Santa Claus Saves Christmas  Again!

Classic Santa Stout courtesy of Coke.

No cultural icon seems to be safe from scrutiny in these critical times.  Over the last few years, two authors have created picture books showing little readers that there’s room for improvement in Santa Land.  Is this driven by data showing that kids don’t like him roly-poly, generous, and jolly?  That they aren’t in awe of the one-man international parcel delivery service powered by reindeer that Amazon Prime has yet to beat? No, it’s his size, which is laid to the door of poor food choices at meals and snacks.  A mature elf who eats a plate of cookies at even a fraction of the houses visited on Christmas Eve is going to put on weight without regular exercise..

The stories offer different solutions to the same dilemma: can Santa lose weight in time for the Christmas Eve run?  Ralph Packard tries to make The North Pole Goes on a Diet (2017) a low-key, inspirational story about controlling weight through mindful eating and regular activity.

Vigilant Timmy the Elf. Ralph Packard. The North Pole Goes on a Diet. Illustrated by Tracy Egan. [U.S.A.: no publisher], c.2017.

One year some of the North Pole gang noticed that everybody had gotten plump, sluggish and grumpy.  Six months later Mrs. Claus tells Santa sorrowfully that his red suit can’t be let out: it is either lose weight or have a bigger suit made.

Santa on the scale.

Being an enlightened employer, Santa has a doctor, nurse, dentist, and vet up to the Pole to evaluate the team’s overall health.  The news isn’t good, but everybody takes the pledge to get fit and trim by the twenty-fourth.  Poor Santa has the most trouble finding a form of exercise he can stick with.  After failing with jazzerecise, yoga, the stationary bike, and weight-lifting, he settles into a daily hour-long walk with the dogs.  He gets into the old suit, the workshop hums with energy and good cheer, and everyone looks forward to the Welcome Home banquet on Christmas Day.  Professional losers may click their tongues at food as a reward for shedding weight as counterproductive: the loser has to substitute new ones.

The diverse North Pole team around the dinner table enjoying a healthy low-fat, high-fiber meal.

Before and after the North Pole diet…

Gently fat-shaming a beloved imaginary character to demonstrate that change is possible may be a positive strategy, but it’s not without problems. Yes, it’s good to emphasize that walking is a fine form of exercise, and yes, it’s sensible to admit that it’s hard to follow an exercise program.  But these are grown-up problems and grown-ups are not the audience for this picture book.  The author proceeded on the risky assumption that four- to eight-year-old were going to be engaged by this situation set in the North Pole.

No one in Packard’s ackowledgments noticed that at the beginning none of the characters  were drawn as visibly overweight and at the end they are unchanged after a six-month diet  Some kids will giggle at what is probably an oversight in continuity on the illustrator’s part, but there will be children so sensitive about body image that may read it as an indication that people can be overweight even though if they don’t look heavy.   They may see this anxiety reflected in themselves when they look in the mirror or at themselves in photos.  Even putting younger obese children on a diet is extremely complicated–they are still growing and haven’t developed like the degree of self-control the process takes.

Charlene Christie. Santa Claus Goes on a Diet. Illustrated by Peipei. [U.S.] ChristieSolutions, c.2012.

After stuffing himself for the first ten months of the year with Mrs. Claus’s excellent cakes, cookies and cupcakes, Santa discovers that not only can’t he get into his red suit, he doesn’t fit in the sleigh.  Mrs. Claus admits her baking has been a factor in this crisis, but quickly conjures up a no-carbs diet menu for the next sixty days: three French hen eggs and veggies for breakfast, cream of mistletoe soup for lunch, and pickled turkey legs with cranberry cider for dinner (seems cruel not to vary it a jot for all those weeks).  For exercise, Santa chases Dasher the reindeer around the yard for a hour.

Thanks, but I won’t be needing that suit after all!

He makes his goal with twelve days to spare and rewards Mrs. Claus for her cleverness with a kiss under the mistletoe, not a celebratory sweetie.  The plot is much simpler than the one in The North Pole, but the focus is squarely on Santa’s perseverance in the face of  privations, which is the right kind of silly for the picture book crowd (a comment by Christie’s son is often the springboard for a new book).  You can hear a four-year-old shriek “Yeeeeew,” at the idea of mistletoe cooked up in soup or  laugh at the ridiculous spectacle of Santa’s belly flopping while he runs after Dasher.  And the reward for this effort is not a bowl of fruit, but the pleasure of achieving a goal with the help of someone else who has your back.

As children’s book writers,Packard and Christie would probably be quite happy to designated as values educators, and the market (insofar as it can be determined on Amazon, who sells the books) has validated Christie as a successful one in the verified customer reviews.  One person notes that  “in my son’s words ‘he loved this  because Santa never gave up and ate his vegetables and because Mrs. Clause helped him.’”   Another customer touched on the difficulty of writing about the subject for children:

Diet books often give me pause as they can feed into self-esteem problems while denying the goodness of the body, no matter what the physique is. This one, thankfully, is innocent enough, even accepting Santa in the end if he fails his diet (tailor made an extra-big suit, just in case). In fact, the story, promotes good healthy habits and is funny...

A third, who tried this book on the strength of her niece’s enjoyment of another Christie picture book, was not disappointed: “This was a hit with both my 3 year old niece and my 11 year old daughter who read it to her. I recommend reading both children’s book by this author. Looking forward for more books to come. “   And more have come in the form of translations into Spanish, French, and German, and Kindle downloads.

The North Pole Goes on a Diet, on the other hand, seems not to have found an audience, in spite of its author’s good intentions. He names his avocation as  an animal rescue volunteer and thanks his two dog-children.   Perhaps he should have kept his eye on the child, instead of the dogs….

Pandemic Picture Books Offer Crash Courses in Social Distancing

An obvious advantage of self-publication is a quick turnaround time: a writer can respond to rapidly shifting social currents faster than with a trade publisher, who may be reluctant to move quickly on a subject whose relevance may wilt within weeks or months.  A full-service self-publishing outfit like Zuri Book Pros, for example, offers an author plenty of options for the book’s look and feel.  Depending upon the desired illustration style, the $40-60 per page charge includes layout, unlimited changes, and no royalty fees.   A flurry of picture books explaining the concept and practice of social distancing, the necessity of wearing masks, and the challenges of on-line learning entered the marketplace of ideas in May via self-publication and they can be identified on the final page with the colophon “Made in the U.S.A.” with the date of printing in Middletown, Delaware (most often), which may indicate printing on demand at an Amazon facility.

Another reason many authors like self-publication is greater control of self-promotion on an Amazon store,  YouTube channel, and social media accounts, on top of the more traditional methods of an illustrated series list or author bio prominently placed within the book.  Several of these timely titles are the latest additions to well-established series featuring signature characters like  Little Spot, who helpfully reminds little distance learners about one of the most important things to do before an on-line class in the pamphlet on dos and don’ts of distance learning. The early childhood educator, Shondra M. Quarles (@eyeheartteaching), lists her award from the National Celebrity Educators and being selected as a finalist in the 2017 and 2018 Indie Author Award competition.  Artist and proud mom of two, Diane Albers tries to increase the instructional value of her “Inspire to Create a Better You” series by offering free “printables” and worksheets on her website on the final page of advertisements.  The slickest of the three is the MyDragonBooks.com. The creator Steve Herman reveals nothing about himself beyond a self-characterization as  “passionate about teaching children valuable social and emotional life lessons through his cute, fun, and relatable dragon children’s books.”   The merch has been thought through carefully: stickers, soft toys, audio and activity books, and art prints (no artists credited) plus bulk shipping for orders over $25.  Any visitor to the site can download for free a high-res coloring sheet, which the author encourages customers to return to him filled in with crayons.

The two most successful of this group of pandemic picture books—and by “successful” I mean are good reads and have a fair chance of  influencing children’s behavior for the better–are the most lively and life-affirming. Shondra M. Quarles’ No, Calvin! could only have been written by a teacher.  The twenty-five word text is brought to life by the Turkish illustrator Hatice Bayramogul ‘s pictures of Calvin forgetting all the rules his teacher is trying to drill into him.  He’s an energetic, exasperating little sweetie and when the mask finally goes on the right way, Calvin and his teacher flash heart-hands and she tells him that she loves him. Katie Sedmak recognizes the difficulty of teaching children to push down their natural desire to express affection by squeezing, kissing, and bouncing.  Her If You Can’t Bear Hug, Air Hug! is an adorable illustrated poem that models how to communicate friendship through laughter, listening, gift-giving, and smiling acted out by jolly,  even boisterous, animals.  The lion recommends, “If you can’t share snoring / Share roars,/ Chests puffed, manes fluffed, / We see who growls the loudest.”   The tough reality of social distancing is acknowledged with a light touch, while presenting the alternatives as proof of people’s capacity to adapt and to enjoy  it. 

School is Different this Year and That’s Okay co-authored by Susan Leininger and Julie Bair tries hard to normalize the extraordinary with reassurances that different solutions for different families and different reactions by different kids to the same circumstances is perfectly normal, which is true.  The happy  community of  birds and beasts are quick to see the upside of a year that promises to be anything but business-as-usual.  On-line shopping sure beats dragging the kids from store to the store for non-existent packs of toilet paper.   The mice mask, the giraffes do not, and it’s all cool.   Unfortunately, the authors’ depiction of a complete and easy-going tolerance within the community hits a false note when over the summer we have all learned how quickly the act of mask-wearing could be politicized and used as a divisive symbol of political affiliation.   

Steve Herman, the creator of the My Dragon Books series, takes a stricter approach to training children the way they should go, as demonstrated by his young dragon whisperer Drew.  His hapless pet Diggory Doo looks like a cross between a rhinoceros and some species of dinosaur, not a miniature menacing Smaug sleeping on a mountain of glittering ill-gotten gains.  Diggory is a creature to whom Drew can quite sharply order not to torch his mask accidentally, finger sternly raised.. (Herman failed to take it into consideration that Diggory’s compliance with Drew’s prohibition would require the fire-breathing pet to hold its breath the entire time it was masked.) Poor old Diggory gets in more trouble for coveting his friend’s  smart face-covering so much that he suggests a swop (a complete non-starter) and for giving Drew a mighty snap in the face with a mask cum sling-shot.   Eventually  the miserable beast confesses how much he hates wearing a mask and tearfully concedes that he will try to be a good sport and wear it because Drew tells him to, but  he still doesn’t understand why.  After Drew patiently explains it all to Diggory. he realizes that by wearing the mask, he is nothing less than a public health superpower and is inspired to contribute to the cause of containing COVID-19.

Lucy’s Mask by Lisa Sirkis Thompson builds to the same realization, but tries to engage the little reader’s moral sense through the main character’s imaginative flight about all the exciting things she can be as soon as her mother finishes making her a mask.   It takes just a few words from her mother to convince Lucy that she will be playing a much more important role than an ordinary superhero when she wears a mask that covers her mouth instead of her eyes.   Off they go in their masks to visit Grandmother while keeping them all safe.  That is a kind of everyday heroism we can all  emulate…