April 26, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Book Creators Spill on Their Private Holiday Memories

A popular tradition here at School Library Journal is our December round-up of holiday memories. Every year since 2006, we’ve been gathering stories from some of our most beloved authors and illustrators, such as Liz Levy and Julie Andrews and daughter Emma Walton Hamilton.

In this installment, our tenth, we have especially sweet—and hysterical—recollections to share with you.


The board book power couple,Ted and Betsy Lewin (below), received a starred review from SLJ for their latest title, How to Babysit a Leopard (Roaring Brook, 2015).


For the past thirty years or so since we bought our brownstone in Brooklyn, we’ve shared a traditional Christmas. It begins with a tree trimming party a week before Christmas. Most of the ornaments were made by Betsy. The others were given by friends or family over the years, and she remembers the story behind each one.

On Christmas Eve, we get all dressed up, me in a tuxedo, Betsy in silk and sequin. We enjoy a candlelight dinner at home of smoked salmon, black bread, and champagne. Then we go to a chamber music concert (the Brandenburgs) at Bargemusic, held in a converted coffee barge on the East River under the Brooklyn Bridge. We listen to the music while looking at lower Manhattan lit up like a Christmas tree, the seagulls floating by outside adding grace notes.

On Christmas morning, we open presents while watching the classic Christmas movie, Scrooge, with Alastair Sim. The scene where the converted Scrooge decides to have dinner with his nephew after all brings tears to our eyes every time.


Mike Curato, the creator of the polka-dotted elephant protagonist in Little Elliot, is a rising star on the kid lit scene. Worm Loves Worm (HarperCollins), his latest book, will be out in January.


When I was four, I had an anxiety-riddled few days leading up to Christmas. I wasn’t convinced that Santa was coming. Oh, I still believed in Santa. But Mom and Dad’s schedule did not allow for them to take to me to the mall to wait in that painfully long line to meet Santa. How was he going to know what to bring me!?

“Don’t worry, Mikey, you wrote Santa a letter, remember?” Mom reassured me. “Santa reads all of his letters.” I was unconvinced. I’ve always been a very one-on-one type of person. I wanted Santa’s in-person guarantee that I was going to get all of the He-Man action figures and Matchbox cars that I wanted. I wrote a second letter, to be thorough.

On Christmas Eve, I helped Mom load up Santa’s cookie plate. I was carefully placing it on an end table when the doorbell rang. I turned around in time to see my mother opening the front door.

“OH! Look who it is, Mike!” she pointed. Santa was standing outside on the sidewalk. “Come in, Santa!” He had the suit, he had the beard, he had the HO HO HO, but something seemed…off.

By now my father emerged from the bedroom, from which the rustle of wrapping paper and screeching of tape had been emanating for a while. “Oh, hello, Santa!”

“HO HO HO, MEEEERRY CHRISTMAS!” Santa boomed…well, kind of boomed. “Come give Santa a HUG!” he said, arms outstretched. I cautiously moved closer, but did not fully commit to an embrace. I looked into Santa’s eyes. I’m told my mouth was agape.

 “Are you really Santa?” I asked.

“HO! HO! Yes I AM!” said Santa.

 Santa was somehow familiar. He seemed younger. And his belly was awkwardly plump while the rest of him was scrawny. And he reminded me of my aunt. Because he was my aunt.

 I began my interrogation. “What are you doing here, Santa? Why aren’t you at the North Pole?”

“OH, I wanted to make sure that you were being a GOOD BOY.”

 “Did you get my letters?”

“YES! YES! My elves wrote it ALL DOWN on a very LONG LIST!”

 “Santa, how can you get into our house at night when we don’t have a real fireplace?”

“I have a MAGIC KEY!” he declared.

 He did have all the right answers. But I was still skeptical. Because he was my aunt.

 Suddenly, a THUMP THUMP THUMP echoed from the ceiling. What I didn’t see was my other aunt throwing pinecones onto the roof from the lawn.

“WHAT was THAT?!” I jumped.

“Why, that’s RUDOLPH, of course! He’s up on the ROOF!”

My eyes almost fell out of my head. This guy was the REAL DEAL!

“Do you have a carrot that I can give him?” Santa had me now.

“YEAHI’LLBERIGHTBACK” I screamed while running to the kitchen. I returned with the largest carrot I could find in the crisper.

“OHHH THANK YOU!” said Santa. “He will really enjoy that.”

“Cookie for the road, Santa?” Mom held out a plate.

“Don’t MIND if I DO!” Santa grabbed some of the sugar cookies that I decorated, then bent down to me, “Now, make SURE you go to BED when your Mommy and Daddy tell you to! My magic key only works when good boys and girls are ASLEEP!”

“YES, SANTA!!” I flung my arms around his squishy belly.

“HO HO HO, I have to go now. MEEEERRY CHRISTMAS!”

“MERRY CHRISTMAS, SANTA!” I waved feverishly until the door was shut.

 I practically jumped into bed and shut my eyes as soon as he was gone.

“MICHAEL! Come brush your teeth FIRST!” Mom called.

 The next morning, I was relieved to discover a full spread of presents under the tree. Not only did Santa give me He-Man action figures and a stocking full of Matchbox cars, he left me the grand-daddy of all 1980s Christmas gifts–a POWERWHEEL! And that was the Christmas I became a true believer in S-AUNT-A Claus.


Laurel Synderis the author of several middle grade novels as well as picture books. Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova (Chronicle, 2015) received a starred review from SLJ.

 My own childhood Hanukkah memories are very wonderful. My father believed in keeping things simple—candles and latkes (grated by hand, so we all took turns shredding potatoes, and sometimes our knuckles. Ouch!). Homemade applesauce. Dad would wrap up small presents, which always included a book. Then we’d spend hours at the table, reading our new books, talking and noshing and playing games. Dreidel, of course, for candies and dried fruits, but also often cards or Scrabble.  Watching the candles burn down. It was so nice.

All those memories faded a little in 2005, when my son Mose was born.  He was only four weeks old on the first night of Hanukkah. It was the first time we’d ever stayed home alone for the winter holidays, and I’d pictured something calm and sweet and intimate.  Just our new little family, hanging out. Watching movies, sipping hot cider.

However, I got a child who would NOT STOP SCREAMING. It was awful! You literally couldn’t set him down for thirty seconds before he began to wail like a police siren. We didn’t grate potatoes. We didn’t open our gifts. We rocked and rocked and rocked the baby.

At one point I realized that we hadn’t taken any pictures.  We didn’t have a single shot of “Mose’s first Hanukkah” because it had been so unbearable. So I made my husband go stand near the hanukkiah, and I snapped this picture (below). We made a memory.


Naturally, I’m glad we did. Despite the yowling, Mose was the best present we’d ever gotten. I wouldn’t trade him for all the pleasant holidays in the universe. But it’s important to remember the real story.  This year, when my happy kids (there are two boys in the house now!) open their gifts, spin their dreidels, and cheerfully munch their latkes, I’ll look at this picture, and feel extra grateful.


Kat Yeh, author of The Truth About Twinkie Pie (Little Brown, 2015), grew up in western Pennsylvania.


My practical parents had told me from the very start that Santa was make-believe—and that was that. I did love Christmas and our tree and singing carols, but I never felt any sort of tenderness toward this man all the other children were so obsessed with. The stop-motion movie, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, did little to change my mind. The Santa who encouraged the other reindeer to snub poor Rudolph for being different? I was not fond of him.

The clincher was the terrifying electric Santa head my parents would hang over the fireplace by our Christmas tree. I refused to go anywhere near it—that grim glowing face, floating in the dark of the living room with its blank, emotionless eyes. (You can see it in the photo above, hanging on the wall behind my brother and me.) I would hold my breath and bolt past it on my way upstairs at bedtime. If I happened to be around when my father pulled him from the cardboard box at the beginning of the holidays, I would quickly flip Santa over face down. And then run.

Only in the bright light of Christmas morning could I be persuaded to enter that room. I was comforted by the knowledge that my presents had been purchased at a mall, not slipped into the house at night by a man with a glowing head who traveled via emotionally scarred reindeer.

Recently, my mother sold the house where I grew up and I came to help her clean out the attic. It was early morning when I pulled that Santa head from its dusty cardboard box. With the eyes of one older and wiser, I paused and looked at him there in the bright light of day. Within the minute, he was flipped over face down.

As it happened, I married a man who believed in Santa until an age he would not want published anywhere. We raised two beautiful children who believed in a kind, jolly, and magical man. When they wanted a holiday movie, I’d offer How The Grinch Stole Christmas. And the only Santa head floating over our fireplace was drawn in crayon and framed in glittery macaroni. During the years they believed, they truly loved Santa. And that Santa, the one my children believed in? I have to admit: I am very, very fond of him. 


RELATED: Keep the holiday mood going by savoring the memories of past years.

2014 Holiday Memories

2013 Holiday Memories  

2012 Holiday Memories Part 2

2012 Holiday Memories Part 1

2011 Holiday Memories

2010 Holiday Memories

2009 Holiday Memories

2008 Holiday Memories

2007 Holiday Memories

2006 Holiday Memories Part 2

2006 Holiday Memories Part 1



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.



  1. Terry Sennett says:

    Mike Curato illustrated John J. Austrian’s book, Worm Loves Worm. JJ spent a few years in the Town of Clinton, home of The Book Booth: America’s Littlest Library, in Dutchess County, NY.

  2. “Then we’d spend hours at the table, reading our new books, talking and noshing and playing games”
    I don’t agree, read that: http://www.boweryboyshistory.com/2014/12/the-real-miracle-on-34th-street-21.html
    Friendly, Chris