on a potato farm — “one of the relics,” she said.
“My mom was a book person,” she went on. “My dad was always a reader.” Like a lot of men, she said, he preferred non-fiction.
Both parents read stories to grown, is now the one conducting their three children.
Wines recalls how her father would fall asleep as he read bed- time stories to her and her two brothers.
“We had to fight him to finish the story,” she said.
For the youngest readers, or those who are read to, ages 4 to 8, Wines chose Olive, the Other Reindeer by J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh.
“It’s about a dog who hears the Rudolph song on the radio,” said Wines. She thinks the line “all of the other reindeer” is “Olive, the other reindeer.”
“She becomes part of Santa’s sleigh,” said Wines. “The artwork is great...It’s cartoonish but very lush.”
Wines has a daughter, Suriya, who will turn 3 next month. “Of course I read to her,” said Wines, but Suriya, as yet, is too young to pick out a favorite holiday book.
“She got Halloween for the first time this year,” said Wines.
She uses Suriya as a test audience for the Wednesday-morning story-time books she will later read at the Altamont library.
For older kids, Wines recommends Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu. “It’s a contemporary retelling of ‘The Snow Queen,’” she explains, referring to Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale.
The book starts with a realistic, modern setting. Two friends since childhood, Hazel and Jack, go to middle school and feel a lot of pressure to find friends and fit in.
Then, the book takes a turn to the surrealistic. Jack is spirited into the woods, abducted by the Snow Queen. “Hazel’s friendship for Jack is so strong, she goes there, into this parallel world,” said Wines. “The love Hazel has for Jack melts the Snow Queen; she rescues him and brings him out...
“It’s a meditation on the power of friendship.”
Wines says adults can enjoy Breadcrumbs, too, as it is sprin- kled with references to classic children’s literature, like C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Grown-ups will also enjoy a mystery by Julia Spencer-Fleming called In the Bleak Midwinter, says Wines, breaking into song to illustrate that the title comes from a Christmas carol.
The story is set in a fictional Adirondack town where, one December night, a child is left on the steps of a parish church.
“It’s a well-written mystery,” said Wines. “All the characters have a lot of depth.” This includes a female Episcopal priest and a police chief. The plot, said Wines, has “a twist,” which she wouldn’t reveal so as not to spoil the story.
She concluded, “The book does a really good job of looking at a season of hope and a season of darkness. Holidays are both of these things.”
A mother’s perspective in Berne
Kathy Stempel developed her fierce attachment for books as a mother.
Growing up, she and her five siblings, one of them her twin, weren’t read to. Her father was in the Navy — “We went all over the place,” Stempel said — and her mother didn’t have a driver’s license and so couldn’t take her children to the library.
When Stempel had children of her own, she took them to weekly story times at the Berne library. The late Frieda Saddlemire, a revered kindergarten teacher, read the stories.
“She was my husband’s kindergarten teacher,” said Stempel. “She was a mentor to me.”
Stempel, whose children are Both parents read stories to grown, is now the one conducting the weekly story times in Berne. “I love story time. That’s my favorite part of working in the library,” she said.
Stempel holds several different jobs, one of them as a school-bus driver for Berne-Knox-Westerlo. She brings books on the bus to occupy the kids on her rural route.
“My goal, while working at the library, is to make everyone who walks through the door feel welcomed,” Stempel relates. “Most of all, the children need to feel comfortable and wanted at the library.”
She goes on, “I believe, when a child is welcomed in an environment that makes them happy, it opens up a hole to where learning can enter. Once that hole is open, it may trigger a hunger to want to read. Then that hunger becomes a desire to know more and more. And you know the old saying, ‘Knowledge is power’... If I can encourage a child to want to read, then I have accomplished my goal.”
Stempel comes up with a theme for each story time, and, in recent weeks, has been working her way through the alphabet. This week, the stories were all about the letter “J.”
Stempel read from a joke book she found at the library’s new venue. Once a church, the sweeping space with an arching ceiling, has been repurposed for books. The kids also did jumping jacks and enjoyed having more room.
Then the group recessed to the library’s community room to munch on snacks left from Sun- day’s ribbon-cutting ceremony. The kids ate Monterey Jack, with an emphasis on “J” for “Jack,” cheese, and they were surprised to learn that “jalapeño” also begins with a “J” because it sounds like it begins with an “H,” said Stempel.
Stempel has volunteered to take her story-time show on the road to the nearby Berne Elementary School where she has read to preschool and kindergarten students.
One of her favorite Christmas stories for these sessions is Mrs. Claus Takes a Vacation by Linas Alsenas. Santa’s wife is depressed by the endless snow at the North Pole and doesn’t think he should be the only one to travel. So she takes a world tour and loves it, but also misses her husband.
What Stempel likes about the book is she can do a “hands-on” presentation. She brings from her home such things as a genie’s lamp from India or a carved animal from Africa and, as Mrs. Claus visits those places, the children get to handle those treasures.
“They like to touch them,” said Stempel.
She also likes to read the Christmas poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” perhaps best known by its first line, “’Twas the night before Christmas....” Published anonymously in 1823, the now- famous poem is attributed by Clement Clarke Moore.
“I like to show the old, old pictures,” said Stempel, noting that the Berne library has a number of versions of the book.
She shows the kids at story time the more modern versions, too.
Another book she considers a classic is How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, by Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. Published in 1957, it, too, is a story told in rhymed verse.
The grouchy Grinch, with a heart “two sizes too small,” plans to steal Christmas from the Whos down in Whoville. After he takes their presents and trees and food, he expects them to be miserable but, instead, hears them singing joyous Christmas songs. He puzzles till his puzzler is sore and realizes maybe Christmas is a “little bit more” than the food and the feasting.
His transformation is not un- like that of Ebenezer Scrooge’s in Charles Dickens’s classic story — the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes and he returns the stolen goods, joining the Whos in their feasting and merriment.
“His heart,” concluded Stempel, “got bigger and bigger.”