Some of my favorite Christmas stories come from the “Little House Books,” Laura Ingalls Wilder’s multi-volume chronicle of her childhood on the American frontier in the decades after the Civil War. Each book in the series builds to a memorable Yuletide, celebrated in conditions that are sometimes cozy and sometimes fraught with worry. In Little House in the Big Woods, Laura’s eyes shine as she cradles her very own rag doll; in On the Banks of Plum Creek, she sees her first Christmas tree in a mission church on the Minnesota prairie. The chapter from Little House on the Prairie titled “Mr. Edwards Meets Santa Claus” is a masterpiece of suspense, warmth, and joy. I remember comparing my childhood Christmas-morning bounty with Laura’s meager stockingful of gifts and feeling slightly uneasy. (“Think of having a whole penny for your very own,” Wilder deadpans. “Think of having a cup and a cake and a stick of candy and a penny. There never had been such a Christmas.”) Reading it with my children made me appreciate how sensitively Ma and Pa’s anxiety over Santa’s likely failure to deliver is conveyed through Laura’s innocent eyes.
The Little House Books make an excellent gift for any grade-school child, whether in tried-and-true paperback format (HarperCollins sells a boxed set of nine paperbacks for $71.97) or in the handsome new hardcover editions of the first three books, Little House in the Big Woods (HarperCollins, $12.99, 224 pp.), Little House on the Prairie (336 pp.), and Farmer Boy (368 pp.). These newer editions, also available as a boxed set, have heirloom-style cover art, no interior illustrations, and new forewords by an assortment of famous names. (The only one I read, by former librarian and first lady Laura Bush, didn’t add much.) Wilder’s text needs no dressing up, but these books have the look of a gift to be cherished.
A child already acquainted with the Ingalls family might like to receive A Little House Christmas Treasury (HarperCollins, $14.99, 144 pp.), which collects the abovementioned Christmas chapters from each book in a single volume. It’s perfect holiday fare, with little preaching but a great deal of genuine sacrifice and generosity.
For Advent reading I have come to cherish a picture book for very young children, Who Is Coming to Our House? by Joseph Slate and Ashley Wolff (Penguin, $6.99, 24 pp.). The animals of Bethlehem prepare their stable for the arrival of Mary and Joseph, urged on by a mouse who, prophet-like, announces the visitors’ approach (“Who is coming to our house? ‘Someone, someone,’ says Mouse”). With its repetitive text and friendly-looking sheep and ducks, the book can grab the attention of a toddler—and it is currently in print only in board-book format. But the gorgeous linoleum-block-print artwork has an air of solemnity, and as I read I find myself reflecting in a not-at-all childish way on my own anticipation and preparation for the arrival of the Christ Child—“Welcome, welcome to our house!”
When Advent is over, the prolific children’s author and illustrator Cynthia Rylant has a brand-new picture book, Nativity (Beach Lane Books, $17.99, 40 pp.), that tells the story of Christ’s birth with a welcome twist. Her text is drawn directly from the Bible (King James, of course) and the illustrations are colorful, childlike painted tableaux. But after the shepherds depart the stable and leave Mary with her thoughts, Rylant shows us an adult Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount and ends with the Beatitudes. I can think of no other children’s book that succeeds so well in demonstrating why exactly Jesus’ birth is Good News, and does it with so light a touch.
My final recommendation brings me back to the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but this time with a book for adults. Caroline Fraser, who edited the Library of America’s 2012 collection of Wilder’s work, has drawn on her comprehensive research to write a terrific new historical biography, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Metropolitan, $35, 640 pp.). Reading Little House on the Prairie to my sons forced me to confront my ignorance about the specific causes of the mutual hostility between white homesteaders and the “Indians” they encountered. I was able to give only a very broad explanation for why Laura’s parents were afraid of their Native American neighbors in Indian Territory—and why they nevertheless decided to settle there. Reading Prairie Fires filled me in on events like the grisly Dakota massacre and political forces like the Homestead Act, and answered questions I hadn’t thought to ask about how and why the American West took shape the way it did. Fraser tells the story of Wilder’s long life (she died in 1957) and her late-in-life writing career, including her “editorially incestuous” relationship with her daughter, the author and editor Rose Wilder Lane. But Fraser also provides a sweeping view of the background against which her subject wrote, explaining in gripping detail how the westward expansion of white settlers, conflicts with native tribes, and trends in politics, the economy, and even the climate produced the world Wilder chronicled in her books. She quotes contemporary sources—letters, journals, news reports—to put Laura’s memories in a broader context (e.g., “The Ingallses had no way of knowing it, but the locust swarm descending upon them was the largest in recorded human history”). And the history she recounts is so fascinating, and her command of it so sure, that a reader need not have any special interest in Laura Ingalls Wilder to find Prairie Fires worthwhile.