I’ve completed two internships in children’s editorial departments, and if there’s one thing I know, it’s there are no shortage of Christmas books in the submissions pile. Having read several of these, I feel confident saying most of them were downright terrible. This is, in part, because they broke the golden rule of children’s publishing: Don’t patronize your reader.
It’s a problem consistent with many submissions, Christmas stories or no. Somewhere along the line, most adults forget what it’s like to be a kid, and the voice they use to write to children is akin to the voice you might use with your dog, rather than a young human. It’s a voice that assumes the child knows nothing, understands nothing, and needs the world “dumbed down” for them to understand what’s going on.
But kids are smarter than most adults give them credit for. They’re perceptive. Now that doesn’t mean your next Christmas book idea should be The Truth About Santa or How the Commercialization of Christmas is Taking Over the Holiday Season. It just means the way you tell your story should reflect the intelligence of your readers. Don’t spell it all out for them. Give them the chance to keep guessing, to form real emotions and feelings for the characters, to use their imagination to the fullest. And for the love of all things Holy Night, if it’s going to rhyme, be intentional.
Here are a few of our favorite children’s Christmas books and the lessons you can learn from each.
1. The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
This has to be one of the most magical Christmas books of all time, with good reason. The Polar Express is the kind of children’s book that gives you goosebumps, just reading the text. The story is easy to relate to: The night before Christmas, all our protagonist wants is to hear the sound of jingle bells on Santa’s sleigh. Another child has told him Santa doesn’t exist (Who hasn’t gone through that heart-wrenching moment?), so when the boy hears the sound of a train outside—the Polar Express—that is going to take him to the North Pole, it’s a moment of victory and triumph for children’s fantasy and imagination.
Because the book is in the first person, it’s easy to imagine this is a first-hand account—a true telling of what really happened to the author one Christmas night when he was young. When the protagonist asks for a bell from Santa’s sleigh and then loses it from a hole in his pocket, the reader’s heart breaks with him. Here is a moment of true sorrow and empathy. What child hasn’t lost something so precious? And then, to be redeemed on Christmas morning with a special gift to carry for all time ... it’s a moment that makes children and parents alike stop and wonder at how special Christmas magic can be.
The Polar Express, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 1985, and winner of the 1986 Caldecott medal, is everything a good Christmas story should be, all while breaking several children’s publishing rules.
One of these is length. It’s a long book. While it might be condensed down to the standard 32 pages of a typical picture book, word-count-wise, it sits at just over a thousand. While a thousand words may not be unheard of for a picture book, most publishers encourage authors to cut down on the text and let the illustrations help tell the story. The Polar Express does have some truly awe-inspiring illustrations, but Allsburg has taken no pains to hold back on his descriptions of the journey and settings.
What Authors Can Take Away:
First, make it magical. Christmas is one of the most enchanting times of the year, full of myth and legend. Think like a kid. What might be most alluring to a child around Christmas? How can you use the setting or journey to enhance that feeling? Check out books like The Nutcracker or The Christmas Wish for inspiration. Then, when you’re crafting your story, don’t forget the heart. The Polar Express poses a simple problem for its readers: To have proof of magic and then to lose it. There’s no need to drive the point home over and over. The sheer magnitude of the loss is enough for kids to feel the pain the protagonist must feel. Conflict, particularly in Christmas books, doesn’t have to be high drama to inspire feeling.
2. Cajun Night Before Christmas by “Trosclair”
Let’s talk about plays on Christmas classics. As we all know, The Night Before Christmas reigns supreme as the most well-known Christmas book of all time. Heck, it might just be the most well-known children’s book of all time. The original version by Clement Clarke Moore was first published anonymously in 1823, then claimed in 1837, and has been enchanting families ever since. It’s no wonder, then, that entire websites have been created just to try to chronicle the various versions of the story.
One of my favorites is Cajun Night Before Christmas, which is best experienced through listening to the story read aloud by someone who can actually do the dialect justice. Published in 1992 by Pelican, Cajun Night Before Christmas has all the rhythm of Moore’s original, wrapped up in a historical New Orleans theme. Imagine a Santa who drives a skiff pulled by “’gators” and whose bright red cheeks are a product of blackberry wine. Awesome, right?
What Authors Can Take Away:
If you’re going to create your own version of a well-known original, it’s important to do your research. There are literally hundreds of versions of The Night Before Christmas—from space versions to patriotic versions to one about cats. Seriously. Cats. So before you accidentally reinvent the wheel, see what else is out there. Keep an eye on the versions that seem to be selling well. Take note of the versions that don’t. It’s just as important to understand why a dud is a dud as it is to know why a winner’s a winner. And then, when all the research is over, get creative. Get personal. Dive into a new take. Part of what makes Cajun Night Before Christmas so special is it’s part of a cultural narrative. It introduces a different perspective, and it’s not shy about its identity. Your take on an old favorite should be just as original.
3. Mortimer’s Christmas Manger by Karma Wilson
Mortimer’s Christmas Manger manages to walk the line between a traditional, Christianity-based Christmas book and a humorous anthropomorphic tale.
Giving animals human-like qualities isn’t anything new, particularly in holiday stories. Books like Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, The Magic of Christmas, and The Snow Tree all feature animals decorating Christmas trees (so seriously, if this is your idea, stop now, because enough is enough).
The book starts with little Mortimer mouse who is determined to find a home that’s not cold, cramped, or creepy like his own. When he sees a house that’s “just [his] size,” he decides to move in, current occupants be damned (excuse the pun). Inside, he finds a bunch of small statues, including a baby, lying in a manger. Mortimer tosses them all out the door—including baby Jesus—and takes the manger for his own cozy bed. It isn’t until he overhears the Christmas story, and learns about how Jesus was laid in a manger because there was no room for him in the inn, that Mortimer decides he has to put everyone back. In the end, Mortimer prays for a new house and finds something even better, just his size.
What Authors Can Take Away:
This one really depends on the kind of Christmas story you want to write. There are plenty of beautiful, highly approachable, Christian-based Christmas books out there that feed into the larger, more general market. The Legend of the Candy Cane was one of my favorites growing up, as was The Littlest Angel.
Likewise, Mortimer’s Christmas Manger knows its audience: children of Christian/semi-religious families. After all, the book has the word “manger” right in the title. It’s not a story an atheist family is likely to pick up, though the cute little mouse on the cover still makes the book tempting to chreasters.
Kids love to laugh, and this is one picture book that does humor very well. For children who’ve grown up with the Christmas story, it’s a chance to beat Mortimer to the punch line. The author never tells the reader that Mortimer is house-hunting a nativity scene, leaving that bit of dramatic irony up to the kiddos who can deduce what’s happening from the colorful illustrations. Even funnier is watching idolized figures like Mary and Joseph—not to mention the Christ child—get evicted by the determined little mouse. It’s just a tad scandalous, with a sweet, heartfelt ending to tie it all up.
If you can, try to create some dramatic irony in your next draft. It’s a great method for building suspense and an excellent opportunity to practice letting the illustrations play a bigger role in the reader’s discovery.
4. Olive, the Other Reindeer by Vivian Walsh and J. Otto Seibold
This ten-year-old Christmas favorite is all about a little dog named Olive who mistakes the words to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and ends up thinking she is one of Santa’s helpers (Get it? All of the other reindeer/Olive, the other reindeer?). She takes two buses to the North Pole, and when she gets there, Santa lets her come along on the night’s adventures. When trouble strikes, Olive is there to lend a hand, and in the end, it’s her keen canine senses that save the day. Olive, the Other Reindeer is a story about how being yourself is often the greatest gift of all.
What Authors Can Take Away:
If there’s one lesson to be learned from this book, it’s that authors should be like Olive, or rather, be themselves.
So many Christmas books are just the same. It seems like every Christmas story has to end on a note about the Christmas spirit, the importance of family or forgiveness during the holidays, or how the season brings people together. Olive, the Other Reindeer is special because it’s unique. It’s crazy and creative, with silly scenes like flutes raining down from the sky and a fog so thick and pillowy, it’s putting the reindeer to sleep. When authors remember to look beyond the scope of what’s been done and challenge themselves to think differently, that’s when something amazing is born.
5. How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
If you’ve been living in a cave for the last 60 years since The Grinch was published, here’s a brief recap: How the Grinch Stole Christmas is the story of how the Grinch steals Christmas from the Whos of Who-ville. Only, his plan is spoiled when Christmas comes anyway, and even without all the gifts and fancy food, all the Whos still come together to sing and celebrate, inspiring the Grinch to bring back all their stolen stuff and join in the fun.
What Authors Can Take Away:
The Grinch is a classic. And what’s more, it’s a rhyming classic. Now, I’ve left this one to the end because as St. Nick knows, there’s no shortage of rhyming picture books, particularly around the holidays. Think everything from Llama Llama Holiday Drama to Snowmen at Christmas to the aforementioned Cajun Night Before Christmas.
Personally, I don’t love all these books. In fact, a bad rhyming Christmas book actually turns me into a bit of a grinch. In my experience, a picture book can’t rhyme just to rhyme. That rhyme has to play its own part in telling the story. I know—nothing says festive like a book that reads like a Christmas carol, but trust me: I’m not the first editor to toss out a decent story for the sake of its bad rhymes.
Fortunately, fun and creative rhymes are a trick Dr. Seuss always excels at, and it’s a skill particularly prevalent in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Beyond the great slant rhymes and made-up words, Dr. Seuss is bold and intentional with every rhyme he writes. It takes some serious poetic practice to come up with this particular gem: “And he stuffed them in bags. Then the Grinch, very nimbly, stuffed all the bags, one by one, up the chimney!”
If you’re thinking, “I can be as resilient as a Who! I can make it with a rhyming picture book!” that’s fine. I wish you luck. But keep in mind, your rhyming has to be good, and it has to make sense. You can’t sacrifice the story for the sake of making a rhyme. My advice is to focus on the story first. If rhyme can play a part in telling the tale, and what’s more, makes it better, then by all mean, go for it.
If you’re doing your best to keep up your writer’s momentum from NaNoWriMo, brainstorming a few picture book ideas for the holidays is a fun and easy way to destress. Plus, it’s a heck of a lot easier than putting down 50,000 words. Task yourself with the job of seeing what’s out there, then sit down with your own cup of hot cocoa and let the words flow. Keep in mind the tips above, and like Rudolph, your Christmas story is sure to go down in history.
What’s your favorite Christmas book? Why do you think it works when others don’t? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!