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Green Christmas December 11, 2008

My husband Josh has a Quaker background that doesn’t seem to manifest itself much in his daily life anymore — except when it comes to children’s books. Blog readers familiar with the Quakers, or the Religious Society of Friends, know they have a distinctly “green” streak that runs deep.

So while we were waiting for our twins’ birthdate last week — they were born Wednesday, Dec. 3 — Josh read a children’s book review in one of our oft-arriving baby magazines that had him rushing to the nearest bookstore within a day or two of John and Susannah’s birth. What did he buy? Guess How Much I Love You? Love You Forever? No, he bought When Santa Turned Green by Victoria Perla.

Newly published in October 2008, this vastly different spin on the usual Santa fare centers on an unabashed environmental theme. Santa as depicted in the illustrations by Mirna Kantarevic actually bring to my mind a much older environmentally themed book by the great picture book master: The Lorax (Classic Seuss). Remember it and its famous tag-line? “I speak for the trees!”

Perla too speaks for the trees — and the polar ice caps, and the Earth’s atmosphere… in fact, the whole planet. I love how, when Santa decides he must combat the issue of global warming, he goes straight to the people who can help the most — the children:

“He went to the real future. To you.

And your sisters and brothers and friends.

That’s right, he went to the children.

Because they have the power to change the world.”

The story goes on to detail what some individual children do to help save their world, from using reusable lunch containers to composting to getting Grandpa to buy a hybrid vehicle.

Parents and educators who don’t have much patience for didactic books may be put off by this book’s overt environmental theme, but I like it for its straightforward, non-sneaky and non-apologetic tone. My guess is When Santa Turned Green will turn out to be more than just a Christmas book, snapped up by those who embrace its message and who want to help children think more broadly than Christmas lists and sleighbells.

posted by Janie McQueen for


Life lessons worth hearing September 13, 2008

Anyone having experience with children knows a story beats a lecture any day. Moreover, stories beat lectures and complicated explanations to a child’s questions because they avoid the personal, finger-pointing element that makes lectures so distasteful… to anyone.

You know the psychology, because adults employ it too. “I have this friend…” I have an uncle, an M.D., who wishes he had a handpuppet he could reach around a corner to “talk” him out of unwanted social engagements or other obligations. I wish I’d thought to use something like that in lieu of some of the disastrous notes and letters I’ve committed to paper in my time.

Aesop’s fables, Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, fairy tales, Greek and Roman myths, all of these have endured because of the simple, but potent lessons they deliver peoplekind. But unlike the too-personal (and hum-drum) lecture, they’re more powerful because they offer them in an easily understandable, digestible package with characters with whom we can identify. You can’t beat the fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf for a lesson about lying, and how destroying your credibility can put you at great peril.

Even Dr. Seuss delivers sweet, simple morality in Horton Hears a Who, as suggested by Allison Bruce in a recent column in the Ventura County Star, with its message of respect. (“A person’s a person know matter how small.”) The Lorax is another, more overt morality tale about wastefulness, and preserving nature.

I don’t personally like the preachy, simplistic and over-obvious moral lessons like those depicted in the Berenstain Bears series. I may be in for some indignant e-mail, but I find nothing original, or memorable, about them — they always strike me as if the authors just said, “Hey! What about…” and jotted down the story in about 15 minutes.

Sure, it’s good to warn children about overeating, not being selfish, or caution against watching too much TV. So give me Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory any day (remember Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt, and Mike Teevee? They also met far more satisfactory ends, and I think that message is driven home much more clearly than with a tidy little lecture from Mama or Papa Bear-Berenstain).

I’m glad I caught Bruce’s column and her suggestion of Jacqueline Golding’s guide Healing Stories: Picture Books for the Big & Small Changes in a Child’s Life, now available in the Magic Bookshelf store. Golding lists high-quality books as conversation starters for problems and issues children may encounter.

I think there’s nothing like a story to bring a lesson to vivid and constructive life, and to also let us know we’re not alone in our troubles, that many, many others have gone before us and shared our problems.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever