Please note most of these are out of print. If you're interested, hit bookfinder.com, Amazon Marketplace, or e-Bay. And, why yes, some of them are children's books. Some of the best books ever are children's books, and you don't need to be a child to read them.
A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
You've probably seen this as a movie or a television special. The story was done as a silent film as far back as the turn of the century. The first animated television Christmas special was about Dickens' Carol, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol to be specific. And perhaps a Dickens novel is not what you want to tackle; after all, isn't he voluble?
Fear not, Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in seven weeks, as a message to more fortunate Londoners to help the poor. For its brevity, it's full of memorable descriptions and even more memorable characters—who even marginally familiar with English literature doesn't know who Ebenezer Scrooge is? Dickens' descriptions of London at Christmas both good—the lovely Christmas market, the love exuded by the Cratchits—and the bad—the realities of poverty in 19th century England—make vivid pictures that remain in your mind long after you finish reading. An even better reason to read the tale: even the longest film adaptation of the story doesn't contain all the aspects of the novel. Did you know on his travels with the Spirit of Christmas Present Scrooge visited a lighthouse? a coal mining village?
The Cottage Holiday, Jo Mendel
The Tuckers series of children's books was published in the 1960s by Whitman: father, mother, five rambunctious children, a big shaggy dog and a cat. Most of the novels are typical children's adventures (befriending the new neighbors, spending a summer at the beach or with relatives, participating in sports). But this Christmas story is a little gem.
Seven-year-old Penny is often sick and wonders about her place among her healthier, boisterous siblings (sixth-grader Tina, aspiring cook; twins Terry and Merry; and younger brother Tom). After being ill before Christmas and unable to participate with her siblings in a school Christmas program, she wishes the family might spend the holidays at their cottage at the lake. To her delight her doctor declares her well enough, and the family arrives prepared for nonstop fun for the holiday. Instead, the children are propelled into an adventure involving a marauding cougar and the danger it brings to a stranded woman. The kids play in the snow, find a Christmas tree, bake pies, and do other fun activities that don't involve staring at a screen or manipulating a game controller. But the heart and soul of this book is Penny's search for her own special talent, something that will serve her while she "sits still and takes pills," and it gives the novel a sweet, timeless quality with an ending that will leave tears in your eyes.
Sleigh Bells for Windy Foot, Frances Frost
This is one of a series of four books about a Vermont farm family, the Clarks, in the late 1940s that vividly brings life on a small family property alive. The Clarks raise much of their own food, as well as supply milk to the local dairy and sugar off in the spring, and their bountifully old-fashioned Christmas is like a greeting card come to life: the children snowshoe in the woods to find natural decorations for the house, eldest Toby rebuilds a sleigh to use behind Windy Foot, his dapple-grey pony, and also helps defend the stock when a bear prowls the neighborhood while waiting for mail-order gifts to arrive, the family goes into town for shopping at a delectable general store and caroling; there is snow, skiing, ample food from the farm, and even an unexpected, special gift for Toby's younger sister. In addition, there's excitement involving a marauding bear and a sports accident. The best part is the family warmth and love which encircles one like a blanket and you're sorry when the final page turns and you have to leave the Clarks on Christmas evening.
Christmas After All, Kathryn Lasky
As the Depression deepens, Minnie Swift and her family are feeling the pinch more and more. They are closing down rooms in their home to save coal, eating an endless series of almost meatless meals seasoned with quantities of cheese, and noticing with reluctance that their father comes home from work earlier every day and locks himself in the attic with his typewriter.
And then a distant cousin comes to stay with them, Willy Faye, a girl raised in the Dust Bowl and now an orphan. Minnie discovers she's never seen a movie, never heard of Buck Rogers, never eaten a peach. So she figures that Willie Faye will have a lot to learn from her family. She doesn't realize what the family will learn from Willie Faye.
Kathryn Lasky based the characters in this book on her own grandparents and aunts and uncles, and one of the sisters' boyfriends on her father, and her affection for all of them shows. Minnie's family includes a precocious only brother who builds radio sets at the same time he makes childish jokes and a fashion-designer-in-the-making sister who can make stunning, novel outfits from scraps of fabric and old clothing. The story rings with hardship, or the family associates with those dealing with hardship (several chapters take place in a Hooverville), and yet they manage to rise above it.
If there's one problem with the story, it's the slightly fanciful epilog (all the "Dear America" books have one, which chronicles the later lives of the characters). I would have been pleased if the future turned out well, but having it turn out wildly successful for everyone was a bit much. Still, the main tale itself is magic.
The House Without a Christmas Tree, Gail Rock
Based on the 1970s Christmas special by the same name, this is the story of 10-year-old Addie Mills, a smart, spunky fifth grader in the small town of Clear River, Nebraska, who is being raised by her laconic, introverted father and loving grandmother. Addie has wanted a Christmas tree during the holiday season for years, but her father has always refused on the grounds that it's a waste of money because they have Christmas at a relative's home. It's only when Addie wins a tree in a school contest that the real truths come to the fore.
This is a lovely short novel about an intelligent girl and a father who could have been labeled "mean" or "cruel." Instead, we slowly find out some family secrets. The story also paints a simpler time when kids shopped at drugstores for a beloved teacher's gift, homemade decorations sufficed on a Christmas tree, and the big treat for an afternoon was baking gingerbread men.
(I don't usually push DVDs with my books, but the DVD of this story is well worth finding. Lisa Lucas is perfect as slightly bossy Addie, Mildred Natwick properly motherly as her grandma, but Jason Robards shines as the withdrawn father with a secret heartache.)
The Homecoming, Earl Hamner Jr.
This short novel formed the basis for a television movie of the same name, which became the pilot film for the long-running Depression-set series The Waltons, about a Virginia backwoods family poor in material goods but rich in love. If you've seen the film, you will still find in the book points of interest, as not only were most of the characters' names changed for the movie, but some of them were slightly softened for 1970s television: for instance, in the book the father character is a bit of a gambler and drinker (although not to his family's detriment!) and the "John-Boy" of the book smokes a cigarette while hunting for a Christmas tree on his own. While the movie is much more rough-hewn than the series was, the book is even more realistic, giving a truer portrait of the harshness of the times.
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Barbara Robinson
This is a deserved Christmas classic about a family of six undisciplined (literally), half-wild children who are growing up with little supervision and who are the terrors of their elementary school. The Herdman children's divorced mother works double shifts at a factory to support them, and they receive little love and much fear from their classmates. Then the whole kit'n'caboodle of them get involved with the local church's Nativity play.
This is a very funny novel, not just from what happens when the kids join the Christmas pageant, but from some pointed commentary from the narrator, an unnamed child whose mother is in charge of producing the pageant. Her quirky descriptions of her friends (including one little girl she describes as "so squeaky-clean that she had dishpan hands by the time she was four years old"), events at home (I particularly love her father's attitude), and the pageant preparations are sharp and funny. This is a feel-good book with a message that is handled humorously and in a non-heavy-handed manner.