By Jeanne E. Fredriksen
’Tis the season to be at a loss for what to buy that won’t blow up, exceed the decibel level, or cost the equivalent of next month’s mortgage. If your child is in grades 4 through 6 and loves to read, books just might be the key. Even if he or she doesn’t typically enjoy hanging out with fiction friends, there are two Christmas-centric novels geared to that age group that provide plenty of action to entertain even the toughest young critics.
“Nickel Bay Nick” by Dean Pitchford (2013) and “The Angel Tree” by Daphne Benedis-Grab (2014) contain Christmas mysteries that speak to the fundamental heart of the small towns in which the main characters live. As the holiday season approaches in both books, long-established events based on secrecy come into play.
In “Nickel Bay Nick,” 11-year-old Sam Brattle has had a tough life. He had a heart transplant before he was 4 years old, but his mother left before that. He has no friends his own age, and those who are his friends are older and of questionable reputations. On top of that, his father’s business is on the brink of closing.
The small, failing seaside hamlet of Nickel Bay had long been the home of a secret patron who sprinkled almost 50 $100 bills around the town for people to find. Timing is everything as this money brought joy to families to do what they wish with the cash – feed the family, buy gifts, pay bills. But this year, there are no $100 bills to be found, and Christmas is only days away.
When Sam damages a neighbor’s home, his penance is to help the old man with various tasks as payment for the cost of repairs. On his first day of service, Sam learns the neighbor has a broken leg and that his tasks aren’t in the realm of housekeeping. Time becomes precious, and Sam has no recourse but to listen, obey and assume responsibility. Through this, Sam changes his perception about community, friends and family.
“The Angel Tree” tells the story of Pine River and the Christmas tree that is set up without warning overnight each December. Once the tree is erected, the citizens attach pieces of paper expressing their wishes, wants and needs. They’ve learned that those desires will be fulfilled, even if they don’t know how.
Wishing to express thanks for the angel tree, an unlikely foursome of middle school students set out to find the source. Cami is a violinist who struggles with confidence about her talent. Max, the class clown, hides his difficulties with reading. Lucy, who was born blind, wants to help but feels she’s a burden that hinders their progress. And Joe is the new kid who doesn’t easily make friends because he’s more concerned about his mother, who is fighting in the Middle East.
The book is wrapped in a welcoming small-town blanket, and the quartet learns about giving as well as about each others’ lives and challenges as they pursue their common goal. Like a Rockwell painting with imperfections, the story offers mystery, holiday fun and the magic of Christmas accompanied by loveable characters.
“Nickel Bay Nick” is available in hardcover, paperback, e-book and audio download. “The Angel Tree” is available in hardcover and e-book.