In "The Christmas Magic," a lovely new picture book by Lauren Thompson, Santa Claus feels the approach of the season by means even more magical than the opening of Macy's display. He senses a sudden tingling in his whiskers that pulls both ends of his mustache as taut as a piano string.
"Come along home now," he calls out to his familiar team of reindeer, beautifully rendered by Jon Muth's watercolors. "The Magic will be here soon."
Every Christmas season brings new volumes about the North Pole's most famous resident, but Thompson's version feels especially right for this unrelenting recession, with its return to simplicity. This story finds Santa in a snug house with a red door, darning his own socks and running his fingertips across crinkling pages of children's names. Polishing his sleigh by hand and stuffing his sack with "what each child at heart wants most," he waits until the night when the world "begins to thrum with magic, the kind of magic that makes reindeers fly."
This is the Santa Claus that parents of the analog generation will want to pass down to their digital kids. It is among the best of the season's new picture books reinterpreting traditional story lines with twists that will be fresh for young readers, and the adults who help them turn the pages.
"The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus" (Running Press, $14.95; ages 4 to 8) by L. Frank Baum, illustrated by Charles Santore.
Kids who have grown weary of the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer version of the Santa saga should check out this new release of Baum's 1902 classic, which imagines Claus as a babe in the woods, raised by well-meaning fairies. Santore's new illustrations have a century-old feel with a little Lord of the Rings around the edges, and Baum offers historical explanations for every tradition, from stockings hung by the fire to flying reindeer. The book offers a lovely glimpse of Christmases long past.
"The Steel Pan Man of Harlem" (Carolrhoda Books, $16.95; ages 5 to 8) written and illustrated by Colin Bootman.
In this inventive retelling of "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," author and illustrator Bootman sets the story near the 125 1/2th Street subway station during the days of the Harlem Renaissance. There, a mysterious stranger with a steel drum sets up temporary residence, playing melodies that make everyone dance as if in a trance. Bootman chooses a palette of nighttime blues and greens that give a sinister feel to some of the pages, but he smartly lightens up the dark legend by removing only the rats and a rat-like mayor from the final scenes.
"The Mitten" (Scholastic Books, $16.99; ages 3 to 6), retold by Jim Aylesworth, illustrated by Barbara McClintock.
A lost mitten becomes a cramped but cozy home for a squirrel, a rabbit, a fox and a bear in this wintry Ukrainian folk tale told on preschool feltboards the world over. Author Aylesworth gives this familiar tale a fresh and affectionate retelling that captures the warmth between a little boy and the grandmother who makes him hot chocolate (recipe included!). McClintock's illustrations capture each knitted stitch until a fatefully tiny mouse forces the mitten to its breaking point.
"The Seeing Stick" (Running Press, $16.95; ages 3 to 6) by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini.
The Emperor of China offers a reward to anyone who can cure his blind daughter, Hwei Ming, in this classic story first released in 1977. New illustrations by Jaglenka Terrazzini begin without color, but gradually burst into life as an old man with a walking stick arrives at the palace to teach Hwei Ming to see the world in a whole new way. Beautifully embossed pages invite young readers to trace their own fingertips across the page, learning how the princess "grew eyes on the tips of her fingers."
"Moon Theater" (Creative Editions, $17.95; grades one and up) written and illustrated by Etienne Delessert.
Going-to-bed books are a genre of their own, but artist and author Delessert envisions a new way of seeing nighttime -- as a stage that must be set by a boy who climbs out of the moon. In this picture book, published by Creative Editions of Mankato, the stagehand waters the stars, trains wild dogs to howl and feeds the monsters. While some of the images may be a little eerie for young readers, the story reminds us that the stagehand is entirely in control of his surroundings -- a cleverly reassuring message before lights-out.
"Red Sings From the Treetops: A Year in Colors" (Houghton Mifflin, $16; ages 5 to 8) by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski.
Exploring the color of the seasons is another convention of children's books, but Sidman, a Wayzata poet, breathes new life into the form by observing a world where "black holds secrets in summer" and "white clinks drinks." Zagarenski's illustrations have a whimsical, folk art feel, reminding young winterbound readers that "green waits in the hearts of trees feeling the earth turn."
"Leon and the Place Between" (Templar Books, $16.99; ages 5 to 8) by Angela McAllister, illustrated by Grahame Baker-Smith.
You can almost hear the calliope in the background of this entrancing carnival story that pulls back the velvet curtains on a magic show by imagining where those magician's assistants really go during moments between Presto-Chango and Abracadabra. Baker-Smith's illustrations are a fantasy of purple and gold, white doves, magic carpets and forgotten rabbits, as a boy named Leon goes on a journey "between there and back ... the place where magic sends you."
"The House" (Creative Editions, $19.95; grades five and up) by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Roberto Innocenti.
With poetry and paintings that follow a house through 100 years of weddings and births, wars and building permits, this gorgeous book might go better on a coffee table than in a kid's room. Young readers will enjoy unpacking a century's worth of shifts in history and home life; adults will be appalled by the family that moves in for the home's 21st-century remodel.
"The Riverbank" (Creative Editions, $17.95; grades three and up) by Charles Darwin, conceived and illustrated by Fabian Negrin.
The elegant final paragraph of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" serves as the inspiration for this unusual and affecting picture book, which evokes the riverbank that Darwin invited readers to imagine 150 years ago, teeming with life ever-changing. "Whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved." A gorgeous gift for the young scientist on your list, it beautifully evokes what Darwin called the "grandeur in this view of life."
Laura Billings is a writer in St. Paul.
"The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" (Scholastic, $18.99; ages 4 to 8) by E.T.A. Hoffmann, illustrated by Gail de Marcken.
Tchaikovsky may get all the credit, but Hoffmann was the real creator of this enduring fantasy about a Nutcracker, a Mouse King and a very funny uncle. Illustrator Gail de Marcken, who lives near Ely, Minn., infuses every page and border of this book with a golden light that captures the dreamy magic of the story, as well as its meandering bits. (One can see why composers and choreographers have always found the Princess Pirlipat portions of the story such a hard nut to crack creatively.) A beautiful literary companion for the ballerina on your shopping list.
"How the Nobble Was Finally Found" (Harcourt Children's Books, $18; ages 6 to 9) by C.K. Williams, illustrated by Stephen Gammell.
The between places are also where you'll find the Nobble, an appealingly Golem-y sort of creature envisioned by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Williams and drawn by St. Paul illustrator Gammell, a Caldecott winner. Living on his own for thousands of years in the "little octagonal rooms in snowflakes," and playing "in the space between Wednesday and Thursday," the Nobble finally sets out in search of something ... or someone. The moral seems to be that the universe has a lid for every pot, if only you set out to find it.