Thursday, January 26, 2017

And the Winners Are . . .

You may recall from my previous blog post that, on Thanksgiving Day just past, twenty-four Christmas storybooks wrapped in festive holiday paper jumped into a red bag and headed home three hours away with four of my grandkids. Their mission was to open and read one together each night from Dec. 1 through Dec. 24, then let me know on Christmas Day which one each of them liked best. It was an Advent alternative to the popular chocolate candy version.

It was a job this distinguished panel of judges did not take lightly.

When the time came to tally the results and name the favorites, the vote ended in a tie. Sooby and Zoomie, pictured above on the ends, both chose Christmas Wonderland by Vilhelm Hansen, while Pooh and Bootsie opted for Santa's Toy Shop.

The way both books focus on Christmas preparations make them ideal reading as the nights count down to the holiday itself. Both have been around to entertain multiple generations of children with their imaginative characters; simple, uplifting story lines; and superb illustrations.

Christmas Wonderland, in particular, is a masterpiece of rich, detailed illustration. Published in 1981 and given to daughter Cookie by her aunt and uncle on the Christmas she was two, this masterpiece by popular Danish illustrator Vilhelm Hansen presents the delightful antics of a group of gnomes as they immerse themselves in all things Christmas.

Besides the artwork--which is, in itself, reason enough to open the book and share it with a child--another particularly engaging aspect of Hansen's book is the way he invites child listeners to answer questions. "Can you count how many birds there are in the tree?" he asks at one point, and "How many names do you know?"

Finally, many humorous situations arise when the gnomes go about their Yuletide business in unorthodox ways. For example, you might imagine how their decision to tune their fiddle using pliers and an oil can affects their Christmas caroling. Or what happens when they share a cup of hot tea with a snowman ("Ice cream would have probably been better."). Then there is the happy mess that occurs when mother gnome falls asleep and lets her rice pudding boil from the stove-top pots onto the kitchen floor.

Santa's Toy Shop, with its illustrations by The Walt Disney Studio, is a Little Golden Book from my own childhood. Published in 1950, it takes us to the North Pole where Santa and his elves are frantic to get all their toys made by their Christmas Eve deadline. Finally, with no time to spare, Santa loads his big bag with all the vintage toys I remember--including train sets, model airplanes, wooden alphabet blocks, checkerboards, and old-fashioned dolls (whose smiles we have seen him detail with a paintbrush).

Santa's one regret is that there is no time, after all this effort, for him to play with any of the toys himself. But the ever-resourceful Mrs. Claus whispers a solution in his ear as he departs from the North Pole: he should stop at the last house on his delivery route to engage in a little playtime along with his milk and cookies.

It was fun to sit here on those December nights and imagine how the kids' bedtime ritual was playing out, and we all agree that the Christmas Book Bag was a fun and worthwhile Advent project. Since I couldn't read the books with them in person, I had no choice but to revert to the less original version of the countdown, the one involving a piece of chocolate candy every night.

I tried not to let it bother me, though. A Googie has to do what a Googie has to do.


Sunday, January 15, 2017

Advent Without Chocolate

If you are a kid, the word "advent," apart from its religious context, usually suggests "calendar," and that in turn brings to mind one thing: candy.

In Christmas seasons past, I have given the grandkids those grocery store advent calendars with twenty-four little doors, each hiding a piece of foil-wrapped chocolate. These enable the kids to "count down" to Christmas by opening a door and indulging in a bite of chocolate every day from Dec. 1 through Christmas Eve.

This year, however, I decided to adapt an idea I stumbled onto on Facebook: buy children's Christmas books, wrap them individually, and let kids unwrap one each day in December until Christmas. That suggestion was enough to start the wheels turning in this old Googie-brain.

I have bookcases full of books to read with the kids when they are at Googie's house. Some are leftovers from my own children, and others I have picked up at clearance events and garage sales. But I have noticed that the Christmas books are hardly ever read. December is usually so busy with Christmas parties, programs, and other events that the kids rarely visit then--and who wants to read a Christmas book in spring, summer, or fall?

On a mission, I scoured the kids' bookcases. Was it possible I could find as many as twenty-four Christmas books? It didn't take long to see that I actually had a few more than that, so I grabbed a bright red bag, dubbed it the "Christmas Book Bag," and lost myself in a whirlwind of paper, scissors, and tape. I would try this "Advent-ure" first with daughter Cookie's four kids. Here are the directions I attached to the bag, which I sent home with them Thanksgiving weekend.

Dear Kids:

Here is a fun way to count down the days until our Christmas together. As you know, I have lots of books at my house, but it seems like we don't often get to read the Christmas ones together. So . . .

Here are the rules:
  • Inside this bag are 24 of my Christmas stories, individually wrapped. Take turns choosing and unwrapping one book each night. Zoomie starts on Dec. 1, then Bootsie, then Pooh, then Sooby--and so on until you read your last book on Christmas Eve.
  • Anyone who can may do the reading aloud to all of you--but you must enjoy each night's story together after you have brushed your teeth and are ready for bed.  
  • Bring the bag of books back on Christmas Day so I can do this project with your cousins next year. That day, I will ask each of you to tell me what your favorite story was.
Have fun reading!
Love, Googie

Post-Christmas feedback indicates that the Christmas Book Bag went over well. I hope to follow this blog post with a review of the books the kids liked most. As for my own favorite, I saved Charles M. Schulz's A Charlie Brown Christmas for Christmas Day itself.


This Hallmark Gift Book, published in 2010, follows Charlie Brown's angst-ridden search for both a suitable tree and the meaning of Christmas itself. Its interactive sound bytes enable us to hear Linus reciting the Biblical Christmas story from Luke 2 and the whole Peanuts gang singing "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing."

True to form, however, Christmas Day came and went in a flurry, and I had to set it aside for another time. That's what often happens to Christmas books--and all the more reason to consider your own version of the Christmas Book Bag for the children you love.

Watch out, Beenie and Heero. There is a big red bag full of books headed your way in a little over ten months.

Afternote: Displaying A Charlie Brown Christmas above is Chi-Chi, a lovable primate who was inadvertently left at Googie's Thanksgiving weekend. You will be glad to know he was reunited with Pooh as a joke "present" on Christmas Day.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Mama in a Cup

Infallible Rule #1 of kids with cameras seems to be this: If you give a kid a camera, you will get in return a series of photos of the most insignificant things ever.

I remember when I got my first childhood camera, a Brownie Hawkeye that shot black and white pictures from rolls of film loaded into a plastic box that seems huge compared to modern-day cameras. Excitedly, I would balance the box about waist-high, look down into the lens, and click the button that was sure to afford a ton of laughs for Joe down at the drugstore, where I would take the film to have it developed for pickup a few days later.

A kid with a new toy, literally, I snapped pictures of the fire hydrant on the corner, ants on our brick sidewalk, and the feet of the old lady next door. When Mom scolded me for "wasting film," I focused my photographic energies on my baby brother. This is why we have a hundred or so pictures of him either sleeping or crying, which was pretty much all he did there for a while.

So no one was really surprised to see what happened over Christmas when Bootsie's Uncle Teebo turned her loose with the camera on his cell phone. She took a picture of every page in a Berenstain Bears storybook, along with a shot of nearly every piece of furniture in my house. And then, among all those, there was this true masterpiece:

Now you may think this is just a mundane picture of a plastic cup on the end of table where Bootsie sat as her adult relatives played cards. But the precise angle at which she held the camera caught the head and shoulders of her mama, sitting on the other side of the table, in a very unusual relationship to the cup. If you look at it just right, daughter Cookie appears to be bobbing out of the top of a green cup.

I can't adequately describe the decibel level or the duration of the laughter pouring out from me and five kids as we encountered this classic shot while scrolling through Bootsie's camerawork. "Look," I said to Bootsie with my eyes and nose running and my stomach aching from a paroxysm of uncontrollable laughing. "It looks like your mama is in a cup!"

The card game was suspended as players abandoned it one by one to come upstairs and investigate the source of the whoops, hoots, and giggles. With each new viewer, the rest of us erupted again, as though seeing the picture for the first time. If laughing is really as healthy for people as experts claim, then our family should be in good shape for 2017.

We have named this piece of art Mama in a Cup. As for Bootsie, Mr. Whistler had nothing on this girl, who, at the ripe old age of six, is already showing a keenly artistic eye.

In about twenty years, you might want to keep an eye out for new talent bursting on the contemporary museum scene. Bootsie's artwork with crayons, colored pencils, and markers has always been impressive, but now that she has had a taste of success with photography, there may be no stopping her.

I am tempted to go back and see what the magic of Photo Shop can do for one of my old fire hydrants. But no matter how hard I try, I don't think I could achieve anything as artfully perfect as Mama in a Cup.