April 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Authors and Illustrators Share Their Holiday Memories, Part 2


This week, authors Rita Williams-Garcia, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, and Mac Barnett share their stories of the season with SLJ. Last week, we heard from Julie Andrews and her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton, along with author Liz Levy.

Rita Williams-Garcia

Rita Williams-Garcia and family

It was winter 1990, and my husband was preparing to go off to Saudi Arabia for Desert Storm [as a platoon sergeant for an engineering brigade, responsible for 52 soldiers who did battle damage assessments]. I asked my mother what she had sent my father when he was in Vietnam. She said, “Candy, cookies and nothing but good news.”

Our daughters, Michelle, 6, and Stephanie, 2, signed a card for their dad while I put together a tin box of cookies and candies, along with a photo of the family with a promise that we’d all be together SOON?. The night before we went to Floyd Bennett Field for his deployment, I stuffed the tin in Peter’s duffle bag along with a note: “Do not open until Christmas.”

We said our goodbyes and waved while trucks loaded with soldiers drove off. Then I bought a houseful of toys for my children, including a jungle gym with a slide which sat in our living room.

On Christmas morning I videotaped Michelle reading the Nativity story and mailed that to Peter along with a video of a New York Giants football game. Of everything, he remembers the tin box with cookies and candy on Christmas.

Jarrett J. Krosoczka

“I just don’t like Christmastime,” my grandmother Shirley would say as she leaned back in her chair at the kitchen table, taking a drag from her cigarette and a sip from her coffee. “I just think about all the people who don’t have nothin’, ya know. The parents who can’t buy presents for their kids. The people who you see on the news whose houses burn down on Christmas night. Then I think about all the women who get beaten by their husbands.” She would shake her head, but not before taking another puff of her unfiltered Camel, allowing the smoke to cover any hint of the pine needles in the adjacent living room.

Jarrett J. Krosoczka

Holly jolly.

Our halls weren’t exactly decked with the cheery sentiments of Christmas carols. We had a tinsel-draped tree filled with ornaments left over from the 1950s and ’60s. A few holiday items were placed atop side tables—an animatronic Santa and a porcelain Christmas tree that played “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”

“Time to take down the toys,” my grandfather Joe would mutter as he retrieved the few boxes of Christmas decorations kept in the garage. Joe’s job was to get the ornaments and set up the tree. The rest was up to my grandmother and me. Later, it was just my responsibility to trim the tree. As I hit adolescence, neither Joe nor Shirley saw any point in decorating when we’d only be taking everything down in a few weeks. Despite their aversion to covering the house in holiday décor, I would eagerly hand-draw Santas, candy canes, wreaths, and even mistletoe and place them throughout the front hallway.

Their dreary dispositions aside, they made sure I woke up every Christmas morning to an embarrassment of riches. A Smurf Big Wheel, collections of Transformers, ThunderCats, and G.I. Joes, a Nintendo, and, of course, always art supplies. There was nothing that made them happier than to see me happy. It’s what they dedicated their twilight years to. Aside from the many presents they lavished upon me, they gave me the greatest gift of all—a stable home, with two parental figures who loved me unconditionally.

It was just before Christmas of 1980 when I came to live with my grandparents full time. I had just turned three years old, and Joe and Shirley had already been taking care of me for the majority of my life. It had become clear that their daughter was never going to be stable enough to care for me, and the decision was made that I would live with them permanently.

I remember seeing the light of the Christmas tree through my tears as Shirley sat me down to explain that I would be living with them now and that I wouldn’t see my mother for some time. I remember her asking me what I liked to eat, so she could make sure I had my favorite meals. I told her that I liked meatball sandwiches. To distract me, she told me to pick out one present from under the tree and open it. Without missing a beat, I hopped off her lap and chose a box. I unwrapped it furiously. A tan Tonka pickup truck. I loved that truck and played with it endlessly.

Now I have a family of my own. And I, like my grandfather, grumble about getting the “toys” out of storage. But this is because my wife, Gina, has twenty-four red-and-green plastic bins filled to the brim with holiday cheer. It would have given Joe a heart attack. My two daughters will smile ear-to-ear on Christmas morning with the magic and wonder of the season. I will set out a porcelain Christmas tree that will chime out a tune and warn us all that we “better watch out.” And I will think of my grandparents, who gave me so very much at Christmastime.

Mac Barnett

When I was four I wanted a cuckoo clock for Christmas.

We lived in a small town and my mom didn’t have much money. My mother didn’t know where to buy a cuckoo clock, and if she did find one, she was pretty sure she wouldn’t be able to afford it.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have a bicycle?” she would ask.

Mac Barnett

“How about Skeletor’s Castle? That would be a good gift,” she said.

“Or what about a nice regular clock, with a neat design on it?”

“No. I want a cuckoo clock.”


I didn’t know why she was so concerned. The cuckoo clock was Santa’s problem, not hers.

A week before Christmas, we went to see Santa at the mall. Standing in line, my mom asked, “Have you thought about what you’re going to ask him to get you for Christmas?”

What was wrong with this woman? I wanted a cuckoo clock.

Finally it was my turn. I climbed on Santa’s lap and gave him a drawing I’d made for him. It said, “I LOVE YOU SANTA.” (Always a good idea to flatter someone before you ask him for a hard-to-find gift.) We went through the usual small talk and then Santa asked, “Well, little boy, what do you want for Christmas?”

“Santa,” I said, “The thing I want most in the whole world is a cuckoo clock.”

Behind my back, my mom stood right in Santa’s eyeline, grimacing and slicing at her neck with her hand. Santa met her gaze, nodded, and looked down at me.

“Well…” said Santa. “That should be no problem. My elves are very good at making cuckoo clocks.”

I was overcome with joy as a man in reindeer antlers hustled me off Santa’s lap.

My mom was in a foul mood the rest of the day.

Of course, at the time I didn’t know the whole story. And I still don’t know why Santa did my mom dirty. All I know is that on Christmas day, I got a cuckoo clock.


Earlier ‘Holiday Memories’: 2006 ,20072007, 20082008, 2009, 20102011.




Rocco Staino About Rocco Staino

Rocco Staino @RoccoA is the retired director of the Keefe Library of the North Salem School District in New York. He is now a contributing editor for School Library Journal and also writes for the Huffington Post.