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Christmas book list: revisit pleasure of kids books



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Dec. 18--One of the best reasons for having children, I've always believed, is that you get to go out and buy all those neat children's books. I'm now reliving the pleasure with Number One Grandson, and I can't resist sharing the pleasure with all of you. If there are kids on your Christmas list, I beseech you to eschew the gadgets. Books are better. Cheaper, too.

This time of year there are a few books out there that are so evocative that they're etched into my kids' Christmas memories. Two of them are winter books, not Christmas-specific but snowy and wondrous.

The first is the gorgeous children's classic, not very well known here but deserving of much more attention: Astrid Lindgren's "The Tomten." Lindgren is the creator of the beloved Pippi Longstocking series, but this book, about the midnight wanderings of a little Swedish troll-like creature, with its lush illustrations, is food for the heart.

In the years when I lived in Australia, and Christmas came in the middle of summer, I'd pull out this book to remind myself and my kids of the winter we were missing. It's suitable even for very young children and its text has an incantatory feel to it, beginning with: "It is the dead of night ..."

Another lovely winter book is Jane Yolen's "Owl Moon." Its illustrations are all quiet and snowscape and wonder, and its gentle, rite-of-passage text brings a message many families need, about the power of shared reverence for Nature's magic to cement bonds between parents and children.

For older kids (especially girls), another neglected gem by Lindgren is "Ronia, the Robber's Daughter." This one made such an impression on my eldest that she named her favorite doll Ronia. Lindgren creates a heroine here who is both fierce and tender -- a girl worth knowing. The supporting cast is sweet, scary, comical and utterly original. There isn't an intact stereotype in sight.

I'm happy that the current movie is helping families rediscover C.S. Lewis' classic fantasy. The farm where I lived in Australia was called Narnia, and I had a horse named Fledge, so my kids have all grown up with this alternate world.

Here's a long-neglected fantasy that would also make a wonderful movie: T.H. White's "Mistress Masham's Repose." (Yes, the same author of "The Once and Future King.") In this adventure, Maria is an orphan living in a falling-down mansion, at the mercy of a sadistic governess. By accident she discovers, on an island in the middle of the mansion's lake, a colony of Lilliputians brought back generations ago by Gulliver, who kept their existence a secret. How Maria deals with this discovery is an entertaining moral drama.

And if your kids are just a little older and need something a bit more sophisticated than Narnia, please do them the favor of giving them Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy, beginning with "A Wizard of Earthsea." If you haven't done so already, read them yourself. These are books with many layers, Jungian overtones and writing that is rich enough to eat.

One fascinating aspect of the Le Guin books is that she realized, after completing the original trilogy, that her stories were still stuck in the mold of the classic male-centered narrative -- that her central figure was a wizard and the female characters were peripheral. She then went back and wrote a fourth book, "Tehanu," bringing the women into the center of the narrative. It's powerful stuff.

What's left for the grown-ups? Have you discovered my beloved Robertson Davies? If not, you're lucky. The man wrote in trilogies, so you don't run out of his delicious, mischievous narrative for a long time. Try the Deptford Trilogy. It could last you halfway into February, and by then it'll be almost spring.

Rodell is editorial page editor of the Gazette. She can be reached at srodell@wvgazette.com.

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Copyright (c) 2005, The Charleston Gazette, W.Va.

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