Critical Essay

Peter Spier’s picture books praise the world

The Holocaust survivor’s response to suffering was to create joyful children’s books.

When I read to my two sons, I find myself marveling at the way they respond to good books. Their reaction is physical as much as mental. After a day of running and leaping, they climb into my lap at bedtime and almost instantly grow calm. Jittery limbs stop moving for the first time all day. Their breathing slows and deepens, and so does mine. We sink into a worn reading chair and travel into the world of a story.

For a stretch of time when my son Samuel was three, each night he demanded that we read a particular book by the author and illustrator Peter Spier. It was a book about Christmas, but it was popular with Sam year-round. Peter Spier’s Christmas! follows three children and their parents as they shop, decorate, bake, wrap, sing, wait, and finally tear open gifts on Christmas morning in a frenzy of delight. At night the children lug armfuls of new toys up to bed and fall asleep in a room strewn with books, a tricycle, and a locomotive the size of a toddler. Sam took it all in with wide, hungry eyes.

We have several of Spier’s books, and they all share his warmhearted perspective on his subjects, whether a circus, a farmer’s market, or children playing in a rain-soaked garden. His intricate ink-and-watercolor style holds up especially well to repeat readings, offering intriguing details like cookie crumbs beneath a table, an ornament broken by the youngest child, and a cat picking at the turkey carcass after the holiday feast. Spier seems to take particular delight in the sheer amount of mess that children, a cat, and a dog can make over a few weeks in December.