Lobel's Lucia

Today is Santa Lucia Day, which may or may not mean anything to you depending on whether you're Swedish. I'm not, but my husband's grandfather was, and we celebrate the day with Santa Lucia buns and books (I've written about Lucia and the Light by Phyllis Root and Hugo and Josephine by Maria Gripe here in other years, but somehow haven't gotten around to Kirsten's Surprise by Janet Shaw, from the American Girls Collection. Maybe next year). My son outgrew his starboy hat a couple of years ago, but my daughter still wears her (battery-operated) crown.

This lovely image of a "Lucia bride," wearing the traditional white gown and crown of candles, is by Anita Lobel, from Christmas Crafts: Things to make the 24 days before Christmas by Carolyn Meyer (Harper & Row, 1974). It's one of my favorite Christmas books, with international Christmas traditions and projects for every day. Some of them are a little dated (there's macrame), but many others have become our family's Christmas traditions, too: from making homemade advent calendars (December 1) to decorating a tree for the birds (December 23) and baking a chocolate yule log (December 24).

Lobel's black-and-white illustrations (and there are lots of them) are a big part of the charm of Christmas Crafts. I love Lobel's work any time of year, but at Christmas, don't miss her illustrations for The Night Before Christmas: A Victorian Vision of the Christmas Classic by Clement C. Moore (2000) and The Stable Rat and Other Christmas Poems by Julia Cunningham (2001). Come to think of it, A New Coat for Anna by Harriet Zeifert, with pictures by Anita Lobel (Knopf, 1986) is a Christmas story, too--and it's still in print. Happy Santa Lucia Day!

The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder

I had been reading one chapter a night of Jostein Gaarder's The Christmas Mystery (1992; translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan, 1996) aloud to my daughter this advent. Sadly, we only made it to Day 6. The premise of Gaarder's book is good (if structurally familiar to readers of The Solitaire Mystery or even Sophie's World): Joachim discovers a magic advent calendar (yes! a magic advent calendar is good) in an old bookstore. Behind each door is a picture--and a tightly folded piece of paper telling another story, about Elisabet's journey across Europe and back two thousand years, to Bethlehem at the time of the Nativity.

Eventually Joachim's and Elisabet's stories interwine, but we didn't make it that far--Elisabet's story was a lot less interesting (or more philosophical) than Joachim's. Maybe I'll try again on my own, since I can read a lot faster than I can read aloud, although I am probably less patient than my nine-year-old.

Note: We are reading the English edition, illustrated by Rosemary Wells. The illustrations are not as magical as I would like, and other reviewers agree, preferring Stella East's illustrations in the Norwegian edition pictured here (Aschehoug, 1995). Maybe that would help?

Sculptor's Daughter: A Childhood Memoir by Tove Jansson

Books I Want is apparently becoming a regular feature here. This week, I'm wanting Tove Jansson's first book for adults, which is actually a collection of stories called Sculptor's Daughter: A Childhood Memoir. It's been re-released by Sort Of Books in a deluxe edition that includes rare images from the Jansson family archives ("a perfect Christmas gift," says the publisher), such as the one of eight-year-old Tove on the cover. I've not read any of Jansson's adult fiction, but Sculptor's Daughter seems like a good place to start, despite the title. Why do so many books about women identify them as someone else's--usually a man's--daughter or wife? In this case, the sculptor is Jansson's father, Viktor. For the record, her mother, Signe Hammarsten-Jannson, was an illustrator and graphic designer. Also probably just as influential on Tove.

One of the stories in this collection, "The Iceberg," is available to read online (The Independent, November 3, 2013), and it is lovely, keenly observed (lived, really) and true to a child's experiences and emotions. The whole collection, in paperback and with a more anonymous cover photograph of a snowy landscape, will be published in the US by William Morrow in January 2014. If you can wait that long.