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Off the Shelves: Some childhood Christmas favorites remain classic
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As I was browsing through the local bookstore last week, I thought about how much literature impacted my love of the holiday season when I was growing up.

My family always had our traditional Christmas books set out on the living room coffee table every year, and we would sit by the fireplace and read these books to each other.

I would like to share my childhood Christmastime literary favorites, in case you might be searching for a special bookshelf treasure to give someone in your family this year.

• Favorite Holiday Novel: "Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol" by Tom Mula

It only makes sense that a theater actor who has performed in "The Christmas Carol" for more than 20 years would know the classic Charles Dickens story inside and out, and thus could put a new creative spin on it from the point of view of Ebenezer Scrooge's deceased but "spirited" business partner, Jacob Marley.

This re-envisioning of the tale puts more at stake for Marley's ghost; he does not visit Scrooge merely to warn him about his horrific fate in the afterlife, but because the only way Marley can redeem himself and not be sent to Hell is to convince Scrooge to change his selfish ways.

Accompanied by a mischievous Bogle, a miniscule sprite who looks just like Marley, Jacob has to devise a way to make Scrooge see the light and become a good man, even if it means disguising himself as the various Ghosts of Christmas in order to do it.

• Favorite Illustrations in a Christmas Book: "The Nutcracker," Illustrated by Maurice Sendak, Story by E.T.A. Hoffmann

I have always loved Sendak's artwork, and to this day I am entranced by the illustrations in "Where the Wild Things Are" and "In the Midnight Kitchen."

Something about his art in this narrative of "The Nutcracker" both captivated me and frightened me, which oddly enough only made me want to see the illustrations again and again.

In Sendak's interpretation, the Nutcracker is not a handsome character at all. There was a two-page spread of a close-up of the Nutcracker's face that scared the Christmas lights out of me every time I turned to it.

The Mouse King is every inch a monster, a seven-headed gargantuan rat with menacing eyes, when rendered by Sendak's inks and paints.

But the detail, wide array of colors, and unique style makes this enjoyable for both children and adults. Hoffmann's story is a mixture of both whimsical and dark elements that mesmerizes readers in a spell, much like Uncle Drosselmeyer's mysterious midnight magic.

• Favorite Holiday Children's Stories: "The Polar Express" by Chris Van Allsburg and "A Wish for Wings that Work" by Berkeley Breathed

As much as I will always adore the time-honored holiday staples like "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "T'was the Night Before Christmas" and "Olive the Other Reindeer," the two books that I read and re-read every year were the infamous "Polar Express" and the less-known but heart-warming "A Wish for Wings that Work."

"Polar Express" is more like an anecdote of an experience that a structured three-act story - a young boy recounts the Christmas Eve when a magical train transports him from his hometown up to the North Pole, where he and a group of other lucky children get to meet Santa Claus, and Santa selects the boy to be the one to choose the "first gift of Christmas. "Its memorable illustrations and charming tone has captured readers' hearts for generations.

"A Wish for Wings that Work" features the comic strip character Opus the penguin. Opus is depressed that he, although a bird, is unable to fly, so he writes a letter to Santa requesting that he give him "wings that work" for Christmas.

When a tragedy strikes Santa on his annual flight to deliver gifts, Opus discovers that he is the only one who can save the day, and that maybe his wings are not so useless after all.

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? Email her to tell her about it. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com/life.

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