For Children

Sparklers to bring comfort and joy

By Liz Rosenberg
Globe Correspondent / December 20, 2009

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Very few truly delightful Christmas books appear in a season, despite the landslide of brave attempts, so when one sparkles along, it’s a reason for holiday celebration.

Rob Scotton, best-selling author of “Splat the Cat’’ and its sequel, “Love, Splat,’’ comes through brilliantly in “Merry Christmas, Splat.’’ Everything about this picture book is joyfully simple, from the red, green, and white front cover, to the back cover with nothing but a red Christmas ornament dangling off Splat’s impossibly curled tail.

The story line is also simple: It’s the day before Christmas, and Splat is composing a letter to Santa explaining what a “really big present’’ he wants for Christmas and what a “very good cat’’ he’s been all year. His best friend, Seymour the mouse, is suitably impressed, but Splat’s little sister looks askance at him and gives “Splat a look that only little sisters can give. ‘R-e-a-l-l-y?’ ’’

That plants the seed of doubt that sends Splat into a frenzy of last minute helpful behavior that nearly drives his mother crazy and guarantees Splat one very sleepless night - while comically Santa sneaks up on him each time he turns over in bed. Scotton’s humor is deft and gentle - he never says or shows too much: the teetering tower of Christmas china Splat washes; the way he weirdly redecorates the Christmas tree; that cynical look on his little sister’s face. Scotton’s cats are all wonderfully bulgy-eyed, and he can wrestle more expression from an eyeball than other artists can from a whole canvas.

“Merry Christmas, Splat’’ will appeal to those who have been very good, those who haven’t, and anyone who loves the thrill of a good yarn spinning out with perfect color, tone, and timing. I’d put “Merry Christmas, Splat’’ right up against a handful of Christmas children’s favorites, where I am willing to bet it will hold its own.

“Christmas with Rita and Whatsit’’ brings understated holiday elegance new meaning with its nearly minimalist illustrations of black and white, with splashes of red accent. Rita and her dog Whatsit prepare for Christmas. They write a letter to Santa. “Whatsit doesn’t want much: a chewy ball, a police dog uniform, some dog biscuits, some cat crackers, a treadmill . . . and about a hundred other things.’’

They decorate their small, leaning trees. Whatsit’s features a “garland of sausages, slices of salami, and some bologna. It smells wonderful.’’ Rita puts together a no-bake cake with cocoa and canned pumpkin - it resembles a puddle - for Santa and Whatsit howls “Silent Night’’ while Rita conducts.

Hopeful Rita puts out her stocking and all of her pairs of shoes while Whatsit sets out a chewed slipper. (“Most of the flavor is gone.’’) But will Whatsit the vigilant guard dog chase Santa away? Clearly we’re in for safe sailing and a gentle ending.

Originally published in France, “Christmas with Rita and Whatsit’’ maintains its French insouciance. Artist Olivier Tallec uses lines like an old master - combining the best qualities of cartoon, decoration, sketch, and doodle. Author Jean-Philippe Arrou-Vignod’s ironic humor creates a subtly charming bit of light holiday play.

For the holiday list, I always like to include at least one secular book, and Jan Reynolds’ “Cycle of Rice, Cycle of Life: A Story of Sustainable Farming’’ is a photo-picture book about the sanctity of life, sharing, and working together, seen through the cycles of growing and harvesting rice that is so essential to the people of Bali.

On this island nation in Southeast Asia, the native peoples live in tune with the rhythms of nature and the seasons, taking nothing for granted. Water, for instance. The “Balinese know they cannot survive without water. It is essential for all life and sacred to their culture.’’ For this reason they have temples, and shrines, all giving thanks for the gift of water.

Over the centuries, the Balinese have developed “a human-made marvel of hydro engineering,’’ a complex system of dams, tunnels, canals, and aqueducts that has helped them harness their waters. This along with an intricate crop-rotation program has helped Bali become one of the world’s largest rice producers and most successful practitioners of sustainable farming.

Thanks to California anthropologist J. Stephen Lansing, not only have traditional Balinese growing techniques survived, but new computer models of “ancient tradition with cutting edge technology’’ are now spreading to other parts of the world.

The breathtaking photos of “Cycle of Rice’’ are stunning golds and greens. They give young readers a glimpse into the details and mechanics of sustainable farming, but more richly, into the lives of people who have learned to live in balance with nature and with each other.

The book ends with a Balinese blessing: “May all that breathes be well.’’ It’s a happy thought to take from the end of one year to the beginning of the next. In a season of gift-giving, “Cycle of Rice, Cycle of Life’’ is a powerful reminder of essential blessings.

Liz Rosenberg teaches English at the State University of New York at Binghamton, and her most recent books are the novel “Home Repair’’ and the forthcoming picture book “Nobody.’’

By Rob Scotton
HarperCollins, 40 pp., ages 3-9, $16.99

By Jean-Philippe Arrou-Vignod
Illustrated by Olivier Tallec
Chronicle, 32 pp., ages 3-7, $14.99

CYCLE OF RICE, CYCLE OF LIFE: A Story of Sustainable Farming
By Jan Reynolds
Lee and Low, 48 pp., ages 9-12, $19.95