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Book Reviews

A Chanukah Noel

by Sharon Jennings; Gillian Newland, illus.

A Porcupine in a Pine Tree

by Helaine Becker; Werner Zimmerman, illus.

Christmas books often fall into one of two categories: those that set out to capture the emotional or spiritual meaning of the holiday, and those that celebrate the fun.

The warm-hearted but not overly sentimental A Chanukah Noel is one of the former. Based on a true story, the book whisks readers off to a small village in France and into the home of a Jewish family from “all the way across the ocean.” Finding herself in a new country, young Charlotte has mixed feelings. Some classmates are friendly, but one, Colette Levert, teases her and calls her “l’étrangère.”

Charlotte’s mother encourages her to embrace the culture, but the little girl feels left out of the exciting Christmas festivities that are taking over the school and the village. Her family celebrates Chanukah, but the village markets, or marchés de Noël, are alive with sparkling lights, delicious smells, and “all kinds of candies and sugared nuts and fruit.” There are garlands, toys, and trees just waiting for decorations. The family’s simple menorah pales in comparison.

When Charlotte discovers that Colette’s family can’t afford to celebrate the holiday, however, all thoughts of animosity disappear, and Charlotte is filled with purpose. Her parents tell her that Christmas won’t be happening in their own house, but she convinces them to take gifts and food to the Leverts. She even buys Colette a doll with some of the money she receives for Chanukah.

Jennings writes with gentle affection for her displaced heroine and sensitively addresses both the Jewish and Christian celebrations. Although Charlotte’s experience of Christmas is the focus of the book, Jennings nicely dovetails the two traditions with the young girl’s final realization that her heart is “filled with joy, all the joy of Christmas and Chanukah together.” 

Jennings’ evocative descriptions, together with Gillian Newland’s finely rendered illustrations, capture the sights, scents, and tastes of the French countryside. Newland uses an unusually dark palette, but it works. Though Charlotte’s story is set in the past, the book’s message is timeless: the joy of giving and sharing with family and friends far outshines a thousand shiny baubles.

In contrast to the thoughtful nature of Charlotte’s story, A Porcupine in a Pine Tree is a rollicking ride that unashamedly plunders well-loved Canadian symbols and pastimes to rewrite the traditional Christmas tune. This book is all about fun, and it’s virtually impossible to resist singing along to “Nine loons canoeing, Eight Mounties munching,” and so on.

Becker employs jaunty, alliterative prose throughout. Caribou, beavers, and sled dogs are all here, as well as the lone porcupine. All that’s missing is the maple leaf, unless you count the “ten [Toronto Maple] Leafs a-leaping.”

Werner Zimmerman’s light watercolour illustrations lack detail and depth, but his animated characters add to the cheerful buoyancy of the text. A Porcupine in a Pine Tree is an unapologetic, all-Canadian Christmas offering that will make an agreeable addition to more traditional holiday fare.