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A winter wonderland of children’s books

This season’s top picks, from ‘Christmas in New York’ to Yiddish yarns

Paul McCartney’s children’s book “High in the Clouds” takes up an entire window at the Barnes & Noble on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, prime real estate this time of year. Carl Hiaasen’s “Flush” has its own display (and yes, he did write a children’s book.) It’s just the nature of the book business — publishers and merchants hype books written by celebrities or well-known authors — even if it is not their genre — more than lesser-known writers. But the good news is there are some wonderful children’s books to be found tucked away on the shelves this holiday season.

From nothing to everything

If you give only one gift this season, may it bePatrick McDonnell’s “The Gift of Nothing”  (Little, Brown and Company, 2005, $14.99, all ages) — the sweet tale of Mooch, the cat, in search of a gift for his best friend, Earl, the dog. The 56-page tome takes only a few minutes to read but will bring joy long throughout the season and beyond. No need to give away the plot of the story here. Just know that this book is the spirit of Christmas, the kevanah (intent to fulfill the good deed) of Hanukkah, the warmth of Kwanza and anything else exalted this time of year.

It’s also clear that cartoonist McDonnell truly loves his furry friends, who appear in his syndicated comic strip “Mutts.” At a reading of the book at a Barnes & Nobles in lower Manhattan, McDonnell reveals that Earl is based on his 17-year-old dog. The cartoon came first, says McDonnell to the standing room-only crowd, many of which are clutching books, posters and printers for the author to sign. Actually, “the cartoon became a real dog and the real dog became a cartoon,” says McDonnell. He then concludes about his beloved cartoon companions, “They bring wonder into your life and don’t leave and take over.” Hopefully, this season, Mooch and Earl will bring wonder into your life as well.

At the other end of the spectrum is a book about everything that’s grand and flashy in New York City during the holiday season. From the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall to Times Square at midnight, Chuck Fischer’s “Christmas in New York: A Pop-Up Book” (Bulfinch Press, 2005, $35)  salutes the season with six dramatic pop-ups of New York City landmarks. Of course, Fischer features the world’s most famous Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center and a very pink scene from George Balanchine’s classic ballet The Nutcracker. But there’s also a pop-up of everyone’s favorite holiday sport — shopping. The venue: Fifth Avenue. The time: Christmas Eve. The historic building: the now-defunct Plaza Hotel front and central, surrounded by black-and-white photos of holiday windows in the ’40s, ’60s and ’70s.

Yiddish yarns

Tis the season for Hanukkah books, and fortunately, this Festival of Lights brings with it two remarkable books. One tells the story of a holocaust survivor. The other recalls funny-yet-insightful Yiddish yarns.

Simms Taback’s “Kibbitzers and Fools: Tales My Zayda Told Me” (Viking, 2005, $16.99, ages 4 and up) is a book of short stories, brought by zayda or grandpa to America from his little village in Poland. G-d is indeed in the details in the colorful illustrations of the Hebrew prayer shawls, chickens waiting to become soup and rabbis doing head stands.

Told in a humorous tone, typical of Yiddish story telling, Yiddish words and their definitions are sprinkled throughout the text. In one story, Taback explains the difference between a shlemiel (fool) and a shimazel (unlucky person). Taback also tackles the meaning of life — the reason the rabbi stands on his head. Each story ends with a saying or Yiddish words of wisdom, such as “Everyone has his own craziness (meshugener)” or “Not every thought is worth expressing.”

Also out of Poland, comes “Memories of Survival”by Esther Nisenthal Krinitz and Bernice Steinhardt (Hyperion Books for Children, 2005, $15.99, ages 9 and up.) In this case, the village is Mniszek. The story teller is Esther Krinitz, a holocaust survivor, who at age 50, documented her journey from Poland to America with a series of hand-stitched embroidered panels. Bernice Steinhardt, Krinitz’s daughter, assembled the book and wrote the narrative, adding background information to her mother’s accounts of the events.

Each of the 36 panels is a snapshot of Krinitz’s journey from her childhood home in Central Poland in the mid-1930s to her arrival in America in 1949. One exceptionally beautiful panel shows women making matzos for their last Passover together. “These were the last matzos we ever had in Mniszek,” writes Krinitz. The day the Nazis arrive in Sept 1939 is embroidered into another piece of cloth. Other panels show a moment in time at a labor camp, a death camp, during a Nazi raid and while escaping into the forest. To learn more about Esther Nisenthal Krinitz, visit Art & Remembrance.

Women warriors

The Story of Rosa Parks has been told many times over this year but it can never be told enough. What’s exceptional about Pamela Duncan Edwards’ “The Bus Ride that Changed History: The Story of Rosa Parks,” illustrated by Danny Shanahan (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, $16, ages 5-8) is how it brings the story to life for young readers (and my guess is, some adults, too.)

A series of cartoons take the reader from the day Rosa Parks refused to give up a seat for a white person on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. to the Supreme Court Ruling, which overturned the state’s racial laws. The narrative reminds the reader throughout the text — actually, on every single page — that the catalyst for the civil rights movement, the bus boycotts in the South, the Supreme Court ruling was Park’s bravery.

Another brave women is the fictional heroine ofPat Mora’s “Doña Flor: A Tall Tale About a Giant Woman with a Great Big Heart” (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2005, $17.99, ages 4-8) illustrated by Raul Colon. But unlike Parks, Flor has an advantage — she’s a giant. She also speaks “every language, even rattler.” Flor’s task is to track down a strange and terrifying noise, which is haunting the residents of this small village in the American Southwest.

The brilliant illustrations are a combination of “watercolor washes, etching and colored and litho pencils.” The text is a mix of Spanish and English. “Que pasa? What’s the matter?” says Flor, who also reminds the villagers, “Mi casa es su casa.”

A starry night

The beauty of “Vincent's Colors: Words and Pictures by Vincent Van Gogh” produced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Chronicle Books, 2005, $14.95, all ages) is its simplicity. Select prints of Van Gogh’s works are featured along with a short phrase describing the artwork. The words themselves come from letters Van Gogh wrote to his younger brother Theo.

The book starts with a “A yellow sky with a yellow sun,” which describes a reproduction of Van Gogh’s “The Sower;” and ends with a print of the “The Starry Night,” and the expression “and in my head a starry night.”

Other new and noteworthy children’s books include:

byRamon Shindler and Wojciech Graniczewski, illustrated by Anita Andrzejewska and Andrzej Pilichowski-Rango (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, $16, ages 4-8);

by Julia Alvarez, illustrated by Beatriz Vidal (Borzoi Book, 2005, $15.95, ages 4-8);

compiled by Cooper Edens, (Chronicle, 2005, $19.95, all ages);

by Esmé Raji Codell, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (Hyperion Books for Children, 2005, $16.99);

(The Blue Sky Press, 2005, $15.99, baby-preschool);

adapted by Roser Ros, illustrated by Pep Montserrat (Chronicle, 2005, $14.95, ages 4-8);

by Kristen Balouch(Hyperion Books for Children, 2005, $15.99, ages 4-8);

by Jimmy Fallon, Illustrated by Adam Stower (Dutton Juvenile, 2005, $15.99, ages 4-8);

by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Beckie Prange (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, $16, ages 4-8); and

by Ethan Long (Little, Brown and Company, 2005, $10.99, ages 9-12.)