Seasonal magic to read aloud at Christmas

Families who are looking for Christmas stories to read aloud at home or at festive seasonal gatherings this year will find plenty to choose from in two new collections. An Oxford Book of Christmas Stories, edited by Dennis Pepper (Oxford University Press, $13.95, age 8 and up), is a compilation of 30 tales, 10 of which were commissioned for this book.

Because the writers are all British and because only one of the titles, ``Mr. Pickwick on the Ice,'' by Charles Dickens, is likely to be familiar to American readers, this volume ought to hold up well for several annual readings to come.

There are happily-ever-after endings, of course, but overall these stories are free of the gooey sentimentality that mars too many holiday narratives.

Partly, the appeal has to do with the faraway settings in which vicars, yules, carol-barking, and Christmas puddings take stage center. There's seasonal magic, too, in the form of Father Christmas and a so-called ``ivy man.'' And some of the quietest tales, like that set in a displaced-person camp of 1946, are the most evocative.

Children of Christmas, Stories for the Season, by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by S.D. Schindler (Orchard Books, $11.95, ages 8 and up), offers six new short stories from one of last year's Newbery Honor Book winners.

Although her contemporary settings are peopled by a few odd birds, including a Christmas Tree Man and a homeless bag lady, each tale rings with authenticity and tenderness.

In Rylant's characteristically reassuring prose, a Christmas Eve dinner in a diner becomes a homecoming of sorts, and a New York City cabbie turns white knight for a night in the eyes of a street child.

Nice touches from a reliable young writer.

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