During the holidays, I switch out the books on our book rack with some Christmas and winter-themed reading. Two of our favorites are a Nate the Great book and a sweet story about a boy’s special tree. Both make fun read-alouds, and the first one is an especially good choice for early independent readers. I hope you’ll let us know your favorite holiday books:
Nate the Great and the Crunchy Christmas
With his detective hat and his trusty dog Sludge at his side, Nate the Great is on the case, working to discover what has happened to Fang’s Christmas card from his mother. The familiar words which begin his adventure, “I, Nate the Great, am a detective. I do important things,” are well-known to fans of the Nate the Great series.
Marjorie Weinman Sharmat began writing Nate the Great books in 1972, and they are just as popular with my kids as they were when I was a kid. My son likes them for their compelling characters and detective/mystery theme, and I like them for their retro flavor and timeless storylines. Now that he is an emerging reader, books like this are at the top of my son’s list.
In Nate the Great and the Crunchy Christmas, Nate’s friend Annie asks him to help solve her dog Fang’s case, and Nate writes a note to his mother before heading out to investigate. Nate discovers that the mailman often drops the mail on the ground instead of putting it in the mailbox:
‘Sometimes Fang is so happy to see the mailman that he runs out of the house to greet him. The mailman drops the mail and flees.’ I, Nate the Great, knew exactly how the mailman felt. I said, ‘Then what?’
‘Fang runs after the mailman. They both disappear.’
Mark Simont’s watercolor illustrations on each page keep kids laughing out loud as they read or listen to the rest of the mystery. The small paperback format is perfect for little hands, while also giving young readers the satisfaction of reading a “real book.”
My edition of Nate the Great and the Crunchy Christmas includes an “Extra Fun Activities” section, which is really like having two books in one. These educational activities include:
- snowfall facts
- types of snow
- Christmas catalogs
- six fun things to do on a snowy day (crafts and experiments)
- recipes for snow ice cream, potato pancakes, and applesauce
- homemade card craft
There are also more Nate the Great activities on the publisher’s website, including free printables.
My youngest son is a huge fan of Nate the Great, and is usually inspired to act out a mystery himself after reading one of these books. Around Christmas, it is fun to have holiday-themed books featuring familiar characters, especially when they are good stories. Nate the Great and the Snowy Trail is another winter-themed title.
Sharmat’s writing style is simple to read, but smart as well. The print is large, and each line includes no more than seven words, making the book readable for beginners. My only complaint is that the book is not divided into chapters, which would make it easier to read in small bites. The vocabulary is simple, but readers will use skills like reading dialogue, anticipating punctuation like question marks and exclamation points, and comprehending what they read so they can keep up with the case. Kids will use higher order thinking to reason out the clues and to “get” the humor:
Annie was coming up our walk with her dog, Fang. Fang has bells on his collar and an elf hat on his head. ‘Doesn’t Fang look cute?’ Annie said. ‘Just like a giant elf.’ Sludge looked at me. I looked at Sludge. We both knew that all the bells and elves and jingles and jangles in the world could not make Fang look cute. Fang looked hungry.
Although the main character, Nate, is a boy, there are also girl characters (Annie and Rosamond with her cats), so this book will appeal to everyone. Marjorie Weinman Sharmat has written a companion series of four Olivia Sharp books featuring Nate’s cousin who is also a detective. Nate the Great and the Crunchy Christmas is sure to whet kids’ appetites for more mystery fun.
The Little Fir Tree
I have a special section on my bookcase of holiday books to pull out at different times of the year, and my favorites are the Christmas ones. My boys all loved Goodnight Moon when they were little, and it led to our discovery of more books by Margaret Wise Brown. I was happy to find that her book, The Little Fir Tree has been reissued with illustrations by Jim LaMarche, whose book The Raft is another of our all-time favorites.
The Little Fir Tree, first published in 1954, is a timeless story of love, hope, and miracles. A small fir tree sits alone in the forest over the years until it grows big enough to become a Christmas tree. A father, looking for a tree for his young bedridden son, finds the little tree and digs it up to take home:
So—tenderly the man dug into the not-quite-frozen ground. He dug a big wide hole around the little fir tree. Tenderly he took all the far-flung roots and tied them in a gunnysack.
Then he lifted the little fir tree high in the air and proudly he bore him through the forest.
The anticipation of the little boy is captured in both the text and the illustrations as the father brings the tree home and places it in the little boy’s room for Christmas. Each spring, the father takes the tree back to the forest and replants it. This occurs each year, until one year when the father does not come:
There he was, a little fir tree in a big empty field. The big trees in the great dark forest were far away. The stars were far away.
And without Christmas the world seemed big and cold and empty.
This is so poignantly true, and we are reminded of a deeper message here.
Jim LaMarche’s illustrations are so beautiful and perfect that almost any page of The Little Fir Tree would be suitable for framing. The family and friends are depicted as warm, caring, and loving as they all gather around the tree in the little boy’s room and sing carols, bringing the “great celebration of Christmas” to him. Nature plays a vital role in the book—the change of the seasons, the little fir tree in his element, the little boy’s nature shelf, and his view from his window:
After Winter, Spring came in, flashing with birds and flowers, and the little fir tree was returned to the woods.
Summer droned its bee-buzzing days around him.
And Autumn came and whirled milkweed parachutes past his head.
Both the pictures and the words are lovely and sweet and complement each other to create a captivating world for the reader.
My boys and I look forward to reading The Little Fir Tree again and again.