Wednesday, January 28, 2015

2015 Contenders: Santa Clauses, by Bob Raczka

Santa Clauses is a slim volume of 25 haiku -- one for each of the days in December leading up to Christmas. The entire book is written in character, with Santa himself as the speaker of each poem. Some of the pieces deal with preparations for the big Christmas Eve trek, while others focus on the Clauses' domestic life.

This could be the description of either a great book or a terrible one, depending on the execution. To Bob Raczka's credit, Santa Clauses ends up as the former. It's a cozy, sparkling book, one that exudes the warmth and good cheer one hopes for during the holiday season.

There's almost no poetic form easier to write in English than haiku -- and very few where writing a great one is as difficult. It's an unforgiving form, in which every word is critically important, and there's essentially no margin for error. And yet I don't think there's a bad poem in Santa Clauses, while there are several excellent ones. Raczka's eye for small but beautiful images is a keen one, and his choice not to make the entire book about Santa's "public" life pays great dividends. Poems such as "December 8th," about seeing one's shadow in the moonlight, or "December 16th," where the images of hardening icicles and baking cookies come together, transcend the framework of the book to become universal.

I'll be honest and say that I didn't expect much from Santa Clauses before reading it; the concept sounded overly cutesy, and haiku so often fail. But after finishing it, I almost couldn't wait for next December, when I can pull the book out and read it to my daughter. Additionally, Chuck Groenink's detailed illustrations have a wonderful interplay with the text; it has the feel of something I'll think of in twenty years as a holiday classic.

That doesn't mean it has a shot at the Newbery, however. We've talked at length before about how hard it is for poetry to win the medal, and there's no precedent for Christmas poetry being recognized. Indeed, although many books in the Newbery canon contain a Christmas scene, I think the only "pure" Christmas book of any kind ever to be recognized is Nicholas: A Manhattan Christmas Story, which honored way back in 1925, and is now remembered largely as a footnote in the career of its author, legendary children's librarian Anne Carroll Moore. As good as Santa Clauses is, I doubt it will break through to the Newbery rolls.

Published in December by Carolrhoda Books / Lerner


  1. Sam, thanks for featuring this book. I checked it out of the library the same night, read it to my 5-year-old, and loved it. I think it's right up there with the Newbery contenders.

    1. It really made me smile to hear that the two of you enjoyed it. We'll see if it shows up on the podium tomorrow!