Celebrate the holidays with two unique tales

With this year's early Hanukkah celebrations ending and Christmas coming up, we've ushered in the holiday season.

Many holiday books offer retold narrations of ancient tales, illustrated holiday songs or extensions of series, such as Fancy Nancy's "Splendiferous Christmas." But I like to look for new releases that bring original stories to be shared for the holidays. Here are two new books, one about Hanukkah and one about Christmas, which offer unique holiday stories.

— "Hanukkah Bear" (2013, Holiday House, written by Eric Kimmel, illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka, ages 4-8) is a reillustrated version of my favorite Hanukkah story, originally published as "The Chanukkah Guest" in 1990.

In this tale, Bubba Brayna, a 97-year-old woman known for making the best potato latkes in the village, prepares for a special Hanukkah visit by the townspeople and their rabbi. In the woods near her home, an old bear smells her latkes and lumbers out of his cave. Bubba hears a tapping at her door and assumes it's her guests. As she "did not hear or see as well as she used to," she welcomes in the old bear, thinking it's the rabbi dressed in his thick fur coat.

"Rabbi, I'm surprised at you," she tells the bear as he makes his way toward the latkes. "You know we don't eat until we light the menorah." The bear sits, grumbling, while Bubba leads him through lighting the menorah, saying blessings and playing a game of dreidel.

Finally, she brings out the latkes, and he eats them all. Bubba wipes the jam from his face and sends him on his way. She's quite surprised when, a few minutes later, her real guests arrive. After they point out the paw marks in her kitchen, she realizes her mistake, laughs and says "Let the bear have a happy Hanukkah." Soon, more latkes are frying.

In this new version of the story, the text is slightly shortened but still retains its full spirit and humor. The lively acrylic illustrations beautifully bring out the playfulness of the story and characters.

— In "Little Santa" (2013, Dial Books, written and illustrated by Jon Agee, ages 3-7), we meet Mr. and Mrs. Claus and their seven children, Larry, Mary, Willy, Millie, Joey, Zoe and Santa.

Life at the North Pole is hard. There is always wood to be chopped and snow to be shoveled. The Clauses are miserable. Only Santa (smaller than the others and dressed in a red, hooded onesie) likes it there. When the Claus family decides to move to Florida, Santa asks, "Won't you miss all the pine trees and the icicles and the miles and msiles of snow?"

"No, Santa," they said. "We won't."

That night as they pack, however, a terrible blizzard buries the cabin. What are they to do?

"I know," said Santa (who loves chimneys), "I can shimmy up the chimney!"

Off he goes to look for help. He digs out a buried reindeer, climbs on its back and off they fly. They come upon a house full of elves who make shovels and a sleigh, and together they fly away to dig out the family's cabin.

Though life is much easier with the elves helping, the Claus family still decides to move to Florida. Santa, however, stays, along with elves, reindeer and sleigh. The rest is history. This clever, original tale, adorned with Agee's thick-lined illustrations, is aglow with warmth and innocence.

Alice B. McGinty (alicebmcginty.com) is the co-regional adviser of the Illinois Chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and the award-winning author of more than 40 books for children. She directs a summer writing camp, Words on Fire, for teens, and she tutors school-aged children in writing.

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