Given our climate, it’s no surprise that Canadian kidlit publishers make the most of winter-themed titles, releasing a few every fall. This year’s crop is strong and inclusive, with something to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or just the joy (yes, -20°C can be joyful) of winter. As these four picture books show, the season comes in a rainbow of colours and a spectrum of tones ranging from serious to silly.
Picture-book veterans Mireille Messier and Pierre Pratt’s realistic story is steeped in the moody, aggressive blues of an urban ice storm. In The Branch, which has been shortlisted for a Governor General’s Literary Award for illustration, a young girl’s favourite tree loses a limb to freezing rain. Her elderly neighbour comes to the rescue, offering to help her build something new out of her beloved branch. The pair works away for the rest of the winter toward a heartwarming end product. Pratt’s winter is both bold and cozy, capturing the icy teals and dark turquoises of turbulent weather that take on a green hue when layered over white snow. The flap copy explicitly mentions the “maker” element of the plot, a buzzword meant to encapsulate the problem-solving and critical-thinking skills inherent in building and tinkering. While the girl and her neighbour certainly get their hands dirty measuring, sawing, and sanding, this is really a story of new life and the kindness of others.
Community also comes to the rescue in author-illustrator Richard Ungar’s Yitzi and the Giant Menorah. Cast in firework-bright watercolours, Ungar’s winter is an explosion of vivid purples, pinks, and oranges. In this straightforward tale of gratitude, the Mayor of Lublin gives the people of Chelm a giant menorah. The townsfolk are thrilled but struggle with finding ways to express the depths of their appreciation. The plot proceeds like a positive folktale sans villain, with various citizens botching their attempts to thank the mayor, until young Yitzi suggests a touching solution. The intensity of the illustrations make this a big, beautiful celebration of the real meaning behind giving and receiving gifts, regardless of religious background.
The dependable duo of Fox and Squirrel return in a third book by Ruth Ohi. Fox and Squirrel: The Best Christmas Ever finds Squirrel too busy collecting tree-trimming accoutrements to celebrate with Fox. The text is sparse and the conflict is minimal, and while this is ideal in books aimed at two-to three-year-olds, the story could use a bit more tension: Fox isn’t all that sad when his friend is busy and Squirrel quickly apologizes without really reflecting on his behaviour. But their sweet, safe world remains intact with subtle pastels warming up the cotton-candyish snowdrifts. Adjusted proportions render the buddies almost the same size on the page, while Fox’s toothless mouth also assures readers this will be a largely conflict-free Christmas, gentle enough for even the youngest of them.
Those who prefer their winter with a touch of classic Rankin/Bass animation nostalgia need look no farther than Maureen Fergus and Cale Atkinson’s uproarious role-reversal comedy, The Day Santa Stopped Believing in Harold. Here, Santa is a gigantic, apple-cheeked drama queen, lamenting to Mrs. Claus that he has stopped believing in the existence of a child named Harold: “I still like the idea of Harold … But lately I’ve come to realize that there are a lot of things about Harold that just don’t make sense.” Yes, Santa employs all the arguments that you commonly hear from kids about their disbelief in the Jolly Old Elf. And it’s hilarious. Atkinson flexes his animator muscles in his punchy Photoshop art and Fergus’s text is funny without being showy or forced. The giant Santa – seriously, this is the biggest, roundest Santa you will ever see – is so delightfully childlike and naive in his stubbornness that you almost wish Harold actually didn’t exist. The gag pays off in a satisfying and delightful climactic meeting between Santa and Harold.
Unlike a batch of holiday cookies, there really isn’t a dud in this bunch. These four unique perspectives on winter offer something for everyone.